Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Old wine into new skins

Hey, remember me?  The semester is over and I have half a minute before my summer class begins, so I decided to write about a little something.  This is an idea that’s been brewing since January when that venerable institution the Guardian ran a story titled “Fairytales much older than previously thought, say researchers.” Yeah, I read the Guardian sometimes.  I usually treat inflamations of my chronic anglophilia with a bottle of Newcastle and old Doctor Who reruns, but sometimes I need stronger medication.

Any, these researchers da Silva and Tehrani did some big data type analysis to a corpus of international fairytales and basically built a family tree.  Here’s the key chart from their paper:

F4.large (1).jpg
The three columns at the bottom look like they’d make pretty sweet band names.

What you’re looking at is a family tree of fairy tales grouped by language family.  The thing that blew me away about this chart is the small box at the top, which suggests that humans have been telling and retelling the same four stories since French and German and English and Spanish and Slavic and a whole bunch of other tongues were all the same language.  That puts the origin of these fairy tales around 2500 to 4500 BC.  Some folks identify the original speakers of this Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language as the kurgan (barrow)-builders living in the region between the Black Sea and the Baltic.   You know, like the villain from the one and only Highlander movie.
“I have something to say: It’s better to burn out than fade away!”

The kurgan fairy tales then spread with the Proto-Indo-European language as it migrated and diverged into the dazzling array of linguistic variety we see today.  Here’s a map of the initial movement from the center:
Back in 2010 (when this blog was still a daily thing) I wrote a five part series on D&D set in this long lost era called Imperishable Fame.  Today I want to talk about incorporating the four Proto-Indo-European fairy tales into a typical faux European vanilla fantasy setting.

First, let’s talk about the tales themselves.  They’re identified in da Silva and Tehrani’s research paper like so:

328 - The Boy Steal’s Ogre’s Treasure
330 - The Smith and the Devil
402 - The Animal Bride
554 - The Grateful Animals

The Smith and the Devil is bolded because the researchers are flagging it as an even more likely component of the PIE corpus than the others.  My basic idea here is that we should be mining these tales for plot elements to our games.  After all, they represent our joint heritage in the exact sort of mytho-poetic imaginative nonsense we engage with in D&D every day.  I’ll get to some ideas of how to do that at the end of the post.  For now, I want to give some details on these four tales.

The numbers for each of the fairy tales on da Silva and Tehrani’s are what is called their ATU number.  That stands for Aarne-Thompson-Uther. Folklorists  Aarne and Thompson put together a huge ass taxonomy of hundreds of structurally similar stories and a cat named Hans-Jörg Uther later revised it into a four-volume work called The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography.  For a similar work on a smaller scale, see S. John Ross’s The Big List of RPG Plots.

I spent the better part of this semester getting my hands on Uther’s book, so I could get the details on these tales beyond their names.  About the only library in Illinois that has a copy is at the University of Chicago, and they are not very good sharers.  My school is part of a consortium of 84 schools and academic libraries in Illinois that allow for easy inter-library lending.  I get books shipped in from all over the state quite regularly.  UC’s library is conspicuously not a member.  I finally ended up having to get Iowa State University’s copy shipped to me, which is slightly embarrassing.  As a native inhabitant of Illinois, I have been inculcated from birth to look down with disdain on neighboring midwest states that lack a Chicago.

Anyway, let’s look at these tales.  Or rather, you might call them meta-tales.  They’re the raw plot elements out of which fairy tales are built.

328 - “The Boy Steals the Ogre’s Treasure”
In this ancient tale a group of brothers (numbers vary) arrive at the house of an ogre, or possibly the devil.  For some reason they stay the night.  The ogre/devil decides to murder them in their sleep, but the youngest brother (occasionally the kid sister of the brothers) somehow foils the plan by swapping caps with the daughters of the monster.

Later the brothers take service in the king’s court.  The brothers, jealous of the young hero, claim to the king that the youngest sibling can steal the ogre’s/devil’s treasure.  (Some versions dispense with this intro and instead start out with the youngest sibling seeking out the ogre for revenge of past mistreatment or to help a friendly king.)  Possible treasures include a magic horse, bedspread, carpet, parrot, lamp, sword, musical instrument, or some sort of poultry.  The magic treasure may be made of gold and/or silver.  The youngest sibling acquires the treasure by cunning and guile.

Later the brothers, now presumably more jealous than ever, claim that the youngest sibling can kidnap the ogre or devil.  The hero puts on some sort of disguise and somehow persuades the monster to lie down in a coffin to measure it.  The youth nails the coffin shut, trapping the monster.  The youth is given a princess for a wife.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for variation here as these tales mutate over time to better fit local needs.  For instance the classic English tale of Jack and the Beanstalk is considered a major variant of ATU 328.  Incidentally, Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the key inspirations (along with its RPG successors, the Against the Giants series and the more obscure Judges Guild module Under the Storm Giant’s Castle) for my adventure Broodmother Skyfortress.  Last I heard that project is finally going to  be printed just in time to not make it out for GenCon.

330 - The Smith and the Devil
In this tale a smith sells his soul, sometimes because he is impoverished.  The buyer of the soul is typically the devil, but it could also be death itself.  Later this smith gives shelter to Christ and St. Peter as they travel the earth in disguise.  [Obviously these characters would be different in a pre-Christian telling.]  As a reward for his kindness, his divine guests grant the smith three wishes.  St. Peter warns that the smith should use one wish to get his soul out of the devil’s clutches and into heaven instead, but the smith ignores him.  Instead, the smith wishes up three magic items.  The first two are a tree and a bench/chair to which people stick like glue at his command.  The third item is usually a knapsack that can draw people into but sometimes it is a pack of cards with which the owner always wins and occasionally it is something else entirely.

When the devil or death shows up to carry the smith off to his eternal doom, the smith tricks him into sticking to the bench/chair and the tree.  In order to be released from this trap, the devil/death agrees to terminate the contract for the smith’s soul.  In some versions trapping the devil/death like this results in a period where no one can die.  After freeing the smith’s soul, the devil/death winds up inside the knapsack, which is placed on the smith’s anvil.  The devil/death is pummeled with the smith’s hammer.  Later, the smith discovers that he cannot die.  Neither heaven nor hell will admit him.  He grows tired of life and eventually tricks his way into heaven using the knapsack or cards.

In some versions of this tale the hero isn’t a smith, but an allegorical figure such as Misery, Envy, or Poverty.  These versions focus on the intentional gaining of immortality by tricking the devil into trapping himself inside a tree.

402 - “The Animal Bride”
A father, possibly a king, cannot choose among his sons (usually three of them) to inherit his property/kingdom.  He sends all of them on a year-long quest.  In some cases the quest is to learn a profession.  In others it is to bring back a special object, such as textiles (yarn, linen), fine chain, a ring, a horse, or the smallest dog they can find.  At the end of the year, the father will name as his heir whoever best succeeds at the task.

The youngest son, who is sometimes explicitly a fool, goes into the forest and enters into the service of some sort of animal.  Cat, rat, frog, and mouse are the common options.  As payment for his service he is given the most beautiful example of the object that the father requires.  Owing to the jealousy of the older brothers, two further tasks are set.  The final task is to bring home the most beautiful woman or to bring home the most beautiful bride.

For each subsequent task the young fool returns to the animal, who promises to help.  Some event disenchants the animal (burning, mutilation, decapitation, or simply crossing a river) and the animal resumes its original form of a beautiful princess.  In most versions the young fool and beautiful princess return to the father to win the final task.  In some variants they first trick the parents, either the son returns in rags and is ridiculed or he returns dressed as a prince and is not recognized until a mole identifies him.  Or else the trick is that the princess arrives in animal form and yet wins the tasks assigned to the brides to determine which is best.  The last (third) bride task is to attend a feast, where the animal turns back into her human form.

In some versions the son renounces the inheritance and goes with his bride back to her realm.  In some others the young fool burns the animal skin in hopes of preventing his bride from resuming animal form.  She is offended and abandons him.  He must go out on a final quest to win her back.

554- The Grateful Animals
This tale appears to have atrophied over the millennia and now tends to appear in the record as part of another story.  

In it a traveller meets three animals.  One is avian, one aquatic, and one terrestrial.  Each of them is in trouble and the traveller aids them.  In some versions it is the traveller’s brothers, who accompany him on his journey, that are the source of the distress.  The traveller either prevents woe of some sort befalling the animal or compensates for the misdeeds/carelessness of his brothers.  Each animal promises to help the traveller later.  

The traveller falls in love with a princess.  Her father sets three impossible tasks that must be accomplished before he will permit their marriage.  The traveller calls upon the aid of his animal friends, who help him complete his task.

So here we have these four echoing voices from the linguistic dawn of Western civilization.  What can we as DMs do with them?  As much as I am onboard for the “here’s a dungeon, stop asking stupid questions” mode of D&D, a little bit of backstory to hang a campaign on can be really helpful.
Oops!  There goes my anglophilia flaring up again.

If you need a little raw material for your campaign, why not start with the oldest stories we have handy and build from there?  These stories possess that oddly familiar strangeness that undergirds many fairy tales, that sense of the uncanny that Freud discusses in his essay Das Unheimliche.  Below are six thoughts per story, thumbnail sketches of what they can do in your campaign.

The Boy Steal’s Ogre’s Treasure
  1. If nothing else, you can introduce one or more treasures into your campaign, magic items in the form of a golden/silver horse, bedspread or carpet, parrot or poultry, lamp, sword, or musical instrument.  With the exception of the sword, those are some pretty out of the ordinary magical treasures.  On top of that, you know at least two previous owners, an adventurer who married into royalty and possibly the devil himself.  Sure the Golden Chicken of King Koraz is the best magic item in the campaign world, but it’s annoying as heck all the people who want it back.
  2. The devil apparently has several daughters.  What is their deal, anyway?  Do they want dad’s magical silver lamp back?  Did one or more of the brothers sleep with one or more of them, leading to a race of half-devils?
  3. The brothers may have made off with the caps belonging to the devil’s daughters.  What strange properties are possessed by diabolic sleepytime headgear?
  4. Somewhere out there is a coffin that has been nailed shut.  Inside sleeps the devil himself, or some campaign equivalent thereof.
  5. If the devil has daughters, who is their mother?
  6. Are the brothers still in the service of the king?  Are they even more annoyed now that their kid brother (or sister) has married into the royal family?

The Smith and the Devil
  1. Like the previous story, having the devil stuck somewhere seems like a fun opportunity.  Can he trick the PCs into chopping the tree down with a magic axe or maybe a herring?
  2. Who is this smith?  What has he made?  Perhaps he is one of the great artifact-crafters of your campaign world.  He traded his soul for magic smithing powers.  Maybe he made the magic item(s) in the previous story.
  3. If the story is over, what happened to the smith’s magic items?  Maybe his knapsack or pack of cards made it back to earth.
  4. What kindly divinities go about your campaign world giving out wishes in exchange for a little hospitality?
  5. What other strange events might have been triggered by the day/month/year when nobody died?
  6. The PCs need some critical magic item made or repaired and only the legendary Wandering Smith, unable to die and unwilling to live, can do the job.  Can they find him and convince him to assist them?

The Animal Bride
  1. Hey, man.  Have you heard?  The new king’s wife is a lycanthrope!
  2. If everyone thinks something like the One Ring or the Ring of Gaxx is in your dungeon, then all the brothers might be leading or sponsoring NPCs parties to get it.
  3. On the other hand, a bunch of pain-in-the-asses princes scouring the campaign world for the smallest dog they can find is a really funny concept.  Maybe one of them wants to hires the PCs for an expedition to the fabled Isle of Minimals?
  4. I’m fond of the ending where the hero tells dear ol’ dad where he can stick his stupid contest and goes to live happily ever after in his wife’s magic animal person kingdom.  Maybe the old man wants the PCs to track junior down to deliver a royal apology?
  5. Then there’s the endings where the hero pisses off his new bride and she leaves him.  Could the PCs help locate the Hidden Queendom of the Swanmays?
  6. How is this band of brothers related to the ones that visited the ogre?  Is the king here the hero of that tale grown old and somewhat silly?

The Grateful Animals
  1. Even if he possesses no other powers, surely there’s some hash to be made of an NPC who is friends with a bear, an eagle, and a shark.
  2. Ordinary animals talking may be a step too far for some groups.  It might held to make the three animals into magical semi-divine rulers, like the King of Snakes, Duchess of Eagles, and Mayor of Fiddler Crabs.
  3. The three animals of three types theme lines up a bit with the shapeshift powers of some versions of the druid.  Perhaps the animals taught shapeshifting to the hero, who is now the Druid King.
  4. If we’re in shapeshifting animal territory anyway, we might as well posit the animal bride of the previous story as one of the animals.  Does she whisk off to aid her totally platonic adventuring buddy at the drop of a hat?  And how do their spouses feel about that?
  5. Seriously, what is up with all these douchebag older brothers?  Is it a natural consequence of the fact that it’s the runt of the litter that must rely on social skills like storytelling to survive, thus all older brothers are memorialized as envious bullies?  Maybe every bard in your campaign needs a couple of mean older bros.
  6. We’ve got three stories with three beautiful princesses.  Are they sisters?  Are they the same princess?  What are they up to while all this crazy stuff happens around them?

So, off the top of my head, those are the ideas I can squeeze out of the fragments of these old, old stories.

Fairy tales may come and go, but Clancy Brown is forever.