Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Review/The Tale of the Two Travellers, or The Blinded Man

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The Tale of the Two Travellers, or The Blinded Man: A Comparative Study, by Reidar Th. Christiansen. Folklore Fellows Communications, No. 26. Hamina, 1916, Published by the Finnish Academy of Science.

This work comes from the important school of students of folklore in Finland, with the productions of which, owing chiefly to difficulties of language, we in this country are too little acquainted. It is the only publication of the F.F. series I have had the privilege of seeing. If the titles in the list of publications at the end be any guide, they are chiefly in German, with a minority in English, and special attention is paid to folk-tales. The present work is a very careful and learned study of the many variants of a tale widely spread in Europe and Asia. The story concerns two persons who meet, or are travelling together. It takes two alternative forms. In the first type one of the travellers exhausts his means and applies to the other to give him food. His request is only granted on condition of sacrificing his eyes. In the second the two persons quarrel over the question whether justice or injustice, truth or falsehood, pays better, or over some religious question, and lay a wager upon it. A decision is given against the person with whom the audience is expected to sympathize, for instance, the champion of justice. The blinded man, or the loser of the wager, becomes a beggar and undergoes various adventures: among others, he overhears certain animals, or demoniacal personages, discussing subjects in which he at once becomes interested—his own misfortune, a cure for blindness, or for some disease under which another person is labouring, a hidden treasure and the means to recover it, etc. Following the directions given, he recovers his sight, heals the other person of disease, obtains the treasure and becomes wealthy. The other man learns of his good fortune and endeavours to imitate him by listening to the conversation of the animals or demons at the same place, but is discovered by them and punished for spying. The former man is therefore vindicated and the latter comes to a bad end.

Without committing himself to Benfey’s general theory that all folk-tales come from India, the author finds the earliest recorded variants of the tale in India, where also the various motives and incidents are found in other connections, and traces it from India into Europe, by two routes, a southern route, in which the form originating in the quarrel as to the comparative merits of justice and injustice or the religious question, is mainly followed, and a northern route through Russia, in which the more primitive motive of the purchase of food by the loss of the unfortunate man’s eyes is predominant. The former type, the author concludes, was domesticated in Europe by the Crusades; the latter penetrated at some earlier but undefinable period from Mongolian sources, and is on the whole more widely spread. These two streams often mingle, and the incidents get into other stories, while on the other hand incidents from other stories are frequently incorporated. The author finds his way through this almost inextricable tangle with ingenuity and patience; and the result is a very interesting discussion. He assumes that the complicated plot and structure require that the tale must have originated in some one place and cannot have arisen independently among different peoples, though single incidents may well have developed from the common stock of savage ideas. It would have been more useful if he had had space to narrate a few of the more typical stories and not been obliged to content himself with a mere list of variants, too many of which are expressed by letters and symbols cryptic to the reader who is ignorant of previous enquiries in the F.F. series and elsewhere, and many of which also are to be found only in collections not easily accessible in this country.

It is, however, a compliment to students here that the author has had his work translated into English. The translation is by a lady, obviously not an Englishwoman, though congratulations are due to her and to the author on the large measure of success she has attained in this laborious work. More attention might indeed have been given to the correction of proofs, always specially necessary where the printers are not familiar with the language employed.