Popular Science Monthly/Volume 76/June 1910/The Indian Fairy Book

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AFTER our boyish occupation of following cows home from pasture, along brambly ways where delay was often invited by some untimely mocker in the shape of a bird that lured us into pursuit, we would go up in the gathering dusk to the house on the hill and listen through the hour before supper to the stories in the Indian Fairy Book. Stillness and an autumnal glimmer of western light; crisp air laden with the smoke of smouldering brush fires—these ever after to be blent, by the subtle alchemy of memory, with the tales of an ancient people. Beyond the sunset light lay the land where these stories had been wrought, yet a country that none might reach by traveling in mortal fashion, for, like the old Phæacian land, it belonged in those dim regions of the past that only the eye of fancy may behold. We had mapped it out in our minds—its lakes and wide prairies, its farthest verge of forest—but no explorer we knew would ever find it. He might stand on the marge of some far western lake, never before seen by a white man, and gaze across its waters, yet this elusive land would ever be another day's journey beyond his last camp fire.

In this Indian Fairy Book were gathered the folk tales of aboriginal America—Algonquin and Dakota legends, that might fairly hold a place with those old Celtic tales—the Mabinogion—that have come to us out of so remote a past. Indeed, they have many points in common. Magic weaves its web through the adventures of the men and women who seem more than mortal beings and who yet give to the wonder tales in each of the two groups their vital human interest. In each also there are great personages, cast in heroic mould. There is the same overcoming of evil influences, the same mystical union of men with natural things. Both are of that Juventus Mundi—that far away period over which a strange, dim light broods. It is this effect of subdued light, the strange half light, half dark of a shadowy world, that a reader of these aboriginal tales feels most. A "twilight" effect, Mr. Havelock Ellis calls it in writing of the Celtic tale, which lends a peculiar "glamour." And, as this writer has further shown, the effect of "remoteness" as to time and place, of being very far removed from the present or even the medieval world, is another element that adds to this glamour of the old Celtic stories. Sidney Lanier says:

I think it curious indeed to note how curious those old romances, or Mabinogion, seem to us in spite of the long intimacy and nearness between Welsh and English. They impress most readers with a greater sense of foreignness, of a wholly different cultus, than even Chinese or other antipodal tales; and over and above this there is a glamour and sleep-walking mystery which often incline a man to rub his eyes in the midst of a Mabinogi, and to think of previous states of existence.

It is this sense of strangeness, this "sleep-walking mystery," as Lanier calls it, that haunts the aboriginal American tale. It is of the same cultus as the Celtic, and both loom above the horizon of later English culture as distinctly aboriginal and belonging to preexistent races that occupied the soil ages before the transplanting of the dominant English type in Britain and America. Like the vanishing fauna of an invaded land, these ancient culture tales linger in remote places, amid aboriginal surroundings, elusive, and disappearing with the encroachment of the newer life.

In the early years of the last century Henry Schoolcraft gathered a number of Algonquin folk tales taken directly from aboriginal storytellers around lodge fires in the then remote wilderness of the Northwest—about the upper lake region and the headwaters of the Mississippi. These form the basis of his "Algic Researches," first published in 1839, and of later editions and compilations, one of which is the Indian Fairy Book. What Geoffrey of Monmouth did for the Celtic romances in his "History of The Britons," Schoolcraft has done for these Algonquin legends—given them an enduring place in the literature of English-speaking peoples. Both sources of legend have lent their matter to the verse of later English poets—Idylls of the King, the Morte d'Arthur and Hiawatha—reset fragments from an earlier period of epic the sources of which lie far back in the dim, mythopceic past.

The likeness of the primitive mind in two so widely separated culture areas as Britain and aboriginal North America, as revealed in both sets of tales, is seen in the overcoming of obstacles, often of superhuman character, by feats of prowess aided by magic. Indeed, magic plays the chief part, as it does in the tales of all primitive folk. In an Ojibwa story—The Red Swan—a younger brother sets forth in quest of a mysterious bird that he has hit with a magic arrow. He traverses wide stretches of country, coming on the evening of the second day to the lodge of an old magician who feeds him from a magic kettle and who encourages him to go forward in his enterprise. "Often has this Red Swan passed," the old man tells him, "and those who have followed it have never returned: but you must be firm in your resolution, and be prepared for all events." On the evening of the third day he reaches the lodge of another old man, similar in every respect to the first, and in like manner a third old man entertains him the following night, each with the same magic kettle. When the youth has finished eating this last old man thus addresses him:

Young man, the errand you are on is very difficult. Numbers of young men have passed with the same purpose, but never returned. Be careful, and if your guardian spirits are powerful, you may succeed. This Red Swan you are following is the daughter of a magician, who has plenty of everything, but be values his daughter but little less than wampum. He wore a cap of wampum, which was attached to his scalp; but powerful Indians, warriors of a distant chief, came and told him that their chief's daughter was on the brink of the grave, and she herself requested his scalp of wampum to effect a cure. . . . The warrior's coming for it was only a cheat, and they now are constantly making sport of it, dancing it about from village to village; and on every insult it receives, the old man groans from pain. . . . The Red Swan has enticed many a young man, as she has done you, in order to get them to procure it, and whoever is the fortunate one that succeeds will receive the Red Swan as his reward.

This is the key-note of the tale. The youth by magic assumes various forms—a humming-bird, a bit of floating down, a hawk—secures the scalp and restores it to the old magician who immediately becomes a young man and ultimately bestows upon his benefactor a maiden of wondrous beauty, the erstwhile Eed Swan.

This tale has in it many points of resemblance to a Mabinogi. In the old Welsh story of Kilhwch and Olwen, for example, there is the same overcoming of difficulties by means of magic, the same transformation of men into animals and objects of nature, the same gaining of some object of vital importance, and the ultimate bestowal of the prize—a maiden of radiant beauty—upon the successful one. There is much circumlocution and repetition in all of these primitive tales. The difference seems mainly in the setting—the environmental influence, one may call it—not in the substance of the tales themselves.

In the Dakota legend of Strong Desires and the Eed Sorcerer we have the story of a youth (it is always youth that figures so heroically in these tales, both Celtic and American) taunted for his timidity, who becomes master of himself by accomplishing the death of an evil spirit in human guise, and who gains his end through the same magical influences that are woven so closely with all the events that take place in this strange world of the past. So in other of these aboriginal American folk tales—The Vanishing Little Men (the origin of the fairy people), The White Feather, The Magic Bundle, The Enchanted Moccasins, The White Stone Canoe, The Summer Maker, to quote but a few in passing, one is impressed with their close similarity to the Celtic cultus. In many of the Welsh tales and in such old Irish stories as the Fate of the Children of Lir and The Fate of the Children of Turrenn, there is the same changing of men and women into beasts and birds that one finds so often in the tales of American aborigines. Many of these tales, in fact, belong to that class of curious beast stories that are so widely spread in the culture of all primitive folk. There is hardly a story in which an animal of some kind, with human attributes, does not appear. Men pass into animals or animals take on the speech and ways of men as a matter of course in this land of enchantment. In both the Celtic and American stories, too, there are men of heroic figure. Manabozho, the Hiawatha of the Iroquois, while given, as related in certain Algonquin tales, to mischief of a more or less harmless character, was a being of lofty nature, and, save for the ruder surroundings of his life, a personage quite as imposing as Arthur himself. Indeed, in the conception of each as a power for good—and this is the real essence of their natures—there is little, if any, difference.

The modern world can not but miss the drift of these stories, for the mind that conceived them belonged to the youth of a race. Men of to-day have so far forgotten this period of racial childhood (as they have forgotten their own individual childhood), have so far put behind them the childish things, that they largely fail to grasp the real meaning of these tales. It was the earliest glimmer of that racial self-consciousness that in after times found expression in self-narrated history and in religious belief. The type or mode of thought was the same in all races when they reached this crisis in their psychic development—a realization of kinship with the powers of earth and air, with the phenomena of nature, and with the life of animals and plants. Child-like efforts to account for the origin of things gave rise to those strange creation myths that exist as primitive conceptions in the history of every race and people. Delusions of judgment undoubtedly played a large part in the myth-making faculty of primitive men. They verily believed that they saw and heard strange forms, unembodied voices. They were overawed in the presence of elemental forces and, child-like, they saw in all the lineaments of nature mysterious powers, potent for good or evil. The sights and sounds of nature and the ways of animals were interpreted by them in terms of their own mode of thought. To the phenomena of cause and effect, to the haphazard circumstances of their own lives and those of their fellowmen—fortuitous and unfortuitous happenings—and to dreams, they imputed the agency of superhuman powers or magic. To this latter class of phenomena—dreams—we may attribute much of that curious recital of visits to the underworld. In the Red Swan, for example, the hero of the tale, after his return to his native village, journeys to the abodes of the dead, where he holds converse with the chief of the departed buffaloes. One can not help but be impressed, in reading this portion of the tale, with its resemblance to the visit of Odysseus to Hades.

These myths and folk stories have drifted down to us out of so remote a past that the period which they depict in the history of any group of peoples can never be certainly known. More than likely they are the embodiment of a slow subliminal growth that began with men of paleolithic culture in various parts of the earth as a result of the impress of their surroundings. At a later period, possibly in a neolithic stage of culture, as in aboriginal America, this body of impressions crystallized into the form of the myth and the folk tale. Homer depicts the Bronze Age, which was later than that of stone, and the Celtic tales are probably of this period also, but there are no means of knowing where the germ of any myth or story had its origin, for much new matter has likely been grafted upon an older form and the whole tale has come to represent a slow accretion from one generation to another through many phases of culture and over vast periods of time. Whether a race of dwarf men inhabited lands that were later invaded by men of larger stature and more advanced culture and gave rise to conceptions of gnomes and "little people," as suggested by Sir Harry Johnston, is a matter of purely speculative interest. As this writer has ointed out, the African forest pygmies, who represent a very ancient type of man that was once widely spread in Europe, as well as in Africa, have certain characteristics, as suddenly vanishing from sight and as suddenly appearing, that might well have given rise to folk myths. Such may have been the origin of our Santa Claus, a hyperborean dwarf-myth arising out of the reindeer-herding Lapps in that dim land beyond the Scandinavian mountains.

The gift of the mythopceic faculty belongs to childhood—individual and racial. Education in the modern sense—the education of the school—is its arch enemy. The rank, tall-growing weeds of knowledge soon choke out this joyous bloom of the aboriginal soil. We enter the school and straightway a mist drifts across our past, blotting out the early years, and the days of romance, and myth, and make-believe are speedily forgotten. Yet out of this enchanted mist—for it is enchanted, like the mist that shrouded Geraint when he left Enid to fight against the knight—some of us may still, in rare moments, have glimpses that will make us "less forlorn." As Geraint dispelled the mist by the overthrow of his adversary, so we must, if we desire these visions, break through the mist that envelops them with the magic arm of imaginative memory, for no weapon of knowledge may serve us in its stead.

The backward extension of each individual life through many generations of germ-plasm carries us all back to a common racial childhood. Much of this racial childhood is recapitulated in the first years of individual existence—old race instincts, strange primitive ways, and the love for stories about beasts, and men, and fairy people. These myths and folk tales are thus part of a racial heritage, and happy indeed are those of us who, in our maturity, can still feel with the poet when he exclaimed—

—Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

As we love Æsop and Uncle Remus, the Odyssey and the Celtic tales, so we love these folk stories of aboriginal America, for they are of the same lineage—the early, unsophisticated outlook upon life and the Powers of Darkness.