Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Characters who take different forms or become invisible appear in legends throughout the world. Legends summon up the prescientific mind, such as the European mind before Aristotelian logic decreed that one thing cannot be something else or in two places at the same time. In “Tatuana’s Tale,” the reader is back in a world similar to the ancient Greek poet Homer’s.

There is, however, an important difference. In European and Semitic legend, the legends themselves are a means of asserting humankind’s control over nature, of bringing order out of chaos. Humankind imposes its personality on nature, viewing it anthropomorphically and slaying its monsters. In “Tatuana’s Tale,” the process works the other way. Humankind is not separate from nature but continuous with it, part of it. Instead of fighting nature, humankind joins it, reading its messages and learning its secrets. This view of nature, which undergirded Mayan worship of the corn god and possibly the later practice of human sacrifice, is embodied here in the old priest. He changes into human or tree form at will, and even in human form, wearing his “green tunic,” he seems like “an apparition.” Perhaps he distributes his soul to the four roads because, growing old, he desires to merge back into nature entirely, which seems to be all that death amounts to (at the end, the “dry tree” has apparently died).

In European and Semitic thinking, merging back into nature has never meant a consummation but rather a loss of personality and control, a return to night and chaos, home of John Milton’s Satan. The Christian view is indicated by the ending of “Tatuana’s Tale,” where the Master and Tatuana are arrested “in the name of God and the King” for “sorcery” and “being possessed by a demon.” This ending is like a coda to the legend, as though added at a later stage to deal with the colonial experience. It articulates a theory of liberation: People who can merge back into nature cannot be controlled. Trying to own or control them is like trying to own or control nature. The Merchant’s fate should be adequate warning.