Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

The stories told are plot-oriented, the characters are depicted without much depth, and rarely do twists of events take place that are unexpected. Yet, listening to the well known can be wonderfully gratifying, and the stories do send messages, some nicely consoling, some unsettling; those who listened to the stories...

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The stories told are plot-oriented, the characters are depicted without much depth, and rarely do twists of events take place that are unexpected. Yet, listening to the well known can be wonderfully gratifying, and the stories do send messages, some nicely consoling, some unsettling; those who listened to the stories received knowledge of the world. The magic tale strongly makes the point that young people must grow up. In some stories, one sees the consequences of tests not being passed successfully. In “The Seven Foals,” three brothers seek to raise their dirt-poor family out of poverty, but the two older brothers fail by giving in to temptation. The third son, the ne’er-do-well, the underdog—a common formulaic character—rises to the occasion and wins the princess and half the kingdom. In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” a young girl is offered by her family in marriage to a bear; she is unhappy with her matrimonial state. Corrupted by her mother’s wishes, she fails a test and loses her husband to a distant witch. At that point, she realizes that the bear is an accursed prince, knows that she loves him, and overcomes all obstacles to regain him. A passive woman becomes an active, resilient heroine. The point at which a person must mature and go through a rite of passage is stressed through this trial-and-error pattern.

These seemingly sweet and harmonious stories can be used as a means for social criticism. One powerful story is “Mastermaid,” in which a young man is assisted so well by his magical helper—his future spouse—that they manage to escape together with the treasures of a troll. One can see the troll as a repressive force in society and, consequently, claim that he deserves the treatment that he receives as a result of Mastermaid’s trickery. The second part of “Mastermaid,” however, is different. Even though the typical plot of the magic tale is detectable, the main purpose of the rest of the story is to spoof the authorities of the region—such civil servants as the sheriff, the attorney, and the constable—and thereby the text ventures into the genre of the trickster story. The emphasis is on humor, but a humor that has a social sting. “Mastermaid” and many other stories, such as “Tatterhood,” demonstrate that resilient heroines are as common as courageous heroes.

Much further removed from the mood and tone of the magic tale and much coarser are “Gudbrand of the Hill-Side,” “Goosey Grizzel,” and “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House.” Humanity is viewed with considerable skepticism, and stupidity often seems to guide the characters. In “Big Peter and Little Peter,” morality is left behind: As the younger brother tricks and cheats his older sibling, readers realize that success can be achieved by victimizing innocent people, and even by murder. The most grim of the trickster stories bluntly contradict the optimistic messages of the magic tales and reveal a world of mediocrity in which the smart, immoral person succeeds through dirty deeds.

Most of the fables in this collection tend to borrow the structure of the trickster stories or anecdotes. The characters are animals that fall in the categories of tricksters and victims. In the famous tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” the two younger goats persuade a troll not to eat them because they have a fatter brother behind them, and that gruff brother does in the troll. While justice seems to be served in some of these fables, others have more dubious outcomes. In “Well Done and Ill Paid,” the fox helps a farmer chase away a bear by pretending to be a master marksman. Instead of rewarding the fox, however, the farmer—upon his wife’s request—has his dogs chase the fox, which is why the fox utters the words of the story’s title.

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Critical Context