Sunday, January 20, 2019

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Flute

This Folk Tale Secret Stash is going to be a little bit different.  It’s going to highlight a less well-known folk tale (at least in America), but it’s also going to focus on a specific topic.

But first, the story.

The story of “The Flute” is a Japanese folk tale about a man from Yedo who loses his wife and remarries to another woman.  However, the man doesn’t know that his new wife is vile and black-hearted and that she holds a particular hatred for the man’s young daughter Oyone.  The day comes when the man is set to take a long trip to Kyoto, one set to last for months.  Before he goes, Oyone gives him a small flute made of bamboo.  While in Kyoto, he gets wrapped up in his life and work there and forgets all about the little flute.  Then one day, it falls out of the sleeve of one of his kimonos.  When he plays the flute he hears the voice of his daughter saying “Come back to Yedo.  Come back to Yedo.”  Feeling a great sense of foreboding, the man rushed back to Yedo as fast as he could.  When he met with his wife he asked where his child was, but she tried to elude his question.  Finally, she answered “In the bamboo grove”.  The man went to the bamboo grove and searched but couldn’t find her.  Then he put the flute to his lips and played.  From the flute came his child’s voice saying this: “Father, dear father, my wicked stepmother killed me.  Three moons since she killed me.  She buried me in the clearing of the bamboo grove.  You may find my bones.  As for me, you will never see me anymore- you will never see me more . . .”  The man then took his sword and avenged his child on his murderous wife.  Then he dressed himself in the manner of a pilgrim and undertook a journey to all the holy places in Japan.  And for the rest of his life he carried that bamboo flute with him.
I usually don’t give away endings like that.  However, this time I had to do it.  You see, that’s what we’re going to talk about here.  Endings and how they work in fairy tales and what they contribute.

I find that Japanese folk tales have a real way with unhappy endings.  There’s a strange sense of acceptance that comes from them.  Even when it seems like certain things are left unfinished.  The thing is that there’s a certain mode of thought in Japanese culture, possibly because of spiritual traditions, that acknowledges the impermanence of things.  Many things in this world are fleeting and that’s just part of life.

We tend to fuss about the concept of endings in fairy tales.  The concept of the “happy ending” and the phrase “happily ever after” loom large over the concept of the fairy tale.  When people try to play up the fact that European fairy tales, mainly the Grimm ones, people have a tendency of saying how there “weren’t as many happy endings as you think” or something like that.

How much does an ending contribute to a story’s tone?

Now, there are two stories from the Grimms’ collection that kind of remind me of “The Flute”.  One, with its music from beyond the grave is “The Singing Bone”.  The other, because of its murderous stepmother is “The Juniper Tree”.  These are two of the more infamous stories coming out of Grimm.  “The Singing Bone” is the story of one man who kills his younger brother and marries the princess that had been promised to him.  The crime goes undiscovered for years until a shepherd finds one of the younger brother’s bones and carves it into a mouthpiece for his horn.  When he plays, the horn tells the whole story of the crime that was committed.  The shepherd brings the horn before the king, who understands the bone’s song and has the older brother executed as punishment.  The younger brother’s bones are dug up and buried in a churchyard.  “The Juniper Tree” is the story of a stepmother who kills her stepson, pins blame for the crime on her own daughter and makes blood puddings out of the body and feeds them to her husband.  The murdered boy then comes back as a bird out of the magical juniper tree, gives gifts to his father and sister and kills his stepmother.  The bird then turns back into a boy.
So, we have two tales here filled with murder and mayhem.  Yet, in a way they both have happy, or at least, positive endings.  In “The Singing Bone” the younger brother is still dead, but for a little while it seems like the older brother is going to get away with it.  In the end, it’s at least nice to see the crime exposed and justice carried out.  “The Juniper Tree” on the other hand, returns the murdered boy to life after all the murder has been done.  Then we compare them to “The Flute” which has a negative ending, but to me doesn’t feel as dark or troubling as either of those other tales.
I think the problem we have when we approach folk and fairy tales is that they’re so often reduced down to a dichotomy of tone.  Stories get classified as either “light” or “dark”.  However, there is such a range of emotion to be felt in these stories.  “The Singing Bone” is shocking at the point where the older brother kills the younger one.  However, there’s a feeling of righteous triumph when the killer is exposed and punished for his crimes.  “The Juniper Tree” feels shocking throughout but then tries to at least end on a high note by bringing the murdered victim back to life.  “The Flute”, however, is just sad.
The death of the daughter feels like it’s being built to from the beginning, so it doesn’t feel particularly shocking.  The vengeance taken on the stepmother also isn’t shocking, because in this particular story from this particular time and culture, it seems like the only possible punishment.  In the end, you’re only left with the father and his broken heart as he begins his pilgrimage.
I think that stories are more than their endings.  Summing them up as “light” or “dark” or categorizing them because they have a “happy ending” or “unhappy ending”, just feels kind of limiting.

If you’d like to read “The Flute” and other Japanese fairy tales, you can find them on along with stories from a number of other public domain texts.  Until next time . . . well, let’s just say this definitely isn’t the end. 

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