Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Nature of Conditions in Japanese Folk Tales

You may not know them by this name, but they are a common element in fairy tales and folklore.  I call them Conditions.

You know what they are.  Be home before midnight.  Don't glance behind.  Take nothing with you.  Eat of every tree but one.

Cross these Conditions, and the magic dies.  The promise evaporates.  The garden is shut.

Japanese tales frequently make use of them.

Hoichi and the Ghosts, Kelley McMorris
In Hoichi the Earless, the blind monk's body is painted in sacred words, but he must be painted all over.  The servants fail to cover his ears.  When a ghost samurai comes at night to fetch Hoichi to the court of the dead, it sees nothing: except for the ears.  So it rips them from Hoichi's head to take them to its masters.

A vegan priest is granted two days as a fish but warned not to eat any food from a baited hook.  When he neglects the warning, he is caught and cooked.  Fortunately, his consciousness returns to his sleeping body, and he lives to tell the tale.  Thus goes the tale of Kogi.

In these two stories, the reasons for the conditions are obvious.  Where the sacred words touched skin, they made Hoichi invisible and protected him from his ghoulish escort.  The fish Kogi is tempted by bait and subsequently caught.  He thinks he will be able to speak to his aquaintances and explain but discoveres he cannot.  Alas that his wish-granters did not clarify: "By the way, Kogi, you'll be a fish, and fish can't talk.  At least not in any language men can understand."

Other conditions, however, are more mysterious.  The direct connection between the taboo and the result of breaking it are faint but strong as cobwebs.

One of my favorites is The Crane Maiden (also The Crane Wife), in which an old couple adopts a mysterious daughter.  The girl weaves beautiful cloths that bring in a handsome income, but she begs her parents not to watch her weave.  When curiosity gets the better of them, they see that their adoptive daughter is not a girl but a crane, plucking her own feathers from her breast to weave.  Though they believe they cannot be seen, she instantly knows.  And, without further explanation, she tells them she must go and bids them farewell.
The Crane Wife, janey-jane of deviantART
In the tale of Urashima Taro, the kind fisherman marries the daughter of the Dragon King.  They depart to an enchanted island.  When he asks to return, his bride gives him a box that he is not to open during his visit.  Upon finding his loved ones gone and his home much changed, he opens the box, ages rapidly, and turns to dust.  He has been away for hundreds of years.

These last two types are, I think, of most value to us. 

In this world, there are many shadowed corners in which shapes and figures are only glimpsed.  Life is a precarious phenomenon.  One moment, it is impenetrable and fierce, surviving disease, famine, natural disasters; the next it is fragile, and a nick in the flesh can end it with the dispassionate finality of a shutting door.

Still, the sun goes on rising.  The spring always returns from the dead.

Modern science aids in the understanding of our relation to the universe.  But attempts to dissect the nature of love or the root cause of miracles fail to satisfy the soul.  And we know this because fairy tales still speak to us.  Because we do not question why it must be that Orpheus loses his wife if he turns toward her.  Or why Love must flee when the Mind tries to shine a light on it.

Something within us clicks, like a key fitting a lock.  And we know that these things are true, though we do not fully understand. 


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