Stuart Blackburn, Moral Fictions. Tamil Folktales from Oral Tradition.
FF Communications No. 278. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 2001. 338 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0897-3), € 33
Soft (ISBN 951-41-0898-1), €29

Available at the Tiedekirja Bookstore,
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This excellent book provides readers with a fresh and thoughtful framework for understanding oral Tamil folktales, as they are told by ordinary people in everyday settings. At the same time Moral Fictions successfully documents and preserves a collection of one hundred currently circulating Tamil folktales. Blackburn’s collection technique was scholarly, yet also sensitive to local customs and performance traditions. The translations he provides are very readable, while also ringing true for accuracy and genuineness. In sum, this book makes an important contribution to modern folklore studies. It will be useful to students of the folktale everywhere. It also constitutes a welcome and solid addition to contemporary Tamil scholarship.

One of the important innovations Moral Fictions makes lies in the author’s technique of collecting, organizing and reporting on his large tale corpus. Roughly half of Blackburn’s material comes from documented multi-story sessions, the rest of the tales were gathered one at a time. The venues for the author’s “story sessions” were creatively chosen and represent a wide variety of “naturally” occurring possibilities. The results of this collection work are presented in six groupings (five chapters) in the center of the book.
A variety of tellers in multiple settings

Blackburn’s forty-one tale tellers represent performers of all ages and many castes (with the exception of Brahmins). The performers are drawn from well-scattered locales. Their home territories cover a large part of India’s most southern state, Tamilnadu. A map is provided. Appendix A consists of a very useful list detailing the name of every teller, their caste, their sex, their age, their education and reference numbers for the specific tales each contributed. Lovely color photographs of selected tellers appear at the end of the book. These give the reader a good cultural feel for the corpus of performers. Here are some (not all) of the details Blackburn gives his readers:

One itinerant elder male teller, lower-middle caste, told four tales in one day. The venue was a ramshackled hut.
Two female tellers, both untouchable by caste, told three tales in all. Their venue was a small lane near the tellers’ homes, with a large crowd of women and children serving as the audience.
One extended family of small landowners, all middle-caste women, told their tales in a modest farm house. The grouping consisted of six female performers, plus occasional friends and neighbors as additional listeners. This cluster contains twenty-two tales, collected in three separate sessions, over six weeks.
The next venue described is a laneway inside an untouchable hamlet. Here three women, all agricultural workers, told fourteen tales during three visits by the author over two months. The audience consisted of twenty-five to thirty other women and children.
Eight workers at a state seed farm, four men and four women representing a range of middle to lower castes, told seventeen tales during four visits over an unspecified period. A range of venues are listed: homes, factories, under trees and in the groves amongst seed farm plantings.

The last “grouping” is in fact a catch-all for all the tales Blackburn’s collected one by one, representing stories he amassed over many months in all manner of settings. This last category consists of 45 performances, or roughly half of his total. These tales were told to him by twelve female and ten male tellers, each at a different place or time. All the performers were from middling or lower caste communities. The size of nature of the audience present for these tellings also varied. At some no one at all except the collector and teller were present, at others there was a large cluster of interested listeners present.

The above details illustrate three key points. Firstly, Blackburn took the care to collect his folktales in multiple types of settings and from a wide variety of tellers. He was not blinded by some narrowly defined methodology but rather allowed circumstance and natural curiosity to influence his choices. This resulted in the exploration of a wide range of natural storytelling venues. Secondly, Blackburn groups the items in his collection in a way that allows the reader to independently explore the thematic links between them. One can compare tales told in particular locales to specific audiences, or those gathered from specific types of tellers. Thirdly, Blackburn reports that he has not published every tale he recorded. Rather, he has exercised some judgment as to what was to be included in this printed volume. The purpose in imposing some selectivity was to maintain a high standard for both quality and variety. This is altogether reasonable. The author is to be commended for his dedication to readability.
Terms of tale interpretation

The interpretive framework Blackburn provides for his folktale collection rivals his methodology in importance. The author finds that the majority of these tales depict social wrongdoing, especially cruelty and suffering unfairly inflicted on an innocent victim. Most commonly, those subjected to wrongful behavior are women, though men are also objects of brutality in some stories. Usually the harm done is physical, though mental anguish or social embarrassment surface as important themes too. One cannot say that these folktales are uniformly violent and bleak, however. There are also plentiful accounts of virtue, wit, generosity, and gratitude. At times an antagonists’ practical abilities are also heralded.

Blackburn further suggests that although the adventures and incidents depicted by these folktales might seem largely fanciful at first glance, their real preoccupation is with very down to earth social concerns. Blackburn argues that many of the seemingly other-worldly or “unrealistic” stories which describe talking birds, kings with magical swords, transformed identities etc., actually provide convenient moral foils, and are used both by tellers and by members of the audience, to stimulate thinking about human ethics.

The more examination one gives to Blackburn’s framework the more plausible this focus on a tale’s “moral backbone” becomes. First, the evil doers and physical aggressors who dominate many of the stories usually meet with death themselves, or else with some other form of severe retribution. Furthermore, it is quite evident that the performers and listeners express considerable interest in discussing the ethical dilemmas these story characters face. Blackburn gives an example of a debate that ensued after one tale’s public telling (p. 58):

Teller: Now there were three corpses outside the temple. And when the priest (pusari) came for puja and saw the prince, the minister and the woman lying dead, he also committed suicide! Now, sir, which of those deaths are justified and which are not? Who should have died and who not?
Man in audience: When people tell stories they often ask questions like this.
Ramanathan: Well let’s see, I think the prince’s death is right; after the person who did so much for him died, he felt that he couldn’t live. His death was justified. I don’t know about the others.
Girl in audience: The pusari’s death is also right.
Teller: Not the pusari! What’s he got to do with it? He’s supposed to perform the puja, not die with them. The prince died because of the minister, and the princess died because of the prince – that’s all as it should be. But the pusari should clear off the bodies and get on with his work. Why should he die?
Another girl: That’s right; he just wanted to join the crowd, after seeing the others lying on the ground.
Teller: So the prince’s death is right, but the pusari’s is not.

[The discussion continues.]

When I examined the moral structure of one very complex story in the collection for myself (No. 5, “The Abducted Princess”) I found the basic theme “evil acts generate retribution down the road” could be traced right through it. In this story there are numerous acts of killing, sexual attack and theft, most of which are attributable to aggressive interlopers (a supernatural “demon”, an evil king, and a jealous old woman). Each of these characters tries to prevent a beautiful Princess from joining her “true love”, the Prince who found her first. The young female is largely portrayed as passive and long-suffering, an innocent object of aggressor passions. The Prince, too, is rather passive. Instead the hero is his Minister, the character who strives long and faithfully to restore his master’s claim to the lovely girl. The story ends with the original Prince and Princess’ partnership reestablished. Furthermore, everyone else who died in the process is also magically revived. There is just one exception: that aggressive, interloping, evil king who was punished by death in a lime kiln. He has been permanently silenced.

What I find important about this seemingly simple tale of “evil versus good” is that, carefully examined, its structure is not actually as “black and white” as first appears. Indeed, it is the “good Prince” who starts the entire action–reaction cycle, by killing a snake that threatens him in a forest grove where he wants to lie down and sleep. So the Prince becomes morally tarnished very early in the story (even though the snake is said to be a demon in disguise). The Prince’s Minister next meets a celestial woman in another grove and (by implication) enjoys unsanctioned sexual pleasures with her. The same hero-helper also lies to an old woman at one point, claiming (falsely) that he is her son. So the Minister’s record, too, can be said to carry a few blemishes.

Even the Princess’ actions can be questioned. Near the end of the story the Princess sacrifices her own son at her lover’s request (her first-born, a boy fathered by this very Prince). The murder is done as a “sacrifice”, the power of which is expected to bring back life to the faithful Minister (who, at that moment, is dead). The bloody offering works its magic. The Minister, in turn, then revives the Princess’ dead son, using a magical chant. But, one may ask, has the Princess really done the right thing in putting her husband’s request to save a faithful Minister ahead of protecting the life of her very own first-born? No one in this story is “lily white” when it comes to moral behavior! Everyone has to face tough moral choices.

In sum, Blackburn’s folktales need not be labeled simplistic. Many of them do pose moral dilemmas. Each story definitely provides “food for thought”. Blackburn also makes it clear that both the teller, and the circumstances of performance, powerfully influence whether or not these “moral mirrors” surface for public debate, at the time of telling.
Universal human dilemmas and individuality

Blackburn also makes many interesting observations about other aspects of the content of these tales. For one, he notes a significant absence of the Hindu concept of karma. Karma refers to a principle whereby events in a person’s previous lives predetermine what will happen to them in later reincarnations. Blackburn characterizes this traditional worldview as an “impersonal and automatic” theory about the unfolding of events. He then contrasts this classical dogma with how his collected folktales depict principles that govern the world. Blackburn argues that “a parallel moral system” operates in these stories, one that differs from the classical norm. Here events and outcomes are dependent on acts of direct human will.

Contrasting the world of the folktale with classical norms is important to wider theoretical discussions. It has a direct bearing on arguments about the relationship of India’s so-called great traditions to its “little tradition” or folk counterparts. Blackburn clarifies that social justice, as viewed through these folktales’ metaphorical mirrors, is much more individualistic, a matter of personal decision rather than automatic retribution. He also points out that these tales are not about “Tamil” morality per se, but rather are Tamil tales of morality. These dilemmas depicted are not just statements about unique “Tamil” cultural values. Instead they depict universal human dilemmas. These ethical debates find expression in Tamil folktales through culturally specific idioms, images traditional to local folk culture.

Many of the idioms and images Blackburn uses as illustrations in his commentary are quite colorful and interesting in their own right. For example, the author notes that many evil doers burn to death in a lime kiln. He also discusses the popular ending formulas used by tellers. A typical one is a storyteller’s comment, “This is the sari I received at the wedding” (described in my story). Blackburn notes that such conventions help to link a teller to her tale, grounding it in the here and now. He also cites examples of unique “details that illumine all good fiction” in these stories. Such truly fresh images are most frequently used by the very best storytellers. One example the author gives is of two wooden blocks twice clapped together during the course of a single tale. The first time the image is used the blocks represent a substitute for new born babies, the second time these very children themselves clap the blocks together in order to summon a bunch of villagers together to hear their story.

There is also some space given in Blackburn’s commentary to the importance of humor, and of logistical puzzles. And recognition is granted to the sheer entertainment value of these tales as well. The author is a skilled speaker of colloquial Tamil and his listening skills shine through in his work. Blackburn’s knowledge of the language and his appreciation of the local culture is evidenced both in the quality of the translations provided and by the rich descriptions he provides of tellers’ individual performances.

At the end of the book the words of one tale have been “transcribed” using a phonetic alphabet. The reader who knows Tamil thus can check Blackburn’s translation of one tale for himself. This addition also serves to provide at least one segment of his audience with a direct “feel” for the original material, especially for the colorful language used in Tamil storytelling. Tamil scholars may note the lack of use of the conventional Tamil alphabet. But it is not possible to transcribe “colloquial Tamil” using the formally recognized writing system of this region of India without inciting local controversy. It is also likely that the publisher did not want to deal with even a few lines written in such a “foreign” type face. But most importantly, these are oral tales. Probably it is best to avoid recording them in a “literary” medium!

Blackburn’s commentary also includes some colorful asides that further the reader’s appreciation of teller individuality. For example, he writes:

When reading these Tamil tales, readers may sometimes puzzle over non-sequitors or apparent inconsistencies in the plot. I, too, was bothered by them, despite my virtuous attempts to vanish such print-induced prejudices from my mind. Once, unable to control my frustration, I asked a teller why a character who had died fifteen minutes before had suddenly reappeared. She paused for a moment and replied, “The tale has no legs, and you have no tail.” “What’s that?” I asked in confusion. “It’s better not to ask questions”, she said. A very neat tit-for-tat, I thought, dismissing an unwanted question as nonsense by answering with a bit of nonsense. But the teller explained it a little differently: you should not expect too much from a poor little tale – it doesn’t have legs, you see – but then don’t get too upset about that because you aren’t perfect either – you don’t even have a tail!

Tales and gender

Blackburn has also analyzed the distribution of themes and the types of heroes in his tale collection. He notes that, “There can be no doubt that men and women tend to tell different tales, and that most tales can be identified as either male or female centered.” He also informs us that 78% of the male tellers told male-centered tales while 62% of women told female-centered tales. Women, therefore, tell male centered tales somewhat more often than men tell female-centered ones. This is not surprising. No single tale, however, was identified as intended exclusively for telling by one gender or the other. Blackburn also observes that, “Men like to tell tales involving humour, trickery, stupidity escapes, bargains, and so forth.” Women on the other hand, like to tell longer tales with complex plots, especially “fairy tales”. In fact, he finds that the tales told by women were, on average, more than twice as long as those told by men.

In probing deeper still, Blackburn finds two basic types of female heroines: the relatively passive underdog and the more active (or clever) strategist. At the very core of the Tamil folktale tradition he finds the abused and suffering female, with cruelty and or physical impairment being the major crimes endured. He also finds that deception and/or mental cruelty most often lead to death or to the withholding of a reward, while cruelty resulting in physical impairment most often leads to public humiliation. Heroes are more often lucky than are heroines. Furthermore, the author observes, heroes do not use riddles. These are interesting conclusions that can now be “tested” against other folktale corpuses for consistency.

The book comes with a very stimulating Introduction, plus an extensive Afterword. In addition, the author has presented a very pleasing and very readable translation for each of the hundred folktales he selected for inclusion. These texts alone would make a useful publication. The fresh material is a gift to Tamil scholarship, but will also be useful to students of folklore in other cultures. All the tales have been indexed according to standard, universally accepted type indexes. Occasionally the author comments on the tale type in question, notes the presence of a new variant, and/or mentions links to the publications of other scholars.

In sum, I find Moral Fictions substantial, engaging and thought provoking. The body of one hundred tales Blackburn has published could stand comfortably on their own. But the author chose to go further. He also makes an important contribution to on-going scholarly discussions about the meaning and significance of the folktale in general.

Finally, Blackburn has shown courage in coming down solidly on the side of “moral dilemmas” as the key that unlocks these stories and explains their powerful draw. To quote his words: “The primary intention and method of the folktale is not to spin out mysterious messages through fantasy but to express a local system of morality through imaginative but plausible actions.” His conclusion is bound to draw some lively controversy, but I believe the interpretive framework proposed is basically sound. It reverberates very comfortably with my own exposure to Tamil folktales, and indeed with tales more widely circulating throughout India. Many other dimensions of Tamil folk culture, such as the tales told by Muslim women, remain exciting topics for future exploration. Blackburn’s book provides a solid research foundation, opening the way for any possible new departures.

Brenda E. F. Beck
Gore’s Landing, Ontario, Canada

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