Fit for a King: Traditional tales and Revision

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The Oxford Reading Tree version of the Dominican tale, “The King who wanted to Touch the Moon.”

Since the referendum on Brexit, many of the British political parties have been in turmoil; I was camping along Hadrian’s Wall for a few days this week and came back to find that the UK had a new prime minister. The Labour party is also mulling over changes: should Jeremy Corbyn remain the head of the party? The thing that struck me most about all of the changes and potential changes is that they largely are being discussed at the top. Whereas Brexit was a straight majority-rules vote about remaining in the European Union, Theresa May became prime minister without an election, and the Labour Party is arguing over whether the “three pound” Labour Party members (who joined during the last Labour leadership campaign, and mostly supported Corbyn) should be allowed to have a say in the next leadership vote. This all, of course, complies with British political party policy—but many ordinary British voters might well begin to suspect that the leaders of the major parties do not really want to know what they think.

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Many voted for Brexit because they said they didn’t like the “elites” telling them what to do.

The upheaval in Britain made me think of a story that will be familiar to many Americans, at least those born in my era, Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958). The story concerns a turtle king who wants to have complete power over all that he sees; once he does, he climbs higher to find more to conquer. Seuss has King Yertle climb on the backs of his citizen turtles to get higher; the lowest on the stack, a turtle named Mack, constantly complains but Yertle ignores him. The story comes to a climax when Yertle wants to be ruler of the moon and Mack, in protest, burps, bringing down the turtle stack and dumping Yertle in the pond.

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Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle has Yertle governing without regard to his people’s needs.

Somewhere along the line—I can’t remember when, but we came from a household where political messages in texts would have been suggested to us—I learned that this story was written with Adolf Hitler’s then-recent attempts to conquer Europe (and beyond) in mind. This is one of the now-accepted interpretations of the book: the author of the blog, The Children’s War, for example, writes, “Now, I am sure you can see the resemblance to Hitler and his quest for more and more Lebensraum in Yertle.  And it isn’t hard to figure out that the turtles are the German people under Hitler’s dictatorship” (https://thechildrenswar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/yertle-turtle-by-dr-seuss.html). Seuss was certainly political; there’s even an American public television programme, Indpendent Lens, which has done an entire episode about “The Political Dr. Seuss” (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/); the web page about this episode also mention the link between Hitler and Yertle the Turtle.

But Seuss’s story—though certainly originally presented—is not an original story. I recently came across a Dominican folk tale strikingly similar to Seuss’s story. Like Seuss’s story, it is set on an island. The island is ruled by a king, who has a wish for power, and makes his people serve his every desire. The Dominican story is entitled “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon.” In the Dominican story, the king gets his carpenter to tell him how to build a tall tower to touch the moon. Even though the carpenter knows that it is not possible to touch the moon, he and the villagers obey the king’s wishes and stack up all the chests and boxes in the kingdom. When it still does not reach the moon, the king insists that the people send up the bottom chest. They take it out, and the tower—and the king—fall down.

Seuss’s story and the Dominican folktale are similar in most ways. The differences are significant as well, however. In the Dominican story, people are the main characters. Even though readers/listeners would know that it is a folktale setting—the Dominican Republic was never ruled by a king, unless you go back to its Spanish colonial days—the use of humans connects the story directly to the readers. This is particularly important when versions of the story are published outside of the Dominican Republic. Oxford Reading Tree, for example, published a very simple version of the story entitled The King and His Wish (2011), authored and illustrated by Alison Hawes and Kate Slater. Although only the teacher notes indicate the story’s origins, the pictures of people of various shades who can see the foolishness of the king serve to underline the idea that wisdom (and foolishness, for that matter) is not just the purview of white, western people. Given the white, western publishing world’s tendency to place non-white people only in supporting roles, the message in The King and His Wish is not insignificant.

 

Another difference between the Dominican tale and Dr. Seuss is the ending. Seuss has Yertle become “King of the mud” while the other turtles become a free people. The Dominican tale, on the other hand, ends with a humble king who is better able to rule and will take the advice of his people. The distinction between a specifically (white) American individualism and the more communitarian approach of the Dominican tale reflect different approaches to government. Interestingly, the Oxford Reading Tree version has an open ending, with the king on the ground and the people standing round him with varying attitudes toward his demise. It would be interesting to hear kids from different countries and/or backgrounds discussing what happened next in the story.

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The Oxford version has an open ending; these are the last pages of the text.

 

Kings—and governments—fall when they don’t listen to their people. This is a lesson that both Yertle the Turtle and “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon” teach, and a pertinent one for our times. But the folktale version also reminds readers that the community has a role to play, not just in deposing government, but in making it better. And this too is a lesson fit for our times.

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