Mythemes II

June 28, 2020 Category: History

APPENDIX 1: Cinderella, Faust, and Rags To Riches: Timeless Tales

I explored the global incidence of Robin Hood figures in the Postscript to my essay: “The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation”.  It crops up in cultures around the world; as it is a timeless tale: A heroic bandit that steals from the rich to give to the poor.  As I showed, accounts of vigilante justice resonate with audience across all cultures.  Let’s look at three more examples.

Most Americans are familiar with the story of Cinderella through Walt Disney’s 20th-century rendering.  However, this post-dated myriad other versions:

  • The Cinder Maid[en] (Italian; then French and German)
  • Katie Woodencloak (Norse)
  • Ashey Pelt (Irish)
  • Rashin-Coatie (Scottish)
  • Little Saddleslut (Greek)
  • Conkiaj-gharuna [The Little Rag Girl] (Georgian)
  • Pepelyouga (Serbian)
  • The Wonderful Birch (Russian)
  • The tale Maria And The Golden Slipper (Filipino)

Even Kashmir had legends of a kind-hearted girl who was forced to contend with a wicked step-mother.  Against all odds, the protagonists comes out on top, overcoming tribulation to finally get her due.  Such a tale instills hope for those contending with trying times.

Other tales are cautionary.  Goethe’s most famous parable, “Faust” is best known for addressing the existential price of “selling one’s soul” (that is: compromising one’s moral principles for worldly gain).  He was inspired by earlier Germanic folklore about “Mephistopheles”.  The mytheme goes back many centuries, with a tale that appeared in the Vedic “Shakuntala”.

Faust was not a unique case; the mytheme recurred around the world–from the Welsh tale of “Dafydd Hiraddug And The Crow Barn” to the Neapolitan tale of “The Blacksmith And The Devil”; and from the Germanic tale of “Bearskin” to the Polish tale of “Pan Twardowski” .  It even appears in an Islamic idiom, with Arabian tales about the Abbasid caliph, Al-Wathiq ibn Al-Mutasim (Anglicized to “Vathek” by William Thomas Beckford in the 18th century, when he rendered it in English).

The mytheme was later re-conceived by Oscar Wilde in the modern classic, “The Picture Of Dorian Grey”.  Washington Irving used a similar narrative in “The Devil And Tom Walker”.  The motif crops up yet again when Pinocchio was lured to Pleasure Island.

The moral of the story is best captured in the adage found in the Gospel of Matthew: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?”  In secular terms: The ultimate price of avarice is dignity.  This is a timeless theme that transcends culture, which explains why it crops up again and again around the world.

Then there’s the inspirational “rags to riches” narrative; whereby the protagonist overcomes obstacles to ascend from a lowly life to a position of stature.  King David is perhaps the most well-known case of what is perhaps the most inspiring plot in world literature: A man rises from obscurity / destitution to become great.  What makes the tale so inspiring is that it is “against all odds”: an everyman (David) overcoming some leviathan (Goliath), subsequently rising to greatness (which, we are led to believe, is a matter of fulfilling one’s destiny).

This familiar plot-line goes back to Sargon of Akkad, a gardener from Kish (Sumer) who became king of the world’s first empire.  He was set adrift in a wicker basket by his biological mother, and taken from the river to be raised in the capital city’s royal court.  Ring any bells?  It was recycled as the tale of Moses in Abrahamic lore.  This plot-line was also used for the Abrahamic figure, Joseph (son of “Yisra-El”), who rose from obscurity in Egypt after being ostracized in his native Canaan.

The classic Broadway musical “Annie” employs this timeless theme, using as its protagonist an orphan during the Great Depression.  Here are a dozen more heroes who came from humble beginnings:

  • Siddhartha Gautama of Lumpini was a wandering playboy…before jettisoning his mercurial hedonism to become the Buddha (6th century B.C.)
  • Chinese peasant, Liu Bang, who rose to become Han Emperor Gaozu (3rd century B.C.)
  • Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo of Picenum (father of “Pompey the Great”) climbed the hierarchy of the “cursus honorum” from peasant-status to become Roman consul (1st century B.C.)
  • Byzantine rulers Justin (5th century), Theodora (6th century), and Basil (9th century)
  • Persian coppersmith, Radman pur-i Mahak, who rose to become King Yakub-i Layth-i Saffari (9th century)
  • Slavic (Christian) slave, Jawhar of Dalmatia, who rose to become a Fatimid military hero (10th century) *
  • Kipchak (Turkic) slave, Anushtegin of Gharchistan [Hindu Kush], who rose to become a Seljuq “shihna” [military leader] and governor of Khwarezm (11th century)
  • Mongolian nomad, Temujin of Khentii, who rose to become “Genghis Khan” (late 12th / early 13th century)
  • Turkic peasant, Ivaylo, who rose to become tsar of the Bulgars (13th century)
  • Dong-yi (Chinese) peasant, Zhu Yuan-zhang of the Huaiyi, who rose to become Ming Emperor Hongwu (14th century)
  • Japanese peasant, Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Owari [Nagoya], who rose to become Emperor of Japan (16th century)
  • Polish-Lithuanian peasant, Marta Helena Skowronska, became Empress Catherine I of Russia (18th century)

Each historical figure represents grit and aspiration; which is why such tales became the stuff of legend.  In American lore, Caribbean orphan, Alexander Hamilton rose from obscurity to become a revered statesman, after being taken under General George Washington’s wing (18th century).

The message is a timeless one:  “Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”  We ALL want to believe this adage; so tales that tout it tend to resonate with wide audiences.  This is why the (hyper-romanticized) Horatio Alger myth caught on in America to the extent that it did…and continues to reverberate to this day.  The ultimate Horatio Alger icons were oil tycoon, John D. Rockefeller and steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie (19th century)–both symbols of the so-called “American Dream”. **

The underdog rising to prominence–be it David or Joseph–is a timeless theme that appeals to everyone, everywhere.  And new versions are always worth creating–as Alexander Dumas famously did with “The Count Of Monte Cristo”.

{* In Islamic historiography, Cairo was founded by the aforementioned Jawhar of Dalmatia.}

{** This “up by your own bootstraps” trope is alluring, yet quixotic.  As the ever-astute, ever-sardonic George Carlin once said: It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.}

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