09/05/03
National Grandparents Day
    by John Cech

It's National Grandparents Day this Sunday, and the well-known storyteller, Jane Yolen, a grandparent herself, has offered a present specifically for grandsons, in her new collection of folktales: Mightier Than the Sword, World Folktales for Strong Boys. These fourteen stories are from The Far East, the Middle East, Africa, and the West. They're all about "the quiet heroes," as Ms. Yolen referrs to them, "who solve their problems -- and the problems of the world -- without ever having to resort to force. The tongue is mightier than the sword," she writes. "As is the pen."

The opening story, "The Magic Brocade," sets the tone for the collection: it's a Chinese tale about a weaver and her three sons. For years, the weaver has poured all of her creative energy into a stunning brocade, only to have it stolen away by the fairies because it is so beautiful. The oldest sons each go in search of it, but soon abandon the quest and disappear. It falls to the youngest son, Wang Xing to show the love, courage, and perserverance that's needed to travel on the horse made of stone, up the Mountain of Flame, over the Sea of Ice, and on to Sun Mountain to find and bring back his mother's masterpiece, which also holds the destiny of his own life.

The boys in this fine collection are clever, soft-spoken, and very brave. Though some of them seem to be spending too much of their time laying by the fire, dreaming, getting ashes in their hair, they are really preparing themselves for the thoughtful work they must do. Their sympathies with the natural world let them understand the language of birds and thus solve a vexing problem ; they win the Sagamore's daughter, in the Abenaki tale, "Thick-Head," not with their hunting prowess, but rather with their ability to profit from their own wits.

If you're looking for a complementary volume for your granddaughters, Ms. Yolen has also provided that in her Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls which appeared a few years ago. Here, too, her stories run against the grain of gender stereotypes to find folktales that portray their heroines as being every bit as (and in most cases more) capable as the boy - and men-folk are of slaying a dragon, outfoxing a wicked sorcerer, or outracing the guys.

These tales are about balance, about alternatives to those monolithic notions of masculinity and feminity. And a wise grandparent, who has seen a lot of life and been over the mountain of fire and the sea of ice, knows just how essential knowledge of this balance is to pass on to a grandchild's generation.

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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