"NAWA WAS ONLY THE VOICE that kept the legend alive" --- the legend of the buffaloes fighting deep in a lake, struggling to emerge in Where the Buffaloes Begin .
That is what the teller of any old tale is, "only the voice" that keeps the story alive, often for people of another time, another place. Oral tradition has provided much for him or her: archetypal characters, a plot explored by generations of storytellers, and a universal theme; for folklore holds in its stories the wisdom of the world. Yet the challenge is still great. Half the charm of a folktale is in the telling. It is the voice that must cast the spell all over again, the voice that must find words and cadences so rich in the music of its own language that this seems to be the only way the story could be told. The teller must be an artist in storytelling.
Olaf Baker meets the challenge in his story first published in 1915 by St. Nicholas Magazine . His words capture the spaces and sounds and smells of the Indian boy's prairie; his cadences sing the wildness of the thundering buffaloes; while the black and white drawings of Stephen Gammell add to the magic of Little Wolf's story.
Caught in the spell of old Nawa's tale, Little Wolf slips out of his tepee at dawn to ride his pony southward to the legendary lake "where the buffaloes begin." Too engulfed in his dreams to be fully alert to danger, he decides that a group of enemy Assiniboins moving northward on the horizon is merely a herd of antelope. Later, laying by the lake, he seems to hear Nawa's words over and over and over until the other sound reaches him --- the sound of the buffaloes in the lake, reaching him when he has gone "far down the shadow ways of sleep."
Words and pictures combine to make the emergence of the herd real and yet unreal, to give it the essence of a vision. And Little Wolf doesn't know "what spirit of the wild" whispers to him. He knows only that he cries out to the buffaloes before he leads them in a thundering chase northward, to where his people are in danger from the Assiniboins. The excitement of the chase is captured in words that heave and billow and exault with the pictures until the story ends and the buffaloes vanish, as a dream might vanish.
Only one small note betrays the European bias of the storyteller. He sees the wolf as cruel; whereas a Plains Indian would see the wolf for what he is --- a superb hunter, loyal to his tribe, doing what he must do to survive. It is only a minor discord in the beautiful singing of an old song.
The Big Bad Wolf was the invention of people with flocks and herds to protct from wily marauders, the kind of people Yuzo Otsuka tells of in Suho and the White Horse .
Otsuka's voice is less successful than Baker's in casting the old spell of the storyteller. Yet the tale from the Mongolian steppes is a charming and moving one, illustrated in color by Suekichi Akaba, the self-taught artist who last year won the international Hans Christian Andersen Award for his entire body of work.
Suho, a shepherd boy, finds a foal out in the grasslands, a foal that grows into a swift and beautiful white horse. His pride in his horse makes him enter a race where the prize is the hand of the governor's daughter. Yet when he wins the race, he is dismissed with three pieces of silver, a beating, and no horse. The faithful animal tosses the fat governor off his back before fleeing for home. But swift arrows follow him, mortally wounding him; and he arrives home only to die. Then his spirit returns to urge the sorrowing youth to make a musical instrument from his bones and his skin, his hair and his sinews so that he may always stay by his master, bringing him peace and delight. Suho makes the instrument, decorating it with a carved horse's head. And this is the first of the Mongolian horse-head fiddles.
Children will love the story. They will delight in the charmingly barbaric pictures. But those who read the tale to them will soon tire of the telling. Quaint patterns of speech, rhythmic repetitions, lilting cadences could have been like a tinkle of bells on the white horse's bridle. For though the new teller is "only the voice" that keeps the old story alive, that is the voice that must now cast the spell. This voice casts no spell.