These two collections of folk tales from opposite ends of the earth bring alive two cultures that survive only as fragments in our kaleidoscopic heritage.
The tales in The Trouble with Adventurers come from native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. They are tales told by firelight during long, grim winters by people whose survival and livelihood depended on a wild, unpredictable sea. Like Icelandic sagas, northwestern hero stories glorify high deeds, obsessive revenge, competition, bravery and individual prowess. Even the humor in the two animal tales--"Raven Gets the Oolikan" and "The Reluctant Adventures of Porcupine and Beaver" --has a malicious edge to it. These are tales of a people who fought for survival in a violent natural--and supernatural--environment.
The last of the six stories, "The True Adventures of John Jewitt, Who Was Captured by the Indian Whalers," is not a folk tale, but a factual account of massacre, slavery, and daily tribal life. Jewitt's narrative also details the corrupting influence of European economic and social values on native American society.
The African fables and hero tales in The Crest and the Hide contrast strikingly with the violence, fatalism and competitive spirit of the northwestern American stories. In a landscape of abundance and limitless horizons, the African climate threatened people not with violent catastrophes of wind, ice, and awesome seas, but with the slow, silent catastrophe of drought and famine. Heroic status and glory in these tales are achieved not by individual defiance of natural and supernatural elements, but by noble deeds that enhanced survival of the community. In African hero tales, courage, revenge and victory are subordinate to honor and chivalrous behavior.
Courlander's collection of African tales and fables comes from diverse tribes whose greatest challenge has been in learning to live in harmony with each other and their environment. Like Aesop's fables, these stories have universal appeal. Some of them are timely, indeed. In "All Things Are Linked," a foolish but powerful king exterminates all the frogs in his kingdom because their nightly songs keep him awake, and loses both his kingdom and his people to the resulting hordes of mosquitoes. The title story, "The Crest and the Hide," explores the limits of friendship and loyalty. In "The Departure of the Giants," God realizes that the giants he created are threatening the rest of creation by consuming a disproportionate share of earth's resources. The "blessing" he offers the giants--that they will bear only sons, and their cows bear only heifers--results in their extinction.
Stories on the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" theme in both books suggest the philosophical differences of their origins. In the Northwest Indian tale, "Revenge of the Wolf Prince," the magic arrow Guldana relentlessly slaughters its possessor's enemies, creating a fatal illusion of invincibility that costs the hero his life. The magic instrument of the African tale, "The Hunter and His Medicine Spear," is a spear that will not stop killing game, heaping the hero's dwelling with far more meat than his family can use. The smell of his "good fortune" finally drives the family from its home.
The humor, adventure and wisdom of these tales from two remote cultures complement each other and represent opposing elements of our own behavior and values. The notes provided by both authors on the sources and historical background of each story are as fascinating as the stories themselves. Both books are delightful to read aloud, with handsome line drawings to enhance the tales for young listeners.