Exploring Time in Folktales: Analyzing "Youth Without Age and Life Without Death" and "Where There Is No Death"

By Iulia O. Basu-Zharku
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

Youth without Age and Life without Death and Where there is No Death present the theme of time in opposite ways: while in Youth without Age and Life without Death man cannot live outside history and linear time without missing it and meeting his death as any mortal, but without leaving anything behind, in Where there is No Death man can live outside history, although for a while tempted to go back to the old order of linear time.

The theme of time is found in many folktales, from all over the world. Thus, one of the earliest versions known is a Japanese tale, “Urashima the Fisherman,” that comes down to us from the Account of the Province of Tango, dating from 713 A.D. Urashima follows a goddess to an island where they live happily until he starts missing his family, but when he comes back to his village, 300 years had already past by and he cannot go back to his wife either (Tatar, 66-68). Similarly, “L’Ile de la félicité,” a French tale by Countess Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, published in 1690, tells the story of Adolphe, Prince of , who is caught by a storm while hunting, meets cupid, who directs him to the Island of Happiness, where he is brought by Zephyr. On the Island, he meets princess Felicity, marries her but eventually becomes homesick and finds out 300 years had passed by, but still returns and is caught by Death (d’Aulnoy, 299-308). However, there are other tales that explore the theme of time, but the plot is different, featuring a man who goes to sleep and wakes up after a number of years to find the world completely changed from how he used to know it. An example of this type of tale is “Rip van Winkle,” by Washington Irving (Irving, 1-29), but Greek, German, English and Chinese folktales and stories in the Jewish and Muslim religious literature of this sort exist, as well (Young, 552-554).The two versions analyzed in this paper are of the former type of folktale and come from Eastern Europe, from two different backgrounds: a Latin and a Slavic one. The Romanian tale is very similar in concepts and meanings with the Japanese and French tales, especially since it has the same unfortunate ending. However, the Ukrainian tale ends on a very positive tone, with the man living forever with his fairy wife, which also points to a different meaning.

Youth without Age and Life without Death is a Romanian folktale, collected by Petre Ispirescu (1830-1887), sometimes between 1838-1844 from his own father, who lived in Bucharest, and published in 1862. Petre Ispirescu was born in Bucharest and most of his stories have been collected from his mother (who had been born in Transylvania) and his father, but also his father’s clients and workers (his father was a barber). Later, Ispirescu becomes a typographer and a year after he decides to marry, he becomes a writer of folk tales (Velicescu), and is now considered the national collector of folktales, although others have done it, too. He first published these tales in a volume called Basmele românilor (Romanian Tales, 1862). In addition, he translated the Brothers Grimm’s tales into Romanian. His tales reflect a blending of cultural traditions: mostly Romanian, but with some Slavic, Hungarian, Greek and Turkish elements. In his second collection of tales, Legende sau basmele românilor (Romanian Legends and Folk Tales, 1872), he focused on the Romanian people and identity, tracing national customs, beliefs, and values (“Petre Ispirescu”). Where there is No Death is an Ukrainian folktale, collected by Mykola Zinchuk, in the village of Hankivtsi, Sniatyn region, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast on August 9, 1987 (Zahayskyi). It was published in Ukrainian Fairy-tales Book 12. Pokuttia tales: P I, in 2005. Mykola Zinchuk was born close to the Kiev, and was taken as a slave laborer in a concentration camp, when he refused collaborating with the Nazis. After the war, he entered the History Department of Lviv Pedagogical Institute and after teaching tourism, he started being interested in folklore. In 1975 he bought a tape recorder and started recording folk songs in the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast (mountainous area). He has already published 7 volumes from a total of 24 volumes worth of material.

The structure of the two stories is fairly similar. Two young men go in search of immortality. In the Romanian tale, the man (called Handsome-Son) had to defeat two women/mythical animals/forces of nature to reach the palace where there is youth everlasting and life without death, where he encounters three sisters, marries the youngest, and is happy until he passes into the Crying Valley, which makes him homesick. In the Ukrainian tale, the man is tempted by two other men in marrying their daughters, and a noblewoman into marrying her, but he is relentless in his quest. When he gets to the palace, he marries the Lady who owns it and after 4,000 years he gets homesick. However, the beginning and the end of the stories are quite different, and in such, determine actually the overall meaning of the tale. In Youth without Age and Life without Death, Handsome-Son’s birth is made possible by a crafty old man who gives the empress a cure for her barrenness, but warns both the emperor and the empress that their wish will bring them only sorrow (Ispirescu 10-11). Thus, even before he is born, Handsome-Son is known to bring grief to his parents (ironically, until he reaches adulthood, he makes them happy and proud of his intelligence and courage). And, indeed, he proves to be so even before he is born: he weeps and weeps and refuses to be silent and be born even when his father promises him several princesses as wives. What quiets him and determines him to be born is the promise for youth without age and life without death (Ispirescu 11-12). In Where there is No Death, the son of wealthy parents falls sick upon reaching the age when he could marry. But he is not lovesick, as his mother thinks: he wants to find a land where there is no death (Zinchuk).

Therefore, the two stories start with different episodes and at different times in the lives of the protagonists. Indeed, both of these beginnings foreshadow the two different endings, as well. What these two heroes are in search of is everlasting life, (Handsome-Son actually wants even more: everlasting youth), and necessarily a separation from this world (Young, 551). But whereas Handsome-Son is very determined in this quest-so determined that without the promise of youth without age and life without death he even refuses to be born into this fleeting world-, for the man in Where there is No Death, it almost seems like this quest is a whim. Moreover, references to time abound in the beginning of Youth without Age and Life without Death: the emperor and the empress try in vain to have a child, who finally is conceived after they visit the crafty old man, the child cries “right before the hour of birth,” (Ispirescu 11) and even the alacrity with which Handsome-Son learns and grows (“The more the child grew, the more quick-witted and daring he became.”) (Ispirescu 12). He is said to have accumulated all the knowledge “that other children learned in one year, he learned in a month, so much so that the emperor was dying and resurrecting for joy” (Ispirescu 12). Ironically, soon enough, the emperor will die and resurrect for grief at his son’s decision. After all, not only the emperor, but “the whole country prided itself that it would have an emperor as learned and wise as Solomon,” in Handsome-Son (Ispirescu 12).

But Time is relentless: “from that time forward, however-I don’t know what Handsome Son had wrong with him that he was all melancholic, sad and lost in thoughts” (Ispirescu 12). The explanation is simple: Handsome-Son is longing for everlasting youth and immortality. This longing has never ceased, but it was manifested in different ways: as a baby (not yet born), he wept for it, then as a child, he would try to find it in his books. His insatiable thirst for knowledge is easily explainable in the context of his quest. The child is, indeed, “special,” even before he was born, but what makes him special is his desire for something that most people are content to label as “impossible.” Not so Handsome-Son; as he enters adolescence, his childhood restlessness becomes melancholy, sadness, brooding. “But it happened one day when the child had just turned fifteen years old and the emperor was to be found at table celebrating” that Handsome Son finally asks for the only thing for which he accepted to be born into this world: “Father, the time has come to give me what you promised me at birth” (Ispirescu 12). Time appears yet again in the story. But Handsome-Son wants to battle exactly this Time, with its linearity and intractability: “I must scour the whole world until I find the pledge for which I came into this life” (Ispirescu 12). Power (his father’s kingdom) and love (being offered the most beautiful woman for wife) are nothing for him.

Interestingly, however, Handsome-Son does inherit something from his father: his old horse (a smart, fabulous horse with four wings, a speaking Pegasus), and his old arms and clothes, at the advice of the horse: “you must ask your father for the saber, lance, bow, quiver and arrows, as well as the clothes he himself wore when he was a lad” (Ispirescu 13). In effect, he practically takes on his father’s youthful ideals and dreams, even his father’s old identity. This is the opposite of what happens, for example, in Rip van Winkle, when Rip comes back from his 20-years sleep and finds his son, Rip, his likeness in everything, and is shocked. The shock goes away when he sees his grandson, Rip, in his daughter’s arms, and can safely “place himself in a patriarchal succession” (Warner 789). Handsome-Son puts on his old father’s identity but his father cannot claim the same safety anymore: the whole kingdom is crying, full of fear that he will “somehow lose his life” (Ispirescu 14), which indeed will happen, only delayed several hundreds of years. And later on, Handsome-Son will not be able to put himself in a patriarchal succession, either, since he does not have an heir and he is completely detached from history.

It is at this point that the two stories meet and match in structure and meaning. For the man in Where there is No Death, no preparations exist: he just wants very much to find the land where there is no Death and starts walking towards it. He is given money, as Handsome-Son is, too, but he does not give it away to anyone. The first thing he encounters is an eagle: “There he looked up and saw an extraordinarily high and old oak tree. At the top of the tree there was an eagle. Suddenly the bird turned into an old man with a long beard” (Zinchuk). The oak representing durability, the eagle, the age of the man and his long beard-representing longevity, all point to the desire of the young man, but in limited, historical time. Thus the old man offers him to “turn you into a bird and after you marry my daughter you will be living for another 1,000 years, until the roots of this oak-tree are undamaged” (Zinchuk). The youth refuses the proposal and taking the magic band “which can make all men’s dreams true” (Zinchuk) that the old man’s daughter gives him, he leaves.

Next, “he encountered an old man digging the mountain and scattering the soil in the abyss” (Zinchuk), and when the youth asks him why he is doing that, the old man “asked him back: ‘Where are you heading towards?’” (Zinchuk). The answer the old man gives him connects the two actions: the quest for everlasting life with the scattering of soil in an abyss. Indeed, it could just mean that the quest is futile. If the youth would have failed in his quest, than this interpretation would have prevailed. However, the youth does not fail, so that the action of the old man actually represents the ongoing linearity of the Time: years go on and on, one after the other, like specks of soil, in the abyss of time, and they are all lost, as we, humans are, too, in it. And the youth wants just that: to not be one of those specks of soil falling into the abyss of time. Even the offer of living for 2, 000 years, after marrying the old man’s grandchild, represents this limit of a man’s life, for which the youth takes the “memorable stick,” that makes every wish come true, that the girl offers him, and leaves. Finally, he meets a noblewoman, who offers him 3,000 years of life in turn for their , as long as she will leave: “Do you see my floor? It has been made out of needles. And the floor is like that in all of my rooms. As soon as I use all of these needles in my work, I’ll die, but no sooner” (Zinchuk). Again, he refuses and receives “a magic ring. If you regret doing something, put on your ring and you’ll relieve” (Zinchuk).

These signs of temporality, which the youth in Where there is No Death ignores, are also signs of the possibility of defeating time; if someone can live for 3,000 years, then there must be a place where immortality itself dwells. This is not the case of Handsome-Son, who receives only signs of mortality, and of the threats of living outside of time and norms. The first is the valley full of human bones (Ispirescu 15), a sign of Death and decay. The mythological Woodpecker is cursed to be this monster because she has upset her parents, thus trespassing human norms. But notwithstanding her magical aspect, the mythological Woodpecker has her weaknesses: Handsome-Son cuts her leg off with an arrow, she winces in pain and has three daughters (one of which she is ready to offer in marriage) (Ispirescu 16). She is ultimately human and, what is more important, mortal. So is her sister, the Shrew, who loses one of her three heads to Handsome-Son, and weeps (Ispirescu 17). Moreover, “the grass was singed” in her land (Ispirescu 16), another indicator of death, and temporality. In addition, they are both part of folktales when Handsome-Son returns to chronology, in the future. Thus, whereas the youth in Where there is No Death encounters signs that almost encourage him to follow his quest or at least does not obstruct it, Handsome-Son in Youth without Age and Life without Death encounters signs that emphasize temporality, and discourage the quest. Nonetheless, both youths go over temptations (mostly in the case of the youth in Where there is No Death), and obstacles (in the case of Handsome-Son), to get what they desire.

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