Tell Me a Story

HomeWomen of WonderAnimal MagicTell Me a StoryBiographiesBiographiesSynopsesGuide: Sense of TheftGuide: Selkie BrideGuide: Clever Girl


The Clever Girl

Riddle stories

Our story of Hannah and her father, the farmer, is adapted from a much-loved and oft-told Czechoslovakian Tale, known originally as Clever Manka.

Riddle me this. What kind of folktale can be found from Afghanistan to Arabia, from China to Czechoslovakia, from Germany to Greece, from Indonesia to Ireland, from Poland to Puerto Rico?

The answer is the riddle or puzzle story. In most of these tales, a social inferior outwits someone who supposedly is his or her superior, though sometimes thereís a twist as in a famous Hawaiian tale in which a king demands young men bring him one new riddle after another, and itís he who can solve them all while none can solve his.

Usually, though, the person who solves the riddle proves her or himself to be cleverer than everyone else, and that, indeed, is our clever Hannah.

Now and then a folktale proposes a dilemma that is riddle-like but without a specifically correct answer, and of course our Clever Hannah could have responded any number of ways to the magistrateís riddles (just as the riddles could have been posed in any number of ways). But then, half the fun of these tales is trying to find the answers youíd like to give, and likely some listeners are clever too, perhaps even as clever as Hannah.

There is in this tale an element beyond the riddle and that is the teasing courtship with its surprising end. Like some of the Lazy Jack tales, the heroine in this folktale has, for centuries, delighted readers with her wit, her wiles, and her strength. This woman is loved for her mind, and a dazzling mind it is. The original Manka tale has traveled across oceans and survived centuries and exists in many folktale collections that celebrate women, including Alison Lurieís marvelous Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales and Rosemary Minardís Womenfolk and Fairy Tales both of which also include another marvelous heroines of loreóMolly Whuppie who, despite originating in England is surely Clever Mankaís cousin. In that story, in true folktale tradition, three girls find shelter with a friendly woman who, sadly, is married to a giant clever. Naturally the heroine, Molly Whuppie, discovers he is up to no good. And it's Molly, the youngest girl, who helps her sisters escape. But folktales being what they are, she doesnít get off that easy. Heroines and heroes seldom do. When Molly and her sisters come upon the king, he sends her back to steal the giantís sword, and itís with her courage and cunning, that Molly twice more outwits both the giant and his wife.

Many of the best tales of feminist folklore heroines are in books that are, sadly, out of print, but the cleverest among you will find these books that include: Maeve Binchyís Ride On Rapunzel: Fairy Tales for Feminists from Irelandís Attic Press, Angela Carterís 1990 The Old Wivesí Fairy Tale Book New York: Pantheon, and Allan Chinenís 1996 Waking the World: Classic Tales of Women and the Heroic Feminine. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

And for a marvelous retelling (with a southern twang) you won't want to miss Mary Hamilton's "The Farmer's Daughter" on her CD Some Dog & Other Kentucky Wonders.

Classroom exercises

One game that's fun to play, and results in surprising responses, is to divide a classroom, a group at a party, friends at home into two groups.

One group invents three riddles.

The members of Group One then select a partner from Group Two, and the Riddlers announce their riddles.

Separately or together, Group two must come up with answers to the riddles, and finally the entire group votes.

Which were the best riddles, and which the best answers?

Other questions

What makes a riddle work?

What makes an answer wise and what makes an answer foolish?

What sort of judgements make sense? Was the judge's first decision in this story foolish? Could he have made a decision, and if so, what should it have been?

Who is able to make judgments, and why? Who should judges be?