The Rich Man and the Singer: Folktales from Ethiopia

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Mesfin Habte-Mariam
Price, Christine
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This lovely short book of eighty pages has brought me three surprises. First, it is a book of fables. The stories are short and pointed. Secondly, these fables are mostly traditional ones that I have found in some form in fable books. The introduction does well to point out that stories have come to Ethiopia from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Thirdly, there is sometimes a bit of a twist that makes the traditional fables different--and maybe less strong. Thus in The Rich Man and the Singer (5), which is La Fontaine's story of the financier and the cobbler, the story's basic premise is that the singer will give his gift of song to the rich man in return for all his riches. Imagine this scenario. When the two change their happiness, why would the once-rich man, now happy, return to his riches and give up the blessing of song? Again, The Three Thieves (28) is told with no reference to dreaming before the three go to sleep. When all three happen to dream, I think the author strains credibility. There are several stories that are new to me and charming, along with their simple and highly stylized black-and-white illustrations. Mammo the fool (10) always follows the instructions he received after his last mistake--and therefore gets it all wrong--until the day that his carrying a donkey makes a girl laugh and speak. This is a recovery, for she, a princess, has been sick and speechless for years. Mammo the fool becomes her husband and a prince! The women who want to govern the land are sent to the king with a bird in a box. Out of curiosity they open the box and lose the bird, and so are found to be not responsible enough to govern (21). A lost king is helped by a farmer who does not recognize him. The king takes him to court to see the king with one bit of advice: the king is the one who does not do what others do. After several rounds of people's bowing and saluting, the farmer has to ask Which of the two of us is king? A clever wizard, unjustly accused and about to be executed, is asked by the king when the king will die. On the next morning after my death (34). Smart wizard! The difficult quarrel between the hyena and monkey (35) cannot be settled, because of vested interests, by judge or elders. But a poor man finds a great solution. He gets each apart and says Do not lessen your dignity by paying attention to this scoundrel!
E.P. Dutton & Co.
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