Familiarity with the fact that similar versions of stories like Cinderella exist all over the world prepares the students explore in a more sophisticated manner the question of variation and the similarities and differences exhibited in the patterns. Stories of the Remarkable Servant type can also be used to help children learn to classify information in categories of their own invention.
There exists a motif of the hero who is helped on his quest by a groups of 5 to 7 servants, each of whom has some superhuman trait. These stories can be found in the folklore of Germany, Russia, Ireland, The United States, Mexico, Ghana and China. Picture book editions exist for all but the German and Irish tales. Examination and comparison of the stories provide a rich source of material for the study of folklore variations.
The unit may be organized in the following way. Some sort of movable chart is needed as the stories are read to the class. A flannel board with cardboard squares mounted on felt patches works very well. Magnetic tape on the cardboard squares would also allow them to be moved around on most chalkboards. Using a different color paper, approximately 3" square, for each story, the teacher writes the name of one "remarkable servant" on each square. After the first story (the Grimm tale makes a good beginning) is read, the servants are recalled by the class and the squares put up. With the reading of the second story the classifying task begins. Using the servants from the first story as a base, the children are asked to recall a servant in the next story and specify the column or row where he should be placed; that is, which character in the previous story he is most like. As more stories are added to the chart different groupings become possible. Arguments will occur about the best placement. It is important for the teacher to emphasize that there is no one right answer. The placement of the character depends on the definition that the child has in mind for the skills of that character. When all the stories have been read, and the teacher should not have the class as a whole classify the last stories, each child may be assigned the task of making a chart and labeling groupings. Labeling the groupings forces the child to articulate his or her definition of the group. Each child is given an instruction sheet, a listing of the characters printed in small squares (a replica of what the teacher has used with the whole class) and a large sheet of drawing paper on which to work. This assignment can also be given to a small group; the children must then verbalize their thinking and agree on the best arrangement. The class should share their work; the teacher will usually discover that there are many creative and clever ways of thinking about the classification of the characters.
This group of stories may also be used to have the students hypothesize the reasons for the existence of story variations. The teacher should ask "How can you explain that this story exists all over the world?" The teacher needs to remind the children that these stories existed before they were written down. Children will usually respond "Someone knew the story and then traveled to another country and told it there. Those people changed it to fit their country." Children's hypotheses may be listed on the board. The teacher might wish to elicit the kinds of people who could have been expected to carry stories from one country to another. (Merchants, bards, sailors, emigrants, etc.) Fourth graders usually come up with the explanation that folklorists call "oral transmission", that stories traveled with people and were changed to fit their new environment. The teacher might want to play the game of "Rumor" where one child whispers a sentence to another until the sentence has traveled all around the room and is then compared with the beginning sentence. This game demonstrates what can happen to information when it is transmitted orally.
Often someone in the class will offer the idea that "people could think the stories up by themselves." Probing questions about the categories of remarkable servants can help the class discover that the attribute of each character is a basic human ability which has been exaggerated. Thus it is not surprising that people would think up a story about someone who could see or hear in a superhuman way if that trait would be useful in completing a difficult or impossible task.
At this point the teacher may wish to tell the class about the two theories of story variation that folklorists discuss; "oral transmission" (stories travel with people) and "ethnogenesis" (people in different cultures think up the same story because human beings are basically the same the world over). Many anthropologists now support the theory that all modern humans are descended from one group of prehistoric people in Africa. If it can be imagined that these original humans had stories, this theory could unite the "oral transmission" and the "ethnogenesis" ideas: all people arose in Africa and spread to the rest of the world taking their stories with them.
Examination of the Remarkable Servants stories can also allow children to discover the link between these fairy and folk tales and the literature of modern superheroes. At this point in the discussion the children can be asked to imagine that they had some impossible task to do and could accept help from some remarkable person. Asking them to specify who in modern popular literature they would like to have help them quickly elicits a superhero like Superman. The class can then use the squares on the chart to describe modern superheroes. It is interesting to note that while they share the same characteristics as the fairy tale servants, modern superheroes have lost the comic aspect of the old characters and take themselves much more seriously.
Remarkable Servant Stories:
Aardema, Verna, trans. and retel. The Riddle of the Drum. Four Winds Press, 1979.
Chase, Richard. The Jack Tales. Houghton Mifflin, 1943. ("Hardy Hardhead")
Cheng Hou Tien, Six Chinese Brothers. Holt, 1979. (Or see below a newer version by Mahy)
Grimm Brothers, "The Six Servants" in The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. Pantheon, 1972. (Note: This story may also be found in other collections with slight variations in title. In any complete Grimm's it will always be #134.)
McDermott, Gerald. Anansi The Spider. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
Mahy, Margaret. The Seven Chinese Brothers. Scholastic, 1989.
Ransome, Arthur. The Fool of the World and The Flying Ship. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. The High Deeds of Finn McCool. E.P. Dutton, l967. ("Finn and the Young Hero's Children") (Note: this book is out of print and hard to find. Email me if you have difficulty finding it.)
If you have questions or comments about any of the material offered here, please email Carole at carole at slattery dot com