Charles Downing’s Armenian Folk-tales and Fables

6Naomi de Bruyn penned this review.

Armenia is a land which has been ravaged by war on far too many occasions. Other nations keep turning it into a battlefield, and tearing it apart. These tales have survived for many generations in the only way possible, through word of mouth. They were told and retold during the long hard winters, told in the coffee houses for entertainment, and have survived just as the Armenian people have survived.

These are a very shrewd people, and this is mirrored in a number of the tales and in the proverbs. The proverbs are often told in a humorous manner, but there is still a truth in them. There are a total of 28 folk tales, 35 fables, and 8 pages of proverbs in this oversized paperback. This adds up to a few hours of reading, and all of it enjoyable.

A handful of the tales are similar or identical to the ones I read in the Georgian Yes and No Stories. There are ‘devis’ instead of evil witches, and humanoid beasts with one or more heads that have a taste for death and destruction. Animals seem to play a big part in tales from this region of the world. I’ve run across tigers, monkeys, foxes, wolves, horses, donkeys, dogs, and cats which all have had the ability to speak and solve problems for the inept humans, or do them wrong, of course.

This book is somewhat different from the other books I’ve read in that the dates of the earliest recordings of all the tales and fables are included with the story. It is rather fascinating to see where and when a tale came from, and how much it can still mirror life in this day and age. Some of these stories have dates in the 1800s, when they stopped being word of mouth and were written down.

“The Red Cow” is a bit of a twist on Hansel and Gretel combined with Cinderella. The evil stepmother is a prominent figure, and the red cow ends up helping the children in some very interesting ways. This tale was recorded c. 1914 in Maku, N.W. Persia. Like most of the tales, it has a happy outcome, for all but the stepmother, of course.

Another which caught my attention is “The Illiterate Priest.” I’ve not heard one similar to this, yet, and was highly amused. One of the priest’s faithful flock decided to prove that the good father was illiterate, once and for all. In order to do so, he pretended to be dead. What follows is a brief but rather commonsense tale which will have you chuckling at the ineptitude of all parties involved. This particular tale was recorded in 1939, as it was told by 63-year-old Ervand Thorosian in the village of Mughni, which is in the province of Ayrarat.

Out of all of the proverbs, the one which gave me the most pause for thought was a simple one, “He who speaks the truth must have his horse at the door and a foot in the stirrup.” When you really think about this one, how many people really want to hear the truth? When you think about it, not many. And if you are completely honest at all times, you will find yourself very alone and in need of a quick escape now and again. People have feelings, and the truth will sooner or later hurt!

Charles Downing has done a wonderful job of retelling these old tales, fables, and proverbs. This book is certain to give you something to think about as you read it, and even afterwards when you find a parallel between something you’ve read in the book and something in your own life. And you will be certain to come across one, at one time or other in your life. It is a fascinating book, and the shrewdness and adaptability of the people is not lost, but preserved forever.

 (Oxford Universit


About Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we’ve done the centuries.