The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale

The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale

The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale

The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale

Synopsis

The story of the Blind Man and the Loon is a living Native folktale about a blind man who is betrayed by his mother or wife but whose vision is magically restored by a kind loon. Variations of this tale are told by Native storytellers all across Alaska, arctic Canada, Greenland, the Northwest Coast, and even into the Great Basin and the Great Plains. As the story has traveled through cultures and ecosystems over many centuries, individual storytellers have added cultural and local ecological details to the tale, creating countless variations.

In The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale, folklorist Craig Mishler goes back to 1827, tracing the story's emergence across Greenland and North America in manuscripts, books, and in the visual arts and other media such as film, music, and dance theater. Examining and comparing the story's variants and permutations across cultures in detail, Mishler brings the individual storyteller into his analysis of how the tale changed over time, considering how storytellers and the oral tradition function within various societies. Two maps unequivocally demonstrate the routes the story has traveled. The result is a masterful compilation and analysis of Native oral traditions that sheds light on how folktales spread and are adapted by widely diverse cultures.

Excerpt

From a distance of miles and centuries, stories in the oral tradition seem to have an independent existence, drifting from place to place like species of animals over time and territory and gradually evolving from one form to another. Indeed, early folklorists and anthropologists sought to dissect and classify them in the same way that anatomists and taxonomists dissect and classify groups of animals. Later, Swedish folklorist Carl von Sydow (also known as the father of actor Max von Sydow) coined the term oicotype to describe local forms of a widely distributed folktale. His idea was that stories evolve and adapt to local conditions over time.

The Blind Man and the Loon is a remarkable work that traces a single story through Inuit and Athabaskan variations. It is clearly a labor of love. Craig Mishler has collected and told the story himself. At the same time, he also traces the contexts in which the story has been told, collected, adapted, and sometimes appropriated. While he uses the terminology of academic folklore, he does not rely exclusively on this rather hermetic language. He takes the reader on a shared journey of discovery and places himself within the narrative to do justice to the people he cites, both historical figures and ones he knows or has known personally. His comments on field technique reflect his own experience as storyteller and collector as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of the relevant literature. Knud Rasmussen comes out as exemplary. Franz Boas doesn’t do as well. Mishler is also forthright on the issue of cultural appropriation and doesn’t hesitate to point out the failings of the popular and often praised film The Loon’s Necklace. He tells a cautionary tale for outsiders contemplating the use of Native American oral narratives as “children’s literature.”

Mishler is a self-confessed collector who early on made the switch from coins to folktales. From there it was just another step to start collecting stories about storytellers and stories about the collectors of stories. He is also a gifted storyteller in his own right. He is schooled in the traditions of distributional and typological folklore, but he is also and perhaps primarily sensitive to the poetic values of storytelling.

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