John Bierhorst, editor,
Latin American Folktales
(Pantheon, 2002)

Folklore collecting is a tricky mission. Original tales are rare, being mostly influenced by a small distinctive body of story types, and it's a lucky folklorist indeed who hears a story without being able to find its companion in any child's collection of fairytales. You have to travel away from Europe to find something fresh, and John Bierhorst has boldly gone to explore Latin American Folktales to create a "collection unrivaled in size and scope."

Unfortunately, most of the boldness is used in the hyperbolic cover text. Faced with a sadly underexplored body of folklore and myth, Bierhorst chooses to fill the main part of his book with translated fairy tales and reworked Old World hearth stories. The first and final chapters of the book prove that he is at least somewhat familiar with the depth of stories offered by actual Latin American culture, but the should-be central chapter, "A Twentieth Century Wake," shows little of the diversity offered in the other chapters.

The derivative nature of the later folktales raises questions about the methods of the researchers. Latin America has its own culture, with folk heroes and modern myths free for the hearing from any decent storyteller, but the emphasis here is almost exclusively on altered European folktales. Bierhorst admits in the introduction that stories have been chosen to align with European themes, but that choice makes the volume poorer as a representative of Latin American culture and suggests a disturbing bias in folklore studies. These transplanted tales sometimes have an amusing addition or interesting cultural accent. But there's only so many times a reader can see the good sister/bad sister tale without drifting to sleep, and those familiar with European folktales will often find themselves trudging through "Wake" for little reward.

Bookending this large section are stories from other times, "Early Colonial Legends" and "Twentieth Century Myths." Though comparatively slim, these sections offer the real meat of the book, Latin American and Indian folklore distinct from European stories. There is often still a European influence, but here it's absorbed by the native culture, rather than dominating it. "Early Colonial Tales" especially has a variety of rare stories, including some fading pre-colonial myths, that almost create a Latin American Genesis story. Here are stories of the pre-Colombian empires, the gods and demons and kings that made the world before Europe left its mark, and even the world ending conflicts of the first white contact. There's even a retelling of the actual Genesis story, for those interested, abbreviated and given the timeless, straightfaced attitude of folklore.

"Twentieth Century Myths" offers simpler stories, from the tall tale and folk hero part of the folklore world as well as the grander stories promised in the chapter's name. Here is the story of tobacco, and why it grows near houses. Here too are tales about the animal heroes of Latin America, the soaring condor princes and clever dogs and quick hummingbirds. There are also three versions of the world's origins, pressing grandly against a small tale of rebellious cookware. While these stories bump against Old World myths in places, it's clearly a case of parallel evolution rather than cultural retouching, and invites a more involved look at the stories in question.

Bierhorst deserves credit for the sheer effort behind Latin American Folktales. It is a very broad collection, representing an enormous amount of translating, researching and editing. The first and last sections between them might even justify the purchase of the book to the more dedicated folklorists among us; there are some tales hard or impossible to otherwise find in English. But the small collection of rare Latin American folktales here only makes it clear how much more depth the genre possesses. Latin America's answer to the Grimm Brothers still awaits creation. For now, we're lucky to have a few more Latin American Folktales.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 23 April 2005

Buy it from