In popular children’s tales like “The Turnip” by Aleksei Tolstoy, we’re introduced to settings and characters through the barest of details. Often the characters are nameless.
Once upon a time, an old man planted a turnip.. “
I wonder what he looked like and what his wife called him – “Husband,” “Dearie,” or “Thomas?”
What was he wearing? Did he have a favourite shirt that he wore all week?
What was he good at? What did he dislike?
What was his favourite food? Was he fond of cooking?
Did he have a favoured pet? What was it’s name? How did he treat it?
Up until the turnip appeared, what was he most proud of in his garden?
Did he talk to the plants, or sing to them all? (Did they talk back?) Did he have a favourite garden song? (He did? He taught it to a friend who taught it to Pete Seegar.)
Answers to questions like these can make characters seem real. All those kinds of details add up. These invented answers don’t go into my telling of the story. While I may have them in my mind’s eye and in the way I feel towards them, I try to hold a sense of their personality as I tell. As I begin the story, they’re there, ready to participate in the tale, as large as life.
Of course, Nasreddin Hodja (A tricky character to understand, I’ve found, for he always had an answer to any question.) had heard the story of The Turnip. He liked to tell it dramatically to children in the square, extolling the virtues of vegetables, and engaging the audience in the action. The children loved acting out the tale over and over again.
One afternoon, after one such telling, he went home for a sack. Then he climbed over a neighbour’s wall, for he’d seen into their abundant garden, with its row upon row of leafy greens – beets, cabbage, kale.
“Come to me, my beauties!” he cried, as he started quickly filling the sack. Half way up a row of kale, his neighbour suddenly appeared at his back door shouting, “What are you doing here!”
“That Shamal blew me here!” protested Hodja, holding his sides as he straightened up.
“I hear or see no wind! So who pulled up my vegetables?”
“Didn’t I have to grab what I could … to stop me from being blown away?”
“Oh yes? So how do you account for your sack being full of my vegetables?”
“Funny you should ask that. I was just pondering that myself … when you startled me by shouting so loudly.”
A group of children walking home from school, spied him lying there and ran up, calling, “Hodja! Here! Give us your hands. We know how to pull you up!”
[Adapted from Strange that you should ask … In Shah, Idries. The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasreddin. Picador. 1975: 44.]
Shamal: a summer northwesterly wind blowing over Iraq and the Persian Gulf, often strong during the day, but decreasing at night. http://windlegends.org/windnames.htm
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