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Telling Stories

Fairy Tales from South Africa

By J. B. Drake (Translated by E. J.Mrs. E. J. Bourhill)

3 Sep, 2018

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Mrs. E. J. Bourhill and Mrs. J. B. Drake’s 1908 Fairy Tales From South Africa is exactly what the title says: a collection of fairy tales from the peoples of South Africa. It is illustrated by W. Herbert Holloway. 

Not listed in the table of contents (at least in the epub version) is an introduction by the authors. In the process of contextualizing African stories for a white audience, the authors do a slam-bang (and almost certainly unintentional) job of contextualizing the authors and their audience for the 21st century, which is to say that they are revealed as a patronizing lot utterly convinced of their rightful place as Africa’s rulers. 

Setuli; or, the King of the Birds”:

A deaf and mute man escapes life as a despised cripple when a magic bird gives the man a path to speech and a kingdom of his own. 

The Story of the King’s Son and the Magic Song”

A moment of inattention allows his father’s enemies to steal all of the king’s cattle. The young prince is exiled until he can find some way to bring the cattle home. The quest will take years. 


The interval between the prince being warned not to do a thing that would end in all the cattle being stolen and him doing that very thing was quite short. 

The Story of the Little Birds who lived in a Cave”

Cunning allows small birds to overcome the brute who seeks to dominate them. 


Surely there is no political subtext in this. 

The Story of the Shining Princess”

Obsessed with hunting, a prince leaves his new bride-to-be unattended. When she is stolen by cannibals, he resolves to rescue her. 


Technically, the princess rescued herself from the cannibals, after which her husband stumbled over her. But A for Effort. I guess. This is another story where someone, having been warned not to do something, promptly does that very thing. 

The Rabbit Prince”

A bold rabbit wins for himself the love of a supernatural princess. Although she can make him a man, she cannot make her divine family love her husband. The couple and their allies are forced to carve out a kingdom of their own. 


While wooing his princess, the Rabbit Prince straight up murders one of his animal friends and feeds him to his bride-to-be. This has no untoward consequences. Well, except for the friend. 

The Unnatural Mother”

Mom uses a cunning ruse to steal all of her son’s food for herself. She is exposed and exiled. Her attempt to earn her way back into her son’s good graces has an unintended but amazing benefit. 


Being cursed by irritable sorcerers is common enough that rescuing people from curses is a frequent plot point. The odd thing is, a lot of the time … perhaps most of the time, protagonists free individuals and entire towns from curses entirely by accident. 

The Three Little Eggs”

An abused woman and her children flee an abusive man. Many dangers threaten them, but they might survive with the help of three magic eggs. 


The introduction to this story discusses the status of African women at this time. Generally, it’s bad (kings want warriors and since women are not warriors, baby girls are often killed out of hand). In the cultures with bride prices, women are at least seen as a potential revenue source for their fathers, but that doesn’t mean that their husbands will treat them all that well. Since domestic abuse is perfectly acceptable, one of the ways out is out. Sometimes wives run away. 

The Serpent’s Bride”

A young woman marries the King of Many Waters, not dissuaded by the fact the king is a giant (although well-spoken) serpent. Marriage casts off the wicked spell that hid the king’s true human form. The happy couple then overthrow a wicked king and take his land for their own. 

The Fairy Bird”

Childish curiosity leads two siblings to inadvertently free the magic bird that their parents had enslaved. They are exiled, but the bird that they freed leads them towards status and wealth. 

The Cock’s Kraal”

A great king’s greed provides the means for a cursed people to break an evil spell. 


Two beautiful half-sisters contend for good fortune. One relies on her looks to win a husband. The other conceals her face behind hideous baboon skins. Whoever wins her will be a man able to see past surface appearance. 


The two half-sisters marry the same king, as it happens. In the end, he’s well pleased with both his wives. He is best pleased with the princess who concealed herself. What she was hiding was that she was even more attractive than her beautiful sister. 

I bet having wives raised from birth to see the other as rivals is the sort of thing that leads to a tranquil, harmonious household. 

This bit caught my eye: 

[quote] Indeed their families were exactly alike, for each had a son and two daughters, one very pretty and the other plain. I cannot tell you what became of the plain daughters. No doubt they each had a history, but this tale concerns only the two beauties. [/quote]

Lamentably, this collection does not contain The Tale of the Two Plain Half-Sisters Whose Lack of Physical Beauty Meant They Did Not Get Used as Playing Pieces in Their Mothers’ Bitter Rivalry.” 

The Reward of Industry”

A fairy uses magic to ensure that her two adopted (human) daughters win suitable husbands. 

The Story of Semai-mai”

A wicked king becomes so confident in his power that he resolves to eat only human flesh. In short order he is cast down, transformed by a fairy into a monstrous, giant magical dog. The spell will be lifted if Semai-mai truly reforms. Which, being a thoroughly villainous fellow, he never does. 


Not all of Semai-mai’s soldiers are willing to go along with the cannibalism ploy, but those who refuse do not try to overthrow him. They simply allow themselves to be executed by those who will follow the king’s orders. 

Even when Semai-mai loses, he does pretty well for himself. Sure, he’s a dog, but for much of the story he is a giant, nigh-unstoppable beast. Even when he is isn’t, there’s a cannibal king willing to feed him table scraps. 

The Fairy Frog”

Targeted for death by jealous sisters, a superlatively beautiful woman is saved by a magic frog, a batrachian who is far more than the simple heroic talking frog he seems to be. 


Magical transformations are so common that persons wanting to eliminate the risk of inadvertent cannibalism might want to consider vegetarianism. 

Nya-nya Bulembu; or, the Moss-green Princess”

Loathed by her father for no particular reason, the princess is forced to wear the skin of a hideous magical beast, transforming her into a likeness of the beast. A kindly fairy gives her the magic she needs to regain her beauty and win a royal husband. Also, the king’s favorite daughter is carried off by birds. 


The abduction seems to have been intended to make the cruel king unhappy, not to punish the favoured daughter. She marries her own wealthy king and has a happy life. She’s far enough from home that her family never finds out what happened to her. 

The Enchanted Buck”

A bride is sent home in disgrace when her husband’s people conclude she must be cursed. In fact, she is not cursed; she has just become a character in the story of a prince who is. She must do her part to break the curse. 

The Beauty and the Beast”

A series of terrible decisions by a beautiful young woman allows an ogress to steal her likeness, transforming the princess into a beast. Forced to watch the ogre revel in her stolen beauty, the princess must use cunning to regain her true appearance. 


After which she marries a king. Kingdoms were very small and there are a lot of kings to go around. 

The White Dove”

A wealthy prince stumbles over a kingdom of the cursed. They are upstanding people turned by evil magic into a flock of birds. He undertakes the arduous task of breaking the spell. 


And then he marries the bird people’s princess. 

It’s interesting how often magical eucatastrophes of the unplanned sort feature in these stories. There are plucky heroes who win out thanks to a good heart and bold action, but also a fair number who just happen to be in the right place at the right time to de-curse a conveniently gendered member of the aristocracy. 

Fairy Tales is old enough to be in the public domain, hence scanned copies are legal. The epubs are filled with scannos but other versions are available at the Internet Archive.