Helpful Animals and Compassionate Humans in Folklore

Animals of all kinds feature in rituals, legends and folk tales throughout world culture, reflecting the curiosity humans have always had about other species with which they share the earth … and the desire to share the remarkable powers of other species."

(David Pickering, "Animals." A Dictionary of Folklore. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1999. 10-11.)>

Unlike Aesop's fables, which involve strictly animal characters and illustrate a particular moral truth, in folklore the relationship between humans and animals is often a central theme. There are numerous helpful animal tale types, such as animal nurses who rear great heroes after they have been abandoned as infants, and beasts that lend supernatural aid to humans. Characteristic of these tales is the animal characters' power of speech and the presence of other distinctly human attributes. Often they are believed to possess great wisdom, which they impart to a struggling human.

Through examining several examples of helpful animal tales from around the world, students will learn about humans living in cooperation with the land and sea and with the beasts that inhabit them. In many helpful animal tales, the animal only offers its aid in return for a kindness done by or promised by a human. The cooperation between humans and animals, then, is seen to be mutually beneficial, as the animal's life is often spared, the human's living situation is improved in some way and, in some cases, the animal is transformed into a human as a result of kindness it has done or has received.

Guiding Questions

What is a folktale?

What are particular characteristics of helpful animal folktales?

What roles do the humans play in helpful animal stories (human in distress, compassionate hunter, seeker/companion)?

 

What are the conditions for animal transformation?

Learning Objectives

Define folktales and identify elements of helpful animal stories

Recognize the animals' various motivations for helping humans; sometimes aid is given selflessly, and sometimes the animals offers aid only in return for a favor or service provided by the human. Students should be able to provide textual examples of each case.

Recognize the various types of aid animals give, and give specific textual examples. Distinguish between an animal with natural abilities and an animal with supernatural abilities.

Discuss what happens if the human is grateful for the animal's aid and the consequences for being ungrateful.

 

Compare and contrast themes, characters, conflicts, and outcomes of helpful animal tales from different cultures by filling out the story charts and noticing similarities in stories from different cultures.