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Reviewed by:
  • Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World
  • Stephen Canham (bio)
Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World. Edited by Jane Yolen. New York: Penguin, 1999. 227 pp.

"Oh well a Touch of Grey / Kind of suits you anyway / That was all I had to say / It's all right"—I'll bet Jane Yolen knows and even hums these lyrics from the Grateful Dead's 1982 anthem, "Touch of Grey." If her recent collection of elder tales ever needs a theme song, this would be it, because both Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World and the Dead recognize and celebrate the process of "going gray." In contemporary youth-saturated American culture, a culture in which Britany Spiers probably has better name recognition than the Dalai Lama, it is refreshing and reassuring to find that cultures worldwide have recognized, revered, and celebrated the wisdom and vitality of their elders. Yolen's collection of seventy-five tales spans geographies, nationalities, and religions, literally from A (Palestinian Arab) to Z (Zimbabwe). There are tall tales, wonder tales, tales of origin, tales of danger and desire, all focusing on protagonists who are considerably older than anyone on the cast of Friends or currently playing professional sports. (An aside: On the idea of elder sports beyond lawn bowling and shuffleboard, note the video Surfing for Life: Still Stoked and Surfing in Their 70's, 80's, and 90's.)

Yolen opens with a lengthy introduction, but it is not a scholarly treatise. Instead, befitting her stature as a master storyteller, she tells stories of her own aging and then finds cognates in stories from other cultures, which she embeds in the introduction. She does mention motif indices now and then, especially in "Notes for Stories" at the end of the book, but the audience for the collection is general, not scholarly—although specialists will enjoy the truly impressive breadth of Yolen's selection. Readers familiar with European folk- and art-tale tradition will find redactions of various familiar tales: e.g., "The Emperor's New Clothes" gets an Appalachian treatment in "The Two Old Women's Bet" (United States) and Cupid and Psyche immigrate to the tundra [End Page 105] in "A Tale of Two Old Women" (Eskimo), which has overtones of "Bluebeard," as well.

Yolen divides the tales into four categories: Wisdom, Trickery, Adventure, and closes sweetly with And a Little Bit of Love. The categories overlap, but the point is not to fix them with pins in their backs. The earliest datable tale seems to be Ovid's "Baucis and Philomon," and I doubt that many of the others originated after 1850. The Industrial Revolution seems to be in the future for most of these tales, let alone post-IR information technology. People travel not in Lexuses, but, astoundingly, on foot. Candles, those quaint trappings of seduction and power failures, are actually used in lieu of halogen torchières. Humans and animals talk to each other, and travel to the moon is not a matter for NASA, but simply the outcome of a wish. Spirit, in other words, is alive and well in these tales, and Palm Pilots are light years away.

There are, of course, other collections of tales about elders, notably Allan Chinen's In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life (1989), Angela Carter's The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book (1990), Heather Forest's Wisdom Tales from Around the World (1996), or Elisa Davy Pearmain's Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World (1998), but these have specific foci (Jungian analysis, feminist point-of-view, spiritual motifs). Yolen encompasses and transcends such restrictions. Her tales range from stories about outwitting Death ("The Lord of Death," India) to a Promethean spider that brings fire to the world ("Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire," Native American/Choctaw) to the wisdom of restraint ("Hide Anger until Tomorrow," Suriname). There are stories from Iceland, Russia, Italy, Hawai'i; there are Eskimo tales, Jewish tales, Arab tales, Philippine tales, and Lithuanian tales. Not included, however, are Europe (although there are tales from Germany, Scotland, and England) Central and South America, Canada...


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pp. 105-107
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