Back in the late 1980’s, there was a wonderful TV series on HBO called The Storyteller, by Muppet creator Jim Henson. It was a weekly program that featured little-known European folktales. The productions were elaborate and fanciful, but sadly, the series was cancelled after 13 episodes. Thanks to YouTube, a new generation is enjoying these mini-masterpieces, which even Harry Potter fans might agree, were ahead of their time.
The YouTube shorts have generated awareness for this lost series, and now comic book publisher Archaia is releasing a new graphic novel based on the show, featuring other obscure tales from around the world— some that the late Henson never had a chance to produce. This is great news for upper elementary and middle school teachers! If it’s anything like the original, the book is sure to be worthwhile. It hits bookstore shelves next week!
If you want to get your hands on the original book based on the series, you can still find some used hard cover editions. Published in 1991 just after Henson’s death, The Storyteller was edited by Academy Award-winning producer Anthony Minghella, (The English Patient), who collaborated with Henson on the TV series. Ironically, both creative geniuses died in their early 50’s, but have left behind a legacy of inspiring work. Here are a few of the stories that should pique your students’ interests…you can even show these videos in class to kick off your fairy tale unit.
The Heartless Giant is an early German or Czech folktale (depending on who you ask) about a (literally) heartless giant, who terrorized the land before being captured and imprisoned. A young prince frees him, and sets out to find his heart. It’s Jack and the Beanstalk for older children.
The Soldier and Death is a story by author Arthur Ransome based on a Russian folktale. This story takes many twists and turns as a soldier returns from war and happens upon new-found wealth and fortune from a magic sack that has the power to trap anything the owner wishes. It is about making life choices, and the consequences that follow. This one is especially dark; recommended for fourth grade and up.
The Three Ravens is an old German folktale about a princess who takes a vow of silence for three years in order to break the spell that an evil witch has cast on her brothers. It is not difficult to keep the secret, that is, until she falls in love.
Folktales and fairy tales expose outdated conventions, biases and stereotypes. They are indicative of a moment in time, and serve as cultural relics, as does all literature. Teachers can make fascinating use of a fairy tale/folktale unit by examining old European tales and comparing them to contemporary children’s literature. Teachers can ask students to re-write popular folktales/fairy tales that better reflect their own world view: Perhaps Little Red Riding Hood should’ve employed the buddy system in the woods?
By the way, folktales make excellent read-alouds. Have fun exploring all forms of literature with good humor in your classroom.
Stay tuned: Holiday reading gift suggestions for parents, to come!