“Impossible Tasks” in Folklore: Wondrous Tradition Spanning Continents

When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the Kingdom” (Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas).

In many folklore traditions, mythologies and fairy-tales around the world, characters have to overcome or endure certain trials as a penance, to prove their worth (to marry a princess, for example), break a curse or claim their ultimate prize. These trials may be extremely hard (The Labours of Hercules) or even impossible to overcome or solve. At one end, there are riddles to be guessed, such as the famous riddle of the Sphinx from the Greek mythology (“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and no legs at night?”) or the puzzles in the stories of Persian poet Nizami, which also found their way to Puccini’s opera Turandot, but another extreme is a truly impossible task set to frighten and confuse characters or heroes. These paradoxical, “undoable” commands often have a wondrous effect.

King Heimer and Aslaug [1856] by Johan August Malmström
Continue reading ““Impossible Tasks” in Folklore: Wondrous Tradition Spanning Continents”

“Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles

To complement my previous post that was about books featuring identical twins, I am presenting this list of 7 books that feature doppelgängers and look-alike people. Doppelgängers or doubles sometimes appeared in folklore and paranormal stories and, famously, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer, saw his identical self on horseback. The way literature deals with this phenomenon is also curious, giving rise to very thought-provoking and interesting psychological situations, with characters or narrators sometimes questioning their own identity. In that vein, short stories by Edgar Alan Poe (William Wilson [1839]), Henry James (The Jolly Corner [1908]) and by Guy de Maupassant (La Horla [1887]) all focused on this theme, and this situation involving the meeting of two look-alike people also appeared in such novels as Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities [1859] and in Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat [1957].

white castle pamukI. The White Castle [1984] by Orhan Pamuk

In this book, Turkish author and Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk introduces a young Italian scholar who becomes a prisoner in the Ottoman Empire. He meets Hoja (the master) and it soon becomes apparent that both men are virtually identical to each other in appearance. Fiercely intelligent, uncanny and mythical, The White Castle may a short novel, but it astutely portrays a curious situation whereby the two men grapple with each other, each other’s identities, each other’s knowledge and with their respective countries’ histories and cultures. Continue reading ““Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles”

A Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland

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This November I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, enjoying the medieval city centre in particular and exploring the city’s history and literary tradition. Below are my highlights from this fantastic trip (all photos are mine).

IMG_0738[9128]I. Edinburgh Castle

Situated on the Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle “has been the centre of Scottish life for more than 900 years, serving as a royal palace, arsenal, gun foundry, state prison and infantry barracks”. Now, it hosts a number of museums, showcasing Scotland’s rich, complicated and dramatic history. I thought the experience of Edinburgh Castle was just amazing, and it is worth its entry price. There is much to explore inside, from the Royal Palace (where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI), the magnificent Great Hall and the museum that preserves the crown jewels to the National War Museum, Museum of the Royal Scots and the new barracks. Continue reading “A Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland”