Jane Yolen and Raul Colón (illustrator), Mightier Than The Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys (Harcourt, 2003)

"It is not only the sword that wields power, but also the mind, the heart, and the will." (from the cover)

Standing around the virtual water cooler in the GMR break room recently — in between suggesting names for the newest pet cat, fish, and cars, and swapping recipes for Guinness cakes, which are perhaps more normally our water cooler discussion topics — staff members brought forth their thoughts on fairy and folk tales that taught them things (both true and occasionally not so true) in their childhood years.

Deborah Brannon remembers that "The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, taught me that if you weren't true to yourself, you'd come to a hard end. Of course, it also taught me that you always had a choice to become true to yourself once more before the end."

The Golden Key by George MacDonald presented Grey Walker with a life changing viewpoint in her childhood. "The imagery was strange, but it felt right somehow. It's probably changed my life in that I've never been satisfied with the 'ordinary' world. I've always been looking for luminous moments. The Golden Key convinced me that it was possible to find them, and I've never stopped believing it."

"I've always kept in mind how, in fairy tales, old crones or dirty beggars or animals in dire straits tend to approach the questor," contributed Maria Nutick. "Those who treat these interlopers badly come to bad ends; those who treat them respectfully and render them assistance generally receive important advice or help in the quest. It helped form my strong belief in karmic backlash, as well as teaching me to look for help from unexpected sources."

Me, it took a long time to get over that whole 'brunette was boring and dutiful' and 'blonde was glamorous and would get the man' thing, even though I was born at a time when women were loudly announcing that they didn't even need the man. As an oldest, I was also severely annoyed that the oldest sister was always either greedy or nasty or fated to be passed by for her younger sister.

Jane Yolen understands the power of fairy and folk stories to teach and mold. "I was a fairy tale reader as a child," she recently e-mailed me. "There were three that resonated most with me, from the Grimm collection (though the first might also be a Russian story): "Little Brother, Little Sister" because it spoke directly to me and my relationship with my own younger brother; "Faithful John" which is about speaking truth to power; and "Three Little Men in the Wood" in which one girl is rewarded with diamonds coming out of her mouth and one with toads, surely a writer's story."

Much admired by the staff of GMR, the prolific Yolen (award winning author of countless books of fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults) has long used her ability to touch everyday happenings with an unexpected magic, and for bringing the bizarre and outré into the realm of the believable, to write books of extraordinary power. She is also a writer's writer, aiding and abetting the joys and magic of the written word in books and essays for those writers who would emulate her ability to bring the wonder and magic of a tale to the fore.

As a child, I discovered that Yolen is the sort of author who can perform that alchemy that marks the best writers of fairy tales and fantasy: when I'd raised my eyes from the book and went about my business, I discovered that new possibilities existed behind everything.

Jane Yolen's Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys (illustrated by Raul Colón) is a pleasantly diverse collection of folk tales, each teaching the value of strength and power without resorting to force. Similar to her collection for girls (Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls), the retellings of these fables are enjoyable, written and formatted to be easily read out loud, and lovingly researched. They are moral fables for modern tastes and cultural mores.

Beginning with an open letter from Nana Yolen to her sons and grandson, Yolen points out that "Hero is about being clever, learning from your mistakes, being kind and compassionate, and finding good friends. Picking up a sword doesn't make you a hero — sticking to your word does."

She follows the letter up with fourteen folk tales that make her points well.

From a Chinese tale of a stolen magic brocade ("A hero's knees do not buckle at the first problem") to an Israeli fable of comparative giving ("Who gives the most gets the most") and a Finnish variant of the fox/cat helper tale ("Who can withstand a brave heart, a strong faith, and a sly friend?") the moral fables here are fit to be squirreled away into memory, to be brought out when needed.

Each retelling is stuffed with all the elements of a good story, multi-dimensional and well rounded. A child (or for that matter, an adult) will take away from each telling what they will, as the moral, provided under the title of each story, will not necessarily be the only thing they can learn. Throughout, though, Yolen largely manages to avoid the sort of moral freighting found in so much of the body of fairy and folk tales for children, particularly of Victorian vintage, that caused P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and noted folklore commentator, to write "...[T]his is blackmail. And the children know it, and say nothing. There's magnanimity for you." While no short moral fable can be particularly subtle without risking the necessary obvious conclusion, Yolen does a decent job of telling the story first.

Enjoyably, each tale is also written with a different voice, depending upon the country of origin, the nature of the tale, and occasionally Yolen uses traditional elements of different cultures, such as the Angolan way of finishing a story by using three different sayings, all of which mean 'I am finished.' The language is as supple and engaging as is expected from Yolen's pen, singing with wit and grace.

The black and white illustrations of Raul Colón, one per story, are heavily cross-hatched and textured, deceptively simple and free in line, yet richly evocative of each tale's atmosphere and feel. For those of us who love fonts and bookmaking, the book is set in a fairly large scale Meridien Roman, and is a satisfying weight and size. One possible impedence to easy reading aloud is that pronunciations are not given: how do you pronounce Lukala? Ngonga? Kingungu? Diabu? As my father was wont to say, you'll have to go look it up.

The other end of the book is punctuated with an open letter to Nana Yolen from her sons and grandson. They end by pointing out that "girls need to read these tales, too. Because while we know boys using brainpower instead of firepower can be heroes, girls need to know it as well."

I regret to say that I was always the sort of child who actually enjoyed reading the annotations and author's notes, almost as much as the stories themselves, and this is still true today. (My copy of the annotated Alice was falling apart by the time I was ten.) Yolen does not disappoint in this regard either; her notes are satisfying, often amusing, and illuminating. The bibliography also provides plenty of further material to explore.

[Zina Lee]

Yolen's Web site is full of excellent
resources, comments, and other information. Do read other reviews of
this author's work here at GMR.