Through the Water Curtain, & Other Global Folktales

It’s no surprise that we might have a penchant for folklore here at Breathing Books…after all, the Reckless series, and so many of Cornelia’s magical stories, draw from folk and fairytales! While many of us are most familiar with Anglo-centric and European folklore, all around the world there are rich oral traditions, magical stories, and centuries of lore told by firesides. Through the Water Curtain (Pushkin Press), an anthology of global folktales curated by Cornelia Funke, explores folklore from oral traditions in Japan, Siberia, Germany, and beyond.

Here are just a few folktales from around the world that we’ve grown to love:

The Moon Maiden

The Moon Maiden is a Japanese story of filial piety, in which an old bamboo-cutter finds a fairy child, the Moon Maiden, while out cutting bamboo. The bamboo-cutter and his wife, having no children of their own, love and dote on the Moon Maiden, who grows into a beautiful young woman. After three years exiled to earth by her father, the King of the Moon, the Moon Maiden has fallen in love with her foster parents and grown into a young woman with a doting suitor. Called back to her true home on the moon, she must leave the human family she’s grown to love.

The Wolf Queen

In this South African myth, Amina, a woodcutter’s daughter, is in love with a handsome young wazir. Her beauty catches the lecherous eye of a sultan, who plots to kidnap and marry her. To help her, the wazir gives Amina a magic ring and a wolf’s pelt, and tells her to wear the pelt, rub the ring, and say an incantation when the sultan next returns. When she does this, Amina turns into a wolf, but forgets the spell to return to her human form, so she must return to the wazir to be set free.

The Eagle and the Whale

This Inuit folktale is the story of two sisters in a large family of sons. The sisters, not wanting to marry, turn down their brothers’ urging to take husbands and are eventually forced to marry (like the title may suggest) an eagle and a whale, who take them to desolate ledges of rock to make their homes. Both women set about trying to return to their families, and eventually the brothers realize that they miss their sisters (and shouldn’t force their siblings into marriages), and try to help them return home.

Jólakötturinn, the Icelandic Yule Cat

This is one of a pantheon of Icelandic Christmas monsters, including the terrifying Christmas ogress Grýla, who eats naughty children; her sons, the Yule Lads, and their pet cat! Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, is a giant feline who stalks the countryside and devours people who aren’t wearing new clothing on Christmas Eve. This folktale encouraged families, employers, and those with means to gift new clothes to friends, families, and those who were less fortunate during the cold Icelandic winter.

Befana the Witch

In Italy, the holiday tradition extends past Christmas and well into January with the folk story of Befana the Witch, a Saint Nicolas-type figure who gives children gifts in the twelve days following Christmas. According to Italian lore, Befana was an old Italian woman who lived alone. The three Wise Men, on their pilgrimage to Baby Jesus, knocked on Befana’s door for directions. While she didn’t know the way, Befana offered the wise men a place to rest, and as thanks they invited her to join them. Befana sets out to follow them but, by the time she’s packed all her presents for the journey, their tracks have been blown away in the snow. Without directions to Gesu Bambino, Befana walks from house to house, leaving presents for all the Italian children in the days leading up to the Feast of the Epiphany.

What are your favorite folk and fairytales from around the world?