"Help us, Great Old Man," they pleaded. "You've given us bright feathers, but we want to sing beautifully as well."
"That's being greedy," Apaipaiyek chided. "That's not nice at all. You want to have lovely feathers and beautiful songs. That'll leave nothing for the others."
The birds talked this over among themselves and then said, "Let us exchange. We'll give the northern lights the colors of our feathers, and you give us the northern lights' songs. They don't need them as much as we do, because no one listens to them anyway. When they roam the sky at night, all the beasts and all the people are sound asleep. No one will ever change this order of things."
The birds finally had their way. Although ever since then the northern lights have been all the colors of the rainbow, lighting up the sky at night, there is no sound to all this bright beauty. But the plain-looking birds of the tundra sing songs that are cheerful and gay. (p. 18)
Why is the sky blue? Why do chipmunks have stripes down their backs? Why do some animals look so beautiful and sound so ugly? What is the order of life? How did we come to be? These questions have been asked in thousands of languages ever since the raven Kutkha defecated and created the islands and continents and urinated to create the seas, rivers, and lakes. What, you haven't heard that story before? What about how Dog was looking for a friend, but all but Man would run away when he started to bark and howl?
In the age of video games and global releases for cinema adaptations of superhero comics, so much of our diverse treasuries of folklore and myths risk being buried in that avalanche of processed and sanitized rehashings of a certain few mythological concepts. Already anthropomorphic animal tales have been relegated to the infant/children's section, with little thought given to the complexities or the wisdom contained within these tales. Growing up in the American South in the late 1970s and 1980s, my generation was likely the last one to have the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear read to them (both the Joel Chandler Harris version of the Uncle Remus stories and the more honest and nuanced Afro-Southern tales that Zora Neale Hurston recorded in the 1920s and 1930s); too often these are now sanitized to the point of them being nigh-meaningless to both children and adults alike. After all, these tales contain some dangerous truths to them when considered more carefully.
Yet I was fortunate enough to have heard them and to be reminded of them in the intervening thirty years or so. I learned that it is hard to understand a culture if you do not grasp at least some of the stories that they tell to each other and the wisdoms that they pass down to younger generations through the medium of stories. Therefore, when Dunja made me aware a couple of weeks ago of this book of Soviet era tales, Kutkha the Raven, that retold the folklore of the peoples of the Soviet Far North (the Chukchi, Nentsi, Eskimos, and others), I had to own a copy, especially considering that even before the Gorbachev-era glasnost, this book of native "fairy tales" had already been translated into English.
Illustrations often can make or break folklore adaptations. Kutkha the Raven benefits from the inspired illustrations of Evgenii Rachev, whose artwork brings to life the connections between the fabled lives of these animals of the Far North and our very real human concerns. His illustrations add greatly to the stories, reinforcing the morals contained within them while also serving as wondrous pictures that capture the attention of both children and adults alike. His detailed portraits, pictured above and to the left, are by themselves worthy of closer attention.
If there were any real flaw to Kutkha the Raven, it would be in the brevity of these stories. Although in the majority of the times, these 1-4 page stories capture the sense of the original storytellers' narrative approaches, there were times that it felt too abrupt, as if one were reading only the summary of an even grander tale. Much of this is due of course to the book's purpose, but there were still a few times where it felt that the story ended too abruptly, that there was more to be learned. Then again, that too could be a secondary point. After all, childhood adaptations sometimes leave their readers/listeners wanting more and for those few that remember this yearning, perhaps they in time will dig deeper and discover even more riches. In the interim, books such as Kutkha the Raven serve as gateways to traditional cultures and their concerns. Hopefully, these portals will not close in our lifetimes, as we would lose something that is worth so much more than any blockbuster movie could ever hope to provide.