September 11, 2012

Power in Simplicity: The Tale of Saugak, By Josh Medsker

Editor's Note: I love it when fairy tales and folklore aren't solely focused on the well-known classics (as terrific as they are). Josh Medsker provides a glimpse into a small, but powerful story from the Eskimo tradition in this guest post.

 was poking around online the other day looking for Eskimo myths, researching my Arctic heritage, and I came across something very disturbing. It was a tale about a man named Saugak who, traveling and hungry, is forced into cannibalism by a demented rich man. I researched further and found that this translation of the story was by Henry Rink from his 1875 book, “Traditions and Tales of the Eskimo.” What shocked me was the irony inherent in this story and how rich it was with metaphor, even though it was only a few sentences long.

I wondered, what is it that makes this tale so powerful? It wasn’t the writing itself, which, frankly, is pretty unspectacular—although, to be fair, I only read the Rink translation (I don’t know how to read Inuit). I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the back-story of Saugak and why the rich man forced him to eat.
Here is the Rink text:

Saugak had a quarrel with his brother and fled. He came to a house of such length that a man could wear out the soles of his boots wandering from one end to the other. The master of the house had a crowd of daughters, and an immense stock of provisions. He ordered meat to be served up for Saugak, and forced him to eat. When Saugak declared that he was satiated, his host went on to point his knife at his eyes, saying that as long as he could twinkle them he could also eat. When he finally left off twinkling they served up dried human flesh before him. (Rink)

I set about writing my own version of the story, a three-page play. It’s pretty solid, but I still don’t think it has the power of the original story. The only material I added to my version was psychological reasoning, which is clearly missing from the original. But I started to wonder… do we need the gaps filled in for us? The dramatic arc was already there, sketched out ever so slightly—and I think that might be where the power of this story lies. It has more than a whiff of mystery, because it gives virtually nothing away. The reader is forced to imagine everything, to picture what the house looks like, to picture what the characters look like, to see and smell the human flesh about to be eaten. The mind is filled with disgusting images! There is enough to “hang your hat on,” so to speak, and that’s what gives it universality—the taboo of cannibalism, the dark humor. This story holds up. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, and other distractions, that’s a pretty amazing feat.

Sources:

Rink, Henry. Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo. SacredTexts.com. N.D. Web. Accessed 6 Aug, 2012. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/inu/tte/tte2-137.htm>

Josh Medsker is a New Jersey-based writer originally from Alaska. His work has appeared in many publications and anthologies.

Editor's Note, Part Two: You definitely want to check out Josh's play based on Saugak's story. You can find it at http://www.twentyfourhoursonline.com/2012/08/saugak-and-rich-man-re-telling-of.html
Josh's site is fun in general, so plan to stay awhile.


9 comments

  1. That is quite the fascinating mix of stuff on Josh's website!

    I find this tale to be quite horrific (which is funny for me to say because I've penned a riff on a traditional fairytale subbing in a cannibal as one of the main characters). I wonder about the context in which it's told traditionally in the Inuit culture.

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  2. This was a great read. I love hearing old folktales and traditions from that part of the world.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this intriguing tale! (New to me.)

    I like your point about the story arc and how we can fill in the gaps ourselves. (I noted some related points just a few days ago on my own blog.) I think we sometimes get too obsessed with filling in those details in our modern, verbose storytelling. Part of the power of these folktales is their ability to carry us through with the smallest of suggestions.

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  4. Josh, I think you took a few lines and did a nice job at pointing out how the reader has to fill in the blanks of the story. I would agree with you that this story holds some weight in this modernized world with Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies. I am definitely going to check out the play you wrote about this story.
    Although the book is not set in absolute ancient times, I think there is certain level of cultural respect that goes into play here in Rink’s story. I would like to think that eating human flesh may have been a symbol rather than cannibalism in the story. Rink’s [wealthy] characters may have been a royal family and the culture is that you never turn down food from staying with a guest. In this case the master may have been grossly offended by Saugak and threatened him because of his “unappreciative” attitude. Either way, I think a play portraying this story would be great. I’ll check out your play online.

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  5. i was wondering about the story's context too... one of the reasons i wanted to write about it so much is that there was so little information about Rink, about the story's background, and so on.

    it's really interesting how fairy tales seem to be dominating popular culture right now. i have often wondered why. still not sure, but i think the primacy (if that's the right word) is appealing to us, in this age of overload.


    anyway...

    thank you for your comments, everyone! I hope you enjoyed the rest of the site too, and will tell your friends about it. --josh

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  6. Fairytales can be perceived in many ways. If one thesis or conclusion doesn’t seem necessarily right, there is absolutely nothing to worry about, because you can still come up with many more probabilities as to what the fairytale is really trying to portray. Not only can one have their own thoughts about a fairytale’s message behind it, but can also be related to songs.
    “White Horse,” by Taylor swift. I definitely made a strong connection in the movie “Snow White,” I could picture not just the actions but also Snow White’s thoughts as I heard this song. It talks about herself feeling stupid for believing that one day her prince was going to sweep her off her feet, but that it wasn’t going to happen because her life was not a fairytale. I feel that Snow White felt hopeless and foolish forever thinking that one day the prince would ever notice her. At the end of the movie when the prince comes to her rescue, it’s too late because she had already been poisoned by the mean old witch. I don’t think I could have picked a better song to relate it to Snow White, also considering the fact that Taylor Swift is a great song writer herself.


    Diana H.

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  7. I am a huge fan of Inuit tales. The violence and gore are attractive and I wish I could understand the "context" but there is something primal and moving. Excellent post!

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  8. Horror is one of my favorite genres for books. The best psychological horrors are the ones that never give a reason for why the maniac does what he does. When I witness horror or read about it in the news, there is always a burning curiosity to know more about what happened and why. It's a hook. I always want to know what drives a person to do horrible things. Even more, I want to know how the people in that maniacs life can let it happen, if they do know whats happening. I think a good psychological horror is one that turns the readers insight inward. That might be were real fear comes from. Delving into what makes you tick and asking yourself for what reason could I do these horrible things. My opinion is to keep the blanks blank, and force the audience to question themselves why. I've never read any Inuit tales, but after reading this article and some of the comments here I definitely want to read this book by Rink.

    Adam B.

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  9. I have to respectively disagree with of you in the fact that the story is good with such little detail. I found it kind of hard to read with the lack of details that it has. I can let go of the fact that it doesn't explain the reasoning between the fight between the two brothers. and I can give little care about the details of the house, but what gets me is so little detail on two things. Why did the wealthy man feed this hungry soul human flesh and where in the world did he get the human flesh to feed this person to begin with? Those two questions leave me feeling unsatisfied knowing that they are left unanswered and I want to know. Does the rich man get his jollies from feeding people other people and does he secretly have a basement filled with people just waiting to get gutted whenever he has a gust over? These kinds of questions leave me feeling like this story is incomplete, because it kind of is. Who knows, maybe something is lost in the translation.
    TJ

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