July 18, 2016

Pourquoi Tales: Answers to 'Why?', By Susan Caroff


Pourquoi tales have been around since humans began to speak.  A popular genre of folk-literature, they are a staple of many classrooms and storytelling events.

There are pourquoi tales to explain almost all elements of the natural world, e.g., why the possum’s tale is bare and how the Grand Canyon was madePourquoi tales are sometimes called creation stories or how and why stories.  The how portion lies in the telling of the tale itself.  How did the tiger come to have his beautiful stripes?   The porcupine her quills?

Introductions to pourquoi tales begin, like many narratives, ” A long, long time ago..." and conclude with a statement about why something is the way it is now.

Animals and other creatures can talk and main characters often get their comeuppance.  Other tales have no moral and are told purely for entertainment. Example: The American tall tale character Pecos Bill lassoed a tornado and went for a wild ride that included the carving out of the Grand Canyon.  Tales from a variety of different genres, tall tales, myths, legends and fables can also be pourquoi stories.

Pourquoi stories come from oral traditions across many cultures.  Explanations of how animals came to look and behave the way they do proliferate.  For example, in the West African folktale, Why Turtles Live in Watera turtle, who at that time lived on land, was caught by some hunters and brought to their chief.  The chief decided to cook turtle, but clever turtle convinced him to throw him in the river and drown him before cooking him.  When turtle got in the water he swam away, and from that day forward turtles have lived in the water.

How the Birds Got Their Colors, an Aboriginal tale from Australian literature, says that in the Dreamtime, the time before the world was made, all birds were black.  One day Dove injured his foot and other birds, hearing his painful cries, rushed to help him care for his wound.  All birds came to Dove’s aid except one, Crow.  Jealous Crow flew about and shouted to the other birds to leave Dove alone.  Suddenly, one of the birds, looking to relieve Dove’s pain, took her beak and opened Dove’s infected foot.  The colors of nature poured out from the wound and onto the birds.  This is how birds got the lovely colors we see on them today.

This tale, like pourquoi stories from other cultures, reflects the values of the community.  In this case, helping and caring for others is prized over cruel indifference to suffering.

Any discussion of pourquoi tales brings to mind Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902).  One of these tales, The Elephant’s Child, explains why elephants have such long noses.  The prose is old-fashioned, as are the other animals’ reactions to the little elephant, but the tale is very humorous.  And not all of the story is fantastical, as crocodiles really do eat young elephants.

Pourquoi stories are a good place to begin building skills as a storyteller.  Most have simple plots and a range of characters that are easily portrayed.  You can write your own pourquoi story to reenact in storytelling.

For some advice on how to write a pourquoi tale, look to the education world where advice for doing such abounds.  Keep in mind that while much of the educational advice on composing stories is geared for teachers and students, these resources still contain useful information on writing in all kinds of narrative genres, including fairy tales.

Susan Caroff teaches at West Chester University.

4 comments

  1. I did not know they were called pourquoi! This is the thing I have learned today. Thank you.

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    1. I didn't either, until I read Susan's story.

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  2. I remember reading tales like this before. I thought they were called "Just so" stories. Kipling wrote a lot of them.

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