Friday, May 12, 2023

The Racer Who Rides to Win (Africa)

The type of African story I will be talking about today is "The Racer Who Rides to Win." The key feature of this story is that one of the competitors in a race rides on their opponent, hopping off at the last minute in order to win the race. 

If you use ATU indexes, the ATU number for this story is ATU 275B. This ATU number is an example of how extremely unhelpful the ATU system is because it conflates entirely different types of stories here: 275A is the Aesopic fable of the sleeping hare, 275B is what I am calling "the racer rides to win," and 275C is the most widespread race story of all based on using substitute doubles. It is this kind of conflation in the ATU system that makes me reluctant to use it at all, but since so many researchers have invested their time and energy in this sytem, I'll cite an ATU number when I have it available.

At the bottom of this blog post you will find a public domain version of this story: The Race for a Wife, published in Negro Culture In West Africa by George Washington Ellis. You can read this book online at the Internet Archive. Ellis [1875-1919] was an African American lawyer who served in the American delegation to the Republic of Liberia, and during his posting in Liberia, Ellis undertook a decade-long study of the Vai people. This is one of the Vai folktales that he collected. In this version Spider is the trickster who rides on the Deer in order to win the race, and thus wins the bride, but there is also a great subplot where the other animals tie Deer up so that he cannot enter the race, but Spider comes along and unties him.

Other versions:

A Hare and Chameleon, in Notes on the Wagogo of German East Africa (in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) by H. Cole (1902). Online at the Internet Archive.

The Race for a Wife, in African Myths by Carter Woodson (1928). Online at the Internet Archive. Woodson reprints Ellis, but does not cite the source. The story includes this illustration, uncredited:

The Rabbit and the Chameleon, in Tiny Tales from Africa: The Animals, Volume 1 by Laura Gibbs (2021). Online at the Internet Archive. A 100-word version of Cole's "Hare and Chameleon" above. 

The Spider and the Deer, in Tiny Tales from Africa: The Animals, Volume 2 by Laura Gibbs (2022). Online at the Internet Archive. A 100-word version of Ellis's "Race for a Wife" below.

The Race for a Wife
(a Vai story from Liberia)

A man had a daughter who liked all the creatures of the forest. Each of them was trying to secure the daughter for his wife. They all went to the father for his consent. The father told them to wait, that he would place his daughter in the old field, and that the one who reached there first should have his daughter. They all agreed to enter the race. 

When they all assembled the Fox said, “We must catch the deer and tie him, or he will win the race, as he can run much faster than any of us.” So they all combined and tied the Deer and started on the race. 

After they had gotten on the way, Mr. Spider came along and saw Mr. Deer all tied. Mr. Spider asked, “What are you doing tied?”

The Deer told him how all the animals had combined to tie him in order to keep him from winning the race and securing the daughter of the old man. 

The Spider then said, “If I let you loose what will you pay me?” 

The Deer said that if he won the race he would give to him for his wife their first daughter. The Spider then untied him and jumped on the Deer’s horn. 

The Deer ran and ran and finally passed all the other animals. When he got in the old field near the old man’s house the Spider jumped down and ran to the girl. 

The Deer claimed that the girl belonged to him and the Spider claimed her, so they submitted the matter to the judge, who decided that the Spider won the race and therefore was entitled to the old man’s daughter.