Native Fairy Tales of South Africa - Ethel McPherson

These native fairy tales were collected from the Zulu and Soweto tribes of South Africa and retold in a manner to make them attractive to English boys and girls. The book includes over twenty authentic African folk tales including The Daughter of the Sword, The Snake with Five Heads, and The Kingdoms of the Dead. The color illustrations are particularly outstanding.

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[Cover] from Native Fairy Tales by Ethel McPherson
Snake with five heads


[Title Page] from Native Fairy Tales by Ethel McPherson
[Copyright Page] from Native Fairy Tales by Ethel McPherson


Once upon a time we all dwelt in Fairyland. But, in most cases, it was only "in our infancy" that "heaven lay about us." As we grew up we gradually became practical men and women, happily or unhappily devoid of illusions, with sufficient common sense to appreciate that alone which is popularly regarded as real and substantial and tangible: in a word, the things that pay.

Yet, now and then, we cannot suppress the yearning within us that our flesh might become again as the flesh of a little child, and thus we might once more be enabled to dream dreams and to see visions of those ineffable things wherein is wholly the life of the spirit. And in confident anticipation of a self-transfigurement, toward which we "cast glad, afar-off eyes," we are invariably beguiled by some magician's wand to return for a while to the realm of romance, where we may play as the little boys and girls we used to be. There we shall gather the constantly renewed flowers of an old-world poesy, whose aroma will linger around us long afterward, tending to preserve us from "the contagion of the world's slow stain."

During a period of strenuous endeavour, when great national and domestic anxieties possessed our minds, well-nigh to the suppression of other interests, the magnetic influence of Miss Ethel McPherson drew some of us more ancient folk away from our pre-occupations to lovely pleasaunces in which we once revelled, and where the siren-accents of the fairies may still be heard, even if only in echo. So enthralled were we that we persuaded her to allow others also, who are standing outside the gate, to enjoy the exhilarating atmosphere of her gathered lore. We have felt the impulsion to do so irresistibly because we are South Africans, and because we feel that others should be made acquainted with the unfamiliar bowers of our native folklore—something new, perhaps only in semblance, but as old as its illimitableveld, and no less closely allied to the universal human nature with which it claims kindred. Not least by we hope that the boys and the girls of less sunny climes may be brought to realize that in all parts of the Child-world without distinction there is eloquently evidenced the same natural intuition of kinship with a perennially fresh and fertile imagination fed by the Hand of an inexhaustible love and grace. And if, forsooth, some youthful wiseacres, imitating their seniors, should be inclined at times to insist that these stories cannot be true, I would remind them of a luminous incident. An English traveller in Japan once saw a charming girl caressing a doll as though it were a real child, when he exclaimed: "But can a doll live?" "If you love it enough," she answered, "it will live." As an Indian poet declares:

The leaf becomes flower when it loves:

The flower becomes fruit when it worships.

May Miss McPherson inspire us all—children of a larger and of a smaller growth alike—to cherish the illusion that whatsoever we love enough will live in very deed, and may she thus help us to go softly all our years until the hour when we "have our child hearts back some day."


Author's Note

In presenting these stories from the Zulu and the Sesuto I can make no claim to original research; my part has been confined to the endeavour to offer them in a form suitable for children's reading. The material upon which they are based is to be found chiefly in the Nursery Tales  of Bishop Callaway, published in 1868, and now difficult to procure, and in the more recent Treasury of Basuto Folklore, the work of M. Jacottet, of the French Protestant Mission. Both of these collections are of the greatest value to the student of native languages and beliefs. The stories found in them have been taken down literally from the lips of the natives, and the Zulu or Sesuto text is given side by side with the English version, the aim of the compilers having been to preserve the stories in their original form and diction before these should be swept away by the oncoming tide of European civilization. To students of race they are invaluable in this original form, but to the average reader they are not acceptable by reason of their frequent repetition and by their involved character, specially noticeable in the Zulu stories. At times there are gaps in the procession of events which, have to be filled up by guesswork. There is almost always a wearisome iteration in the dialogue and in the adventures, and lastly their beauty is often marred by a grossness, natural enough to the native but repellent to the European.

In retelling these stories my aim has been, as I have stated, to give them coherence and form and to free them from coarseness. I have also endeavoured, where possible, to preserve the native picturesqueness of phraseology.

The folklore of South Africa is peculiarly rich in imaginative qualities, and in some of the stories here set forth a remarkable resemblance may be noted to those of classic legend and to the folk-tales of Europe. In the story of "Senkenpeng and Bulane," for example,there is a maiden victim not unworthy to rank with Iphigenia, and a bride who, like Psyche, might not look upon the face of her husband.

In the story "The Queen of the Pigeons" there is a curious confusion between birds and men, which may be thus accounted for. A man enchanted, and forced to assume the shape of a bird, a snake, or an animal, is often restored by marriage with a woman bold enough to take such a husband. After marriage the King of the Pigeons may have assumed his human shape, and hence his inability to fly across the lake. One may suppose, too, that his men were under a like enchantment at the opening of the story.

Another explanation may be that the girl was carried off by a tribe of mounted men, who would be described in Zulu idiom as having wings or as being Pigeons. The Zulus rarely ride, and speak of a horseman as 'flying.'

The tale as it stands is possibly due to a confusion of two stories—that of an enchanted husband who regained his freedom by marriage with a human wife, and an ordinary tale of a maiden captured by a troop of horsemen. For many generations the record of these stories was one of memory only, and in passing from mouth to mouth much has been lost or distorted.

More than once the animal stories of South Africa have been presented with humour and charm, but little has been done to make known the vast treasure of fairy lore in which South Africa abounds, and which possesses all the elements of romance and poetry.


CAPE TOWN, May 1919

[Contents, page 1 of 2] from Native Fairy Tales by Ethel McPherson
[Contents, page 2 of 2] from Native Fairy Tales by Ethel McPherson
[Illustrations] from Native Fairy Tales by Ethel McPherson