The up-the-mountain story starts, as many good stories do, with a foolish hero – in this case a hen – sets out on a foolish quest. Since the original story is a Norwegian folktale, the hen must climb to the top of the Dovrefjell, the mountain range that divides the southeastern, more populated portion of Norway from the north. And since this is a cumulative or “chain” story, the hen manages to include a cock, a duck and a goose in her quest.
All too soon the four fowl run into a (trickster alert!) fox who invites them to spend the night in his den thus adding the necessary element of danger to the tale. The hen is worried and insists on sleeping perched near the smoke hole in the ceiling. She wakes early the next morning to the horrifying sight – and smell – of the fox roasting duck and goose (without having removed their feathers). Hen and rooster escape through the smoke hole and, with no further delays, make it to the top of the Dovrefjell, where hen proclaims her triumph.
The rooster has a single question. Why?Find Harriet
And hen (revealing that this story is classified as Tale Type 20C (End of the World) answers that she had been informed – in a dream – that she must save the world by climbing to the top of the Dovrefjell. (By the way, the hen had been sleeping in an oak tree which gives us the obligatory connection between a Norwegian folktale and Norse mythology. Oaks, at least according to some sources, are connected with Thor, god of thunder and protector of the people.)
This is a fine little story, one I greatly enjoy telling. The gruesome deaths of duck and goose make it eligible for inclusion in my upcoming Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce a book of uncomfortable Norse tales for 10 – 12 year olds (soon available through the Small-Tooth-Dog Publishing Group. However, I did not understand this tale until I started moving it from one story-world to another.
When I first started telling folktales during the moon hikes at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center in Phoenix AZ, I needed stories from/in/about the desert. My specialty is Scandinavia where there are no deserts, at least not the kind that are dry and hot. But there are mountains. And South Mountain is a mountain! What if I moved my hen?
Up South Mountain became one of the most popular stories I tell. I usually start by explain that the tale followed the immigrants from Norway to Minnesota and the snowbirds from Minnesota to Arizona. Then I invite audience participation. The hen always needs help saying:
“Gotta get up, gotta get up, gotta get, gotta get, gotta get up South Mountain!”
I’ve had kids who are returning for their second or third Moon Hike walk up to me and say “Gotta get up … gotta get up!”
Recently it has become my turn to migrate. Or – less dramatically – return to my original territory in Northern New Mexico. Norway has the Dovrefjell. Phoenix has South Mountain. What could I do with my world-saving hen?
Northern New Mexico has the Jemez Mountains west of the Rio Grande. I could turn Up South Mountain into Up the Jemez and even keep the coyote! As I made this decision, I started to compare the three actual worlds in which I have set the same story. What did the hen see when she finally reached her goal?
When it comes to the Dovrefjell. I am at a bit if a disadvantage. I have been to Norway but did not get as far north as the Dovrefjell. In any case it was winter and I suspect the Dovrefjell looked just like the mountains I did see – covered in snow and pine trees. The magic of the internet shows me that the Dovrefjell, without snow is a collection of rocky lumps of mountains in a tundra-like setting. Apparently it is also home to the only Norwegian population of musk oxen.
South Mountain in Phoenix is also rocky and lumpy but definitely lacks tundra. Instead of musk oxen, there are scorpions, bats and Sonoran Desert Toads, the ugliest amphibian known to man. Reaching the top of South Mountain means reaching an impressive collection of radio and tv antennae and looking out over the vast spread of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.
What about the Jemez? For the past twenty years the eastern slopes of the Jemez have been slowly recovering from two major forest fires. Going up the Jemez means encountering the few remaining ponderosa pines, some aspen trees and vast amounts of scrub oak and other ground covering plants. There is a single radio tower at the summit of Pajarito Mountain, which is part of the Jemez. And the view is spectacular because the Valles Caldera, lies to the west, a vast sprawl of valleys and hills created by the collapse of an ancient volcanic caldera. This land was long held as private property but has become a National Preserve.
At the very end of her story, the hen tells the rooster that she has saved the whole world by getting up the mountain.
The people who created the Valles Caldera National Preserve had to get up a lot of mountains to save that beautiful part of the world. The students who so enjoyed my story in Phoenix were climbing their own mountains. And, on the Dovrefjell itself, the hen was doing mythological work.
Not all stories can be moved from one story-world to another this easily. But when it is possible, it is a satisfying endeavor that helps the teller truly understand the story.
So, you’ve got a mountain. Go save the world. Or at least, a story-world.