A poor man goes to the seaside and takes a fishing boat (pirog). For a week he fishes. Nothing. He rows out to a little rock (lilot), where he catches the Queen of the Sea. He is about to strike her when she says, "Lift your eyes, look at God (Bondye). I'll give you a goat. You won't have to come to the sea any more. You'll say, `By the virtue of the goat the queen of the sea gave me, I want to see everything I need!'" On the way home he is intercepted by his komer (godmother of his son). Knowing he has no such thing as a goat, she takes him a little food, invites him to her house, and while he's asleep swaps his goat for one of hers.
At home, when he tries out the queen's formula, the goat defecates in the children's bed. He decides to go back to the queen of the sea and kill her. This time she says she'll give him a little snuffbox; he is to repeat the same formula. Again the komer intervenes, giving him coffee and taking him home. She swaps snuffboxes.
At home he says the formula; bees come out and sting the children. He says, "Tonight I'm sleeping at the seaside." At 5:30 a.m. he takes the boat to the island, he fishes till 6:30 p.m., and he's about to strike the queen until she says, "This is the last time you're coming here. Today I'm going to give you a cane/walking-stick (rotin)," and the same formula. Again the komer intervenes, taking him home and giving him food and drink. While he's asleep, she tells her daughter to swap sticks--but the rotin hits her till she cries out. The komer tries; she too gets hit; she shakes him and says, "Get out of here!" He says to the rotin, "Do what you have to do." It hits her so hard that she confesses what she's taken.
He takes his things home and says the formula. Everything he needs comes to him, and thereafter he lives rich with his family.
"The other day, I met this guy and said to him, `Konper, do something for me.' Zot! he socked me and just then I up and left" (Carayol and Chaudenson, Contes creoles 135-40).
The story was collected in 1969 from an unnamed storyteller in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles. It encloses internationally popular motifs--an animal that fulfills wishes, a neighbor who steals magic objects, a magic cudgel that beats a person and effects the recovery of what was stolen--within a poverty-to-riches frame (Aarne and Thompson 205-06). European readers of Grimm might remember another version as "The Magic Table, the Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack." Audiences in other Southwest Indian Ocean islands know it too (Haring, Index 414-15; Decros).
Folktales told in this region manifest the skill of verbal artists in manipulating and varying symbol systems. Tales like this one were learnt from Africa, modified in Madagascar, and brought to Seychelles, the Comoros, Mauritius, and Reunion with forced or unforced immigration. Imported tales stayed in memory; if useful, they were remodeled. Every generation remembered and recreated occasions when African verbal artists critiqued social life. The trans-shipping of slaves through Madagascar and the long history of cultural convergence in all the islands brought about creolization in folktales.
The story typifies this multicultural history. The plot of "The Table, the Ass, and the Stick" could have reached the islands from Africa or Europe, but the tale as told in 1969 was no standardized import from either place. Unpredictably, it compounds different regional symbols. Take the villain of the piece, for a start--the komer, who is posed against both the fisherman's wife, always offstage, and the Queen of the Sea, whose gifts she steals. This character comes out of a distinctly Seychellois social structure, an "extensive network of kinship (both legitimate and illegitimate) and personal relations through which people claim ties of dependence on those economically and politically better placed than themselves" (Benedict 66). For another, the bees, the goat, and the cane are familiar local objects, through which Seychellois storytellers have made an import their own. Then there is that snuffbox. In a tale recorded in 1976 from Gerose Barivoitse of Reunion, the snuffbox is the container of all the furnishings with which a supernatural wife supplies her mortal husband (Barat et al. 63-66). The closing formula is the favorite of creole narrators in Mauritius and Reunion (see Baissac, Folklore; Barat et al.).
The most decisive African touch is the localization, which links the tale to Madagascar: the plight of the fisherman who is offered riches by the Queen of the Sea. The Malagasy forerunner of this beautiful creature, often known as the water daughter (zazavavindrano), is part of many people's family history. She comes on land and marries a mortal, swearing him to secrecy about her aqueous ancestry and testing his ability to refrain from revealing too much information. He acquires prosperity and offspring until he breaks the taboo; then she deserts him, taking at least some of the children. Her legend warns a man against marrying a woman of no known family. What ends the story is no humorous formula but an etiological motif frequently used in Africa: the lady from the sea has become the ancestral mother of a clan. No one version is more correct than the others; each version upholds the claim of a different vested interest; "the contradictions are more significant than the uniformities" (Leach 264-65). Such an ideological prop became all the more needful as Europeans invaded the island. More or less incestuous marriages between cognates (mamonsavy) had to be tolerated as a means to keep rice lands undivided (Bloch 57; Haring, "Water-Spirits"). The Seychelles tale parodies the Malagasy legend by borrowing its frame.
The Mythical Frame from Madagascar
The Malagasy water princess story, mythical and ideological, begins in a time before present-day marriage rules were instituted; it shows why such rules exist. Its form imparts no ideology: it simply offers a model for parodies. Other Malagasy narratives collected under colonial domination are also parodies of myth. Their reflexivity transpires from a different frame, the making and breaking of friendship (see Haring, "Pattern"; Dundes). What imparts ideology is the symbol, like the marriage of a supernatural woman to a mortal man, or the donation of hoarded rice to men by a culture hero. Did these symbols, brought to Madagascar by Indonesian and Arabo-Swahili settlers, continue to carry their old ideological associations? It is possible that Malagasy narratives do preserve ancient imported conceptions (see Ottino, L'etrangere). But it is more likely that they were reinterpreted as part of the renegotiation of culture between the Indonesian and African heritages and the influence of India and Islam.
Once in Madagascar, people combined diverse imported elements to create something discontinuous and new, Malagasy culture, which could not have been predicted from its origins and is no mere assemblage of foreign influences. The same creativity through assemblage is seen in the Seychellois story about the fisherman. It is seen too in Mr. Barivoitse's tale with the snuffbox. His poor old hunter, who receives the magic gifts, reveals the secret of his supernatural wife to the king. By breaking her taboo, he loses his fortune, but not before Mr. Barivoitse has plugged in a favorite European motif:
Well, he harnessed his--it's called milor--he harnessed his milor. He didn't know anything about horses. He saw it come, but it was a big gourd with two big fat rats. The woman with her little snuffbox, with the property of her snuffbox, she wished the rats to be two pretty horses, harnessed. Man! Two fine horses! When that guy went in there, when he got out, it went klak! Damn! Ip, ip, ip, ip--little blows with the whip. (Barat et al. 64)
Any reader of Cinderella will recognize the carriage and horses (Aarne and Thompson 176). Both Mr. Barivoitse and the Seychellois storyteller combine symbols from African, European, and Malagasy traditions.
What is African in these folktales? Madagascar owes many things to both Africa and Asia: economic essentials such as cotton spinning and the cultivation of millet; musical instruments like the scraper, the rattle, and the earth bow; social structures like the patriarchal clan and the rights of …