Three Elements of a Pourquoi Tale

A pourquoi tale describes the origin of something, often in a humorous or exaggerated way. Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories," some of Aesop's fables and many folk tales are pourquoi tales, which may tell of how the leopard got his spots, or why the rabbit has a short stubby tail. Grade-school teachers often have children learn to write by creating pourquoi tales.

A Special Beginning and Ending

Because pourquoi stories discuss the beginning of something, they of necessity start at a time when that something was not so: when leopards were not spotted, when giraffes had normal necks or when the Grand Canyon was just a regular flatland. Since this is before human memory, pourquoi stories always begin like fairy tales: "once upon a time," "long ago when the world was new," "before man had emerged to the surface of the world." The beginning goes on to define the way things were at this time, and how the item in question was quite different then. The end will always bracket the story: "And that is how the lion got his mane."

A Problem and a Solution

There must be a problem or issue that triggers the movement from ordinary to extraordinary. The camel, for instance, was lazy and too proud to help others, according to Kipling; he was cursed by a djinn with a hump because when he was asked to help, he kept saying, "Humph!" In some American Indian traditions, Bear once had a long, beautiful tail he was proud of; Fox tricked him into ice fishing with it, and Bear pulled it off when it froze to the lake.

A Just Ending

The result of a pourquoi tale is always just and fair, within the context of a culture's perspective. Biblical examples include the Tower of Babel; when humans decided to build a tower up to heaven, God caused them all to speak different languages so they could no longer cooperate on such a vast project. Prometheus tricked Zeus into choosing bones and fat instead of meat when an animal was sacrificed to him, a justification of the Greek religious tradition of offering the gods only bones and fat. Because the ending is always fair within the context of the story's original culture, comparing pourquoi tales from different cultures can be a valuable tool in anthropology.

Other Identified Elements

Pourquoi tales have a few other elements. The story is always designed to explain why or how a condition came about and often involves a change from a more generic condition. In pourquoi origin stories outside the canon of specific folk characters, characters are never named, but rather are referred to using their species as a proper name: Leopard, Man, Woman, Giraffe. They are representations of archetypes, rather than unique individual characters.

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