Apr 23, 2007

Portuguese Folk Tales by Adolfo Coelho

Portuguese Folk Tales by Adolfo Coelho

It is almost embarrassing that, being as interested in folk and fairy tales as I am, it took me as long as this to read this fundamental collection from my own country. First published in 1879, this book was essential for the start of Portuguese ethnography, and it was, similarly to the work of the brothers Grimm, intended both as a scholarly work and a collection of tales to be enjoyed by children.

Adolfo Coelho was familiar with the Grimm’s work, but, unlike TeĆ³filo Braga, another of the founders of Portuguese ethnography, he was against the idea of translating their work into Portuguese, reportedly out of fear that it would “contaminate” our folktales. The curious thing is that this collection is full of variations of tales that can be found in the work of the brothers Grimm: there are versions of Snow White, of The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn Fear, of Godfather Death, of Bluebeard (although this version is more similar to the Italian one), of Hansel and Gretel. There’s also a tale very similar to the English The Three Sillies, and, of course, a version of Sleeping Beauty. All this goes to show that perhaps "contamination" is not the way to look at it.

I particularly liked a story that mixed “The Frog Prince” with the northern European legends of the Lindorm: a young prince is under a spell, and the only way to get rid of it is to burn his nine skins – nine frog skins, in this case. I also really liked a tale called “Brancaflor”, which very much reminded me of the tales in the Russian collection I read recently.

But not every story in this collection has a counterpart in other European traditions. Some tales are very much unique, and curiously enough, these were the ones I remembered from my childhood. I have no specific memory of ever having read or been told these tales, and yet they are familiar – entire stories sometimes, only catchphrases or specific moments other times.

Unfortunately I don’t think this collection is available in English, otherwise I’d recommend it to everyone with an interest in folktales, or just in good storytelling. My only complaint is that most stories are very short – only about a page and a half – and you can tell that the same story could be told with more detail, achieving greater narrative tension.

I’m curious to see how this collection compares to Consiglieri Pedroso's.


  1. I'm always looking for good folktale/fairy tale books, so it's too bad that this one is only published in Portuguese because it sounds really good! I've always wanted to learn Portuguese...must be time to start!

  2. Yeah, it is too bad. But there's a book called "Portuguese Fairy Tales" by Maurice and Pamela Michael that has some material in common with this collection, I believe.

    And Pedroso's collection (which I need to read soon) sounds interesting as well, and it's available for free at the wonderful Surlalune!

  3. Shame it isn't available in English translation. Sounds very interesting. Will check out the other one you mention.

  4. there are many other saramago books that you can read which do not have as much of a political status symbol attached to it. I recommend the cave which was a big fav of mine.

  5. I am looking for a Portuguese fairy tale called "O Rouxinol Encantado" . Would it be in this book? Where can I buy this book?

  6. esterbethe: That title definitely sounds familiar. I have come across it somewhere, but I'm not sure if it was on this collection. I'd check, but I'm currently in England and the book is back in Portugal. Sorry that I can't be help much. Buying this book... well, it depends on where you are. It should be easily available in Portugal, but elsewhere, your best bet is to try online.

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