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Merrywise: A Performance by Jane Muncy Fugate

Video transcription of Jane Muncy Fugate performing one of her favorite folktales; with a written introduction by Carl Lindahl. Compare with a transcription of a different performance of "Merrywise," published in a special issue of the Journal of Folklore Research (38/1–2) on North American märchen.

Associated article:

Jane Muncy Fugate, narrator, "Two Tellings of 'Merrywise': 1949 and 2000," Journal of Folklore Research 38/1–2 (2001): 39–54.


Video Transcription
Introduction by Carl Lindahl, University of Houston

Jane Muncy Fugate's video-recorded performance of "Merrywise" took place Thursday, March 29, 2001 at the University of Houston, in a cavernous, windowless room measuring about 25 by 40 feet. About 30 people—including some 20 members of Carl Lindahl's undergraduate "Introduction to Folklore" class, students from past folktale classes, and Jane's husband Bob Fugate—were present for the telling. "Merrywise" was the first of three tales that Jane told, analyzed, and discussed with students during her 80-minute visit.

The video performance offers significant parallels with, and departures from, Jane's audio-recorded telling of "Merrywise" [performed nearly 10 months earlier, on June 3, 2000], which appears in transcribed form in the Journal of Folklore Research [38/1–2: 39–54] and in the book Perspectives on the Jack Tales and Other North American Märchen (Special Publications of the Folklore Institute No. 6, Bloomington, IN, 2001). In each case, Jane introduced the folktale with a description of her grandmother, Mrs. Sidney Farmer, followed by a discussion of the situations in which her grandmother typically told her folktales, observations on the ways in which her grandmother used tales as teaching devices, and reflections on ways in which Jane identified herself with the character Merrywise. The video introduction is fully presented and transcribed on this website; in contrast, only portions of Jane's introduction to her earlier performance are transcribed in these previous publications.

Jane's introduction and performance run to about 22 1/2 minutes in the video version; her earlier audio performance, at 41 minutes, was nearly twice as long. The difference is due largely to the time constraints imposed by the classroom context: Jane told and analyzed three tales for this class; it would have been impossible for her to do so had she devoted much more time to "Merrywise" than she did.

In both versions, the tale grows organically from Jane's introduction; in neither case does she begin with "Once upon a time" or any other distinct formula or framing device.

The two tales differ significantly in length, plot, diction, and performing style. The video performance, at about 16:30 minutes, was more than 5 minutes shorter than the earlier version. The most abbreviated portions of the video tale occur toward the end: the witch's pursuit of the boys, her capture by Merrywise, and the closing scene.

The two plot lines differ most markedly in their descriptions of how the three boys obtained their magic objects. In the JFR "Merrywise," the three boys pick up the stone, the egg, and the nut as they are leaving home to seek their fortune. These objects serve as keepsakes for the boys: "on their way out of the yard . . . they each picked up a keepsake. And little did they know, but there was magic in the keepsake. And keepsakes have a lot of magic anyway—they, they do a lot of wonderful things for the people who keep them" (Jane Muncy Fugate, "'Merrywise': 2000," JFR 38:47). In the video version, however, Jane has the boys pick up the magic objects halfway through the tale, as they are leaving the home of the witch; Jane invests the boys' parting act with special import: "as they went through [the witch's] yard and across her property, they picked up something for good luck, because we know, when we leave a bad place, we have to take a little something with us for good luck."

Far more telling than plot differences are differences in performance style. Jane's video "Merrywise" is delivered in much more emphatic fashion; the earlier performance was relatively subdued. In the video, Jane varies her voice more in volume and accent. For example, Jane gives the witch a distinct accent almost from the beginning of the tale [note how the witch pronounces "whet" when she first chants, "I'll get up and whet my knife"], whereas in the earlier audio recording, the witch's Appalachian accent does not emerge until later in the story as she is pursuing the boys.

The most notable difference between the two performances lies in the use of gesture. In her earlier telling, Jane employed very few gestures. In contrast, the classroom performance was filled with hand gestures and animated facial expressions. Jane's vocabulary is incisive in both performances, but in the video she used gestures to supplement and refine her verbal meanings. For example, in the earlier version, Jane states that the witch "unfolded" the puddin-tuddin bag. In the video, Jane states that the witch "opened" the bag, a less precise word. Read without visual access to Jane's gestures, the following passage might seem confusing: "she took something from out of her pocket, and she opened it, and opened it, and opened it, and opened it again, and opened it again, until it was a giant bag." Yet in the video, Jane uses both hands to imitate the act of unfolding a bag as she speaks these words.

In my opinion, the two performances differ so dramatically in style because of the radically different contexts in which they were performed. For the earlier, longer, less emphatic version transcribed in JFR, Jane was sitting in her living room and addressing an audio of two: her husband and myself. For the video, however, Jane was facing an audience about 15 times larger, with some of her auditors as far as 30 feet away from her in a room she'd never visited before. I see the heightened volume and drama of this performance as efforts to render the tale intimate for even the most distant of Jane's listeners.

Even in this most dramatic of her performances, however, Jane maintains the same artful use of understatement that marks even her earliest tales. One touch that she has added to her latest telling occurs early in story, as the boys enter the home of the witch. In introducing the witch, Jane stated, deadpan, "one of the things she liked to do for hobby and entertainment was kill people." This line effectively broke the ice during Jane's classroom performance; the audience responded with laughter, which may have inspired Jane to repeat the image a few moments later: "although [the witch] found Merrywise very charming . . . , she could see some hobbying entertainment coming from" the two brothers—whom she attempts to kill later in the tale.

"Merrywise" (Tale Type 327B, "The Dwarf and the Giant") belongs to an extensive tradition of Appalachian tales in which young children wander into the lairs of monstrous adults (most often giants and witches) and use their wits to overcome these larger, older adversaries.


"Merrywise" As told by Jane Muncy Fugate on March 29, 2001

I will be sixty-four years old, and stories, or folktales, have been a part of my life for at least sixty of those years, a very important part of my life. I use stories in my work now. I'm a psychotherapist. I have a private practice. I work hospital work, adolescent units, drug and alcohol. I use stories to help my clients see themself through the words that are about something else, or someone else. And for me it works.

I learned how to do that by, by having that apply in my own life. When I was four, I came to live with my grandmother, and she and I lived together, with various aunts and uncles coming in and out of our life. She told me stories, and in those days the stories were, were multipurposeful. One of the purposes was to keep me occupied. Another purpose for the stories that we told were family gatherings, because the family were storytellers in general, and when we got together, we often sat around an open fireplace, or sat around some place that was cozy in the house, and, and told the stories that people remembered. Another purpose for the stories in those early days was to help us learn something. And I'll tell you one of the stories that, that I learned something about myself as a child, and I'll tell you another story that I've passed along to my children and often refer to them when I'm wanting to teach them something about themselves. My children are all grown. My oldest granddaughter graduated from Georgia Tech last year. So, there has been a couple of generations of stories since I learned the stories that I learned.

My grandmother was a very dynamic woman. She was raised—born and raised in the mountains of Kentucky. She was the youngest of a family of five, and they said, "every family needs a lady," and so she was allowed to do a lot of reading and later became a teacher. And, and her first marriage was unsuccessful. So she got on her mule and took her newborn baby and rode home again and—shudder—of all things, in the eighteen hundreds, got a divorce. And became a teacher, but because she was a divorced woman, she could not teach in one of the already established schools. They gave her the, they gave her the idea that she would teach if she would go on rural horseback and ride from city to city—or community to community—and teach the children of the farmers. And that she did.

So she was an educated woman, a dynamic woman, a very caring woman, and a woman who had a lot to teach me, a little four-year-old who came to live with her. She said when I came to live with her that she could carry me on one arm. I had been probably a little malnourished and had, had a, what we now know in growth and development as Failure to Thrive Syndrome. So she carried me around, and at night I slept with her. She would say, "Scoot up close next to my back, and I'll tell you a story." And I would scoot up, either in the crook of her arm or next to her back, and listen as I got tired and eventually fell to sleep. So many times I learned what was coming next in her stories. Although she was quite a—she could diversify, and go off on a little tangent from time to time, she also stuck pretty much to the same theme, and I found that as I got older, and there was something she wanted me to know in the story that was different than what she had told me earlier, I might hear a little different complexion of the person who was the hero—most of them were heroes, not heroines—but I would hear a little different complexion of the hero.

I became very acquainted with a little guy named Merrywise. Now Merrywise was an overcomer. I tell my clients there are two ways to be in the world. One way is to be a mastery person: you do everything right all the time. Things come easy. A mastery person doesn't know very well how to deal with failure. Or you can be a coping person. A coping person—and that's the way to be—a coping person has a tool kit and when they come to an obstacle in their road, they will take out something from the tool kit, and use it to chop through, go over, walk around, dig under the obstacle, and get to the other side.

Well, Merrywise was very much a coping kind of guy. He was the youngest in his family. He had two brothers. Tom and Bill. And while they were older and stronger and had more experience and people trusted them sometimes, it was always Merrywise, with his smallness and his cunning and his ability to craft his way through his world, that got them all out of a big jam. So I'd like to tell you now about Merrywise and his brothers as they left home and started out to seek their fortune.

You know, of course, being college students, that at some point you all will leave home and start off to seek your fortunes. Maybe you already have. It's an exciting time.

For Merrywise and his brothers Bill and Tom, it happened after their parents—their father had died and their mother was old and sick, and she said, "Okay, boys, it's time for you to go out now and seek your fortune because I won't be here very long. And you two older boys need to go ahead and get started and Merrywise, you're very young, and I'd like you to stay with our neighbor lady. She's a very good person and she'll take care of you."

Well, Merrywise was also stubborn, and so Merrywise said, "No, I'm going." And they all said, "No, you can't." He said, "Yes, I can," and they started off to seek their fortune. Well, they walked and they walked and they walked and they walked up the mountains, down the valleys, through the hollows, and it was getting dark. And they were very tired and they were hungry. They hadn't taken anything to eat. And they found a house. And the house had a light coming from the inside as though there was a fire burning somewhere. Maybe a lantern. And so they said, "Should we knock on the door?"

And Merrywise said, "I will." So he knocked on the door. And the door opened. And there was a very ugly woman who answered the door. She had long, shaggy gray hair. She had a pimply face that had lumps all over in different places, and she had a long, skinny nose. And she was dressed in black. And so she opened the door, and Merrywise said, "Hi, Granny. We need a place to stay tonight."

And she said, "You could be my grandson. You could really be my grandson. Come in."

And he said, "My brothers are coming." And so the brothers came out from behind the bushes and they came in with him, and she saw Bill and Tom. And the old lady said [crafty voice], "Ah, yes. Come on in." Because one of the things she liked to do for hobby and entertainment was kill people. [laughter]

And although she found Merrywise very charming and wanted her[sic] truly to be her grandson, she could see some hobbying entertainment coming from these other two. And so she fed them all meager food. And she said, "And now it's time to go to bed." And so she said to Bill and Tom, "I have two boys." And there were two pale-faced, kind of wimpy-looking little guys in the back ground, "and they sleep upstairs in the loft. And Bill and Tom, you go up, and you sleep in the loft with my two boys."

And Merrywise is watching all of this. And she says, "Merrywise, you sleep with me." Now "sleeping with" was a pretty good thing in those days, because it was cold in the cabin, and families had the family-bed kind of thing and people did sleep with people, and it seemed very natural that he would kind of sleep with her, because she was warm and, and—so he went and crawled into her bed, but he had that uneasy Merrywise feeling.

So she said to Bill and Tom, "Go up there and sleep with my two boys in the attic," and she went up with four caps. And two of the caps were red and two of the caps were white. And she said to her two boys, "You put on the two white caps," and she said to Bill and Tom, "You put on the red caps." And so they all go in their little respective beds, her two boys in one bed and Merrywise's brothers in the other bed, and it was time to go to sleep.

And pretty soon the old lady—she was a witch, you know—began to snore, and Merrywise was getting very relaxed, but he had that uneasy Merrywise feeling. And so he started to pretend like he was snoring. And she was snoring away. And in a little while her snoring stopped, and she scooted over to the edge of the bed, and put her little skinny legs over the edge of the bed, and she said [chanting voice] "I'll get up and whet my knife. I'll get up and whet my knife. I'll get up and whet my knife."

Well, his eyes got big and his ears started perking up, and he listened but he lay very still. And she started to put on some kind of shoes to walk upstairs and had this knife and this whetting stone and he said, "Ah, Granny, I'll go with you. I'll go with you."

And she said, "No, no. That's all right. You go on back to bed now. You go on back to bed."

She said—he said, "No, I don't wanna go. I want to go with you."

So she said, "Well, it's kind of cold out here. We'll, we'll both go back to sleep. Just go on back to sleep. Just go on back to sleep."

So he did, he cuddled under the covers and she put the covers up all around his face. He pretended he was asleep, and he pretended how to snore. We all know how to do that. And, sure enough, not too much longer, she got up and said it in a lower voice:

"I'll get up and whet my knife. I'll get up and whet my knife."

And he watched while she got up, and he said, "Granny! Granny! I'm going with you."

And she said, "No, no. Now. You're just waking up all the time here now. You've got to go back to sleep. Now watch me. I'm going back to sleep." And so she got back in bed again, and they went through the whole thing again. He acted like he was asleep. And she lay down and pretty soon her breathing got very regular, and she was drifting off, and he said, "Phew, my time has come."

And so he scooted out of the bed, very stealthfully in a Merrywise fashion. And up the stairs he went, very quietly, and he figured out that he better change caps on those two boys, and so he took the red caps off his brothers and put those on the sons of the wicked witch. And he took the white caps off of them, and he put those on his brothers, and he sneaked back downstairs as carefully as he could, and got into bed, and waited while he pretended to snore. Well, she kind of roused a little bit, and then she said again, in a much lower voice:

"I'll get up and whet my knife. I'll get up and whet my knife."

This time he continued to snore. And she did. She got up. She went up the stairs. Didn't hear a sound except, "Thud, thud." And she came back and got in bed.

Well, he figured that some dirty deed had gone on, but he still pretended to sleep, and pretty soon she was sawing logs. She was sleeping very hard. So Merrywise carefully got out of his side of the bed, and went up, and kicked his brothers, and "Get out of that bed. Get out of that bed. You slept through something horrible. Look over there."

And there were her two sons with their heads chopped off. And he came back downstairs. And he and the brothers took off, as fast as they could leave, leaving that house, high and dry. But as they went through her yard and across her property, they picked up something for good luck, because we know, when we leave a bad place, we have to take a little something with us for good luck. And so Bill went through the hen house, and he grabs an egg, stuck it in his pocket. Tom passed a pile of rocks by the well. He grabbed a rock and stuck it in his pocket. Merrywise was going past a hickory tree, and he grabbed a hickory nut, and put that in his pocket. And farewell to the place. They took off down the road running as fast as they could.

Well, the wicked witch old lady slept until dawn and then she woke up. Merrywise was gone. She went upstairs. She saw what she had done, and she was mad. Mad enough to use a very important thing. She went to her cabinet and she took out her Seven-Mile-a-Step boots and she put them on. Now, these were magical boots, because when you walked in them, you took one step that went seven miles. And so she took off down her pathway and out of her property, going Seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, and it doesn't take many of those to catch three running boys.

And so, when she came up to them, Bill took out the rock in his pocket and he threw it down and a giant rock wall sprung up, too far to get around and too high to get over. She was on the other side of it, and they were running as fast as they could off in the distance. Now, she had another magical power, and that was, she could call for anything she wanted to call for. And so she started calling from the top of her voice and crying out, "Come, all you animals of the world and beat a hole in this rock! Come and beat a hole in this rock so I can get through it!"

And of course the animals in the world obeyed her, and they came and they started beating through the rock and beating through the rock, with their horns and their hooves, and it took a while, but eventually there was a hole and the old lady went through, seven-mile-step boots and all. And she took off again: seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step—and the boys were running so fast but they couldn't outrun her. She almost caught them again.

And so Tom took out his egg and he threw it down on the ground and a giant lake of egg came up all around, too deep to get through and too wide to go around. And the witch lady was on the other side of the egg, and they were high-tailing it down the road as fast as they could go again.

Well, one thing I forgot to tell you: when witches go on trips like this, they always take their bag of gold. Now that bag of gold was right along with her as she was walking seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step. So she's holding on to the bag of gold and she uses that magical voice of hers, and she calls, "All the animals in the world, come! Come and rescure me quick! Come and drink up this lick—lake!" And so here came the animals of the world and they lapped and they lapped and they slurped and they slurped and they slurped, and they made a pathway right through the yellow egg. And she took her seven-mile-a-step boots, and she was really getting mad, and walked right through that pathway to the other side, going after those boys again. And she went seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, seven-mile-a-step, and she caught them again.

Well, this time Merrywise was the only one that had his magical token left. And so he took his hickory nut out of his hand and threw it down on the ground and a hickory forest came up with tall, tall strong trees, and one particular strong tree. All the boys went up that tree. They were good tree climbers. They got up to the top of that tree, and they were looking down on this little old witch lady here. So she sat down her bag of gold and she took something from out of her pocket, and she opened it, and opened it, and opened it, and opened it again, and opened it again, until it was a giant bag, and she held it by the sides, and she said [cackling], "Ha, ha ha. Tom, jump down into my puddin-tuddin bag!" And Tom was looking down from the top of the hickory tree, and he went—sh-boom—right down into that puddin-tuddin bag. Merrywise was just shaking his head.

So she closed part of the bag up, and she says, "Bill! Jump down into my puddin-tuddin bag!" And Bill goes—ssho-plink—right down into the bag. Right on top of his brother. And so she closed it up some more. And she opened it up and said, "Merrywise! Now you come down here into my puddin-tuddin bag!"

And he said, "No."

And she said, "I said come down here into this puddin-tuddin bag."

And he said, "I don't have to do what you say. I'm not coming down to the puddin-tuddin bag."

And she said, "I'm telling you one more time: come to the puddin-tuddin bag."

And he says, "No, granny. I ain't coming."

And so she knotted up that bag, and she took up the tree after him. Well, he was very agile, and he came down. And she went up, and he came down. And she came down, and he went up, and this went on for awhile, and she said, "My legs are tired. My knees are rusty. I'm old. I can't do this."

And when she said that, she was up at the top—up in the top of the tree. Well, he was aggravated at his silly brothers anyway, so he kicked em out that bag—opened the lid and he kicked them out of there. "Get out of there, brothers—quick. And take this bag of gold."

So he opens it up, and he says, "Granny! Come down into my puddin-tuddin bag!" And she went "pshoo" right down into the puddin-tuddin bag. Well, they quickly got some boulders, some big rocks and they put em in there and they tied it tight and made another big knot in it, and they hauled it off, dragging it down to the creek, and threw it in the deep part of the creek where the sink hole is, and there it went way down, blub, blub, blub, blub, blub. And so Tom and Bill and Merrywise looked inside the bag of gold, and there was all the gold you could ever want in your entire life. And so they went on to the place where they could really spend their fortune and they met three beautiful women and got married and lived happy ever after.