Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Literary Analysis of Rip Van Winkle's Precursor (800 A.D.), Sucking on Lemons and Other Hazards of Life on Earth

Due to the wonders of Blogger "Stats," I've noticed that a substantial number of the people who find their way to the Van Winkle Project do so by googling "Rip Van Winkle literary analysis."

My best guess is that these searchers are young people who have a paper or presentation to make about the story "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving and are looking for some solid information they can appropriate.

What do they find instead? A blog where, in lieu of any comment on real news, I post about whatever cloud of thought is passing through my mind.

But I think it's time to offer some value-added for these ardent scholars. What I'd like to propose is that if they want to write something interesting about the Rip Van Winkle story it might be useful for them to consider by way of contrast an earlier incarnation of a man who lost track of time.

I'm thinking of a Japanese folk tale I recently found out about from a former student of mine whose father used to read it to him when he was a child.

Let's go back, way back...to the 8th Century B.C. and the story of Urashima Taro. And if you want to get into the proper mood for it, you might want to mix up an especially sour batch of lemonade...

Once Upon a Time in Japan
Urashima Taro was  a fisherman and a good hearted man, so good hearted that he saved a young sea turtle from children who were abusing it...

Taro saved the turtle.

The sea turtle returned later, full grown, and offered Taro a reward. He took him on his back to an undersea palace where there dwelt dancing girls and a beautiful princess. They wanted Taro to stay here where no one ever experienced sorrow or ever grew old or died...

Taro rode the turtle.
Life was good in the undersea palace. There were dancing girls
and a beautiful princes, but after a while Taro longed for home.

Three years passed (some versions say three days) and Taro remembered his parents. He wished to return home. The princess said, all right, but she gave him an ornate box to take with him. "Never open it," she sternly instructed...

As he was leaving the magical undersea kingdom, Taro received the box.

The turtle took Taro across the sea and back home.

Taro journeyed home with the mysterious box he must not open.

But something was wrong. Taro's house was gone. He recognized no one. Finally someone said that he remembered hearing stories as a boy about a Urashima Taro who 300 years ago went away to sea on the back of a turtle and was never heard from again.

The old man spoke of a Urashima Taro who rode away to sea...300 years ago!

How could this be? Three hundred years had passed! It was true and Taro was sad. Almost without thinking (or perhaps hoping for a magical stroke of luck) he fumbled open the box the princess had given him. Suddenly smoke emerged and he aged instantly. His old age was what had been kept in the box.

Oh no! Taro opened the box and aged at once. The end!

Teasing Out Meanings
At this point it might be fair to ask what on earth is this tale trying to tell us?

1) That Taro should have obeyed the princess--and human precedent. If someone tells you not to touch or open something, don't let curiosity get the better of you. There is always a good reason for a taboo and, if you test your limits, you'll be sorry.


2) Taro had to be punished for leaving his chance at immortality. By allowing himself to be pulled back into the world of mortals, it was inevitable he would become like the others and lose his life as well.


3) It's a lesson in the need for the purist form altruism. If you do someone a favor, do not accept any compensation or reward.


4) If you spend time with dancing girls the rest of life can pass you by a lot faster than you realize. And once the entertainment is over what do you have?



Comparison to Rip Van Winkle
I made myself a little chart as I tried to puzzle out what was similar and dissimilar in these two tales of men who inadvertently step outside of time. It rather quickly became apparent that there were more differences than similarities.
The main thing I notice when comparing the older tale to Washington Irving's more recent one is that things turn out much more happily in America than they do in Japan. Taro's time away from his people sows the seeds of his destruction. By contrast, Rip's extended nap lead to his rebirth as a man (widowed and freed of a nagging wife) and as the citizen of a new country (freed from the rule of the King George).

In the end, Urashima Taro seems to have more in common with Planet of the Apes than Rip Van Winkle. In the POTA film, if you'll recall, Charleton Heston and his crew return to earth, but they are unaware they've slipped through some kind of time warp. Earth has aged; they have not. They can't understand how political rule has shifted from people to talking apes. They fight until they realize that all the rest of humanity has been destroyed in a nuclear war. Their position is hopeless.

"Damn dirty apes!" Charleton Heston cries in the film.

"Damn turtle!" Urashima Taro might shout as well as he considers how he's been carried to an ending that leaves him old and desolated.

Such dark pessimism. Such sour sucking lemons. But don't blame me. I didn't write the story. And I never make it a practice to recommend that anyone open boxes (or blogs) whose contents are unknown. - V.W.


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