This week’s Top Ten is none other than a Top Nine! And it’s about folk heroes from around the world. Folklore and folktales are some of my favorite reading because they’re stories that aren’t afraid to be themselves. I’m still taking college classes (only until I finish at the end of the year, God be willing), and this week, one of my classes is looking closer at folk heroes, albeit mostly American ones. I was inspired reading about Pecos Bill and decided to look into the stories and legends revolving around some folk heroes I haven’t heard about for years. These are the briefly told, often comic or tragic stories about my nine favorite folk heroes (purposely excluding Davy Crockett because, well, he’s not one of my favorites…).
1. Pecos Bill
Pecos Bill is the wildest cowboy in the west (or, technically, in the southwest). He was thrown from his family wagon as a young boy, and was subsequently raised by coyotes. When a cowboy found Bill and pointed out that he had no tail, Pecos Bill became a cowboy who could ride anything and used a snake as a lasso, because why not? Eventually, Bill settles down with an equally skilled wife, Sue, and they run a farm together. That is, until Sue tries to ride Widow Maker, Pecos Bill’s horse, and ends up getting kicked to the moon, where Bill and her now live with a big rowdy family. Like all folktales and the heroes within, Pecos Bill holds a greater meaning for the territory where his story was based: Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He’s a symbol of the culture—i.e. fearless horse riders and relentless farmers. At one point in his history, Bill even lassoed and rode a tornado when the land was in a drought, bringing rainwater to the people and creatures and solidifying him as a wild west hero.
2. William Tell
William Tell (sometimes called Willhelm Tell) is a hero from Switzerland folklore who has become a symbol of freedom. Tell was a peasant, as the legend goes, who didn’t play to the rules of his Austrian overlords. As a result, he was forced to shoot an apple of the head of his own child; luckily, Tell was the best crossbow marksman in the land. He shot the apple clean off before getting dragged off to prison as a result of him turning his sights on the Austrian governor. As it happened, he saved the same governor’s life and, in the end, killed that very same governor in an ambush. Sounds crazy? William Tell me about it (bad pun is bad). William Tell’s existence is highly questioned, but he represents something that is now so precious to the people of Switzerland: their freedom to choose and their bravery in the face of opposition. Switzerland is currently considered the third freest country in the world.
3. Johnny Appleseed
Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman by birth) was, in reality, a vigilant nurseryman born in 1774, and he’s held responsible for populating the midwest of the US with apple trees. What’s a nurseryman you ask (well, unless you know already)? A nurseryman is someone who works in the tree industry, obviously! Good ol’ Johnny planted apple seeds for money, of course, but his legend tells a different story: Johnny Appleseed sowed seeds from the goodness of his heart, searching for new lands and giving them the gift that keeps the doctor away. Johnny Appleseed represents something that was very important to North American colonists, and that is the thrill at the heart of the frontier.
4. Qutb Shah
Qutb Shah (don’t ask me how to pronounce it, not even Google revealed that secret to me) is a folk hero that reigns from both India and Afghanistan. He was, according to a story that was thought true before later being disproved, a ruler from Herat, Afghanistan in 960 AD that moved into India, taking wives and land and all that was under the sun. His wives birthed many children, who ran his land and descended into tribes that would later fall under British Indian rule. Apparently, these tribes—Punjabi Tribes, according to Kiddle, an encyclopedia for children—told the British colonials the tall tale of Qutb Shah to impress, or scare, them. Qutb Shah is an important folk hero for a lot of reasons, but mainly, he was a symbol for Indian citizens to hold onto when India was under foreign rule in the 18th century.
5. Paul Bunyan
Who is this Paul Bunyan that we’ve all heard of? Well, duh, he’s a gigantic lumberjack fantasy who travels with an equally gigantic blue ox named Babe, who was a completely normal birthday gift. What, you’ve never received an ox for your birthday? What were your parents even doing? Paul Bunyan, according to his tale, was born too large and grew too big, and as a result, he and Babe the Blue Ox traveled about Minnesota and the surrounding states, together stomping holes into the ground that would become the Great Lakes and accidentally creating the Grand Canyon by dragging a hatchet behind them. Where did this legend come from? Where else but from a 1916 ad campaign by Red River Lumber Company. With a beard that could rival even the hippest of hipster’s, this lumberjack was way ahead of his time.
6. John Henry
John Henry is almost certainly one of the greatest American folk heroes, and he’s also by far the most popular African American folk hero. John Henry worked on the railroad, according to the story that originates from the 1800’s, where he was a large, strong-armed steeldriver. Steeldrivers were often known to die because it was unimaginably hard work in horrible conditions, and in answer to both this and the slow pace of the man labor, train companies began developing “steam drills” that did the work faster and with fewer workers. Henry, seeing this would put them out of work, challenged the steam drill operator, saying that he could bust a hole through the mountain faster than the machine—and so, he did. John Henry beat the steam drill, but in the end, the work and conditions took his life. There are so, so many reasons this folktale is important, but mainly, it depicts how much African Americans—even freed slaves such as Henry—were devalued and underestimated and how little major companies cared for their manual laborers. John Henry isn’t confirmed to have been a real person, but whether he was or not, he’s representative of a real struggle and an often harsh American history.
7. Robin Hood
Everyone knows about Robin Hood, the beloved outlaw who robs the rich and gives his take to the poor. In English folklore, Robin Hood is as major an icon as Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan are to Americans. Robin Hood was largely popularized in the United States via cinema, where we’ve seen comedies, action dramas, and Disney cartoons, but much of his story isn’t set in stone. Some tales tell of his encounters with Guy of Gisbourne, another skilled archer wearing the skin of a bear, while others show his loving relationship with Friar Tuck and Little John. The only common thread through all of his narratives is the Sheriff of Nottingham villain, keeping at the core of Robin Hood folklore the idea that the government isn’t always acting in our best interest and that, sometimes, it’s up to us to make a difference (cough relevant cough).
8. Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc, a folk hero from France, was a badass lady who led an army to victory in the 1400’s, and she’s one of only a few on this list to be a real person! As her story goes, she was told by God that she could lead the French to victory against the British in the Hundred Years’ War. Taking on this God-bestowed duty, she vowed chastity, refused an arranged marriage, and gained a following of believers who truly thought she was to be France’s savior. As the virgin warrior, Joan wore white armor and rode a white horse, and she led a victorious assault on the British—multiple times. In response to her victories, Joan of Arc became a name known far and wide. However, in a sad and horribly ironic twist, Joan’s last battle ended in her capture by the Burgundians, who showed her off like a war trophy before publicly burning her alive on charges of witchcraft and war crimes. Joan of Arc is important because she was a female warrior like something no one had ever imagined at the time, and she was so incredible at what she did that, when it came down to how exactly she managed it, it was concluded that she must be a witch. I think we can all agree, though, that if payback is a bad witch, then Joan of Arc is the baddest.
9. Marco Polo
If you haven’t watched Marco Polo on Netflix, finish this post, order one of my books, and go binge the show while you wait for the book to arrive. Marco Polo is one of my favorite stories, and like Joan of Arc, he’s 100% real. Polo was a man from Venice who traveled with his family to China on a merchant trip and later, at Kublai Khan’s request, returned to teach the region about God and Christianity. The Netflix show (which got bad reviews, but I love it) exaggerates things a bit, but not as much as one might think: Marco Polo truly did become a confidante to the Khan, even becoming an envoy for him and helping to transport a princess. It wasn’t widely believed by Venetians that the outside world was as structured as their own luxurious lives, but Polo and his family discovered otherwise, making them important to the world’s understanding of itself at the time. Unfortunately, when Marco Polo’s book, where he recounted his adventures, was originally published, Europeans believed it impossible fiction and called it Il Milione, which means The Million Lies. Today, it’s not known how much of Polo’s words are truth, but his nearly impeccable details about Mongol-occupied China, the Khan, and the Chinese culture suggest that Polo was truly the brave explorer he claimed to be. The reasonable doubt, however, is what makes him a folk hero.
I hope you enjoyed learning about a few folk heroes! Which folk hero is your favorite, and are there others you love that I didn’t include (like Davy Crockett)? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to like and share this post, too, if you enjoyed it, or even if you didn’t!
If you want to read more of my content, you really should check out my books. Mordecai Episode One: Bloodthirsty is my most recent release. It’s a science fantasy about an African American half-elf from Portland, who also can travel the multiverse. So, you know, normal stuff… Its sequel, Episode Two: Imprisoned, is releasing later this year. If you want to read more blog posts, I post once a week, including poetry and Top Tens (or Nines) each once a month. Follow for updates, and do the same on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay connected.
Happy Trails! See you next week.
Weekly Writing Prompt:
Create a folk hero that fits your area—whether it be a state, town, or even a neighborhood. Just remember, your hero simply must be weird.