Story Cue Card

"Whitebear Whittington"

 

Bibliographic Information

"Whitebear Whittington." In Grandfather Tales. Edited by Richard Chase. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, p. 52-64.

 

Ethnic Information

The version I will tell is from the American/Appalachian tradition, however other versions/variants indicate that this story has origins in both Greek and Norwegian folklore.

 

Telling Time

~15 minutes

 

Power Center

The single power center for this story is the girl's love and devotion to her "husband" Whitebear Whittington. In some ways, this is the obvious choice, because it is the story of the girl's quest to regain her lost love. But on an even deeper level, part of the message of the story is that we sometimes find the truest love in the most unexpected places, and that this kind of love requires great effort and sacrifice.

 

Scenes

         Whitebear Whittington comes to the farmer's humble home to request the hand of his youngest daughter. In return, the bear promises to make the farmer wealthy. The girl reluctantly leaves her family to live with the bear. She learns that he is really a man, bewitched to spend half his time as a bear. She falls in love with him and they have three children.

         The girl takes her children to visit her family and wrongly reveals the name of her husband. He must now leave her and go into the mountains.

         The girl searches the mountains for her husband. She meets an old woman who gives her three golden nuts as payment for helping her card, spin and weave her wool. The girl leaves the woman and continues the search for her husband.

         The girl finds her husband at the river, but he doesn't recognize her. She almost wins him back by washing his shirt clean, but loses him through another woman's deception. This woman becomes Whittington's new wife.

         At the new wife's home, the girl uses her magic nuts to earn three nights alone with her husband. On the third night, he recognizes her as his true love and they spend a joyful night together.

         The spell now broken, Whittington confronts his new father-in-law and returns to his old wife. They return home with their children and live together in happiness.

 

 

Synopsis

A poor farmer with many children receives a visit from a big white bear who offers to make him wealthy if he may have his youngest daughter, the most beautiful of all his children. The farmer convinces his daughter that they will all benefit from this arrangement, and so she reluctantly agrees to go live with the bear. On the way to his home, she cries so hard that she bleeds three drops of blood on the white bear's back. Once at the bear's richly furnished home, she discovers that he is actually a man, bewitched to spend half of his time as a bear. She falls deeply in love with him, they have three children, and they live together quite contentedly. Eventually, though, the girl becomes lonely and desires to visit her father and siblings. Her husband agrees to take her for a visit, on the condition that she must reveal nothing about him, and most importantly, that she must not speak his name.

 

During the visit with her family, the girl speaks her husband's name, "Whitebear Whittington." Because of her indiscretion, the young man disappears up the mountainside in the form of a man, three drops of blood staining the back of his white shirt. Devastated, the girl sets out to find him, but can never catch up to him. She is guided on her journey only by a bird that drops white feathers to show her that she is on the right path.

 

After travelling for many years, she stops at the cottage of an old woman. The woman says she needs help with her chores, so the girl assists her in cleaning, spinning and weaving her wool. For payment, she receives 3 golden nuts. She is advised to crack them open only when she is in real trouble. Putting the nuts safely in her pocket, she sets out again to find her husband.

 

Soon she comes to a river where she sees a throng of women gathered. There among them, is her shirtless husband! She is overjoyed to find him, but he does not recognize her. She learns that whoever can wash her husband's shirt clean wins him as a husband. When she finally gets a turn to wash the shirt, the blood stains miraculously disappear. Unfortunately, another woman claims that she is the one that got the shirt clean, and then takes the young man home with her.

 

Discouraged but unwilling to admit defeat, the girl follows them to the other woman's house. There she uses her magic nuts to barter for the chance to spend the night with her husband. But the new wife gives Whittington a sleeping potion, and for the first two nights the girl cannot awaken him. However, on the third night, he spits out the potion after he becomes suspicious because after talking to his new father-in-law. Without the potion, he stays awake, recognizes his true love and the two spend a happy night together.

Whittington leaves his new wife for his old, and the spell that made him a bear is now broken forever. The happy couple returns home with their children and live happily together.

 

Recommendation for Story

I first read this story in a book called Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. I was enchanted by the "story within a story" in this novel. In this book, two elderly sisters are the storytellers. They come to visit a mountain family each year on Old Christmas (January 5th) and share their stories. Ellin Greene also recommends this story for Young Adult audiences.

 

Rhymes/Special Phrases/ "Flavor"

Though this folktale is told in many different cultures, I plan to tell it as an American/Appalachian folktale, similar to the way it was written in Grandfather Tales.

I hope to tell it with a slight southern accent and to use phrases such as "near 'bout", "bad trouble", "purty fella", and "gold chinquapin". I will also use the song of the young girl (I'll speak it rather than sing it):


"Three drops of blood I've shed for thee,

Three little babes I've born for thee,

Whitebear Whittington, turn to me"

 

 

Audience

This story is most suitable for adults and young adults because it focuses on the theme of romantic love, how it evolves, and what it demands of us. In the 6th and 7th stages of Erikson's developmental model (young and middle adulthood) we find that people are focused on issues such as intimacy, relationships, raising children and caring for others. All of these elements are present in "Whitebear Whittington." I believe that this story also fits in well with what Allan Chinen described as the transition to real adulthood, often symbolized in stories by the loss of magic and the gaining of knowledge. Symbolically, the girl in this story becomes an adult as she makes the journey to find her husband, gaining the knowledge of how to win him back. The magic of the spell on her husband is finally broken at the end of the story, signifying the passage that both of them make into adult life. Other adult themes mentioned by Chinen are evident in this story. The giving up of innocence and freedom (first when the girl leaves her family to wed the bear, and again when she goes into the mountains alone to find her lost love), personal failure (the girl's mistake in revealing Whitebear's name), and disillusionment (the girl's inability to make her husband recognize her) are all themes that should appeal to an adult audience.

 

Bibliographic Information on other Versions/Variants

"Master Semolina." Folktales of Greece. Edited by Georgios A. Megas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970, p. 60-65.

 

East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon. Translated by Sir George W. Dasent. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 1991.

 

Brief Comparison of Versions/Variants in terms of Rhythm, Tellability, Flavor, content, etc.

Each version of the story has these elements in common:

         A handsome "magical" man

         A girl who loses her lover

         The girl involved on a long journey to find her man

         The girl befriended by someone who gives them magical objects

         The girl winning her man back by using her magical objects

         The man drugged with a sleeping potion

         Someone who helps the man realize that he has been drugged

         A happy ending where the couple are reunited

 

Each variation has some unique elements that are somewhat cultural. The Dasent version (Norwegian) emphasizes how the wind helps the girl on her journey, probably due to impact of the climate on Norwegian lore. The Megas version (Greek) emphasizes the perfection of the man, who is created by a princess from sugar, almonds and semolina, then prayed over for 40 days and 40 nights until he has life. This seems to be reflective the supernatural characters in Greek mythology. The American version that I choose to tell, emphasizes the relationship between the bear-man and the girl. It feels less formal, more emotional, and has a "down-home" flavor that I like. I think it is definitely the most tellable version for those reasons.