A Story from Finland
Retold by Neppe Pettersson
Once upon a time the Bemböle people decided to build a new log house in Bemböle. And to build a house, they knew that they would need something to build with the logs! And one other thing they knew they had to go out into the woods to cut down trees.
So, they took their axes and one sledge with a horse, and set off. The smartest man said it was his privilege to get the sledge, because he was the smartest one. And because he was the smartest one, everyone thought that to be very smart and off he went with the horse, and his axe in the sledge.
The other men of Bemböle set off strolling after the sledge, but soon it couldn’t be seen any longer. After a while the smartest one drove on a bump in the mud road, the sledge jumped, and the axe fell off, and was left lying behind. Because even if you are smartest, you do not have eyes in the back of your head.
Soon the men came strolling to the place where the axe lay. “Oh!”, they thought, “that is what one does when one is smart one takes his axe and leaves it on the road!” And so they did, too, and continued.
When they reached the forest where the nicest and straightest trees were growing, they decided to immediately start cutting them down. Well, there was just one problem… Cutting. They had no axes to cut with.
They put all their noodly heads together and began thinking deeply about this. They thought, and they pondered, and they wondered. And finally the smartest said: “If we can’t cut down the trees, we have to break them down!”
“Yes, yes, yes. But how??”
“Weeell, you see, I have it all figured out! Because I’m the smartest I will climb up the tree first, and go out on that sturdy branch. There I will hang down in my hands. And then one of you will come after me, climb up, hang down but from my legs! And then the next, and the next – and soon we will be so heavy, that the tree will break!”
“Yes, yes, yes, oh, you are sooo smart!”
And they did just as they had planned. Up in the top the smartest soon hang, in his feet the next man, in his feet another. And after a while they all were hanging there, and it was indeed a working plan! The tree began to bend, and sway, and give cracking noises. Yes! This is the way to get logs to a new house!
But it got to be a bit heavy for the smartest. So he shouted down: “Be as heavy as you can, I will just take a better grip, and spit in my hands!” He let off his grip to spit… And soon they all lay in a heap on the ground.
Oh dear… The plan didn’t work after all. They had to start thinking again. And that is really hard work if you are from Bemböle. So they thought, and they pondered, and they wondered. And finally the smartest one opened his mouth: “I’ve got a plan!”
“Tell, tell, tell!”
“If we can’t break down the trees, we’ll burn them down!”
“Yes, yes, yes!!”
The smartest took up Bemböle’s only match box, and took out one match. But then he began to think… what if this match didn’t work? He had to try it out first. He struck the match to the side of the match box. Puff! Oh yes, it did work! He blew out the match, and took out another one. But what if this other one didn’t work?? He had to test it… He lighted the match yes, yes, yes! But what if the next match didn’t work? Well, it did. And so did all the matches in the match box. What a relief to know! Now he could light the tree, and burn it down.
Or he couldn’t. No. What now? The men shook their poor heads, what to do, what to do – how can we now get fire?? And they thought, and they pondered, and they wondered.
And then a smile came on the smartest ones face. “I know, I know, I know how we will get fire!”
“Tell, tell, tell!”
“Weeeell, you see… When I accidentally fell down from this tree trying to break it, and hit the ground, I could see stars and sparks. And now this is the smartest thing now we will take one of these sparks, and light the tree with it!!”
“Yes, yes, yes… But how??”
“Aaaah, you will just have to hit me, so that I can see the sparks again. And when I can see them, I’ll shout to you, and you’ll catch them, okay?”
“Yes, yes, yes, such a smart plan!”
And the Bemböle men started hitting the poor smart man. And they hit, and they hit, and they hit. And he surely saw a lot of stars and sparks but somehow they could not light any tree with them…
Suddenly the smartest one shouted: “Stop! Stop! I’ve got it!” Something must have fallen on a right place in his head accidentally, because he said: “Let’s go and fetch our axes, and cut down the trees!”
“Yes, yes, yes! That’s what we’ll do!”
So they did. And so they were able to cut down as many good and straight trees as they had need for, just enough to build a good new log house.
What happened next? Well, that’s another story!
In Finland all noodleheads live in one village. The Swedish speaking minority has the tradition that the village is called Bemböle a real existing village near the capital Helsinki. (I’m a Swedish speaking Finn). The Finnish speaking Finns call the village Hölmölä. . Hölmö is the Finnish word for “stupid” or “daft”, and the ending -lŠ makes a noun become a place / town / village. Because I tell stories from my tradition I tell about the numbskulls from Bemböle!
I have told this story to all ages from 6 years up, in many countries, and everyone seems to know somebody that could be from Bemböle.
The younger the audience, the more you have to give them the “real” experience first. Like “how do you cut down a tree? with an axe, yes, or a saw, good, I see you know that”. And when you get comments from children like “but why didn’t they go and fetch the axes”, you can say “because they were not as clever as you, remember they were from Bemböle, and couldn’t think that quick”. The older the audience, the more you can just give a hint about the repetition. Like the man hanging in the tree shouting “I’m just going to spit in my hands!”, and the rest is obvious.
This tale is commonly found in numbskull collections all over the world, and especially in the Finnish ones. If you follow the Aarne-Thompson typology, you can find the following story motifs:
AT 1246 – throwing the axes on the road
AT 1241 – letting the tree drink (trying to pull down the tree)
AT 1260B* – testing the matches
AT 1344 – lighting a fire with sparks from boxing
Neppe Pettersson is a storyteller and also a tv producer of children’s programming for YLE, “the BBC of Finland”. She tours Finland and Scandanavia as a storyteller and storytelling teacher and has been active in establishing a Finnish network for storytellers. More information can be found at www.netikka.net/neppe