Pictorial Tale. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

A narrative form in which the storyteller draws details of a picture representing narrative
descriptions that lead to a surprising ending to the story as shown in the final drawing. In
the late 20th century, the form is commonly collected as humorous tales or jokes told by
adults to children or children to other children.
In one traditional pictorial tale found commonly in England and America, the figure of
a bird is formed from the narrative description of an oval pond (forming the center of the
birds body), cattails at one end of die pond (the bird’s tail), a house with one window (the
bird’s head), a path from the house to the pond (the bird’s neck), and two Indians living
in tents who came up two paths for water (the bird’s feet). A variant commonly collected
in the Southern United States describes two men working in a briar patch (forming the
feet) who go for water and return (forming the tail), while a father and a son live in a
house with a lookout. When the son investigates the noise made by the men, he returns to
his father and says “Ain’t nothing but a crane, pop.” The drawing at this conclusion
reveals the figure of a crane. Other animals, sometimes hunted or chased in the tales, are
wildcats, ducks, or mice. Pictorial tales also lead to words or landscapes that close out a
story. The diagrams are often drawn in the ground, or sketched on chalkboard or paper.
Many of the pictorial tales pose the question, “What’s this?” to the details successively
being added until the total picture is revealed. Related to this form are riddle jokes using
pictorial clues that reveal a spoken answer other than what is expected from the drawing.
Often the answer may seem offcolor to the child. An example is an Indian teepee to
which is added a smokehole and the sun above. With the addition- of an arc, the picture
becomes: “My dad bending over the tub to wipe it out after he has taken a bath.” The
pictorial tale is distinguished from a “droodle” by the narrative sequencing found in the
tale. The droodle shows a single boxed drawing that gives a clue as to its representation.
A common example is two parallel vertical lines with semicircles on them. When the
drawer asks, “What’s this?” the answer is a bear climbing a tree or a giraffe’s neck.
Many American Indian groups have a special form of the pictorial tale in which
figures are drawn to represent symbols used in episodes of a story. The symbols are
brought together at the conclusion in one encompassing picture. Among the Oglala
Dakota, for example, the story of the traveling Indian Wic’o’Wic’aga was collected as a
pictorial tale. In this story, he travels westward and sees seven fireplaces, and then comes
to a valley in which he sees seven camps. He continues and sees a large camp with seven
teepees on each of which is drawn a different picture. The one on the end has no picture,
and Wic’o’Wic’aga is instructed to go to that one to find out about the rest of his journey.
Inside he receives presents such as pipe, a bow and arrow, and a medicine bag. The final
picture includes the figures that have previously been drawn and the concluding moral:
“Just as he went through trials and tribulations and got gifts for his reward, so people say
that those who endure hardship in a manly way will enjoy the privileges of a good man”
(Beckwith 1930:339–442).
Simon J.Bronner
Beckwith, Martha. 1930. Mythology of the Oglala Dakota. Journal of American Folklore 43:339–
Bronner, Simon J. 1978. Pictorial Jokes: A Traditional Combination of Verbal and Graphic
Processes. Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 44:189–196.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1971. Folklore in Utah: A Guide for Collectors. Salt Lake City: University
of Utah Press, pp. 59–60.
——. 1986. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 3d. ed. New York: W.W.Norton, pp.
Early, Maud G. 1897. The Tale of the Wild Cat: A Child s Game. Journal of American Folklore
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. [1937] 1971. On the Banks of Plum Creek. New York: Harper and Row, p.