Some stories are universal: a beautiful young girl is mistreated by her wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters; a young man, guided by magical animals, embarks on a hero's quest to overthrow an evil king; a clever trickster fools his adversaries, garnering wealth and admiration in the process. In his study of South African storytelling, The Tongue Is Fire
, Harold Scheub is a modern-day Brother Grimm, collecting Swati, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Zulu tales that have come down through centuries of a rich oral tradition. In addition to transcripts of the stories and poems, Professor Scheub includes biographies of the storytellers, the historical context of each tale, and interpretations of what these stories mean.
Between 1968 and 1976 Professor Scheub wandered the length and breadth of South Africa finding these stories; that he did not publish them until this year is the result of a promise he made to wait until apartheid was ended. The Tongue Is Fire provides a fascinating glimpse into the history and cultures of South Africa as filtered through the imagination of its peoples.
In introducing these stories, Mr. Scheub tirelessly tries to frame them in terms of white oppression and black resistance. He should have listened more closely to what one Xhosa storyteller remarked: "Our traditions were here long before apartheid came to South Africa, and our traditions will be here long after apartheid is gone." -- The New York Times Book Review, Allen D. Boyer
South African storytellers and apartheid are surveyed in a strong literary and social analysis which reflects the author's personal collection of stories between 1960 and 1976. Oral tales by rural storytellers appear in translation, preserving local myths and metaphor and documenting a changing period in South African history. -- Midwest Book Review