A Bit Of Graft

With a new year starting, a vaccine on it’s way, and the economy in tatters I predict we are once more going to be hearing a lot about “hard work”. We are going to be exhorted to get down to it, get on with it and be dedicated about it. If we are poor we will be told that it’s because we aren’t doing enough of it. Those who are wealthy will claim that it’s because they did lots of it. Realising that “Hard work” is about to become a hot topic I naturally set about searching my data base for a folktale about hard work and the riches it bestows.

There wasn’t one. I checked with a fellow storyteller. They didn’t know of one either. Oh, There are plenty of tales warning of the destitution and destruction that can befall those who do not work at all (so I would avoid that). There are also many examples of stories in which doing some hard work is used as a signal of the protagonists virtue before they receive a gift of extraordinary munificence from a supernatural benefactor… But not one that we could think of in which the protagonist achieves opulence as a direct result of working hard and getting proportional recompense for said hard work.

Without doing an exhaustive statistical breakdown, I think I can pretty safely say that the most frequent folktale method of becoming rich is to marry nobility. Through most of history this option was only available to those of noble birth in the first place and most rags-to-riches tales are in reality riches-to-rags-and-back-again tales (Notably the fall from prosperity amongst nobility is always bad luck and never the result of not doing enough hard work). Although some domestic drudgery may be involved along the road back to affluence, this brings no reward of it’s own, in fact it usually comes with a side order of humiliation and degradation.

Celtic Myth goes further and spells it out for us when Cormac Mac Art goes to the land of Faery and is shown a vision in which a man constantly feeds a fire with whole trees, each of which is burned up by the time he returns with the next. This, Cormac is told, represents those who work for others as their work is never done and they do not get to warm themselves by the fire. Those who extol the benefits of you doing some hard work are frequently the people who will enjoy those benefits whilst doing very little that could be described as either hard or work themselves. If you are going to do some hard work you had better have a very clear idea of exactly what you are being given in return, because mostly it would appear to be more hard work. As ever, these tales hold up a mirror to reality. One need only to look at Nurses, who have worked even harder for the last year than they do normally and what reward have they received?

The thing is through the majority of civilisation, social mobility has been pretty much non existent. You were going to do what your parents did as there was no system for you to learn anything else. The peasantry should know their place, or at least accept it, since it wasn’t going to change unless the Lord (either local or heavenly) willed it, no matter how hard you work. Common sense agrees with this. It is clear that there is only ever a small percentage gain to be made by increasing the amount of effort put in by one person doing a one person job.

What then does folk tale offer us as an alternative to endless striving without reward? Often being clever and applying wisdom to your work is more important than how hard it is, whilst helping each other out and coming together to make hard work easy is highly recommended.

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