The Real Nightingale Stands Up

Bobbie Rockwell presents "Folk Tales from Around the World" at Blue Ridge Community College. Photo by Tim Robison

Bobbie Rockwell presents “Folk Tales from Around the World” at Blue Ridge Community College. Photo by Tim Robison

We love to tell stories, and no stories resonate more familiarly than the folk tales passed down for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. These ancient tales still have much to tell us about our common history and shared traditions, and are the focus of this month’s “Folk Tales from Around the World: Wisdom for the Ages” series at the Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning. Among the stories are a Japanese tale involving demons and mistaken identity, and one from Ethiopia about the benefits of elder wisdom.

Bold Life spoke with educator Bobbie Rockwell, the series leader, about what these stories still have the power to impart.

How did you choose which of hundreds of tales to tell?
My focus for [this] series will be to look for meaningful wisdom that stands the test of time, as well as to compare style and substance from the various parts of the world. Most tales were intended to provide wisdom for the young. It’s a challenge to find ones that celebrate the wisdom of the old, but a few in this group do, and we’ll examine that issue. We’ll be reading, from Japan, “The Man With the Wen”; from Native American Algonquin folklore, “The Rough-Faced Girl,” which is a version of the Cinderella story; “Fire on the Mountain,” from Ethiopia; a Tolstoy fable from Russia called “The Two Brothers”; “The Green Man,” from England; and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” from Denmark.

Are there any themes in the stories especially relevant to modern society?
I’m curious what a 21st-century audience will think of “The Nightingale” in terms of comparing the story’s mechanical bird to a real one as a metaphor for our technological world versus nature. [In the tale, an emperor prefers the song of a fake, jewel-adorned nightingale to the one found outside — until hearing the real deal restores his failing health.]

How did your teaching background lead you to this area of study?
The majority of my experience was in the Oak Ridge [Tennessee] school system as a teacher and coordinator for gifted programs. Over the decades, as I discussed old stories with students of a variety of ages, I came to realize that I never tired of them — never failed to find a new way of looking at an aspect of a story element. My understanding grew over time. As a result, several years ago I began offering discussion classes of folk and fairy tales to older adults, and for many of the participants, they have been quite thought-provoking. Hopefully this will be true at Blue Ridge as well.

What meaning do the stories have for you personally?
Meaning can be different for each person, but for me, in this group of stories, there are themes of living for enjoyment, perseverance, following one’s own path and becoming a better person. Someone else may take something very different from them, and in my classes we respect all ideas and don’t try to find a “best” answer.

Folk Tales from Around the World: Wisdom for the Ages will be presented in three sessions of two hours each on Mondays, February 6, 13, and 20, from 1-3pm, Room 150 of the Patton Building at Blue Ridge Community College. The cost is $40 for Center For Lifelong Learning members, $60 for non-members. To enroll online, visit or call 828-694-1740.

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