Folktales in Things Fall Apart

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  • 0:00 Folktales
  • 0:41 The Mosquito and the Ear
  • 1:17 The Snake-Lizard
  • 1:58 The Tortoise
  • 3:36 Mother Kite and Daughter Kite
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Folktales are woven into the narrative of 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe. These stories, in which animals figure prominently, serve as a way to pass on folklore and wisdom to the younger generation of the Umuofia clan.


Folktales are a way of passing on the clan's culture in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a novel about the Igbo culture in Nigeria taken over by English missionaries. Typically, folktales are viewed as a pastime of the Igbo women, but Nwoye, son of the main character Okonkwo, enjoys the folktales his mother tells, though his father disapproves. Animals figure prominently in all of the tales and these narratives often contain bits of memorable wisdom. They offer explanations, advice, and offer an activity to bond one generation to another. Let's go over some of the folktales from the novel.

The Mosquito and the Ear

First, we'll begin with a folktale that focuses on the mosquito, one of the most annoying creatures in nature. When Okonkwo is bitten by a mosquito, he remembers his mother telling the humorous tale of the mosquito and the ear when he was a child.

In the story, the mosquito asks the ear to marry him, whereupon the ear responds with gales of laughter. 'How much longer do you think you will live?' Ear asks. 'You are already a skeleton.' After the rebuff, if ever the ear came near, the mosquito always took the opportunity to remind the ear that it was alive. This is the reason mosquitoes always seem to attack the ears.

The Snake-Lizard

Now let's turn to the folktale of the snake-lizard. Like the mosquito tale, the story of the snake-lizard is also humorous. As Okonkwo's wife and daughter are cooking, they naturally turn to the tale of the snake-lizard since it is a story about food.

The snake-lizard brings his mother seven baskets of vegetables. Because vegetables are smaller when cooked, only three baskets of vegetables remain after they are cooked, but the snake-lizard doesn't realize this is normal, so the snake-lizard kills his mother. When he himself cooks seven baskets of vegetables, he experiences the same result. 'So he killed himself too,' Okonkwo's daughter says, completing the oft-told tale for her mother.

The Tortoise

The tale of the tortoise, like several of the other folktales in the novel, attempts to explain a natural phenomenon. The tortoise folktale is told as by Ekwefi, one of Okonkwo's wives. All the birds are planning a huge feast in the sky, and the tortoise would like to go because the land has been experiencing a famine. He convinces the birds to let him attend, and they all contribute a feather so that he can fly.

On the way, the tortoise has everyone choose new names. He says that his new name is 'All of you.' When the group arrives at the feast, the tortoise asks for whom the meal has been cooked. When the host answers that he prepared the feast for 'all of you,' the tortoise gorges himself on the food while the birds watch him eat.

Together, the birds take all the feathers back that they have given him, so he has no safe way to go back to earth. The tortoise asks the parrot to fly down and tell his wife to bring all of the soft things out of the house so when he jumps back down he will land unharmed.

But the parrot is angry about the tortoise's behavior, and instead tells the wife to bring all the hard things into the yard. She brings out weapons and farm implements and places them about the yard. When the tortoise lands on the hard objects, his shell cracks into pieces. A medicine man gathers all the pieces and puts him back together, and this is why the tortoise's shell is not smooth.

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