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The Mitten: Ukrainian Folktale

We have used many different versions of “The Mitten” from Barbara Suwyn, Irina Zheleznova, Svitlana YakovenkoPavlo Chubynsky (1878) and Ivan Rudchenko (1870). 

Today, we have a famous folktale from Ukraine that some of our travellers might have heard already! The story of the mitten has been translated from Ukrainian into many different languages and retold in children’s books! One popular one from our childhood was Jan Brett’s version! 

If you haven’t listened to the story yet, be sure to listen here or download it wherever you listen to your podcasts! Let us know what you think in the comments or reviews.

Summary

There once was a young boy with bright, red mittens. One snowy winter day, his mother told him to go into the woods to collect firewood. Bundling himself up for the cold trek, he put on his mittens and went out with his sleigh.

I do not know about you, but I find it hard to work with mittens. They can be warm, but you really need gloves when working outside. This boy is similar as he quickly shoves the mittens into his pocket, so he can collect the firewood. Unfortunately, the boy forgets to put them back on, and one of the red mittens falls out of his pocket. Oblivious, he hurries home! 

Isn’t it just the worst when you lose one glove?

Like losing a sock, I think losing a glove is a time-honoured tradition. 

Glove vs. Mitten! I didn’t actually know the difference between the two until recently! A glove has a separate compartment for every finger and thumb, whereas a mitten just covers the entire hand. We often associate mittens with children and gloves with adults! 

Page spread from Jan Brett’s “The Mitten” with a detailed border and our protagonist before he loses his beloved glove!

A little while later, a little mouse notices the bright red mitten sitting out in the snow. She excitedly darts into the mitten and warms herself up since night was falling and it was getting so cold. She thinks about how perfectly warm the mitten is and how it will make a nice place to sleep.

Not long after, she hears a ribbit-ribbit. She peaks her head out, and she sees the hoppity frog. The frog seems very cold, and the mouse didn’t mind the frog much, so she lets him stay with her in the mitten. The frog happily hops into the mitten, finding a nice warm spot to curl upon. 

Just as the little mouse and the hoppity frog begin falling asleep in the comfortable mitten, they hear a light, boom boom. Startled, the two look outside and see the bouncing rabbit. The hoppity frog recognizes the rabbit and eagerly invites the rabbit to come in. The rabbit happily accepts and bounces in after the mouse and frog make room.

As the order and number of animals change with every variation, so do the animals’ responses to each new animal. These animal interactions are based on various telling and my personal preference. To see some other variants check out the following link.

Just as the little mouse, the hoppity frog, and the bouncing rabbit were settling in the cozy mitten for a good night’s sleep, they heard a whoosh from foom! The sound of the flapping wings of the old owl! Groaning and grumbling, the animals begin to make room for the owl as they neither want to be rude nor argue with the old owl. With a flap of his great wings, the wide-eyed old owl pushes his way in.

Once again, all the animals settle down in the mitten, and as they start to nod off, they hear the stomp stomp of the approaching boorish… well, boar. The boar demands to be let in the mitten, for it is a cold night, and he needs a place to sleep. The animals in the mitten could see his long curved tusks and did not want to argue with him! So they all shuffle over, and the boar clambers in! 

I imagine that if it is anything at all like Pumba, all the animals would soon regret this.

All the animals are snuggling together when they hear the pit-pat pit-pat of footfalls. The animals in the mitten peek out to see the sly fox looking as cold as cold can be. Shivering, she politely asks if there is any room for her in the mitten. All the animals sigh and squeeze together as the fox slides into the mitten. At this point, there seemed to be absolutely no room left! It felt like every critter was nested together tightly. 

But, everyone was in and slowly drifting off until they all heard, shluff shluff shluff. They all listen to a sad plea for a place to stay from the mournful wolf. There was an awkward pause as there really wasn’t any room for the wolf. In the silence, the wolf started howling, and everyone felt so sorry for him. So, they all sucked in their guts and squeezed together once more. The wolf climbed into the non-existent space and promptly fell asleep. 

Before anyone settles in for long, they hear a resounding kaboom kaboom kaboom. Thunderous footfalls echoed throughout the forest. Without waiting to be asked, all the animals in the mitten scrambled to make room! The only animal in the forest that could be pushing his way through was the Bear. It was a good thing they did too! Without asking, the great Bear clawed and forced his way inside the mitten. The mitten continued to stretch and stretch, and it looked like it was about to burst. But, to the great relief of all the animals, it miraculously stays intact. 

In some variants, the animals list off their names every time a newcomer appears. One of my favourite interactions is when the Bear appears. We are Crunch-Munch the Mouse, Hop-Stop the Frog, Fleet-Feet the Rabbit, Smily-Wily the Fox, Howly-Prowly the Wolf and Snout-Rout the Boar. And who are you?”

 “Ho-ho-ho! I’m Grumbly-Rumbly the Bear. And though you’re quite a crowd, I know you’ll make room for me!”

Image from Jan Brett’s “The Mitten.”

Finally, at long last, the animals truly settle down and fall asleep for the night. Dawn breaks and a small singing sparrow flies overhead and sees the bright red mitten full of the woodland animals. She politely asks if she can come into the mitten for a quick nap. But alas, all the animals were sleeping, and she didn’t want to wake them. She was so small! Surely there was enough room for her, she thought to herself. And so, she hops closer, places one tiny foot into the mitten and accidentally tickles the big bully bear’s nose. 

“Ah, ah ah-CHOO!” The great Bear sneezed, and all the animals flew in all directions out of the mitten (talk about a rude wake-up call)! Soon after, the young boy came by to see what the noise was! He looked around but saw no animals, just several tracks going in all directions away from his bright red mitten. Relieved that he found it, he picked it up and put it on, wondering if it was always bigger than his other mitten.


1. Folklore in children’s books and imaginations 

Folklorists often cite five qualities used to determine genuine folktales. These traditional stories must be passed on orally, exist invariants, consist of formulaic elements, and have anonymous authors. For this reason, Children’s storybooks often include folklore or fairy tale tropes as they are simple and recognizable.

According to Priscilla Ord in her article, “Children’s Literature and the Folklore Connection” for the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, when a story is passed down through oral storytelling, it develops a rhythm to it with stock characters, simple plot lines and easy to recognize elements. This type of storytelling utilizes children’s incredible sense of wonderment and their scope of imagination. Something that sadly cannot always be reproduced in adults since we are constantly comparing and drawing connections. 

Still, it is not too late for adult readers to immerse themselves in children’s literature. With the rising popularity of online reading communities like Booktok, Book Twitter and Bookstagram, adults are encouraged to read a range of books including children, teens, and young adult literature. After all, the true connection between people and folklore is that it brings us a sense of familiarity and simplicity in an otherwise complicated world! So go out there and read a whimsical fairy tale or animal tale! 

Image from Jan Brett’s notes on the Mitten which details her use of Ukrainian folklore.

2. Let’s talk Logistics: The Mitten Limitations

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, or more accurately, the bear in the mitten. It seems highly unlikely to me that all these animals could fit into a single mitten. So, I decided to investigate this for myself, and see how much a mitten could really hold! Unfortunately, I do not have access to all these animals to do a practical test. But, with a bit of math and a lot of googling, we should have a good theoretical idea of what is possible. Fair warning, due to not knowing the exact breed of these animals and the internet generally not always giving clear sizing, these are rough estimates. My numbers are based on the average animal sizes of breeds known to be native to this area. However, before we address the animals, let’s get an idea of our container size.

Today’s story said the owner of a mitten was a boy but to give this mitten the best chance it can, we’ll say he has his dad’s mittens. So for an adult male, the average hand length is 8-9 inches. Calculating the circumference and using a cylinder as a base for measuring volume, we are looking at about 450 cubic inches. Which for our purposes means that it could comfortably hold 4 bananas. 

With that in mind, the most the mitten could have held would have been the common mouse, plus a common frog and a House Sparrow. That’s it! Each of these animals is smaller than the length of 1 banana, so they all could have reasonably fit in the mitten together. Every other animal’s average height and length would simply be too big to try and fit in that small mitten. The smallest of the remaining animals would be the owl. The average size of a common barn owl is 14.5 inches tall, which is 2 bananas long! For some more banana-related math, check out our analysis of the “long-nosed Troll Princess” from East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Animal Length (inches)Height (inches)
Common Mouse3.5 in (nose to base of tail)
Common Frog3
European Rabbit16
Barn Owl14.5
Wild Boar6630
Red Fox2617
Grey Wolf5282
Eurasian brown bear66
House Sparrow6.3
Turns out it’s hard to find the heights and lengths of each animal. But every site was happy to tell me the average weight of the animal. Too bad that doesn’t come as much into play in this story!

3. Ukrainian animal tales and folklore

Ukrainian Animal Tales translated by Irina Zheleznova

Ukrainian folklore and folk traditions have always been at the forefront of their cultural movements. According to a survey of Ukrainian folklore by Petro Lintur, the earliest mention of the basn’, a type of orally transmitted fable, already existed in the region from as early as the 11th and 12th centuries. Oral delivery was the most common method of spreading stories, specifically through folk songs, folk tales and chants. According to Filjaret Kolessathe, traditional stories included animal tales, tales of magic (fairy tales), legends, mythological stories, anecdotes and jokes. 

Many Ukrainian folktales were suppressed during the 1800s, and in 1849, one author, Andrii Ivanovych Dyminsky, was accused of distributing revolutionary literature with his collection of folk tales and legends. When we look at the genres of these folktales, we can see that the amount of Ukrainian Animal tales surpasses all of Western Europe and Russia! These tales can be broken down into didactic tales that come from Aesop’s fables, and genuine folk stories characterized by their creativity and simplicity. Some of the animals featured, like the goat and wolf, are believed to be the totem animals from Ukrainian tribes and held special meanings. 

The most popular animals in the Ukrainian animal tales are the fox (the vixen) with over fifty-five stories, the wolf (thirty-four texts), the dog (twenty-nine texts), the bear (twenty-three texts), the tomcat (eighteen texts), the hare (fourteen texts), and the horse (twelve texts); of the birds, the rooster (seventeen texts), the sparrow (sixteen texts), and the eagle (eight texts). While the number of animals may be random and based on the storyteller’s preferences, they do also correlate to three of the top wild animals in Ukraine which are the fox, wolf and hare.  


4. Tragedy of the commons

Illumination Studios: The Lorax

The mitten in today’s story was seen as a nice warm place to stay during a cold winter’s night. And, since none of the animals owned the mitten, it was considered fair game and open for everyone. But of course, all animals acted in their own self-interest and decided that they deserved a spot in the mitten. All were aware of how little room was available but wanted to take what little remaining space for themselves. This resulted in the mitten bursting and being ruined once it became too much. This concept of an unregulated shared resource being ruined or depleted like this is known as the Tragedy of the Commons.

This concept dates back to an essay written by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. However, it wouldn’t be known as “The Tragedy of the Commons” until 1968 when Garret Hardin used the term in his article on shared resources for Science Magazine. Hardin discusses the issues of short-sighted, self-interest over the long-term common good.

There are many real-world examples of this idea in play. Overfishing, deforestation, traffic congestion, you get the idea. This idea is also illustrated in the book and later movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’: The Lorax. This story is all about a single man, known as the Once-ler, who slowly strips the land of all its resources. The Guardian, known as the Lorax, tries to warn the Once-ler to stop before it’s too late. But he refuses to listen as the man is making lots of money off the land. Eventually, the forest, animals, and the Lorax are all gone. The book ends with the Once-ler asking a child to help replant the forest to correct his mistake, but it’s not clear how possible this endeavour is. 


5. Bag of holding

In this tale, the mitten is an impossibly small object that can hold a ridiculous amount of items. If this sounds familiar, then you are probably thinking of the Bag of Holding trope! Named after the Dungeons and Dragons item, this trope features an almost limitless amount of space within a small item that leads to a pocket dimension. This is a common feature in a lot of animated works and comic books where characters pull out massive items from their backpacks! In Scott Pilgrim, Ramona can hide Scott in her bag! In Big Hero 6, there is the Power purse which belongs to Honey Lemon and is full of inter-universe wormholes! We even see this in the Harry Potter universe with Hermione’s charmed bag in the Deathly Hallows.

This trope lends itself to the “bigger on the inside” theme that we see in the form of Doctor Who’s pockets and Robin from How I Met Your Mother’s bag of vices. It also has one of my favourite tropes which is the “rummage fail” when characters rummage around these endless bags with a seemingly random assortment of objects to find the one they need! 

Bag of Holding art by Dmitry Burmak

Further Reading

Ord, Priscilla A. “Children’s Literature and the Folklore Connection.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 11 no. 3, 1986, p. 114-115. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/chq.0.0419.

Suwyn, B. J. (1997). The Magic Egg and Other Tales from Ukraine (World Folklore Series). Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited.

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