Superheroes seem to be everywhere in current pop culture; their movies break bank at the box office, their comics consistently sell well, and children collect figures and video games featuring their favorites; however, society forgets that these superheroes didn’t evolve in a vacuum. Marvel and DC didn’t wake up one day and decide to invent individuals with extraordinary powers. Author and storyteller Csenge Virag Zalka uses her book, Tales of Superhuman Power, to explore and reveal the ancient roots of many current superpowers. Through her collection of fifty-five folktales, readers can learn how humans have been fascinated with exceptional skills since the creation of stories.
The book is broken into four general categories and then branched out into more specific skills or abilities as Zalka expands on the folktales that match each section. She includes sources, the Aarne-Thompson numbers (folktale type and story motif cataloging system for folklorists), and the recommended age group for each tale, always keeping in mind that her selections are meant to be told aloud. The short introduction also lays out Zalka’s methodology for choosing stories and why some well-known tales may not make the grade. Keep in mind that her primary motivation is finding old stories about human beings with special powers, not tales of divine individuals who dazzle the rest of us.
While the selection of stories seems a bit heavy on Hungarian folktales, Zalka does provide a nice mixture of stories that aren’t as familiar to casual readers. As a child I read a lot of fairy tales, folktales, and mythology, and I still was pleasantly surprised by the vast majority of the stories. I particularly liked the inclusion of “Nanaue, The Shark Man,” a Hawaiian legend, since I have almost no familiarity with the native stories from the region. Other regions represented in the stories include North Africa, China, Japan, Ireland, and many more. Zalka also freely admits that the versions she tells are often amalgamations of several sources, which may be from different countries. The locale contributing the most material gets the credit in the book, but the others get a nod in the short introduction before each piece.
Zalka also does a good job linking each of the folktales back to modern superheroes by providing current pop culture examples of the powers from each story. Due to their abundance, the examples are often Big Two heavy, but she includes individuals from TV shows such as Heroes, Misfits, and Syfy’s Alphas, as well when they fit the featured ability.
My only complaint with Tales of Superhuman Power was that I wanted to see more analysis of the abilities and why they continue to fascinate us today. Why haven’t some of these skills, like an ability to control basic weather, lost their hold on us since, at least in the Western world, we are no longer at the mercy of nature? Are some unforeseen skills emerging in pop culture due to changes in technology? Zalka was clearly working with a different goal, and while the end product was well executed, I was left a little disappointed.
Overall, Tales of Superhuman Power is a collection of lesser-known folktales for storytellers and the like to use as a reference manual and an introduction to more casual readers. While it didn’t provide the in-depth analysis that I craved (I was probably expecting far too much from a fifty-five story collection!), it provided a great tool for exposing both children and adults to the world of oral storytelling and older tales of special abilities and gifts.
4 Examples of Big Two Characters out of 5