The Sockdolager

The Sockdolager Logo

from the Spring 2015 collection

Selections from the Aarne-Thompson Index for After the End of Things

by Stewart C Baker

3000-3149 Tales of forgetting

3015 The card game. Two men playing a card game (or ball game) which dates from civilized times argue over its rules. An old man, bent and ragged over a trembling cane, approaches to claim that both are wrong, but dies before he can teach them the proper way of playing the game.

3026 Ancient poetry. A woman finds the blasted remnants of a wood, and stops to recite a poem that her grandmother taught her as a child. When an animal nobody has seen in years appears at the edge of the tree line, the words slip from her mind and she cannot bring them back. The animal may or may not be real.

3116 Soup. A group of survivors is foraging for food. Each boasts that his or her family recipe for soup is the best, but none can remember all the ingredients. The survivors try making the soup anyway, but they (a) forget how to create fire, and must eat it cold, (b) suffer hallucinations of their forebears, and/or (c) get food poisoning and die. In one variant, there are no ill effects from the soup, but the world is still gone forever.


3150-3399 Tales in which the last of something disappears

3151 The farmer eats the last orange (lemon, etc.). A farmer finds a solitary orange (etc.) hanging on a tree somewhere in the wastes. In his excitement, he swallows the seed (seeds), and learns too late that the tree no longer bears fruit.

3155 An apprentice drinks the last of the beer. An apprentice sneaks into his master’s pantry late at night and drinks the lees from a keg of beer. The next morning, he discovers that the craftsman who knew how to brew the beer has died. When his master asks for the beer, the apprentice (a) substitutes his own urine and is found out and beaten, (b) substitutes his own urine and is not found out, but is beaten anyway, or (c) admits his crime and is beaten.

In one variant, the apprentice admits to his master that he snuck into the pantry the previous night intending to drink the beer, but claims that two mice had already drunk it, and were lying in the bottom of the keg in a stupor. When the master demands that the mice be killed and cooked for their crime, the apprentice cuts off his big toes in secret and serves them instead. As neither the apprentice nor the master has ever seen a mouse, the ruse goes undetected.

The apprentice dies the next day from blood loss.

3266 The redwood (magnolia, kapok, etc.) which became a man. A tree, through a series of comical and/or mysterious events, is transmogrified into a human being. The new person undergoes a number of adventures, but dies when (a) a group of fools or (b) a group of mystics and/or botanists hear of his transformation and decapitate him to see how old he is, and/or what weather patterns were like in the ancient world. After doing so, the group tries to find a tree of the same family to compare the results, but are unable to do so.


3500-3599 Tales detailing ancient technologies

[Regrettably, all extant copies of the index are missing this section, which appears to have been excised with an unerring precision. Only a handful of headers are still known; they have been reproduced here without commentary. We may only guess at the wonders they may have contained.]

3514 The computer that built the sky.

3528 The infinite catalogue.

3540 The ship which sailed beyond the ashen clouds.

3542 Flying.

3546 The robotic house.

3589 The meal that cooked itself.


3600-3699 Trying to go back

3602 The family home. A man and woman spend a lengthy amount of time (months, years) restoring their ancestral home. When they have succeeded, they attempt to cook a meal in celebration and faulty wiring burns the house to the ground. They may or may not escape with their lives.

3608 The city. A group of men (and/or women) enslave everyone they can find to clean (or rebuild) one of the ancient cities that stands in partial ruin. Much work is spent erecting buildings, dredging sunken neighbourhoods, etcetera. In the end, the slaves rise up and kill their masters and the remnants of a once-proud race return once again to the blasted wastes, living off the land as best they can.

3647 Time Travel. A man, woman, or child travels to ancient times, but is returned to the present too soon through circumstances beyond his or her control.

I. The feast. He or she is returned just before being able to eat a sumptuous feast, the delicacies of which are described in mouthwatering detail.

II. An opportunity missed. The traveler almost averts the end of the ancient world, but through a series of comical and/or maddening coincidences is continually delayed, and is returned just before succeeding.

III. The copyist. The traveler visits a place of learning. Astonished at the secrets held there, he or she vows to return them to the present and enrich the lives of all who remain. He or she is snatched back just before putting pencil to paper.

This tale is often combined with tales of the “ancient technology” type (3500-3599), so that the traveler spends much of his or her time in the past exploring the ancient world through means of various implausibly fantastic modes of transportation and communication. However, the tales are without exception too fanciful to serve as guides for rebuilding the wonders they describe.

3658 Walking home. A man, woman, or child meets an aged figure of indeterminate sex who claims that it is possible to walk so far you will run out of present-day world and return to the past to continue your journey. The figure claims that it has managed to return many years already, but is too exhausted to go all the way to ancient times, and then dies. The man, woman, or child takes the figure at its word and begins walking.

The remainder of the tale follows the walker through many years and as many adventures, and ends with him or her serving as the figure for a new, younger walker before finally dying, exhausted. In some versions, the majority of the tale is given over to describing the changes the walker undergoes to become the sexless and weather-beaten figure, whereas other variants focus more on descriptions of the types of unusual terrain and/or events he or she witnesses.


3700-3989 Tales involving shopping carts

3715 The Quest. A man and a boy (a woman and a girl) travel through the remnants of the world in search of something ill-defined. Along the way, they experience numerous obstacles, and are only able to survive because their shopping cart (or a series of shopping carts) allows them to hold enough supplies.

At certain points, they may use the cart as: the wall of a shelter; a weapon; a stepping stool; a pantry; a toy chest; a reference point in a landscape otherwise bereft of variation; scrap for parts to further immediate or long-term goals (if they have any); a toboggan; and/or as a metaphor for the tenacity of the human need for symbols and signification in a universe which has long since been proven not to care.

Although this tale is often combined with other types, with varying degrees of focus on the cart itself, it is beyond doubt the true heart of things.

3740 The squeaky wheel. A man who refuses to abandon his shopping cart despite its squeaky wheel (a) is captured and eaten by cannibals, (b) offends whatever gods remain and is smote from the face of the Earth, (c) is taken in by a well-intentioned group of fellow survivors, or (d) develops earache.

Some scholars argue that case (b) should in fact be listed separately, as a merciful death tale, but the centrality of the shopping cart to the narrative makes the current classification more likely.

3741 The wrong turn. Much the same as 3740, except that the cart’s wheel turns in the wrong direction at arbitrary intervals instead of squeaking incessantly. Variants (a) and (c) remain the same, but (b) involves the wrong turn made by the cart causing the man to witness some sight the gods wish to keep hidden, and his smiting stems from this offence and not from the wheel itself. This adds further support to the argument for classifying these tales as cart tales, and not as merciful death tales. In the (d) variant, the cart’s sudden turn causes it to tip over, and the man bangs his shin.

3920 An impossible cart. A man, woman, or child finds a shopping cart in a place where it cannot possibly be. (e.g. the top of a ladder; inside a sealed shipping container; on the other side of a door that is too small for it to fit through.) Most of the tale is taken up with wildly implausible theories as to how the cart got there, before a mundane solution is revealed in the end.


3990-3999 Tales of merciful deaths

3992 The fool executes his mistress. A fool releases his mistress from the burden of having a fool for a servant by inadvertently killing her through a series of implausible and humorous events.

3994 The old woman’s final vision. A blind, deaf, and infirm crone, who was born before the end came, has her sight and hearing miraculously restored. Her family, who have kept her ignorant of the true extent of the world’s devastation, put off her requests to leave the hovel in which they all live until they can create something like what she explains to them. At last, when they are finished, they show her their diorama in place of the outside of the hovel.

Her nostalgic longing sated, she dies not knowing the true nature of things.


Modifications to Existing Tales

243 The parrot pretends to be God.

III. The same as variant II, except that the people, never having seen a parrot before, take it to be God in truth.

650C The youth who bathed himself in the blood of a dragon. After the youth dies, he returns from the grave in the form of a dragon himself, and burns all the cities of man from the face of the Earth before retreating into the night sky.

1262* The fool spits into the hot porridge. After burning his mouth, he throws the porridge away instead of waiting for it to cool. Later, he dies of starvation.

1294 Getting the calf’s head out of the pot. When the head does not go back on, the fool and his wife cook and eat the calf. Since the pot is broken, they try to eat the whole of it at once and die from over-eating.

1718* God can’t take a joke. In response, God points to the last hundred-odd years as evidence of his fine sense of humour.

1899H Submarine otherworld. But even underwater, they don’t have hope. M√ľnchhausen returns to the surface disconsolate and gives up on his stories, living out the rest of his days just waiting for the end to come in truth.

Stewart C Baker can also be found online at his website. This story originally appeared in The Next Review, Vol 1 Issue 3, January 13, 2014