[The following was written as a post to Storytell, which is why it reads like you're coming in the middle of an on-going conversation; you are. Please excuse the informality of the writing. Several respondants asked me to put it up on the web, so here it is-- TJ.]


(in response to a discussion on whether there is one, three, seven, or twelve basic kinds of tale.)


When Linnaeus came up with a way to categorize living things, the patterns were so evocative that it caused a revolution in science. A number of laws of nature were revealed, chief among them (after a bit) evolution.

There really is a basic difference between vertebrates and invertebrates, between mammals and reptiles and birds. There may be a few iffy cases (duckbilled platypus, say) but the structure is rock-firm, and has supported much further building.

People were hoping the same thing would happen with folklore. But, no. As with psychology & psychic phenomena & a good deal of anthropology, the eyes (or ideas) of the categorizers seem determined to be mostly what gets revealed, and seem to lead nowhere very useful.

The first bunch of people to look hard at the folktale were the linguists. By Victorian times, they had developed a notion that the stories went back to the origins of language, and that somehow the obsessions of primitive brains dribbled into the creation of language, and echoed around in the language as a kind of irritant, creating the pearl of a story. Using the useful & fruitful science of linguistics, they analyzed the words in the tales, and developed some very dicy notions about what those brains were like. One group thought that all the folk stories were "really" about the sun going down. (You may read, in old books, of Snow White or Perseus being "Solar Myths.") A rival group thought that the stories were "really" about storm-clouds. These were the terms of the debate. They were brilliant, had access to some cutting-edge research (they were just discovering that Sanscrit, Greek, German, Russian, and Latin shared a common ancestor), and it was clear to them, and to all that read them, that this was what stories were about. They would not argue their ideas with you unless you knew Sanscrit. You can still read their writings, they were often very stirring, trippy & exciting, and you got NO NOTION of what a told story was like from them, they didn't really care. This at the very time that the old stories were going out of circulation all around Europe. They were very influential, far more so than Bettelheim and Campbell today.

Up pops Andrew Lang, he says my GOD this stuff is bogus, gimme a break. No no no. What's important about folk tales is not this drivel about language, but the glimpses they give us of the primitive mind. Stories do not all derive from a single source, as the linguists assert, such as Caveman Og going grunt about the moon, and that grunt reverberating over generations into a universal tale. Everybody looks at the moon, everybody has ideas about it, and since people's minds work in much the same way, being people, similar stories will derive from thinking about the moon.

In reaction to the linguists, Lang held that there was very little swapping around of stories, and the fact that "King Midas has Ass's Ears" is all but identical to the African tale "King of Toga Toga", and that Irish version I just heard yesterday, means-- why, that such an image is part of the way human minds work, and will arise independently, and we should be paying more attention to that, because who would have guessed that human minds work that way. You don't have to go back to cave men to see the primitive brain at work, says Lang, why-- just go look at the Hottentots. And you'll see the substrata which underlays our advanced European thinking. (This is not really doing Lang justice, I like Lang, but I'm trying to make a point here.)

Meanwhile, again, the tales were GOING UNDER, and soon it would be all but impossible to hear one of the old tales from somebody who had heard it from somebody who had heard it

Lang's wife and daughter edited all those famous non-scholarly "red/green/blue" fairy books under his name. This was very helpful. They got no credit.

* * *

There have of course been many psychological schools that have looked at what the folktale was "really" saying, and could categorize individual tales as (say) Oedipal, or Anal, or Oceanic, or about the Anima, or whatever, and argue about that, within and across schools of interpretation. Not helpful.

* * *

The Marxists paid a lot of attention to folklore. It was from the people, after all, and expressed class resentment. This was actually a useful corrective; the stories in the Soviet collections are far more apt to show stories with that kind of slant than collections by upper class scholars in the nineteenth century.

* * *

Most modern folklore scholarship is built on the Finnish school. Very influential. Believed (unlike Lang) that if you saw two versions of the same story in different places, that meant that most likely there had been contact, and that the story had passed from group to group.

It was to help study this thesis that the Aarne-Thompson index of types and motifs was developed. The types and motifs are there, you can't argue about them. (Though surely there are other ways to organize them? ) And they do help you figure out what kinds of contacts there may have been between groups, somewhere along the line.

But they don't really help you think about what makes the tales go. They are a little like saying, animals have hides, ivory, meat, and feathers.

Finnish-influenced folklorists, up to fairly recently, when they collected the tales often DIDN'T COLLECT THE DAMN TALES-- they weren't interested in the tales-- they collected the types and motifs. (Like butterfly collectors, as opposed to ethologists studying butterflies in the wild.) Infuriating. Read some of those old anthropological collections of folklore, and you are stunned by how dry and skeletal they are. Parlty that's because the scholars didn't have recording equipment, partly due to language problems. But also, they were just not that interested in storytelling (in my mind not interested in the folktale); they were interested in what "folklore" was interested in, which at that time was types and motifs.

* * *

I have to say, nowadays the best collectors are folklorists. They have taken to documenting the process of transmission, as much as the content, and in the process have delivered us some really great content. [Anthropology also started out very wierd, and became much better, as the last really distinctly "primitive" cultures went under.]

* * *

I have a tendency rant & rave when people come up with grand schemes to categorise tales. I find it distracting, at best, and at worst it can lead to serious misunderstanding.

Stick with telling the stories. It is hard, you're not supposed to learn the stories from print, or make them up from scratch. You're supposed to hear them all the time you're growing up, and remember them, and mutate them, and tell them to people who demand them from you. We can't do this, we don't have this.

We try, it's hard, we look for something to make it easier. Thinking "Red Riding Hood eh?-- clearly about menstruation" or "Aha! still ANOTHER story about The Journey" may or may not make it easier for us to get moving. I don't think it helps us get the story right. I think it gets in the way.

After you've been telling for a long time, you will notice that the stories do in fact fall into patterns.

These patterns will reveal a great deal about..........you!

Tim Jennings



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