This week: FolkloreEdited by: Max Griffin 🏳️🌈
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Folklore is all around us. We swim in it, often without realizing it.
To quote Wikipedia, “folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people.” It encompasses traditions, values, and practices of that group, and includes folktales, proverbs, and jokes. But it’s broader than that, and includes the group’s art, architecture, and celebrations. The group of people can be as narrow as a single family or as broad as all humanity.
Authors often use folklore to provide the backbone for their plots. There’s the famous example of George Lucas using “the hero’s journey” as the basis for Star Wars, but the phenomena is far broader. Even Shakespeare did this. A Comedy of Errors is a retelling of a second century BCE play by Plautus, which in turn is based on even older folk tale about twins or “blood brothers.” Likewise, The Merchant of Venice is almost certainly based on the “Pound of Flesh” folktale published in a fourteenth-century Italian collection of stories by Giovanni Fiorentino, The Dunce (Il Pecorone). The casket trial in the same play also uses a different folk literature motif. There are many examples from Shakespeare and other sources. At least one scholar contends that one reason Shakespeare’s plays have endured is because of their use of and resemblance to folk tales.
In fiction, folklore elements resonate with readers and add power to the story. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, the audience would have been aware of the solution to the casket test even if the characters on the stage were not. Similarly, when teenagers make poor choices in horror movies, we all know bad things will follow. Properly done, this anticipation is a way of adding suspense to a story: we know something is going to happen, just not what or when.
While folklore arises from a particular group, folktales from diverse cultures often have similar elements, even when those cultures have no contact with each other. Cinderella is both a seventeenth century French tale and a Chinese story about an abused young girl and her pet fish, even though neither is derived from the other. In today’s connected world, folklore from many sources informs how we live together in a world that is at once shared by all and marvelously diverse.
Using folklore makes our stories more resonant, immediate, and direct, even when our readers may not be consciously aware of what we are doing. Surely not everyone is familiar with Lucas’s cinematic references to Triumph of the Will in Star Wars Episode III, or Shyamalan’s to Night of the Living Dead in Signs, but these scenes still resonate on a subconscious level. In today’s connected world, Seven Samurai and High Noon and many others are part of humanity’s folklore.
Using folklore can be most powerful when the readers are too absorbed in your story to recognize the source material...but that’s another blog.
Where can you find folklore? Well, it’s everywhere, but there are some useful compilations. Professor D. L. Ashliman at the University of Pittsburgh has a marvelous Folklinks website. He also maintains an exhaustive Folk Texts website that includes summaries of folktales organized by various types. You can find the “blood brothers” and “pound of flesh” tales here, for example. The Sacred Texts Archive includes more than just sacred texts. In addition to sacred writings and oral traditions, you’ll find folktales from cultures worldwide and throughout history. It even includes the paleolithic cave paintings at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France. It’s worth a look.
Other less comprehensive but more accessible sources might be Reader’s Theatre: Asian Folktales from Education World, which includes tales suitable for use in K-12 classrooms. World of Tales is another K-12 resource that includes tales from all over the world. Wikipedia has a list of fairy tales orgainized by origin. I don’t want to get into the difference, if any, between folktales and fairy tales—I’ll leave that to the scholars who study this kind of thing. Both fairy tales and folk tales can be important sources. Folklore classification schemes such as the Arne-Thompson-Uther Index can be useful, too, especially to scholars, although most such indices have a Western cultural bias. For popular culture, TV Tropes can't be beat. Wikipedia has an extensive list of urban legends.
Folklore is big part of what knits a community together. There is even emerging evidence that “friendliness,” i.e., the ability to build communities of choice, is one of the genetic differences between modern humans and the other hominid species with whom we shared the planet eighty thousand years ago. It might even be the crucial difference that accounts for why only one hominid species has survived to today.
While folklore binds communities together, it can also build barriers between communities, as this famous quote from George Bernard Shaw reminds us:
[H]e is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.
― George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra
The specific things one community values don’t make other communities less human. Our ability to find common ground is a big part of what makes us human. Leni Riefenstahl used mythical references in producing the notorious Triumph des Willens. Propagandists are well aware of the power of folklore in constructing divisive but effective tracts. Each of us has to decide our responsibility to our art, our communities, and to humanity when we use the tools our heritage provides.
Ellen tells us to be kind to each other. That’s a bit of cultural wisdom I think we can all agree on.
"The Hooded Man" by Robert Edward Baker
"A Hitchhiker (Christmas Special)" by J.B. Ezar
"Thief" by A E Willcox: Power, happy 13th
"Entertaining A Leprechaun" by pumpkin
"Night After Knight" by hullabaloo22
"By the pricking of my thumbs ..." by Odessa Molinari smiling
"Weird Tales #8" by Kotaro
"The Eternal Ghoul" by jdennis
"Haunting in Hakone" by The Sea Captain
"Timpanogos" by D. Reed Whittaker
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