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From fakelore to folklore - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
From fakelore to folklore
I was Wiki-surfing, which is a dangerous and addictive hobby disguised as a useful way to get information quickly (honest, I started with a legitimate purpose in mind!). Anyway, I came across the article on "fakelore"... mostly things that have either been added to folklore or created out of whole cloth claiming to be folklore. It also includes things like fake origin myths (eg, Santa wears red and white because it's memory of some pagan tradition of wearing a reindeer pelt bloody side out with a fringe of fur--?!), but that's not really what I'm interested in.

First, I'm not talking about fanfic, though I think fanfic is part of the same psychological phenomenon. The major difference is that fanfic has a pretty darned good idea where the canon lies, because there are actual, solid artifacts that are "the original stuff," and people (mostly) acknowledge their existence as primary. This is true even of public domain stuff--if I write a story about how Pap Finn is actually responsible for Tom Sawyer's father's death, and there's a trial and all sorts of things that I could make reasonably consistent, it would still be fanfic, because I'm working with Twain's original, and someone who wanted to write a story about how Tom's daddy had an affair with Huck's mom and killed her, framing Pap Finn and driving him to drink, that person wouldn't feel remotely confused about whether my story had to be taken into account--it wouldn't.

But let's say you're writing about King Arthur. You could use versions of the story that predated a lot of the Lancelot additions, but for most people, Camelot isn't Camelot without Lance and Gwennie and the love triangle.

You could, if you were so inclined, go digging for the historical King Arthur, find incredibly cool facts that aren't known yet, and... people would feel disconnected, because that's not the story, dammit. At this point, the myth serves an entirely different purpose from an historical story. You might as well be talking about the historical Cinderella, or the real Rapunzel. But where do these stories exist? Which Cinderella? Which Arthur? Cinderella's "glass slipper" is part of the common story now, but it's traceable specifically to Charles Perrault's version. Orthodox folklorists howl bloody murder about it being an artificial grafting.

But here's the thing: When most people, without any particular knowledge of Perrault, think of the glass slipper as "part" of the Cinderella story, and the folklorists want to force other versions back in, which side is in favor of the "authentic" folklore?

It's an interesting question, because you can certainly talk about the media spreading a particular version, but the media also spread singing mice. The fairy godmother has a lot of different incarnations (and she doesn't appear in all versions of Cinderella), but the idea of the prince's parents being silly and goofy appears only in the Disney version. So some elements caught and others didn't. Some seem permanent parts of Cinderella and others don't--a normal pattern of folklore accretion.

And then, we get to the consciously crafted "folk" characters. Paul Bunyan existed as a folklore character, but most of his stories were consciously written. Pecos Bill was a conscious creation. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created for a Montgomery Ward Christmas campaign... he is certainly no part of old folk Christmas culture. He's not even based on anything in old folklore. And yet... he's everywhere. His song is hummed, his image shows up, he becomes part of stories told at the holiday. Lancelot was grafted into King Arthur to please the ladies of the courts in France.

When do these "new" characters become folk characters of their own? Does Rudolph's sordid origin as an advertising icon prevent him from being "authentic," or is folklore still being created? Is folklore created from our current culture less authentic? In two hundred years, if Rudolph is still around, will people care that he has an identifiable origin? Does it matter that Paul Bunyan's use as a folkloric agent has changed from being a kind of nasty overseer to being the spirit of the northern woods? Is the earlier version more valid than the current version, even though the current version is obviously meeting a folkloric need? Do we put too many limits on things?

Seriously, the major difference between a Rudolph and, say, the Geico gecko, is that the Rudolph campaign involved writing a story that wasn't all advertising, just sort of a feel-good thing that was associated with Monkey Ward. If there were a series of gecko books instead of just the commercials, would he make the same kind of leap? I'm not asking to be facetious, or to moralize about corporate culture or anything--the point is, whatever we think about it, we do live in a corporate culture, and its icons are lying around. Sometimes, they get picked up and tossed into Tolkien's cauldron of Fairy. Does it mean that the stew is being diluted? Or are modern additions to the pot still just simmering and melting in like every other element that's been tossed in there over the years?

Shrug.

Just thinking.
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Comments
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: December 1st, 2006 12:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Heck, "Candyman"'s practically turned itself into folklore. When I hear kids telling each other the stories and the storyteller has no concept that there ever was a "professional" version, then the oral tradition has taken over.
texasmagic From: texasmagic Date: December 1st, 2006 01:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Santa Claus definitely has the same evolution. St. Nick and other incarnations have been around for ages, of course, but the American version, the rotund man that goes down chimneys and wears a red suit is definitely a conglamoration of "A Visite from St. Nicolas", Thomas Nast's illustrations, and according to some, Coca-Cola.

I think a character, story, or song, for that matter, becomes folk material when the origin has been forgotten, yet, most folks know about it anyway. It doesn't matter that the origin of the material can be pinpointed. What's important is that the culture adapts and embraces the material to make it reflect their own existence.

If that new version still rings true in years to come, then a new generation will make a new variant of that one. Or, the future minds might find more connection with an older version. No one will know until we're dead and gone.
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: December 1st, 2006 03:13 am (UTC) (Link)
So some elements caught and others didn't. Some seem permanent parts of Cinderella and others don't--a normal pattern of folklore accretion.

I don't think it's just sort of random there, though. A glass slipper is eminently more folkloric than anthropomorphic mice and goofiness at all. "Silly" elements don't tend to get grafted on as much, I think, because they aren't as satisfying.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 1st, 2006 05:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Humor can get grafted on when it fits (Jingle bells, Batman smells . . . .) but the mice aren't part of the core appeal. The glass slipper, a unique shoe that could only belong to one person (and that probably needed magic to be comfortable and strong enough to dance in) actually fits its plot purpose better than the fur slipper or whatever it was Ciny originally wore.

Paul Bunyun's kind of a mixed bag. We all know about him and could give a quick description, but giants have never fit comfortably into American folklore. There's probably a reason most of the stories about Paul seem to be professionally created.

Things can become part of living folklore even while still under copyright (like the song "Happy Birthday"). When something has a legitimate folk life - passed on in the general tradition without having to be assigned reading - I think it counts. If you're back story about Tom and Huck's parents became the story that "everyone" knew as part of the "real" story of Tom and Huck, it would have a legitimate folk life.

I don't think it's a diluting because folklore needs to be able to change to be considered living folklore as opposed to something recorded in books. I tell fairy tales with lots of modern additions (Goldilocks becomes a story about a young criminal breaking into houses and destroying furniture before she finds out how much trouble that can get you into and Learns Better). To me, that's the point of the story. I stick with versions of Jack and the Beanstalk where Jack has much clearer legal title to things he carries off from the giant (one version I know had Jack's father being the knight the giant had stolen everything from in the first place, another has Jack rescuing other people's stolen property). The versions where Jack just stole the stuff because it's all right to steal from giants bothered me immensely as a kid.

My versions may have their weakness, but, hey, they speak to my world view.

Ellen
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gabrielladusult From: gabrielladusult Date: December 4th, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Funny, I've been thinking about some similar things recently. My kids were watching our Disney videos and I wondered if, when they got to whatever age they study Mythology in school these days (I did it in fourth grade and eighth grade, I think), will they be confused that Hera isn't Hercules' real mother and actually is behind all his woes? Not to mention the fact that Hades actually like Hercules and Pegasus was born of Medusa's head and not made out of clouds by Zeus?

And will my Little Mermaid loving daughter be confused when she reads the real tale by Hans Christian Anderson and the Mermaid doesn't get her man in the end (and where's the singing crab?).

And, in a not really related to Disney note, I've noticed in recent iterations of Cinderella that I've read or seen that there is a leaning lately towards making one of the step-sisters secretly nice, but too meek to show any backbone to her mother and sister at first. What is that about? Living with two hateful people is fine, but three is beyond the pale? Isn't it more believable that they would all be more or less alike?

I do draw the line somewhere, though -- I will never buy the Disney versions of Hunchback or Pochahontas...

I think every generation is entitled to its own folklore -- is part of the definition of folklore that there is a cutoff date? I don't think the only real story is the pure original...folklore is like the fish tale -- it wouldn't be interesting if you just talked about catching a fish -- you have to add bits and pieces to the story through the years, the fish gets bigger, older, wilier -- all the stuff that makes a story interesting and lasting.
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