by Norah Dooley
"Folklore, like any other discipline, has no justification except as it enables us to better understand ourselves and others." —Roger D. Abrahams, Journal of American Folklore
massmouth,inc. has partnered with Puppet Showplace Theatre to start ( in OCT 2012) a Folk and Fairy Tale Slam. Slamming the Tradition for Adults ( tongue in cheek people - we mean no harm!) series here in Greater Boston - 7 X 7 minute stories in slam format with a 21 minute feature traditional storyteller. We are currently working on guidelines of the events but the over-arching plan is that we will feature exclusively traditional forms and sources. The stories will NOT be first person narrative and NOT lived experience. We aim to energize our art form; neither degrade nor dilute. We also intend to have fun and connect a whole new audience and perhaps generation to the traditional forms of storytelling. And by "adult" do not mean that simply tacking on promiscuity, gender issues and substance abuse one has created an "adult" tale. For us an adult tale is one that is complex, deep and resonating enough to entertain and challenge even the most jaded grown up.
Actually, folklore is a word very much like culture; it represents a tremendous spectrum of human expression that can be studied in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Its primary characteristic is that its ingredients seem to come directly from dynamic interactions among human beings in communal-traditional performance contexts rather than through the rigid lines and fossilized structures of technical instruction or bureaucratized education, or through the relatively stable channels of the classical traditions. —Barre Toelken, The Dynamics of Folklore ( Houghton Mifflin, 1979)Recently Randy Osborne, a writer, philosopher, storyteller and Carapace founder, was interviewed about the storytelling he organizes in Atlanta and his thoughts about the differences between live, true, personal storytelling and the more "traditional style" -
"The traditional style of storytelling is, almost by definition, a way of extending traditions of all kinds. It was a way of reassuring people that change wasn’t going to come, or if it did, they we wouldn’t fall apart. With us, you don’t really get those assurances. I think this is why traditional storytelling tends to appeal to an older demographic." - Randy Osborne
The wide world of folklore is exponentially larger than the pap that Randy Osborne in a off-hand way critiques in his interview at Arts in A Changing America. Throughout the article I felt he addressed stylistic differences and rarely distinguished the differences between content and a theatrical cloying, style often employed by those who tell watered down versions of traditional stories. While folk tales and tellers may feel no obligation to be hip and cynically ironic, folk tales themselves are often raw, rough, and devoid of "knee-slapping and feel good endings". Saying all traditional storytelling is sing-songy, watered-down, puppies and rainbow tales is like devaluing all painting because some people sell paintings of Elvis and big eyed children on velvet out of vans in shopping center parking lots.
In a Harvard Gazette article from 2003 Profeesor Maria Tatar is interviewed about her studies which set the canon of feel good folk and fairy world on their heads. She mused: "I was forgetting about what I think my audience wanted: to really think about the magic and enchantment of the stories." That magic, says Tatar, has been the constant as the tales themselves have shape-shifted across cultures and migrated from the hearth and tavern - where they began as entertainment for adults, the "television and pornography of ... preliterate peoples," says John Updike - to the nursery."
Morals? Here is more from Maria Tatar:
"Our culture has this profound belief in literature as conveying lessons to children," she says.
She is a vocal critic of this notion. Tatar notes that morals were often added or appended to fairy tales when they were rewritten for children. In many cases, they have nothing to do with the story. Little Red Riding Hood would have encountered the wolf en route to Grandma's whether or not she dallied to pick flowers.
She notes other tales in which the stated morals run counter to the stories' messages.
"Bluebeard," the story of a murderous lord and the young wife who outwits him, concludes with the maxim "Curiosity, with its many charms, can stir up serious regrets." The young wife meets Bluebeard's wrath when she opens a forbidden room and discovers the corpses of his previous wives. But rather than stirring up regrets, the wife's inquisitiveness saves her from a similar fate.
"Clearly her curiosity was very important there, because she discovered that her husband was a serial killer," says Tatar.
In addition, moral ambiguity abounds in some of children's favorite fairy tale characters - the trickster children who overcome their much larger foes through wit and cunning. Although he's considered the hero, Jack is a thief, climbing the beanstalk to rob the giant of his gold. And in a French oral version of Little Red Riding Hood, no hunter saves the young girl and her granny; instead, Little Red Riding Hood hoodwinks the wolf by performing a striptease for him.
Folk tales, ancient myths and legends etc. are not the Disney-fecated (meaning the past perfect of Disney-fied?) movie scripts nor the moralistic and stuffy Grimm's Fairy Tale texts that those boys and other upper class dead guys jotted down when they went to the boonies in the repressive 1800s and happily- ever-after swore they wrote only what they heard. These traditional forms are often part of an age old practice of using art to question, probe and sometimes explain the puzzle of meaning in human existence. If that practice is a tradition that only an "older demographic" is interested in - we are in deep trouble. But we know that people are hungry for the tales that moved from campfire to hearth to tavern and want to experience the joy and active creation of "preliterate peoples" through storytelling of all genres.
Deep truth, hilarity, harsh realities and exquisite beauty reside in the traditional tales and it is our challenge as storytellers to find a way to get that message and those stories out there.