Origins of the Fairy Tale

Kaja recently commented on and posted links here to articles describing the research by Dr Jamie Tehrani (Durham University) and Sara Graça da Silva (New University of Lisbon) on the origins of fairy tales. I found this fascinating but had certain doubts about the methodology and about how the tales were considered in an abstract way that rendered them timeless and lost their particularity (much as formalist analyses like those of Propp can do).

Then I came across an interesting discussion on the research on the American Folklore Society’s Folk Narrative Section Facebook page (well worth joining!). Here, Tok Thompson (University of Southern California) shares some of my concerns, and has kindly allowed me to cite him:

I think it’s an interesting approach, but yes, there’s several problems with this research.

It’s not so much the theory as the data that is the problem. This sort of research borrows phylogeny models from biology. But stories are not like biology in the way they are replicated– not even close. Some other very questionable analyses have been done on languages using this model– and this study relies on those language studies…. but the study of narratives is even less applicable to the phylogenetic model than languages are.

One problem, simply put, how do we know if these stories are related? Polygenesis (and blended genesis) is quite common in story-telling, and almost completely absent in biology and language. The authors assemble the narratives as they like, then they declare they are related, then they align them with a family tree to make assessments about how old they are. This is just a return to the old 19th century historic-geographic search for the ur form, without any recognition of why folklorists increasingly turned away from such studies.

From the authors earlier “Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” comes the following quotes:
“Folktales represent an excellent target for phylogenetic analysis because they are, almost by definition, products of descent with modification”.
Note, this is quite an assumption of a biological model–descent with modification– monogenesis and diffusion–of folktales. Thus, the author assumes from the beginning that the tales all are related– in other words, the author has already assumed the conclusion before assembling the data for the analysis!

Then when it comes to assembling the data: “In addressing this question, phylogenetics has several advantages over traditional historic-geographic methods. First, rather than basing the classification of related tales on just a few privileged motifs, phylogenetic analysis can take into account all the features that a researcher believes might be relevant.”
Note the important: “all the features that a researcher BELIEVES might be relevant.” In other words, after assuming the conclusion is true, the author then assembles the data package, according to what they think is important. Problematic! & this, importantly, is very different from how phylogenetic models would be employed with biology. Again, stories work differently than chromosomes– it’s quite an assumption to assume that the patterns for reconstructing the latter would work just fine and dandy for the former.

& another critique might be… so what? One of the reasons that Folklore Studies moved away from the quest for the ur- form was that it really didn’t produce much of interest– no glimpses as to meaning, to performance, to agency… to most of the aspects that give folklore its vibrancy and importance in the lives of individuals. The possible prehistory of the tales themselves has to be the least interesting aspect of folklore for me, personally.


About William the Bloody

Cat lover. 18C scholar on the dialogue and novel. Co-convenor OGOM Project
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3 Responses to Origins of the Fairy Tale

  1. firekrank says:

    Wow! This is incredibly interesting and well expressed. I did one module on folklore as an undergrad and was amazed to discover that a lot of what I thought were ancient traditions (mainly surrounding Christmas and paganism) were probably not. The ur-text approach of folklore has had a major effect on my thesis (though mainly in a stifling way). I have struggled with the ‘universal werewolf’ approach in many of the critical texts on werewolves that I have read. (Though partially this is because many of them concentrate on the werewolf in folklore and ancient texts). Though there has been a shift in more recent publications on werewolves, for a long time I was getting frustrated by reading books that just wanted to link all accounts of human-into-wolf transformations as one category.

    I have a flippant theory as to why this might be the case. There’s definitely a trend for ‘ancient texts’ to be the solution to the existence of the supernatural and humans are obsessed with finding patterns. I think, on some level, when people are searching for ur-texts, there is a hope that, like in many fictional accounts of historians/ academics and the supernatural, they might discover the conspiracy theory covering up the presence of the supernatural. I have some sympathy with this hope I must admit!

    • William the Bloody says:

      I know you and I are both very wary of universalising the vampire or werewolf, Kaja. I think you may well be right about some lay people’s desire to uncover real vampires among us (and that says something about the power and utopian appeal of these narratives and their creatures).

      I think what drives scholars to take that approach is one or both of two attitudes. One is the scientific impulse to find universal laws–which is fine, of course, but not adequate for the humanities, where the universal *and* the particular must be observed dialectically. Otherwise, as Tok says, there is ‘no glimpses as to meaning, to performance, to agency… to most of the aspects that give folklore its vibrancy and importance in the lives of individuals’.

      The other impulse behind over-generalisation is, I think, that deeply-rooted ideology which sees human values and institutions as timeless and unchanging–which has obvious conservative political implications.

  2. Daryl Wor says:

    I’m definitely with you on the “so what” angle. That’s one of the worst things I’ve encountered in fairy and mythos: analysis of everything and we never hear the darn stories. Much of the time I’ll open a book on mythology or fairy tales and rather than getting the story first, it’s all the analysis of it, as if we all had the kid’s version growing up. Sheesh! You can barely find out what any of the stories are before getting the lengthy and detailed interpretations.

    My best luck has often been with ghost stories. I usually find the story before the analysis, thank heavens!

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