Folklore and Literature: Canadian Contexts

By Freake, Douglas; Carpenter, Carole Henderson | Ethnologies, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Folklore and Literature: Canadian Contexts

Freake, Douglas, Carpenter, Carole Henderson, Ethnologies

Douglas Freake

York University

Carole Henderson Carpenter

York University

The interplay between folklore and literature is an on-going aspect of cultural processes in literate societies. Writers' borrowing of motifs, themes, and patterns from oral tradition is a legitimate aspect of creativity, for the oral is a significant aspect of a society's conceptual gene pool, even if not typically viewed as such by the makers of "high" culture. As well, the impact of "mediated" forms of culture on the living oral tradition is widespread and significant. In the last two centuries, folklore and literature have been both opposed and interdependent. Literature has enjoyed the greater cultural prestige, yet it has often drawn on folklore as one source of that prestige; and in recent decades, Canadian literature, the focus of our attention here, has drawn on folklore and folklore-like material with increasing frequency and with heightened respect for oral traditions.

We want to make the case for a particular, even peculiar, relation between folklore and literature in the Canadian context. (1) Canadian literature has examples of the sort of Romantic take on the folk and native people that is familiar from Sir Walter Scott or James Fenimore Cooper. Central Canadian examples include Ralph Connor's novels about the Ottawa Valley and Mazo de la Roche's about southern Ontario. Yet for several reasons Canada's relation to folk culture has unique characteristics: because Canada began as colonial possessions of France and Britain, and therefore has been plagued or blessed by tensions between French-speaking and English-speaking communities; because the bulk of its development took place after the Industrial Revolution; because it has had an ambiguous relation to the "folk" or "folks" that it was not sure it had; and because of its development, in recent decades, of an official multicultural policy. Canada's literature reflects and forms the Canadian identity -- or, better the Canadian search for identity -- in complex ways. Here, we will concentrate on two of the characteristic ways in which Canadian culture, through its literature, has chosen to define its "self" by interaction with an "other." One way is by seeking a pre-European or extra-European identity through contact with aboriginal culture; another is by investigating the remnants of European folk cultures that have been brought to Canada by dominant groups such as the French, the English, and the Scots, or by smaller immigrant groups whose folk cultures are expected to add colour to the Canadian cultural "mosaic."

Before returning to Canadian examples, let us consider the relation between oral and written traditions in Western culture as a whole. Literature and folklore have usually been thought of as a binary opposition -- paralleled by such oppositions as written-oral, historical-timeless, conscious-unconscious, individual-group, authored-anonymous. Such ancient works as The Epic of Gilgamesh are commonly assumed to be written records of stories that existed for centuries in oral tradition. With Homer, the individual author was "invented" and credited with control over the organization and final effect of the work. This association of literature with the individual author (a disputed point, of course, in structuralist and especially post-structuralist theory [see, for example Foucault 1991: 446-464]) is perhaps the most frequently isolated characteristic of literary as opposed to folklore texts. Archer Taylor, for example, asks, "What are the differences between folklore and literature?" and answers, "An obvious difference is that folklore uses conventional themes and stylistic devices and makes no effort to disguise their conventional quality while the literary artist either divests his work of conventional quality by avoiding cliches of either form or matter, or....charges them with new content (Taylor 1965:39-40)." Taylor's 1948 claim would be considerably modified today, partly because of post-structuralist claims about the limitations on the individual author's control over the text and partly because Taylor's definition draws the line between literature and folklore too sharply. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Folklore and Literature: Canadian Contexts


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.