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. …

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