Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Need for Narrative: The Folktale as Response to History

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Need for Narrative: The Folktale as Response to History

Article excerpt

Even if we no longer agree with the Grimm Broters (1816) that legends have the authority of history, we can admit that major incentive as to why folktales are retold is that they function as a response to history. Suddenly a tale that may not seem overtly historical can assume a new immediacy, a specific situational meaning, that ties it in with history. Put differently, there arises a need for a tale that relates to or comments on a certain experience.

One classroom incident illustrates that point. I had assigned a well-known Norwegian tale variant of the huldre taking a human being into the mountain. In this particular case it was "The Girl Who Was Taken," from Reidar Th. Christiansen's edition of Norwegian tales in translation (Christiansen 1964: 77-8, Odegaard 1917: 112-4). The abducted woman, Guro, encounters a former acquaintance one evening, Jacob, and informs him that not only will she stay with her captors but also that, with them, she lives a life of plenty. Finally, she asks Jacob to tell her parents to give away her shoes, the only memento of her they have kept, so that she, who otherwise is magnificently dressed, no longer will have to wear rags on her feet.

I asked the students to respond to the tale, to search for its meaning or its meanings. That request was given with Richard Bauman's warning in mind: "the moral here is not to take meaning for granted," for after all we are dealing with a "communicative event" (Bauman 1983: 363).(1) In the classroom, I received the expected fairly a historical, general response that, "if you must leave your home, you should not look back, and that those who are left behind should, likewise, be equally willing to bid those departing good-bye." As often happens, the legend was seen as sending a general, cultural message that would be useful to the group in which it is told. That quite satisfying result of the search for the text's meaning is one to be expected in the classroom, for the text has, as a rule, not much specific relevance to that particular audience.

One student, however, put the text within a specific historical frame of reference. In paraphrase she said: "you have told us, and I know from my family, that thousands of Norwegians in the latter part of the nineteenth century left their homes to emigrate to America. If you make the choice of leaving forever, as those immigrants did, it is pointless, or perhaps even destructive, to retain strong memories of those left behind or for those left behind to cling to memories of the emigres. So the story makes a very clear point; it asks those left behind to abandon any hope of a reunion with the person who has left and to accept the fact that the person is now much better off in her new world." Not only did my student, thus, see the tale as a text that could be used to comment on a historical situation, but she also stressed the possible use of the tale as a means to negotiate the ramifications of such a situation. Her response to the tale in no manner detracted from or changed the general interpretation of the text. Rather, it concretized the tale.

As the quest for meaning, or meanings, continued, it appeared that at the moment the text had been given historical roofing, it assumed deeper significance to its classroom audience. And as that engaged audience continued to discuss the text, it became clear that there was no consensus as to the meanings of the legend: to some the text primarily seemed to be tragic in its vision of abandonment, in its futile memories, and in the brutal reminder sent from the daughter to her parents that not only will they never see her again, but also that she is happy without them - in fact, she is on her way to a feast. Other students who likewise tended to focus on the emotions of those left behind - not only on the parents, but on a society that disapproves of deviations from social norms - agreed that the text was tragic, for Guro's rebellious act or her seduction by the "other" threatens the social fabric of society. …

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