Academic journal article Folklore

Burglars and Burglaries in Contemporary Legends

Academic journal article Folklore

Burglars and Burglaries in Contemporary Legends

Article excerpt

Among the several anxieties to which contemporary legends respond, through the narration of events bordering on the believable, is the fear of violation of one's property, especially one's home. In this essay, the notion of "burglars and burglaries" is extended beyond its usual boundaries to include examples from intrusions into the human body, as well as from outer space and the other world. This presentation serves a double purpose: on the one hand, it concentrates, indeed isolates, a pervasive theme in the telling of contemporary legends; on the other, it is intended as an introduction for English-speaking readers to the four-volume set of "Sagenhafte Geschichten von heute" (Legend-like stories of today) published by Rolf Wilhelm Brednich between 1990 and 1995 (Brednich 1990; 1991; 1993; 1996) and mostly collected from recent oral tradition in Germany. [1]

For the purposes of this study, the term chosen to designate the narrative genre under investigation is "contemporary legend," which in the scholarship on the subject has rivals in "urban legend," urban myth, "modern myth," and "modern legend." The first of these candidates is the one preferred by Jan Harold Brunvand in his extensive series of publications on the topic (Brunvand 1981, etc.), which has greatly influenced North American thinking, whereas "contemporary legend" is a designation primarily employed by what one might call the "Sheffield School" of scholars whose work had its beginnings in annual meetings at the University of Sheffield from 1982 onwards (see particularly, Smith and Bennett 1984, etc.) and became institutionalised in the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research in 1988, with its journal Contemporary Legend (1991-). Admittedly, use of the term "contemporary legend" in the context of this presentation is at least partly due to force of habit, as my attention was first drawn to this narrative genre at the Sheffield conferences, but it is also a conscious, deliberate choice in view of the terminology

available. In the absence of a direct English equivalent of the German term sage (Nicolaisen 1988), any designation selected is less than perfect and is therefore bound to have its critics. Although the term legend carries with it, for many, a close association with religious narratives, especially stories telling of saints and their miracles, it is more appropriate than myth, which, in folk-narrative scholarship, is usually applied to narrations of events at a time before our time, and which, more than legend, hints at unreality and unbelievability, even gullibility.

As far as the defining triad contemporary, modern, urban is concerned, the last adjective, undoubtedly, points exclusively to non-rural, indeed, city settings for both the narrative performances and the events narrated, a perspective which had a good deal of validity up to the middle of the twentieth century before the once contradictory notion of "urban folklore" first began to be given substance by folklorists. It may well be that many of the stories belonging to the genre under discussion are predominantly told in non-rural environments, but the genre as such is by no means confined to these. The epithet modern implies that these stories of the "you may not believe this but it really happened" variety are a recent development in the folk narrative repertoire and did not exist in earlier times; nothing could be further from the truth as scholars have, over the years, established many links with earlier, often much earlier, variants of the same story type. In contrast to urban and modern, the term contemporary lacks--or so it seems to me--both the strong association with city lore and an essential identification with our modern age, without excluding either of them. It also insists--and this is its main advantage--that the narratives in this genre are or were concerned with events teetering on the edge of believability, in well-defined locations, in both time and space, in settings contemporary to the time of the telling or quite recent to it. …

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