Academic journal article Western Folklore

Structure, Society, and Symbolism: Toward a Holistic Interpretation of Fairy Tales

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Structure, Society, and Symbolism: Toward a Holistic Interpretation of Fairy Tales

Article excerpt

Just as the interplay between structure, symbolism, and cultural context is essential to understanding a language, so too is it for the interpretation of folklore. Alan Dundes has long advocated combining these three elements in the interpretation of folklore (1962; 1976; 1980), and he himself has demonstrated the value of this approach in his insightful interpretations of numerous folktales and ballads (1980; 1988). However, not until Bengt Holbek's Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Danish Fairy Tales in a European Perspective (1987) have structuralism, symbolic interpretation, and cultural context been presented as a unified methodological approach to the interpretation of folklore, specifically the interpretation of fairy tales (Aarne-Thompson types 300-749).

I would like to illustrate both the advantages and the necessity of this holistic methodology through an interpretation of AT 851, The Princess Who Cannot Solve the Riddle. The Princess Who Cannot Solve the Riddle is an international tale whose popularity has been immortalized in various literary and musical works such as A Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night and Puccini's Turandot. According to Christine Goldberg's historic-geographic study of AT 851 (1993), the tale is found primarily in the Middle East, India, Europe, and the Spanish-speaking Americas. It is particularly popular in the Mediterranean as well as the Germanic and eastern parts of Europe.

The tale plot revolves around an often haughty princess who is determined not to marry. However, her father, the King, is equally resolute, and a compromise is reached in the form of a contest. The contest, of titular importance, invites suitors to pose a riddle to the princess, or in some cases, to her father. Should the suitor pose a riddle which the princess cannot answer within the given time allotment (generally one to three days), the princess must marry him. However, should the princess successfully answer the riddle, the suitor is put to death, in most cases decapitated. After an enormous number of failed suitors, a young peasant poses a neckriddle (a riddle to which only the poser knows the answer). Needless to say, the princess cannot answer the riddle outright, and in the short versions of the tale, it is at this point that the wedding occurs. In the longer versions, the princess attempts to wrangle the answer from the sleeping suitor by sending her chambermaids on nightly visits to him. After their failed attempts, the princess makes the visit herself, and the suitor readily reveals the answer. However, when she presents the answer on the following day she finds that she has left some personal item which the suitor uses either to reveal her indiscretion or to form the basis of a second riddle which she cannot answer lest she herself disclose the indiscretion.

At this point, the princess marries the successful riddler.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this tale is the fact that in all of its versions the successful riddle is a neck-riddle. The term neck-riddle derives from the German Halslisungsratsel, literally "neck-saving riddle," a fitting name given that such riddles are almost always accompanied by narratives which tell of a prisoner who saves his neck by posing a riddle which the executioner cannot answer. While neck-riddles have been studied apart from "true riddles," it is interesting to note that like true riddles, their structure may parallel the structure of the social situation in which they are used. Dundes suggests that riddles are frequently exchanged at weddings and funerals because their own structure reflects the structure of these particular social events (1964:24-26). For example, the answer to a riddle may unite two seemingly unrelated objects or ideas just as a wedding unites two unrelated beings in marriage. Likewise, riddles at funerals may mediate between life and death. Neck-riddles attempt to mediate between life and death in a similar fashion. …

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