Introduction: Fantasy and Oral Tradition

By Attebery, Brian | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Fantasy and Oral Tradition


Attebery, Brian, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


PEOPLE TELL STORIES. STORYTELLING IS SO MUCH A PART OF OUR IDENTITY that folklorist Kurt Ranke dubbed us "Homo narrans," Man (sorry!) the narrator. We start learning narrative patterns as soon as we begin to acquire language. We tell stories to reach out to others and to acquire empathy. We appeal to cultural narratives to justify action and to make sense of the world. And many of the most memorable folk patterns are fantastic. Myths are inherently non-mundane, taking place outside of time and in a realm of gods, transformations, and word-wise animals. Legends (to a folklorist, stories set in historical time and told as truth) may be supernatural, though many are not. Contemporary legends, usually called urban legends, bend possibility with weird coincidences, bizarre behaviors, and malevolent outsiders, and they often go right over the line into miracles or ghost stories. Folktales likewise span the whole range from bawdy comedies of everyday life to the long magical tales called Marchen. Ballads include revenants, demon lovers, and comic devils among their dramatis personae. And epics, which are the anthologies of antiquity, go everywhere, from gruesomely realistic battle scenes and domestic dramas to fantastic glimpses of upper and lower realms.

All of this is to say that students of the fantastic would do well to pay attention to folklorists. Much of the literature we examine is modeled after folk forms or incorporates folk motifs or both. My way of reading fantasy is greatly indebted to folklorists such as Ranke, Lord Raglan, Linda Degh, John Niles, Max Luthi, and Barre Toelken. They taught me that storytelling is not reporting: that fidelity to ordinary life is not a requirement for artistry. And thus they helped me and others speak back to the realist model of fiction that was pretty much dominant when I began studying literature. I continue to draw on folklore studies to make sense of the rapidly multiplying fantastic storytelling modes and platforms of the internet era--folklore is not just "old stuff," or, as it was first termed in English, "popular antiquities," but reemerges with each new form of social interaction, including gaming and social media.

Hence, a couple of years ago the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, which sponsors this journal, added a division in Fairy Tales and Folk Narratives to complement its coverage of fantasy literature, visual and performing arts, children's literature, film and television, and so on. Since its creation in 2017, this division has already become one of the most active at the annual Conference, sponsoring papers and panels and helping us launch the new division with special guests Terri Windling, Holly Black, and folklorist Cristina Bacchilega. Bacchilega's and Windling's Guest of Honor addresses and an interview with Holly Black were published in JFA volume 28, issue 1.

Now JFA follows up with a number of folklore-related articles. Merja Leppalahti's "From Folklore to Fantasy: The Living Dead, Metamorphoses, and Other Strange Things" starts us off. The essay, here translated by Clive Tolley, was a runner-up for the Jamie Bishop Award, which is given by the IAFA for an essay written in a language other than English. Leppalahti offers a glimpse into a body of lore, together with its literary offshoots, that has been largely inaccessible to Anglophones. We may be familiar with the central European legends that spawned Dracula, but parallel developments in Finland, Estonia, and other eastern and northern European cultures have rarely crossed the linguistic border. In addition to outlining Finnish versions of werewolf and vampire, Leppalahti offers a new analysis of the relationship between oral and written fantasies. Using the folkloristic category of motif along with Maria Nikolajeva's concept of the fantaseme, the essay proposes a mode of transmission from folk legend to fiction and from one written text to another.

The mermaid that Peter Mortensen is presenting seems a far cry from folk legends of the Lorelei and siren or from Hans Christian Andersen's folk-influenced "The Little Mermaid," but it also investigates a modernday (modern a century ago) adaptation of oral traditions into popular entertainment. …

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