Strength in Numbers: The Uses of Comparative Folktale Research

By Goldberg, Christine | Western Folklore, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Strength in Numbers: The Uses of Comparative Folktale Research


Goldberg, Christine, Western Folklore


Comparative folktale scholarship is an appropriate subject for this occasion because Donald Ward's research on traditional narratives was made better - and even, I would say, made possible - because the material that he investigated had already been conceptualized in a systematic, orderly manner. First, traditional narrative is classified into genres. Then, within each genre, each different plot is considered to be a type. Finally, each type consists of one or more motifs (Thompson 1955; cf. Ben-Amos 1980:25-30 especially). In practice, this process works better for some genres than for others. For example, legends can be broken down into motifs but they have proven difficult to classify into types. Type classification has been especially successful in the case of folktales (Aarne and Thompson 1961; Uther 2004). The motifs that comprise these tales, along with motifs from myths, legends, ballads, and so on, are listed in the Motif Index (Thompson 1955-1958). This hierarchical system enables researchers to conceptualize and discuss narratives, and folktales in particular, as complex forms with constituent components. Relationships among complete forms can be specified in terms of the number of the components (that is, the motifs) they share. This system provides scholars with a dieoretical orientation and facilitates communication within the scholarly community. It also has a practical effect in that it serves as a basis for comprehensive bibliographic indexes.

Thus, when Don Ward wrote that the motif of the Glass Mountain appears in six particular tale types (ATU [Uther 2004] 303, 400, 425, 451, 550, and 551; Enzyklopädie des Märchens [EM], s.v. Glasberg), this is meaningful because we know (or can easily learn) what stories those tale type numbers represent, and we can also locate the material necessary to verify that what is claimed is true. When Don wrote about a picture in which serpents surround a man as he plays a harp with his feet, he was able to link this image from Germanic mythology convincingly and efficiently to similar motifs such as Orpheus playing music to charm wild animals, and even to a not-very-funny modern joke (Ward 1972). When Don wanted to compare female fantasies of supernatural lovers to the tale of Beauty and the Beast, he was able to refer to several studies where readers can see for themselves not only the temporal and geographic spread of that tale type but also what stability and what variety there are in this key scene (Ward 1989; see also Mieder 2005).

Nearly twenty years ago, at a memorial service for his colleague and former teacher Wayland Hand, Don offered the following description of scholarship in the humanities:

The ultimate goal of those who devote their lives to the humanities is to contribute bits and pieces to that giant mosaic that one day may well provide us with at least a partial answer to that most significant of questions: What does it mean to be human? . . . [T] hose missing bits and pieces . . . are to be found in the works of man and specifically in the artifacts that are created by forces deep in the human mind. (Ward 1987-1988:6-7)

Both the use of metaphor and the genteel modesty here are part of the genre. Nevertheless, to be honest, we should acknowledge that contributing "bits and pieces," by itself, is not very useful. The pieces also have to be set into their appropriate positions. Mosaics do not reveal intelligible pictures if their tiles are all mixed up. Because of its history of investigation coupled with classification, the comparative approach to folklore research engenders practices of order and thoroughness that are crucial for the proper arrangement of the big picture. Once a piece has been found and dusted off, it is possible to see where it belongs, what relationship it has to nearby pieces, and where it fits in the big picture.

Don Ward traced his academic pedigree from Wayland Hand and Archer Taylor back through a line of Germanists to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Ward 1994). …

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