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On Constructing Folklore

One of the things which bothers me the most in speculative fiction is how the folklore and mythologies are constructed. I love mythopoeia (constructing mythology) and I love folklore, but there’s one thing I see a lot of which drives me so far up the wall that I make friends with the ceiling.

That’s the assumption, by writers, that anything folklore that they write in – fairy tales, myths, legends, ancient prophecies, tall tales, jokes, etc – are basically like little stories in the main story which all work on the same rules. Yes, a focus on the numbers three and seven will appear – along with a few other ‘staples’ of the fairy tale – and the language will take on a more pretentious ‘old fashioned’ air, but other than that they are written as if they are working on the same rules as modern fiction writing. That they have the same sense and polish.

They arent polished. The ‘rules’ of writing a story are rules for polished, planned, stories written at once by one person for the purpose of telling that story. Folklore isnt. Myths, legends, folk tales, fairy tales, etc are the mish-mashed amalgams of many generations telling what they can remember of incidents, jokes, and stories, to each other and themselves, and twisting with each new teller – none of whom save the last (the one who writes it down in what comes to be the ‘final’ or ‘popular’ form) will be professional story-tellers and none of whom will know the craft.

No one who created folklore (as opposed to setting down on the record) set out to write a story. If you want your fictional folklore – your fairy tales, or mythopoeia, or legends for your heroes to go in search of – to ring true, to actually sound like they are folklore and not the author slamming a massive infodump down on a culture it doesn’t mesh with, you have to do one thing:

Take everything you ever learned about how to write a story or write correctly and THROW IT OUT.

Myths, fairy tales, and other folklore do not obey the rules of fiction writing. It’s not just a stylistic tone change. You know the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Doesn’t apply here. Truth is stranger than fiction because truth involves the actions of humanity as a group. Fiction, in the modern sense, is not written by humanity as a group – it is written by one or two individual humans. Folklore, like truth, comes from humanity as a group. And humanity as a group is batshit crazy.

Folklore is not neat and tidy. Fiction is expected to be neat and tidy (tie up loose ends, not have plot holes, have characters who aren’t acting like they’ve been slapped half to death with a stupid stick, have a message or theme, etc). Most folklore, for all that there are some very ‘logical’ things within it (like how most vampire’s weaknesses are anti-septics), makes no sense. Consider the modern meme. No one can explain why certain things suddenly become hugely popular and get quoted and remixed to death, but they do and they are – for the most part – nonsensical. Nevertheless, they become a common theme amongst large swathes of the population – and while most fade from existence as rapidly as they occur, others linger …despite there being no rhyme or reason to which or why. The same is true of folklore. The myths and fairy tales which we have had passed down to us are the ones which lasted best – the funniest, or the least confusing – but if you actually read them (not their many retellings and adaptations) you find that they make no sense and that all of the ‘rules’ of fiction writing appear to have been ignored.

They weren’t ignored. They just aren’t applicable. And this is what modern writers creating folklore for their works need to understand. Fiction is orderly, but folklore is chaotic. If you are trying to neatly categorise your gods by what they are god of and your myths follow modern writing structures …well, then, you’ve failed to understand what real mythology is like.

Folklore – myths, fairy tales, the like – should feel alive. The clear, plot-relevant, modern-structured ‘myths’ and ‘fairy tales’ seen in modern speculative fiction don’t. The heart is missing from them. The myths and fairy tales – all the folklore, in fact – that writers create for the world’s they build work very well as little modern stories, but not as myths and fairy tales.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Folklore Is Not Static

Only a short post today because I’m ill and struggling to concentrate. Just a brief list of misconceptions about folklore that really piss me off, those being that: the oldest form of a folktale is the “right” one, that folklore is somehow accurate to political correctness and other things the folk didn’t know about, and that innovation in writing about folklore by exploring its limitations and changing thins is somehow “Wrong”. Dear people who think these things: [redacted due to excessive vulgarity in vulgar Latin].

 

1) There is no one “true” or “purest” version of any folklore. Just because you’ve gone back to the earliest form of a folktale or the earliest description of a creature that we know of does not make that version any more “accurate” or “real” than any later version, okay? The Strigoi Mort, for example, is no more real folklore than the Stokerian vampire or the, loath as I am to have to include them, sparklepires of Twilight and its ilk. They are different pieces of folklore from folk who differ in both location and era, but they are all folklore. One can argue whether the latest still deserve to be called vampires instead of some new name, but the same was indubitably true when the Stokerian vampire first immerged from literary origin and became folklore. If, say, you had one person fall ill from iron deficiency or TB in one town and the story of their illness or death spread sideways to the two neighbouring towns – one of which recently had things knocked off tables by a minor earthquake in the night and one which had an albino merchant travel through it recently, within no time you’re going to have three completely different sets of vampire folklore (one without attachment to other issues, one implying vampires are also nocturnally poltergeists, and one laying blame on the poor innocent albino person who happened to pass through the week before). None of those is any less folklore than the others. Nor are the inevitable versions that form as time goes by, but which were based on those, any less true folklore than the earlier forms. I don’t say “original” because, frankly, although we can tell where certain traits originate from, all these ideas have to come from somewhere before and so there can be no true “origin” of any folklore.

2) Folklore is the lore of the lowest common denominator: that means it’s every –IST and –ISM in the book and then some. As a collective, humans are pretty stupid. And when they’re not stupid they’re still prejudiced – especially in groups. Folklore, as the name suggests, is the lore of the folk – that is, of the least educated group. Folklore, essentially, is ruled by the lowest common denominator amongst the social group it originated in. This means that it’s racist as hell. It’s sexist as hell. It’s sexualist (also called homophobic, but that’s narrower) as hell. It’s ableist as hell. It’s classist as hell. It’s religiously intolerant as hell. And it’s every other –ist and –ism which I’ve failed to mention as hell. Somewhere, I believe (it’s been a while since I read them) in one of the Eddas there’s a line about how Odin could seduce any pale wristed woman in the world. To the people who came up with that it probably was just a pretty way of saying “all the women in the world”, but to the modern lowest common denominator it begs the question “so what about women who aren’t white?”. The Sirens of Greek myth were said to be able to seduce any sailor (into crashing or drowning) with their beautiful singing… until one day someone pointed out that deaf people are a thing. Western European fairy tales, or rather: the majority of those fairy tales, have taught children for centuries that women are a passive reward for a heroes actions and only recently are fairy tales beginning to be retold without love interests or with more active female characters. Many traditional Scandinavian mythical creatures were said to be able to seduce (a word now almost exclusively attached to sexual seduction, although it originally also included leading astray and winning someone over to the other side – something vaguely remembered by “seduced to the Dark Side” although there tends to still be the evil=sexy implication) both men and women, both gay and straight – probably because Scandinavian countries have had a somewhat healthier mindset toward homosexuality and bisexuality. However, this does not account for asexuals, for whom there was no term until 1940 and before that either had to put up with almost definitely having to marry a sexual person who wouldn’t understand or taking a vow of chastity. (This is why it is hard to find “proof” of asexuality in the past. Also, my pet theory is that the concept of chastity – choosing to not have sex for religious reasons – cam about one day in prehistory when one quick witted repulsed Ace, who either didn’t want kids or couldn’t put up with sex to have them, was reminded that the way things are is that when you grow up you get married and have kids and that Ace went “NOPE! …because …um, religion! Yeah, I promised [vaguely appropriate deity of choice] that I’d dedicate my life to them specifically and that means ix-nay on the sex and babies thing, okay?” – and then it got dogmatised and lots of people who weren’t asexual and weren’t going to be okay with a vow of no-acting-on-pantsfeels got pressured into it, leading to all the disturbing jokes about “favourite” altar boys.) In all of these cases the common people – the folk – give absolutes which may make sense to them at the time because they don’t know that people aren’t all like that, but which are horribly restrictive and offensive when viewed through the critical eye of a different culture or era. All of which leads me to point 3:

3) Folklore adapts and changes as the L.C.D. changes and there’s no point clinging to the past. The nature of folklore is change. The beauty of folklore is change. Folklore shifts, like sand dunes in a desert – slowly to the human who stands there for a time but shockingly fast to the human who sees, leaves, and returns to see again. This shifting is a detailed record of how the lowest common denominator – how the general population or common folk – viewed the world. Both what is included and what is not excluded but simply not considered tell us far more about how people viewed the world and how those cultures changed (I won’t say evolved because people tend to mistakenly believe evolution is a linear progression to some betterment rather than just adapting to different circumstances). Folklore does include traditions, it is true, but to say “you shouldn’t change [X] or consider how [Y that the folk the lore originated from didn’t know about] and must take those absolutes they told for granted despite their lack of universal applicability because IT’STRADITIONAL” is bullshit. Folklore includes traditions, but is not confined by them. Folklore is about the ebb and flow of traditions, the path they take from when the idea was first formed to when it becomes defunct and forgotten. Folklore is about change. Without that person history has made anonymous who first pointed out that “uhhh, guys, deaf people can’t be seduced by Siren-song because they can’t hear”, we would never have had the story – so much a part of folklore for thousands of years now – of Odysseus being tied to the mast while his crew sail them safely past with wax blocking their ears. There is no reason, for instance, that the “common knowledge” (the folklore) that a creature can seduce any gender should not eventually amend itself to “can seduce any person who is interested in sex” and that new Western European fairy tales and new telling of old ones should not slowly change to reflect the fact that women are people too.

Sure, sometime writers and other artists will try to do a new take on a piece of folklore (by examining the changes between what the originators of the folklore believed was normal and what the modern folk believe is normal) only to have it be quickly forgotten because the older form of the folklore still holds strong and the new idea was not adopted by the folk, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Folklore is like a wild and thorny, but beautiful, plant: you can’t control it; you can only offer it things to support itself with and stand back in awe.

 

…This was supposed to be short.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2016 in On Folklore

 

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