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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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Could People Stop Underestimating Folklore, Please?

Quite some time ago, I was talking to a teacher from a technical film school and part of the discussion always bothered me: I mentioned my interest in fantasy and folklore in film and he immediately dismissed the former as “vampires and zombies” and the later as “just fairy tales”. Technical film school includes writing, producing and directing – and that means that the message future filmmakers were receiving is that all there is to fantasy is two overdone creatures and that folklore has basically been covered in its entirety by Disney. That’s sad.

I’ll get to why that’s terribly underselling fantasy in another rant, but for today COULD PEOPLE PLEASE STOP UNDERESTIMATING FOLKLORE, PLEASE?

Folklore includes Fairy Tales, yes, but within the umbrella of Narrative Folklore, which is only one of several such large umbrellas!

1. Why is folklore different from “high culture” and “pop culture”? Well, typically folklore (folk = the people + lore = knowledge, seriously that term’s pretty self-explanatory) is only written down by those studying it and is of anonymous originator. That is to say: the wisdom of the common people, passed down and traditional, is typically oral, whereas high culture and pop-culture are typically spread and maintained by writing, and where folklore is stuff “everyone knows”, yet no one can name who knew it first, while pop and high culture have definite origins. It may be pop-cultural to verbally remind people that Winter Is Coming, but we all know it came from G.R.R. Martin’s great work of fiction. Likewise, when we allude to star-crossed lovers as being “like Romeo and Juliet” we know the reference is to Shakespeare. So who was the original writer of Sleeping Beauty? “Charles Perrault”, some of you may reply, but that’s not true. Oh, he certainly wrote it down first – but he didn’t create it. He made it suitably for the court, but it was a verbal folktale first. So who first told that story? No one knows. It’s folklore.

2. So if it’s not just fairy tales, what does folklore include? A significant portion of your cultural heritage, for starters. All of the traditional art, literature (term used loosely), knowledge, methods, customs and rites which are typically transferred verbally instead of in writing. Need more specificity? Okay. Family traditions, much of cultural worldviews, ways of doing business and creating things (sewing, planting, cooking, etc), dance, music, passed on knowledge, customs of doing and making, ballads, folktales, myths and legends (not the same thing!), games, calendars customs, events, childlore, vernacular, popular beliefs, proverbs, folk medicine, weather lore, urban legends, and easily several dozen more that I can’t think of off the top of my head!

Ever told a blonde joke? That’s folklore.

Grandma’s secret recipe that’s been in the family ages? Folklore.

Relatives arguing about the right way to light the barbeque? Folklore.

Had the phone call about whether your fridge is running and how you’d better go catch it? Folklore.

Family have a specific time at which they’re allowed to open their Christmas presents? Folklore.

Child insisting the other gender has “cooties”? Folklore.

Did your boss ever teach you a trick for how to do something that’s specific to where you work? Folklore.

Chicken soup for when you’re ill? Folklore.

Told someone not to cry over spilt milk? Folklore.

Been in a hotel and noticed a lack of room or floor (or both) 13? Or 4 in Asia? Folklore!

Ever worn lucky socks? The idea they can be lucky is folklore.

Folklore touches on so many bases that it’s impossible to describe them all. There is worth in folklore, and folkloristics (the study of folklore). There’s also Applied Folklore/Folkloristics, which can be used to make the world a better place (or create terrifyingly efficient propaganda). Oh yeah, and one more thing:

3. Narrative Folklore includes MORE than fairy tales, and fairy tales aren’t “moral tales for children”, damn it! The only type of narrative folklore which is aimed specifically at children is the Fable (anthropomorphic animal stories). It’s also the only one which is specifically about giving a moral lesson. Animal Tales, meanwhile are stories about animals but without the moral lesson. Fairy Tales involve some element of magic, wonder or the fantastic. Typically their setting is none-specific and “timeless”. You’ll note there is nothing about audience age or morality in that definition. Indeed, one could argue that modern fantasy novels (which are also NOT defined by Good/Light VS Evil/Dark, by the way) are merely longer, more specific (giving characters and locations names and dates/ages) versions of the Fairy Tale. There are Jokes (self-explanatory) and Tall Tales (fictionalised and exaggerated stories about Chuck Norris real people). There is the often-overlapping and regularly conflated pair of Myths (stories, often involving the creation of the world, about deities) and Legends (which are set in the past, like a record of history, and focus on heroes, royalty, and “great deeds”).

Folklore gets dismissed as unimportant so often. I wish people would give the subject the acknowledgement it deserves.

(Full disclosure: although I once seriously considered an academic career in folkloristics, I remain only an amateur folklorist.)

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2015 in On Folklore

 

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