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From the Spoken to the Written: The Changing Cultural Role of Folk and Fairy Tales Macfadyen, Leah P. 2004

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Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies, Fall 2004 (in press)From the Spoken to the Written:The Changing Cultural Role of Folk and Fairy TalesLeah P. Macfadyen2[That] other world?gets into our heads and becomes necessary ? a world of sunsand moons and forests, of princesses and goose girls, of old men and women,benign and malign, of talking birds and flying horses, magic roses and magicpuddings, turnips and pigs, impenetrable castles and petrification, glassmountains and glass coffins, poisonous apples and blinding thorns, ogres andimps, spindles and spun gold, tasks and prohibitions, danger and comfort (for thegood people) after it. It is very odd ? when you come to think of it ? that humanbeings in all sorts of societies, ancient and modern, have needed these untruestories?There is neither explanation nor teaching in the true wonder tale.Byatt, 2004Why do human societies tell and preserve folk and fairy tales? The diversity, fluidity, andsometimes apparently contrary versions of these tales, told and retold, written and rewritten,fragmented by memory and misremembered into new tales, seem to confound any attempts atoffering a comprehensive answer to this question.  Modern interpreters have adopted widelydiverging approaches in their analyses of the content, structure, and symbolism of folk and fairytales, in their various efforts to unearth the ?real meaning? hidden beneath the surface, or toaccount for the persistence of folk and fairy tales over many centuries. Psychoanalyticapproaches, for example, suggest an almost utilitarian role for such tales, proposing that theyoffer individuals or groups symbolic representations of personal conflicts. One well-knownproponent of this school is Bruno Bettelheim, who suggests that fairy tales function as a tool for?master[ing] the psychological problems of growing up? and ?fostering?personalitydevelopment? (6, 12).  Sociological interpretations meanwhile posit that tales are best understoodas text ? that their ongoing function is to communicate shared values within a group, or tocontribute to social stability or to promote and maintain the social status quo. Exemplifying thisapproach are numerous feminist critiques of folk and fairy tales such as that offered by Marcia3Lieberman, who argues that ?millions of women must surely have formed their psychologicalself-concepts, and their ideas of what they could or could not accomplish, what sort of behaviourwould be rewarded, and of the nature of the reward itself, in part from their favourite fairy tales?(Stone 396). A third approach to investigating the meaning of folk and fairy tales is the historic,in which interpreters seek the Ur-text of folk and fairy tales, arguing that their meaning can onlybe understood through discerning their original historical context. In a discussion of thepresentation of beasts and monsters in European folk and fairy tales, for example, MarinaWarner seeks the original setting for ?fear of beasts,? and argues that ?the threat of animals was areal and frightening one in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? (416).While these and other approaches may indeed offer insight into some tales or groups of tales,the hypotheses they generate can often be challenged with counter-examples of tales that do notfit the given classificatory framework. The problem with such approaches to investigating thesocial or cultural roles of folk and fairy tales may be the overwhelming interpretive focus ontheir content, while the more important cultural role or function of tales might rather derive fromthe acts of their (re)telling or transmission.Furthermore, if the different models of telling tales has been most important in shaping theircultural role, how did the transcription of folk and fairy tales ? the shift from oral to written ?change this role? This paper explores the cultural roles of tale-telling, and how these roles mayhave been transformed by the transcription of folk and fairy tales into ?literature,? with referenceto Paul Connerton?s ideas of habit-memory and collective identity, Benedict Anderson?s writingon the rise of print capitalism, and Pierre Bourdieu?s theories of cultural capital and the power oflanguage.4From one perspective, oral tale-telling can be viewed as a form of ritual performance. ASByatt captures the essence of such performativity in her novel Possession, in journal entries(356) made by a young Breton woman, who writes of the peasant housekeeper, Gode:Gode?s stories, even more than my father?s, depend on the outer dark and thecloseness, indoors, of tellers and listeners?when she tells, she will raise herhands, or throw back her head, or shake her shawl, and long tattered shadowsrace across the ceiling?Gode?s telling is a play with all these things, with thefirelight and the gesturing shadows and the streamers of light and dark ? shebrings all their movements together as I imagine the leader of an orchestra may.The telling of tales is, by necessity, a social and collective activity, one that requires both tellersand listeners ? unlike the reading of written tales, which can take place ?in silent privacy, in thelair of the skull? (Anderson 35).  In discussing the cultural role of oral tale-telling, it is useful toconsider how Pierre Bourdieu?s ideas on cultural production seem to be relevant to the ?literaryart? of folk and fairy tales.  Consistent with the recognition of tale-telling as a social activity,Bourdieu opposes theories of the production of ?art? that position individual creativity at theheart of the enterprise (Jenkins). Regarding language (which presumably includes literature andnarrative), Bourdieu also argues that the simple utterance of words does not automatically imbuethose words with power and meaning (what Austin had called ?illocutionary force?) (1991);rather, he emphasizes the importance of the social context of artistic production and of languagein creating meaning, pointing out that cultural production must produce not only ?the objectitself in its materiality? (here, the tale) ?but also the value of this object? (Bourdieu 1993, 164).Rather than simply creating fixed ?story products?, oral tale-telling (and, importantly, retelling)was a form of ritual performance or ritual discourse that functioned to construct and reproduce,as Bourdieu suggests, ?a universe of belief? (1993, 164) ? a culture.5From the simplest perspective, the ritualistic nature of tale-telling is suggested by historicalrecords that connect instances of story-telling with the marking of particular celebrations ortimes of year. Byatt illustrates this in Possession, for example, by explicitly linking the(re)telling of a particular genre of Breton Celtic tales to the ?Black Month? (November).  Theritualistic nature of even nightly domestic story-telling can be inferred from Lukes? definition ofritual, which characterizes it as ?rule-governed activity of a symbolic character which draws theattention of its participants to objects of thought and feeling which they hold to be of specialsignificance? (291).Why might the performative and ritualistic features of tale-telling be important? Connertonargues that performative rites ? including ritual speech acts ? contribute to the construction ofsocial or collective memory: the collective habit-memory of a group. Habit-memory is not?historical memory? (the remembering of a series of historical events), nor is it ?cognitivememory? (the conscious remembering of facts, data, or knowledge).  Instead, it is characterizedas an almost unconscious and socially-embedded ability to reproduce a certain kind of?performance?. Thus, performative ritual itself is a kind of re-remembering, an important re-enactment of the ritual itself, and not necessarily, if ever, a re-enactment of a prototypic orhistoric event. Similarly, the performance of oral story-telling might be considered to be a re-enactment of past story-telling, and not necessarily the repeat transmission of a specializedmessage carried in the content details of the tale itself.Some of the features that are shared by different kinds of performative ritual contribute totheir mnemonic effect, tying together memory, history, and shared knowledge.  The performativeutterances that Connerton identifies in, for example, religious rituals, such as the liturgy ofCatholic mass, are also identifiable motifs in folk and fairy tales: curses, blessings, and oaths6(58).  Also important is the stylistic formalism of the language of ritual performance.  In bothreligious ritual and folk and fairy tales, the choice of words, syntax and style is markedly morerestricted than in everyday language. Certain phrases or word combinations, and certain linkagesbetween phrases or ideas, have a high preference (?Once upon a time?? ?they all lived happilyever after?).   Indeed, Connerton explicitly notes the existence of these linguistic features in alarge body of oral world literatures and cites research that has demonstrated the importance ofthese features as mnemonic devices (60).Interestingly, Connerton also stresses the importance of the body in ritual performance, one ofthe elements that often sets oral tale-telling apart from the detached reading of written tales.  Inaddition to the spoken word, Connerton argues that performative meaning is also ?encoded in setpostures, gestures and movements? (59).  In this light, the tale-telling practices of Byatt?s Gode,above, can be seen not simply as dramatic illustration for the sake of entertainment, but as anintegral part of the ritual performance of story-telling in which meaning and memory areembodied as well as uttered.Most significant with reference to culture and the shaping of communal memory is the realityof oral story-telling as a ritual performance that emphasizes continuity with the past: as ritual re-enactment of past tellings.  The myriad and changeable content elements of folk and fairy tales ?by inference, the multiple possibilities offered in oral retellings ? can, in Connerton?s view, beunderstood to function as a ?reservoir of meanings? that are available for use and reuse,sometimes to give completely different meanings that are not susceptible to systematicinterpretation. What is important, he argues, is that ritual is in itself a ?celebration of recurrence,?performance for the sheer collective pleasure and power of re-enacting, re-embodying collectivememory. In this light, we can understand performative oral story-telling as playing a7collectivizing, unifying cultural function; through ritual retellings of stories, animated by thebody, embedded by the rhythms of formalized language, tale-telling allows groups to understandthat ?we are the people who know/tell these stories.?Returning to Bourdieu, who writes, ?the social world is accumulated history? (1986, 241), wemight also consider that oral story-telling historically contributed to the development of culturalcapital in group members: that is, (re)production of (shared) ?dispositions, behaviour, habits,good taste, savoir faire and attitudes? that become fundamentally embodied in the individual as ahabitus (Andres 122). Relevant to the notion of participation in ritual story-telling is Bourdieu?scontention that cultural capital is acquired unconsciously, and acquired early, by directtransmission, usually from family or immediate community members.  Story-tellers, as theembodiment and transmitters of cultural capital, actively contributed to the production andreproduction of the cultural capital of a group (family, village, community): ?the set of actuallyusable resources and powers?.that distinguish the major classes of conditions of existence?(Andres 121).If the reproduction of cultural capital and maintenance of collective memory brought about bythe telling of folk and fairy tales relied upon embodied performance, ritual speech acts andrepetitive oral transmission of fluid oral narratives, what was the cultural impact of fixingspecific forms of tales into written text? Was the cultural role of folk and fairy tales altered bythe act of writing them down? Is something lost in the transition from performance to?literature,? as AS Byatt seems to suggest?:I can?t write down Gode?s way of telling things. My father has from time to timeencouraged her to tell him tales which he has tried to take down verbatim,keeping the rhythms of her speech, adding nothing and taking nothing away. Butthe life goes out of her words on the page, no matter how faithful he is.  He saidonce to me, after such an experiment, that he saw now why the ancient Druids8believed that the spoken word was the breath of life and that writing was a formof death.(1990, 355)In the Introduction to their anthology, Folk & Fairy Tales, Hallett and Karasek note that intranscription, tales are often modified and stylized, because spoken language differs from thewritten; that the writers and collectors of tales become ?intermediaries? who necessarily leave apersonal imprint on each transposition; that written tales are often revised for new and differentaudiences (or markets); and that they accrue changes influenced by literary and societal fashionsof the moment.  While these authors concern themselves with how the tales themselves arealtered by the act of writing, and characterize written-down folk tales as ?fragments of psychichistory? (xvii), what is more relevant here is to explore how the transcription of folk and fairytales may have changed the cultural role of such tales.To some extent, the transcribing of oral tales might be seen as an attempt to capture forposterity (or for the benefit of others) the culture of preliterate oral societies. The evolution of theidea and value of ?culture? over time is exemplified by the linguistic paradox in which highsociety urban dwellers have come to be seen as ?cultivated?, while the tillers of the land ? thereproducers of cultural capital through oral tales ? have not.  Nevertheless, some writers havesuggested that a nostalgic ?race memory? may lurk behind ?civilized? society?s fascination withthe cultural products of their illiterate predecessors (Eagleton).  Indeed, Jakob and WilhelmGrimm initially seem to have been motivated to assemble their collection of transcribed folk andfairy tales by a romantic and nationalistic search for the ?authentic culture? of the illiterateGerman Volk, and by a notion that ?the true spirit of the people was to be found not in palaces oreven cities, but in the countryside, far away from urban sophistication? (Hallet and Karasek9xviii).  Latterly, however, the Grimms ? and later collectors of folk and fairy tales ? revised theiranthologies with an eye to the newly emerging market for children?s literature and folk tales.Benedict Anderson would likely argue that such transcribers and collectors effectively co-opted and commodified folk and fairy tales in the service of modern nation-building, allowingthe insatiable capitalist markets of print-capitalism to transform oral tales into mass-producedindustrial goods.  His theories of print as a new form of economic capital offer some interestinginsights into the ?big? structures and power struggles of evolving nation-states. Print, hesuggests, gave a new fixity to language, and created a unified language of exchange: a mediumthrough which speakers of diverse dialects could begin to communicate more effectively. Printcapitalism also created new language ?power hierarchies,? as particular dialects and languagescame to dominate the print market. A purely economic theory fails, however, to illuminate howthe transcribing of oral stories may have altered their role and function in the social world. AsBourdieu explains (1986), economic theory reduces the universe of exchanges to mercantileexchanges and the maximization of profit ? and implicitly defines all other forms of exchange(such as the telling of stories) as ?disinterested,? relegating cultural or artistic practices to thecategory of ?purposeless.? Bourdieu instead argues that an accurate assessment of the structureof the social world demands the development of a ?new economy of practices? which mustinclude practices that ?are not?socially recognized as economic? (1986, 47).   In the socialspaces (or ?fields of exchange?) in which humans struggle, power and position are not simplydetermined by economic capital, he explains, but also depend on cultural capital and on socialcapital: ?the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of adurable network of ?relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition? (1986, 51).10The process of transcription ? the taking of a written snapshot of an oral tale ? first objectifiedthis cultural capital as a ?cultural object,? and then converted it into economic capital (profit fortranscribers, printers and sellers), as printed tales were sold in the market of commodities.  Asmaterialized commodified objects, tales are lifted out of their cultural context, and detached fromtheir culturally embodied state ? the community ? and instead enter the collection of ?culturalgoods? belonging to what Anderson calls a ?community of anonymity? (35).If we accept Bourdieu?s argument, however, that cultural and social capital cannot be simplyconverted into economic capital without loss of the ?specific efficacy of the other types ofcapital? (1986, 54), it becomes clear that what is lost in the conversion of oral tales intocommodified cultural goods (?literature?) is their specific cultural efficacy.  Details of a tellingmay be captured, but the embodied ritual and performative cultural functions are lost.  As a bodyof literature, folk and fairy stories no longer function as deep and fluid reservoirs of meaning fortheir communities of origin. Tellings are increasingly restricted to the details of a fixed text (andto those texts that ?sell well? in the markets); interpretations, though there may be more than one,emerge as squabbles between academics; popular meaning is increasingly fixed by further profit-driven objectification, for example, the conversion of tales into mass-market Disney animations.Do written-down snapshots of ancient tales perform a new cultural role?  Interestingly,Anderson suggests that print-capitalism and the resulting broad dissemination of printed ideasand shared stories in vernacular languages perform a new kind of culture-unifying orcollectivizing function. Print, he argues, allows the development of ?new ideas of simultaneity,?new ?ways of linking fraternity,? and the creation of ideas of ?imagined community.? Andersoneven suggests that the widespread reading of common printed texts can even be viewed as a newritual, one of mass consumption and collective imagining (35).  (Anderson writes here with11reference to the daily reading of newspapers, but surely the repetition and replication of writtentales might be considered to have a similar function.)Connerton adds that such modern ?celebrations of recurrence? might actually function as?compensatory strategies,? a palliative in the face of conditions of modernity that valorizeeconomic development, unending modernization and change, and that deny the existence ofvalue in ?life as a structure of celebrated recurrence? (64). In other words, written tales, strippedof their richness as they may be, might indeed be evidence of that sneaking race memory towhich Eagleton alludes ? a cultural touchstone for a barely-remembered communal past.While Anderson emphasizes the role of print capitalism in the development of ?imaginedcommunity,? however, he spends little time discussing the reality that only the literate were andare permitted to join this community: a first step in restricting access to cultural and socialcapital.  Similarly, Bourdieu emphasizes the importance of remembering that linguistic relationsare intimately embedded in relations of power (Andres). Linguistic competence ? not simplyliteracy, but also an intimate knowledge of the forms, style and content of a group?s literature ?offers privilege in struggles for cultural, social and economic capital (Jenkins 97).  Byatt goes asfar as to suggest that fairy tales contribute to the shaping of a ?narrative grammar of the mind?(2004).Perhaps more important for consideration of the cultural products of a (dominant) culturalgroup, Bourdieu (1986) argues that a group reproduces and maintains its social capital throughan ongoing investment in social relationships through processes of exchanges. Exchanges, heargues, ?transform the things exchanged into signs of mutual recognition and, through the mutualrecognition and the recognition of group membership which it implies, reproduces the group?(52), defining and defending its boundaries. I propose that written and literary tales have become12symbolic objects of cultural exchange, differentiating the learn?d and the cultured from theilliterati, and reinforcing the social capital of the dominant group. With this framework, itbecomes easier to understand, for example, how more modern literary tales such as LewisCarroll?s Alice?s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and Alice Through the Looking Glass (1872)carry within them cultural cross-references that define the reader?s social position and groupmembership (or lack thereof).  In-group readers intuitively recognize their myriad allusions andreferences to other texts and tales: elements of the group?s cultural corpus.  For the out-group,the uninitiated, extensive explanation is required, evidenced by the twenty-five pages ofexplanatory notes appended to a recent edition (1998). Bourdieu reminds us ??one might thinkthat reading a text is the same as understanding it, that is, discovering its secret. However, notevery text is meant to be understood in this way?an analysis of the [primary] sources needs tobe done: for what social use was this text written?? (Reeser and Spalding 671).In conclusion, then, the ?civilized? literary versions of folk and fairy tales (and more recentliterary tales whose authorship and dates of publication are known) now play a new socioculturalrole that is, nevertheless, still independent of the actual content details of the tales themselves.The reading of tales may represent, as Anderson suggests, a new form of ritual that unites animagined community; it may represent an unspoken yearning to emphasize continuity with thepast, as Connerton offers. Ironically, however, the reading and sharing of written tales may playa role that is almost the mirror-image of the role played by their oral precursors: this time not aunifying role that constructs collective identity and reproduces cultural capital, but a gate-keeping role that regulates social capital and restricts membership of the dominant group.13ReferencesAnderson, B. Imagined Communities (revised edition). London, UK: Verso, 1991.Andres [Bellamy], L. ?Capital, habitus, field and practice: An introduction to the work of PierreBourdieu.? Sociology of Education in Canada. Eds. L. Erwin and D. MacLennan.Mississauga: Copp Clark Longman Ltd., 1994.137-163.Bettelheim, B. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Knopf, 1975.Bourdieu, P. (1986). ?The Forms of Capital.? Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociologyof Education. Ed. J. E. Richardson. Westport, CT: Greenword Press, 1986. 241-258.Bourdieu, P. Language & Symbolic Power. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991.Bourdieu, P. The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1993.Byatt, A. S. Possession. London, UK: Vintage, 1990.Byatt, A. S. (2004). ?Happy ever after.? The Guardian [London], 3 Jan. 2004.http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/sciencefiction/story/0,6000,1115202,00.htmlCarroll, L.  Alice?s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What AliceFound There. (Edited and annotated by R. L. Green). Oxford, UK: Oxford UniversityPress, 1998.Connerton, P. How Societies Remember. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.Eagleton, T. The Idea of Culture. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000.Hallett, M. and Karasek, B. Folk & Fairy Tales (third edition). Peterborough, ON: Broadview,2002.14Jenkins, R. ?Language, culture and sociology: Pierre Bourdieu in context,? History of the HumanSciences 7(4)(1994): 95-104.Lukes, S. ?Political Ritual and Social Integration,? Sociology 9 (1975): 289-308.Reeser, T. W. and Spalding, S. D. ?Reading Literature/Culture: A Translation of ?Reading as aCultural Practice?,? Style (Winter 2002).Stone, K. F. ?The Misuses of Enchantment: Controversies on the Significance of Fairy Tales?.Folk & Fairy Tales. Eds. M. Hallett and B. Karasek. Peterborough, ON: Broadview,2002. 391-414.Warner, M. ?Go! Be a Beast: Beauty and the Beast?. Folk & Fairy Tales. Eds. M. Hallett and B.Karasek.  Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2002. 415-426.15Leah P. Macfadyen is working towards a Master of Arts degree in Liberal Studies in theGraduate Liberal Studies program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Shecompleted a B.Sc. in biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and a Ph.D. inmolecular microbiology at the University of British Columbia, Canada, before leaping from theworld of science into the social sciences.  A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, Leah immigrated toCanada in 1993.


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