Distant Discoveries: A Look at Prominent Folklorists by William Gilmer

Realistically, there should be a high mortality rate for folk tales.The amount of effort it takes for these stories to reach us after hundreds of years makes it a wonder that any have survived at all. Luckily there have been people dedicated to the task, willing to spend their lifetimes researching and publishing, in an effort to preserve these pieces for future generations.. The stories of how these pieces get to us are usually as interesting as the stories themselves. Here are three (technically four) people who we can thank for ensuring the survival of folklore and fairy tales into the modern age.

Imagine living in the rural outskirts of 1930’s Nova Scotia...
one day you look out your window and see a woman struggling to push a wheel barrel up a rocky path. The wheel barrel doesn’t hold much, just a bag of note books, and an organ (a melodeon to be exact).

This was the research style of HELEN CREIGHTON (September 5, 1899 - December 12, 1989), one of Canada’s most prominent folklorists. She spent decades traveling the small villages of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick collecting traditional folk songs and stories. By the end of her adventuring she had collected and recorded thousands of songs in languages ranging from English to Gaelic to Mi’kmaq. These songs became the research material used for many of the books Helen would publish in the next twenty years (Songs and Ballads from Nova Scotia, Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia, Maritime Folk Songs), most of the recordings themselves ended up in The Canadian Museum of Civilization. Besides songs, Helen also collected myths, oral histories, and accounts of the supernatural. Her lifetime of work earned her a handful of honorary degrees and entry into The Order of Canada, the second most prestigious honor that can be bestowed on a Canadian citizen.

In 1957, after already receiving much of her acclaim, Helen published a collection of ghost stories she had gathered over the years titled “Bluenose Ghosts”. The book quickly became a best seller and its success prompted the follow-up, “Bluenose Magic” which dealt with the more occult lore of the area.

It is undeniable that Helen Creighton was a pioneer and contributed immensely to the study of Canadian folklore. Without her work, numerous traditions and stories may have slipped into the darkness of forgotten history. Still, she is not without her criticisms. There are people who suggest that she painted her research populations with a broad brush, deliberately portraying them as overly primitive to enhance their exoticness. It’s important to remember that folklore can be influenced by the people researching and interpreting it.
For some folklorists, their occupation is a calling, for others it is done out of need. Sanni Metelerkamp, born 1867 in Knysna, South Africa, was the great-granddaughter of George Rex, a major business man and developer, as well as rumored illegitimate son of King George III. While her most famous work was George Rex: the Authentic Story, she spent much of her time gathering folktales from around South Africa.

Sanni lived during a transitional period in South Africa. By the early 1900’s British, Boer, and Zulu armies were locked in the constant fighting of the South African War while new railroads were continuing to open the country up for travel and to outsiders. The world was changing, and in that change, Sanni feared tradition could be lost. In her own words, Sanni collected these stories because “he tells no more stories by the firelight in the gloaming; and his little monsters – children no longer – are claimed by graver tasks and wider interests.” She saw these stories teetering on the edge and did what she could to pull them back from the abyss.



The collection itself, Outa Karel’s Stories, South African Folk-Lore Stories, was published in 1914 for English audiences. Sanni chose to use local language and words, which can make the stories hard to approach initially (she does provide an excellent glossary at the beginning), but these are stories well worth the effort to digest. Many seek to explore occurrences in nature, usually through the use of anthropomorphized animals. They are filled with fun and unforgettable imagery, “Why the Hyena is Lame,” for instance, centers around a hyena and a jackal eating a cloud, while “The Flying Lion” tells of a time when lions used to have giant bat wings and forced white crows to babysit the bones of their prey.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Sanni for getting these stories out into the world. The collection itself is part of the Gutenberg Project and is free to read or download from their website in its entirety.
We’re finishing off with two of the most famous folklorists the world has ever known; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Their multivolume Children’s and Household Tales gave us “Rapunzel”, “Cinderella”, “Snow White”, and “Hansel and Grethel” among other popular tales. On its release, due to its depictions of death and mysterious princess impregnations, parents and the church weren’t very keen on children reading it. The Brothers would, in future editions, make changes to some of the stories in an effort to make it more appropriate for family audiences. While Jacob and Wilhelm would accomplish many things in life, this collection would be their most well-known achievement. The final edition was released in 1857, and contained over two-hundred stories.

Jacob and Wilhelm were born in 1785 and 1786 respectively in Hesse-Cassel, modern day Germany. Their father’s early death plunged the family into poverty, but through donations from extended family, the brothers were able to attend university. Though their social status put them at a disadvantage, they excelled in their studies.
In 1825 Wilhelm married, and Jacob was appointed court librarian to the King of Westphalia. By 1830, both brothers were working as professors at the University of Göttingen. During these years they focused actively on researching and writing; Jacob on German Mythology (a text that is still used and highly regarded today) and Wilhelm on expanding Children’s and Household Tales.

In 1837 both brothers participated in an open protest over alterations to the Constitution of Hanover. They were joined by other members of the faculty at Göttingen University, making up the group that would be known as the Göttingen Seven. All members of the group lost their positions at the university and Jacob was exiled back to Kassel. Wilhelm, his wife, and their children would soon return there as well.
By 1840 both brothers were back to teaching, this time at the University of Berlin. During this time The Brothers also started work on Deutches Worterbuch (The German Dictionary), which would become the most comprehensive and exhaustive German dictionary in the world. While the brothers weren’t able to complete it in their lifetimes, the task was finally completed with the publishing of the 33rd volume in 1971.

The Brothers Grimm’s contributions to history and literature are immense. Grimm’s’ Fairy tales continue to influence writers and researchers across the globe. If there is anyone to thank for the popularity and availability of European fairy tales, it’s these two brothers.
The survival of folklore into the modern age relies on people...
without people willing to get in the trenches, many of these stories might not be around for us to enjoy today. We’ll never know how many stories and legends have slipped through the cracks, but we do know there have been people in the past resolved to discover and share everything they could find. Myths and folk tales can tell us a lot about a culture and time, and without the effort of our folklorists, the world would be a far less fantastic place.
William Gilmer 
is a contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine and a writer and poet currently living in Michigan.

Follow him on Twitter @willwritethings 

Cover layout by Amanda Bergloff
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Comments

  1. This is a great article, thank you! Of course I'm all about the Grimms (I have the very edition of the English Children's and Household Tales in the picture), but Helen Creighton - how could I not know about Helen Creighton?? Some Canadian I am.

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