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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