The Changing Concept of Folklore

In the Irish tale of Oisín and Patrick, the main character, regarded in legend as Ireland’s greatest poet, returns from Tir na nÓg to his home after what to him has been three years, only to find that far longer has passed: “Some say it was hundreds of years he was in the Country of the Young, and some say it was thousands of years he was in it; but whatever time it was, it seemed short to him” (Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory). He finds that the Fianna has long since disbanded and passed into legend. Oisín ensures that the stories of his compatriots endure after his death by passing the stories on to the new generation that inhabits Ireland and in doing so he becomes a seanchaí (a storyteller, who could also function as a local historian) who passes into legend himself.

Padraig Ó Suilleabháinm (right) gathers material from Tadhg Ó Murchú on an ediphone in Spuncán, Waterville, Co. Kerry in 1936.

Present in this story is a blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy. Folklore lies in that liminal space, part stories and fiction, part fact and tradition. Even the practice of ethnographic research occurs within a liminal state, separated from the researcher’s own culture but not incorporated into the host culture, the researcher thus both participating in and observing the culture.

By its nature, folklore can be difficult to assign a concrete definition. The concept of what makes it has undergone changes in the time in which it has been a subject of study and criticism. Even the term is not without variation, with the German “Volkskunde”, the Swedish “folkminne” and the Indian “lok sahitya” implying subtly different things. It is this changeable nature that makes it difficult to pin down, yet also makes it open to endless evaluation. In the general understanding it includes a diverse range of topics, from oral tradition to material culture. (The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines folklore as: “traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people.”) In a natural extension of this, the concept of what folklore is has changed since it was first examined in the nineteenth century.

Interest in folklore began during a time that romantic nationalism had a hold over Europe. A writer at the time, Johann Gottfried von Herder, believed that oral traditions were the result of organic processes that were based in locale. He detailed his views in writing during the late 18th century, and his approach was embraced by contemporaries. We see in this the start of the historic-geographic approach to folklore.

William John Thoms (16 November 1803–15 August 1885)

However, it took until the mid-nineteenth century for folklore academia to take on the form and aspects that we associate with it today. The first recorded use of the term “folklore” can be traced back to 1846. British writer William Thoms coined the phrase for use in the August 22 issue of The Athenaeum (a literary magazine published between 1828 and 1921). When Thoms coined the term, the “folk” were considered the illiterate peasantry of a given region.

Folklore was at first seen as a curio, a relic of an older time that had managed to survive to the modern day. It was an example of the simplicity of country life and of the peasants themselves. The Grimm brothers published the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) on 20th December 1812, a work which they treated as an effort to preserve the storytelling tradition of rural German people. Their view of folklore was culture in its purest and most natural form. They believed that the fairy-tales of a country were representative of its national identity.

Their approach inspired collectors from other countries (such as Alexander Afanasyev, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, Joseph Jacobs, etc.) to look to their own heritage. This would eventually lead to the establishment of groups such as An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann (founded in 1926 as the first organized effort to collect and study Irish oral traditions to a substantial extent. My own family is represented in the Schools’ Collection of the National Folklore Collection, in the form of a story told by my great-grandfather, titled A Wonderful Dog.

The Irish folklore collectors saw their work as a re-building of Irish identity through the preservation of traditions that had been suppressed by the colonisers, which is why such an importance was placed on ethnographic fieldwork by the first government of the Irish Republic.

Margarete Schön as Kriemhild in Die Nibelungen

The idea of folklore and legends being at the heart of national identity has, at times, worked in the favour of extreme nationalism, case in point being the study of German Volkskunde which was utilised by extremists in pursuit of a mythical Germanic ideal. See, for example, director Fritz Lang’s two-part 1924 silent epic Die Nibelungen. Based on an epic 12th century poem, it was partially intended to bolster audiences’ spirits by adapting the well-known German epic, and remains one of the most dazzling accomplishments in cinema history, whose influence can be felt in everything from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. Following the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels appropriated the first half, Siegfried, re-releasing it with new intertitles that amplified its themes of brotherhood, loyalty and bravery. The second half, Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge) was not re-released, possibly due to its exploration of the potential failings of blind devotion and brotherhood, as the film ends with the death of a ruling family and their army.

Though the study of folklore can at times seem a European endeavor, America partook in the collecting of oral narratives and traditions, including in the form of cultural projects. One of these projects was known as the Slave Narrative Collection, which preserved biographies via methods akin to ethnographic fieldwork. The material collected by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), set up to support out-of-work writers during the Great Depression, forms a wealth of material for folklorists to engage with, akin to the National Folklore Collection of Ireland.

Following World War II, the new term “folklife” came into use in order to better encapsulate the wider range of traditional culture beyond storytelling, including but not limited to things such as clothing, music, dance, art, building techniques and architectural styles. The rise of performance studies contributed to the rising interest of folklore in its larger context as a form of performance, examining the act of storytelling within a larger framework. The study of folklore has remained a field of study to the present day, but has developed into a far more serious field than it initially was. What began as a hobby of scholars who otherwise focused on other subjects, morphed into a branch of anthropology, valued for its insight into a side of human history that may otherwise have been neglected. Folklore was not “created” with thoughts of preservation but it is worthy of being saved. Films were once thought of in a similar vein to folklore, that they were disposable, flash in the pan products of the culture of the time. With hindsight this view was incredibly destructive, as the film community still struggles to fill the many gaps in its history (in The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 it is estimated that just 14% of American silent feature films survive as originally released in complete 35mm copies, with even more films in danger of disappearing in our lifetimes).

Speaking of film, folklore from around the world has been tapped by filmmakers for inspiration, most obviously in the fantasy and horror genres (the term folk-horror often being used to describe films such as The Wicker Man and Midsommar, which deal with old world religions and the conflict between modernity and tradition as well as mankind and nature).

The collecting of such material and the preservation of it is what gives the material meaning. While it is important to a sense of national identity, it is the act of preservation that assigns the importance of this work for us and for future generations. It is a link to our past valuable to retain.

Writer — Folklorist — Film buff — UCD Graduate

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