Tales from Denmark (Andrew Lang)

Week 11: More European Fairy Tales - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


The background reading this week is going to be somewhat different than in past weeks. Although the stories you will be reading come from Denmark and from Estonia, they are part of the larger European folktale tradition which is shared throughout Europe and the focus this week is not so much on these individual countries, but on that larger tradition. In the background for this week, you will learn about "motif indexing" and "tale types." These are techniques used by folklorists that have determined the way that European folktales and tales from around the world have been cataloged and compared in the 20th century.

19th-Century Folktale Collectors

Last week, you had a choice between two of main developments in the way folktales were regarded in the 19th-century: the scholarly approach of the Brothers Grimm, and the literary approach of Hans Christian Andersen (who was from Denmark, by the way). If you did not choose the Brothers Grimm unit, you might want to glance at the background information about Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm just to get a sense of how and why the Brothers Grimm decided to create a scholarly collection of traditional German folktales.

After the Brothers Grimm, European scholars began collecting folktales from Europe and all over the world. The 19th century witnessed an explosion of publications containing folktales and fairy tales from every possible corner of the earth. Because European imperialism was continually extending its reach, there were anthropologists and "gentleman scholars" who collected and published stories from many different traditions in Africa and Asia and around the world. They published these stories most commonly in English, French or German translation. The "fairy book" collections of Andrew Lang, which have been such an important source for this class, are the product of this explosion of folktale collecting. The stories from Denmark and from Estonia this week are both taken from these Andrew Lang collections. (You have probably read about Andrew Lang already, in the background for Arabian Nights, Japanese Tales or African Tales).

The standards for folktale collecting in the 19th century were very different from the standards followed by anthropologists today. In these older collections, stories were usually retold and even paraphrased or summarized by the authors, who often had little interest in the ethnographic details of the storytelling setting. The "style" of the storyteller - and the storyteller's identity - is usually not recorded in these 19th century collections. For example, in the African Traditions week for this class, you could see the enormous difference between Andrew Lang's African folktales, and the stories collected in Jamaica by Beckwith early in the 20th century. As a professional anthropologist, Beckwith attempted to record the storytelling style of her sources, and in the notes to her publication she included the name of each of her sources, provided transcriptions of any music that was part of the storytelling performance, etc.

The Search for Patterns

Even though the 19th-century collections of folktales used by Andrew Lang leave a lot to be desired, they are an extraordinary source of traditional folktales and stories. Seeing folktales from so many different traditions made people very curious about the similarities - the striking similarities! - that they often found from story to story from very different and widely separated storytelling traditions.

The first approach that scholars took to this problem was historical. They attempted to trace, where possible, the actual movement of stories from place to place, based on the physical migration of peoples, the spread of manuscripts and printed books, and other forms of cultural contact.

It was during the 19th century, for example, that Theodor Benfey (1809-1881) advanced the hypothesis that the majority of European fairy tales actually derived from ancient Indian sources, having been transmitted to the west by many different forms of cultural contact over the centuries.

Scholars continue to argue today about the historical transmission of folktales. Given the incredible importance of oral storytelling traditions, it is extremely difficult to provide a fully accurate historical account. The majority of folktales were never committed to written form. Even now, the recording of oral traditions and folktales is a profoundly neglected field of study, practiced only by folklorists - and there are never enough folklorists to match the amount of folklore out there in the world!

Stith Thompson's Motif Index

In the early 20th century, scholars began to realize that they needed a system for organizing the massive quantity of folktales that had been published in some printed form. Unfortunately, the solution they came up with is not a very organized or efficient system, but it is still useful: the system is called motif indexing.

A professor at Indiana University, Stith Thompson (1885-1976), decided that he would collect all the folktales available to him in printed form and catalog them based not on their country of origin, but based on the "motifs" found in the stories. Thompson made no distinction between "myths" on the one hand, and "folktales" on the other - for Thompson, all traditional narrative forms would be included together in the index.

Stith Thompson's work was enormously influential, but he is notorious for not ever having explained exactly what a motif is! Here are some of the remarks he makes in the Introduction to his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (first published in the 1930's, and continually expanded until the final, six-volume edition in 1955):

Acting upon this principle of practical usefulness, I have also made the index very inclusive of various kinds of motifs. Sometimes the interest of a student of traditional narrative may be centered on a certain type of character in a tale, sometimes on an action, sometimes on attendant circumstances of the action. [...] I have tried to include all that becomes a part of tradition - all that is found worth retaining when tale, ballad, jest, or myth is transmitted by word of mouth or on the written page from generation to generation or from land to land. This classification of materials is the result of a gradual evolution, not of any preconceived plan.

The result is the most amazing hodgepodge that you can imagine. A motif can be something as simple as a physical object (C615.1 "forbidden lake"), or it can be a character in a story (A463.0.1: "god of fate in shape of golden frog"), or an element of the plot (B214.1.8.1 "crab sings about his captivity), or it can be the theme or moral of the story (A1319.9 "origin of sneezing," and A1319.10, "origin of itching" and A1319.11 "origin of the sensation of tickling"). If you are thinking that Stith Thompson's motif index would be amazing to browse through but almost impossible to use, then you are exactly correct.

Some of the motifs have become famous in their own right, and are referenced by folklorists in contemporary publications. For example, you may find that a collection of folktales has a specific index of all the "TMI" (Thompson Motif Index numbers) in the back of the book. But Thompson's Motif-Index, especially in its printed form, is a nightmare to use. It is somewhat easier to use in digital form - but the digital form is available only on a CD (at the low low price of $395 - meaning nobody can afford to buy it, of course), and it has not been published on the Internet.

Aarne-Thompson's Tale-Type

The Aarne-Thompson "Tale-Type" classification system is closely related to the "Motif-Index." The original publication, Types of the Folktale, was published by the Finnish scholar Antti Aarne in 1910. Stith Thompson translated Aarne's work into English, and merged it with his motif system. The result is the "Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index" (published in 1960).

The Tale Type Index works with entire stories, and then provides a listing of the individual motifs used to constitute the story. Here is a sample entry:

#325. THE MAGICIAN AND HIS PUPIL. The father put to a test recognizes his son. The son as horse, ring, etc. rescues himself from the power of his master.

If you are reading the Danish folktales this week, you will see an example of just "The Magician and His Pupil" in the story called Master and Pupil. The "type" of the story is not related to a single example of the story, but represents a collation of different versions of the same story, taken from different sources. Needless to say, deciding when one story is the same as another story is a very imprecise science! The way that the tale types and motifs are all numbered and labeled may give the appearance of science, but it is not very scientific at all.

Although the Aarne-Thompson index is unsystematic and imprecise, it is still widely used by folklorists, because it is the only cataloging system that is widely used in different countries. For example, if you have been using the wonderful website of Dan Ashliman, Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts, you will see that he often makes reference to Aarne-Thompson numbers in his classifications. For example, he has a collection of "Animal Brides", which he describes as "folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 402 and related stories" (he even names his webpages after Aarne-Thompson numbers - in this case, type0402.html).

Although the Stith Thompson Motif-Index and Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index are incredibly expensive to buy (I acquired mine from long hours spent scouring used bookstores in Berkeley), they are both available in the OU's Bizzell Library, under the call numbers GR7.T52 and GR1.F55 (and they also have Dan Ashliman's edition of Aarne-Thompson, GR74.6.A65). If you are interested in learning more about folktale and mythology studies, you definitely should go take a look at them! They are weird and fun to look at - and if you are ever at a loss for story ideas, you can find hundreds of thousands of stories and variants summarized in these books!

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM