History and hardships in folktales

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Under the subtitle, Humane and Poetic Character Traits, Kamenetsky writes:

The Grimms were delighted whenever they came across a homey flavor in folktales, be it in the image of a native character, in a motif, or in a colloquial expression, one that, as Jacob put it, still carried the ‘fragrance of the native forest.’ On the other hand, their search for Naturpoesie in folktales was as universal as folk poetry itself, and they never lost sight of international and comparative perspectives. It is this broad-minded attitude that added a humanistic touch to their scholarship, also within the realm of folktales.

The humane aspects of folktales were derived from their rootedness in the reality of the past. They emanated a warm and intimate feeling for the Middle Ages, the countryside, the small towns and villages, and the simple life within them. Viewed from this perspective, folktale characters, too, could be partially considered a reflection of the Middle Ages, for they concerned themselves intimately with the life of the simple folk in forests and valleys as well as of kings, queens, princes, and princesses residing in hilltop castles and landed estates. As Wilhelm saw it, the main heroes and heroines of folktales were mainly descendants of simple peasants, shepherds, charcoal burners, fishermen, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and various other craftspeople, most of whom were engaged in a quiet and steady occupation.

As the folktale dwelt on exaggerated types rather than on unique individuals, it was self-evident that the historical reality of such characters had some definite limitations, but the setting, the structure of society, and the common-folk environment in villages and towns were reflections of reality. This was especially true in regard to the ways in which [-92] it mirrored poverty and hardships encountered by many characters at the beginning of the tales. To a large degree, such adverse conditions reflected the life of the common man as it had been throughout the centuries and as it still is to some extent today. Poverty in folktales, like cruelty and war, brought about suffering, tears, and unhappiness. Such conditions reflected the reality of life, and they belonged to the folktale world as they belonged to life because they always had been an integral part of the true experiences of mankind. Reading about such harsh life conditions would make us more humane, as it would induce us to take part in the life of others who were less fortunate than us.

In contrast to epic heroes who often were descendants of gods or kings or both, folktale heroes were mostly simple fellows and young girls of humble origin. They were unspoiled, innocent, and content with the bare necessities for survival. Yet poverty never made them greedy but rather fostered their altruism. They were used to getting along on a crust of bread, asked little or nothing for themselves, and were ready to share what little they had with others. Their ancestry was unknown, they inherited nothing, and they struggled for survival from day to day.'” (91-92)

Reminders of life’s harsh reality were ever-present in folktales, said Wilhelm Grimm. This was so because they represented a truth with which the storytellers themselves had been well familiar. Having customarily come from the peasant class or the lower classes of society, they had experienced first-hand what it meant to be poor, thus projecting their own problems into the stories. Simple folk had always known such hardships, and in the past had not objected to rediscovering them again in the folktale world, because hardships made the stories more credible. Within the context of human hardships, even the character of the stepmother was realistic too, said Wilhelm Grimm. On and off, one could still hear and read reports in the newspapers about child abuse and child desertion that made one shiver. In such cases, it was usually extreme poverty, not an evil nature, that drove some parents to abandon their children – unfortunately even at the present time. In that sense, the stepmother represented some realistic traits derived from adverse conditions of the life of common folk rather than the portrayal of a monster.” (92)

“But folktales also showed the bright side of life in terms of miracles, rich rewards, and happy endings that transformed all sadness into happiness….” (92)

“Moreover, a struggle against the harsh reality would set the stage for the folktale character’s courageous actions. Thus it was not the background of action but rather a needed challenge that brought out the best in the protagonists. It gave rise to hope, strength, and determination but especially to the power of love, which was capable of overcoming all powers of evil. In that sense, folktales did not present poverty and hardships as permanent conditions, for they were meant to be overcome. In struggling against the odds, folktale characters were blessed with hopeful actions but not crushed by the spirit of resignation. Sometimes they were assisted by helpers and miracles, but mostly they fended for themselves.” (93)

Would some traditional folktale characters frighten children listening to the tales? Wilhelm did not think so. He emphasized that the reflection of adverse conditions of life would lead children to a strong feeling of empathy for those who were lonely, frightened, and abused and thus would humanize children in the best sense of the word.” (93)

Ref: Christa Kamenetsky The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics

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