“Peasant storytelling meets literary theory”


Beginning with the observation that Italo Calvino’s Fiabe italiane is a commonly used text in beginner’s language courses in universities outside Italy, Michael Hanne asserts that “If we are going to present these texts to our students, we have an obligation, …not only to familiarize ourselves with the approaches to folktales used by folklorists, but also to offer insights deriving from our own particular repertoire of skills into the major problem, for folklorists, of how folktales may be said to mean.” (p.43)

The relationship between folklorists and literary scholars over the last sixty years,” according to Michael Hanne, “has been both intermittent and uneasy. Indeed the strongest interaction, which began so positively in the 1960s with the interest shown by structuralist narratologists in the work of the Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp, has in several respects turned out to be the unhappiest. The scheme of thirty-one ‘functions’ (injuty/lack, setting out, misfortune, test, etc.) devised by Propp in the 1920s to describe the narrative structures of Russian fairytales, was taken up and modified, in the first instance, by Claude Lévy-Strauss, then by Barthes, Greimas, Todorov, and Bremond with the very grand aim of creating models for the structural analysis of narratives of all kinds. It is now widely agreed that, the more generalized and abstract these projects became, the more sterile, on the whole, they turned out to be. Propp expressed understandable resentment at seeing his scheme, so elegantly designed for its specific purpose, being wrenched and twisted like Cinderella’s slipper to accommodate something that was obviously far too large and shapeless to fit into it. Particularly galling was the fact that the narratologists had mostly not taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with the major sequel Propp had published in the 1940s on the historical origins of folktales.

The wry observation made by other folklorists is that few literary scholars are willing to devote to the folktale itself the sustained attention they have granted to a theory of narrative deriving from folktale study – and that when they do examine folktales, they make what folklorists know to be the most elementary errors. They privilege the written text (especially the literary elaborations of Perrault, published in France at the end of the seventeenth century, and of the Grimm brothers, early in the nineteenth century in Germany) over the great mass of oral versions told by folk narrators.” (p.42)

“The great American folklorist, Alan Dundes, defines two steps as essential to the study of folktales, ‘identification’ and ‘interpretation’, and observes that folklorists have been consistently more active in taking the former step than the latter. So they record and collect stories from oral narrators, classify the stories by tale-type and motifs, using the international indexes developed by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, or the more localized indexes these have spawned, and seek to determine relationships between possibly cognate stories. They study the processes by which stories have been transmitted over time and space, mutating, blending and splitting. They analyse and describe the narrative structure of tales, using Propp’s scheme and those of others.

Interpretation of folktales remains problematic to folklorists because there is so little agreement amongst them about the origins of folktales and, in a sense therefore, about what folktales are. A theory which held sway during much of the nineteenth century, advanced by, amongst others, the Grimm brothers and which a minority of scholars still subscribe to, is that folktales are debased secular versions of ancient sacred myths. A refined form of that theory, advanced by some major folklorists including P. Saintyves and Propp… in this [last] century [i.e., the 20th], links the trials, tests, and interrogations characteristically found in folktales to ancient initiation rites.” (p.43) Hanne continues: “A very different approach, taken in recent years by, amongst others, Eugen Weber and Robert Darnton, [-p.44] emphasizes the extent to which folktale motifs such as the abandoning of children in forests, extreme hostility between women and their stepchildren, fear of wild animals, even the eating of children should be seen as deriving from the harsh realities of peasant existence up to quite modern times. According to the psychoanalytic approaches developed by folklorists from Géza Róheim to Alan Dundes, as well as non-folklorists such as Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim, folktales are, to a greater or lesser degree, comparable with dreams in that both are projections from the unconscious of infantile concerns and conditioning.” (pp.43-44)

The problem of origins

Hanne continues his discussion, noting that “Recent research attests both to the great age of many European folktales (some stories still circulating in peasant communities in Europe can be identified with stories recorded as being told in Mesopotamia as much as four thousand years ago) and to their extraordinarily wide geographical dispersal (as far away as China and Japan). These findings intensify the problem of origins: are we to hypothesize a single original for each tale-type from which all the versions everywhere are derived or must we assume that tales of the same type grew up independently in different cultures? Both the durability and the wide occurrence of certain folktales suggest that they must have profound human significance, yet the major problem remains: does a given tale-type possess a core of signficance which is essentially unaltered across cultures with different belief-systems, kinship-systems, and rituals, or rather a narrative core which means differently to different generations and within different cultures?” (p.44)

The problem of meaning

Taking La finta nonna as a test case, Hanne explores the possibilities of meaning attributed to this ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ variant. “Both groups, folklorists and literary theorists,” he writes, “have had to confront the question; how is the search for meaning to be conducted if it is not the reconstruction of authorial intention?” (p.49) “Literary theorists,” he goes on to explain (in some depth), “have answered that question in a number of ways.” (p.49)

“Folktales, [Giorgio Dolfini] says, are empty structures …available to be filled with meaning by their ‘users’ (‘fruitori’), in which category he places both narrators of, and audiences for, folktales. …Such absolute relativism, superficially attractive though it is, lacks a historical perspective, not only in the sense that it neglects the problem of the origin of folktales, but also in that it fails to set the individual narrative event in the historical sequence of tale-telling. It is, moreover, only pseudo-democratic (like most ‘free-market’ approaches) in that it ignores all issues of gender and power.” (p.52) Hanne goes on:

A whole tale type, I suggest, constitutes not just, in Barthes’s phrase ‘a theatre of production’ of meaning, but a vast arena of struggle for meaning, a battleground which has been fought over by different interest groups, holding different social positions and competing belief-systems and, most importantly, male and female, in an ongoing struggle to narrate the world their way. So the tale-type, including all the variants of that tale, is perhaps best viewed as a vast archaeological site, revealing relics left over from (ideological) battles which have taken place at intervals over several hundred years, even millennia, but some of which, especially in terms of gender, are still going on today.” (p.53)

Ref: Michael Hanne ‘Peasant storytelling meets literary theory: the case of La Finta NonnaThe Italianist, 12 (1992): pp.42-58


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