Jack the Ripper: legend and literacy 2


As I mentioned, I really enjoyed Clive Bloom’s chapter on Jack the Ripper in his Cult FictionAfter describing “the rapid dissemination of the Ripper legend and its endurance in popular publishing,” (p.167) he considers “the constellation of possibilities around which this publishing industry revolved and upon which the legend was built.” (p.167) He writes:

“It is obvious that any legend requires a small and possibly spectacular fact to unleash a great deal of ‘fiction’. Before turning to the legend as a type of ‘fictional’ genre it is necessary to consider the Ripper legend as revolving around (a) a series of bizarre and ferocious crimes, (b) an impotent and mocked authority (the Criminal Investigation Department being left totally in the dark and being criticized from Windsor), (c) a mysterious and unapprehended felon, and (d) the power of fiction and the use of the human sciences.

The murders of autumn 1888 allowed for the appearance of a new urban dweller, a dweller on the limits of society and yet fully integrated into it – the homicidal maniac, the psychopathic killer. Unlike de Sade, the psychopath is always in desguise; his intentions and his secret actions are on another plain from his social responsibilities. Consequently, the psychopath delineates that absolute psychological and mental ‘deterioration’ that Kraepelin had considered as a form of dementia praecox and that was not defined as schizophrenia until 1911. The Ripper, however, was seen as split not merely in personality but in morality as well.” (p.167) [Bloom goes on to consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in some depth]

“As with Jekyll and Hyde so Jack the Ripper too was seen as an inhuman, if not non-human, monster who combined possible middle-class respectability (a doctor or a surgeon) with lower-working-class savagery (an immigrant, ‘Leather-Apron’, a mad butcher). The Ripper united both classes inasmuch as he was excluded by his acts from both ( just as were his victims). The Ripper was both a technician (a post-mortem surgeon, a doctor, a butcher) and an insane lunatic (incapable of finesse). He was supposedly at once able to focus his aggression in anatomical detail and yet unable to curb its force. Thus, the forensic nature of the Ripper’s ‘work’ (his ‘job’) provided a focal point for popular fears and prejudices against those professions dealing in the limits of the ‘decent’ (psychologists, doctors, post-mortem surgeons, forensic experts). The Ripper’s supposed anatomical expertise suggested all sorts of horrible possibillities about the life of the ‘expert’ and the specialist. His ability with a knife united him to the very professionals paid to track him down!

Like Hyde, he was the alter ego of the police force and the letters clearly demonstrate him showing off his expertise to them and the vigilante forces operating in Whitechapel. Later his dual nature as criminal and enforcer-of-law became explicit when reports of his deerstalker gave one attribute to the occupier of 221b Baker Street, whose business was forensic science, whose other real-life model was a surgeon and whose friend was a doctor.” (p.170) 

“Thus the Ripper was not merely a murderer but the catalyst for a series of psychological and social reactions. He combined the supposed popular idea of the expert as well as the darker side of the madman, lunatic, animal degenerate. As a median point between middle-class respectability and a debased Darwinian proletariat, the Ripper became the invisible man…. The Ripper’s letters acknowledge the pretence of cockney patois while pointing directly toward a middle-class author – but the author of what: a letter or the murders?” (p.171)

“…we have seen that the combination of popular prejudice and fiction produced a character and a rationale for the Ripper qua murderer and respectable member of society. His split nature (if such it was or presumably had to be) was completed by the hypocrisy concerning the very people he killed (the ‘Magdalens’). For these people were themselves invisible, acting as a certain outlet and limit to urban society. The psychopath and the prostitute were two ends of a society that refused to acknowledge their presence. Invisibly, they provided their services on the edge of the rational, morally degenerate as both supposedly were.

Yet Jack the Ripper’s threat is one that spills back into ‘ordinary’ society and threatens that society. In the period when the legend of ‘the Ripper’ begins, the psychopath becomes an urban reality but as a character-type is not quite part of a mental spectrum and yet is not fully freed from being a theological problem either. Jack combines notions of evil, insanity and moral justice at the moment when the nineteenth century saw itself as the century of progress, enlightenment and escape from ‘moral’ prejudice. The Ripper’s name denotes a certain consequent frontier for the human sciences at this time.” (p.171)

In the eighteenth century executions became a ritual in which the ‘main character was the people, whose …presence was required for the performance’.  By Jack’s time public execution was long since over, but Jack took on the symbolic weight of a ‘higher’ justice operating beyond the arm of the law, exposing and cutting out the cancer of sexual commerce. His role was acknowledged in his instant fame and his ferocity in his attack on the condemned: the prostitute class. It appears that Jack represented the return of a social memory of the proximity of death (by violence, cholera, starvation) now distanced by the work of social and medical reformers.

In that latter half of the industrialized nineteenth century ceremonies about the integration of death had long ceased to be necessary. In a sense the body had gained utility value but lost its ‘sacred’ humanness (its ‘mystery’ that early Christians feared). Jack represents the unconscious of that society – a repression not yet exorcized; he forcibly reminded society (unable to speak of bodies without blushing) of the crudest function of that mass of organs. Jack clearly unites ideas about the mortification of the flesh and the technology that manipulates the body (the human sciences: biology, psychology, forensic science, medicine). One end of the spectrum acknowledges desire for and the power of the flesh while the other denies both and reduces the body to a mass of functions and utilities: an automaton. The body hence becomes ironically ‘sacred’ (as an object in religious devotion to be escaped from) and yet also machinic.” (p.173)

“Jack is demon/animal and therefore totally other, therefore unrecognizable (invisible), therefore the perfect criminal. He disturbs the human only to reinforce it. Indeed, this monstrosity embeds himself in the imagination of each generation that needs his presence. For that reason alone there is a smile on the face of the Ripper.

The historical details of the Whitechapel Murders are nothing less than the facets of a scenario for a script about modernity itself. Reworked in fiction and film as well as the focus for true crime books (of the solve-it-yourself variety), the Ripper’s deeds are ever reworked to remain forever contemporary, and thus curiously emphasized by layers of nostalgia. The Ripper’s script has violence, eroticism, sentimentality, and the supernatural: a text to live out the sensationalism of the modern.” (p.177)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London

Jack the Ripper: legend and literacy


Reading Clive Bloom’s Cult Fiction, I particularly enjoyed Chapter 8 The Ripper Writing: A Cream of a Nightmare Dream…

“Jack of Hearts, Jack O’Lantern, Jack the Giant-Killer, Jack the lad, Jack Sheppard and Springheeled Jack; ‘Jack’, a common name that represents ubiquity: the nomenclature of the ordinary. In the late nineteenth century as for us in the late twentieth there was only one Jack – the Ripper; of the famous nineteenth-century criminals this one alone has endured into legend. Of Charlie Peace, Neill Cream or Israel Lipski little is remembered; of other famous murders only the victim is recalled: Maria Marten offering herself to melodrama and Fanny Adams to a coarse joke. Jack survives, but not merely because he was not caught.

This chapter is an attempt to consider the determinants and the progress of the Ripper legend as both text and history and to consider the constellation of historico-psychological notions that have gathered around the name of the Ripper.

Jack, it seems, timed his murders at a correct psychological moment, for almost immediately, not least for their ferocity, his deeds became the stuff of legend. He instantly became both a particular and a general threat, a focus for numerous related fears among metropolitan dwellers across Europe and America. …Already, only one month after the murders had ceased, Jack [had] an international ‘appeal’.” (p.159)

Reporting on his murders mixed xenophobia, humour, political and religious fear, with sensation and sexual innuendo, Bloom explains, resulting in a peculiar relationship between the Ripper and the reading public.

“…even during the season of the killings in the autumn of 1888, papers quickly realized the value of Jack’s exploits, conducting their own post-mortems and reporting coroner’s verdicts at length. The Times, for instance, ran articles in its Weekly Edition from September 1888 to November 1888. On 28 September 1888 it gave a full page to the social background of Spitalfields and the poverty endured there by Annie Chapman, the Ripper’s first victim. The Times was quick to guess the direction in which police might look. They thought a post-mortem surgeon’s assistant might be the culprit because of ‘his’ specialized knowledge of the uterus, which was removed from the victim’s body.

The Times further noted the curious circumstance of an American surgeon who wished to include real uteri with a journal he was mailing to clients! Could this bizarre surgeon, whose name was not known, have prompted the killer to get ‘a uterus for the £20 reward?’ asked the paper. In a later issue, next to the report of other Ripper murders (26 October 1888), a clergyman protested in a long letter at the condemnation of the destitute by the middle classes, at [-p.162] their hypocrisy over prostitution and at their ignorance of the conditions prevailing in the East End. He concluded that this had ‘blotted the pages of our Christianity’.

The freakish, of which the nineteenth century was inordinately fond, found itself beside the missionary, which in its guise as Mayhew, Engels or Booth consistently restated the ordinariness of the ‘freak’ (the destitute, the prostitute, the opium addict, the derelict). ‘Body snatching’ (and the notion of a uterus as a ‘free gift’ with a new journal) then wierdly allies itself with murder for greed (the reward offered at £20) and murder as the act of the desperately destitute. Jack becomes the focus for the bizarre in the ordinary misery of everyday life in the metropolitan slums. Jack the murderer becomes Jack the missionary who focussed on problems other investigators were unable to bring to such a wide audience. Murder allowed for social reform. The newspapers, by keeping Jack the centre of attention, ironically kept the slum problems central too.

After reports covering three months by The Times and The Times Weekly Edition, the newspaper concluded that ‘the murderer seems to have vanished, leaving no trace of his identity… with even greater mystery’ (The Times, 10 November 1888). Jack the Ripper, given his nom de guerre by Fleet Street, was the first major figure to offer himself to, and to become, a creation of journalism. By the 1880s newspapers commanded audiences large enough to make Jack a major figure of international interest rather than a local folktale figure for the East End of London. The power of journalism and the crowded warrens of the central city of the Empire together provided ground for the dissemination of the legend, a legend based upon both fear and curiosity – a terrible ambivalence. The possibilities for the dissemination of rumour could never be more fortuitous, and letters from ‘Jack’ fed interest and added to the atmosphere of uncertainty.

Indeed, Jack’s letters themselves may have been the work of an entrepreneurial journalist providing ‘copy’ for himself.” (pp.161-162)

“The Ripper letters are a form of true life confessionheightened to the level of a fiction which embraces a ‘cockney’ persona, a sense of black hmour, a melodramatic villain (‘them curses of coppers’) and a ghoul (sending ‘innerds’) and mixes it with a sense of the dramatic and a feeling for a rhetorical climax. In these letters life and popular theatre come together to act upon the popular imagination. The Ripper (now possibly many ‘Rippers’ all reporting their acts) autographs his works as a famous artist (death as creativity) – anonymous and yet totally well known. Here, confession only adds to confusion (even Neill Cream claimed to be the Ripper). Jack’s letter ‘from Hell’ concludes ‘catch me when you can’, adding a sense of challenge and a stronger sense of a ‘hint’ to the frustration of authority in its quest for an actual identity to the murderer.

By the time of these letters Jack has ceased to be one killer but has become a multiplicity of performing personas for the popular imagination. The possibility of copycat crimes (although finally dismissed from at least two other ‘torso’ cases) lent to Jack the amorphous ability to inhabit more than one physical body.

Consequently, for the late nineteenth century, the Ripper became a type of ‘folk’ character whose exploits spilled into the twentieth century via cinema, theatre and fiction.” (p.163)

Bloom describes the numerous writers who have sought to positively identify the Ripper, noting that “The ‘debate’ heats up every few years with new flushes of theory and further refutations, while works such as Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper; The Final Solution added to the growing heap of books searching for scandal in suburbia or in the freemasons, in highest government or the royal family. Knight, himself a journalist, stated in the East London Advertiser (7 December 1973) that ‘the evil presence of Jack the Ripper still seems to haunt… the imagination of crime investigators’, and he noted that in the 1970s letters were still arriving from people claiming knowledge of or claiming actually to be ‘the Ripper’. In the twentieth century Jack has become the centre of a conspiracy debate. Indeed, so vast is the volume of literature to date that Alexander Kelly was able to write an article for The Assistant Librarian about his compilation of a bibliography of ‘Ripperana and Ripperature’. / The Ripper literature however is far from confined to the work of amateur sleuths (and they are a study in themselves) but extends to both fiction and film.” (p.164)

Jack the Ripper is a name for both a necessary fiction and a fact missing its history. Here fiction and history meet and mutate so that the Ripper can be searched for by ‘historians’ of crime at the very same moment that he can ppear in a Batman comic. Separable from his origins, the Ripper is a strange historicized fiction, a designation for a type of murderer and his scenario (for the game is to give ‘Jack’ his real name and collapse fiction into biography), while also being a structural necessity for a type of [-p.165] fictional genre….” (pp.164-165)

In chasing the identity of the Ripper and in placing his personality upon numerous more or less well-known historical characters (the lastest being James Maybrick) investigators acknowledge the [-p.166] bizarre silence at the heart of the tale, a place where history has closed in upon itself and refused its fact. History becomes an abyss antagonistic to its own determinants and played upon by conspiracy in the fiction of the secret of Jack’s identity. Scanning the grim, grainy, obscure picture taken of Mary Kelly’s eviscerated body as if in search of clues we become dabblers in the oracular and the occult. In her photo the Ripper steps out of Victorian history to become the epitome of Victorian history, its embodiment and spokesman.” (pp.165-166)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London

Fairies of the Bush


In an old essay on the Aboriginal influence on literature in Australia (in its many forms), Margaret Dunkle included an interesting section titled:

‘Fairies of the Bush’

She writes: “At the 1978 IBBY Conference in Sydney, Through Folklore to Literature, the Aboriginal poet Jack Davis spoke of the folk creatures he discovered when his family moved from a white community to another ‘where a large number of our own people lived… I was transported from a world of fairies to another world. A world of mummaries, moorlies and widargees’ (Davis 1979, p.122). Patricia Wrightson at the same conference, in her paper ‘When Cultures meet: A Writer’s Response’ spoke of her own voyage of discovery into Aboriginal fairy lore:
I had needed for so long to write creative, contemporary fantasy with that strength that comes only from experience and belief – from authentic folklore; and when I tried to do this on the basis of imported European folklore it very naturally lost that reality and shed its strength. A folklore is man’s response to the mysteries of life in his environment, and so it can illuminate that environment in the light of his wonder. (Wrightson 1979, p.188)

Starting from this premise, Wrightson proceeded to create a new literary genre, that of the Aboriginal folk fantasy, employing the fairies and goblins of Aboriginal oral legend that are still to be found (if you know how to look) in the Australian countryside, just as the brownies and boggarts of England still peer round the corners in their own home place.

Wrightson divides folk material into three strata:
At the top is the sacred myth, at the bottom the once-upon-a-time, and-there-they-are-in-the-stars-forever, definitive story. In the middle, wavering unnervingly up and down, is the on-going, always-active, freely experienced stratum of fairies and superstitions. The middle level is the level of creative freedom (Wrightson 1979, p.190).

And so in An Older Kind of Magic there are earth spirits still living beneath the hard-packed streets of Sydney, and in The Nargun and the Stars the pot-koorok still plays sly tricks (but now on a white child) in the swamp. In The Ice Is Coming, the first of the magnificent ‘Wirrun’ trilogy, it is not whites but an aboriginal youth, with no tribal background but with the land still deep within his being, who embarks upon a quest in which he is aided – and sometimes hindered – by the creatures of the land: ninyas, nyols, turongs, mimis. His adventures are continued in The Dark Bright Water and culminate in Behind the Wind, as Wirrun himself joins the creatures of legend. In her latest novel, A Little Fear, Wrightson [-p.115] has produced a cameo, a small masterpiece in which an old white woman, Agnes Tucker, engages in a battle of wills against an even older creature: a njimbin, a small sly spirit of the hills.

Wrightson is not the only white person to have seen these fairies of the bush. They appear in the Duracks’ The Way of the Whirlwind: Bubba Piebi, the tricksy little red man, Bremurer the great snake, the Whirlwind itself. So many people have seen Bunyip that he has passed into white folklore, and accounts of Yowies rival those of giant wild cats (perhaps they are legendary too?). But apart from Wrightson, Bill Scott is, as far as I know, the only author to bring these creatures into a novel. In Shadows Among the Leaves there are two sorts, one native to the rainforest that collects interesting toys (like bodies!) and another who are refugees, displaced by the clearing of their own land further south. Both are integral to the story, and lead the way, I hope, to more sightings of Old Things in stories yet to come.” (Dunkle, pp.114-115)

Myths and Legends

Dunkle finishes her essay with a section titled ‘Myths and Legends’ that also seemed interesting… Dunkle again: “The other two strata in Wrightson’s definition, the sacred creative muth and the definitive folk story, are part of the linked chain of media through which the religious and social inheritance of a proud people were once transmitted: told, sung, danced, carved and painted by tribespeople from one end of the continent to the other. The early white settlers and explorers observed, uncomprehending, all the artistic flowering of a rich but wholly alien culture. Mary Ann Fitzgerald and Kate Langloh Parker were the first to attempt to record a few fragments, both writing from a sense of urgency because it was apparent that the legends would die with the old people of the tribes. There have been many collections since, ranging from the sentimental to the scientific, and most of them made with the same feeling of time running out. In 1964, for the first time, an Aboriginal storyteller published his own collection. The Legends of Moonie Jarl are told by Wilf Reeves, illustrated by his sister Olga Miller. The stories were told them by their father, an elder of the Butchulla people of Fraser Island. They are children’s folk tales, and the pictures are in the stule of the sand-paintings which traditional storytellers would have made to illustrate the tales as they were being told. Over the intervening years there have been other collections by other Aboriginal owners: Uncle Willie Mackenzie’s Legends of the Goundirs, Joe Nangan’s Dreaming, Tulo Gordon’s Milbi. Like the white collectors, these Aboriginal narrators are concerned to record what they can of vanishing cultures. Often they are the final ‘owners’, the last traditionally educated people of their tribes.

Djugurba: Tales from the Spirit Time was published in 1974, followed by Kwork Kwork the Green Frog and Other Tales from the Spirit Time and The Aboriginal Children’s History of Australia. The three open a new era in Australian publishing because they are the product of young Aboriginal people in transition, not so much remembering the traditional patterns as adjusting them to new stresses in a white-dominated society. Djugurba and Kwork Kwork are the product of young Aboriginal students training as teachers at Kormilda College in Darwin. The History (which begins, naturally, with a Creation legend and the Dreaming) is a collection of stories and paintings from secondary school students all over Australia. What they have in common, despite a wide diversity of cultures, and varying degrees of westernization, is an unfaltering commitment to Aboriginal values and identity, despite the erosion of tribal cultures. These are unique records, of great historical significance, of a brave and beleaguered people in cultural transition.” (p.115)

Overleaf, she continues: “Dick Roughsey (or Goobalathaldin, his tribal name) grew up within a tribal culture on Mornington Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had always wanted to learn to paint, and a chance aquaintance with artist/explorer Percy Trezise gave him the opportunity. The two men became friends, going on expeditions together intot he wild and inaccessible Cape York hinterland where they found caves filled with dramatic paintings, and were given the legends they represented by the people to whom they belong. The result is history: a series of stunning picture books of Aboriginal legends, quite unlike anything that had been seen before. Combining a spare and simple text with dramatic, brilliantly coloured paintings, they present the Dreamtime beings as the people would have imagined them, moving across the strange and incredibly beautiful landscape of that northern area. Seen in context, the legends fall into place: Quinkins and Rainbow Serpents and mythic beings who can change at will into birds or animals become wholly believable as they move across the pages of these splendid books.

Long long time before our Dreaming, the earth at our feet had no shape, it had no colour, there was no light and nothing walked across it…
It was dust without water, no river flowed, the earth was empty.
Into the darkness came the Birirrk. They came from fary away and made their tracks on the ground….” (p.116)

Another Australian author

Earlier in her essay, Dunkle also mentions author Kath Walker, describing her work in a way that makes it sound rather appealing: “In 1972 the Aboriginal poet Kath Walker published Stradbroke Dreamtime, with reminiscences of her childhood on Stradbroke Island and also some of the legends told by her people. the brief stories ofer a vivid, wryly humorous commentary on white society and provide a unique glimpse of a warm and lively family still adhering to Aboriginal values and cultural patterns within a rural, largely white, community. In 1981 she published Father Sky and Mother Earth, a picture book, which starts as a Dreaming legends of the Creation and ends as an impassioned plea for global sanity. It is an extraordinary parable, with Aboriginal style illustrations…, far ahead of its time….” (p.113)

Ref: Margaret Dunkle (1988) The Aboriginal influence in Australian literature for young people pp.105-121 in Eds. Wendy and John Birman Brave New World International Understanding through Books. Curtin University of Technology: Perth.

When the world falls asleep


“If we are insensitive to the world, the world ceases to exist for us. When Sleeping Beauty fell asleep, so did the world for her. The world awakens anew as a child is nurtured into it, because only in this way can humanity continue to exist.” (p.236)

Ref: Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment Thames & Hudson: London, 1976

The Sleeping Beauty – according to Bettelheim


According to Bruno Bettelheim, “Adolescence is a period of great and rapid change, characterized by periods of utter passivity and lethargy alternating with fantic activity, even dangerous behavior to ‘prove oneself’ or discharge inner tension. This back-and-forth adolescent behavior finds expression in some fairy tales by the hero’s rushing after adventures and then suddenly being turned to stone by some enchantment. More often, and psychologically more correct, the sequence is reversed….

While many fairy tales stress great deeds the heroes must perform to become themselves, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is also needed. During the months before the first menstruation, and often also for some time immediately following it, girls are passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves. While no equally noticeable state heralds the coming of sexual maturity in boys, many of them experience a period of lassitude and of turning inward during puberty which equals the female experience. It is thus understandable that a fairy story in which a long period of sleep begins at the start of puberty has been very popular for a long time among girls and boys.

In major life changes such as adolescence, for successful growth opportunities both active and quiescent periods are needed. The turning inward, which in outer appearance looks like passivity (or sleeping one’s life away), happens when internal mental processes of such importance go on within the person that he has no energy for outwardly directed action. Those fairy tales which, like ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, have the period of passivity for their central topic, permit the budding adolescent not to worry during his inactive period: he learns that things continue to evolve. The happy ending assures the child that he will not remain permanently stuck in seemingly doing nothing, even if at the moment it seems as if this period of quietude will last for a hundred years.” (225)

“After the period of inactivity,”Bettelheim continues, “which typically occurs during early [-p.226] puberty, adolescents become active and make up for the period of passivity; in real life and in fairy tales they try to prove their young manhood or womanhood, often through dangerous adventures. This is how the symbolic language of the fairy tale states that after having gathered strength in solitude they now have to become themselves. Actually, this development is fraught with dangers: an adolescent must leave the security of childhood, which is represented by getting lost in the dangerous forest; learn to face up to his violent tendencies and anxieties, symbolized by encounters with wild animals or dragons; get to know himself, which is implied in meeting strange figures and experiences. Through this process the adolescent loses a previous innocence suggested by their having been ‘Simpletons,’ considered dumb and lowly,, or merely somebody’s child. …Presently many of our young people – and their parents – are fearful of quiet growth, when nothing seems to happen, because of a common belief that only doing what can be seen achieves goals. ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ tells that a long period of quiescence, of contemplation, of concentration on the self, can and often does lead to highest achievement.” (p.226)

“Recently it has been claimed that the struggle against childhood dependency and for becoming oneself in fairy tales is frequently described differently for the girl than for the boy,, and that this is the result of sexual stereotyping. Fairy tales do not render such one-sided pictures. Even when a girl is depicted as turning inward in her struggle to become herself, and a boy as aggressively dealing with the external world, these two together symbolize the two ways in which one has to gain selfhood: through learning to understand and master the inner as well as the outer world. In this sense the male and female heroes are again projections onto two different figures of two (artificially) separated aspects of one and the same process which everybody has to undergo in growing up. While some literal-minded parents do not realize it, children know that, whatever the sex of the hero, the story pertains to their own problems.” (p.226)

“However great the variations in detail, the central theme of all versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.” (p.230)

Ref: Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment Thames & Hudson: London, 1976

“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

Folktales as lessons in poetry


To the child, the folktale world was really a gentle world, he [Wilhelm Grimm] said, for if it seemed that ‘might was right’ and that evil powers gained the upper hand, one should wait for the power of love and magic to take their effect. Folktales also had frail and gentle characters, those who merely smiled and transformed the world. These were the ones who won the greatest battles. The folktale’s most touching moments were the ones that appealed to the heart. It was the greatest miracle of all when the innocent laughter of a frail little princess banished an evil spell … A single tear, wept in sympathy for a suffering creature or human being, transformed a fearful monster into a loving prince. Such was the power of love that it changed the world. In this gentle, humanizing touch lay embedded the true magic of the folktale. Such thoughts, he said, were no idle dreams of an idealist. Feelings were as much a reality as the world outside, and the feelings that a child experienced in listening to a story were a powerful reality indeed.” (94)

“The most significant thing that folktales had to offer, said Wilhelm [Grimm], was that they taught us about ourselves, our inner resources, altruism, kindness, empathy, and genuine strength.” (95) 

Wilhelm warned readers not to make folktale characters the object of a lesson or a moralistic example. Folktales never preached. Lessons derived from folktales were lessons in poetry, not in morality.” (95)

Ref: Christa Kamenetsky The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics