#FolkloreThursday: Folklore in/and Literature

#FolkloreThursday: Folklore in/and Literature October 20, 2016

Folklorists do more than collect folklore and analyze it; we also look for it in creative works that transform folklore into other kinds of culture, such as literature and/or pop culture. Fear not, there’s a method to this madness.

Photo from Unsplash by Mikhail Pavstyuk.
Photo from Unsplash by Mikhail Pavstyuk.

We folklorists like to primly inform people that folklore is NOT literature: folklore is dynamic and ever-changing, while literature is fixed in print. Folklore is often composed and transmitted anonymously, while most literature has an author. Folklore is informally transmitted, non-institutional culture, while literature becomes canonical and thus institutional. Folklore is frequently performed in face-to-face modes, while literature can be consumed privately. We look for variation in folklore, expecting to see different versions of jokes and fairy tales and holiday customs, while literature once composed and published tends to stay the same.

Of course these boundaries can be somewhat permeable, which is one reason it’s fruitful to discuss folklore and literature together. The crossroads where folklore and literature meet is, from our disciplinary perspective, called folklore in literature, and that’s what this post is about.

First – both topically and chronologically – it’s important to acknowledge that much literature comes from folklore; in fact, folklore can be considered the literature of earlier time periods, whether pre-literate or not. Narrative folklore such as folktales, myths, and legends were the long-form entertainment of their day, communally told rather than privately consumed in novel or comic book form. I’m not interested in a debate about origins, and I’m not trying to draw a harsh dividing line between pre-literate and literate societies; mostly, I’m trying to point out that folklore has fulfilled many of the same functions that literature does.

It’s also significant that folklore and literature have much in common. Both involve artistic uses of language; both can bridge fiction and fact (recall that some folk narrative genres, like folktale and fairy tale, are deemed fictional, as with literary genres like the novel; other folk narrative genres, like myth and legend, are told as true, and similarly we have literary genres like memoir and biography that are supposed to be grounded in truth). Both utilize artistic devices such as misdirection and inversion, and both draw on intertextual strategies to make sense and make meaning (discussed in de Caro and Jordan, 3-4).

Next, we can talk about why and how folklore appears in literature. Alan Dundes pioneered this approach with his 1965 publication, “The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation.” In it, Dundes urges scholars to first identify the folklore being employed in literature, and then interpret how it is used. He writes:

Naive analyses can result from inadequate or inaccurate identification. Plots of traditional tale types might be falsely attributed to individual writers; European themes in a European tale told by American Indians might be mistakenly considered to be aboriginal elements. (136)

In other words, you’ll look like an idiot if you assume that a given element in a literary work is uniquely the author’s creation, rather than being an item from folklore that the author chose to incorporate. Not recognizing how heavily Chaucer borrowed from folktales in The Cantebury Tales (or Shakespeare, or… take your pick) is just dumb, for instance.

Folklorists Frank de Caro and Rosan A. Jordan suggest that a third step beyond identification and interpretation is necessary. They want to get at the why of it:

why is there so much folklore in literature? Why have writers felt this urge to re-situate folkloric communication in the literary? Obviously, it is partly a matter of the realistic reflection of sociocultural realities…insofar as, say, literary fictional narratives (or, for that matter, visual arts texts) mirror the real world and insofar as folkloric communication is part of that world, folklore inevitably appears in the literary text. (14)

Thus, because art imitates life in various ways, literary art must at least make a nod to folklore since folklore is a fact of human social life. But de Caro and Jordan also point out that writers can in theory draw from tons of material: “Why does (s)he choose in some instances folklore, as opposed to (or, for that matter, in conjunction with) pop cultural media, culturally determined kinship systems, or aspects of utilitarian technology” (14)? What makes folklore special?

In trying to answer these questions, folklorists working at the intersections of folklore and literature are digging deep into the meanings that different realms of culture connote, themselves a form of folklore (worldview or folk idea, perhaps; the ideas people hold about assigning value are always of interest to cultural scholars). This sort of work is also an assertion that even in the digital age, in a time of ephemeral connection like that epitomized by Snapchat, folklore is still a meaningful bond connecting people, so meaningful that it worms its way into literature, whether or not we realize it as authors, readers, or publishers.

Another reason this is a thriving area of folklore research is because it’s not like we’re going to run out of analytical fodder. The paper I’m giving at AFS this year exemplifies a folklore-in-literature approach, for example. And a lot of fairy-tale scholarship also studies the uses of fairy tales in other forms of culture, from literature to film to fanfic.

So, if you’re going to go this route, remember to identify the folklore in its literary context; interpret it (how is it changed now that it’s in print?); and then ask why it’s been utilized in this fashion. What can folklore accomplish that nothing else can? The starting place is, a lot!



De Caro, Frank, and Rosan Augusta Jordan. Re-Situating Folklore: Folk Contexts and Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

Dundes, Alan. “The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation.” Journal of American Folklore 78.308 (1965): 136-142.

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