“Thoughts on the Importance, and Necessity of Folklore,” by Rafe Martin
This article is based on an oral talk presented by Rafe at the May 2004 International Reading Association National Convention in Reno, Nevada. The article has been written for and will appear in the Spring 2005 issue of The Dragon Lode, The Journal of the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group of The International Reading Association.
Looking back over the last forty years of my thinking, writing, and storytelling I see now that they have all been attempts to explore a question, well, two questions, really, that have been both guiding and haunting me: “What is folklore and why is it important?”
The more I think about it, the more I see that these are not simply questions for me or even just for children, parents, educators and children’s book writers. Joyce compulsively explored these same questions. Shakespeare was bound and beholding to them. Melville cut his teeth on them. I think they lie behind the best of who we collectively and individually, are.
They are fundamental questions because they are intimately linked with our human origins, with the nature of the imagination, and with the reality of a human “interior” to the world.
There is no little man or woman inside our skulls giving directions. In essence the human interior we live within, that realm of compelling thoughts, attitudes, judgments -- the ones we listen to, are guided by and which shape our lives-is built of dreams, and those dreams seem to remain astonishingly constant throughout human cultures and time. Those dreams form, and are formed by, folklore. For in and through them we discover the configurations of a human interior and its denizens-the good and evil, the compassionate and selfish archetypes of the psyche. And we are shown the consequences of choosing one road over another. It’s as if we, and the characters of folklore, are always standing at some crossroads in a dark forest. Which road shall we take?
One road is built of kindness. In stories nothing is literal or physical; roads are built not of brick and gravel and tar, but of thoughts and deeds which, in turn, are themselves, built of and express underlying values. But values in stories don’t mean My values as opposed to Your values. Rather, they simply demonstrate consequences, or cause and effect. If I do this, this is likely to happen. If I do that, that is likely to happen. What is it I want to have happen in my life-story? So, one road, as I’ve said, is built of kindness, generosity, good humor, and faith in human and animal and nature’s own vast potential. Another road is built of selfishness, cruelty, fear, ill humor, and little faith in the potential of life itself to heal and sustain.
Folklore maps the territory, shows us the roads before us, and sets us free to walk the roads we choose-after allowing us to experience each road for ourselves. For, in stories, folk stories, all the characters are so universal as to be not individual characters as in fiction, but more generally recognizable aspects of our own psyches; characters common to all. Which is why the one voice, of one storyteller, can carry and reveal them.
So, somewhere, right now, in some form, Jack is stealing back his stolen goods from the terrible giant, then chopping down the vine. Timberrrrr! Somewhere, in some form, right now a girl sits by the cinders, unjustly confined within ugliness, who will then be released to her own beauty-and the world’s.
Here is what Italo Calvino in his very convincing introduction to his masterful Italian Folktales has to say about the realm now so foolishly being cast aside by contemporary, market-driven publishing. I think that no one has made the case for folklore more eloquently and concisely. Though it is a longish quote I want to present it in its entirety here.
“As I write this preface I feel aloof, detached. Will it be possible to come down to earth again? For two years I have lived in woodlands and enchanted castles, torn between contemplation and action: one the one hand hoping to catch a glimpse of the face of the beautiful creature of mystery who, each night, lies down beside her knight; on the other, having to choose between the cloak of invisibility or the magical foot, feather, or claw that could metamorphose me into an animal. And during these two years the world about me gradually took on the attributes of fairyland, where everything that happened was a spell or metamorphosis, where individuals, plucked from the chiaroscuro of a state of mind, were carried away by predestined loves or were bewitched; where sudden disappearances, monstrous transformations occurred, where right had to be discerned from wrong, where paths bristling with obstacles led to a happiness held captive by dragons. Also in the lives of peoples and nations, which until now had seemed to be at a standstill, anything seemed possible; snake pits opened up and were transformed into rivers of milk; kings who were thought kindly turned out to be brutal parents; silent, bewitched kingdoms suddenly came back to life. I had the impression that the lost rules which govern the world of folklore were tumbling out of the magic box I had opened.”
Now that the book is finished, I know that this was not a hallucination, a sort of professional malady, but the confirmation of something I already suspected-folktales are real.
. . . folk stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for that stage in life where destiny is formed, i.e., youth, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and finally through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity. This sketch, although summary encompasses everything: the arbitrary division of humans, albeit in essence equal, into kings and poor people; the persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication, which are the terms inherent in every life; love unrecognized when first encountered and then no sooner experienced than lost; the common fate of subjection to spells, or having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces. This complexity pervades one’s entire existence and forces one to struggle to free oneself, to determine one’s own fate; at the same time we can liberate ourselves only if we liberate other people, for this is the sine qua non of one’s own liberation. There must be fidelity to a goal and purity of heart, values fundamental to salvation and triumph. There must also be beauty, a sign of grace that can be masked by the humble, ugly guise of a frog; and above all there must be present the infinite possibilities of mutation, the unifying element in everything: men, beasts, plants, things.
In other words we, our psyches, NEED folklore. Our psyches are folklore. To lose folklore is not just to lose a few stories. It is to lose a realm of imagination we need to understand our lives, and even to survive.
I find it horrifying, an appalling dereliction of duty, that this very realm is now being so rapidly abandoned by major publishers. Instead, through the large chain bookstores, children are being fed the cute, the clever, and the flashy celebrity title of a Madonna, or Jay Leno. Not, I think, a particularly nourishing meal as far as children’s literature goes. Is there anything there that will stick to the ribs?
We have lost our soul, for the soul of all literature is the tale, whose tradition extends infinitely back and infinitely forward and most importantly, for all time is only NOW for the psyche, infinitely inward.
The imagination is fed, has been fed, for countless generations through such folktales. Traditional stories are food for the soul.
Folklore is not kiddie and is not dated. Though it may go in and out of publishing fashion. But that has nothing to do with its validity, vitality, relevance, or importance.
Our culture has become fascinated, hypnotized with what is new. Give us the latest this, or that; the latest craze, and we are happy, but only for a shorter and shorter time. For technology increases the speed of the surface, increases the potential for such one-night stands of attention. It is not wrong or bad. It’s just that this story we are telling ourselves with technology has, along with its particular strengths of speed and simultaneity, consequences, side-effects, and limitations, which may not be what we really want. In the realm of narrative this can mean fascination with the wizardry of the telling rather than with the strength of the story. When this happens, causes and effects drown in a sea of marvels. The story itself is lost at sea, the viewers cast adrift. The telling then has no lasting meaning, its purpose limited to an hour and a half of entertainment.
I am fascinated with what is old, not new. With what has endured. With the places of roots and bedrock. With what is common to all. With what is taken for granted and ignored.
The language of folklore is the language of our recurring dreams. And nightmares.
The tales have an important role, even today. The imagination never ages. Its needs remain ever-young. Just as we cannot outgrow our need for a balanced diet, so too, we cannot outgrow our need for nutrition for the mind. And the imagination as I’ve said, is not "kiddie." It is out of our imaginations, out of our dreamed sense of self, that we create our real lives. Dream that you can be a writer, a doctor, a pilot, a scientist, a teacher and you have a chance of becoming that very thing. If you cannot see it, form an image of it in the mind, the odds are, you will not, cannot become it. Folktales are food for the mind. They allow us to form clear images and to play with those images, gathering them into recognizable shapes and patterns, helping us organize, to value-pattern raw experience into a meaningful form, the form of a life that "works." They are maps, not the territory. But without maps one cannot go far without becoming lost.
TV relaxes us, helps us forget the days’ burdensome decisions and tasks. A necessary ally these days. In many ways it has become the folklore of the time. Yet it does not do what true tales do-it does not restore us. It does not open the mind to wonder. It does not create multi-leveled images that you can chew on your whole life. (Aha, why that’s like when the youngest brother shared his food with the little fox!)
Traditional tales are the mind’s restoration. Which is why artists throughout the ages have returned to folklore again and again as the major source of themes, of pattern, character, and structure. Traditional tales show us the fundamental paths in life and they return us to a sense of faith in not only our own humanity and creative powers, our essential goodness, but also restore to us what is most missing today - faith in the powers of the natural world itself. They remind us that all things live and communicate. That trees and animals, stars and rivers can and do speak-for those willing to listen. They reconnect us with a living world in which all things have a mysterious and meaningful place. They remind us that it is only ill-will that can close this world to us.
Is this a childish fantasy? Think again. It is exactly the world that modern physics and ecological sciences are revealing to us today. In short, as Calvino says, “folktales are real!”
So the old world of folklore carries truth that is adult indeed, and which we ignore to our own peril. (In addition, when told or written, there is an added benefit; the tales allow each of us to enter this old/new truthful world in terms intimately established by our own unique image-making). The child who grows up without access to this vision grows up imaginatively mal-nourished. The sense of consequences, which underlies all values, remains unclear. The map is not there, experientially. For in a story we are not told what to believe. Rather, we experience the characters within our own selves. All the storyteller gives us is sounds on the air: the writer, only squiggles on a page. We are seeing aspects of ourselves. Of our own interior. Folktales are the first true simulations and are more interactive than any computer game. You become the mountains, the rivers, the good and the evil. And you sort it all out experientially, feeling it, creating it in your own images. Without this direct imaginative experience, faith in one’s innate human powers is never mobilized. The felt connection with the living universe, which has brought each one of us forth, remains dormant. Of course, family, schooling, often experiences in nature (I spent most of my childhood in New York City up in treetops) can and do provide core experiences which modify and expand this. But the realm through which experiences of what we might call, for lack of a better word, connection, have been passed down, perhaps for the last half million years, generation by generation, has been folklore. It is how such experiences of the human path of life on this earth have been codified and bundled and made usable and re-usable. They give us each roots. And in the experience of listening and reading, wings. Yet with this generation for the first time in history, perhaps, that link is being sundered.
These tales belong to all of us. They come from our ancestors world-wide, showing us the fundamental values, the survival benefits of good humor, courage, compassion and faith, The characters that have them triumph, thought they may suffer and go through tremendous hardships before they are affirmed by the tale. And the greedy and selfish and cruel are thrown out of the story, do not survive, are not upheld by the narrative itself. Simple truths, childish truths, perhaps, but it can still take an entire lifetime before one can live them.
This has been the human view, based on hard-won experience through the millennia. And though these stories were never intended for children (who, after all, needs affirmation more of what constitutes good decision-making than those in power, i.e., than adults?) still, children were always part of the audience for these tales, always expected to have these maps and encouragements to mature human behavior as part of their store of tools for living; something to draw on when the going gets rough.
For it will. Get rough. For that too is a truth of life and of folklore. The good may triumph in the end, but bad and painful things will happen along the way. The tales are not naive. “Welcome to life on earth!” they say. “Here’s what it looks like. Here’s what will happen. Here’s the kind of thinking and doing that will help you. These kinds will bring you down.”
Folktales are part of the primer that every one of us, adult and child, should be carrying in our pockets or backpacks as we set out on the road of life. What a mistake we make when we, as a culture, fail to provide our own children with the tools they will need. When the big bad wolf shows up on our doorstep and the winds of impermanence begin to blow, will we be living in a house of brick or of straw? The choice is ours, each one of ours. I say, let’s tell the tales and pass them on.
So, in my book, The Rough-Face Girl (Putnam 1992) I explore our need for justice. Which is what Cinderella tales are really about. They are so prevalent as patterns because they show what most people in most places and times, do not see with their physical eyes. Justice. But the truth is we yearn for it. Cinderella tales keep that flame alive. In my recent novel, The World Before This One, (Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic 2002) built of Seneca legends from my neighborhood, Rochester, New York, I explore the nature of story and community and the ability of the earth itself, the great stone beneath our feet, to tell us stories that can change our lives. One of my favorite tales in that novel is one about a boy and a monster bear. The boy triumphs over the huge and magically empowered monster because he uses the greatest magic power of allóthe power of his own mind awakened through a determination to help his people. In my forthcoming novel, Birdwing (Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, 2005) I explore the metaphor of the child who falls out of myth into this world and can no longer fly, but still on the left side, the heart side, has a wing. The image comes to me out of many years of apprenticeship in the world of folklore and folk, or as I like to call it, traditional tale. We all are born with a wing. Some hide it. Some cut if off, maiming themselves to appear “normal.” And some learn to live fully with their wing just as it is, and so become truly themselves. And, when they do, they save not just themselves, but the kingdom.
All of my work owes its greatest debt to the world of folklore. Why? “Folklore is us.” It cannot disappear or be disavowed anymore than can our human nature and our deepest human dreams. But it can, sadly, go in and out of fashion.
That being so, our job as teachers, educators, readers, and writers is to keep the flame alive even as the pendulum of fashion swings back and forth. Our job as adults, as always, is to pass what is important on to the next generation. The forms of these tales, these tools, these immaterial resources of the human spirit and imagination are as threatened now as water and air, rivers and forests. Folktales are not being published as they once were; those that are available are going out of print.
How lucky we are to still have them, as many as we do. My hope is that the generations to come will share in our present still available good fortune. Like everything else, it all depends on the choices we make today. Kindness and courage, the old tales tell us, are true aspects of who we are. The crossroads are before us. For our own sakes, and the sake of those yet to come, let’s take the good road.