1902 Encyclopedia > Tales


TALES are, in the usual acceptance of the word, fictitious narratives, long or short, ancient or modern. In this article "tale" is used in a stricter sense, as equivalent to the German " Volks-marchen" or the French "conte populaire." Thus understood, popular tales mean the stories handed down by oral tradition from an unknown antiquity, among savage and civilized peoples. So understood, popular tales are a subject in mythology, and indeed in the general study of the development of man, of which the full interest and importance is scarcely yet recognized. Popular tales won their way into literature, it is true, at a very distant period. The Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey, contain adventures which are manifestly parts of the general human stock of popular narrative. Other examples are found in the Rigveda, and in the myths which were handled by the Greek dramatists. Collections of popular tales, more or less subjected to conscious literary treatment, are found in Sanskrit, as in the work of Somadeva, whose Kathâ Sarit Sdgara, or " Ocean of the Streams of Story," has been translated by Mr Tawney (Calcutta, 1880). The THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (q.v.) are full of popular tales, and popular tales are the staple of the mediaeval Gesta Romanorum, and of the collections of Straparola and other Italian conteurs. In all these and similar gatherings the story, long circulated from mouth to mouth among the people, is handled with conscious art, and little but the general outline of plot and character of incident can be regarded as original. In the Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé of Perrault (Elzevir, Amsterdam, 1697; the Parisian edition is of the same date) we have one of the earliest gatherings of tales which were taken down in their nursery shape as they were told by nurses to children. This at least seems probable, though M. Alfred Maury thinks Perrault drew from literary sources. Perrault attributed the composition to his son, P. Darmaucour, at that time a child, and this pretext enabled him to give his stories in a simple and almost popular guise. In the dedication signed by the boy, Perrault offers remarks which really do throw a certain light on the origin and characteristics of "märchen." He says, "Us renferment tous une morale très sensée et donnent une image de ce qui se passe dans les moindres familles, où la louable impatience d'instruire les enfans fait imaginer des histoires dépourvues de raison pour s'accomoder à ces mêmes enfants, qui n'en ont pas encore." It seems that popular tales in many cases probably owe their origin to the desire of enforcing a moral or practical lesson. It appears that their irrational and " infantile " character—" dépourvues de raison "—is derived from their origin, if not actually among children, at least among childlike peoples, who have not arrived at "raison," that is, at the scientific and modern conception of the world and of the nature of man.

The success of Perrault's popular tales brought the genre into literary fashion, and the Comtesse d'Aulnoy invented, or in some cases adapted, "contes," which still retain a great popularity. But the precise and scientific collection of tales from the lips of the people is not much earlier than our century. The chief impulse to the study was given by the brothers Grimm. The first edition of their Kinder- und Haus-Märchen was published in 1812. The English reader will find a very considerable bibliography of popular tales, as known to the Grimms, in Mrs Alfred Hunt's translation, Grimm's Household Tales, with Notes (London, 1884). "How unique was our collection when it first appeared," they exclaim, and now merely to enumerate the books of such traditions would occupy much space. In addition to the märchen of Indo-European peoples, the Grimms became acquainted with some Malay stories, some narratives of Bechuanas, Negroes, American Indians, and Finnish, Esthonian, and Magyar stories. Thus the Grimms'knowledge of non-European märchen was extremely slight. It enabled them, however, to observe the increase of refinement " in proportion as gentler and more humane manners develop themselves,"the monstrosities of Finnish and Red-Indian fancy gradually fading in the narratives of Germans and Italians. The Grimms notice that the evolution of popular narrative resembles the evolution of the art of sculpture, from the South-Sea idol to the frieze of the Parthenon, " from the strongly marked, thin, even ugly, but highly expressive forms of its earliest stages to those which possess external beauty of mould." Since the Grimms' time our knowledge of the popular tales of non-European races has been greatly enriched. We possess numbers of North-American, Brazilian, Zulu, Swahili, Eskimo, Samoan, Maori, Kaffir, Malagasy, Bushman, and even Australian märchen, and can study them in comparison with the stories of Hesse, of the West Highlands of Scotland, of Scandinavia.

While the popular romances of races of all colours must be examined together, another element in this subject is not less important. It had probably been often observed before, but the fact was brought out most vividly by Von Hahn (Griechische und albanesische Marchen, Leipsic, 1864), that the popular tales of European races turn on the same incidents, and display the same succession of situations, the same characters, and the same plots, as are familiar in the ancient epic literature of Greece, India, Germany, and Scandinavia. The epics are either fully-developed marchen evolved by the literary genius of poets and saga-men, or the marchen are degenerate and broken-down memories of the epics and sagas, or perhaps there may be examples of both processes. The second view,—namely, that the popular tales are, so to speak, the scattered grains of gold of which the epic is the original " pocket" or " placer,"'—the belief that the marchen are the detritus of the saga,—was for a long time prevalent. But a variety of arguments enforce the opposite conclusion, namely, that the marchen are essentially earlier in character than the epic, which is the final form to which they have been wrought by the genius of Homer or of some other remote yet cultivated poet. If this view be accepted, the evolution of marchen and of certain myths has passed through the following stages :—

(1) The popular tale, as current among the uncultivated peoples, such as Iroquois, Zulus, Bushmen, Samoans, Eskimo, and Samoyedes. This tale will reflect the mental condition of rude peoples, and will be full of monstrous and miraculous events, with an absence of reason proper, as Perrault says, " a ceux qui n'en ont pas encore." At the same time the tale will very probably enforce some moral or practical lesson, and may even appear to have been invented with this very purpose, for man is everywhere impressed witft the importance of conduct.

(2) The same tale—or rather a series of incidents and a plot essentially the same—as it is discovered surviving in the oral traditions of the illiterate peasantry of European races. Among them the monstrous element, the ferocity of manners observed in the first stage, will be somewhat modified, but will be found most notable among the Slavonic tribes. Nowhere, even in German and Scottish marchen, is it extinct, cannibalism and cruel torture being favourite incidents.

(3) The same plot and incidents as they exist in the heroic epics and poetry of the cultivated races, such as the Homeric books, the Greek tragedies, the Cyclic poets, the Kalewcda of the Finns, certain hymns of the Rigveda, certain legends of the Brahmanas, the story of the Volsungs,—in these a local and almost historical character is given by the introduction of names of known places, and the adventures are attributed to national heroes,—Odysseus, QMipus, Sigurd, Wainamoinen, Jason, Pururavas, and others. The whole tone and manners are nobler and more refined in proportion as the literary workmanship is more elaborate.

This theory of the origin of popular tales in the fancy of peoples in the savage condition (see MYTHOLOGY), of their survival as marchen among the peasantry of Indo-European and other civilized races, and of their transfiguration into epics, could only be worked out after the discovery that savage and civilized popular tales are full of close resemblances. These resemblances, when only known to exist among Indo-European peoples, were explained as part of a common Aryan inheritance, and as the result of a malady of language. This system, when applied to myths in general, has already been examined (see MYTHOLOGY). According to another view, marchen everywhere resemble each other because they all arose in India, and have thence been borrowed and transmitted. For this theory consult Benfey's Panchatantra and M. Cosquin's Contes de Lorraine (Paris, 1886). In opposition to the Aryan theory, and the theory of borrowing from India, the system which is here advocated regards popular tales as kaleidoscopic arrangements of comparatively few situations and incidents, which again are naturally devised by the early fancy. Among these incidents may be mentioned, first, kinship and intermarriage between man and the lower animals and even inorganic phenomena. Thus a girl is wooed by a frog, pumpkin, goat, or bear, or elephant, in Zulu, Scotch, Walachian, Eskimo, Ojibway, and German marchen. This incident is based on the lack of a sense of difference between man and the things in the world which is prevalent among savages (see MYTHOLOGY). Other incidents familiar in our nursery tales (such as "Cinderella" and "Puss in Boots") turn on the early belief in metamorphosis, in magic, in friendly or protecting animals (totems or beast manitous). Others depend on the early prevalence of cannibalism (compare Grimm, 47, " The Juniper Tree "). This recurs in the mad song of Gretchen in Faust, concerning which a distinguished student writes, " This ghost of a ballad or rhyme is my earliest remembrance, as crooned by an old East-Lothian nurse." (Compare Chambers's Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p. 49.) The same legend occurs among the Bechuanas, and is published by Casalis. Yet another incident springs from the taboo on certain actions between husband and wife, producing the story of Cupid and Psyche (see Lang's Custom and Myth, 1884, p. 64). Once more, the custom which makes the youngest child the heir is illustrated in the marchen of the success, despite the jealousy of the elders, of Cinderella, of the Zulu prince (Callaway's Tales from the Amazulu, pp. 64, 65), and in countless other marchen. In other cases, as in the worldwide marchen corresponding to the Jason epic, we seem in presence of an early romantic invention,—how diffused it is difficult to imagine. Moral lessons, again, are inculcated by the numerous tales which turn on the duty of kindness, or on the impossibility of evading fate as announced in prophecy. In opposition to the philological explanation of the story of Oedipus as a nature-myth, this theory of a collection of incidents illustrative of moral lessons is admirably set forth in Prof. Cauparetti's Edipo e la Mitologia Comparata (Pisa, 1867).

On a general view, then, the stuff of popular tales is a certain number of incidents and a certain set of combinations of these incidents. Their strange and irrational character is due to their remote origin in the fancy of men in the savage condition; and their wide distribution is caused, partly perhaps by oral transmission from people to people, but more by the tendency of the early imagination to run everywhere in the same grooves. The narratives, in the ages of heroic poetry, are elevated into epic song, and in the Middle Ages they were even embodied in legends of the saints. This view is maintained at greater length, and with numerous illustrations, in the introduction to Mrs Hunt's translation of Grimm's Kinder- und Haus-Märchen, and in Custom and Myth, already referred to.

A complete bibliography of the literature of popular tales would fill many pages. The reader who is curious about savage popular tales may turn to Theal's Kaffir Folk Lore (2d ed., London, 1886); Callaway's Nursery Tales of the Amazulu (London, 1868); Schoolcraft's Algie Researches; Gill's Myths and Tales of the Smith Pacific; Petitot's Traditions Indiennes (1886) ; Shortland's Maori Religion and Mythology (London, 1882); The South African Folk Lore Record; the Folk Lore Record (London, 1879-85, Malagasy stories); Rink's Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo; Bleek's Hottentot Tales and Fables (London, 1861); Castrén's Samoyedische Marchen; and Leland's Algonquin Legends (London, 1884). For European tales, the bibliography in the translation of Grimm already referred to may be used, and the Maisonneuve collection, Les Littératures populaires may be recommended. The names of Liebrecht, Kohler, Dasent, Ealston, Nigra, Pitre, Cosquin, Afanasief, Gaidoz, Sebillot, may serve as clues through the enchanted forest of the nursery tales of Europe. (A. L.)

The above article was written by: Andrew Lang, M.A., LL.D., Hon. Fellow of Merton College, Oxford; author of Oxford, Helen of Troy, Custom and Myth, Myth, Ritual and Religion, Pickle the Spy, The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, The Making of Religion, The Companions of Pickle, A History of Scotland from the Roman Occupation, Prince Charles Edward, Magic and Religion, The Mystery of Mary Stewart, etc.; part author of translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad.

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