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Lament for the Passing of the Folktale

The power of the written word has always been frail. Socrates sneered at the thought of writing anything, asserting the power of tradition; de Maistre dismissed the written constitution as a sign of the fragility of principles contained therein; in a more banal and recent example, people criticize politicians who use teleprompters. There is something about the written form that strikes the Salt of the Earth as lacking in the desired savour. At its very best, the written form is adjudged to possess a sort of magical quality: the written Scripture of Western Christianity, which, no doubt, possesses the legal quality of its Magian source, nevertheless to a Faustian man occupies a similar place to the runic systems among the ancient Germanics and Celts. The mystifying ability to quote scripture on demand has been a defining measure of social worth in Protestant Europe for nearly 500 years—to say the words that Christ told his disciples. “What does the Bible say?” people will ask. This is not merely pedantic: there is power in the sign. The pattern of speech we have inherited reveals our ancestors’ ways of life, which were defined by the personal and conversational, not by the detached and the contemplative.

At its worst, the written word is poison that infects the soul by cutting it off from its natural place; it sews social disruption and corrupts the young. If we should consider that the mark of a healthy society is that books are revered, for they are few; the mark of a struggling society is that they are burned, for they are multiplying, and with them the parasitical illness of intellectualism; the mark of a dying society is that they merely are—and in very large quantities. This is more than just because those who have little to say rarely stop speaking; rather, it is because the word has become devalued to such an extent that anything anyone might say merits writing down. (The author is aware of the contradiction this highlights.)

This is why the oral tradition of folktales is typically the mark of a healthy society—because folktales are, by their definition, rarely written down; they sustain their value insofar as they maintain a connexion between the era of their origin and the contemporary era, so long as they still have meaning. They are a thread which holds the fabric of a healthy society together. As the society grows older, the threads come undone, and patch repairs (i.e. recording the folktales) become necessary. Likewise, once it is sapped of its power, the folktale is devilishly hard to reintroduce. It is a very fragile fish—in the wrong kind of water or in too little water, it quickly drowns. Instability in an environment will kill it off, because its oral preservation requires too much effort on the part of a disrupted (or uninterested) younger generation. A reestablishment of stability after too long a time severs the human link that gives the folktale meaning, and it becomes instead a mere fable or moral lesson from times passed—an antiquarian fascination of the man doing archaeological research on his own bones.

It is the great struggle of those who seek to preserve that they often destroy—and this is not merely true of collectors of insects and animals whose preservation and taxidermy requires physical death. Historians, too, run the risk of killing a phenomenon by calling attention to it. This occurs in broad sweeps—like Joel Chandler Harris’ good-hearted attempt to save the vanishing dialect and folk traditions of the antebellum Negro in the form of his Uncle Remus stories—or even on the tribal level—when a younger scion of an older house decides he should record Poppa’s story about the Italian wedding or Nana’s many reflections on the old Irish wakes, or write down Gramma’s reminisces of that well-mannered Coloured boy who used to make lemonade on Saturdays at Franklin’s drugstore just off the Courthouse square—and don’t call them “niggers,” I know that’s not how your Momma and Daddy raised you! These aren’t just quaint curiosities of a time gone by; they contain in them a strong sense of community and identity, with clearly (but customarily, not legally) defined boundaries and taboos. They contain in them life—a life we have lost.

Folktales bind a community together because they remind people of who they are and what their values are. These values, whatever the staunchest biological determinist might insist, are not in fact in-born, however much habits and proclivities are. Without a surviving oral tradition, the tribal bonds that form the basis of community cannot be sustained; an unwatered vine, they shrivel up and become brittle. The myth-making quality of the folktale is only a part of this: the content of the folktales themselves is secondary to their very living existence, for the lessons may be imparted in one way or another—through formal schooling, for instance, or entertainment (think of the trite moralizing of cartoons from the later 20th century)—but the absence of an oral tradition, and especially of folk-tales themselves, indicates that this content has become or is increasingly becoming deracinated. The folktale is, therefore, both a font as well as a signal—it is both the air a culture breathes as well as the canary-in-the-coalmine warning us that the air is running out.

Nor can the folktale be manufactured—Tolkien has proven this; his goal of creating a new mythology has given rise to stories that can inspire but only because of the way they relate to our civilizational experience or our own more organic mythology. In themselves, they remain modern fantasy. Mythology cannot be artificial—it cannot be forced. It grows naturally or not at all, and folktales are myth at the most basic level. They lack the religious significance and overt identity-building that myths represent, but they serve the same functional purpose of binding together a blood community through time. Also unlike myth, folktales have little place among the cultural elite: even in societies in which that elite occupies an active, integral place in the social hierarchy rather than being isolated in a separate reality from the common Folk, the folktale rarely penetrates the walls that separate the highest castes from the lowest. They remain, however, the lifeblood of a civilization even after the aristocracy has become decrepit. Myth dwells among the elite—the inner clique for whom it possesses meaning, and who interpret and disseminate this meaning among those immediately below their own, who in turn pass it onto the other Estates. Through this, myths take on different meanings for different castes, and therefore are universally significant but not uniform in significance. Folktales are just the opposite: they are simpler, less universal, and therefore more uniform in their meaning and significance.

In lamenting the passing of folktales in their more proper sense, therefore, we truly mourn the passing of a far more tangible part of civilization that has passed from our midst. Twisted and deformed by the torturous realignment of their lifestyles, the peasantry has vanished from the earth and in their place are the pitiable creatures who make up the global proletariat. As Spengler observed, Truth for the multitude is what it continually reads and hears. So long as the proletarians still had some semblance of a folk culture in their ethnic enclaves of industrial slave-labour, they remained peasants at heart, undergoing the torture that had ripped them up from their soil and sought to tear them away from their community as well. When the folktales begin to die, so too the peasant soul.

The peasant soul is, furthermore, a fitting thing for the aristocrat to mourn; for with it goes the ghost of the noblesse oblige. Like the mother of a still-born child, the upper echelons of the spiritual hierarchy find themselves prepared to nurture and lift up their lessers, but are deprived of anyone to whom they might extend their condescension, and so being are deprived of meaning, of purpose, and of their natural path to God. It is in the interest of the aristocracy to preserve the folk-tale tradition of the peasant—something Harris and other early folklorists almost certainly understood. With the old folktales having passed, now it only remains to recognize the rise of new folk traditions of new tribes, and to nurture them—to act as husbandmen of this spiritual garden.

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