Folk Tales

IT has been said, as a mark of the high civilization of London, that no person can be interested in any subject however recondite, or have any taste however fantastic, that he does not sooner or later meet in that vast city some one pursuing exactly the same study, or humoring the same hobby. It is a healthy sign, too, with us that the number of our special scholars is yearly increasing, but it is regrettable, although natural, that they should often be better known in Europe than at home. Although Mr. Crane’s name is by no means unfamiliar to the general public, it may safely be said that for his special studies he is, outside of the precincts of his university, far more highly appreciated in Rome and Palermo, in Paris and Berlin, than in Boston or New York. While Mr. Crane’s last work on Italian Popular Tales will add still more to the esteem and respect in which he is held by scholars like Pitrè, De Gubernatis, Gaston Paris, Köhler, and Ralston, it will reveal to us at home what thorough and excellent work is doing here, and will at the same time win increased favor and popularity for studies in the peculiarly interesting subject of folk-lore. In saying that Mr. Crane’s book marks an epoch in this science in America, we do not forget what has already been done here, — the numerous publications of Dr. Daniel G. Brinton on the mythology and traditions of the early American races, the papers of Mr. John Fiske on Myths and Mythmakers (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867); but, for careful, accurate, and brilliant scholarship, we can compare it with nothing but the remarkable notes of Mr. Francis J. Child, in his edition of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads. It may be mentioned, by the way, that the best and largest collection of works on folk-lore and early popular literature accessible to the student is that in the library of Harvard College, obtained through the care of Mr. Child. Cornell University possesses a smaller collection, peculiarly rich in books relating to the Slavonic people and the races of Russia and Northern Asia.

Fairy tales had long been liked, — the Piacevoli Notti of Straparola, their first appearance in literature, was published in 1550, the Pentamerone of Basile in 1637, the charming Contes de ma Mère Loye of Charles Perrault from 1691 to 1697, to say nothing of others, — but the scientific study of such stories, of traditions, superstitions, and popular customs, began with the publication in 1816 of the Kinder - und Hausmärchen, collected by the brothers Grimm. Since 1840 such collections have been made everywhere, in nearly all countries, civilized and barbarous, and with each new contribution the surprise increased at the wide diffusion of certain tales and certain types. The necessity grew also of rigorous scientific study of such tales, as expressions of the popular imagination, together with that of usages and beliefs that might seem to be derived from an earlier religion and an earlier stage of civilization. This branch of learning received the appropriate name of folk-lore; and so suitable is the word that it has been adopted bodily in several languages, and has such odd-looking derivatives as folklorico and folklorismo. For the convenience of scholars folk-lore societies have been founded in England, Sweden, Spain, and Italy during the past seven years, and several journals have been started for this specialty. These societies and these journals are very useful, because, although so much has been already done, more remains undone. The tales of the Aryan races show a similarity close enough to serve as proof that they all had a common origin ; but how does the case stand with similar tales among people of non-Aryan race, with whom, such as Samoans and Zulus, no Aryan influence can be imagined ? Until we have further data it is impossible to decide with certainty even the source of some of the commonest superstitions which govern us from our cradles, or of the customs which accompany the great festivals of the church.

The question of the origin of popular tales was the first to present itself as soon as it was noticed that the same story, differing only in local color or in the subordinate details, was to be found among peoples separated by long distances, and when it was seen that the whole body of tales could be reduced to certain types or formulas, admitting of endless variation within certain lines. The tale of Beauty and the Beast, for instance, exists in English, German, Danish, Norwegian, Russia, Bohemian, Serbian, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Breton. These languages and races had a common origin ; it seems reasonable, therefore, to conclude that this story was the common property of these peoples before they separated from their early Aryan home in Central Asia. Proofs for this theory, which was originally that of the brothers Grimm, were sought in the earliest literature of India, and Max Müller, with the Vedas in his hands, tried to explain such tales as degraded myths, chiefly solar, representing the conflict between light and darkness, the sun, night, and the dawn. By a disease and a corruption of language, by a forgetfulness of the original meanings of words, pure personifications of natural phenomena became mythical and popular heroes, just as the Rikshas, the “ bright ones,” became the constellations of the Bears. This theory seemed so plausible, and was urged with such eloquence, that it took strong hold, especially in England, where there prevailed an exaggerated opinion of Max Müller’s learning. But the vagaries of some of his followers, like Sir George Cox, who wished to explain the Iliad and the Trojan war as a solar myth, soon began to excite distrust. The supporters of the mythic or philological theory were, besides, divided among themselves. Where the English school saw dawn myths, one German school under Kuhn saw fire myths, and another under Schwartz saw storm and thunder-cloud myths. The classical tale of Cupid and Psyche has been interpreted in all three ways with equal plausibility. But the tale of Cupid and Psyche is found among non-Aryan races; and that of Beauty and the Beast exists in much the same form among peoples as widely separated as the Mongols and the Kaffirs. Now, while it is pleasant to believe that an individual tale is a degraded myth from the Vedas, it is hard to admit this of all, and doubly hard to believe that “ philological corruption ” worked in exactly the same way in languages of the most diverse nature, origin, and development. The philological school tells us that it is wrong to compare non-Aryan with Aryan myths ; but while such a rule may hold good for vocabularies, it seems here rather an avoidance than a solution of the difficulty.

The same difficulty — that of widely diffused stories among different races — besets also, though in a less degree, the other chief theory, that of Benfey and Köhler, that our popular tales come from India, not in Aryan but in historic times, and that they have spread into Europe with every wave of influence circling from east to west. There are strong reasons for thinking that this diffusion of Eastern tales and legends, especially from the Pantchatantra and the Arabian Nights, was due to commercial intercourse with the Mussulmans, but especially to the Crusades. The legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, saints of the Eastern church, came earlier, for it was written in the sixth or seventh century, and is clearly shown by Liebrecht and Veselofsky to be taken from the Indian legendary history of Buddha. Among the Mongols and some other races of Asia, where Buddhist missionaries have carried their religion, it is easy to understand the appearance of Indian tales and fables ; but how can we account for similar stories in countries where contact has been almost impossible in historic times ?

Mr. Andrew Lang, in his Custom and Myth, working on the anthropological method, has given still another theory, — that these concordances of usage and story are proofs of a certain early stage of development and culture through which all races pass, the Aryans as well as the Australians, and that they are therefore important to the psychological history of mankind. It must be admitted that his reasoning has great force.

All these theories may be partly true: some tales and legends may have been brought from the East, some may be degraded myths, and some may be part of that fund of imagination and fancy common to all mankind. The question of the diffusion of popular tales seems, however, just now to be more important than that of their origin. It is necessary to know not only the agencies by which tales were spread, but the directions they took. For instance, from the resemblance of the tales of the Siberian tribes to the Russian epic ballads, Mr. Stasof, contrary to previous writers, argues that his countrymen are of nonAryan race. It is to this question of diffusion that Mr. Crane has of late directed his studies, although he gives but few hints of them in the volume before us.1 In a paper in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society for 1883, which has received very great and just praise and commendation in France and Germany, he gave some of the results of his researches among Mediæval Sermon-Books,— an almost untrodden field of investigation, — and showed the great part played by the preachers of the Middle Ages.

With the exception of two stories discovered by Mr. Crane in the Scala Cœli of Joannes Gobius, published in 1480 (see Germania, XVIII., New Series, page 203), variants of which may be found in the collection of Grimm, the first appearance of fairy tales in literature is, as has been already mentioned, in the books of Straparola and Basile. The former, Giovan Francesco Straparola of Caravaggio, is merely a name to us, except for his Facetious Nights. In these the author, in imitation of Boccaccio, represents that Francesca Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Milan, retires to Murano, and passes part of her exile in listening to stories told by the ladies and gentlemen of her court, some of whom, like Casali, Bembo, and Cappello, are otherwise known to fame. Out of seventy-four stories, twenty-two are popular tales. This book had such wide popularity that there were sixteen Italian editions between 1550 and 1608, and of the French translation there were fourteen editions between 1560 and 1726. The best now attainable is the reprint of the old French translation by Jean Louveau and Pierre de Larivey in Jannet’s Bibliothèque Elzevirienne of 1857. Very little more is known about Giambattista Basile, or, as he wrote his name in anagram, Gian Alesio Abbatutis. He had spent part of his early life in Crete, whence perhaps be brought some of his stories, and was the brother of the celebrated singer “ la bella Adriana,” whose daughter Leonora is praised in three of Milton’s Latin epigrams. The fifty tales of his Pentamerone, all of them genuine popular tales, are written in the Neapolitan dialect, but are full of the conceits of that age of concetti. To us that heightens their flavor. One is at a loss at times to know if they are inserted for ornament or as satire. The book had an undoubted influence upon French literature. There is a good English translation of thirty of the best stories by John Edward Taylor, with charming illustrations by Cruikshank, — still the best fairy-book that we know for children.

Notwithstanding the popularity of these two books at the time, they produced but one imitation, Mr. Crane tells us, La Posillecheata, five coarse stories in the Neapolitan dialect, by Pompeo Sarnelli, Bishop of Bisceglie, which was first published in 1684, and is now forgotten. Nearly two hundred years passed before other collections of popular tales were made in Italy, this time from the mouths of the people. De Gubernatis, Widter, Wolf, Knust, Laura Gonzenbach, Miss Busk, Comparetti, and Imbriani have all done their share, but the best work is due to Dr. Giuseppe Pitrè, of Palermo, whose collection of Fiabe, Novelle e Racconti, is otherwise valuable to the student of language, as giving an excellent exposition of the Sicilian dialect. For that alone it is worth study. One interesting peculiarity of these recent collections is the care which has been taken to represent popular forms and terms of speech, for very many of the stories have been taken down in short-hand. Pitrè, in the preface to the work mentioned, gives an entertaining account of some of the old women from whom he heard the tales. One of these, Agata Messia, who had been heard by many interested in the lore, died only last June.

The Italian, and especially the Sicilian, stories are particularly interesting, because, owing to the constant relations of Italy with the East, we ought to catch many of them on their passage and in their earliest European forms. A remarkable example of such is the tale of the Parrot, in the book before us.

If we have dwelt chiefly on the scholarly merits of Mr. Crane’s book, with its copious notes and bibliography, it is because the interest of the tales themselves, which he has translated for us, is such that they need no praise or explanation. It would be easy to catch, but hard to express, the enthusiasm of an audience of both old and young, who have already heard most of them twice. We miss, however, the local color found in the tales of some other peoples. Consisting, with the exception of the characteristic introductions and endings, in picturesque words of picturesque dialects, rather than in local details, it is necessarily lost in translation. It would seem as if the old women of Italy had inherited the logical lucidity of the old Latin, and had desired to give the facts of their wonderful stories without extraneous ornament.

For local color we must turn to the stories of a kindred people, the Roumanians, who have been subjected to quite other influences.2 The tales themselves are rich in details which bring up even the physical aspect of the country, and in poetic and imaginative expressions which show the influence of the Slav upon the Latin race. It is this poetic side which makes the Roumanian tales different from those of the rest of Europe, and we are willing to agree with the Roumanian poet Alecsandri that it was the hearing of such stories that chiefly contributed to make him a poet.

  1. Italian Popular Tales. By THOMAS FREDERICK CRANE, A. M., Professor of the Romance Languages in Cornell University. Boston and New York : Houghton. Mifflin & Co. 1885.
  2. Roumanian Fairy Tales. Collected by MITE Kremnttz. Adapted and arranged by J. M. PERCIVAL. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1885.