JFA 29.2 (2019)
Introduction: Fantasy and Oral Tradition
People tell stories. Storytelling is so much a part of our identity that folklorist Kurt Ranke dubbed us “Homo narrans,” Man (sorry!) the narrator. We start learning narrative patterns as soon as we begin to acquire language. We tell stories to reach out to others and to acquire empathy. We appeal to cultural narratives to justify action and to make sense of the world. And many of the most memorable folk patterns are fantastic. Myths are inherently non-mundane, taking place outside of time and in a realm of gods, transformations, and word-wise animals. Legends (to a folklorist, stories set in historical time and told as truth) may be supernatural, though many are not. Contemporary legends, usually called urban legends, bend possibility with weird coincidences, bizarre behaviors, and malevolent outsiders, and they often go right over the line into miracles or ghost stories. Folktales likewise span the whole range from bawdy comedies of everyday life to the long magical tales called Märchen. Ballads include revenants, demon lovers, and comic devils among their dramatis personae. And epics, which are the anthologies of antiquity, go everywhere, from gruesomely realistic battle scenes and domestic dramas to fantastic glimpses of upper and lower realms.
All of this is to say that students of the fantastic would do well to pay attention to folklorists. Much of the literature we examine is modeled after folk forms or incorporates folk motifs or both. My way of reading fantasy is greatly indebted to folklorists such as Ranke, Lord Raglan, Linda Dégh, John Niles, Max Lüthi, and Barre Toelken. They taught me that storytelling is not reporting: that fidelity to ordinary life is not a requirement for artistry. And thus they helped me and others speak back to the realist model of fiction that was pretty much dominant when I began studying literature. I continue to draw on folklore studies to make sense of the rapidly multiplying fantastic storytelling modes and platforms of the internet era—folklore is not just “old stuff,” or, as it was first termed in English, “popular antiquities,” but reemerges with each new form of social interaction, including gaming and social media.
Hence, a couple of years ago the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, which sponsors this journal, added a division in Fairy Tales and Folk Narratives to complement its coverage of fantasy literature, visual and performing arts, children’s literature, film and television, and so on. Since its creation in 2017, this division has already become one of the most active at the annual Conference, sponsoring papers and panels and helping us launch the new division with special guests Terri Windling, Holly Black, and folklorist Cristina Bacchilega. Bacchilega’s and Windling’s Guest of Honor addresses and an interview with Holly Black were published in JFA volume 28, issue 1.
Now JFA follows up with a number of folklore-related articles. Merja Leppälahti’s “From Folklore to Fantasy: The Living Dead, Metamorphoses, and Other Strange Things” starts us off. The essay, here translated by Clive Tolley, was a runner-up for the Jamie Bishop Award, which is given by the IAFA for an essay written in a language other than English. Leppälahti offers a glimpse into a body of lore, together with its literary offshoots, that has been largely inaccessible to Anglophones. We may be familiar with the central European legends that spawned Dracula, but parallel developments in Finland, Estonia, and other eastern and northern European cultures have rarely crossed the linguistic border. In addition to outlining Finnish versions of werewolf and vampire, Leppälahti offers a new analysis of the relationship between oral and written fantasies. Using the folkloristic category of motif along with Maria Nikolajeva’s concept of the fantaseme, the essay proposes a mode of transmission from folk legend to fiction and from one written text to another.
The mermaid that Peter Mortensen is presenting seems a far cry from folk legends of the Lorelei and siren or from Hans Christian Andersen’s folk-influenced “The Little Mermaid,” but it also investigates a modern-day (modern a century ago) adaptation of oral traditions into popular entertainment. In this case, the setting is Australia, moving to Hollywood, and the creator is a fascinating athlete-writer-mythmaker named Annette Kellerman. In “‘Half Fish, Half Woman’: Annette Kellerman, Mermaids, and Eco-Aquatic Revisioning,” Mortensen demonstrates how varied and original was her contribution to the cinematic and literary representation of mer-folk as metonymic stand-ins for the oceanic environment. Mermaids are another folk-derived human-animal hybrid. Like werewolves and (though we forget how these creatures overlap) vampires, such creatures of legend challenge our sense of humanity as separate from and superior to the natural ecosystems around us. Kellerman, who is now better known for appearing in risqué costumes and for popularizing the swimming stroke known as the Australian crawl, was actively involved in re-mythologizing the seas, employing the mermaid fantaseme as a feminist and ecological-activist tool long before either of those movements entered the cultural mainstream.
Derek J. Thiess takes up the use of North American native legends in the work of science fiction and fantasy writer Dan Simmons. Simmons’s novel The Terror invokes two bodies of legend. The more obvious is a monster bear derived from Inuit beliefs and narratives (and Thiess acknowledges the problematic use of indigenous lore by an Anglo-American writer). Less evident except perhaps to folklorists is the degree to which all historical events are channeled through legend in European American lore. The novel depicts the disastrous Franklin expedition to find a Northwest Passage. Thiess doesn’t discuss the category of historical legend in the Anglo world, but such disasters generally enter local lore, losing details and being reshaped to fit traditional narrative patterns. We seem to need this process in order to make sense, to find meaning, in history. Thiess emphasizes Simmon’s depiction of the material body rather than the process of oral transmission, but the end result of his fantastic fictionalizing is to produce fantasemes (which Simmons derives from those of Gothic fiction and subsequently makes available to other writers) that give us ways to think about humanity, the natural world, and, as in Mortensen’s article on mermaids, the blue world of the oceans.
Anca Rosu’s article on George R. R. Martin seems at first glance not to concern folklore, and yet her topic, the use of money in Medieval times and in Martin’s fantasized version of them, actually touches on several folk elements. Money is an institution, issued by governments, which are also institutions, and one definition of folklore is non-institutionalized or informal culture. Yet institutions themselves are rife with folk beliefs, customary practices, and parody-versions of official texts. Religious lore is a rich and often overlooked accompaniment to prescribed creeds, scriptures, and rituals. And governments and government officials are universally the subjects of jokes and legends, which keeps the fact-checking website Snopes.com busy. Rosu points out that in Martin’s fictional world, as in our European past, money and the market economy did not immediately take over from some hypothetical barter system. Rather, it slowly edged out—and often existed alongside—an economy of gifts. Drawing on the economic theories of Marcel Mauss, Rosu shows how the same physical object—a coin—can function in completely different systems of meaning, depending on how it is used. The gift economy Mauss describes is a folk alternative to institutionalized capitalism. It involves personal contact and obligation—to give something is to oblige the receiver. The extreme example of this kind of economy is the potlatch system of some Pacific coast tribes. A less obvious and still current example is the network of obligations that is created by making and giving away tamales in Hispanic communities—a fascinating article on this practice called “Una Tamalada: The Special Event,” by M. H. de La Peña Brown appeared in Western Folklore in 1981. Martin, says Rosu, makes particular use of the multiple significations of money in his creation of societies outside Westeros, such as the Dothraki. One of the sources of richness in Martin’s creation is this multiplicity of meaning which hovers over virtually every exchange, and which creates ever-widening ripples of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Finally, Ildikó Limpár examines a vampire narrative in which those creatures’ folk origins are almost completely replaced by popular and literary influences. By transplanting the undead from Europe to New Zealand and from quasi-Medieval communities to modern, media-saturated culture, the makers of the film What We Do in the Shadows generate both humor and self-criticism of the Gothic form. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s mockumentary, in which a colony of vampires self-consciously pose as themselves, shows what happens when folk motif has fully transformed into fantaseme, without the aura of communal belief that accompanies legends even when they are told by doubters. When the thing that is disbelieved is also the character on film trying to justify his actions and customs, the result is not only comic but also metafictional and metahistorical. The movie reenacts and critiques vampire literary traditions (most pointedly the Twilight series) along with their creators and consumers. Furthermore, says Limpár, because the vampire narrative is so imbued with power and desire, mocking it becomes a powerful exercise in undercutting racial and sexual hierarchies. Ironically and happily, Waititi’s film shows how, as those older cultural systems are weakened, new communities form around strong women and a more egalitarian and mixed society (including the previously excluded were-people).
From Folklore to Fantasy: The Living Dead, Metamorphoses,
and Other Strange Things
“Half Fish, Half Woman”: Annette Kellerman, Mermaids,
and Eco-Aquatic Revisioning
Dan Simmons’s The Terror, Inuit “Legend,” and the
Embodied Horrors of History
Derek J. Thiess
Coin: Money and the Gift Mentality in The Song of Ice and Fire
Masculinity, Visibility and the Vampire Literary Tradition
in What We Do in the Shadows
Meike Uhrig, Vera Cuntz-Leng, and Luzie Kollinger’s Wissen
in der Fantastik: Vom Suchen, Verstehen und Teilen [Knowledge
in the Fantastic: Searching, Understanding, and Sharing]
Rev. by Suzanne Arthur
Angela Wright’s Mary Shelley
Rev. by Cait Coker
Colin Manlove’s Scotland’s Forgotten Treasure: The Visionary
Romances of George MacDonald
Rev. by James Hamby
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic
Rev. by Rebecca Janicker
Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and
Rev. by Isiah Lavender III
Linnie Blake and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet’s Neoliberal Gothic
Rev. by Inés Ordiz
Fernando Ángel Moreno Serrano’s La Ideología de Star Wars
Rev. by Cristina Pérez
Stacey Abbott’s Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies
in the Twenty-first Century
Rev. by Pedro Ponce
Kathryn Troy’s The Specter of the Indian: Race, Gender, and
Ghosts in American Séances, 1848-1890
Rev. by Madeleine Reddon
Nicolas Labarre’s Heavy Metal, l’autre Métal Hurlant [Heavy
Metal, the other Metal Hurlant]
Rev. by Don Riggs
Sandra Cisneros-Vizcaíno and Inés Ordiz’s Latin American Gothic
in Literature and Culture
Rev. by Audrey Taylor
Patrick Sharp’s Darwinian Feminism and Early Science Fiction:
Angels, Amazons, and Women
Rev. by Karina A. Vado