As we peer into the mirror of our world and our humanity, we seek answers to ageless questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why me? Why now? Religion, art, schools of scientific and philosophical thought all reflect our endless search for meaning; our need to understand and make sense of our existence. Yet, this quest must extend further than our present reality. It must delve into our past; our collective memory and understanding.
In order to understand and make sense of who we are, it is essential to know who and what we have been. As humans this has always been our quest. Oftentimes, when my four year old daughter bombards me with questions after question: “ Where did I come from? . . . What did I do when I was a baby? . . . I talked like that when I was first born, right?”, I have to marvel at what seems to be evolution in motion. A child is driven to know their place in the world. Understanding the past gives them important clues about the present, as well as keys to the future.
Through story we find a means of dealing with the endless stream of questions and ponderings that have always been a part of our human nature. Folktales interest me primarily, because these stories are among the oldest accounts shared in the oral tradition.
Folktales encompass a unique body of stories from all people in all places, told throughout the existence of humankind. For me, there is something very exciting and powerful about this idea. When we explore folk stories, we explore ourselves and our many facets as human beings. We see the reflection of humankind: its strength, flaws, fears, and hopes. The settings and characters may change but the heart and soul feelings are always there. They are timeless; they are ageless.
The very existence and longevity of the countless number of tales told and recorded today attests to the power of this very special means of expression. This unit is based on the premise that in folk stories, we encounter a mirror in which we can see who we are and what we have been. It is a mirror charged with echoes of the past and hints of the future.
What is a folktale? There are many definitions. I have selected key elements from those I like best:
A folktale is a story which bas been handed down through word of mouth, and thus belongs to a particular culture rather than an individual . . . Because folktales are created by the people they give us many insights into the cultures from which they spring. The themes in folktales are universal and timeless
(Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss,
Children Tell Stories
, (New York: Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.), 1990, p. 39)
Basically, there are three kinds of folk stories: the oral, the transcribed, and the literary or art tale. No one kind of story is better than the other . . . Folktales from the oral tradition carry with them the thumbprint of history. Each place, each culture, each teller leaves a mark . . . tales that are set down and then transported through time on the pages of a book have a slightly different character from those orally transmitted . . . Often events glossed over or forgotten by the oral tellers are tidied up, made cleaner, elaborated upon, fixed to serve a specific purpose . . . Yet we must remind ourselves that most transcribers are not violating the tales. Rather, they are well within the tradition of tale telling, which is a tradition of constant and continuing recreation
(Jane Yolen, ed.,
Favorite Folktales from Around the World
, (New York: Pantheon Books), 1986, pp. 4-5)
Folklore cannot survive in a set form. Folklore continually changes, varying and developing, because it is shaped by the memories, creative talents, and immediate needs of human beings in particular situations. This process, the process of oral variation, is the life blood of folklore. When it is halted by printing or recording, folklore enters a state of suspended animation. It comes alive again only when it flows back into oral circulation
(Tristram P. Coffinand Hennig Cohen, ed., Folklore in America
, (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc
.), 1970, p. xiv)
When telling a story each individual brings to it their unique and personal essence. They a like a vessel, giving shape to the tale. It is the teller who creates, the frame of the mirror within the story.
Folktales, by their very nature, are fluid and change as they are passed from generation to generation
(Judith Rovenger, “The Better to Hear You With: Making Sense of Folktales,”
School Library journal
, March 1993)
We should keep in mind this ‘changing’ nature of folk stories, particularly since most of the versions with which we are familiar are those we’ve read in books. We are a literate society for the most part. It has only been in the recent past that a re-recognition and resurgence of the value of oral tradition has emerged in various corners of our society. in his article, “ In Quest of the Folktale” storyteller and folklorist, Doug Lipman notes:
. . .
Folklorists have published at least 40 authentic versions of “Snow White’ in English. The bad news: of the 40, only one has been used as the basis for a children’s book
(Doug Lipman, “In Quest of the Folktale,”
, vol. 14, no. 4, June 1990)
It is obvious that the versions of many of the tales that we encounter are determined by someone other than ourselves. This is especially significant since most of the folktales that we encounter today are in a written form. Publishers and promoters, apparently for their own reasons have selected not only the versions of tales to which the general population will have easy access, but also the stories themselves. Only a select few have been promoted as ‘suitable’ literary material for youngsters as well as the public in general. Many others have fallen by the wayside, lying dormant in shelved collections of folklore.
In spite of this, there are excellent resources where one can find numerous versions of folk stories told around the world. In addition, there are indexes that list and describe motifs and themes that appear throughout the body of folktales. That is the good news (See APPENDIX C for details.)
The attraction to the oral tale is strong. These stories, by their very nature present for all an important acknowledgment of the fundamental concerns of our collective human consciousness and psyche. These concerns show up through symbols and archetypes. Carl Jung speaks of ‘cultural’ symbols:
. . .
The cultural symbols . . . are those that have been used to express “eternal truths’. and that are still used in many religions. They have gone through many transformations and even a long process of more or less conscious development, and have thus become collective images accepted by civilized societies. Such cultural symbols nevertheless retain much of their original numinosity or “spell”. One is aware that they can evoke a deep emotional response in some individuals . . . They are important constituents of our mental make-up and vital forces in the building up of human society
. . .
Man and His Symbols
, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday), 1964, p. 93)
The psychic energy inherent to such symbols can be driven underground when we, for various reasons, find certain aspects of it undesirable to integrate into our personal consciousness and actions. This energy, however, does not dissipate or go away. It continues to exist within our psyche in an inhibited and repressed state. The result of this alienation forms what Jung refers to as “an ever-present and potentially destructive ‘shadow’ to our conscious mind. Even tendencies that might in some circumstances be able to exert a beneficial influence are transformed into demons . . .”
, p. 93)
Children become aware of this ‘shadow’ nature very early in life. As they learn what behavior pattern is acceptable and what is not they modify their actions accordingly. With this also comes judgment; some actions, feelings, thoughts are good while others are bad. Clearly, in order to win the approval of parents and other ‘grown-ups’ one must display what is seen as acceptable, good behavior. Children desperately want and need the love and approval of their parents and guardians. They will do whatever they deem necessary to get it. For most youngsters, this involves an incredible denial of feelings and urges, both in the conscious and sub-conscious mind. It is an alienation of the self, that part which is seen as socially unacceptable in their particular environment.
The fear and pain are not permitted to be experienced, expressed and thus discharged; they are frozen into his body, barricaded behind walls of muscular and physical tension, and a pattern of reaction is inaugurated that will tend to recur again and again when be is threatened by a feeling be does not wish to experience
(Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, ed.,
Meeting the Shadow
, (New York: Putnam Publishing Co., 1990),
Taking Back the Disowned Self
, by Nathaniel Branden, p. 282)
Children, like us all, need a place that is safe for them to express and work through these feelings. Unfortunately, many adults in our society find it difficult to accept or support this need in themselves; let alone in children. Bettelheim makes an excellent point:
There is a widespread disinclination to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our own natures—the propensity of all men to act aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiet
Instead, we want children to believe that all men are inherently good. But every child knows that he is not always good, and that even when he is, he would often prefer not to be. This contradicts what he is told by his parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.
(Bruno Bettelheim, “Reflections: The Uses of Enchantment,”
The New Yorker
December 8, 1975)
Throughout the ages we have turned to the arts-music, visual arts and creative language, oral and written, as a means of acknowledging, confronting and integrating the full circle of our existence. The positive and the negative. Story is language with all its powerful imagery and symbolism. Children deserve and need the opportunity to explore and expand upon their fantasies, their understanding of the world through folk stories.
“Tales have an unequaled value, because they offer new dimensions to the child’s imagination suggesting to him images with which he can structure his daydreams . . . when unconscious material is to some degree permitted to come to awareness and to be worked through in imagination, its propensity to cause harm-to him or others-is much reduced; indeed, some of its forces can be made to serve positive purposes.”
Bettelheim speaks of ‘safe’ stories; those that primarily emphasize the positive, the happy, the triumph of good over bad. Most folktales are not ‘safe’. Within their realm, children encounter many of their deepest concerns as well as their highest hopes. They find that evil can be just as powerful as good. Loneliness, abandonment, death of loved ones, disempowerment all exist alongside of courage, true love, magic, transformation and the possibility of living ‘happily ever after’. Folk stories fulfill children’s very real need to acknowledge and recognize themselves and their world for better and for worse. Through these stories children may vicariously experience and discover ways of coping with the good and bad in themselves and in the world around them in ways that are constructive and empowering.
Folktales are not only teaching and learning tools, they are also entertaining. People of all ages love stories! Every student I’ve ever worked with has been ‘hooked’ by a story at some point. Stories carve a path through layers of “I’m so cool” , “This is boring”, “I got other things to think about”, and go straight to the heart. And the heart, being touched, responds. Children don’t forget a good story. It stays with them, oftentimes for years and years . . .
Imagine a history or geography lesson being taught and learned through story! I am certain that skillfully done, the resulting response from students would be dramatically different. For this reason I encourage teachers to apply any of the ideas in this unit to other areas within the curriculum. Incorporating folktales and stories is a means of creatively improving the learning process, making it more meaningful for all involved.
Schools should be a place where children learn what they most want to know, instead of what we think they ought to know. The child who learns something to please or appease someone else forgets it when the need for pleasing or the danger of not appeasing is past. This is why children forget all but a small part of what they learn in school. It is of no use or interest to them; they do not want, or expect, or even intend to remember it. The only difference between bad and good students in this respect is that the bad students forget right away, while the good students are careful to wait until after the exam
Why Children Fail
(New York: Dell Publishing), 1964, p.289)