Folklore and Facebook

or Quizzes and Character 

The fall quarter started today, and I met three new classes’ worth of readers.  I always spend a few minutes on the first day getting to know the students, and introducing them to the subject.  My folklore students were pretty eager, really.  They came in thinking it sounded fun, so we talked about why.  What are some of the fundamental differences between folk literature and authored literature?

Folk literature is orally composed—people tell stories they have heard told, but each version is legitimate to a folklorist.  Orally composed texts tend to focus on plot, not character, and use stock scenes and characters to build up a narrative.  We stopped there for a while.  One of the fundamental differences between folktales and novels, say, is depth of character.  Folktale characters are bare-boned.  Novel characters are developed, fleshed out, or what E.M. Forester called “round” (as opposed to “flat,” which folktale characters definitely are).
Folktale heroes and heroines have very few identifying traits, as a rule.  Nice, young girls and clever boys populate this world.  All we know about Little Red Riding Hood is that she’s young and beloved.  All we know about Jack is that he’s poor and clever.  The effect of these sparsely developed characters is that anyone can identify with them.  There are so few details, they tend not to hamper our seeing ourselves in them.  We can quickly insert ourselves in to the story and focus on the plot: live the adventure.
Novels are different, as are modern television or movie characters.  These, we read (or watch) for character development, and they don’t disappoint.  Anyone who reads The Great Gatsby has a crystalline vision of that character.  Scarlett O’Hara—very clear.  Any character we spend that much time with, we get to know, and if they’re well-written, “round,” we know them very well.  This actually makes it harder to identify with completely.  We may be like them in some ways, but some of their actions or emotions make it hard to identify completely.
This is why that recent Facebook trend, to post pictures of the three fictional characters who define you, requires three.  When it comes to fictional characters, one won’t do it.  There’s always some detail to the character, or some lack, that keeps us from identifying fully.  But if you could choose three… that makes it easier. I chose Molly Weasley because I am a goofy-but-fierce mom and wife. But there are some qualities about her I don’t embody, some actions she takes that I wouldn’t. I chose Mole from The Wind in the Willows because I am an incontrovertible optimist who finds reasons to be joyful all around me, but I’m not, you know, a mole. Or a male. I chose the Lorax because I speak for the trees; I am a nature nut, a tree- hugger, a hiker, a bird watcher, and an environmentalist–and because I sometimes sound self-righteous and priggish.  But if I left any of these out, the picture would be hopelessly incomplete.  Molly Weasley wouldn’t address the teacher in me; Mole leaves out my protective Molly-ness. The Lorax, without some Moley and Molly would be insufferable as a person.
Human beings are more complicated than the roundest of characters.  And in the wave of Facebook quizzes and people asking to be told who they are, this one feels refreshing.  We choose (I had help from my family), and we get to be complex, multiple.  Instead of a Facebook quiz spitting out one ‘80s song or aura color or spirit animal for you to believe represents you, you get to choose your own, and you get to choose several.  Narratives inform our lives, but it takes a lot of narratives to come close to containing us.  And so we keep reading—searching for and finding more of ourselves in each book.
That was just the first day.  It’s going to be a good quarter.

This is a House of Stories

Uncle Gerry brought tiny tomatoes to the birthday barbecue. He’s been very well brought up, my mother would say.  He never comes to a meal without an offering.  I didn’t need anything in particular this time, so he surprised us.  When he drew them out of his tote, like Santa plucking toys from his bag, he didn’t give them to me, to put in a salad or set out as crudites.  He presented them to the kids, drawing them close with one arm in to a conspiratorial huddle, and asking them if they believe in The Little People. 

“You mean like gnomes, or like real dwarves?” asked the skeptical teen.  “The tiny people,” said the uncle of Norwegian extraction, “like the faery or the nisse.”
At this point, both kids, the skeptic and the dreamer, stated firmly, “Yes.”
Then he told how he gathered the cherry tomatoes from his garden, where he regularly witnesses acts of magic and wonder.  The tomatoes are tiny—half an inch in diameter for the big ones, and most a little smaller.  They look like fairy fruits. 
The kids started munching, but reverently, plucking the stems gently and looking appreciatively at each fruit before popping them in their mouths like a giant pops pumpkins. 

While they were happily chomping, Uncle Gerry put that arm around me and said, “I knew I couldn’t come in to this house without a story.”