My wonderful boss has agreed to let me try again next semester. However, since I was looking forward so much to teaching the course this semester, I decided to post about folklore occasionally over the next four months using my lecture notes.
This is actually a good way for me to go through the material--the fact is, one learns how to teach by teaching, and one learns whether something will work in a particular course by trying it out. For example, concerning the material below, I was initially going to have the students read the Wilson article between class one and class two; now, I'm thinking that would be too confusing (though I might still include the article in the reading packet): all the "what-is-folklore-folklore-versus-history" stuff needs to be presented upfront. That way, I can focus on the relationship between folklore and literature as early as possible.
What is Folklore?
The folklore course examines the connection between folklore and literature, specifically the mobility of ideas, images, and stories. For example, an urban legend can develop in the school yard; that legend can then be used in a commercial; that commercial can then be taken up by viewers, and eventually translated/transmuted back into a folktale.
Likewise, an image or idea that occurs in a novel--literary or popular--can worm its way into everyday culture, showing up as an example of "folk" to later anthropologists.
To summarize: Ideas do not stay put in one place.
But what is folklore?
Nobody really knows! Just about every book I found on folklore had a slightly different definition (see below for a chart I created to try to order the various definitions).
Here are my definitions:
Folklore refers to pervasive (common) songs and tales that are transmitted person to person rather than by an official institution or author. Strict folklorists believe folklore can only be transmitted orally; however, I believe that folklore--such as urban legends, jokes, songs, and stories--are also spread through the Internet. These legends, jokes, songs, and stories become "folk" when they are transmitted person to person (through email, for instance).
Folkways, like folklore, are transmitted person to person, often within a specific group (a family or an occupational group). Folkways refer to customs, traditions, and practices: schoolyard games, food and dress customs, crafts, holiday/birthday/funeral rituals.
Myth is a very broad term; I use it to refer specifically to stories about the relationship of supernatural beings (gods, angels) to humans. While folklore may contain supernatural beings (vampires, fairies), folklore is not centered on the supernatural-human relationship; rather, it is grounded in everyday life. Myth, on the other hand, does concentrate on the supernatural-human relationship. So, for example, Gawain may leave King Arthur's court to meet the Green Knight, but the meeting takes place in an earthly environment. Psyche, on the other hand, leaves the mortal world to deal with a god, Eros, in his environment. The first is a British legend or folktale; the second is a myth. Likewise, stories about ghosts visiting family members are folklore; stories about humans visiting the great beyond (near-death-experiences) I would classify as myth. (It's a fine line.)
The most important aspect of folklore is that it is transmitted person to person within a community. It occurs at the "grassroots" level rather than in the official/institutional "face" of that community. So, for instance, a published collection of folklore on the Internet has stopped being folklore and become "official." But a story picked up from someone's blog and transmitted through email to friends and family (without credit to the original author) would be folklore. (Are "folklore" festivals--paid for through official state and university funds--really folk? Who knows! I would never be this legalistic with my students. I just don't want them relying on folklore websites rather than collecting stories from their friends. However, I do find it interesting that most general books about folklore were published in the 1970s; once folk studies become a government-funded issue--after the 1970s--general books about folklore practically disappeared. Well, and Richard Dorson died.)
Media Example: In the Psych episode, "Scary Sherry: Bianca's Toast," Shawn and Gus single-handedly create an urban legend or folktale when they tell all their elementary school friends that a woman committed suicide at the local mental hospital on Halloween night. The legend becomes anonymous; it enters the culture and is passed person to person until even Shawn and Gus have forgotten, fifteen plus years later, that they were the originators. In this case, the event never actually happened; Shawn and Gus just thought it did. The legend, however, has had an impact on the (television) town's culture.
Media Example: In the X-Files episode "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," Mulder opens the episode by telling Scully a story that "everyone" knows about a haunted house. The story is prevalent and, in this case, supernatural.
On the other hand, the imaginative stories that Sara invents in The Little Princess are just that: imaginative invented stories. They are transmitted orally, but they are not pervasive or anonymous. Therefore, they are not folklore.
The relationship between history and folklore
Although both history and folklore deal with narratives (making connections between events to explain what happened), folklore is collected and transmitted differently than historical documents. History is about learning, or trying to learn, what actually happened. Folklore is what people say about what happened. The two disciplines often merge since learning what people say about an event can help historians grasp the overall aura or "feel" of an event. But historians and folklorists do not approach cultural/historical material in the same way.
The relationship between history and folklore is wonderfully elucidated by William A. Wilson in his article "Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall" (from his collection of essays, The Marrow of Human Experience). In this article, Wilson argues the following:
1. Folklore has existed throughout time.Wilson is arguing against the idea that folklore is only produced by uneducated, country peasants and also against the idea that cultures outgrow folklore. Folklore is created in specific circumstances to explain events or to justify actions; it is also used to connect people. Therefore, specific types of folktales will arise from specific cultures, but the habits of folklore appear to transcend human behavior, technology, and "progress." Consequently, particular tales will appear over and over again in many different cultures and times. Cinderella is one example.
2. All people (cultures) have folklore.
3. Folklore is both universal and culture-specific.
If folklore indicates particular reactions to particular events as well as reflecting the general human condition, how (and why) is it different from history?
Wilson explains the difference this way: "[Historians] . . . attempt to come as close as possible to that [full] story, and . . . do so through the use of verifiable, documentary evidence" (57, my emphasis). Wilson continues: "Folklorists would also be interested in what really occurred . . . but their principal interest would be in oral narratives . . . because people govern their lives not on the basis of what actually happened in the past but rather on what they believe happened--that is, on folk history." Wilson attempts to distinguished between the roles of the folklorist and the historian, but he also shows how the two "hands" can reflect and help each other.
I highly recommend Wilson's article. Not only does Wilson have intelligent things to say about folklore, he says all those intelligent things in a calm, friendly, enlightening way.
Diagram of the relationship to folklore to history and what folklore is.