Folklore: A Re-examination

I am scheduled to teach Folklore & Literature this Spring. It is not clear whether the course will get enough students to run. I comfort my ego by reminding myself that my English Composition students do ask me, "Are you teaching Literature next semester?" (Literature is the other required English course; the answer is, "No, BUT . . ."). Electives, unfortunately, don't have a high cache at community colleges and have a particularly low cache in the current economy (get in/get the degree/get out).

Whether or not I get the opportunity, I have found posting about folklore this fall extremely helpful. I'm a big believer that you can't teach something until you teach it. I did tons of research on folklore, collected massive numbers of articles and short stories, created detailed lesson plans . . . all of which would have been useful but all of which, now that I've had a chance to actually present the material, I need to alter.

In fact, I'm actually grateful that I didn't teach the course this fall although yes, I really would like to teach it one of these days.

In any case, I decided that there aren't enough direct links between New England literature and folklore to justify making them. That is, although Melville may have been influenced by scary monster stories as a child which led him to create Moby Dick, the link is extremely tenuous (it's easier to make these kind of links with Shakespeare although those links may be just as shaky).

I also decided that although folklore fascinates me all by itself, finding itty-bitty folkloric symbols in stories just doesn't. It never has. I'm all about formal criticism, but I think the story matters more than the itty-bitty symbols (and that kind of analysis always strikes me as rather desperate).

This doesn't mean I have to throw out my material, folk or literary. I just need to morph it slightly. This isn't difficult because what I've been aiming for all along is the flexibility of ideas (I just didn't know that till I "taught" it).

Here's what I mean:

Human beings tend to categorize things. Categories make stuff easier to remember. So, historically-speaking, in Europe, you've got Ancient Civilizations, the Dark Ages, the Medieval Age, then the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, etc.

As C.S. Lewis tried to point out long before it was cool to point out, the real historical experience wasn't like that. Ideas that we think of as "Renaissance" appeared much earlier. Attitudes that we think of as "medieval" continued until much later. Art, music, literature, and ideas don't exist in tidy little boxes before and after which they cease to function. Same with people; there's a great scene in Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time where Grant, the police inspector, realizes in exasperation that Thomas More, chancellor for Henry VIII, was six when Richard III was king (and therefore, would have had no direct adult knowledge of Richard). And Ellis Peters consistently has her characters refer to the days before William the Conqueror. (The books take place during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud.)

Two boxes for literature are "highbrow" and "lowbrow." "Highbrow" literature is academic, snooty, non-linear, and doesn't sell. "Lowbrow" is often raunchy, usually genre-based, narrative, and does sell. (Sorry, a bit of my bias is showing here.) "Highbrow" and "lowbrow" attitudes definitely exist in our culture whereby one group will pour scorn on the tastes of the other group.

However, in reality, nothing takes place in a box. I recently had a very interesting discussion with a student who wrote his research essay (for my composition class) on Thomas Wolfe's edited work. The student was refuting the idea that an edited work is no longer "pure" and therefore, the author is no longer a "genius." (I remember a very silly English teacher telling me that Mozart was a genius, because the notes just came out of him, but Shakespeare wasn't because Shakespeare worked on and edited his plays.)

The student and I discussed the difference between writing and editing and also how writers are influenced by other writers. Coleridge and Wordsworth, for example, wrote poems at the same table, trading ideas and sometimes even paper. (This is one reason, by the way, that I dislike placement writing tests. I'm all about students "paddling their own canoes," but 99.9% of business and creative writing involves some kind of feedback. Even if I work alone, I'm influenced by what I read and the rejection letters I receive. The idea that writing should take place in some kind of timed bubble is ridiculous.)

I believe that images, ideas, and words--whether "high," "low," or "middle"--have this kind of flexibility. Just as writers feed off and trade ideas with each other, mediums and genres feed off and trade ideas. Something that starts out as "literary" ends up as popular or low. Something that starts out as folk becomes literary, specialized, or sanctified. Ideas float about.

Take stories about magic. These stories show up in folklore. They show up in movies. They show up in the fantasy genre. They show up in literary works (where they become "magical realism," rather than fantasy). They creep into music and into art (the Pre-Raphaelites). Nothing stays still. Van Gogh's The Starry Night, for example, shows up in a song by Don McLean. Economists call this "liquidity"; as O'Rourke explains it, "Liquidity is the Wall Street word for having things you can do with your money and being able to do them." Creative liquidity would be having places (forms, genres, mediums) to play out ideas and being able to do so.

And these floating-about ideas color our perception of new works. "Puff, the Magic Dragon" was not about marijuana, but everybody believed it was. The cultural perception was more powerful, in many ways, than the reality, and the cultural perception became its own piece of folklore.

Consequently, the ideas that show up in folklore are flexible ideas that may have originated elsewhere and may show up anywhere else, altering the way new ideas are written about. With this in mind, I intend to keep more or less the same material I've already collected but broaden my scope to include material that is not technically folklore. (I will also continue to post; I've only posted about a month of material so far!)

To conclude, as an example of cultural intermingling, here are titles from various television shows. Where did they come from? What ties do they have? I've listed potential answers in a comment (there may be more than one answer for many of these).

From Lois & Clark:

The Ides of Metropolis
Fly Hard
Tempus Fugitive

From House:

TB or Not TB
Sleeping Dogs Lie

From Stargate:

The Devil You Know

From Due South:

They Eat Horses, Don't They
Hawk and Handsaw
You Must Remember This
The Man Who Knew Too Little

From CSI:

Cats in the Cradle . . .
Scuba Doobie-Doo
And Then There Were None
Anatomy of a Lye

From NCIS:

The Good Samaritan
The Truth is Out There

From X-Files:

Ghost in the Machine
How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

3 comments:

  1. From Lois & Clark:

    The Ides of Metropolis

    The Ides of March—made popular by Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

    Fly Hard

    Die Hard

    Tempus Fugitive

    A play on the term "tempus fugit" (time flies); "Tempus Fugit" is also the title of an X-Files episode.

    From House:

    TB or Not TB

    "To be or not to be"—from Hamlet

    Sleeping Dogs Lie

    "Let sleeping dogs lie"—an idiom meaning "let it go" or don't make a fuss. There is a thematic--and literal!--connection between the title and the episode's plot.

    From Stargate:

    The Devil You Know

    "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't"—also shows up as an album and book title!

    From Due South:

    They Eat Horses, Don't They

    This is actually a play on the movie title They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

    Hawk and Handsaw

    "When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw"—Hamlet (note: this is the second Hamlet reference; the third Shakespeare reference).

    You Must Remember This

    Lyric from "As Time Goes By," the song sung in Casablanca

    The Man Who Knew Too Little

    A play on Hitchcock movie title The Man Who Knew Too Much

    From CSI:

    Cats in the Cradle . . .

    A reference to the song "Cat's in the Cradle" by Hugh Chapin (not Cat Stevens; yeah, I always thought he wrote it too).

    Scuba Doobie-Doo

    A reference to Scooby-Doo

    And Then There Were None

    A reference to the Agatha Christie novel Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None about a bunch of people who go to an island and all end up dead

    Anatomy of a Lye

    Reference to an interesting, and unusual, Jimmy Stewart movie, Anatomy of a Murder

    From NCIS:

    The Good Samaritan

    Reference to the parable in the New Testament; Ducky summarizes the parable in the episode for all the religious philistines out there.

    The Truth is Out There

    A term used often throughout The X-Files

    From X-Files:

    Ghost in the Machine

    A reference to the "soul" of computers; similar to the title used for the anime series Ghost in the Shell.

    How the Ghosts Stole Christmas

    A play on the title How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

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  2. That's Harry Chapin.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Carole1/17/2010

    My all-time favorite episode title is Psych's season 2 episode, "Psy Vs. Psy," a play on Mad magazine's cartoon, Spy Vs. Spy.

    ReplyDelete