University of Basilicata, Italy | Published: 31 October, 2017
ISSUE 12.2 | Pages: 32-46 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7554
Folklore, as a historical and cultural process producing and transmitting beliefs, stories, customs, and practices, has always thrived and evolved in the broader context of history and culture. Consequently, tradition and modernity have long coexisted and influenced one another, in particular in the world of folk narratives, orality and literature, storytellers and writers. Since the nineteenth century, folklorists (a category including a variety of figures) have collected, transcribed and published pieces of oral tradition, thus giving folklore a textual form and nature. However, folk narratives continue to be also a living and performed experience for the tradition bearers, a process giving rise to ever new and different expressions, according to the changing historical, social, cultural, and economic conditions. To be sure, folklore – and folk narrative – needs to be constantly lived and performed to remain something actually pertinent and significant, and not only within the oral and traditional contexts. Interestingly, between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, folklore increasingly came to be regarded as and transformed into an inheritance, a valuable, national heritage particularly fitting for those countries, such as Ireland, in search of a strong, national identity. In this light, folklore and folk narratives, beside their routine existence within their original contexts, were consciously “performed” by the official culture, which employed them in politics, education, literature, etc. In the process, it could happen that folk materials were dehistoricised and idealised, “embalmed” according to Máirtin Ó Cadhain, and even trivialised. This situation was turned into a fruitful and significant source of inspiration for the literary parody of Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O’Brien) who, in his Gaelic novel, An Béal Bocht, revealed the funny yet distressing truth of the Irish folklore being misunderstood and betrayed by the Irish themselves.
El folklore, como proceso histórico y cultural que produce y transmite creencias, historias, costumbres y prácticas, siempre ha evolucionado en el amplio contexto de la historia y la cultura. Por consecuencia, la tradición y la modernidad se han influido mutuamente a lo largo del tiempo, particularmente en el campo de las narraciones populares, la oralidad y la literatura, los contadores de historias y los escritores. Desde el siglo XIX los folcloristas (que es una categoría que incluye una gran variedad de elementos) han recogido, transcrito y publicado fragmentos de esa tradición oral, proporcionando así al folclore una forma y una naturaleza textual. Sin embargo, las narrativas populares continúan siendo una experiencia viva para los que mantienen la llama de la tradición, en un proceso que da lugar a expresiones siempre nuevas y diferentes, de acuerdo con las condiciones cambiantes en el terreno de la historia, la sociedad, la economía y la cultura. Sin duda alguna el folclore (así como las narrativas populares) necesita una reactualización permanente de forma que mantenga su significado y actualidad, no sólo dentro de los contextos relacionados con la tradición. Resulta interesante comprobar que entre los siglos XIX y XX el folclore se había transformado, y así llegó a considerarse, en una herencia, algo valioso que había sido heredado por los habitantes de la nación, lo cual se adecuaba especialmente bien a países como Irlanda, que buscaban una sólida construcción identitaria. Desde este punto de vista, el folclore y las narrativas populares fueron “representados” por la cultura oficial, que los usó en la política, la educación, la literatura, etc. A lo largo de este proceso es posible que los materiales populares perdieran su historicidad y que fueran idealizados, “embalsamados” según la expresión de Máirtin Ó Cadhain, e incluso que llegaran a trivializarse. Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O’Brien) convirtió este estado de cosas en fuente de inspiración para sus parodias literarias, especialmente en su novela escrita en gaélico An Béal Bocht, pues ahí se revela el divertido, aunque inquietante, panorama del folclore irlandés que estaba siendo malinterpretado y traicionado por los propios irlandeses.
Tradición oral; representación; textualización; revivalismo; gaelización; parodia; Lauri Honko; Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O’Brien); Máirtin Ó Cadhain
Folklore as a process or performance
Defining the nature of folklore, or folk-lore, seems to be a crucial and quite controversial issue. Since the coining of the word by British archaeologist William Thoms in 1846, scholars have pondered upon and debated the concept of folklore, often suggesting brief and/or effective definitions intended, above all, to make a physiologically unstable and changing object of study, strongly influenced by the evolution of historical, social, and cultural contexts, a little clearer and steadier. Interestingly, after having reviewed some of the main definitions of folklore formulated by prominent American scholars – highlighting, in particular, the different understandings of the sub-concepts of “folk” and “lore” (Oring 1-17)1 – Elliott Oring admits that “a definition is not really necessary” (17). We are dealing with a problematic and challenging field of research, where one may include a variable number of items and phenomena not exactly or strictly identifiable as folkloric (see, for instance, the list of “folklore forms” supplied by Alan Dundes, in Oring 2). It turns out to be more useful and constructive, in order to not “think of folklore as a collection of things”, to conceive an orientation, “a perspective from which almost any number of forms, behaviours, and events may be examined” (Oring 17-18). Therefore, instead of trying to define what kind of cultural product folklore might be, and keeping its field of research within clear-cut boundaries, it appears to be more proper an approach to take into account the contextual and dialectic nature of its historical and cultural processes (Bronzini, Cultura popolare 29-52). This would mean to recognise and emphasise, beside permanencies and continuities – often only apparent or wished (Anttonen 43-44) – the emergence of adaptations and transformations, according to a paradigm of (re)creation rather than one of loss (48-51), also relying on a more active and multifaceted notion of “tradition”, as famously argued, for instance, by Dan Ben Amos (97-131).
In this light, one can appreciate the theorisation of the Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko. In his view, rather than something fixed and bound, folklore is just a “process”, in which he identifies a “first” and a “second life”, both worthy of consideration and analysis, as witnesses of the historicity, the dynamism, the variability of folklore, along with the relationships linking it to the other cultural levels (Hovi 6-9). Honko detects no less than 22 stages in the “folklore process”, 12 relating to its first life (39-48), and 10 relating to its second life (48-53). Obviously, this is not an absolute pattern, indiscriminately applicable wherever and whenever, but the specific theorisation of a particular scholar. However, if we consider it as a more general frame to be used in a cautious and flexible way, it can result profitably in the study of a variety of contexts, the Irish one included.
To conceive of folklore according to such an interpretive outline brings to the fore, among other things, a conception of it as a cultural performance historically and socially situated, as an actual expression of a human belief, ability, practice, more than as a potential item fixed in a text. Richard Bauman provides a seminal definition concerning performance and its meaning in terms of folklore and folkloristics:
In one common usage performance is the actual execution of an action as opposed to capacities, models, or other factors that represent the potential for such action or an abstraction form from it. … Folklorists … contrast text-centered perspectives, which focus on disembodied, abstract folklore items, with performance-centered perspectives, which are concerned with the actual use of folklore forms. The focus of debate on these issues centers upon how much and in what ways the script or score or folkloric tradition determines performance as against how much flexibility, interpretive choice, or creative opportunity rests with the performer. (41-42)
In fact, Bauman highlights two kinds of interaction operating within the historical, concrete existence of folklore, two dialectic processes that ultimately produce, shape and hand down the things through which folklore builds itself: the interaction between a traditional corpus coming from the past and the individual innovation of one or more performers of the present (diachronic level), as well as the interaction between the living and actual performances of folklore bearers – or, more generally, the social actors – and the textual items extrapolated from them by the work of folklorists (synchronic level). It is through this double interaction that we have to look at the folkloric phenomena, so as to figure out the history and the evolution of forms, functions and meanings of folklore in a given context.
Folk narrative tradition: between orality and writing
If we want to see this double interaction fully operating, it seems quite fruitful to address the field of folk narrative tradition and oral storytelling. Here the mutual influence between a past corpus of stories and their concrete borrowing and re-creating by individual storytellers is particularly evident and fundamental, as well as an increasingly complex relationship – due to the gradual rise of the discipline of folklore – between the performative, contextual nature of an oral narrative and its written, textual, scholarly formalisation. In this light, it is not surprising if the traditional storytelling, along with its study and collection, has achieved a prominent place and role in the broader context of folklore and cultural debate, providing, at the same time, a heritage to preserve and a field of historical changes and cultural exchanges.2
Therefore, if it is certainly important to identify the source of a given narrative, namely the performative and contextual moment of an oral storytelling – including the biographical individuality of the storyteller(s) – it is as much pertinent to see how this performance and its performer(s) are watched and evaluated by those who, subsequently, will convey their experience as audience into a textual item. I propose, for example, a description supplied by Tadhg Ó Murchadha (1896-1961), full time collector of the Irish Folklore Commission, in the 1930s:
- On the scope and meaning of the concepts of “folk” and “lore”, I deem still suitable the outline proposed by G.B. Bronzini (Folk-Lore 55-57), which summarizes their variety and complexity both from a semantic and a disciplinary point of view. According to the Italian scholar, the term “folk” can be interpreted, in an ascending order, as including only the lower classes (vulgus), an entire people or nation (natio) or the overall mankind (humanitas). The term of “lore”, on the other hand, can identify the literature (oral, traditional, popular), the history (not written, not official, minor, primitive) or the psychology of the folk(s). In Bronzini’s view, though, the various meanings of “folk” are encapsulated in the concept of “tradition” (through which he means the individual and collective processes of creation, preservation and transmission of culture within a human group), while “lore” can be read as a synonymous of “culture” (in its broadest anthropological meaning). [↩]
- According to JoAnn Conrad: “In the genealogy of the modern study of folklore the role of (folk) narrative has been essential and foundational. Objects of both inquiry and preservation, these narratives were evidence (and remnants) of the rich (oral) traditions of the past, and thus served as justifications for their collection” (329). [↩]
- Cf. Séamus Ó Duilearga, “Irish Tales and Story-Tellers” (1963), (qtd. in Dundes, International 160): “The art of the folk-tale is in its telling. It was never meant to be written nor to be read. It draws the breath of life from the lips of men and from the applause of the appreciative fireside audience. Although there are still many Irish people who can tell the long and intricate märchen, it is but rarely now that they are told. The days of the folk-tale are numbered even in Ireland”. [↩]
- According to Alan Dundes (quoted in Oring 1), “‘Folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor”. [↩]
- Cf. Danaher: “In this way we may have, between the teller of the tale and its recipient, a transcriber, a translator, and an editor, any of whom may – and all of whom usually do – leave an idiosyncratic imprint on language, on style, or on content” (112). [↩]
- See, for instance, Schenda. [↩]
- Interestingly, Hultin points out that “Crofton Crokerish was a term to designate a style with which to recount Irish legends” (298). [↩]
- Cf. Dundes, International 153: “The smaller countries are often the ones in which interest in folklore has been the greatest. … The reason for this might be that smaller countries have often feared for the loss of their identity, and inasmuch as identity is very much tied to folklore, nationalistic and patriotic scholars felt the necessity of preserving as much of their heritage – their precious folklore – as possible”. [↩]
- Cf. Hyde, “The Necessity” 159, in particular this passage: “In a word, we must strive to cultivate everything that is most racial, most smacking of the soil, most Gaelic, most Irish, because … this island is and will ever remain Celtic at the core, far more Celtic than most people imagine …”. [↩]
- See Dundes, “Nationalistic”, and Casanova 303-323. [↩]
- Cf. Foster: “This attempted making of folklore, this weaving of history, folklore, and fiction were recurring tactics of the Irish literary revival” (239-240). [↩]
- As pointed out by Heda Jason: “Revivals may often have political aspects: nationalistic movements tend to be accompanied by folklore revivals” (77). [↩]
- On this subject see in particular Hutchinson. [↩]
- For a detailed overview of this subject I would refer to McMahon. [↩]
- See O’Leary, The Prose 281-354. [↩]
- Cf. Denvir: “In the period from 1800 to 1891, a mere three generations, the number of Irish speakers declined from some three million, the great majority of whom would have almost certainly been monoglot, to the 38.121 monoglot speakers recorded in the census of 1891” (45). [↩]
- See in particular Casanova. [↩]
- Cf. Anttonen: “Indeed, it is this mystery and power of the old and the exotic – the antique as a souvenir from unvisitable places – that often entices people to folklore studies” (50). [↩]
- Interesting, from this point of view, a chapter in Ó Giolláin (142-164) entitled “Folklore and Poverty”. [↩]
- On the use, function and meaning of these figures in At-Swim-Two-Birds I would refer to the exhaustive
study of Eva Wäppling. [↩]
- According to Myles na gCopaleen, “the Irish language was the secret ingredient that gave certain forms of Hiberno-English writing their distinct flavour” (Hopper 30). [↩]
- According to Jane Farnon, An Béal Bocht is “an amiable pseudo-autobiography which lashes out at the sterility of Gaelic literature and at the image of the idyllic, pastoral, contented Gael which the Literary Revival had cultivated” (89). [↩]
- See O’Leary, Gaelic, especially 90-164. [↩]
- As noted by Neil Murphy: “An t-Oileánach [The Islandman, the autobiographic novel of Tomás Ó Criomhthain] is but one text that Myles references in An Béal Bocht. Many critics have pointed to the novel’s parodic relationship with the works of Séamus Ó Grianna, Muiris Ó Súillebháin, Peig Sayers, Peadar Ó Laoghaire, Tomás Ó Maille and with the Immram Curaig Máele Dúin (The Voyage of Máel Dúin) saga. And it goes far deeper than this. The specific level of engagement with each of the above, as well as with authors such as W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Brian Mac Giolla Meidhre (Brian Merriman), invites one to reconsider An Béal Bocht as a complex network of intertextual references that governs its structural and aesthetic design in a multiplicity of ways” (143-144). [↩]
- Cf. Farnon: “The 1926 saw the establishment of An Gúm, the government-sponsored publishing house …. As texts in the Irish language began to proliferate, Gaelic literature became inextricably bound to state policy. It was the government’s aim to promote the Irish language, there was no room for concern for the creative writer, and any type of experimental writing was discouraged. As a result, the novels and memoirs which An Gúm published were written in impeccable Irish but were often devoid of literary merit” (89). [↩]
- As stressed by Diarmuid Ó Giolláin: “Various [Irish] writers recognized the relationship between folklore and underdevelopment and understood that to ‘save’ folklore was to preserve underdevelopment” (144). [↩]
- See, in particular, Briody, “Dead Clay” 60-64; and Ó Giolláin 149-153. [↩]
- According to Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Máirtin Ó Cadhain, as well as Patrick Kavanagh (another writer who criticized the work of folklorists), “showed the artist’s disdain for the pedantry of the scholar, but also used the folk culture of his own background to enrich his writings” (153). [↩]
- See Briody, The Irish 444-472, for an overview of the main “neglects” attributable to IFC in its work of collecting. [↩]
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