- Popular Tales and Fictions: Their Migrations and Transformations
Narrative has made something of a comeback in recent years, not least in the academic scramble of the moment. As I write, a British neuropsychologist has won a prestigious general book award for a study of the stories that result from various forms of brain damage (Paul Broks's Into the Silent Land); Dan Lloyd, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has written what he subtitles A Novel Theory of Consciousness (Radiant Cool), in which ideas of the latter (consciousness) are couched in the workings of the former (the novel); and, as might be expected, a literary critic has made the self-evident case that the narratives of the novel are studies of consciousness avant la lettre (David Lodge's Consciousness and the Novel). Analogous work can be found in the field of ethics, where the give and take of storytelling, the proliferating provisionality of narrative, is granted cognitive and ethical value in and of itself.
All this is of course interesting news (if it is news) to those of us who deal with the likes of folk and fairy tales. Successive winds of methodological change have generated new, to say nothing of deepening, perspectives on traditions and histories of popular storytelling, and contemporary ethics and the cognitive sciences look set to offer the same possibilities. It is within this perhaps surprising context that the reprint of W. A. Clouston's classic text of storiology is particularly welcome. As read today, it seems of most interest as a study predicated on a protohypertextual conception of narration, whereby the potential explanations of theory are always undermined by the possibility of another link, another click. The relish exhibited by Clouston in the face of his sea of stories is palpable; while the uninhibited expression of such relish is a characteristic sign of a Victorian gentleman scholar at work in the archives, the text itself feels contemporary precisely in its generous openness to narrative. [End Page 303]
The two weighty volumes of Popular Tales and Fictions: Their Migrations and Transformations, were originally published in Edinburgh in 1887. The subtitle gives a fair indication of the methodological affiliations of the collection: broadly comparativist, an early version of the historic-geographic approach. There was of course much folkloristic activity in the latter part of the nineteenth century—it was, as Christine Goldberg says, a "new science." Clouston's text is embedded in the thick of the scholarly discourse of the time, in particular the conflicting claims of the comparativists—wedded to the idea of what was then termed an "Asiatic" origin for European folk narrative material—and the survivalists, for whom the tales were distant manifestations of primitive beliefs. Clouston's long introduction is characteristic of the text as a whole, putting its faith in evidence rather than argument. The basic premise is intermittently stated ("most of the popular tales of Europe are traceable to ancient Indian sources"), but by far the bulk of the introduction, as of the text, is taken up with the stories themselves, recounted in varying amounts of detail. As Clouston says, "variants of the same general stories are detailed—not merely indicated by their titles—thus enabling the reader to judge for himself their common origin, and the transformations they have undergone in passing from one country to another." Following the introduction, the first volume comprises chapters devoted to what we would now view broadly as tale motifs ("Dragons and Monstrous Birds"; "Gold-producing Animals"), followed by chapters dealing with tale types ("The Hunchback and the Fairies"; "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp"). Volume 2 is concerned with what Clouston knew as fictions, those traditional narratives with "little or nothing improbable in their details." The text is testament to Clouston's self-confessed "promiscuous reading," with the narrative material drawn from a dizzying array of European, Near- and Middle-Eastern sources, and from an equally varied set of genres. Needless to say, it continues to offer rich pickings for both general and specialist...