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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 217-218
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Folktale Research and the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library
In the Winter 2000 issue of JAF, Kimberly J. Lau (2000) critiques the idea of the "series" as a marketing strategy, with particular regard to folktales published in volumes that represent different countries, regions, or ethnic groups. Her central example is Pantheon's line of fairy-tale books. Readers of JAF are, of course, interested in cultural criticism, particularly concerning the presentation of folklore in the media of popular culture. Some readers are also interested in a different problem involving "series" books: how published folktales can be used for teaching and for research.
Librarians, as well as teachers of children and of college students, often want to find multiple examples of a single story. The purpose of this search is usually to discover how the tale has been altered and, through that, to afford students a glimpse into the workings of oral tradition. Older students as well as folktale scholars may enjoy a research project in which they compare different versions of the same tale type. Reading whole books of tales to find material for such a study is tedious and inefficient.
Fortunately, Aarne-Thompson tale type numbers easily solve a great part of this problem, and motif numbers help when tale types fail (Brown 1997). Students and scholars can locate references to particular tale types in D. L. Ashliman's A Guide to Folktales in the English Language (1987). This index includes eleven of the Pantheon fairy-tale books. It also indexes books from other folktale series, including Folktales of the World and The Folklore of the British Isles. For tale types presented in the recent Folktales of Newfoundland (Halpert and Widdowson 1996, which itself was published in a series), extensive English-language references are given. Other indexes are available for foreign-language texts. For many tale types, sufficient texts can be examined to show the tale's geographic and idiosyncratic variation. For tales where insufficient material is available, we must hope that more texts will be published and eventually be indexed. In addition, in view of the current interest in folktales from Native America and from Africa, a motif index that includes recent English-language folktale collections would also be useful.
To a certain degree, the more texts that are used in a comparative folktale study, the more reliable are its results. The working environment of a dedicated folktale student or scholar is not a series but a library. The more reliably transcribed tales he or she can find, the better. Folktale books are thus not an end in themselves but a means to another end. A series is an effective way to get large numbers of tales into print. [End Page 217] The Pantheon books, which typically include 100 to 200 tales each, have added substantially to the number of tales available to Anglophone Americans. Some of these tales had never before been translated into English, and others were taken straight from tape-recordings or archives with no prior publication at all. The fact that these tales are now easily accessible enhances folktale scholarship.
The Pantheon series has let its volume editors decide what sort of notes and other supporting material to include. Many volumes have informative introductions. Nearly all give the sources for their individual tales. Some volumes include information about the places where the tales were collected and the names of their informants. About half include at least some Aarne-Thompson tale type numbers, which curious readers can pursue. Some of the Pantheon books are definitely better than others, but on the whole they are certainly much better than the many anthologies of tales retold for children, which are useless for serious study.
For folktale scholarship, the problem is not series books versus individual books. There are in fact two problems: many books versus few or no books, and good books versus inadequate books. A series can set and enforce high standards. As Lau mentions, Richard Dorson's Folktales of the World...