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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 212-216
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Continuing Dialogue with Alan Dundes Regarding the Ancient Egyptian "Tale of Two Brothers"
Susan Tower Hollis
In "Projective Inversion in the Ancient Egyptian 'Tale of Two Brothers,'" Alan Dundes (2002) presents some interesting and valid points regarding the meaning of this ancient tale. At the same time, however, he overlooks, perhaps avoids, other extremely salient issues related to the interpretation of narrative materials—in particular, materials separated from the contemporary world by millennia, space, and culture. My first acquaintance with Dundes's position on this tale came in 1984 following my presentation, "Eliciting Meaning from the Ancient Egyptian 'Tale of Two Brothers,'" at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. At that meeting, I presented the methodology I used in the extensive discussion of the tale in my 1982 doctoral dissertation, later published as The Ancient Egyptian "Tale of Two Brothers": The Oldest Fairy Tale in the World (Hollis 1990). My methodology had derived from Albert Bates Lord's observation that the audience members brought to the performance, be it oral or written, their own understandings of the culture and contexts of the narrative parts, as well as the whole (1960:148). In other words, the narrative does not and never has stood alone, writ on a tabula rasa, but rather it depends on its audience, both as individuals and as a collective whole, for its emergent meaning.
In the discussion following my presentation at that AFS meeting, Dundes raised the point that I had not approached the tale or any part of it from a psychoanalytic or psychological viewpoint—and he was correct. In fact, until he raised the issue, I had not even considered the possibility of such an approach (as I had also not given much thought at the time to a feminist approach). In those years, the object of my dissertation work was to analyze an ancient narrative using tools provided by folkloristics, not psychoanalytic or feminist analysis. However, following Dundes's comments, I have given considerable thought to his critique. Thus, I welcome the present opportunity to respond to Dundes's expanded and written thoughts on "Two Brothers," which allows me to reflect in greater depth my own thoughts on his concerns.
Let me begin by noting that Dundes's challenge to consider the meaning of any given narrative—myth, tale, legend—is an extremely valid one. It appears, however, that when he states, "What is perhaps most disappointing and disturbing is the virtual [End Page 212] lack of any concerted effort on the part of folklorists to speculate about the likely meaning or meanings of the tale" (Dundes 2002:382-83), he has a specific agenda in mind: that is, he calls for a psychoanalytic approach. I wish to state most emphatically that the word meaning does not demand that a psychoanalytic or psychological approach be taken. That type of analysis certainly can be attempted, but a narrative, even if it is amenable to such an approach, is not likely to be limited or confined to that kind of meaning alone. In fact, if one uses a psychoanalytical approach, as Dundes attempts to do with "Two Brothers"—as well as the Potiphar's Wife story from Genesis 39—I expect the approach to enhance our understanding of the material. It is at this point that Dundes's analysis becomes ineffective. More specifically, Dundes has selected one part of a multipart narrative (characterized as Märchen by most commentators but in reality difficult to characterize [Hollis 1990:163, 248 n. 4]), which contains a minimum of three tale types and at least eleven motifs. Dundes has analyzed it according to his own preconceptions while neglecting to situate this part of the narrative into the larger context of the tale and its possible historical context (Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C.E. near the end of the lengthy reign of Ramesses II, sometimes called Ramesses the Great). While giving his readers several ways to look at the first part...