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Marvels & Tales 17.2 (2003) 275-277

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Moral Fictions: Tamil Folktales in Oral Tradition. By Stuart Blackburn. FF Communications CXXVIII, No. 278. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2001. 338 pp.

The author of Moral Fictions: Tamil Folktales in Oral Tradition, Stuart Blackburn, is familiar to Tamil folklorists as he has been a frequent visitor to Tamil Nadu, the Tamil-language-speaking state of South India, and his work on Tamil folklore includes the well-known title, Singing Birth and Death: Texts in Performance. This is yet another book from this author.

Largely a well-planned and well-edited book, it gives one hundred tales in seven sections. The author has omitted 226 tales after collecting 326 tales from eighty-seven different tellers to bring out this book. Thus, according to the information given in the end of the book, he included tales by only forty-one tellers. In the introduction the author gives a detailed account of his field trip to this part of India, during a four-month period in 1995-96. Though he does not mention all the reasons why he has left out a large number of tales and tellers, he writes that, in selecting which tales to include in this book, he was guided first by the quality of the telling of the tales and then by the need for a balance among the tales. From what he mentions in the afterword which gives a theoretical background to the collection I presume that the omitted tales included many versions of these one hundred tales. A detailed discussion of the tales omitted from this collection could have provided helpful information as to the editor's selection criteria for a collection that is meant to represent a language region for the first time to the readers of international folktales and particularly in a book where the author makes the claim that "the dominant scholarly and popular view of folklore" is different from his.

The author divides the one hundred tales collected from forty-one tellers into seven chapters, the first six chapters organized on the basis of six folktale-telling sessions held in different places and chapter seven putting together all the other tales collected from individuals as "single tales." The author says that he has understood that the tales included in the first 6 chapters have tended to pursue a particular narrative logic. But here too, if one reads all the tales of chapter seven and the details given about the tellers of those tales, s/he gets the idea that out of forty-one tellers twenty-one tellers have contributed to this category of "single tales." Now it becomes clear that the tales of fifty percent of informants are put together here. One also notices that the educational background [End Page 275] of the tellers of chapter seven is markedly different from that of the tellers who are represented in the sessions. Two tellers whose tales are included in chapter seven hold postgraduate degrees, and one has a PhD; Christians also figure in the list of tellers within this particular chapter. Chapter seven also includes a few tales which are either jokes or anecdotes that anyone in Tamil Nadu will be familiar if s/he travels there. The tale "Broken Mirrors" may be known to everyone as this is found in all the elementary language text books. Another tale, "A Modern Rama Story," is usually the stuff one hears from political platforms.

An impressive part of this book is the afterword, chapter eight, which places Tamil folktales in an international tradition of folktale scholarship. He refers to the study of folktales of rural Spain by James Taggort to elucidate the point that difference in the moral perspectives of a tale is likely to exist concurrently within the tradition among women and men. Another important scholar of fairy tales that Blackburn draws on to explain his concepts is Bengt Holbek whose opposition to "unconscious meaning" is approvingly mentioned, as this approach complements the author's. And Steven Swann Jones's idea of the "innocent persecuted heroine" is compared...


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