Folklore is dense with intricate, interconnecting concepts: belief, identity, culture, significance. In Just Folklore, Elliott Oring tackles some of the most foundational of these concepts and exposes them to his always insightful analysis and critique. At the heart of this exploration—and at the heart of the book’s title—lies a challenge to the idea that folklore is worthy of dismissal. As Oring notes, “[t]hat’s just folklore” shares elbow room with “[y]ou must be joking,” [End Page 100] “[so] what?” and “[s]ays who?,” but Oring devotes this book to distinguishing folklore from the trivial, the uncertain, the silly.
In many ways, Just Folklore encapsulates Oring’s full and impressive career as a thinker. The essays within the book were written over a span of four decades. Throughout these essays, and perhaps in particular because of their juxtaposition within this volume, Oring offers several deep and worthwhile insights about the nature of folklore as a field of study.
For example, he sketches intellectual landscapes to delineate areas of interest to folklorists and to show how those areas overlap with territories often claimed by scholars in other fields. In the first chapter, he focuses on three types of identity—individual, personal, and collective— and notes that the first is often the province of philosophers and psychologists, the second is a frequent stomping ground for psychologists, anthropologists, and folklorists, and the third is familiar terrain for folklorists and anthropologists, with perhaps a few psychologists here and there. He notes that one way to view folklore is as “an effort to privilege an array of cultural materials in relation to a concept of identity” (p. 6; emphasis in original), sculpting folkloristics as a pivotally important field in the academy’s exploration of what it means to be a human being in society.
Another important approach Oring takes involves an appreciation of the thinkers who have shaped the field: Henry Glassie, Victor Turner, Stith Thompson, Sigmund Freud, Richard Dorson, Max Muller, Alan Lomax, Alan Dundes, and many others. As Oring notes, every “new definition of folklore has naturally involved some effort to distinguish it from its predecessors; has involved some demonstration of the ways in which an older definition was mistaken or misguided” (p. 23). Oring resists that temptation, opting instead to acknowledge that all these efforts have helped us triangulate at least the general features of the indefinable core of folklore. “I have tried to focus on something that all the disparate definitions share—to suggest a deeper and continuous concern in the folklore project of the past centuries” (p. 23).
In addition to the focus on identity, Oring also tackles the nature of belief in many of the chapters—including chapter 2: “Whaling Songs and the Context of Fantasy,” chapter 3: “Totemism and the A.E.F. Revisited,” chapter 7: “Legend, Truth, and News,” and chapter 8: “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth.” (I have found those last two essays particularly helpful in my own work.) In chapter 9, he explores the ways children’s counting-out rhymes reveal beliefs and belief systems, among other topics, including the educational applications of folklore such as showing the value of math in folkloristics.
His insights into the fraught and difficult concept of belief are valuable to folklorists and others because they help us understand a posture that is at once simple and highly complex. In his chapter on whaling songs, for example, Oring explores the frequent tension between the operations of the real world and the events, characters, and situations presented in the worlds of lore. What are we to make of the areas in which those realms refuse to align? As he notes, various explanations have been developed over the centuries: the stories represent poetic interpretations of actual events, they represent reflections of collective culture, they represent loci of points of social stress, and they represent deeply held wishes for things that this world cannot provide (pp. 27, 39).
In his analysis of whaling songs, Oring reveals that these songs offer somewhat realistic descriptions...