TYPICAL FEATURES OF THE FOLKTALE NARRATIVE STYLE
If there is any single genre that has captured the imagination of people in all walks of life throughout the world, it is the fairy tale. The scholarly study of oral folk tale and literary fairy tale has expanded commensurately over the past fifty years and the diversity of analytic approaches to folk and fairy tales has enriched the fields of literature, anthropology, cultural studies, comparative linguistics, psychology, philosophy and others.
This article aims at pointing out the typical features of the folktale narrative style – a special combination of narrative techniques which are called “folktale ceremonialism” by A.N. Afanasiev [cit. 6, p. 11].
Folklorists generally make a distinction between wonder folk tales, which originated in oral traditions, and literary fairy tales, which emanated from the oral traditions through the mediation of manuscripts and print, and continue to be created today in various mediated forms. According to Jack Zipes, the author of The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, it is almost impossible to give an accurate definition to either a wonder folk tale or a literary fairy tale as well as explain the relationship between the two modes of communication because “the tale types influenced by cultural patterns are so numerous and diverse” [7, p. 3].
Following the definition presented in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales “the folktale is a form of traditional, fictional, prose narrative that is said to circulate orally. In both colloquial use and within folkloristics, the term “folktale” is often used interchangeably with “fairy tale”, “märchen”, and “wonder tale”, their histories being interrelated and their meanings and applications somewhat overlapping” [2, p. 363]. Let us point out that the confusion of terms is rooted in the insistence that literary and oral tales have to be held distinct although the themes and the narrative techniques employed in both genres have much in common.
The term “folktale” is a direct translation of the German term Volksmärchen, widely used by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm who bore the palm of setting the generic parameters, contrasting the legend, myth and folktale as discrete narrative forms. For the Grimms, folktales were “the unmediated, uncorrupted voice of the folk”, written down with minimal editorial changes and in adherence to the sentiments of the folk [2, p. 364]. The folktale collections of the nineteenth century compiled by the Grimm brothers served to standardize and canonize the diverse tales told orally.
The term “fairy tale” appeared to describe the “elaborate, layered, discursive conversational creations” of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French salon writers. Some of those works were eventually put into print and became the so-called fairy-tale canon [2, p. 363].
Finally, the term “wonder tale” seems to embrace both “folktales (Marchen) … and art fairy tales (Kunstmärchen) of later invention” and refer to tales involving marvelous elements and occurrences, transformations and metamorphoses .
Narrative techniques are the methods used to tell stories. When analyzing a folktale, it is important to identify these techniques in order to shed light on the ways in which they function in the story. Although a single article cannot cover all the types of narrative techniques, there are a few types of techniques that can be found in the majority of folktales irrespectively of their origin.
A typical folktale is characterized by sustainability, stereotyped form and style which shape up in the telling. The special techniques which provide for the unique folktale narrative style are as follows.
The literary device of motif is understood as any element, subject, idea or concept that is constantly present through the entire body of a folktale. Speaking in general, the motif of a handsome prince falling in love with a damsel in distress or a stepdaughter as opposed to a wicked stepmother, evil witch or beast are common motifs for the whole genre. Speaking more precisely, a motif can be viewed as the repetition of one and the same traditional formula, detailed description of an action or ornamental adjectives and similes literally or with minor variations for the purpose of retardation, i.e. slowing down the action for artistic purposes. The application of this narrative technique makes folktales and epic songs merge to some extent [3, p.107].
Thereupon it is interesting to note that the most common number used in folktales is two. It is not mentioned directly but the typical folktale setting belongs to both this world and another world, main folktale characters are constantly faced with good and evil, secondary folktale characters either support or do harm to the hero. “Fairy tales thrive on simplification, focusing on polar opposites rather than on the complex continuum that connects them. A decision is right or wrong. One turns to the left or to the right” [1, p.7].
Other numbers that commonly occur in folktales are three, four, seven, twelve and thirteen, which can be explained by the structures of the natural world and the human mind.
Folktale episodes are typically repeated three times. If a set number of wishes is granted or a few challenges are to be faced, the number is almost always three. From the religious point of view, number three is associated with the Trinity of the Christian Godhead. More commonly, a triangle is the most stable of the simplest designs, the traditional family is represented by a father, a mother and a child, to name just a few examples.
Four is said to symbolize rectitude or completeness due to its association with the number of cardinal directions and sides in a rectangle. Seven dating back to the seven days of creation symbolizes completeness as well. Twelve gains its special meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition because of the twelve tribes of Israel that inherited the Promised Land and the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Thirteen serves to unbalance twelve as in the thirteen participants at the last supper of Jesus.
Number symbolism has its specificity depending on the culture. Thus, in Russian folktales three prevails in motif retardation scheme (the stepdaughter is asked three times by Morozko if she feels cold; the character encounters Baba-Yaga who gives him sound advice three times, etc.), the number of characters (two clever sons and a stupid one; a submissive stepdaughter and two wicked stepsisters), magic objects (the hero wears out three pairs of boots or gnaws at three Hosts on his quest), and tasks the hero is commissioned with (spending three days and / or three nights in an enchanted place). As for numbers nine and twelve, they are less used and mainly serve to multiply number three (the wife of a tzar gives birth to triplets three times; the hero has to recognize his beloved one among the twelve daughters of the Sea King and he is given three attempts) [6, p.13].
Another narrative technique to be discussed is the one of the effect intensification and it has a ring of folktale retardation technique already described. The folktale motifs are rendered in such a manner that each following motif intensifies the effect of the previous one. For instance, in folktales about the persecuted stepdaughter, the motif of persecution is typically deepened by the motif of the stepmother’s complot to exterminate the stepdaughter.
As a rule, folktale character types and motifs are parallel. The kind and weak-willed husband is always opposed to the quarrelsome and insistent wife, just as two elder and more successful brothers are contrasted with the younger and less intelligent one. If the stepdaughter’s meek temper wins people’s hearts and brings her a reward, the stepmother is punished for her evil deeds.
Folktales abound in typical formulas, especially at the beginning (Once upon a time, and a very good time it was too, when the streets were paved with penny loaves and houses were whitewashed with buttermilk and the pigs ran around with knives and forks in their snouts shouting 'eat me' 'eat me' (Irish); Once upon a time, and a very good time too, though it was not in my time, nor your time, nor for the matter of that in any one's time...(British); In a certain kingdom, in a certain land, in a little village, there lived... (Russian)) and at the end (If my story is not true, may the soles of my shoes turn to buttermilk (Irish); In that town there was a well and in that well there was a bell. And that is all I have to tell; Step on a tin, the tin bends. This is how my story ends (British); The happy pair lived in good health and cheer for many a long and prosperous year (Russian)) . Folktale beginnings are most commonly either chronological (Once upon a time there was…) or topographic (In a certain realm, in a certain land..). Folktale closings are characterized by rhyming: Be bow, Bend it, My story's ended. If you don't like it, You can take it to Wales, And buy some nails, And mend it.
To sum up, the motif repetition as a means of stylistic retardation, the gradual intensification of motifs, parallelism of folktale characters and motifs and typical folktale formulas, especially at the beginning and at the end of the tale all contribute to the unique folktale narrative style sustaining its epic ceremonialism.
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