The Guardian has gone and done it again: Fairy tales are Internet front page news, with Beauty and the Beast in the headline picture. I have not had my friends and acquaintances share a fairy tale - related article on my wall this many times since the notorious "Five hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany" in 2012. And since I ended up blogging about those back in the day, I feel like this one deserves a post as well.
This time, the viral headline reads:
"Fairy tales much older than previously thought, say researchers"
study done by Sara Graça de Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, much less sensationally titled "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales." Using methods evolutionary biologists apply, they traced common folktale types along the family tree of Indo-European languages to determine how old they really are, and came up with some surprising numbers: about 4000 years for Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin, 5000 for Jack and the Beanstalk, and a staggering "Bronze Age" 6000 for the Smith and the Devil (6000 before today would actually put them pre-bronze age, btw).
While the numbers are really impressive, and storytellers around the world are happy to see tales in the news once again, here are a couple of things I have been musing about since I read the study and the article:
(DISCLAIMER: I am not a folklorist. I am a storyteller, trained in archaeology, who works with traditional tales, and learned to research them through methods used by folklorists)
1. The researchers state that they based their study on the Aarne-Thompson-Uther folktale catalog, everyone's favorite go-to fairy tale research tool. From the 2000+ folktale types listed, they narrowed their sample down to Tales of Magic (ATU 300-549) - commonly known as fairy tales -, claiming that they are the most widely shared folktale types, and have been in the center of the debate about how old traditional tales really are.
While this is a completely valid way of choosing a sample, it also brings up some questions:
- ATU is far from complete. Most countries have their own folktale catalogs, using the same numbering system, some of which have been incorporated into the 2004 edition, but still, this volume doesn't represent the entirety of the European folktale corpus. Since the researchers coded their sample as "present/absent" for each tale type for each society, it is important to note that in their study, "absent" doesn't mean that tale type never existed in that tradition - it just means that it was never recorded, or it may have been recorded but never made it into the ATU.
- As a storyteller, I'd contest the idea that Tales of Magic (a.k.a. fairy tales) are the most commonly shared folktale type. They do have a prestige in most cultures - known as the "big tales" or "real tales" - and they are definitely the stars of popular culture and children'd literature (thank you Disney), but that doesn't mean they are the most widespread. Trickster tales, for example, most often fall under Animal Tales or Anecdotes and Jokes, while some well-known "fairy tales" can actually be found under Realistic Tales. Especially trickster tales seem to be wildly popular around the world in very similar forms, and they are also believed to be very old (e.g. the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales from India). I would love to see a similar study done with them.
2. The study states that they wanted to focus on the vertical transmission of tales (over time) as opposed to the more often researched horizontal transmission (exchange between contemporaneous cultures). They allow that both can happen at the same time, but very correctly raise the point that it is still interesting to see what tale types neighboring cultures might adopt or reject from each other. With that said, horizontal transmission is still a factor, and given how fast popular tales can spread, it is really hard to completely factor horizontal transmission out of the study. I would have to go back and read it again to fully understand how they did that, but it's definitely worth considering.
3. Archaeologically speaking, 4000-6000 years is not that old. Human societies existed way before that. And since storytelling is a very human trait, we can assume that tales were told way back then as well. Now, given the almost complete lack of written sources, we can't tell if they were the same tales at all, or whether the tales we know and love today already existed such a long time ago.
Here is an interesting distinction between being a folklorist and being a storyteller: Storytellers generally (and enthusiastically) assume that stories are ancient. Even if we have no proof, we treat them as a part of an age-old tradition, with the knowledge that they may have been born millennia ago. I have seen multiple storytellers on social media responding to The Guardian article with "Well, duh."
The study and its findings are still impressive, though - especially for fairy tales, because people have been contesting that they are older than the 17th century.
4. The "folktale types" listed in ATU are the "bare bones" of a story. They break tales down to their most simple plot description, the skeleton that corresponds to other similar tales. Depending on the time, the culture, and the storyteller, the fleshed-out versions of the story can be vastly different from each other. Even within one culture and time frame, versions of the same tale type can have completely different meanings to each storyteller - for example, in some Hungarian versions of the Twelve (Seven) Dancing Princesses, the princesses live with their dancers happily ever after, while in others, they get executed for witchcraft. Same language, same time frame, same tale type, vastly different morals.
Long story short: The fact that the same tale types might have existed thousands of years ago doesn't mean they looked the same, tasted the same, or meant the same.
5. Why does it matter to us how old these stories are? I am not asking myself this because I doubt that it should matter; I know for a fact it matters to me. But I am curious: Why did this become instant viral news? What do people find appealing in the knowledge that Beauty and the Beast was told 4000 years ago?
(As for me, as a storyteller, I enjoy knowing that I am passing on a tradition that extends back thousands of years. I like the idea that someone, who might or might not have been one of my very distant ancestors, sat in a tent somewhere 6000 years ago and told similar stories.)
6. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, in case anyone was wondering why we are a blank space on the map. I am sure you were.
(We are sitting at the cool kids' table with Finland and Estonia)
Now, hands up: Who else would love to hear what a Neolithic fairy tale sounded like?...