Saturday, June 29, 2013

Extreme sports for storytellers: Archive diving!

As a recovering archaeologist I still seem to harbor some research instincts that came with my college eduaction (that, or watching too much Indiana Jones). Since I am spending some time home this summer, I decided to put a free spot in my schedule to good use and stop by at the Archives in the Hungarian Museum of Ethnography.
Folklorists have been tirelessly gathering Hungarian folktales for more than a century, but only a fraction of them have ever been published and made available for the public. As part of said public, I have been reading and telling those tales, but as a researcher I have always been curious about all the stories hidden in the archives, written down by hand or typewriter, or recorded on tape, and then forgotten. It was a treasue hunt waiting to happen.
One of my favorite Hungarian tellers is called Pályuk Anna. She lived almost a hundred years ago and told stories that I have never read anywhere else. Some of them are folktales, and some of them are suspiciously elaborate, but whatever their origin, they are enchanting. The book that included a collection of them mentioned that twice as many had been recorded but never published. I decided to put on my fedora and strap on my gun belt, and go raiding for the lost tales.

When I walked in, nobody seemed entirely sure what to do with me. It was a quiet Thursday morning, and frankly, everyone seemed surprised that someone even walked through the door. After talking to half a dozen very nice and helpful people someone finally directed me to the office where I filled out a research request form, and then to another where I could fill out a small slip of paper with the name of the storyteller and the title of the records I have been hoping to read. After that, all I had to do was find the library's reading room and wait...
Well, almost. First I had to go down to the basement and deposit my backpack in the cloak room. Because the cloak room door locked me out of the Archives, I had to go through the museum, exit through the front gates, walk around the museum building, and enter the archives through the side door again (where I had to explain to the receptionist what happened to get back in). Then I realized that I can't take digital pictures of the records for free, so once again I had to descend into the basement to find the museum shop and purchase a photo ticket. The door, surprise surprise, locked me out once again, so I did a second tour around the building and asked the snickering receptionist to let me back in once again. By the time I got back to the library, the records were waiting for me on the desk.

If you have not been folktale hunting to an archive before, I highly advise trying it. I felt like I had just stumbled upon a treasure chest of wonders not seen before; stories that no one had told or heard for a hundred years! For me, tales have always been living things that slumber frozen on pages until someone revives them. I spent three joyful hours leafing through the neatly typed, thin pages, taking pictures of all the tales that spoke to me (and then those that didn't, for the record. No tale left behind!) Once I was done with Pályuk Anna's legacy I discovered that another storyteller's repertoire was included in the same old folder, so I took a tour through those too, and collected some more. I can't even begin to imagine the number of stories still waiting to be found again.

My favroite tidbit was the note that another folklorist put on the collection folder: "We cannot be sure how precise the collector has been with the text of these tales. We might suspect that she re-wrote them from memory. Still, I would advise that we do not break her enthusiasm."
I agree. Let's not.


  1. What a treasure chest you discovered. Your last line demands the comment "Re-telling from memory is exactly what storytellers do!: Bravo, Csenge! I hope to be able to hear some of those tales--or at least read them on your blog.

  2. What a wonderful experience! I had to laugh at the one-way doors. I wonder if the receptionist at the archives arranged for that simply to liven up a quiet day :)

  3. I would love to do this with the German tales, but even if I get fluent*, the archaic print (fraktur) and the regional dialects would be beyond me. Some of the regional dialects are beyond modern Germans. I'll have to stick to English translations.

    *Volkhochschule this fall, so I can get at least to B1 and get my permanent resident's permit. Even married to a German, there is nothing permanent without sufficient language skills and I must conquer "der, die, das, den, dem & des" among other things first.