Saturday, June 27, 2015

Story Saturday: Why you should research your folktales

Full disclosure: I am a storytelling research junkie. I go so far down rabbit holes that I technically live in Wonderland. I follow interesting stories until I run into sources that are in medieval dialects. I lose chunks of time when I'm in the library. If a story doesn't have at least three documented sources, I feel naked.

I have recently been asked: Is all that research really necessary?
Well, maybe not quite all of it. Part of it is the excitement of discovery - feeling like a storytelling Indiana Jones (incidentally, I'm also a trained archaeologist). BUT researching your folktales does have some very practical and important benefits.
Some of them, based on my experience, are:

1. You might find out they are not actually folktales
I lost count of how many times I saw a story quoted as a folktale, just to eventually trace it back to a literary source. I found a "fifth branch of the Mabinogion," written by an amazingly talented college student. I found "Greek myths" that were made up by English poets in the 17th century. I found "Chinese folktales" "inspired by" folklore sources.
I have nothing against literary stories - but I like to know if my folktales are actually folktales. For copyright and intellectual property reasons, if nothing else.

2. You get to know your stories better
If you really want to work with a story, the more familiar you are with it and its origins, the better your work gets. Knowing the material you are working with is part of being a professional. And "knowing" usually goes beyond a cursory read of a picture book.

3. Kids. WILL. Ask.
Adults will too, but kids especially. They will want to know things that you did not include in the story. Who was the hero's father? What does that country look like? What do tapirs eat? How far is Ireland from Greece? These are things that I have come across while researching folktales and legends, and they have came in handy when the children started to ask. I wrote more about one particular event here.
Being able to answer questions does not only make you feel cooler, but also enhances the storytelling and learning experience. Especially useful when you tell in an educational setting.

4. You get to pick your favorite version
Looking at several sources will result in several different versions of the same folktale. This way, you may find one that is even better than the first one you encountered first. Or you might want to combine elements of several of them to create your own. I talked about that process earlier this week.

5. It weeds out mistakes
Sources of folktales make mistakes sometimes. These might be translation mistakes (like Cinderella's infamous glass slipper, or "leopard" becoming "tiger" in many African folktales), or factual mistakes, like the heroes of an Arab folktale sharing a cup of wine (unless the story is pre-Islam). I used to change animals around in some children's stories, until I realized that those particular animals had particular meanings in the given culture. Researching the sources of your sources, and learning more about the tales, helps you avoid these mistakes. The fact that no one might ever notice, doesn't change the fact that they are there.

6. You might find other stories
Part of researching your stories is reading other tales from the same tradition. It expands your view of a folktale, and you might even find other stories with the same hero or same symbols. If you supplement your research into one tale with immersing yourself in the entire oral tradition it comes from, you might find several new stories you would not have found otherwise. I had this experience when one random tale in a multicultural collection led me on a binge of amazing Zhuang folktales.

7. It breeds cultural sensitivity
I left this one last, because I cannot stress this enough. Researching a story reveals the importance of that story within tradition. Your research does not only teach you about one tale; ideally, it will teach you about the culture it came from, or the many cultures that passed it on. This creates a sense of culture, and a sense of respect for telling tales from cultures other than your own. You might even find out that the tale holds a sacred role in its original context, and decide to respectfully refrain from telling it. It happens. It's part of a storyteller's job. There are countless tales to find, track, and learn about.
That's what research is for.

In conclusion, here is a screenshot of my computer, researching the Silent Princess folktale type:


  1. Oh my gosh, so much work, can I just read yours instead?

  2. I find your metode of research fascianint. And I agree, this is particularly true for folktales: coming across different versions and try to place those stories and those versions inside the culture (or different cultures) that reccounted it is an enriching experience.
    I'm not a researcher the way you are (I wish I were) but I do like learnign different versions of the same tale, especially when that tale crosses borders and cultures :-)