Friday, January 22, 2016

So, about those Bronze Age fairy tales

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"

The article is based on a study done by SarGraça 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?...


  1. sometimes I think that it might be unrecognizable and I would instantly translate it into my own capacity to make sense as opposed to the direct way in which it might have existed so different than my own learned experience. So I am not sure that I would want to hear or that it would even exist in any form today. Perhaps it had no form. Perhaps it was sound and form taking shape in space before words were spoken. Like you, I am curious but more interested in harvesting the curiosity than pretending something into projected reality. The longing and patience, mystery, is everything for me. lovely blog and thoughts. xxxxxx

  2. I'm not an expert, I should say, but I read the article of the Guardian and really enjoyed it.

    And why I'm excited to know that these stories that are so familiar to me might be this old? Well, because it makes us part of something bigger. We are all part of a big family whose memory still live today. We think sometimes that people that came before us were different, that they had different values and different ways of thinking and acting. Partly this is true, but if these stories that they told and we are still telling survived the trial of time, it means there's something inside us that never dies. Something that bind us all togehter. Something that tells us: listen, it doesn't matter what differences you might think you see, the truth is we are all the same in the cose, because we understand the same essential things.
    As Tolkien said, we shouldn't wonder why soem elements died out or changed. We should wonder why some elements remained the same through all this time.

    And actually, this is what I've always loved about folktales :-)

  3. Thanks, this was really helpful! I still don't understand at all how the study of language can prove how old certain stories are, and I had the same questions about how to distinguish the same story in an older version verses a story that just happened to have similarities. I tried reading the study itself but...way over my head.

  4. Thanks for explaining from the storyteller/archaeologist perspective! I would definitely love to hear what a Neolithic fairy tale sounds like:)