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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Folklore: Fact from Fiction

One of the things that makes sifting through the tall tales to find the nuggets of truth which inspired them is folklorists, themselves. Like scientists, many folklorists approach their job as foregone conclusions. The best of them simply record the tales they are told; the worst of them can't help but point-out the inferiority of the tellers' education and acumen, offhandedly dismissing the story's relevance or any truth it might contain. In other words, many folklorists - like scientists - approach their work with their minds already made-up: these are mere stories, told to amuse, and nothing more. This attitude taints their work.

Many also seek to further their own field by fitting incomplete data into fully structured tales. For example, in his excellent book, A Treasury of American Folklore, editor B. A. Botkin's footnotes indicate he collected his tales orally, then rewrote them in a manner "true to the speech of our informants" (p. 697). However, in so doing, Botkin forces the tales into a regimented structure - introduction of obstacle, climax, and denouement - even where said structure did not exist (especially where this structure did not exist).

Most often, folktales are less actual stories than free-standing accounts. For example, we have all heard how a relative, friend, neighbor, or the neighbor of a relative's friend once saw a ghost. That is basically the entire account; the tale does not include whose ghost it was, why the person was in the area, and so forth. Folklorists often add these details when they record the tales, as they make for better reading and "complete" the legend.

These details are nearly always complete fabrications by the recorder. That the folklorist strives to maintain the integrity of the culture's locution, phrasing, speech, and so forth does not matter for our purposes - especially not when the folklorist deigns to do so. Again, the best simply obscure the information we researchers seeks; the worst condescend and corrupt the testimony.

As paranormal investigators, we are obviously concerned with unearthing that nugget of truth in these tall tales - that single, inspiring factor which led to the account and its continued popularity - and this embellishment obscures that. Folklore is an oral tradition, so certain accommodations must be made when translating it into the written form; we can't blame folklorists for doing their job, but it bears noting that it makes our jobs more difficult.

© C Harris Lynn, 2008
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