Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

by Alan Dundes

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The essays of Alan Dundes virtually created the meaning of folklore as an American academic discipline. Yet many of them went quickly out of print after their initial publication in far-flung journals. Brought together for the first time in this volume compiled and edited by Simon Bronner,  the selection surveys Dundes's major ideas and emphases, and is


The essays of Alan Dundes virtually created the meaning of folklore as an American academic discipline. Yet many of them went quickly out of print after their initial publication in far-flung journals. Brought together for the first time in this volume compiled and edited by Simon Bronner,  the selection surveys Dundes's major ideas and emphases, and is introduced by Bronner with a thorough analysis of Dundes's long career, his interpretations, and his inestimable contribution to folklore studies.

Runner-up, the Wayland Hand Award for Folklore and History, 2009

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A folkloric feast.”
                William F. Hansen, Indiana University

“A finely composed collection of scholarly and provocative essays of the preeminent folklorist, Dundes. His analyses will continue to contribute to the theoretical debates within folklore studies and will inspire new generations of folklorists and European ethnologists.”
                Peter Jan Margry, Meertens Institute, The Netherlands

“A fascinating journey revealing the hidden meaning of folklore items and genres, brilliantly analyzed with an outstanding analytical ability, breadth of knowledge, and love of subject. This volume is a must for folklorists, anthropologists and scholars of cultural studies in general.”
                Haya Bar-Itzhak, University of Haifa, Israel

“A perfectly structured and presented volume of the life’s work of a truly remarkable genius of folklore studies and beyond.”
                Wolfgang Mieder, The University of Vermont

“Every folklorist must read it!”
                Peddarapu.Chenna Reddy, P.S.Telugu University, India

“The editorial apparatus represents the work of a professional who knows the mind and impact of Dundes as well as anyone can.”
                Ronald L. Baker, Indiana State University

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The Meaning of Folklore

The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2007 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-683-7

Chapter One

Folklore as a Mirror of Culture


Alan Dundes was considered a master teacher as well as a scholar. His study of folklore offers insight into instruction, since folklore is an essential way that cultural knowledge and wisdom is passed down from generation to generation and from peer to peer. He practiced what he preached, for in 1994 he received a distinguished teaching award from the University of California at Berkeley, an accolade he greatly cherished. In his own education, he received a graduate degree in teaching of English from Yale University in 1955. In this 1969 essay, originally appearing in an English education journal, he urged K-12 teachers to use folklore as an instructional tool to develop tolerance, and to use the students' own cultural traditions to enhance learning. Unlike many educational approaches encouraging adults to concoct, and often sanitize, literary materials for children to digest, he called on teachers to rely on raw oral lore "performed by children for other children." He was famous, in fact, for requiring his own college students to collect fifty items of folklore that they would then describe and interpret. In this essay, he provided sociopsychological perspectives that can be used to decipher folk material.

Dundes pointed to children's folklore, not as something to be repressed, but rather to be brought out into the open. As he showed, it reflects, as only folklore can, issues of sibling rivalry, puberty, and parent/child relations. He distinguished folklore-as evidence-from the use of other materials, because it is "autobiographical ethnography, a people's own description of themselves." He evaluated what children typically relate in folklore to "areas of special concern," or anxieties that are expressed more readily in folklore than in everyday conversation.

Dundes's concern for the plight of African Americans and Vietnamese was voiced in his writings during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. He referred to the presence of the Cold War in relating alternative answers to the riddle joke of "what's black and white and red all over?" Other conflicts mentioned in the essay have outlasted the Cold War, such as ethnic and international tension grounded in cultural misunderstanding. Folklore, as a mirror of culture, reveals differences and similarities in ways of thinking, and he hoped that its study could therefore be a tool for teaching cultural understanding.

This essay encapsulates, at an early stage in Dundes's career, many of the principles of a "modern" concept of folklore that became influential in folkloristics. He distanced himself from the Grimm brothers' legacy of romantic nationalism, and advocated folklore as an adaptive strategy of modern life. He also expanded the scope of folk materials from oral to written and material items. His advocacy of the idea that folklore is constantly being created anew in contemporary life was especially important. It is not a relic of the past, as many people believe, but an expression of present-day issues.

Dundes's title invokes the "mirror" concept of Franz Boas, considered the father of modern anthropology, that folklore is invaluable as a reflection of a particular culture's conditions and values. He expanded Boas's inquiry by suggesting that the interpretation of symbols lodged within folkloric performances were a result of folklore serving the function of a socially sanctioned outlet for suppressed wishes and anxieties. He also inferred the strategic use of folklore to upset power relations, as his examples of child/parent communication demonstrate. Characteristically-given his fondness throughout his writing career for reflexively turning the analyst's cultural mirror back on the analyst as a way to disrupt the hierarchies of observer and observed-he examined the folklore that teachers possess, after spending time showing the value of understanding children's folklore. In the process, he identified the common cognitive pattern of trichotomy as a Western scholarly, as well as cultural, bias, a point he later expanded in "The Number Three in American Culture" in Interpreting Folklore (1980b). This essay is also significant for separating the hierarchical view of folk as a lower stratum, which he associated with the nineteenth-century approach of the Brothers Grimm, from the modern concept, which contains the key social definition of folk as "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one linking factor." Thus, he concluded that "we all are folk"-whether urban or rural, young or old, religious or secular.

In folkloristic writing, the "mirror" concept is still applied to relate historical and cultural information about a group, with the presumption that it is also a marker of a particularistic social identity. (See, for instance, Clements 1996; Rey-Henningsen 1994; Wilson 1995, 2006; and Georges and Jones 1995.) It is also referenced when the details of folklore appear not to reflect culture, suggesting the psychological possibility of folklore distorting or inverting reality (see chapter 14, "Getting the Folk and the Lore Together"). In Dundes's words, "It was not understood [in Boas's mirror concept] that an item of folklore can serve as a vehicle which requires an individual to do what he may not be permitted to do in everyday reality (e.g., in courtship games, complete strangers may kiss, in games of chase, acts of physical aggression are mandatory)" (Dundes 1966a, 243; see also chapters 15 and 17 in this volume).

Alan Dundes continued his interest in children's folklore throughout his career, connecting folklore to human development and infantile anxieties. He also drew on children's humor, such as dead baby jokes, to underscore the emergent nature of folk humor, which he typically analyzed psychoanalytically (1987c). He wrote the foreword to Martha Wolfenstein's Children's Humor (1978), and the title essays of his anthologies From Game to War (1997b) and Bloody Mary in the Mirror (2002a) delve into children's rituals and games. For more interpretative sources on the folklore of children and their teachers, see Bishop and Curtis 2001; Bronner 1988, 1995; Factor 1989; Knapp and Knapp 1976; McDowell 1979; Opie and Opie 1969, 1972; Sutton-Smith 1972; and Sutton-Smith et al. 1999.

Folklore as a Mirror of Culture

The various forms of folklore: myths, folktales, legends, folksongs, proverbs, riddles, games, dances and many others can provide a vital resource for a teacher who seriously wishes to (1) understand his students better, and (2) teach those students more effectively about the world and about the human condition. For folklore is autobiographical ethnography-that is, it is a people's own description of themselves. This is in contrast to other descriptions of that people, descriptions made by social workers, sociologists, political scientists or anthropologists. It may be that there is distortion in a people's self image as it is expressed in that people's songs, proverbs, and the like, but one must admit that there is often as much, if not more, distortion in the supposedly objective descriptions made by professional social scientists who in fact see the culture under study through the culturally relative and culturally determined categories of their own culture. Moreover, even the distortion in a people's self image can tell the trained observer something about that people's values. Out of all the elements of culture, which ones are singled out for distortion, for special emphasis?

Folklore as a mirror of culture frequently reveals the areas of special concern. It is for this reason that analyses of collections of folklore can provide the individual who takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the study of folklore a way of seeing another culture from the inside out instead of from the outside in, the usual position of a social scientist or teacher. Whether the "other culture" is far from the borders of our country or whether the "other culture" is lodged within these borders, a world shrunk by modern technological advances in transportation and communications demands that education keep pace. We need to know more about Vietnamese worldview; we need to know more about African American values.

One or the greatest obstacles impeding a better understanding of Vietnamese, African American or any other culture is what anthropologists term "ethnocentrism." This is the notion, apparently held in some form by all the peoples of the earth, that the way we do things is "natural" and "right" whereas the way others do them is "strange," perhaps "unnatural" and maybe even "wrong." The Greek historian Herodotus described ethnocentrism, without, of course, using the term, as follows:

If one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages surpass those of all others.

One of the purposes of studying folklore is to realize the hypothetical premise. Man cannot choose out of all the customs in the world until he knows what these customs are. Traditional customs are part of folklore. Obviously the point in collecting, classifying, and analyzing the customs and other forms of folklore is not necessarily to allow the investigator to choose a way of life other than his own. Rather by identifying the similarities, the actual historical cognates such as hundreds of versions of Cinderella, a tale which folklorists label as Aarne-Thompson tale type 510 in the internationally known index of Indo-European folktales first published in 1910, or by identifying the near-similarities, the probably noncognate folkloristic parallels which seem to depend upon universal or quasi-universal human experiences (such as the introduction of death into the world because of some unthinking or foolish action on the part of a culture hero or trickster figure), one has convincing data which can effectively be used to promote international understanding. If only the Turks and Greeks realized that they had the same folktales and the same lovable wise fool of a Hodja figure in many of these tales. The same holds for the Arabs and the Jews. In this light, it is sad to think that folklore, instead of being used as a constructive force for internationalism, has all too frequently been the tool of excessive nationalism.

The history of folklore studies reveals that folklorists in many different countries have often been inspired by the desire to preserve their national heritage. The Grimms, for example, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, imbued with nationalism and romanticism, and armed with the fashionable methodology of historical reconstruction, collected folktales and legends with the hope of rescuing something ur-German, that is, something truly Teutonic, before it faded from the scene altogether. The Grimms were surprised and probably more than a little disappointed when they discovered that many of their "Teutonic" tales had almost exact analogues in other European countries. The Grimms incidentally, like most nineteenth century collectors, rewrote the folklore they collected. This retouching of oral tales continues today in the children's literature field where reconstructed, reconstituted stories written in accordance with written not oral conventions are palmed off as genuine folktales.

One can see that the basic mistrust of folk materials is part of a general ambivalence about the materials of oral tradition, the materials of the folk. On the one hand, the folk and their products were celebrated as a national treasure of the past; on the other hand, the folk were wrongly identified with the illiterate in a literate society and thus the folk as a concept was identified exclusively with the vulgar and the uneducated. (The folk to a modern folklorist is any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common linking factor, e.g., religion, occupation, ethnicity, geographical location, etc., which leads to: Jewish folklore, lumberjack folklore, African American folklore, and California folklore. As an American I know American folklore; as a professor I know campus folklore; as a member of a family, I know my own family folklore.) The equation of folklore with ignorance has continued. The word folklore itself considered as an item of folk speech means fallacy, untruth, error. Think of the phrase "That's folklore." It is similar to the meaning of "myth in such phrases as "the myth of race." This is not, however, what folklore and myth mean to the professional folklorist. A myth is but one form or genre of folklore, a form which consists of a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form. Folklore consists of a variety of genres most of which are found among all peoples of the earth. Nevertheless, the association of folklore with error (consider "folk" medicine as opposed to "scientific" medicine) has made it difficult for the study of folklore as a discipline to gain academic respectability and has generally discouraged the use and study of folklore by educators.

It is still mistakenly thought that the only people who study folklore are antiquarian types, devotees of ballads which are no longer sung and collectors of quaint customs which are no longer practiced. Folklore in this false view is equated with survivals from an age past, survivals which are doomed not to survive. Folklore is gradually dying out, we are told. Moreover, since folklore is defined as error, it is thought by some educators to be a good thing that folklore is dying out. In fact, it has been argued that one of the purposes of education is to help stamp out folklore. As humans evolve, they leave folklore behind such that the truly civilized human is conceived to be folkloreless. From this kind of thinking, one can understand why education and folklore have been on opposite sides and also why when well meaning educators move into other cultures, e. g., in Africa or in a ghetto school, they actually believe they are doing their students a service by helping to suppress local customs, superstitions, folk speech, and other folkloristic traditions. So it is that African students are taught Shakespeare and Chaucer as great literature while their own superb oral literature is not deemed worthy of classroom treatment, assuming that the western educated teacher even knows of its existence. How many teachers of literature, of the epic in particular, are aware of the fact that the epic is a living oral form and that epics up to 13,000 lines are now being sung in Yugoslavia, among other places? How many teachers of African American children have ever heard of the "dozens" (or "rapping and capping" or "sounding" etc.) or of the "toast," an important African American folklore genre in rhyme reminiscent of epic form? Yet, the technique of verbal dueling known as the "dozens" and the epic toast are extremely viable forms of African American folklore and they encapsulate the critical points and problems in African American family structure and in black-white relations. One could teach both literature and social studies from such folkloristic texts (were they not "obscene" by our standards) with the advantage that these texts would be known by the students from their own lives and experience.


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