Understanding the History of Folktales

In “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose,” Robert Darnton gives a long, but thorough analysis of folktales from different countries and the ways they have evolved through history. He analyzes these popular folktales for their sexual, social, and historical contexts, focusing most specifically on French folktales in the eighteenth century. He points out that in these French stories many of the scenarios were only slight exaggerations of real life events. The French, unlike the Germans, did not add a lot of mysticism or magical creatures to their tales, but instead infused their stories with real-life problems (such as starvation) and ugly real-life solutions (abandoning children). The tales were designed, to some extent, to reflect the lives of the people of this time period, which means many people reading these stories today may think that it’s strange that the characters wished for basic things such as food, shelter, and easier labor, but for the people in the eighteenth century, these wishes made perfect sense because they would enable you to survive. One of Darnton’s main points, and his explanation behind the choices of characters and situations in the stories, was that these stories were told, not necessarily to amuse or instruct, but rather to show peasants how the world worked and give them coping mechanisms.

I thought it was interesting, as Darnton points out, that we can never truly understand these folktales because they were told orally with many hand gestures, facial expressions, or vocal inflections that we have no way of accurately recreating. I have studied folktales in a previous literature class, but we only focused on the literary changes of the stories instead of the historical context that drove those changes. The choice of situations, characters, and solutions makes more sense now that I have a better understanding of the historical context that these stories came from. This article made me think about how the social context of a time period drives the framework and messages of the literature of that period.

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2 Responses to Understanding the History of Folktales

  1. I agree that what Darnton said about understanding the folktales due to our lack of available knowledge on how they were told orally. I would be interested to see if anyone has at least attempted to dive deeper on possibilities for how it may have been done.

  2. Laura Spain says:

    I like that your review touches on the fact that folktales must be analyzed in a historical context, not simply a literary context which would be inadequate and fail to paint a whole picture.

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