Characteristics Of Folklore
An analysis of the six characteristics of folklore, which apply to folksongs and folktales, alike.
Before one can begin to study a particular text as folklore, one must determine what, exactly, folklore is. Folklore is distinguished from other forms of literary and oral tradition by six characteristics. Using several texts as examples, we may explain and define these characteristics to make a useful set of parameters for folklore. The Tuscan Veglia (a gathering in rural Italy) and the stories of the ""Star Husband"" and the ""Three Bears"" provide us with the examples we need to define and explain these characteristics.
Folklore texts are designed by people to achieve a particular end, probably in an unusual, less-than-straightforward manner. The Veglia may be used to provide an example for this in each of its four phases. In its first, the 'players' tell fairy tales to one another which describe and encourage the proper process of maturation. The characters in these stories, which are told by anyone in the group, become separated from society only to go through a liminal period from which they emerge as new members, reintegrated back into the community. However, this reintegration is accompanied by a change of status-usually newly married, the characters become mature and productive members of society. Telling stories of this nature allows for the society to reinforce its ideals of societal inclusion to the maturing audience; children and young adults are given a bit of encouragement through their difficult times between a young dependent and a fully independent adult. The Veglia continues its indirect provision of wisdom to the participants through its phases of formula tales and riddles, lyric songs, and legends. The first encourages values such as reciprocity and stimulates mental activity; lyric songs allow for men and women of courting age to interact on an emotionally intimate level; and the legends and ballads provide a warning to the young about the dangers they will face as they age, preparing them for the future. The stories and games in which the villagers participate are intended to serve given, specific purposes. They are not random assortments of characters that provide the listeners with nothing; rather they are designed to teach people certain values and provide them with particular village wisdom that cannot be accrued through a straightforward lecture.
In order to accomplish these goals, folklore represents its images in stereotypical images. In the Native American tale of the "Star Husband", the desires of a young girl are constantly represented by heaven and the stars in the night sky. In retelling after retelling, that motif will not change. For whatever it may say about human motivation, the image of the sky continues to be an easy representation of the maturing girl's desires. The girls in the story are looking for husbands and their new, adult futures. They look to the sky and admire what they see there; they crave it. If a storyteller were to alter that image, the story would lose much of its ability to interact with the listener. The tale would become nonsensical because people could not identify with it.
Other features of the stories are not so 'written in stone.' Folklore can adapt to different contexts, giving it meaning to a vastly different potential audience. The "Star Husband", which contains certain unchanging facets, also has patterns of alteration. In certain retellings, when the girls return to their homes on Earth, the sky people come down and take some form of revenge. This may be due to the frequent occurrence of conflict in that society, or it may be reflective of something else; regardless, the stories do alter so that they can make sense to a new audience. In our culture, the story of the "Three Bears" has altered over time to be more sympathetic toward Goldilocks. Our perspective does not include the predilection to vengeance that would have been more common in the story's original environment; therefore, the disturbing violence of the bears, and the mischievousness of the thief have been reduced as the principal character became human.
From within its own given context, folklore is the product of a social act. The Tuscan Veglia is once again a prime example. As the winter months result in shorter working days, the villagers gather in small, intimate groups with their friends and family to share in the Veglia. Families invite guests to come and join them for the event, which could last well into the night. The stories within are not just thrown casually about in the farm's fields or in the marketplace; instead they are saved for the right social occasion. The story of the "Three Bears" has become integrated into a particular modern social event: the bedtime story. The "Three Bears", and other stories like it, are told by parents specifically to their children at specific times. Bedtime stories provide a social environment for parents and their young in contemporary times.
While these stories are reserved for particular events and times, their meaning goes beyond that particular moment and applies fully to daily life. Though it is a special social occasion, the Veglia provides meaningful information for people of all ages (though particularly the young) about how to live in and interact with society. Its messages are intended to give the participants the information necessary to live socially on an everyday basis, not just on given, specified evenings. Similarly, the "Star Husband" deals with the issues faced by young women in Native American society. It deals with the real thoughts and feelings of a maturing girl. The "Three Bears" teaches positive norms to listeners. Through the avenue of the folktale, useful, everyday knowledge is disseminated. These stories are not escapist; they do not try to carry the listener away to some imaginary world with no connection to the current environment. Folklore is contextualized in that it applies to the surrounding world.
Although the telling, singing, etc. of folklore is relevant to the entire need structure of the society, it is only during certain times (as has been noted) that it occurs. Folklore is stimulated by moments of strong conjunction or strong disjunction in society. When parents put their children to sleep, a very intimate event occurs. When we fall asleep we are at our most vulnerable, so humans only do so in the presence of someone who makes them feel safe and loved. Having the parent-child relationship is one of utmost emotional connection; the presence of that connection encourages a storytelling time. For the Veglia, it is when people come together for intimate moments that the stories are told. Family and friends join each other in a very connected and close manner. However, there are certain members of Tuscan society who do not quite fit the mold that the Veglia represents. Whether it is because they are unmarried, or unhappily so, or of unpopular political ideas, these people are separated from society and relegated to the escape of the tavern. In what Alessandro Falassi labeled the counter-Veglia, these disjoined individuals partake of their own social act; they tell tall-tales, sing ribald songs, and parody the established norms of the village. Their own folklore is the direct result of their separation from village society. Folklore comes from these moments of powerful connection with, or distance from others. The feelings of conjunction or disjunction encourage the development and spread of folklore in a reoccurring and reinforcing manner over time.
These six characteristics enable scholars to distinguish folklore from other texts. They give folklore its uniqueness and make discernible what might otherwise remain in the realm of confusion. By understanding these characteristics we are able to understand and analyze how folklore has evolved over time, and how it affects human society by distinguishing it in this manner.