So by now you’ve seen the story doing the rounds online about how fairytales are much older than researchers thought, as proved by ‘phylogenetic analyses’.
Us humanities scholars should be darn grateful we have those scientists to save us from our misconceptions!
This isn’t the first time that folklorists have found their subject matter making a big splash in the international news.
Let’s be clear about this point: folklorists are THE experts on oral narratives, such as fairy tales. They have developed tools and methods for studying this material, but the clickbait stories about ‘myth’ and ‘fairy tales’ often ignore this expertise, preferring dramatic accounts of undiscovered materials.
Um, no, 500 ‘new’ fairytales were not ‘discovered‘ in Germany in 2012. For a start, the materials in question had actually been published before. And this is without taking into account the point that these tales are not ‘new’. They are versions of tales collected in many other places.
Hey, if you want to see some ‘undiscovered’ tales, head down to the archives in any country of the world and go through the papers of some local folklorists. I guarantee you will find unpublished tales. (I did, during my PhD. Where’s my goddamn Guardian splash?)
You could even do something a bit more original, and look for previously undocumented versions of folk tales in early newspapers, for instance, which loved to republish fairy tales.
Let’s get back to the recent paper.
First the good news. These researchers have read the folklorists. They are up on what folklorists have to say about this stuff, and they make use of the most up to date versions of the key reference text: the Aarne-Thompson-Uther catalogue of tale types. (And we should expect nothing less: the authors are, after all, in anthropology departments, where the meeting of science and humanities research should be old hat.)
But I’m a little bit annoyed to notice that the whole point of the article is disproving ‘researchers who think fairytales were invented in the sixteenth century’.
Note the plural.
But for this point, the article only refers to the work of the literary scholar Ruth Bottigheimer, whose theories about the early-modern origins of fairy tales have been – to put it mildly – badly received by other scholars who have devoted their entire lives to the study of traditional narrative.
Perhaps Jack Zipes’ reaction is extreme, but his dissatisfaction with Bottigheimer’s arguments is typical. You only need look at the special issue of the Journal of American Folklore devoted to the Bottigheimer debate in 2010.
This is pretty important. Most folklorists believe that the origins of fairy tales most likely lie deep in human history, far beyond the periods we have evidence for.
So thanks for nothing?
Well perhaps not. Surely this is good evidence to back up a widely held theory? Maybe even something akin to a missing link?
But there are much broader problems with any analysis of this type. I will be the first to admit I don’t understand phylogenetic research and Bayesian probability. But do the researchers who wrote this article understand historical and literary research? They are laudably gracious about the value of humanistic research into fairy tales, but that isn’t the same thing as realising that the very ‘data’ they are using is inescapably shaped by factors that researchers in the humanities – and in this case, especially folklore – have spent hundreds of years thinking about.
What do I mean?
I mean that the Aarne-Thomson-Uther catalogue is an attempt to impose order on a set of materials that are filtered through historical texts. Ireland and Finland swarmed with folklorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yet much of France and England remained unexplored. The records of which tales existed where and when are nowhere near complete enough to guarantee that the results of phylogenetic analysis are any good.
Let me offer a really important example, which is key to the article.
The authors say that they found that many tales are surprisingly limited to vertical rather than horizontal transmission, by which they mean that – contrary to what we might expect – tales tend to travel down through the generations within cultural or linguistic groups, rather than between groups who live next to one another.
This is incredible. But is it right?
I know from my own PhD research that one of the things that horrified Félix Arnaudin, arguably the most important folklorist of nineteenth-century Gascon culture, was material that was contaminated by French. Arnaudin ruthlessly excluded tales and legends that he considered ‘French’ in search of a pure Gascon heritage.
The data that this recent article is based on is full of these kinds of source problems.
And if you really want to go down this line, you should check out the work of Dr. Jeana Jorgensen whose Ph.D. thesis sadly isn’t published, but who has written extensively on the fallacies underpinning some computational analyses of folklore data.
I do hate to be a party pooper.
In fact, I applaud the meeting of scientific and humanistic research this kind of paper represents.
But I am very worried by two things here: the ignorance, or belittling of the very serious issues raised by specialists, and the way these stories play out as media events.
Don’t stop doing the science, but perhaps we could have a little less grandstanding in the dissemination.
So this post has been a little more popular than my usual run-of-the-mill posts on history, folklore, and writing. It seems to have touched a chord with what a few other people thought about this story.
I await the inevitable backlash.