Folklore from the inside and out

As soon as you start talking about folklore, you have to ask yourself whose view you’re going to use.

There are terms for this in anthropology and related fields, that I believe we stole from linguistics: emic and etic. (They’re actually lopped-off forms of “phonemic” and “phonetic,” though in the latter case it gets pronounced both “ett-ick” and “ee-tick,” depending on who’s talking.) The emic view of something is culture-specific: it’s the way a given group of people describe, explain, categorize, etc, a particular thing in their own society. The etic view is the “universal” one: it’s a standardized approach used across multiple cultures. Or, in simpler terms, emic is the insider view, and etic is the outsider one.

In folklore, one way this manifests is in the classification of narrative forms. Folklorists have taken certain Western-derived categories — e.g. myth, legend, and folktale — and tried to define them in a fashion that allows us to find similar types of stories in other parts of the world. I’ll get into each of these in more detail later on, but for now we can say that myth, to pick one example, is a sacred story that tells how things came into being. (That’s not quite the layperson usage of the term, of course, which is why I’ll be posting more about this in the future.)

That’s the etic structure. From the emic side, things might look very different. I’ve forgotten most of the actual examples from my grad school readings, but since we’re talking about folklore in the context of fantasy, I’m going to go ahead and make a few up: our hypothetical fantasy society groups its narratives into the categories of winter stories, teaching tales, women’s stories, and green speech. The first are told only during the winter season (a restriction that appears among the Navajo, as well as other real-world groups), the second are told to children and misbehaving adults, the third are told only among women, and the fourth is a class of philosophical koan-type things with religious significance.

None of these map to the etic categories of myth, folktale, and legend. Green spech is sacred, but doesn’t relate how things began; that’s mostly found among teaching tales, and a small number of winter stories and women’s stories. Folktale-type-things are common among women, but not exclusively there. Etc. The two systems cut across one another, their boundaries rarely if ever lining up.

So which one’s better? It depends on what you’re trying to do, and both are useful in their own way. Etic systems are vital for cross-cultural comparison, for understanding what happens when one narrative culture and another come into contact. Emic systems, on the other hand, tell you a lot more about how that particular group views the world.

It’s not uncommon for fantasy writers to invent folklore within the worlds they write about. But a lot of the time we fall into the trap of following the systems we know — which is, for most of us, the Western-derived triumvirate of myth, legend, and folktale, along with other things like fables or tall tales. We don’t often think to include taboos about when and where and how certain types of stories might be told, and why those taboos might exist. A fantasy society that’s nomadic, or that used to be nomadic, might require important stories to be told under the open sky. Some things might be for men only, or children only, or post-menopausal women only. Certain tales might have to be told in sets of three, never alone or in other combinations. A tropical culture might have wet-season stories, and a fear that if they get told at the wrong time of year, the rains might never come again. (And they might be right. This is fantasy: the rules are what you make them.)

I’m guilty myself of insufficient creativity on this point. When I started developing the Nine Lands (a setting I haven’t played much in lately, but hope to go back to), I spent a while trying to write three kinds of background stories for each culture: myth, folktale, and history. The exercise produced some interesting material, but I did myself a disservice by standardizing that across the entire world. Etic systems are great for comparative purposes, but what I really needed was cultural specificity. Fantasy is capable of so much more variation and creativity than it defaults to. We — and I very much include myself in this — can stretch further, and find different ways of categorizing our narrative world.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of A Natural History of Dragons and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies of Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire. Her first BVC release, the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy, is on sale now. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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7 Responses to Folklore from the inside and out

  1. Mary says:

    some world-building guides recommend that you begin with the creation myth. this kinda misses that in many cultures, you don’t have a creation myth, and where you do, it’s often not important. wiser to get to know a culture well enough to know whether it would have one and how important it is.

  2. Or at the very least, the “creation myth” may not quite look like one to Western eyes — i.e. readers accustomed to the Bible and Greek and Norse mythology. Maybe the culture has a cyclical view of time instead, or something.

  3. I wish I’d read Joseph Campbell earlier, because he’s been crucial in understanding the completely different worldview of “the west” vs. other cultures and peoples. I’ll be interested to see if anyone has written about how long a society carries things like taboos with them. Does the advent of technology and other cultures cause those things to let loose? The fairies don’t have as many serious believers anymore in the UK, but in Iceland, there’s still a strong belief in elves — and they don’t move boulders with elvish tales associated with them.

    One of the first places I remember seeing the “story told only at certain times” in an otherwise very western-feeling fantasy was in the first of David Eddings’ novels. An important story is told, and the adults present are awed and delighted, for it is a story told only in the presence of kings, not meant for farm folk. The storyteller laughs and says that a story must be told from time to time, if it is not to die out — and who knows where a king may be hiding? The adults laugh, of course, but eventually we do discover that a very unusual family is hiding among them….

    Very interesting, Marie, thank you!

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  5. Katharine — sorry, I was out of the country when you posted this, and missed it!

    I’d forgotten about that bit in Eddings (Pawn of Prophecy, yes? Not my favorite of his, though I love the later books in that series). Thanks for reminding me!

    I know people have written about the maintenance or loss of traditional beliefs, though it’s a huge enough topic that I can’t point you at any good starting place. That entire subject perks my fantasy-writer ears, though, because the reason a lot of that stuff gets discarded is that it’s a paradigm that does not appear to match objective reality. So, when a different paradigm comes in that can fill some of the same functions (explaining phenomena/improving daily life), but more effectively, it’s often vulnerable to change — losing its other functions (social cohesion, etc) in the process. But in a fantasy world, those paradigms can match objective reality. Even in urban fantasy, we often don’t pay enough attention to that, and think about the effects it would have.

    • Yes, not Eddings’ strongest book, but his first fantasy attempt, and it did catch the imagination of a lot of people, thanks to Del Rey’s push.

      The urban fantasy I’m researching may have a lot of fantastical tradition breaking down and re-forming. I’ve been studying about how different people’s maps of reality are, and I know that’s going to change the book!

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