In my previous post, I raised the question of what makes some fantasy stories feel like folktales.
For the ones that are straight-up retellings, the answer is obvious. For wholly original stories, though (where “wholly original” = “not explicitly basing its plot on an existing story;” the broader “originality” debate is a matter for a much later post, as that gets very complicated) — where was I? For wholly original stories, it’s less clear. My example was that Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel is very folktale-like, but George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is not. What makes the difference?
Well, you can start by drawing parallels between The Darkangel and existing folktales. It tells the tale of a young woman kidnapped away to become the bride of an icarus, a winged, vampiric creature who has already drained the life from thirteen previous wives. Shades of “Bluebeard,” no? But it’s insufficient to just call this “a Bluebeard story” and move on, because it isn’t a Bluebeard story, not really.
Here I have to ask you all to pardon me. I thought, when I wrote my previous post, that I would answer the question I had raised in a single entry. Then, reflecting on it, I realized I should probably break it up into two. And now that I sit down to actually type, it occurs to me that I have to go on a tangent first, and talk about tale types.
One of the monumental works in folklore as an academic field is the Aarne-Thompson tale type index (originally just the Aarne tale type index, later revised by Stith Thompson, and more recently revised and expanded by Hans-Jörg Uther, making it the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale type index, and yes, that’s starting to get unwieldy as a name). The AT (or ATU) index is the basis by which we say something is a variant of “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty” or whatever. It is the folkloric equivalent of Linnean taxonomy: it looks at the motifs that make up a given story (a specific story, as collected from a storyteller; not “Cinderella” but a specific edition of “Aschenputtel” in the Grimms’ collection), and uses those to determine how it’s related to other stories.
Like many classification systems, the result is fuzzy. Certain folklorists have wasted a lot of time arguing about whether a certain story should be grouped here or there. But it turns out that if you do this kind of systematization, you find patterns, and any given iteration of a story may be closer to or further from a particular pattern. I could give a folktale example, but instead I’m going to crib from a paper I once wrote for an English literature class on fantasy, in which I put on my folklorist hat and took a look at the so-called “Tolkien clones.”
Take The Lord of the Rings as the exemplar of a tale type, the Epic Fantasy Quest. Boil it down to its component parts, and we might say that an innocent, ordinary hero is summoned from his peaceful life by a wise old magic user to oppose a powerful, evil force that threatens the world. In order to defeat this force, the hero gathers a motley band of companions and goes on a long journey to destroy a magical artifact and thereby save the world.
I’ll probably come back to this in a future post, too, and talk about Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, et alii in more detail. But odds are good that most of you can recognize what I’m talking about. Some of those later series are more like The Lord of the Rings, and some are less, but you can see how they’re all related to the exemplar, by repeating a greater or lesser number of the central motifs.
“Bluebeard” is a recognized tale type, but The Darkangel doesn’t contain enough of the relevant motifs to count as a variant thereof. It basically just has “sinister husband with dead wives.” The reason for this tangent, though, is that tale types are closely related to the first point I wanted to make about folktale-ish fantasy, which regards the “grammar” of folktale plots.
That, however, will have to wait for the next post. Until then, I invite you all to entertain yourselves in the comments by naming other tale types that show up in fantasy. (No actual folktales, though. That’s cheating!)