“A Good Saxon Compound”

As I mentioned before, I’ll be blogging about folklore for a while. The natural place to start, then, is by making it clear just what I’m talking about when I say “folklore.”

Normally I wouldn’t do the cliched thing of talking about the word itself, but in this case the history of the term is interesting. There was a stretch of time in the nineteenth century when the usual English phrase was “Popular Antiquities” — “popular” in the sense that they are “of the people,” rather than widespread. (Apparently the French equivalent, traditions populaires, enjoyed longer usage; I’m not sure if it’s still in use now.) But if there’s one adjective that describes early folklore studies, it’s “nationalistic,” and a cumbersome Latin-derived phrase really didn’t have the ring of the true English spirit.


A guy named William Thoms therefore took it upon himself to coin the term “folk-lore,” which he praised as “a good Saxon compound.” He claimed the idea was entirely his own, and that he wasn’t influenced by the German term Volkskunde; it doesn’t much matter one way or another. The point is that it mattered to Thoms, and to a lot of early folklorists, that what they were studying was an authentic expression of the common people’s wisdom: not a literature (“popular literature” being the other term in use at the time), but the lore of the folk.

These days, the nationalist streak has faded, though it would be false to say it’s entirely gone. Folklore is about tradition, among other things, and tradition is something that gets handed down within a group; it’s part of how a group defines its identity. I won’t bore you all to tears by going into the myriad of definitions about what folklore is — what does and does not get included under that umbrella — because the truth is that folklorists themselves don’t agree on that front. Most people would say it includes various forms of narrative, like folktales and legends and myths and so on, and also superstitions and proverbs and other verbal genres; one of my folklore professors also studied things like Turkish carpet-weaving and pottery-making in Bangladesh. There’s a big overlap with anthropology, and also with various regional literatures.

Me, I’m going to set my boundaries where they suit my purpose — which is to talk about fantasy. Our retellings of traditional stories, our magic systems built on real-world beliefs. A lot of it, historically speaking, has been European in origin, though in more recent years other parts of the world have come into the genre picture. Not all fantasy has obvious roots in folklore, but it’s a prominent enough part of our tradition — of how we define our identity as a genre — that I’d like to take a closer look at those roots. And that’s where we’ll be going with future posts.

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“A Good Saxon Compound” — 4 Comments

  1. This makes me think of the cultures where potters leave a break in the design on a pot’s surface, so the spirit of the pot may leave and return. Or the Persian rug error, where an intentional error is made in a tug, to make sure the sin of perfection has not been committed.

    All forms of Story!

    Most people would say it includes various forms of narrative, like folktales and legends and myths and so on, and also superstitions and proverbs and other verbal genres; one of my folklore professors also studied things like Turkish carpet-weaving and pottery-making in Bangladesh.

  2. Pingback: What makes a folktale? | Book View Cafe Blog

  3. Heh — on the Persian rug thing, I’ve heard that debunked by a carpet-weaver, who said that it’s even more arrogant to intentionally leave a flaw in the work. After all, it implies that you could be as perfect as God, if you didn’t deign to introduce that error — when the truth is that nothing is ever perfect, even when you try.

    • That may make the entire concept even more interesting — who came up with the variant, why did they come up with it, and were they of the indigenous religion of the carpet weavers? Was this tossed in by someone from another religion?

      I’ve met potters who leave breaks for the spirit to wander, so apparently some potters like that idea. As always, even the descendants of potters may not be right about why a break was left in a design hundreds or thousands of years ago….