Sunday, April 22, 2007

Folklore, Fairy Tales and the Bible

Folklore and fairy tales appear in many different forms. These stories are cross-cultural, that is, every society or culture has similar stories with similar themes, motifs and heroes/ heroines. Fairy tales are not sweet bedtime stories, although they have been relegated to that category due to their Disney makeover. In most situations, fairy tales are actually quite extreme and focus on situations that might be rather distressing to children (wife-beating, incest, abusive fathers, etc.)

The Orthodox Jew has a vested interest in fairytales, though he might not know it. You see, fairytales and the Torah are intertwined to a degree that is absolutely compelling. I do not have the historical background to posit which came first- the folktale or the Torah- but either way, knowledge of folklore and fairy tales is truly helpful when it comes to understanding and analyzing the Torah.

How so?

Let's begin with two important systems of categorization.

1. The Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index
2. The Motif Index of Folk Literature

The Aarne-Thompson Tale Type Index assigns numbers to fairytales that fall into a certain category due to their repeating certain key themes and ideas. This is especially helpful when it comes to categorizing fairytales across different cultures. For example, the popular "Cinderella" is tale type 510A, "the persecuted heroine." This tale type applies to "Rashin-Coatie" from Scotland, "The Wonderful Birch" from Russia and other fairytales across the globe.

What allows Aarne-Thompson to group these fairytales together is their motifs. All fairytales in tale type 510A share particular motifs, although they may not be the same motifs. In one version of "Cinderella" the heroine has a fairy godmother; in another version she goes to her mother's grave to request help, in yet another version her tears water a birch tree who aids her. She loses a glass slipper, or in one Persian version, an ankle bracelet. The stories are similar enough, however, to group them under a particular tale type.

The categorization of motifs in The Motif Index to Folk Literature is invaluable for analyzing the similarities and differences between different fairy tales. The Cinderella story that we know best features the following motifs, for example.
    S31 Cruel Stepmother
    F311 Fairy Godmother
    D813 Magic Object received from fairy
    D1050.1 Clothes produced by magic
    F861.4.3 Carriage from pumpkin
    D411.6.1 Transformation: mouse to horse
    N711.6 Prince sees heroine at ball and is enamoured
    C761.3 Tabu: staying too long at the ball
    H36.1 Slipper test: identification by fitting of shoes
    F823.2 Glass slipper
    L162 Lowly heroine marries Prince
Here is an online Motif Index.

Now we come to the Bible and fairytales/ folklore. These two types of categorization are invaluable for determining connections between the two, and hence allowing us an enhanced understanding of the text.

For example, arguably one of the most important tales in the Torah, that of Adam and Eve, is echoed in many, many fairytales due to the specific motif involved. "The Forbidden Fruit," as in, there is one fruit that the two are expressly forbidden to eat, they eat it and must suffer the consequences. That idea appears under the following Taboos (Tabu for our purposes) in the Motif Index. (I won't list all of them because there are many, many variations, as you can see here. For our purposes, however...)
    C611. Forbidden chamber -- Person allowed to enter all chambers of house except one. C611.1. Forbidden door. -- All doors may be entered except one.
    C611.2. Forbidden stables. -- Person allowed to enter everywhere but into three stables.
    C611.3. Forbidden ladder.
    C612. Forbidden forest. (Cf. C614.1.0.2.)
    C614. Forbidden road. -- All roads may be taken except one.
    C621. Forbidden tree. -- Fruit of all trees may be eaten except one.
    C621.1. Tree of knowledge forbidden. # J165. Tree of knowledge.
    C621.2. Tabu: touching fruit. .
    C622. Forbidden drinking horn. -- One may drink from anything else. # H411.4. Magic drinking horn (cup) as chastity test. (Cf. D1171.6.) -- Unchaste woman cannot drink from cup.
Anyone who has read the Arabian Nights can think of countless tales that fit motif C611, "the forbidden chamber." Anyone who reads Russian fairytales will instantaneously think of "Koschei the Deathless," otherwise known as "Marya Morevna." Otherwise, anyone who has read The Odyssey or The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor will think of Odysseus'/ Sinbad's very clear statement to their men not to eat the sun-god's sheep/ not to eat the roc chick. And so on and so forth.

All right, so the motif categorizations are essential for analyzing the Torah. But then there are the tale type categorizations that are just as fascinating.

For example, does this sound familiar?

    For a long time they lived happily together, and then one day the old king went out riding, lost his way, and arrived at their castle. He was puzzled because he had never seen it before and decided to enter. The princess recognized her father immediately, but he did not recognize her, for he thought she had drowned in the sea a long time ago. She treated him with a great deal of hospitality, and when he was about to return home, she secretly slipped a golden cup into his pocket. After he had ridden off, she sent a pair of knights after him. They were ordered to stop him and search him to see if he had stolen the golden cup. When they found it in his pocket, they brought him back. He swore to the princess that he had not stolen it and did not know how it had gotten into his pocket.

    "That's why," she said, "one must beware of rushing to judgement." And she revealed to him that she was his daughter. The king rejoiced, and they all lived happily together, and after his death, Simple Hans became king.
That's from "Simple Hans" by the Brothers Grimm (but it's a tale that has evolved and exists in many, many forms. It's Aarne-Thompson type 675, "The Lazy Boy," where a boy wishes a virgin princess pregnant, his wish is fulfilled, the father sends her and her supposed lover off to die in a barrel in the sea, the boy wishes for a castle and wealth, and voila, they're saved! Later the father stops by and learns he was wrong/ judged her falsely by virtue of her having planted a cup/ apple/ other precious object on him, so that he too is judged falsely even though he is innocent.)

Anyway, of course you know what that fairytale echoes- Joseph and his brothers!

Or there's AT type 780, The Singing Bones, where body parts of murdered victims literally cry out for justice, and if that doesn't echo the verses in Tanakh referring to "the voice of thy brother's blood" by Abel and Zecharia's bubbling blood, I don't know what does.

There are loads more...Aesop's fables, for instance.

Fable #202, The Oak Tree and the Reed, echoes the statement of someone in the Gemara who states that Ahijah's curse was better than Bilam's blessing. For Bilam blessed the Jews by describing them as "cedars beside the waters" (Numbers 24: 6) and Ahijah cursed the Jews by saying "the LORD will smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water" (Kings I 14: 15).

Oh, and in fairytales/ folktales worldwide, babies are always thrown into the lakes/ water, either in baskets or barrels, sometimes even tarred or pitched baskets and barrels. Just look at any of the "Envious Sisters" stories, whether they be in the Arabian Nights or Pushkin's Tale of Tsar Sultan.

Fairytales and folklore only enhances one's understanding of the Bible. They are excellent in terms of comparing and contrasting Biblical stories- it's interesting to note the variations, and to see how similar ideas have been taken out of context and placed into a new context. The question becomes- are fairy tales corrupted Bible stories, or are some of the tales of the Bible or the Talmud derived from common fairy tales and folktales? It's easier to say that in the Talmud, certain ideas could certainly have come from folklore, as the sages even cite common phrases and so forth at certain times. I'd have to do more research into the alleged origins of folktales to see when they are supposed to have originated...Someone once told me, though I still need the source, that the Rambam reads some of the tales in the Torah allegorically. Depending on which tales those are, the idea of fables/ fairytales/ folktales makes sense as well.

In any case...there ought to be a class on Fairy Tales and the Bible, a comparative class, that is. That would be utterly fascinating, and it would appeal to everyone, whether secular or religious. See, it's yet another score for understanding the modern world- if you refuse to read stories and dismiss fairytales as inherently bad because they contain magic, you'll never be able to see how beautifully the Bible complements and creates the motifs and ideas behind them!


Irina Tsukerman said...

You would probably enjoy Joseph Campbell's books - he analyzes fairy tales and finds subconscious Jungian motifs/archetypes, many of which are also present in the Bible. One of my favorites is "The Hero With a Thousand Faces".

amanda said...

this is very interesting. as i writer myself, i find it fascinating that types are used over and over again in certain patterns that the average reader might not pick up on. i really enjoyed reading this post, especially on how fairy tales are similar to biblical stories. i agree, this should be a class!