If we’re honest, I think most of us would admit we sometimes find reading the forewords and introductions to nonfiction books a tremendous bore. Yet we know that these textual additions are intended to enhance our appreciation for the author’s efforts. So we slog our way through them, and hope they don’t extinguish our interest in the subsequent material.
I won’t claim that the forty-plus pages of introductory material in Folktales of Hungary held me as rapt as a Fairy Tale novel by Patricia C. Wrede or Steven Brust, but it did impress on me the dedication of the scholars who collected and studied this art form. Linda Degh’s purpose in assembling this volume of simple tales was not to amuse children, but to provide a representative sampling of the types of stories that had proven popular with the country’s peasantry. Researchers viewed folktale collection as important, and regarded their study as a reborn science. With their country emerging from a long period of Austrian and then German rule, and the peasantry finally throwing off the shackles of “feudalistic and ecclesiastical tyrannies,” the researchers wished not only to enhance their understanding of their past and present culture, but to forge a beneficial link between modern scientific theory and the practical tasks of building a more equitable society for future generations.
As my knowledge of modern Hungary is slight (to nonexistent), and this book was published nearly fifty years ago, I have no idea if Linda Degh and her associates succeeded in influencing the evolution of their society. Nor can I share with you how their folktale tradition has flourished since then. What the introductory material impressed upon me is how the researchers raced against time to collect these stories. Except in the more secluded regions, or among those of exceptional storytelling talents, the ability of oral storytellers to capture and hold an audience’s attention was dying out. Soon, they feared, there would be no more folktales to collect.
Following World War II, modernization and Soviet rule brought sweeping changes to Hungary. Advances in communication, better access to electricity, radio and TV, libraries, cinemas, and even traveling theaters, were competing for common people’s attention. Poverty became less of a barrier to advancement as access to education increased for all age groups and social classes. With the introduction of modern farming methods, not only were people moving to the larger cities in large numbers, but those farmers who remained behind organized into collectives. Researchers thus headed to remote villages, and the manor houses that were being converted into homes “for the ailing and aged” to collect these stories before those who told them passed away.
We tend to think of literacy as good thing, and of course it is. But in the mid-sixties, it was that very growing literacy that was killing off the oral folktale tradition. Why gather with others in a common room, when you could relax at the end of a long, tiring day in the comfort and privacy of your own quarters? Why listen to another tell a story of his or her choosing, when you could read a book better suited to your own interests and tastes? While a reader might miss the rise and fall of the storyteller’s voice, and any actions that accompanied his utterances, written stories tend to be better constructed than oral ones, and are unrestricted by traditional conventions. While the reader identifies folktales with the past, he identifies new stories and novels with the present. The latter hold an immediacy and excitement that the former lack. So the publishing industry flourishes, and old traditions die.
Thus, researchers hurried to collect these priceless gems that held the keys to unlock both past and future. Then they raced back behind the fortified walls of their universities. There, carrying guttering torches, they headed for priest holes and disguised libraries in which to safeguard their treasure against the ravages of time, unethical collectors, and rampaging hordes of invaders.
All right, I’ll admit that my prose is growing too flowery, and that my summary makes the introductory material seem more exciting than it really is. But that merely underlines the importance of my blogging, and my superior ability to convey important information. Had Linda Degh contacted me to write the introduction, and my services been available back then, I surely could have done a better job of it! (Right?)
Modern folktale researchers, hire me while you can.