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THE NATURE AND VALUE OF FOLK-LORE.
BEFORE the written history of any old nation was begun, the memory of men and events was perpetuated in public observances by the people, and especially in the fireside tales and simple lays which constituted what modern writers are disposed to designate as folk-lore.
Old legends of the nations do not relate to men only. Often they tell of supernatural beings; of huge giants and minute fairies; of prodigious heroes; of genii, demigods, and gods; of monsters such as dragons, griffins, and winged horses; of wonderful lands, unknown to the geographer.
How these traditions of the supernatural originated is a problem to which much attention has been directed, especially within the present century. There are four schools of critics who maintain diverse theories as to the true interpretation of them.
First among these are the Euhemerists, who have held their ground from ancient days (having originated with Euhemerus, the Greek), and have been reënforced in later centuries by Snorre Sturleson and Saxo Grammaticus, by Peder Frederik Suhm, Rasmus Christian Rask, and others. They maintain that the legends originated in fact; that deviations from the original fact are the natural result of long transmission by the ignorant masses, given to exaggeration and influenced by superstition. According to the Euhemerists, the heathen gods were originally men; the dragons, strange and fierce reptiles; the Elysian abodes, real countries, left behind in the wanderings of tribes and nations.
A second class of critics, among them William and Mary
Howitt, hold that the mythologies of heathen nations are but corruptions of the true religion originally revealed to man.
Other writers on the subject declare that the deities and prodigies of ancient mythology are but symbols—though these writers are not agreed among themselves as to the nature of the symbolism. Some hold that abstract virtues and vices, mental and moral powers, are thus represented. Others, including modern critics of great eminence, maintain with Max Müller that the physical forces of Nature are symbolized. “There is no doubt,” says Prof. R. B. Anderson, “that this is the true interpretation of all mythologies; ... but the ethical, or, perhaps better, the spiritual, and the physical interpretations must be combined."
It would seem that there is truth in all these interpretations of mythology, applied variously, according to the nature and form of the myth. Clearly they are all applicable to folk-lore-which is far more comprehensive than mythology.
In the light of modern criticism, the value of a tradition is not to be measured by its fidelity to strict and literal fact. For many centuries Christians in all parts of the world have celebrated with festivity the 25th day of December as the day of the year on which the Saviour was born. The date is merely traditionary, with little evidence or probability to support it; but this fact does not detract at all from the happiness which Christmas brings, or from the value to the Christian world of the observances of the day.
For another illustration of this truth, it matters little whether Horatius or Mucius or Curtius or Virginius, supposititious heroes of early Rome, ever really existed; but it does matter to us to have heard of them—to have viewed the pictures which they present of virtue and worth in the society of old Roman days.
The tales which make up most of the early history of Rome have been differently viewed by three successive schools of historical writers. At first, and for many centuries, these
narrations were accepted and gravely taught as reliable history. Then a critical examination of their internal evidences showed that they were of doubtful credibility, sometimes absurdly improbable as statements of literal fact. This led later reviewers to discard them in toto, with disgust—as being worthless for historical purposes, because of their doubtful character. Then it was that Niebuhr arose. Admitting the claim that the early legends are not statements of facts, he yet held that they are of very great value to the world, as illustrating the spirit, the manners and customs, the religious beliefs, and other characteristics of the race with whom they originated. And his view is the view of the world to-day. There is an additional reason for the study of these narrations by the teacher and the student. They are told over and over in admired poems. They are portrayed in painting and sculpture. They are common material for illustration in oratory. They are subjects of exercises in translation in school text-books. Though subordinated to the facts of history, they will be of greater value to the reader than the unquestioned history of the same period will be. The great truth enunciated by Niebuhr relates as well to William Tell and to Pocahontas as to any hero of early Rome. It is broad and general in its application.
This volume is devoted chiefly to the folk-lore of modern i and Northern nations, which usually possesses a somber character, as compared with the lightness and comedy of the folk-lore of Southern lands. Generally it is solemn and striking; often it teaches great lessons of truth. It never deals lightly with lapses from virtue ; it is full of admonition and warning. The remorse of Queen Guinevere, the moral self-destruction of Tristram and Iseult, the indomitable quest of Childe Roland, the grand warfare of opposing forces in Ragnarok, the tremendous tragedies of the Nibelungenlied, the fall of Faust, the spiriting away of the children of Hameln—all are typical of the folk-lore from which they are taken, and are representative of the peoples with whom
they originated. They are, moreover, in striking contrast with the brighter folk-lore of other lands and with the debased mythology of Egypt.
The folk-lore of India has the warmth of the South, but still attests the unity of the Indo-European race in its delineation of stern realities and in the self-abnegation of Prince Siddartha.
The folk-lore of the Orient contains much that is beautiful, and its beauty is enhanced by the deeper hues of its
counterpart in the Western world. Je
Not only the critics of the present century, but the poets as well, have given their attention to the tales of folk-lore, and these have often formed the subject of their loftiest strains. Tennyson, Browning, Moore, Swinburne, Tegnér, Southey, Emerson, Lowell, Goethe, Schiller, Longfellow, Sir Edwin, Arnold, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, and others have placed in enduring and beautiful form these wonderful pictures that have come down to us from far-off years.
Thus far we have been considering folk-lore from an historical and critical point of view, and have referred to the more striking and systematic forms in which it appears. The subject is of greater interest, however, when viewed from the standpoint of the thought and feeling of every-day life.
Folk-lore consists not merely of complete legends and songs; it comes to us broken up in ten thousand fragmentary forms. We find it in our familiar proverbs, adages, and mottoes. It appears in the idioms of our speech. It brings to us the experiences of the race in many pithy say. ings. It comes to the child in its cradle, in its simplest lullaby. It brings to young children a world of happy thought in its nursery tales and childish rhymes.
When the reader shall have studied the more majestic fabrics of folk-lore, he will find a pleasing field for investigation in the common and even the trifling legacies of other days.
Mother Goose's Melodies is a book of no little interest