Friday, 25 May 2012


By Jane Yolen

Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Tyler Garrison

A number of years ago, folklorist Alan Dundes coined the term “fakelore” to describe stories not from the folk canon but that sounded and tasted  and felt like those stories but were invented whole cloth by writers. Lumping in, I suppose, Madame LePrince du Beaumont and Isak Dinesen with Hans Christian Andersen, Angela Carter, and (gulp) me.

Though of course the perceptive lover of such tales could have pointed out to him how often the best of those stories have already moved back into the folk corner, hiding there for a number of years until they have emerged as—ta!ta!—folk stories.

I don’t like Dundes’ dyad and actually make this distinction: the greatest stories I know whether folklore or fakelore touch on the sacred, that moment when head and heart and soul combine.

My "sacred" may not be yours. We may worship at different altars.

Sacred in story has nothing to do with organized religion or disorganized religion. It has to do with that moment you are reading a story or hearing it from a teller’s mouth, and suddenly the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck rise up. The moment when you and the story ascend a level of humanity and touch the very hem of heaven. Call it the Numinous Effect or the Arm Hair Affirmation or anything else you wish. I call it sacred.

I think what Dundes was getting at, though, had more to do with the fact that a written or art tale carries with it an acknowledgement of personal history.

But wait-- even fairy tales that we so often claim are universal and ageless--carry the thumbprints of their own time. So a social scientist or international lawyer could parse (as happened at a fairy tale conference I once attended at Princeton) the fairy tale punishments in classic European fairy tales, explaining them in terms of the community and era in which each story was told. Thus the witch shoved into the oven in Hansel and Gretel, and the wicked queen in her red hot iron shoes are reflections of the prevailing laws about the burning of witches, and so forth.

That our stories are mirrors of our time, reflecting prevalent prejudices and class hatreds does not surprise any of us. Recent events—the harrowing of so many African states; the hunt for and death of Bin Laden; the Iraq war with its nasty sectarian fighting; the on-going killings of children by children in schools around America; the attempted assassination of a congresswoman in Tucson two years ago, that took the lives of others as collateral damage--all these are relevant to any discussion of moral issues. Yet when a fairy story creates a dark mirror, giving back in a fantastic setting the baser beliefs and feelings and legalities its own day, that often comes as a shock to even the more perspicacious reader (and as a total mystery to those readers who skim along the tops of metaphors.)

But really, fairy tales and folk stories have always been a kind of map which we clutch as we move along the journeys of our lives.

 A kind  of map.

But not strictly a map. The tale is obviously not a point-for-point representation of a specific landscape. A real map in the hand, however cleverly drawn, is still a landscape on a single plane. It is specific to an area.

A story--if it is any good at all--charts much more. It encompasses an entire heart's world. 

Once Upon  by Jane Yolen  © 2007

Once Upon A Time
there was a Wolf,
but not a Wolf,
an Other,
whose mother
and father were others,
who looked not like us,
Republican or Dem
in other words--
They were forest dwellers,
child sellers,
meat eaters,
wife beaters,
idol makers
oath breakers—
in other words, Wolf.
So Happy Ever After means
we kill the Wolf,
spill his blood,
knock him out,
bury him in mud,
make him dance
in red hot shoes.
For us to win
The Wolf must lose.

Jane Yolen is a writer who needs no introduction.  She has won umpteen awards, including but not limited to the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Her many books (over 300 to date) are on shelves all over the world. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. Newsweek has called her ‘the Hans Christian Andersen of America’, and the New York Times proclaimed her ‘a modern equivalent of Aesop’.  Her 1992 novel ‘Briar Rose’ is the most powerful retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ that I’ve ever read: not a fantasy, but a novel which deals with that most brutal of truths, the Holocaust. And yet, it is openly conceived as a fairytale.

Even if you don’t think you’ve read anything by Jane, you probably have. She’s written everything from picture books for little children, to magical adventures and fairytales for middle-graders, to teenage and adult fantasies, to academic essays. Remember ‘Owl Moon’ (1987) – a gorgeous picture book in which a little girl goes owl-watching on a moonlit night with her father? Or perhaps ‘Touch Magic’ (2000), an impassioned set of essays on the importance of fairytales and folklore in children’s reading? In the introduction to the 1981 edition, Jane writes:

Culture begins in the cradle. Literature is a continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work sprung full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. …I believe that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity’s past, is to have no star-map for our future.

In response to which, I can only throw my hat in the air and cheer.

Picture credit: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by illustrator and artist Tyler Garrison


  1. An interesting post. I've read some of Jane Yolen's short stories in fantasy collections and a couple of longer tales - all quite a while ago though. Time to look some out again, I think.

  2. This was a great post, thank you to both Jane and Katherine. I've never heard the expression fakelore before - it seems to me to miss the whole point of folklore and the way people tell and retell stories. It seems to me some people think stories are like mosquitoes caught in amber and preserved forever, while stories are living things that grow and change and adapt and transform.

  3. I loved the concept of Fakelore!

    My highest achievement as a storyteller was the day when an audience asked me what was the source of a story I had told them - and it was something I had carefully written to look like a folk tale.

  4. This is going to obviously sound as biased, considering I have studied both folklore and literature , but still, the matter of folklore vs fakelore (not the bestsounding label, I admit) is about how these stories are made and how they are distributed. Literature (like all mediums actually, be it movies, radio, even games) can create folklore, no doubt in that, as folklore is created from the everyday experiences and is an evaluation of it. So it is also correct, that folklore does show definately the social background from where the stories were made. Because again, stories rise from definite backgrounds.

    The difference now is, that folklore is authorless. The meaning of this is that the story does not so much portray the opinion of the storyteller (well, ofcourse it does, but that is diluted quickly through the retelling of stories) but of the social group where the story starts to travel. Because for the story to travel, for people to actually want to keep on passing it on, has to have some values, that the group shares. And then, with each retelling, it differs abit, showing the individuality of the storyteller. But it's still separate from the stories themselves, as they are seen as a power of themselves, lending their worlddescribing power to the Storytellers.

    With authors there always is a certain person behind it, even with Barthes calling the author dead, it still doesn't change the fact that the story itself will not have mutations. It can spawn folklore, most ertainly, but it's not folklore in itself.

    But that's not a bad thing at all.

    Dundes didn't call literature fakelore because he hated writers but because as a scientist he had to make clear definition of the subject matter. Otherwise he (and all other folklorists) should have to study every book ever written, because they might pass out on roaming folklore without it. It was just a matter of clear definition.