The Science of Fairy Tales - An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology
by Edwin Sidney Hartland
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The chief object of this volume is to exhibit, in a manner acceptable to readers who are not specialists, the application of the principles and methods which guide investigations into popular traditions to a few of the most remarkable stories embodying the Fairy superstitions of the Celtic and Teutonic peoples. Some of the subjects discussed have already been dealt with by more competent inquirers. But even in these cases I have sometimes been able to supply additional illustrations of the conclusions previously arrived at, and occasionally, I hope, to carry the argument a step or two further than had been done before. I have thus tried to render the following pages not wholly valueless to students.

A portion of the book incorporates the substance of some articles which I contributed to "The Archaeological Review" and "Folk-Lore." But these have been to a considerable extent re-written; and it is hoped that in the process wider and more accurate generalizations have been attained.

My hearty thanks are due to the various friends whose generous assistance has been recorded in the footnotes, and especially to Professor Dr. George Stephens, the veteran antiquary of the North, and Mr. W. G. Fretton, who have not measured their pains on behalf of one whose only claim on them was a common desire to pry into the recesses of the past. I am under still deeper obligations to Mr. G. L. Gomme, F.S.A., who has so readily acceded to my request that he would read the proof-sheets, and whose suggestions have repeatedly been of the greatest value; and to Mr. Havelock Ellis for the counsel and suggestions which his experience has more than once enabled him to give as the book was passing through the press.

I have been anxious to enable the reader who cares to do so to verify every statement made; but some of them no doubt have escaped reference. Many books are cited again and again, and in similar cases the reader's time is frequently wasted in searching for the first mention of a book, so as to ascertain its title and other particulars. To avoid the trouble I have so many times experienced in this way, I have put together in an Appendix a list of the principal authorities made use of, indicating them by the short title by which they are cited in the footnotes, and giving sufficient bibliographical details to enable them to be identified. Classics and works which are in every one's hands I have not thought it necessary to include in the list.

E. S. H.


24th October, 1890.

[Transcriber's Note: Any transcriber's notes are abbreviated in the text as TN: The caret (^) is used to indicate superscript.]












CHAPTER XI. SWAN-MAIDENS (continued) 283







The art of story-telling—Unity of human imagination—Definition of Fairy Tales—Variable value of Tradition—Story-telling and the story-teller among various peoples—The connection of folk-tales with folk-songs—Continuity of Tradition—Need of accuracy and good faith in reporting stories.

The art of story-telling has been cultivated in all ages and among all nations of which we have any record; it is the outcome of an instinct implanted universally in the human mind. By means of a story the savage philosopher accounts for his own existence and that of all the phenomena which surround him. With a story the mothers of the wildest tribes awe their little ones into silence, or rouse them into delight. And the weary hunters beguile the long silence of a desert night with the mirth and wonders of a tale. The imagination is not less fruitful in the higher races; and, passing through forms sometimes more, sometimes less, serious, the art of story-telling unites with the kindred arts of dance and song to form the epic or the drama, or develops under the complex influences of modern life into the prose romance and the novel. These in their various ways are its ultimate expression; and the loftiest genius has found no fitter vehicle to convey its lessons of truth and beauty.

But even in the most refined products of the imagination the same substances are found which compose the rudest. Something has, of course, been dropped in the process; and where we can examine the process stage by stage, we can discern the point whereat each successive portion has been purged away. But much has also been gained. To change the figure, it is like the continuous development of living things, amorphous at first, by and by shooting out into monstrous growths, unwieldy and half-organized, anon settling into compact and beautiful shapes of subtlest power and most divine suggestion. But the last state contains nothing more than was either obvious or latent in the first. Man's imagination, like every other known power, works by fixed laws, the existence and operation of which it is possible to trace; and it works upon the same material,—the external universe, the mental and moral constitution of man and his social relations. Hence, diverse as may seem at first sight the results among the cultured Europeans and the debased Hottentots, the philosophical Hindoos and the Red Indians of the Far West, they present, on a close examination, features absolutely identical. The outlines of a story-plot among savage races are wilder and more unconfined; they are often a vast unhidebound corpse, but one that bears no distant resemblance to forms we think more reasonable only because we find it difficult to let ourselves down to the level of savage ignorance, and to lay aside the data of thought which have been won for us by the painful efforts of civilization. The incidents, making all due allowance for these differences and those of climate and physical surroundings, are not merely alike; they are often indistinguishable. It cannot, of course, be expected that the characters of the actors in these stories will be drawn with skill, or indeed that any attention will be paid to them. Character-study is a late development. True: we ought not to overlook the fact that we have to do with barbarous ideals. In a rudimentary state of civilization the passions, like the arts, are distinguished not by subtlety and complexity, but by simplicity and violence of contrast. This may account to some extent for what seems to us repulsive, inconsistent or impossible. But we must above all things beware of crediting the story-teller with that degree of conscious art which is only possible in an advanced culture and under literary influences. Indeed, the researches which are constantly extending the history of human civilization into a remoter and remoter past, go everywhere to show that story-telling is an inevitable and wholly unconscious growth, probably arising, as we shall see in the next chapter, out of narratives believed to record actual events.

I need not stop now to illustrate this position, which is no new one, and the main lines of which I hope will be rendered apparent in the course of this volume. But it is necessary, perhaps, to point out that, although these are the premises from which I start, the limitations imposed by a work of the size and pretensions of this one will not allow me to traverse more than a very small corner of the field here opened to view. It is, therefore, not my intention to attempt any formal proof of the foregoing generalizations. Rather I hope that if any reader deem it proper to require the complete evidence on which they rest, he will be led to further investigations on his own behalf. His feet, I can promise him, will wander along flowery paths, where every winding will bring him fresh surprises, and every step discover new sources of enjoyment.

The stories with which we shall deal in the following pages are vaguely called Fairy Tales. These we may define to be: Traditionary narratives not in their present form relating to beings held to be divine, nor to cosmological or national events, but in which the supernatural plays an essential part. It will be seen that literary tales, such as those of Hans Andersen and Lord Brabourne, based though they often are upon tradition, are excluded from Fairy Tales as thus defined. Much no doubt might be said both interesting and instructive concerning these brilliant works. But it would be literary criticism, a thing widely different from the scientific treatment of Fairy Tales. The Science of Fairy Tales is concerned with tradition, and not with literature. It finds its subjects in the stories which have descended from mouth to mouth from an unknown past; and if reference be occasionally made to works of conscious literary art, the value of such works is not in the art they display, but the evidence they yield of the existence of given tales in certain forms at periods and places approximately capable of determination: evidence, in a word, which appropriates and fixes a pre-existing tradition. But even in this they are inferior in importance to historical or topographical works, where we frequently meet with records of the utmost importance in considering the origin and meaning of Folk-tales.

Literature, in short, of whatever kind, is of no value to the student of Fairy Tales, as that phrase is here used, save as a witness to Tradition. Tradition itself, however, is variable in value, if regard be had alone to purity and originality. For a tribe may conceivably be so isolated that it is improbable that any outside influence can have affected its traditions for a long series of generations; or on the other hand it may be in the highway of nations. It may be physically of a type unique and unalloyed by foreign blood; or it may be the progeny of a mingling of all the races on the earth. Now it is obvious that if we desire to reason concerning the wide distribution, or the innate and necessary character of any idea, or of any story, the testimony of a given tribe or class of men will vary in proportion to its segregation from other tribes and classes: where we can with most probability exclude outside influence as a factor in its mental evolution, there we shall gather evidence of the greatest value for the purpose of our argument.

Again: some nations have developed the art of story-telling more highly than others, since some stages of civilization are more favourable to this development than others, and all nations are not in the same stage. The further question may, therefore, be put whether these various stages of development may not produce differences of manner in story-telling—differences which may indicate, if they do not cause, deep-seated differences in the value of the traditions themselves. To make my meaning clear: a people which requires its story-tellers to relate their stories in the very words in which they have been conveyed from time immemorial, and allows no deviation, will preserve its traditions with the least possible blemish and the least possible change. In proportion as latitude in repetition is permitted and invention is allowed to atone for want of memory, tradition will change and become uncertain. Such latitude may be differently encouraged by different social states. A social state is part of, and inseparable from, the sum total of arts, knowledge, organization and customs which we call the civilization, or the stage of civilization, of a people. It may be worth while to spend a short time in examining the mode of story-telling and the requirements of a story-teller among nations in different stages of civilization. We shall thus endeavour to appreciate the differences in the manner of telling, and to ascertain in general terms how far these differences affect the value of the traditions.

If we turn first to some of the Celtic nations, we find a social state in which the art of story-telling has received a high degree of attention. The late Mr. J. F. Campbell, to whom the science of Folklore owes an incalculable debt, describes a condition of things in the Western Highlands extremely favourable to the cultivation of folk-tales. Quoting from one of his most assiduous collectors, he says that most of the inhabitants of Barra and South Uist are Roman Catholics, unable to speak English or to read or write. Hence it is improbable that they can have borrowed much from the literature of other nations. Among these people in the long winter nights the recitation of tales is very common. They gather in crowds at the houses of those who are reputed to be good tale-tellers. Their stories frequently relate to the exploits of the Ossianic heroes, of whose existence they are as much convinced as ordinary English folk are of the existence and deeds of the British army in its most recent wars. During the tales "the emotions of the reciters are occasionally very strongly excited, and so also are those of the listeners, almost shedding tears at one time, and giving way to loud laughter at another. A good many of them firmly believe in all the extravagance of these stories." Another of his collectors, a self-educated workman in the employ of the Duke of Argyll, writing more than thirty years ago to him, speaks of what used to take place about Loch Lomond upwards of fifty years before—that is to say, about the beginning of the present century. The old people then would pass the winter evenings telling each other traditional stories. These chiefly concerned freebooters, and tribal raids and quarrels, and included descriptions of the manners, dress and weapons of their ancestors and the hardships they had to endure. The youngsters also would gather, and amuse themselves with games or the telling of tales of a more romantic cast. But the chief story-tellers appear to have been the tailors and shoemakers, who were literally journeymen, going from house to house in search of work. As they travelled about, they picked up great numbers of tales, which they repeated; "and as the country people made the telling of these tales, and listening to hear them, their winter night's amusement, scarcely any part of them would be lost." In these tales Gaelic words were often used which had dropped out of ordinary parlance, giving proof of careful adherence to the ancient forms; and the writer records that the previous year he had heard a story told identical with one he had heard forty years before from a different man thirty miles away; and this story contained old Gaelic words the meaning of which the teller did not know. A gamekeeper from Ross-shire also testified to similar customs at his native place: the assemblies of the young to hear their elders repeat, on winter nights, the tales they had learned from their fathers before them, and the renown of the travelling tailor and shoemaker. When a stranger came to the village it was the signal for a general gathering at the house where he stayed, to listen to his tales. The goodman of the house usually began with some favourite tale, and the stranger was expected to do the rest. It was a common saying: "The first tale by the goodman, and tales to daylight by the guest." The minister, however, came to the village in 1830, and the schoolmaster soon followed, with the inevitable result of putting an end to these delightful times.[1]

Not very different is the account given by M. Luzel of the Veillees in which he has often taken part in Brittany. In the lonely farmhouse after the evening meal prayers are said, and the life in Breton of the saint of the day read, all the family assemble with the servants and labourers around the old-fashioned hearth, where the fire of oaken logs spirts and blazes, defying the wind and the rain or snow without. The talk is of the oxen and the horses and the work of the season. The women are at their wheels; and while they spin they sing love ditties, or ballads of more tragic or martial tone. The children running about grow tired of their games, and of the tedious conversation of their elders, and demand a tale, it matters not what, of giants, or goblins, or witches—nay, even of ghosts. They are soon gratified; and if an old man, as frequently happens, be the narrator, he is fortified and rewarded for the toil by a mug of cider constantly replenished. One such depositary of tradition is described as a blind beggar, a veritable Homer in wooden shoon, with an inexhaustible memory of songs and tales of every kind. He was welcome everywhere, in the well-to-do farmhouse as in the humble cottage. He stayed as long as he pleased, sometimes for whole weeks; and it was with reluctance that he was allowed to leave in order to become for a time the charm of another fireside, where he was always awaited with impatience.[2]

M. Braga, the Portuguese scholar, quotes an old French writer, Jean le Chapelain, as recording a custom in Normandy similar to that of Ross-shire, that the guest was always expected to repay hospitality by telling tales or singing songs to his host. And he states that the emigrants from Portugal to Brazil took this custom with them. In Gascony M. Arnaudin formed his collection of tales a few years ago by assisting at gatherings like those just described in Brittany, as well as at marriages and at various agricultural festivals.[3]

Similar customs existed in Wales within living memory, and in remote districts they probably exist to-day. If they do not now continue in England, it is at least certain that our forefathers did not differ in this respect from their neighbours. A writer of the seventeenth century, in enumerating the causes of upholding "the damnable doctrine of witchcraft," mentions: "Old wives' fables, who sit talking and chatting of many false old stories of Witches and Fairies and Robin Goodfellow, and walking spirits and the dead walking again; all of which lying fancies people are more naturally inclined to listen after than to the Scriptures." And if we go further back we find in chapter clv. of the printed editions of the "Gesta Romanorum" an interesting picture of domestic life. The whole family is portrayed gathering round the fire in the winter evenings and beguiling the time by telling stories. Such we are informed was the custom among the higher classes. It was, indeed, the custom among all classes, not only in England but on the Continent, throughout the Middle Ages. The eminent French antiquary, Paul Lacroix, speaks of wakes, or evening parties, where fairy tales and other superstitions were propagated, as having a very ancient origin. He states that they are still (as we have already seen in Brittany and Gascony) the custom in most of the French provinces, and that they formed important events in the private lives of the peasants.[4]

It is difficult to sever the occasion and mode of the tale-telling from the character of the teller; nor would it be wise to do so. And in this connection it is interesting to pause for a moment on Dr. Pitre's description of Agatuzza Messia, the old woman from whom he derived so large a number of the stories in his magnificent collection, and whom he regarded as a model story-teller. I am tempted to quote his account at length. "Anything but beautiful," he says, "she has facile speech, efficacious phrases, an attractive manner of telling, whence you divine her extraordinary memory and the sallies of her natural wit. Messia already reckons her seventy years, and is a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. As a child, she was told by her grandmother an infinity of tales which she had learned from her mother, and she in turn from her grandfather; she had a good memory and never forgot them. There are women who have heard hundreds of tales and remember none; and there are others who, though they remember them, have not the grace of narration. Among her companions of the Borgo, a quarter of Palermo, Messia enjoyed the reputation of a fine story-teller; and the more one heard her, the more one desired to hear. Almost half a century ago she was obliged to go with her husband to Messina, and lived there some time: a circumstance, this, worthy of note, since our countrywomen never go away from their own district save from the gravest necessity. Returning to her native home, she spoke of things of which the gossips of the neighbourhood could not speak: she spoke of the Citadel, a fortress which no one could take, not even the Turks themselves; she spoke of the Pharos of Messina, which was beautiful, but dangerous for sailors; she spoke of Reggio in Calabria, which, facing the walls of Messina, seemed to wish to touch hands with them; and she remembered and mimicked the pronunciation of the Milazzesi, who spoke, Messia said, so curiously as to make one laugh. All these reminiscences have remained most vivid in her memory. She cannot read, but she knows so many things that no one else knows, and repeats them with a propriety of tongue that is a pleasure to hear. This is a characteristic to which I call my readers' attention. If the tale turns upon a vessel which has to make a voyage, she utters, without remarking it, or without seeming to do so, sailors' phrases, and words which only seamen and those who have to do with seamen are acquainted with. If the heroine arrives, poor and desolate, at a baker's and takes a place there, Messia's language is so completely that of the trade that you would believe that the baking of bread had been her business, whereas at Palermo this occupation, an ordinary one in the families of the large and small communes of the island, is that of professional bakers alone.... As a young woman Messia was a tailoress; when through toil her sight became weakened, she turned to sewing winter quilts. But in the midst of this work, whereby she earns her living, she finds time for the fulfilment of her religious duties; every day, winter and summer, in rain or snow, in the gloaming she goes to her prayers. Whatever feast is celebrated in the church, she is solicitous to attend: Monday, she is at the Ponte dell' Ammiraglio praying for the Souls of the Beheaded; Wednesday, you find her at San Giuseppe keeping the festival of the Madonna della Providenza; every Friday she goes to San Francesco di Paola, reciting by the way her accustomed beads; and if one Saturday pass when she ought to go to the Madonna dei Cappuccini, another does not; and there she prays with a devotion which none can understand who has not experienced it. Messia witnessed my birth and held me in her arms: hence I have been able to collect from her mouth the many and beautiful traditions to which her name is appended. She has repeated to the grown man the tales she had told to the child thirty years before; nor has her narration lost a shade of the old sincerity, vivacity, and grace. The reader will only find the cold and naked words; but Messia's narration consists, more than in words, in the restless movement of the eyes, in the waving of the arms, in the gestures of the whole person, which rises, walks around the room, bends, and is again uplifted, making her voice now soft, now excited, now fearful, now sweet, now hoarse, as it portrays the voices of the various personages, and the action which these are performing."[5]

Such a woman as is here described is a born story-teller; and her art, as exhibited in the tales attributed to her in Dr. Pitre's collection, reaches perhaps the highest point possible in tradition. Women are usually the best narrators of nursery tales. Most of the modern collections, from that of the brothers Grimm downwards, owe their choicest treasures to women. In the Panjab, however, Captain Temple ascribes to children marvellous power of telling tales, which he states they are not slow to exercise after sunset, when the scanty evening meal is done and they huddle together in their little beds beneath the twinkling stars, while the hot air cools, the mosquito sings, and the village dogs bark at imaginary foes. The Rev. Hinton Knowles' collection was gathered in Cashmere apparently from men and boys only; but all classes contributed, from the governor and the pandit down to the barber and the day-labourer, the only qualification being that they should be entirely free from European influence.[6]

But nursery tales told simply for amusement are far from being the only kind of traditional narrative. Savage and barbarous races, to whom the art of writing is unknown, are dependent upon memory for such records as they have of their past; and sometimes a professional class arises to preserve and repeat the stories believed to embody these records. Among the Maories and their Polynesian kinsmen the priests are the great depositaries of tradition. It is principally from them that Mr. White and the Rev. W. W. Gill have obtained their collections. But the orators and chiefs are also fully conversant with the narratives; and their speeches are filled with allusions to them, and with quotations from ancient poems relating the deeds of their forefathers. The difficulty of following such allusions, and consequently of understanding the meaning of the chiefs when addressing him on behalf of their fellow-countrymen, first induced, or compelled, Sir George Grey, when Governor of New Zealand, to make the inquiries whose results are embodied in his work on Polynesian Mythology. The Eskimo of Greenland, at the other end of the world, divide their tales into two classes: the ancient and the modern. The former may be considered, Dr. Rink says, as more or less the property of the whole nation, while the latter are limited to certain parts of the country, or even to certain people who claim to be akin to one another. The art of telling these tales is "practised by certain persons specially gifted in this respect; and among a hundred people there may generally be found one or two particularly favoured with the art of the raconteur, besides several tolerable narrators." It is the narrators of the ancient tales "who compose the more recent stories by picking up the occurrences and adventures of their latest ancestors, handed down occasionally by some old members of the family, and connecting and embellishing them by a large addition of the supernatural, for which purpose resort is always had to the same traditional and mystic elements of the ancient folklore."[7]

But the art of story-telling has not everywhere given rise to a professional class. When the Malagasy receive friends at their houses, they themselves recount the deeds of their ancestors, which are handed down from father to son, and form the principal topic of conversation. So, too, the savage Ahts of Vancouver Island sit round their fires singing and chatting; "and the older men, we are told, lying and bragging after the manner of story-tellers, recount their feats in war, or the chase, to a listening group." Mr. Im Thurn has drawn an interesting picture of the habits at night of the Indian tribes of Guiana. The men, if at home, spend the greater part of the day in their hammocks, smoking, "and leisurely fashioning arrowheads, or some such articles of use or of ornament.... When the day has at last come to an end, and the women have gathered together enough wood for the fires during the night, they, too, throw themselves into their hammocks; and all talk together. Till far into the night the men tell endless stories, sometimes droning them out in a sort of monotonous chant, sometimes delivering them with a startling amount of emphasis and gesticulation. The boys and younger men add to the noise by marching round the houses, blowing horns and playing on flutes. There is but little rest to be obtained in an Indian settlement by night. These people sleep, as dogs do, without difficulty, for brief periods, but frequently and indifferently by day or night as may be convenient. The men, having slept at intervals during the day, do not need night-rest; the women are not considered in the matter. At last, in the very middle of their stories, the party drops off to sleep; and all is quiet for a short while. Presently some woman gets up to renew the fires, or to see to some other domestic work. Roused by the noise which she makes, all the dogs of the settlement break into a chorus of barks and yelps. This wakes the children, who begin to scream. The men turn in their hammocks, and immediately resume their stories, apparently from the point at which they left off, and as if they had never ceased. This time it is but a short interruption to the silence of the night; and before long everything again becomes quiet, till some new outbreak is caused, much as was the last. In the very middle of the night there are perhaps some hours of quiet. But about an hour before dawn, some of the men having to go out to hunt, effectually wake everybody about them by playing flutes, or beating drums, as they go to bathe before leaving the settlement."[8]

But the folk-tale cannot be separated in this inquiry from the folk-song with which, in its origin and development, it is so closely connected. In India there are, or were until recent years, everywhere professional bards; and the stories told in Indian villages are frequently the substance of the chants of these bards. More than this, the line between singing and narration is so faintly drawn, that the bards themselves often interpose great patches of prose between the metrical portions of their recitations. Fairs, festivals, and marriages all over India are attended by the bards, who are always ready to perform for pay and drink. Mr. Leland believes the stories he obtained from the Christian Algonkins of New England, concerning the ancient heroes of the race and other mythical personages, to have once been delivered as poems from generation to generation and always chanted. The deeds of Maori warriors are handed down in song; just as we find in Beowulf, the story of Hrothgar's ancestors was sung before his own companions-in-arms by his gleemen to the accompaniment of some instrument after the mead cup had gone round. The Roman historian attests the prevalence among the German tribes of ancient songs, which he expressly mentions as their only kind of memory or record,—thus showing that all their tales, whether mythologic or heroic, were for better preservation cast into metrical form. Some of these, enshrining the deeds of their heroes, were chanted on going into battle, in order to arouse the warriors' courage. And as far back as the light of history, or of literature, penetrates, not only the Teutonic, but also the Celtic nations loved to have their actions celebrated thus. To a Welsh king his household bard was as necessary as his domestic chaplain, or his court physician, and in the ancient laws his duties, his precedence, his perquisites, and even the songs he was expected to sing, are minutely prescribed. The bards were organized into a regular order, or college, with an official chief. They were not merely singers or poets, but also tale-tellers; and from the Mabinogion we gather that listening to songs and tales was one of the habitual, if not daily pastimes, of a court.[9]

It is needless to follow through the Middle Ages the history of the troubadour, the minstrel and the jongleur, who played so large part in the social life of those times. Many of them were retainers of noblemen and kings; but others roamed about from place to place, singing their lays and reciting their stories (for they dealt in prose as well as verse), very much in the manner of the Indian bards just mentioned. Their stock-in-trade must have been partly traditional and partly of their own composition. In this respect they were probably less hide-bound than their Indian brethren are. For the latter, whether retainers of the native grandees, as many of them are, or members of the humbler class of wandering minstrels, are expected to repeat their lays as they have received them. But, although in the main these professional gentlemen adhere to the traditional words which they know by heart, the temptation must be very strong to foist at suitable pauses into their tales impromptu passages—best described in stage language as "gag"—which they think will be acceptable to their audience. And whether or not this be actually the case with the Indian bards, we are expressly told that it is so with the Arab story-teller, and that it accounts for much of the ribaldry and filth which have become embedded in the immortal "Nights." A viol having only one string accompanies the passages in verse with which the stories are interlarded; and a similar instrument seems to be used for the like purpose among the orthodox Guslars of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[10] A description given by Sir Richard Burton of a story-teller at the bazaar at Tangier may stand, except as to the external details, for that of an Arab reciter throughout Northern Africa and the Moslem East. "The market people," he says, "form a ring about the reciter, a stalwart man, affecting little raiment besides a broad waist-belt into which his lower chiffons are tucked, and noticeable only for his shock hair, wild eyes, broad grin, and generally disreputable aspect. He usually handles a short stick; and, when drummer and piper are absent, he carries a tiny tomtom shaped like an hour-glass, upon which he taps the periods. This Scealuidhe, as the Irish call him, opens the drama with an extempore prayer, proving that he and the audience are good Moslems; he speaks slowly and with emphasis, varying the diction with breaks of animation, abundant action and the most comical grimace: he advances, retires, and wheels about, illustrating every point with pantomime; and his features, voice and gestures are so expressive that even Europeans who cannot understand a word of Arabic, divine the meaning of his tale. The audience stands breathless and motionless, surprising strangers by the ingenuousness and freshness of feeling hidden under their hard and savage exterior. The performance usually ends with the embryo actor going round for alms, and flourishing in the air every silver bit, the usual honorarium being a few f'lus, that marvellous money of Barbary, big coppers worth one-twelfth of a penny." Another writer, who has published modern Arab folk-tales, obtained eleven out of twelve from his cook, a man who could neither read nor write, but possessed an excellent memory. His stories were derived from his mother and aunts, and from old women who frequented his early home. The remaining tale was dictated by a sheikh with some, though small, pretensions to education, and this tale, though at bottom a genuine folk-tale, presented traces of literary manipulation.[11]

The literary touches here spoken of were probably not impromptu. But it must be admitted that the tendency to insert local colouring and "gag" is almost irresistible amongst the Arabs. Dr. Steere notices it as a characteristic of the story-tellers of the Swahili, a people of mixed Arab and Negro descent at Zanzibar;[12] and it is perhaps inevitable in a professional reciter whose audience, like himself, is restless and vivacious in so high a degree. The only case in which any restraint would be certain to be felt is where a narrative believed to be of religious import is given. Under the influence of religious feeling the most mobile of races become conservative; and traditions of a sacred character are the most likely of all to be handed down unchanged from father to son. Directly we get outside the charmed circle of religious custom, precept, and story, the awe which has the most powerful effect in preserving tradition intact ceases to work; and we are left to a somewhat less conservative force of habit to retain the old form of words and the time-honoured ceremonies. Still this force is powerful; the dislike of voluntary change forbids amendment even of formularies which have long ceased to be understood, and have often become ridiculous because their meaning has been lost. It is by no means an uncommon thing for the rustic story-teller to be unable to explain expressions, and indeed whole episodes, in any other way than Uncle Remus, when called upon to say who Miss Meadows was: "She wuz in de tale, Miss Meadows en de gals wuz, en de tale I give you like hi't wer' gun ter me." Dr. Steere, speaking of a collection of Swahili tales by M. Jablonsky which I think has never been published, tells us that almost all of the tales had "sung parts," and of some of these even they who sang them could scarcely explain the meaning. Here we may observe the connection with the folk-song; and it is a strong evidence of adherence to ancient tradition. Frequently in Dr. Steere's own experience the skeleton of the story seemed to be contained in these snatches of song, which were connected together by an account, apparently extemporized, of the intervening history. In these latter portions, if the hypothesis of extemporization were correct, the words of course would be different, but the substance might remain untouched. I suspect, however, that the extemporization was nothing like so complete as the learned writer imagined, but rather that the tale, as told with song and narrative mingled, was in a state of gradual decay or transition from verse to prose, and that the prose portions were, to almost as great an extent as the verse, traditional.

Be this as it may, the tenacity with which the illiterate story-teller generally adheres to the substance and to the very words of his narrative is remarkable—and this in spite of the freedom sometimes taken of dramatic illustration, and the license to introduce occasional local and personal allusions and "gag." These are easily separable from the genuine tale. What Dr. Rink says of the Eskimo story-telling holds good, more or less, all over the world. "The art," he states, "requires the ancient tales to be related as nearly as possible in the very words of the original version, with only a few arbitrary reiterations, and otherwise only varied according to the individual talents of the narrator, as to the mode of recitation, gesture, &c. The only real discretionary power allowed by the audience to the narrator is the insertion of a few peculiar passages from other traditions; but even in that case no alteration of these original or elementary materials used in the composition of tales is admissible. Generally, even the smallest deviation from the original version will be taken notice of and corrected, if any intelligent person happens to be present. This circumstance," he adds, "accounts for their existence in an unaltered shape through ages; for had there been the slightest tendency to variation on the part of the narrator, or relish for it on that of the audience, every similarity of these tales, told in such widely-separated countries, would certainly have been lost in the course of centuries." Here the audience, wedded to the accustomed formularies, is represented as controlling any inclination to variation on the reciter's part. How far such an attitude of mind may have been produced by previous repetitions in the same words we need not inquire. Certain it is that accuracy would be likely to generate the love of accuracy, and that again to react so as to compel adherence to the form of words which the ear had been led to expect. Readers of Grimm will remember the anxiety betrayed by a peasant woman of Niederzwehr, near Cassel, that her very words and expressions should be taken down. They who have studied the records collectors have made of the methods they have adopted, and the assistance they have received from narrators who have understood and sympathized with their purpose, will not find anything exceptional in this woman's conduct.[13]

Nor must we overlook the effect of dramatic and pantomimic action. At first sight action, like that of Messia or the Arab reciter, might seem to make for freedom in narration. But it may well be questioned if this be so to any great extent. For in a short time certain attitudes, looks, and gestures become inseparably wedded, not only in the actor's mind, but also in the minds of the audience who have grown accustomed to them, with the passages and the very words to which they are appropriate. The eye as well as the ear learns what to expect, with results proportioned to the comparative values of those two senses as avenues of knowledge. The history of the stage, the observation of our own nurseries, will show with how much suspicion any innovation on the mode of interpreting an old favourite is viewed.

To sum up: it would appear that national differences in the manner of story-telling are for the most part superficial. Whether told by men to men in the bazaar or the coffee-house of the East, or by old men or women to children in the sacred recesses of the European home, or by men to a mixed assembly during the endless nights of the Arctic Circle, or in the huts of the tropical forest, and notwithstanding the license often taken by a professional reciter, the endeavour to render to the audience just that which the speaker has himself received from his predecessors is paramount. The faithful delivery of the tradition is the principle underlying all variation of manner; and it is not confined to any one race or people. It is not denied that changes do take place as the story passes from one to another. This indeed is the inevitable result of the play of the two counteracting forces just described—the conservative tendency and the tendency to variation. It is the condition of development; it is what makes a science of Folk-tales both necessary and possible. Nor can it be denied that some changes are voluntary. But the voluntary changes are rare; and the involuntary changes are only such as are natural and unavoidable if the story is to continue its existence in the midst of the ever-shifting social organism of humanity. The student must, therefore, know something of the habits, the natural and social surroundings, and the modes of the thought of the people whose stories he examines. But this known, it is not difficult to decipher the documents.

There is, however, one caution—namely, to be assured that the documents are gathered direct from the lips of the illiterate story-teller, and set down with accuracy and good faith. Every turn of phrase, awkward or coarse though it may seem to cultured ears, must be unrelentingly reported; and every grotesquery, each strange word, or incomprehensible or silly incident, must be given without flinching. Any attempt to soften down inconsistencies, vulgarities or stupidities, detracts from the value of the text, and may hide or destroy something from which the student may be able to make a discovery of importance to science. Happily the collectors of the present day are fully alive to this need. The pains they take to ensure correctness are great, and their experiences in so doing are often very interesting. Happily, too, the student soon learns to distinguish the collections whose sincerity is certain from those furbished up by literary art. The latter may have purposes of amusement to serve, but beyond that they are of comparatively little use.


[1] Campbell, vol. i. pp. xii. xiv. lvii.

[2] Luzel, "Veillees," passim.

[3] Introduction to Romero, p. x.; Arnaudin, p. 5.

[4] Thomas Ady, "A Candle in the Dark" (1656) (Cf. Aubrey, "Remaines," p. 67); "Gesta Romanorum," Introd., p. xxv. (E.E.T.S.); Lacroix, p. 100.

[5] Pitre, vol. iv. p. xvii.

[6] "Wide-awake Stories," p. 1; Knowles, p. ix.

[7] White, vol. i. p. vi.; Sir G. Grey, p. vii.; Gill, p. xx.; Rink, pp. 83, 85.

[8] Ellis, "History of Madagascar," vol. i. p. 264; Sproat, "Scenes and Studies of Savage Life," p. 51; Im Thurn, pp. 215, 216.

[9] Temple, "Legends of the Panjab," vol. i. p. v.; Thorburn, p. 172; Leland, p. 12; Taylor, p. 306; "Beowulf," lay 16; Tacitus, "Germania," cc., 2, 3; "Ancient Laws and Institutions of Wales" (Public Record Commission, 1841), pp. 15, 35, &c.

[10] Burton, "Nights," vol. x. p. 163; "Revue des Trad. Pop." vol. iv. p. 6. In Greece and Albania, however, the viol would seem not to be used. Women are the chief reciters. Von Hahn, vol. i. p. ix.

[11] Spitta Bey, p. viii.

[12] Steere, pp. v., vii.

[13] Rink, p. 85; Grimm, "Maerchen," p. vii.



Sagas and Maerchen—Fairy Tales based upon ideas familiar to savages—The Doctrine of Spirits—The Doctrine of Transformation—Totemism—Death—Witchcraft—The predominance of imagination over reason in savages—Method of the inquiry.

Fairy Tales, as defined in the previous chapter, fall under two heads. Under the first we may place all those stories which relate to definite supernatural beings, or definite orders of supernatural beings, held really to exist, and the scenes of which are usually laid in some specified locality. Stories belonging to this class do not necessarily, however, deal with the supernatural. Often they are told of historical heroes, or persons believed to have once lived. For instance, the legends of Lady Godiva and Whittington and his Cat, which, however improbable, contain nothing of the supernatural, must be reckoned under this head equally with the story of the Luck of Edenhall, or the Maori tale of the Rending asunder of Heaven and Earth. In other words, this class is by no means confined to Fairy Tales, but includes all stories which are, or at all events have been up to recent years, and in the form in which they come to us, looked upon as narratives of actual occurrences. They are called Sagas. The other class of tales consists of such as are told simply for amusement, like Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Puss in Boots. They may embody incidents believed in other countries, or in other stages of civilization, to be true in fact; but in the form in which we have them this belief has long since been dropped. In general, the reins are thrown upon the neck of the imagination; and, marvellous though the story be, it cannot fail to find acceptance, because nobody asserts that its events ever took place, and nobody desires to bring down its flights to the level either of logic or experience. Unlike the saga, it binds the conscience neither of teller nor of listener; its hero or heroine has no historical name or fame, either national or local; and being untrammelled either by history or probability, the one condition the tale is expected to fulfil is to end happily. Stories of this class are technically called Maerchen: we have no better English name for them than Nursery Tales.

If we inquire which of these two species of tales is the earlier in the history of culture, it seems that the priority must be given to sagas. The matter, indeed, is not quite free from doubt, because low down in the scale of civilization, as among the Ainos of Japan, stories are told which appear to be no more than maerchen; and because, on the other hand, it is at all times easier, even for experienced collectors, to obtain sagas than maerchen. But among the lower races, a vastly preponderating number of tales recorded by Europeans who have lived with them on the terms of the greatest intimacy is told to account for the phenomena of nature, or their own history and organization. From many savage peoples we have no other stories at all; and it is not uncommon to find narratives at bottom identical with some of these told as maerchen among nations that have reached a higher plane. In these cases, at all events, it looks as if the tales, or tales from which they had been derived, had been originally believed as true, and, having ceased to be thus received, had continued to be repeated, in a shape more or less altered, for mere amusement. If we may venture to affirm this and to generalize from such cases, this is the way in which maerchen have arisen.

But sagas are not only perhaps the most ancient of tales, they are certainly the most persistent. By their attachment to places and to persons, a religious sanction is frequently given to them, a local and national pride is commonly felt in preserving them. Thus they are remembered when nursery tales are forgotten; they are more easily communicated to strangers; they find their way into literature and so are rendered imperishable.

Fairy Tales of both these classes are compounded of incidents which are the common property of many nations, and not a few whereof are known all over the habitable globe. In some instances the whole plot, a more or less intricate one, is found among races the most diverse in civilization and character. Where the plot is intricate, or contains elements of a kind unlikely to have originated independently, we may be justified in suspecting diffusion from one centre. Then it is that the history and circumstances of a nation become important factors in the inquiry; and upon the purity of blood and the isolation from neighbouring races may depend our decision as to the original or derivative character of such a tradition. Sometimes the passage of a story from one country to another can be proved by literary evidence. This is markedly the case with Apologues and Facetious Tales, two classes of traditions which do not come within the purview of the present work. But the story has then passed beyond the traditional stage, or else such proof could not be given. In tracing the history of a folk-tale which has entered into literature, the problem is to ascertain how far the literary variations we meet with may have been influenced by pre-existing traditional tales formed upon similar lines. In general, however, it may be safely said of Fairy Tales (with which we are more immediately concerned) that the argument in favour of their propagation from a single centre lacks support. The incidents of which they are composed are based upon ideas not peculiar to any one people, ideas familiar to savages everywhere, and only slowly modified and transformed as savagery gives way to barbarism, and barbarism to modern civilization and scientific knowledge of the material phenomena of the universe. The ideas referred to are expressed by races in the lower culture both in belief and in custom. And many of the tales which now amuse our children appear to have grown out of myths believed in the most matter-of-fact way by our remote forefathers; while others enshrine relics of long-forgotten customs and modes of tribal organization.

There is one habit of thought familiar to savage tribes that to us, trained through long centuries of progressive knowledge, seems in the highest degree absurd and even incomprehensible. As a matter of every-day practice we cannot, if we would, go back to that infantine state of mind which regards not only our fellow men and women, but all objects animate and inanimate around us, as instinct with a consciousness, a personality akin to our own. This, however, is the savage philosophy of things. To a large proportion of human beings at the present day beasts and birds, trees and plants, the sea, the mountains, the wind, the sun, the moon, the clouds and the stars, day and night, the heaven and the earth, are alive and possessed of the passions and the cunning and the will they feel within themselves. The only difference is that these things are vastly cleverer and more powerful than men. Hence they are to be dreaded, to be appeased—if possible, to be outwitted—even, sometimes, to be punished. We may observe this childish habit of thought in our nurseries to-day when one of our little ones accidentally runs against the table, and forthwith turns round to beat the senseless wood as if it had voluntarily and maliciously caused his pain; or when another, looking wistfully out of window, adjures the rain in the old rhyme:

"Rain, rain, go away! Come again another day!"

Poets, too, and orators in their loftiest moods revert to language and modes of expression which have no meaning apart from this belief in the conscious animation of every object in the world. They may move us for the moment by their utterances; but we never take their raptures literally. To the savage, however, it is no figure of speech to call upon the sun to behold some great deed, or to declare that the moon hides her face; to assert that the ocean smiles, or that the river swells with rage, and overwhelms a wayfarer who is crossing it, or an unsuspecting village on its banks. These phrases for him fit the facts of nature as closely as those which record that the man eats or the boy runs. Nay, what would seem incredible to him would be to deny that the sun can see or the moon hide her face, the ocean smile or the river become enraged. Conscious personality and human emotions are visible to him everywhere and in all things.

It matters not to the savage that human form and speech are absent. These are not necessary, or, if they are, they can be assumed either at will or under certain conditions. For one of the consequences, or at least one of the accompaniments, of this stage of thought is the belief in change of form without loss of individual identity. The bear whom the savage meets in the woods is too cunning to appear and do battle with him as a man; but he could if he chose. The stars were once men and women. Sun and moon, the wind and the waters, perform all the functions of living beings: they speak, they eat, they marry and have children. Rocks and trees are not always as immovable as they appear: sometimes they are to be seen as beasts or men, whose shapes they still, it may be, dimly retain.

It follows that peoples in this stage of thought cannot have, in theory at all events, the repugnance to a sexual union between man and the lower animals with which religious training and the growth of civilization have impressed all the higher races. Such peoples admit the possibility of a marriage wherein one party may be human and the other an animal of a different species, or even a tree or plant. If they do not regard it as an event which can take place in their own time and neighbourhood, it does not seem entirely incredible as an event of the past; and sometimes customs are preserved on into a higher degree of culture—such as that of wedding, for special purposes, a man to a tree—unmistakably bespeaking former, if not present, beliefs. Moreover, tribes in the stage of thought here described, hold themselves to be actually descended from material objects often the most diverse from human form. These are not only animals (beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, and even insects) or vegetables, but occasionally the sun, the sea, the earth, and other things unendowed with life. Such mythic ancestors are worshipped as divine. This superstition is called Totemism, and the mythic ancestor is known as the Totem. As a people passes gradually into a higher stage of culture, greater stress is constantly laid on the human qualities of the Totem, until it becomes at length an anthropomorphic god. To such deity the object previously reverenced as a Totem is attached, and a new and modified legend grows up to account for the connection.

The belief in metamorphosis involves opinions on the subject of death which are worth a moment's pause. Death is a problem to all men, to the savage as to the most civilized. Least of any can the savage look upon it as extinction. He emphatically believes that he has something within him that survives the dissolution of his outward frame. This is his spirit, the seat of his consciousness, his real self. As he himself has a spirit, so every object in the world has a spirit. He peoples the universe, as he knows it, with spirits akin to his own. It is to their spirits that all the varied objects around him, all the phenomena observable by day or by night, owe the consciousness, the personality, I have already tried to describe. These spirits are separable from the material form with which they are clad. When the savage sleeps, his spirit goes forth upon various adventures. These adventures he remembers as dreams; but they are as veritable as his waking deeds; and he awakes when his spirit returns to him. In his dreams he sees his friends, his foes; he kills imaginary bears and venison. He knows therefore that other men's spirits travel while their bodies sleep and undergo adventures like his own, and in company often with his spirit. He knows that the spirits of wild animals range abroad and encounter his spirit. What is death but the spirit going forth to return no more? Rocks and rivers perhaps cannot die, or at least their life immeasurably exceeds that of men. But the trees of the forest may, for he can cut them down and burn them. Yet, inasmuch as it is the nature of a body to have an indwelling spirit, death—the permanent severing of body and spirit—cannot occur naturally: it must be due to the machination of some enemy, by violence, by poison, or by sorcery.

The spirit that has gone forth for ever is not, by quitting its bodily tenement, deprived of power offensive and defensive. It is frequently impelled by hostile motives to injure those yet in the flesh; and it must, therefore, be appeased, or deceived, or driven away. This is the end and aim of funeral rites: this is the meaning of many periodical ceremonies in which the whole tribe takes part. For the same reason, when the hunter slays a powerful animal, he apologizes and lays the blame on his arrows or his spear, or on some one else. For the same reason the woodman, when he cuts down a tree, asks permission to do so and offers sacrifices, and he provides a green sprig to stick into the stump as soon as the tree falls, that it may be a new home for the spirit thus dislodged. For since the spirit is neither slain, nor deprived of power, by destruction of the body, or by severance from the body, it may find another to dwell in. Spirits of dead men, like other spirits, may assume fresh bodies, new forms, and forms not necessarily human. A favourite form is that of a snake: it was as a snake that the spirit of Anchises appeared and accepted the offerings made by his pious son. In their new forms the spirits of the dead are sometimes, as in this case, kindly, at other times malicious, but always to be treated with respect, always to be conciliated; for their power is great. They can in their turn cause disease, misfortune, death.

Another characteristic of the mental condition I am describing must not be omitted. Connection of thought, even though purely fortuitous, is taken to indicate actual connection of the things represented in thought. This connection is, of course, often founded on association of time or place, and once formed it is not easily broken. For example, any object once belonging to a man recalls the thought of him. The connection between him and that object is therefore looked upon as still existing, and he may be affected by the conduct shown towards it. This applies with special force to such objects as articles of clothing, and still more to footprints and to spittle, hair, nail-parings and excrement. Injury to these with malicious intent will hurt him from whom they are derived. In the same way a personal name is looked upon as inseparable from its owner; and savages are frequently careful to guard the knowledge of their true names from others, being content to be addressed and spoken of by a nickname, or a substituted epithet. The reason of this is that the knowledge of another's name confers power over that other: it is as though he, or at least an essential part of him, were in the possession of the person who had obtained the knowledge of his name. It is perhaps not an unfair deduction from the same premises that endows an image with the properties of its prototype—nay, identifies it with its prototype. This leads on the one hand to idol-worship, and on the other hand to the rites of witchcraft wherein the wizard is said to make a figure of a man, call it by his name, and then transfix it with nails or thorns, or burn it, with the object of causing pain and ultimately death to the person represented. Nor is a very different process of thought discernible in the belief that by eating human or other flesh the spirit (or at any rate some of the spiritual qualities) formerly animating it can be transferred to the eater. So a brave enemy is devoured in the hope of acquiring his bravery; and a pregnant woman is denied the flesh of hares and other animals whose qualities it is undesirable her children should have.

To minds guiltless of inductive reasoning an accidental coincidence is a sure proof of cause and effect. Travellers' tales are full of examples of misfortunes quite beyond foresight or control, but attributed by the savages among whom the narrators have sojourned to some perfectly innocent act on their part, or merely to their presence, or to some strange article of their equipment. Occasionally the anger of the gods is aroused by these things; and missionaries, in particular, have suffered much on this account. But sometimes a more direct causation is imagined, though it is probably not always easy to distinguish the two cases. Omens also are founded upon accidental coincidences. The most lively imagination may fail to trace cause and effect between the meeting of a magpie at setting out and a fruitless errand following, or between a certain condition of the entrails of an animal sacrificed and a victory or defeat thereafter. But the imagination is not to be beaten thus. If the magpie did not cause failure, at all events it foretold it; and the look of the entrails was an omen of the gain or loss of the battle.

Again, a merely fanciful resemblance is a sufficient association to establish actual connection. Why do the Bushmen kindle great fires in time of drought, if not because of the similarity in appearance between smoke and rain-clouds? Such resemblances, to give a familiar instance, have fastened on certain rocks and stones many legends of transformation in conformity with the belief already discussed; and they account for a vast variety of symbolism in the rites and ceremonies of nations all over the world.

The topic is well nigh endless; but enough has been said to enable the reader to see how widely pervasive in human affairs is the belief in real connection founded on nothing more substantial than association of thought, however occasioned. Nothing, indeed, is too absurd for this belief. It is one of the most fruitful causes of superstition; and it only disappears very gradually from the higher civilization as the reasoning powers become more and more highly trained. In magic, or witchcraft, we find it developed into a system, with professional ministers and well-established rules. By these rules its ministers declare themselves able to perform all the wonders of transformation referred to above, to command spirits, to bring distant persons and things into their immediate presence, to inflict injury and death upon whom they please, to bestow wealth and happiness, and to foretell the future. The terror they have thus inspired, and the horrors wrought under the influence of that terror, form one of the saddest chapters of history.[14]

I do not of course pretend that the foregoing is a complete account of the mental processes of savage peoples. Still less have I attempted to trace the history of the various characteristics mentioned, or to show the order of their evolution. To attempt either of these things would be beyond the scope of the present work. I have simply enumerated a few of the elements in the psychology of men in a low state of culture which it is needful to bear in mind in order to understand the stories we are about to examine. In those stories we shall find many impossibilities, many absurdities and many traces of customs repulsive to our modes of thought and foreign to our manners. The explanation is to be obtained, not by speculations based on far-fetched metaphors supposed to have existed in the speech of early races, nor in philological puzzles, but by soberly inquiring into the facts of barbarian and savage life and into the psychological phenomena of which the facts are the outcome. The evidence of these facts and phenomena is to be found scattered up and down the pages of writers of every age, creed and country. On hardly any subject have men of such different degrees of learning, such various and opposite prejudices, left us their testimony—testimony from the nature of the subject more than ordinarily liable to be affected by prejudice, and by the limitations of each witness's powers of observation and opportunities of ascertaining the truth. But after all deductions for prejudice, mistake, inaccuracy and every other shortcoming, there is left a strong, an invincible consensus of testimony, honest, independent and full of undesigned corroborations, to the development of the mind of all races in the lower culture along the lines here indicated. Nay, more; the numerous remains of archaic institutions, as well as of beliefs among the most advanced nations, prove that they too have passed through the very same stages in which we find the most backward still lingering—stages which the less enlightened classes even of our own countrymen at the present day are loth to quit. And the further we penetrate in these investigations, the more frequent and striking are the coincidences between the mental phenomena already described which are still manifested by savage peoples, and those of which the evidence has not yet disappeared from our own midst.

Nor need we be surprised at this, for the root whence all these phenomena spring is the predominance of imagination over reason in the uncivilized. Man, while his experience is limited to a small tract of earth, and his life is divided between a struggle with nature and his fellow-man for the permission and the means to live, on the one hand, and seasons of idleness, empty perforce of every opportunity and every desire for improving his condition, on the other, cannot acquire the materials of a real knowledge of his physical environment. His only data for interpreting the world and the objects it contains, so far as he is acquainted with them, are his own consciousness and his own emotions. Upon these his drafts are unbounded; and if he have any curiosity about the origin and government of things, his hypotheses take the shape of tales in which the actors, whatever form they bear, are essentially himself in motive and deed, but magnified and distorted to meet his wishes or his fears, or the conditions of the problem as presented to his limited vision. The thought which is the measure of his universe is as yet hardly disciplined by anything beyond his passions.

Nor does the predominance of the imagination issue only in these tales and in songs—the two modes of expression we most readily attribute to the imagination. In practical life it issues in superstitious observances, and in social and political institutions. Social institutions are sometimes of great complexity, even in the depth of savagery. Together with political institutions they supply the model on which are framed man's ideas of the relationship to one another and to himself of the supernatural beings whom he creates; and in turn they reflect and perpetuate those ideas in ceremonial and other observances. The student of Fairy Tales, therefore, cannot afford to neglect the study of institutions; for it often throws a light altogether unexpected on the origin and meaning of a story. Tradition must, indeed, be studied as a whole. As with other sciences, its division into parts is natural and necessary; but it should never be forgotten that none of its parts can be rightly understood without reference to the others. By Tradition I mean the entire circle of thought and practice, custom as well as belief, ceremonies, tales, music, songs, dances and other amusements, the philosophy and the superstitions and the institutions, delivered by word of mouth and by example from generation to generation through unremembered ages: in a word, the sum total of the psychological phenomena of uncivilized man. Every people has its own body of Tradition, its own Folklore, which comprises a slowly diminishing part, or the whole, of its mental furniture, according as the art of writing is, or is not, known. The invention of writing, by enabling records to be made and thoughts and facts to be communicated with certainty from one to another, first renders possible the accumulation of true knowledge and ensures a constantly accelerating advance in civilization. But in every civilized nation there are backward classes to whom reading and writing are either quite unknown, or at least unfamiliar; and there are certain matters in the lives even of the lettered classes which remain more or less under the dominion of Tradition. Culture, in the sense of a mode of life guided by reason and utilizing the discoveries and inventions that are the gift of science, finds its way but slowly among a people, and filters only sluggishly through its habits, its institutions and its creeds. Surely, however, though gradually it advances, like a rising tide which creeps along the beach, here undermining a heap of sand, there surrounding, isolating, and at last submerging a rock, here swallowing up a pool brilliant with living creatures and many-coloured weed, there mingling with and overwhelming a rivulet that leaps down to its embrace, until all the shore is covered with its waters. Meanwhile, he who would understand its course must know the conformation of the coast,—the windings, the crags (their composition as well as their shape), the hollows, the sands, the streams; for without these its currents and its force are alike inexplicable. The analogy must not be pressed too far; but it will help us to understand why we find a fragment of a custom in one place, a portion of a tale jumbled up with portions of dissimilar tales in another place, a segment of a superstition, and again a worn and broken relic of a once vigorous institution. They are the rocks and the sands which the flood of civilization is first isolating, then undermining, and at last overwhelming, and hiding from our view. They are (to change the figure) survivals of an earlier state of existence, unintelligible if regarded singly, made to render up their secret only by comparison with other survivals, and with examples of a like state of existence elsewhere. Taken collectively, they enable us to trace the evolution of civilization from a period before history begins, and through more recent times by channels whereof history gives no account.

These are the premises whence we set out, and the principles which will guide us, in the study on which we are about to enter. The name of Fairy Tales is legion; but they are made up of incidents whose number is comparatively limited. And though it would be impossible to deal adequately with more than a small fraction of them in a work like the present, still a selection may be so treated as to convey a reasonably just notion of the application of the principles laid down and of the results to be obtained. In making such a selection several interesting groups of stories, unconnected as between themselves, might be chosen for consideration. The disadvantage of this course would be the fragmentary nature of the discussions, and consequently of the conclusions arrived at. It is not wholly possible to avoid this disadvantage in any mode of treatment; but it is possible to lessen it. I propose, therefore, to deal with a few of the most interesting sagas relative to the Fairy Mythology strictly so called. We shall thus confine our view to a well-defined area, in the hope that we may obtain such an idea of it as in its main lines at all events may be taken to be fairly true to the facts, and that we may learn who really were these mysterious beings who played so large a part in our fathers' superstitions. As yet, however, we must not be disappointed if we find that the state of scientific inquiry will not admit of many conclusions, and such as we may reach can at present be stated only tentatively and with caution. Science, like Mr. Fox in the nursery tale, writes up over all the doors of her palace:

"Be bold, be bold, but not too bold."

Many a victim has found to his cost what it meant to disregard this warning.


[14] I have not thought it necessary to illustrate at length the characteristics of savage thought enumerated above. They are exhaustively discussed by Dr. Tylor in "Primitive Culture," Sir John Lubbock in "The Origin of Civilization," Mr. Andrew Lang in "Myth Ritual and Religion," and some of them by Mr. J. G. Frazer in "Totemism," and more recently in "The Golden Bough," published since these pages were written.



Stories of midwives who have been summoned to the birth of fairies—Human visitors to Fairyland must not eat there—The reason—Fairies' gratitude—The conditions of fairy gifts.

A tale, the scene of which is laid near Beddgelert, runs, as translated by Professor Rhys, in this way:—"Once on a time, when a midwife from Nanhwynan had newly got to the Hafodydd Brithion to pursue her calling, a gentleman came to the door on a fine grey steed and bade her come with him at once. Such was the authority with which he spoke, that the poor midwife durst not refuse to go, however much it was her duty to stay where she was. So she mounted behind him, and off they went, like the flight of a swallow, through Cwmllan, over the Bwlch, down Nant yr Aran, and over the Gadair to Cwm Hafod Ruffydd before the poor woman had time even to say Oh! When they got there, she saw before her a magnificent mansion, splendidly lit up with such lamps as she had never before seen. They entered the court, and a crowd of servants in expensive liveries came to meet them, and she was at once led through the great hall into a bed-chamber, the like of which she had never seen. There the mistress of the house, to whom she had been fetched, was awaiting her. She got through her duties successfully, and stayed there until the lady had completely recovered, nor had she spent any part of her life so merrily; there was naught but festivity day and night: dancing, singing, and endless rejoicing reigned there. But merry as it was, she found she must go, and the nobleman gave her a large purse, with the order not to open it until she had got into her own house; then he bade one of his servants escort her the same way she had come. When she reached home she opened the purse, and, to her great joy, it was full of money; and she lived happily on those earnings to the end of her life."[15]

It is a long leap from Carnarvonshire to Lapland, where this story is told with no great variation. A clergyman's wife in Swedish Lappmark, the cleverest midwife in all Sweden, was summoned one fine summer's evening to attend a mysterious being of Troll race and great might, called Vitra. At this unusual call she took counsel with her husband, who, however, deemed it best for her to go. Her guide led her into a splendid building, the rooms whereof were as clean and elegant as those of very illustrious folk; and in a beautiful bed lay a still more beautiful woman, for whom her services were required, and who was no other than Vitra herself. Under the midwife's care Vitra speedily gave birth to a fair girl, and in a few minutes had entirely recovered, and fetched all sorts of refreshments, which she laid before her benefactress. The latter refused to eat, in spite of Vitra's reassuring persuasion, and further refused the money which the Troll-wife pressed upon her. Vitra then sent her home, bidding her look on the table when next she entered her cowherd's hut and see what she would find there. She thought no more of the matter until the following spring, when on entering the hut she found on the table half a dozen large spoons of pure silver with her name engraved thereon in neat letters. These spoons long remained an heirloom in the clergyman's family to testify the truth of the story. A Swedish book, published in 1775, contains a tale, narrated in the form of a legal declaration solemnly subscribed on the 12th April 1671 by the fortunate midwife's husband, whose name was Peter Rahm, and who also seems to have been a clergyman. On the authority of this declaration we are called on to believe that the event recorded actually happened in the year 1660. Peter Rahm alleges that he and his wife were at their farm one evening late when there came a little man, swart of face and clad in grey, who begged the declarant's wife to come and help his wife then in labour. The declarant, seeing that they had to do with a Troll, prayed over his wife, blessed her, and bade her in God's name go with the stranger. She seemed to be borne along by the wind. After her task was accomplished she, like the clergyman's wife just mentioned, refused the food offered her, and was borne home in the same manner as she had come. The next day she found on a shelf in the sitting-room a heap of old silver pieces and clippings, which it is to be supposed the Troll had brought her.[16]

Apart from the need of human aid, common to all the legends with which we are dealing, the two points emphasized by these Swedish tales are the midwife's refusal of food and the gratitude of the Troll. In a Swabian story the Earthman, as he is called, apologizes for omitting to offer food. In this case the midwife was afraid to go alone with her summoner, and begged that her husband might accompany her. This was permitted; and the Earthman showed them the way through the forest with his lantern, for it was of course night. They came first to a moss door, then to a wooden door, and lastly to a door of shining metal, whence a staircase went down into the earth, and led them into a large and splendid chamber where the Earthwife lay. When the object of their visit was accomplished the Earthman thanked the woman much, and said: "You do not relish our meat and drink, wherefore I will bestow something else upon thee." With these words he gave her a whole apronful of black coals, and taking his lantern again he lighted the midwife and her husband home. On the way home she slily threw away one coal after another. The Earthman said nothing until he was about to take his leave, when he observed merely: "The less you scattered the more you might have." After he had gone the woman's husband remonstrated with her, bidding her keep the coals, for the Earthman appeared in earnest with his gift. When they reached home, however, she shook out her apron on the hearth, and behold! instead of coals, glittering true gold pieces. The woman now sought eagerly enough after the coals she had thrown away, but she found them not.[17]

Confining our attention for the moment to the refusal of food, it would seem that the Earthman's apology in the foregoing narrative is, as too many human apologies are, a mere excuse. The real reason for the midwife's abstention was not that fairy food was distasteful, but that she durst not touch it, under penalty of never again returning to the light of day. A Danish tradition tells of a woman who was taken by an elf on Christmas Eve down into the earth to attend his wife. As soon as the elfwife was delivered her husband took the child away; for if he could find two newly married persons in the bridal bed, before they had repeated their Paternoster, he could, by laying the child between them, procure for it all the good fortune intended for the newly wedded pair. During his absence the elfwife took the opportunity of instructing her helper as to her conduct when he returned; and the first and chief point of her advice was to eat nothing that was offered her. The elfwife was herself a Christian woman who had been inveigled down into the dwellings of the elves; she had eaten, and therefore had never escaped again. On the elf's return, accordingly, the midwife refused food, and he said: "They did not strike thee on the mouth who taught thee that." Late rabbinical writings contain a similar legend of a Mohel, a man whose office it was to circumcise, who was summoned one winter's night by a stranger to perform the ceremony upon a child who would be eight days old the following day. The stranger led him to a lofty mountain, into the bowels of which they passed, and after descending many flights of steps found themselves in a great city. Here the Mohel was taken to a palace, in one of whose apartments was the child's mother lying. When she saw the Mohel she began to weep, and told him that he was in the land of the Mazikin, but that she was a human being, a Jewess, who had been carried away when little from home and brought thither. And she counselled him to take good heed to refuse everything whether of meat or drink that might be offered him: "For if thou taste anything of theirs thou wilt become like one of them, and wilt remain here for ever."[18]

We touch here upon a very ancient and widespread superstition, which we may pause to illustrate from different parts of the world. A Manx tale, which can be traced back to Waldron, narrates the night adventure of a farmer who lost his way in returning home from Peel, and was led by the sound of music into a large hall where were a great number of little people feasting. Among them were some faces he seemed to know; but he took no notice of them until the little folk offered him drink, when one of them, whose features seemed not unknown to him, plucked him by the coat and forbade him, whatever he did, to taste anything he saw before him; "for if you do", he added, "you will be as I am, and return no more to your family."[19]

It is necessary for the hero of a Picard story to go and seek the devil in his own abode. The devil of popular imagination, though a terrific ogre, is not the entirely Evil One of theologians; and one of his good points in the story referred to is that he has three fair daughters, the fairest of whom is compelled by the hero to help him in overcoming her father. She accordingly instructs him to eat no meat and to drink no wine at the devil's house, otherwise he will be poisoned. This may remind us of Kan Puedaei, who in the Altaic ballad descends with his steed to the middle of the earth and encounters various monsters. There the grass and the water of the mountain forest through which he rode were poison. In both cases, what is probably meant is, that to eat or drink is to return no more from these mysterious abodes; and it may be to the intent to obviate any such consequence that Saint Peter, in sending a certain king's son down through a black and stinking hole a hundred toises deep underground, in a Gascon tale, to fetch Saint Peter's own sword, provides him with just enough bread in his wallet every morning to prevent his bursting with hunger. An extension of this thought sometimes even prohibits the hero from accepting a seat or a bed offered by way of hospitality on the part of the devil, or the sorceress, to whose dwelling his business may take him, or even to look at the fair temptress who may seek to entice him to eat.[20]

The meaning of the superstition is not easy to trace, but it should be remembered that in the lower stages of human civilization no distinction is drawn between supernatural or spiritual beings who have never been enclosed in human bodies, and the spirits of the dead. Savage philosophy mingles them together in one phantasmagoria of grotesquery and horror. The line which separates fairies and ogres from the souls of men has gradually grown up through ages of Christian teaching; and, broad as it may seem to us, it is occasionally hardly visible in these stories. Every now and then it is ignored, as in the case of the old friends found among the "little people" by the Manx farmer. Less startling than these, but quite as much in point, are the women, like some already mentioned, who are carried off into Fairyland, where they become wives and mothers. They can never come back to their old life, though they retain enough of the "mortal mixture" to require the adventurous human midwife to relieve their pains. Accordingly, we need not be surprised if the same incidents of story or fibres of superstition attach at one time to ghosts and at another to the non-human creatures of imagination, or if Hades and Fairyland are often confounded. Both are equally the realm of the supernatural. We may therefore inquire whether eating is forbidden to the chance sojourner in the place of the dead equally as to the sojourner in Fairyland, if he wish to return to the upper air. And we shall find that it is.

Proserpine ate seven grains of a pomegranate which grew in the Elysian Fields, and so was compelled to remain in the Shades, the wife of "the grisly king." Thus, too, when Morgan the Fay takes measures to get Ogier the Dane into her power she causes him to be shipwrecked on a loadstone rock near to Avalon. Escaping from the sea, he comes to an orchard, and there eats an apple which, it is not too much to say, seals his fate. Again, when Thomas of Erceldoune is being led down by the Fairy Queen into her realm, he desires to eat of the fruit of certain trees.

"He presed to pul the frute with his honde, As man for fode was nyhonde feynte; She seid, Thomas, lat them stande, Or ellis the fiend will the ateynte. If thou pulle the sothe to sey, Thi soule goeth to the fyre of hell Hit cummes never out til doomsday, But ther ever in payne to dwelle."

An old story preserved for us by Saxo Grammaticus describes the visit of some Danish heroes to Guthmund, a giant who rules a delightful land beyond a certain river crossed by a golden bridge. Thorkill, their conductor, a Scandinavian Ulysses for cunning, warns his companions of the various temptations that will be set before them. They must forbear the food of the country, and be satisfied with that which they had brought with them; moreover, they must keep apart from the natives, taking care not so much as to touch them. In spite, however, of Thorkill's warnings to them, and his excuses in their behalf to the king, some of the heroes fell and were left behind when their friends were at last allowed to depart.[21] So far we see that the prohibition and the danger we found extant in the Fairyland of modern folk-tales apply also to the classic Hades; and we have traced them back a long way into the Middle Ages in French, British, and Danish traditions relating to fairies and other supernatural existences, with a special threat of Hell in the case of Thomas of Erceldoune.

On the other side of the globe the Banks' islanders believe, like the Greeks, in an underground kingdom of the dead, which they call Panoi. Only a few years ago a woman was living who professed to have been down there. Her object had been to visit her brother, who had recently died. To do this she perfumed herself with water in which a dead rat had been steeped, so as to give herself a death-like smell. She then pulled up a bird's nest and descended through the hole thus made. Her brother, whom of course she found, cautioned her to eat nothing, and by taking his advice she was able to return. A similar tale is told of a New Zealand woman of rank, who was lucky enough to come back from the abode of departed spirits by the assistance of her father and his repeated commands to avoid tasting the disgusting food of the dead. Waeinaemoeinen, the epic hero of the Finns, determined to penetrate to Manala, the region of the dead. We need not follow in detail his voyage; it will suffice to say that on his arrival, after a long parley with the maiden daughter of Tuoni, the king of the island, beer was brought to him in a two-eared tankard.

"Waeinaemoeinen, old and trusty, Gaz'd awhile upon the tankard; Lo! within it frogs were spawning, Worms about its sides were laying. Words in this wise then he utter'd: 'Not to drink have I come hither From the tankard of Manala, Not to empty Tuoni's beaker; They who drink of beer are drowned, Those who drain the can are ruin'd.'"[22]

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