|Are the travellers afraid, wary, cunning, or just tired?|
I’m beginning research for my PhD in creative writing. This mostly involves the luxury of reading contemporary short stories that use elements of folk tales, fairy tales, the fantastic, the magical, or at the very least the absurd, but I am also looking at analyses of folk and fairy tales.
Before I started this research I had some of my own ideas about the nature of these tales. These had come from a combination of the philosophy of mind in which I once specialised, and from writing more and more stories that often seemed to come out rather like folk tales without my at first realising why.
Is the name philosophers of mind give to whatever it is we do when we understand other people’s actions by imputing certain beliefs and desires. There’s plenty of philosophical ruckus over the idea – is it innate, learned, does it come in modules, can it be enhanced, is it universal or culturally varied, does it even exist actually?
Whether it’s a list of human traits inscribed inside your skull, or a clumsy way to summarise what we do when we interpret each other, folk psychology is important and useful. We use it to differentiate points of view from our own (children younger than four-ish can’t do this), and our interpretations or predictions of each other’s behaviour can grow to be complex, nuanced, empathetic.
Folk and Fairy tales
Little did I know as I tried to figure out what was folktale-like about my stories that the work had already been done for me. Kate Bernheimer writes beautifully about the key features of fairy tales, following in the footsteps of Max Luthi’s analysis of the form and nature of European folk tales. (Find Kate’s essay ‘Fairy tale is form, form is fairy tale’ on her website here). She picks out:
Flatness – of character. Folk tale characters are not ‘fleshed out’ with details or insight into inner life, in contrast with modernist fiction.
Abstraction – physical description is very limited, e.g. in terms of colours, elements. Things are no more fleshed out than characters are.
Intuitive Logic – causal relationships between events are not shown or explained; we are told that this happened, and then that happened, and we might intuit connections.
Normalised magic – the magic and the real sit happily side by side, and characters accept magical objects and happenings.
Putting together folk psychology and folk/fairy tales
As adults, folk psychological interpretation – understanding why somebody did what they did – comes naturally to most of us; it is automatic. When we read a folk tale, our minds work to fill in what is left out. The prince slayed the dragon because he believed it would eat the damsel and he desired to save her. The princess kissed the frog out of morbid curiosity. Or because the frog was very charismatic. Whatever! But there are always multiple possible interpretations.
Thus some philosophers of mind, including me, think that these kind of ‘diagrammatic’ stories are perfect for practising your folk psychology. Each time a child hears a fairy tale, she can try out different combinations of mental states – beliefs, desires, fears – on the ‘flat' characters, and can fill out the details of the world her own way to make it make sense. She can add traits and test them: does this sister running away with the best dress make more sense if she is selfish or if she is generous? She can also learn how to construct narrative – something we humans seem to be addicted to as a way of making sense of ourselves and the shape of our lives.
So much goes on in our heads when listening to folk and fairy tales that a PhD’s worth of exploration is justified. But next time you encounter one, have a look at just how much information is presented to you and how much you are filling in for yourself. Then ask someone else what they thought the story was about, and I guarantee, regardless of age, their version will be different from yours.