Folk-Lore/Volume 4/The Folk


DURING the discussions which took place some years ago in the Folk-lore Society as to the nature of folk-lore, there was one curious omission. Much was said about what the Folk believed, what the Folk did, and how these sayings and doings of the Folk should be arranged and classified. But very little indeed was said as to what the Folk was that said and did these things, and nothing at all was said as to how they said and did them, and especially as to how they began to say and do them. In short, in dealing with Folk-lore, much was said of the Lore, almost nothing was said of the Folk. I propose to supply that omission so far as the short space at my disposal will allow.

We all know the way in which the currency of a folk-custom is described. "It has arisen among the people"; "it is universally the custom"; "everybody does it or thinks it", and so on. These phrases are adequate enough as far as they go, though even here it is worth while recording that at times the custom is not universal, or has important variations. Thus at times it is unlucky to have a man step over your threshold first in the New Year; at times, horresco referens, it is one of the fairer sex whom the Folk are so ungallant as to taboo on that occasion. At times the first-foot should be of light complexion, at others he should be dark, and so on. So that even for purposes of universal custom we have to split up that mysterious entity, the Folk, into various segments of mutually conflicting opinions.

The Folk is many-headed, it would seem, and often many-minded, while often it does not know its own mind. That is its present-day aspect when it has nothing to do but to hear and remember. But I am more concerned to come to close quarters with the Folk regarded as originator. For the matter of that, everything must have originated among the Folk, including language, ars conservatrix omnium artium. Yet when we come to realise what we mean by saying a custom, a tale, a myth arose from the Folk, I fear we must come to the conclusion that the said Folk is a fraud, a delusion, a myth. These be bold words to utter in the presence of this honourable assembly of folk-lorists; but, as usual with bold words, they admit of explanation in a parliamentary sense.

Let us try to realise in imagination what must have happened when, for the first time, the saying was uttered that was afterwards to become a proverb, or a tale that was destined to be a folk- or fairy-tale, was first told. Was it the Folk that said the one or told the other? Did the collective Folk assembled in folk-moot simultaneously shout, "When the wine's in, the wit's out", or "Penny wise, pound foolish"? No, it was some bucolic wit, already the chartered libertine of his social circle, who first raised hearty guffaws by those homely pieces of wisdom. The proverbial description of a proverb, "The wisdom of many, the wit of one", recognises that truth. George Eliot in Adam Bede records the process. Mrs. Poyser—her own stepmother, it is said—described Mr. Craig, the Scotch gardener, as "welly like the cock that thinks the sun rose to hear him crow". Later on in the book Parson Irwine refers to the phrase, and calls it as good as Æsop. Production by the local wit, appreciation by the local circle, record by the social observer—of such is the making of proverbs.

Can it have been much different with the initial production of folk-tales? Can we imagine the Folk inventing Cinderella or Puss-in-Boots, or any of the innumerable novelettes of the nursery? The process is unthinkable. These little masterpieces of narrative art emanated from an artist, who had the grin of conscious creation on his face as he told Cinderella, Puss-in-Boots, or Rumpelstiltskin for the first time in the world's history. Artistry is individual: that cannot come from the Folk no more than novels can arise spontaneously and simultaneously among the subscribers of Messrs. Mudie and Smith.

Even when it comes to custom, even custom which involves the simultaneous doing of some one thing by two or more persons, we must search for the individual among the Folk, at least for the initiative. The feeling of horror or of worship may be in common, but the expression of that feeling must in the first instance have come from the initiative of an individual. When Northumberland House still existed, one of a sporting turn earned a heavy bet that he would cause a crowd in front of it without apparent cause, He simply stood on the opposite pavement, and stared steadily at the lion that surmounted the edifice. By-and-bye: a crowd collected, all staring at the lion. A myth arose, I have been told, that the lion had been seen to wag his iron tail. But whether that be so or no, the sportsman had won his wager, and incidentally had given an apt illustration of the way in which folk-lore arises. The sportsman initiated the folk-lore, the crowd was the Folk.

Here I am at issue with Dr. Tylor and his followers. They would say that at a certain stage of social culture it would be natural for all men in all countries to look at lions that did not wag their tails on tops of conspicuous buildings. Even then I would contend it needs some one to begin the staring before the crowd collects, even though it is the crowd that makes the Folk and constitutes the staring folk-lore. If I heard of the same joke being played at Paris or Berlin, I should feel inclined to bet that it had been played by one who had heard of him who had twisted the tail of the Northumberland House lion.

You see where I am pointing. The Folk is simply a name for our ignorance: we do not know to whom a proverb, a tale, a custom, a myth owes its origin, so we say it originated among the Folk. The author of the myth of Cronus, of the tale of Medea and Jason, was a Great Unknown; "the world knows nothing of its greatest men." The Folk is a publishing syndicate that exploits the productions of that voluminous author, Anon. We have under our very noses a pertinent example of what is always going on. During the last fifteen years or so, the Folk-lore Society has been doing much for the science, and great has been the fame of the Council thereof. But I think we could all of us point out the one or two men who have initiated, and in large measure carried out that work. Yes, I repeat it, the Folk is a fraud, a delusion, a myth.

"Yes," you will say, "all that is very pretty, and tolerably obvious, especially now that you have pointed it out. But what of it? What is the practical application of the consideration?" Well, in the first place, it would be well to realise the individual initiative in discussing origins, and we are chiefly interested in origins nowadays. When we find similar customs in far-distant lands, we shall find it more difficult to suppose them to have originated independently, if we have to recognise that they arose with individuals. The probabilities of borrowing are much greater if this fact is recognised. Even assuming that the same story or custom could have originated independently, if we had all time to deal with, it becomes more difficult to do so when prehistoric time is, comparatively speaking, limited. The custom of junior right, say, could have independently arisen in England, if England had been isolated for all time. But if England is in culture-contact, mediate or immediate, with countries where junior right exists, it becomes a race between independent origin and borrowing; and to assume independent origin is to bet against the bank of Time with its unlimited means.

Again, we shall have to go more minutely into the modus operandi of tradition if this conception of individual origin of folk-lore be firmly grasped. Just at present, we are content to say such and such a creation is spread from John-o'-Groat's to Land's End. The assumption is usually made, if only implicitly, that it arose independently in all the places of its occurrence, owing to the similarity of social conditions and the like. From the new stand-point we shall want to know how it thus spread, and where it took its rise, since from that standpoint it must have originated in one mind in one spot. And when we learn how it spreads in one country, we may get to know how it spreads from one country to another.

Again, from our individualistic standpoint we shall have to break down the rather hard and fast line we draw between folk-lore and literature. While a story passes per ora virum we call it folk-lore, the moment it gets written down we call it literature, and it ceases to have interest for us quá folk-lorists. I cannot recognise any such hard and fast distinction. Books are but so many telephones preserving the lore of the Folk, or more often burying it and embalming it. For, after all, we are the Folk as well as the rustic, though their lore may be other than ours, as ours will be different from that of those that follow us.

And finally, recognising this initiative among the Folk, and breaking down the distinction between the Folk of the past and of the present, we shall be able to study the lore of the present with happy results, I am sure, for our study of the lore of the past. Survivals are folk-lore, but folk-lore need not be all survivals. We ought to learn valuable hints as to the spread of folk-lore by studying the Folk of to-day. The music-hall, from this point of view, will have its charm for the folk-lorist, who will there find the Volkslieder of to-day. The spread of popular sayings, even the rise of new words, provided they be folk-words, should be regarded as a part of the study of folk-lore. It would be interesting in this connection to find out and put on record the whole folk-lore of a single person, so as to ascertain how far contradictory conceptions can coexist in the popular mind.

Thus, I think that at any rate in our study of folk-lore we should pay attention not alone to the Lore, but also to the Folk.

  1. A paper read—as a stopgap—before the Folk-lore Society.