The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 4/Philosophy of Folk-Tales


THE first volume of the Folk-Lore Record contains an article entitled "Notes on Folk-Tales," in which Mr. Ralston, after considering certain proposed classifications of such stories, says, "Their weak point is that in them too much attention is generally paid to the mere framework of the story, the setting, which often varies with time and place; more stress being often laid upon the accidental than the essential parts of a tale." Mr. Ralston therefore suggests another classification, based on the general character of each story, where, in the first place, folk-tales are divided into mythological and non-mythological. The mythological stories are then classed according to the principal myth they illustrate or embody, and the non-mythological ones are divided into moral stories, puzzles, jokes, &c., "the moral stories being arranged according to the leading ideas which were in the mind of the teacher who first shaped them." Mr. Ralston gives several illustrations of his system, and he states that almost all the tales about grateful beasts are "expansions of moral apologues" intended to teach that man ought to behave with kindness towards animals. In the same class he also includes the stories relating to destiny; as, although connected with the mythological class, "they are intended to inculcate the doctrine that human life is ruled by fate." Another large group of stories, at the same time moral and mythological, are those, says Mr. Ralston, in which supernatural personages act "in such a manner as to teach, though unintentionally, a moral lesson." In all these tales two persons of opposite character are contrasted: the one meritorious and the other undeserving, the former being rewarded and the latter punished. Next in importance to the moral and mythological stories, Mr. Ralston places the numerous tales which appear to have had no higher purpose than to amuse, or at most to cause the exercise of ingenuity. In conclusion, Mr. Ralston gives a classification of the two hundred folk-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm: of which he says 103 are non-mythological. In this division are 50 comic stories, and 43 moral or didactic. Of the latter, "eleven are animal- tales; five belong to the 'grateful beasts' cycle; and five to the group of stories in which good and bad conduct are contrasted and recompensed; two are in praise of filial reverence and two of industry; and two show that 'murder will out.' The remaining sixteen illustrate as many different wise saws or moral axioms. There are also two robber-tales, which demand a separate place." As to the ninety-three tales in the mythological division, thirty-five are classed together as being "Husk Myths" or other transformation-stories, or as having magic and witchcraft for their subject. Of the remaining stories twenty are classed as "Eclipse Myths" or other nature-myths, thirty-one are described as "Demon Stories," and seven are unclassified. Two of these give the history of Thumbling, one refers to the myth of the Golden Goose, one to the association between snakes and treasures, and one accounts for the existence of the moon.

No one can read Mr. Ralston's "Notes" without being convinced that the "moral" element must be recognised as a very important one in connection with folk-tales. If we place ourselves in the position of those who originated these stories, we shall see that in many cases at least the incidents related occupy a secondary place. The teller of the tale has usually a motive, a lesson to enforce by it. This "moral" is the kernel or central idea, of which the incidents are the clothing or accompaniments. No doubt, occasionally the object was simply to amuse, but generally it was to teach a truth. The truth may be intellectual, a conclusion arrived at as the result of the observation of nature or of the experiences of every-day life, or it may have a moral or religious character. The author of Bible Folk-Lore, who applies to Semitic myths the principles by which Mr. Max Müller and others explain the myths of the Aryan peoples, says: "The sun and the cloud, the river and the rain, the wind, the storm, the tree, and the star, were to savage man living beings of wonderful nature. The fire was a beast, which crept and devoured, and which might be wounded by a spear. The very stones and woods and hills had living spirits within them, and the most familiar acts of animal-life—growth and reproduction—were conceived to account for the phenomena of the heavens and earth." This may be perfectly true, and those ideas may be embodied in the so-called mythological stories, but I much doubt whether many of these were originally told with the object merely of expressing such ideas. The motive would rather be a prudential one, having for its aim to enforce a lesson of worldly experience or of moral or religious truth. Of course, the vehicle for conveying the lesson must be acceptable to the popular mind, and therefore it would introduce the marvellous incidents with which folkstories generally abound. According to this view we may expect to find in most of the "traditional narratives" to which Mr. Gomme gives the first place in his classification[1] of the subjects of the science of Folk-Lore a motive which at first gave them their practical value, and which probably might often be identified in the popular sayings or proverbs of Folk-Speech. Such tales as those referred to in Mr. Clodd's paper, entitled "The Philosophy of Punchkin," ante, vol. ii. are intended to teach a lesson beyond the philosophy which that able writer finds in them. No doubt they "embody that early system of thought, if system it can be called, which confuses ideas and objects, illusions and realities, subjects and shadows," and they may be evidence of "the survival of primitive belief in one or more entities in the body, yet not of it, which may leave that body at will during life, and which perchance leaves it finally, to return not, at death." Such stories, however, do more; for they teach the triumph of love or goodness over evil, even though aided by the power of magic. The incident of the existence of the soul apart from the body appears to me to be introduced merely as presenting an additional difficulty to be contended with, and to show that no obstacle is too great to be overcome: as expressed in the saying, "Love will find out the way."

Mr. Clouston in his edition of The Book of Sindibad[2] well remarks: "It is a peculiarity of fairyland that there are certain rooms which the fortunate mortal who has entered the enchanted palace is expressly forbidden to enter, or doors which he must on no account open, or cabinets which he must not unlock, if he would continue in his present state of felicity." Many stories referring to that prohibition have been brought together by Mr. Sidney Hartland,[3] who regards it as the central thought of the class to which such stories belong. He is not satisfied with this conclusion, however. He supposes the story of the forbidden chamber to have developed "from the slaughter of his wife and children by a capricious or cannibal husband, to a marriage and murder for previously-incurred vengeance, or for purposes of witchcraft, and thence to a murder by a husband for disobedience, express or implied. At this point the fatal curiosity comes upon the scene as one mode of accounting for the disobedience; and when once this element is introduced it proves a most potent influence, and the story branches off and blossoms in all directions." I cannot see, however, any occasion to go beyond the "fatal curiosity" for the original idea on which all the stories referred to by Mr. Hartland are based. Nor do I see anything in the Algonquin or Sicilian stories that can require us to regard them as marking stages of development of the forbidden chamber myth, or otherwise than as different modes of representing the same idea of the evil of giving way to the feeling of undue curiosity.[4]

That large classes of folk-stories were framed to convey a moral lesson may be shown by reference to the fables ascribed to Æsop, which were intended to inculcate "tales of practical morality, drawn from the habits of the inferior creation." Again, if we refer to the Folk-Tales of India, translated from the Buddhist Jâtaka, and contributed by the Rev. Dr. Richard Morris to the Folk-Lore Journal, we see that many of those birth-stories contain one or more gâthâs enforcing a moral or practical lesson. As an example may be quoted the last verse of the Daddabha Jâtaka,[5] or "The Flight of the Beasts," which runs—

"But they who walk in virtue's pleasant paths
Full wary are; in calmness they delight,
In time of dread no cowardice they show,
But stand full firm, and none can them beguile."

The moral of the Sumsumâra Jâtaka, or "The Monkey that left its heart on a tree," is of a different character. Speaking to the crocodile the Bodhisat in the form of an ape says [ante, vol. iii. p. 128]:—

"Oh! a precious big body you've got it is true,
Yet little good sense[6] to match it have you.
To shoot one you tried, O false crocodile,
So you have I tricked, now go where you will."

The headings of other stories sufficiently declare the moral they are designed to enforce. Thus, we have the value of kind words, no evil deed is unseen, pride will have a fall, the punishment of avarice, &c.

The mere fact that no "moral" is actually drawn by the narrator from a folk-tale is evidence merely that the original intention with which such tales were framed has been lost sight of in the course of ages. At the present day, indeed, the incidents have come to occupy among us the primary place, the stories themselves being regarded as sources of amusement rather than of instruction. It will be gathered from the foregoing remarks that I am inclined to go much further than even Mr. Ralston in seeking a "moral" in folk-tales. I should expect to find it in most of his mythological stories; and to test how far the view here advocated is consistent with fact I have made a classification of the seventy-eight tales contained in the first volume of Grimm's work, based on the "moral" they enforce. The following tables give the result arrived at, the number added to the title of each story showing the order in which it stands in the English translation[7] of Grimm's work. When a story comes under more than one heading it is mentioned in the subordinate class by reference only.

1. The superiority of Goodness (typified by Beauty) and Love over Evil (although aided by Magic).
a. The power of Beauty [and Goodness].
(a) The Frog Prince (1).
(b) The Twelve Brothers (9).
(c) Little Brother and Sister (11).
(d) The Three Little Men in the Wood (12).
(e) Rapunzel (16).
(f) Cinderella (21).
(g) The Six Swans (49).
(h) Briar Rose (50).
(i) Little Snow White (52).
(j) Allerleiraugh, or Coat of All Colours (65).
(k) The Twelve Hunters (67).
b. Love superior to Magic (Evil).
(a) The Seven Crows (25).
(b) The Handless Maiden (31).
(c) Jorinde and Joringel (58).
(d) Fir Apple (59).
(e) The Two Brothers (61).
(f) The Pink (75).
(g) The Gold Children (78).
Also 1. a. (b), (e), (g).
c. Goodness triumphant over Evil (Magic).
(a) Hansel and Grcthel (14).
(b) Old Mother Frost (24).
(c) The Table, the Ass, and the Stick (35).
(d) The Robber-Bridegroom (40).
(e) The Almond Tree (47).
(f) Roland (55).
Also 1. a.; 1. b. (b), (c), (d),(f); 2. (e); 3. (a), (e) ; 4. (g).
2. Simplemindedness (or Stupidity) attended with good fortune.
(a) The tale of one who travelled to learn what shivering meant (4).
(b) The Good Bargain (7).
(c) The Three Spinsters (13).
(d) The Three Languages (33).
(e) The Golden Bird (39).
(f) The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn (53).
(g) The Little Farmer (57).
(h) The Queen Bee (62).
(i) The Three Feathers (63).
(j) The Golden Goose (64).
Also 1. b. (e); 3. (a), (b): 10. c. (a).
In (a), (b), (c), (d), and (e) stupidity is the characteristic, and in (b) and (g) cunning is added.
3. Ability, or Valour, rewarded (by royal marriage).
(a) The Three Snake Leaves (15).
(b) The White Snake (17).
(c) The Valiant Little Tailor (19).
(d) The Riddle (22).
(e) The Singing Bone (28).
Also 1. b. (b), (e), (f); 2. (a), (b), (c), (d), (e), (i), (j); 10. c. (a).
4. Wit (Cunning) superior to (mere) Strength or Power.
(a) Thumbling (36).
(b) The Travels of Thumbling (45).
(c) The Feather Bird (46).
(d) Old Sultan (48).
(e) Rumpelstiltskin (54).
(f) The Dog and the Sparrow (56).
(g) How Six travelled through the World (70).
(h) The Wolf and the Man (71).
(i) The Wolf and the Fox (72).
(j) The Fox and God-mother Wolf (73).
Also 1. b. (d), c. (a) ; 3. (c) ; 10. c. (a).
5. Cunning overreaching Simplicity.
(a) Cat and Mouse in Partnership (2).
(b) The Wonderful Musician (8).
(c) Clever Grethel (76).
Also 2. (g); 4. (h), (i), (j).
6. Villainy and Cunning overreaching itself.
(a) The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats (5).
(b) Little Red Cap (26).
(c) The Rogue and his Master (68).
Also 1. c. (c).
7. Bad Conduct punished.
a. Forbidden Curiosity.
(a) The Woodcutter's Child (3).
(b) Faithful John (6).
(c) The Feather Bird. [See 4 (c).]
b. Disobedience.
(a) The Gold Children. [See 1. b (g).]
(b) The Old Witch (43).
Also 6. (a), (b): 7. a. (a), (b), (c).
c. Greediness or Discontent.
(a) The Fisherman and his Wife (18).
(b) The Little Mouse, the Little Bird, and the Sausage (23).
Also 4. (a), (g).
d. Cruelty to Animals.
(a) The Dog and the Sparrow. [See 4. (f)].
e. Foolishness.
(a) Clever Alice (34).
(b) Catherine and Frederick (60).
f. Pride.
(a) King Thrushbeard (51).
g. Boasting.
(a) The Fox and the Cat (74).
h. Infidelity of Wife.
(a) The Wedding of Mrs. Fox (37).
i. Neglect of Parents.
(a) The Old Man and his Grandson (77).
8. Humility rewarded.
(a) King Thrushbeard. [See 7. (6 a)].
Also 1. a.; 7. a. (a).
9. Kindness requited.
(a) The Little Elves (38).
Also 1. b. (e), (g); 2. (e), (h), (j) ; 3. (b) ; 7. c. (a).
10. Miscellaneous.
a. Unmerited Misfortune.
(a) Herr Korbes (41).
b. Murder will out.
(a) The Singing Bone. [See 3. (e)].
(b) The Two Brothers. [See 1. b. (c)].
c. Power of Luck.
(a) The Giant with three Golden Hairs (28).
(b) The three Luck-Children (69).
Also 2. (f).

D. Vagabondism.
(a) The Pack of Ragamuffins (10).
Also 10. a. (a) ; f. (a).
E. The Love of Life.
(a) The Musicians of Bremen (27).
Also 4. (d).
F. The Power of Music.
(a) The Wonderful Musician (8).
G. God-Parent Stories.
(a) The Godfather (42).
(b) The Godfather Death (44).
(c) The Fox and Godmother Wolf (73).
11. Accumulative Effects.
(a) The Spider and the Flea (30).
And see 10. d. (a).
12. Gothamite Stories.
(a) The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean (20).
(b) The Discreet Hare (32).
(c) The Rabbit's Bride (66).
Also 2. (b) (g) ; 5. (e) ; 7. e. (a) (b) ; 10. a. (a) ; c. (b) ; d. (a) ; e. (a).

Some errors there are, no doubt, in the above classification, but I think it will be found on the whole to be correct from the "moral" point of view. That the incidents of many of the stories in question have reference to the phenomena of nature[8] is far from impossible, but none the less they were originally intended to "point a moral" rather than to "adorn a tale."

There is a special feature of some of Grimm's stories which deserves notice. It is evident that sometimes the moral enforced was intended to have special application to a certain class of persons. Thus, the most fortunate son is usually the youngest, whether on the folk-tale principle that as the youngest he was the most simple, and therefore likely to be most lucky, or as a recompense for his position in the family, which is one of inferiority and therefore of poverty, is doubtful. The hero in the following stories is the younger or youngest son, unless, as in Nos. 2, 4, and 5, he is the only son, and poor or stupid:—

1. Tale of one who travelled to know what shivering meant.
2. The Three Snake Leaves.
3. The Singing Bone.
4. The Giant with Three Golden Hairs.
5. The Three Languages.
6. The Table, the Ass, and the Horn.
7. The Golden Bird.
8. The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn.
9. The Two Brothers.
10. The Queen Bee.
11. The Three Feathers.
12. The Golden Goose.
13. The Three Luck-Children.

To these may he added:

14. Thumbling (who was an only son); and
15. The Feather-Bird (in which the youngest [third] daughter was the most prudent).

A chief object of some other stories appears to have been to denounce the cruel treatment to which children were exposed at the hands of their step-mothers or step-sisters. The following are such stories:—

1. Little Brother and Sister.
2. The Little Men in the Wood.
3. Hansel and Grethel.
4. Cinderella.
5. Old Mother Frost.
6. The Almond Tree.
7. The Six Swans.
8. Little Snow-White.
9. Roland.
(The Step-mother appears in all these stories, except Nos. 6 and 7, in which, and in Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 6, Step-sisters are mentioned.).
10. Fir-Apple.
(Here the place of the Step-mother is taken by the Old Cook.)

The idea entertained by the ancients that some persons understood the language of animals is expressed in the following stories:—

1. The Twelve Hunters.
2. Faithful John.
3. The Two Brothers.
4. The Three Languages.
5. The Golden Bird.
6. The White Snake.

Finally, the association of the idea of wisdom with the snake is shown in the following:—

1. The Snake Leaves.
2. The White Snake.

In conclusion, I will consider shortly how far the partial classification attempted above agrees with the views expressed by Mr. Ralston. There is not much to be said in connection with the non-mythological stories, except that those in which riddles or some other kind of problem is propounded are entitled to be regarded as "moral" where, as in The Riddle, the problem partakes of the nature of the difficult task which is so common in folk -tales. As to Mr. Ralston's mythological stories, it seems to me that the first class, which consists of transformation tales and those of magic and witchcraft, as well as the "Eclipse-Myths," contain a very important moral. They proclaim the ultimate triumph of good over evil, as well as, generally, that good and evil conduct meet with their just reward. The same may be said of many of Mr. Ralston's "Demon Stories," particularly the large group "referring to the demon's struggles with mankind, in which he is ultimately worsted, being either destroyed, or at least robbed, kicked, or otherwise humiliated." In the tales of "The Giant with Three Golden Hairs," "Thumbling," and the "puzzling myth" of the "Golden Goose," the moral lesson is no less observable, and thus we may find in all Grimm's stories, except those of the comic class, a "motive," which must be regarded as the central truth, and which may form a link of connection between tales, the want of similarity in the setting of which gives them the appearance of being essentially different.

  1. Folk-Lore Journal, vol. iii. p. 5.
  2. P. 308, Appendix
  3. The Folk-Lore Journal, vol. iii. pp. 198-242.
  4. This lesson is taught also by the Kafir story of The Bird that made milk, where children suffer for their disobedient curiosity in looking at a bird, on which depended their father's well-being, and which answers therefore to the elf of the Algonquin.—Kafir Folk-Lore, by George McCall Theal, p. 29.
  5. The Folk-Lore Journal, vol. iii. p. 124.
  6. In Grimm's "King of the Golden Mountain" the giants say "little men have often wise heads."
  7. Published by Messrs. Addey & Co. (1853).
  8. Most of the stories in class 1. a. refer to golden objects, and probably they had some reference to the sun or light.