Sunday, August 13, 2017

Contemporary Folklore and the Death of Oral Traditions

I’ve seen several articles over the last couple months about how oral traditions are dying out, and taking some stories with them. I’ve also been thinking a lot about comic books lately. These things are related.

I’ve never relied on oral tradition, because I read whatever I can get my hands on, and after the first time I got my hands on some fairy tales, there was really no going back. But sometimes I’ll be talking to other people, and say things like, “Oh, it’s like that part of the Twelve Dancing Princesses where,” or “what if we tried that thing from the Russian version of,” and they have no idea what I’m talking about. And it’s happened countless times, but somehow I never expect it—these stories are such a major part of my life that I struggle to imagine people living without them.

So maybe these people I talk to don’t know about The Pied Piper or The Princess and the Pea because their parents never told them stories, and maybe in a couple generations those stories will only be known by people like me who happen to find fairy tale collections at the library.

But oral traditions have been on the way out for a good hundred years now, and they’re probably not coming back.

So here’s where the comics come into it: there’s a Thor movie coming out soon. We just got the trailer for the Justice League movie. Everyone is still freaking out about Wonder Woman, a new season of Young Justice is on the way, and between Marvel and DC we have, like, a dozen live action TVs shows based on comic books. So everyone on the internet is talking about this stuff, arguing about this stuff. That’s not canon, that’s not canon, that’s not canon anymore, those characters hate each other, those characters love each other, they used to be married but in the reboot they’ve never even met.

I’ve talked before about folklore and fanfiction, and I think comics fall into basically the same realm. Batman’s been around for nearly eighty years, guys. He’s been written by dozens of writers. There isn't, as far as I’m concerned, such a thing as canon Batman. You can’t say that any particular version of Batman is wrong, because Batman’s already been written, and even legitimately published, in all of those different versions. Christian Bale Batman and Adam West Batman hold the exact same weight.

The Justice League, the Avengers? Those are the American equivalent of fairy tales. Everyone knows them, at least a little, somewhere in the back of their minds. They’re the same stories told over and over again, slightly different in each telling, no longer belonging to one person but to the entire world that they’re a part of.

Yeah, oral traditions are dying. It sucks, but hey, if it bugs you so much, find an audience and start telling stories. Personally, I’m pretty glad that isn't the main method of storytelling anymore.

I will never, ever know where my favorite fairy tale started. No one will. The earliest version of Cinderella is lost to time because it spread by word-of-mouth; there is no record of the first time someone told it. You can trace it back to Greek mythology, you can trace it back to ancient China, but you can never say, definitively, this is the place where this story started, this is how it was told the first time it was told.

Any version of Cinderella from the last few centuries? All the different details are perfectly preserved. We know exactly how Superman’s origin story was told the first time it was told, and we can watch the changes unfold over the decades. I can watch the original pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then I can watch the pilot that actually aired, and then I can read thousands of fanfics that tell that story slightly differently, and I know where all of those things are. I know where to find them. I know where they started. I can begin with the earliest version of a story ever told, and I can watch how different variants branch off, and trace the changes over time, the places people were in when they changed things, why they made things different, whether it was because they forgot or heard it secondhand, whether they hated something about the original or just really, really wanted something important to them incorporated.

I can do all of that with Beauty and the Beast, but never from the beginning. I can take you back to the novel, and work my way through history from there. I can take you back to earlier French stories about enchanted bridegrooms, to The Pig King or The Golden Root in Italy, to Cupid and Psyche or Hades and Persephone in ancient Greece. But I can never go to the original. And that means I’ll never know the full story of Beauty and the Beast, the true depth of its significance, the farthest reaches of its potential.

Because a story is more than the words that make it up. A single story is also an entire world, encompassing the people who’ve told it, the people who’ve heard it, the places where it’s been told—a story has a beginning and an end, but it is also infinite, and I can never have it in its entirety. The beginnings of my favorite fairy tales are lost forever.

But not Batman. Not Buffy. They didn’t start until oral traditions started to die, and that means I can have it all. And so can someone a hundred years from now, because everything is documented. So keep telling stories. Don’t let that tradition die; don’t lose the power of words rolling out of your mouth and into something eternal. But please, please, write them down as well.

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