The Science of Fairy Tales/Chapter 2
Sagas and Märchen—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 Märchen: 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 märchen; and because, on the other hand, it is at all times easier, even for experienced collectors, to obtain sagas than märchen. 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 märchen 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 märchen 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 today 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!"
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.
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 Folk-lore, 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.
- 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.