Friday, June 01, 2012

Folklore, Religion, and Good Storytelling

It’s a strange fact of modern life that we like to sanitize whatever we can to avoid offending people. This is necessary for the most part, of course, because when dealing with research and writing about another culture or belief system it’s paramount that the subject be treated fairly and sensitively.

But there’s another challenge that confronts the researcher in the presentation of folk materials: whether or not to sanitize the religious associations when discussing a story or folk tale. In many epic myths from around the world, things simply don’t happen in the story without the intervention of the gods. Can you imagine how short the Odyssey would be if Odysseus wasn’t tossed about the Mediterranean by Poseidon? Could we have a popular story like Dracula if the main character hadn’t renounced God and become a servant of evil? How short would Wagner’s “Ring” cycle be without entire operas devoted to the activities of Wotan?

OK, that last one might not be so bad.

But many of these are past traditions, and those gods are no longer worshipped (except in the case of Dracula, of course). When dealing with living traditions things get trickier. In The Legend of Ponnivala, for example, very little could happen without the intervention of divine forces. The accidental killing of sacred cows in the first generation wouldn’t lead to the cursing of an entire family line, because there would be no Shiva to become angry. Kunnutaiya wouldn’t be revived by Vishnu, because there would be no Vishnu in the story. But he wouldn’t die anyway, because there would be no Gates of Heaven for Kunnutaiya and Tamarai to journey to in the first place.

There is a big difference, however, between a sacred text like the Vedas and a folktale. For one thing, gods are frequently presented in folk tales as characters, but primarily they’re like forces of nature. Things happen because of them. Second, the other characters in the story are rarely presented with a simple moral dilemma. Instead, every move they make, and every consequence they face, is the result of a decision. These ethical dilemmas, and their reward or punishment at the hands of divine forces, are the driving force behind the lessons of folk tales. And so, even with the involvement of gods and goddesses, the tales are less about theology and more about how the human characters handle the challenges placed before them.

With this in mind, how do you think researchers and storytellers should treat religious motifs in folk stories? Should the involvement of gods and godlike characters be eliminated, or celebrated as part of the mythology that informs the life of the culture the story reflects? Post your comments below.

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