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Folk Literature

  Folk literature may seem to be a contradiction in terms: folk arts, one might think, are fluid, traditional, self-regenerating and anonymous, whereas literary works are fixed, anchored to individual creators and specific occasions of authorship. In fact folk literature can be just as sophisticated, in themes, form and content, as any attributable work, and so far from being fluid, it is often quite remarkably fixed and internationally so, in a way which defies explanation except in terms of something like Jung\'s theory of the collective unconscious. The ‘Cinderella’ story alone illustrates this. It is told on every continent, in over 200 known versions, some as much as 1,000 years old (that is, from times before inter-continental travel could reasonably have carried them), and all with recognizable details and themes in common. It is hardly surprising that cosmological myths from different traditions have themes in common; that a simple folk tale should do so is remarkable.

Folk literature, from myths and legends to the simplest nursery rhymes, is fundamental to human culture, a matrix for all our imaginings. It began in preliterate cultures and shows no sign of diminishing vigour despite the growth of literacy. It offers endless possibilities for anthropological, sociological and psychological research, and—as any library catalogue will show—is a bottomless well for anthologists. It has provided themes, attitudes, forms of verse and prose, turns of speech and inspiration to all manner of literary creators. It is a purely human phenomenon—no other creatures have the imagination to make up stories or the language to transmit them—and it is human thought in one of its most mysterious, most pervasive and most seductive forms. KMcL



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