By Jan M. Ziolkowski
Speculum, Volume 67:3 (1992)
Introduction: One vivid description of folktale research, still applicable although more than a half century old, reads, “Folktale study is like a desert journey, where the only landmarks are the bleached bones of earlier theories.” Because theories have proven to be so ephemeral in comparison with the tales themselves (although which are more entertaining remains debatable), it might seem prudent to place more stock in the tales and less in the theories or at least to take an eclectic approach toward theorizing so as to hedge bets; but not all scholars of folktales exercise more circumspection now than their predecessors did fifty years ago. For example, in Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook Alan Dundes — one of the most prominent American folklorists of our day — adduces no material dated from before 1697 that is related to the tale “Little Red Riding Hood” but manages nonetheless to question sharply the very notion of valuing early written evidence. By scrutinizing a short Latin poem written in the first quarter of the eleventh century, I hope to refute Dundes’s dismissal of literary evidence and to underscore the pertinence of studying medieval literature in coming to grips with that beautiful and elusive phenomenon to which English-speakers give the name “fairy tale.”
The doubts about literary remains that Professor Dundes voices are deeply entrenched in folkloristics. Since its inception as an independent field of study, folklore studies have commonly been the battleground of two factions. One faction comprises literary folklorists, who have focused on folklore in – and through – literature. The other is composed of anthropological folklorists, who have been committed to studying folklore in its cultural context. Fortunately, the lines between the two factions have never been absolute, and prominent members of both have made reasonable proclamations about the need for cooperation; but the distinctions between the two show no signs of disappearing, and it seems that few literary or anthropological folklorists can forbear claiming primacy for their disciplines and materials in attaining a true understanding of folklore.