Folklore: Great Story Collections

Last week I started back at the University of Pennsylvania, after a year off. I’ll be finishing my last semester this Spring, and graduating with a BA in History of Art in May.

In addition to the math and biology lecture class and bio lab I must take to graduate, I also got to pick two others to round out my semester. I went with World Music (I’m writing a paper for that class that I’ll probably post here when it’s done) and Folklore: Great Story Collections. With my work in anthologies it seems like a perfect fit, and I love classes that have interesting reading lists.

Behold, the books. For this class we’re reading seven texts:

  • Aesop. Aesop’s Fables. Trans. by Laura Gibbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Attar, Farid Al-Din. Conference of the Birds. New York: Penguin, 1984
  • Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Translated and edited by G.H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin, 1996
  • Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. by Jack Zipes. 3rd edition. New York: Bantam, 2003
  •  Hurston, Zora Neale. Of Mules and Men. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.
  • Kalevala: an epic poem after oral tradition. Comp. Elias Lonnrot, trans. by Keith Bosley. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Randolph, Vance. Pissing in the Snow. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Of these, I’ve read parts of the Decameron, many of the Aesop fables, and maybe half of the Grimm’s. This is a huge amount of reading to do for one class, especially when I’ve got four others to read for, and work and life besides. But I’m excited about all of them, and it’s a nice excuse to go back and re-read and finish the books I only started.

The object of the class? From the syllabus:

Each collection displays various techniques for collecting folk materials and making them concrete. Each in its own way also raises different issues of genre, legitimacy, canon formation, cultural values and context.

So we’ll be looking at each text in terms of how the stories within fit together. We’re also going to have to write five papers and do a “collecting” project where we ask people for stories on a certain topic, group them together, and then write a paper analyzing our collection.

The first class was mostly an introduction. The professor is one of the few left at UPenn that actually teaches Folklore, which has been absorbed into the English department, and he holds a PhD in the subject. He’s older, prone to jokes and swaying from the topic at hand (I had to stop him from finishing the Aristocrats joke in class) and loves the folklore of sexuality. Bawdy stories, he says, are the best. With the Decameron on the list, I’m not surprised.

I’ve already agreed to help out one of the students, an Econ major who’s also an immigrant from China – he’s worried his English won’t be up to the task of analyzing these works. He was actually thinking of dropping before the 1st class started, but he needs it to fulfill a requirement. I explained to him that in Econ you’re looking for patterns, looking at the available data and how it fits together, and he agreed. This is the same, I said, only the data is stories instead of finance, but he’s still looking for the pattern in it all. He stayed through the class so I hope I can help. Anyone smart enough to learn a second (or third) language, find work here and get into a school like UPenn shouldn’t be made to feel dumb just because his grasp of the “classics” in one language isn’t as strong.

I’ll try to post each week about what we’re reading, and what we’ve discussed in class. This week’s reading is 100 of the fables (50 assigned, another 50 of our own choosing). Here’s one of them:

The Birds, the Beasts, and the Bat

THE BIRDS waged war with the Beasts, and each were by turns the
conquerors. A Bat, fearing the uncertain issues of the fight,
always fought on the side which he felt was the strongest. When
peace was proclaimed, his deceitful conduct was apparent to both
combatants. Therefore being condemned by each for his treachery,
he was driven forth from the light of day, and henceforth
concealed himself in dark hiding-places, flying always alone and
at night.

Moral: He winds up friendless who plays both sides against the middle.

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4 thoughts on “Folklore: Great Story Collections

  1. I like the idea of exploring how anthologies work, how they are put together and how the stories interact. Does that edition of Aesop’s have a good introduction, or annotations on the individual fables? I’ll be curious to hear how he talks about curation across history and the difference between classics like the Aesop’s stuff and a book like Randolph’s.

  2. yep, this is awesome in every way. cannot wait to hear more.

  3. I’m envious of your professor, as I totally want to study bawdy tales. Sounds like an excellent class and reading material. I’m very interested in your thoughts on Decameron, which is one of my favorite high school reading assignments ever. Though I have to admit that there are still segments I have not completed.

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