Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Folklore We Make Today


We often think of folklore as coming from the past, but it’s constantly being created and  in the process of becoming. It’s part of our culture.  It surrounds and enfolds us in our language, rituals, crafts, and especially stories. But what is folklore? Simon J. Bronner defines folk as “a group or everyday life and ‘lore’ as cultural or oral learning and expression.”  This can include traditional speech, tales, songs, dances, and customs. 

My area of interest is stories from the oral tradition – folktales, legends, and myths. I am especially interested in the way story variants continue to emerge in today’s culture and the sharing of stories through digital transmission.  As a traditional storyteller it is part of my personal mission to be the keeper of the old stories.  What that means to me is that I tell them, teach about them, and write about them.  But sadly, I am constantly reminded in the classroom how little knowledge my students have of these old tales. If a story hasn’t been the subject of a film, it probably isn’t well known today.  And those stories that have been memorialized in that way have little to do with the actual story itself.  A thousand years of Snow White or Cinderella is reduced to a sanitized Disney film. Hence, my feeling of urgency and sometimes futility in being the “keeper of the stories.”

On the other hand, there is a “fairytale fantasy” that remains a very popular genre both in young adult books and adult fiction.  It is also found in poetry, television, and film. The “author” can explore the story from a different perspective (such as seen in the film, “Maleficent”), or create a back story, fill in a character’s motivation or simply ask a “what if” question. The original myth of Persephone is a story of violence and rape, while many contemporary retellings turn the story into a romance with a controlling mother. There are mash ups and rehashing’s such as the television series “Grimm” which created a backstory to all these tales.  This transmission of these new stories is different than the one that occurred through the oral tradition – but it is more widespread. Rather than stories moving slowly through migration or trade, we see them spread throughout the world with a single posting on the Internet.

While it is true that these modern depictions have a set format, this does not prevent or restrict the transmission. Copyright applies to a single “work,” not to an idea. We once distinguished “authored” work from folklore, yet the work of film and novels is often the kernel of much folklore. The spread of literary and film stories now occurs as the traditional stories did, one by one, but much more quickly.  We see this exemplified in the “Star Wars,” “Doctor Who,” or “Harry Potter” fan fiction. How many Darth Vaders have you seen in a meme?  Once a story, or a character catches the imagination, that thread is hard to extinguish. The “people” have made the story its own.  It continues to live within our imagination just as Cinderella and Snow White once did.  We have Harry Potter theme parks and dress as Princess Leia at cosplay conventions.  The story lives far beyond the author’s imagination. 

Legends continue in the same fashion, except that new “stories” are spread much quicker. Digital images of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster are also subject to greater scrutiny than the Cottingley fairy images of long ago. For even if the technology is better to share and discuss, there are more eyes to point out any irregularity (as Princess Kate herself recently discovered).

I heard an interview with a traditional Asian storyteller regarding the BBC podcast “Yeti.”  When asked if the old woman cared if the Yeti was ever discovered, she said “no.” It was the story and the folklore around it that was the most important to her.  It was the folklore she wanted to retain.  It mattered little to her whether anyone could ever definitively prove the existence of the Yeti. The same could be said of Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy.  It is the mystery and the ambiguity that captures us.  It is the meaning and ritual of the folklore we seek to hold on to.  So, even if we have the technology and skill to find an answer – that really doesn’t matter in the end. The existence of the thing is meaningless.  It is the story about it that contains the meaning.

In the book Winning the Story Wars, the author Jonah Sachs argues that we have lost the mythology that once bound us together as a culture.  Today he contends that marketers have become today’s mythmakers.  They are the ones providing society with explanation, meaning and ritual.  It’s marketers not philosophers, theologians, storytellers, or artists who have the pulse of our culture.  It’s marketers who define our moral course. But there is more, Sachs also contends that social media is now fulfilling the same function as the oral tradition once did. His ideas leave us with a rather dystopian projection of the future, but wait.  

There is more. Sachs also contends that social media is now fulfilling the same function as the oral tradition. Certainly, an image or video going viral is the fastest way to spread it. Although of course, these online “stories” are very brief, perhaps only a minute or two, some may contain content that cries out to be shared.

While it's true that most of what I see online strikes me as rubbish, there are bits and pieces that are creative and it’s these abbreviated snippets of story that fascinates me now. While in the past, storytellers would tell long epic tales, little bits of life are shared today in brief TikTok videos.  Certainly, it exemplifies our shorter attention span. And while each individual posting is of little significance, when compiled, they are the stories of a people.  It is the making of folklore.  So, the next time you debate the best recipe for Deviled Eggs, after watching “Landon Talks a Lot,” remember you’re spreading a bit of folklore. You too are a part of the folk and sharing our stories and traditions is just what we do. 


Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 – 1935) -, Public Domain,

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