Friday, February 5, 2010

Folklore, Parable and Metaphor

I'd like to thank Hayley Lavik for suggesting the topic of folklore and its resonance within culture. She said:

I don't have anything too specific in mind, but I really love delving into cultural folklore (such as England's black dog myth, which became incorporated right into the identity of the town of Bungay, Suffolk) and how it resonates, becomes an influence on a culture as a whole (working into customs, rituals, etc), and the like. I'm hoping to work in more informed folklore research on my blog in the coming year, and I would love to hear your take on it from an anthropological standpoint (or heck, if you have any suggestions for good reading).

I've tried a couple of avenues of research, but I think the best approach here is to point you at the resources I considered, since they contain way too much information for me to share in this post. If you're interested in specific folk tales and their significance over time, you should check out the "Folkways" series published in Realms of Fantasy magazine. Each of these articles picks a different classic story and looks at its roots, its international history, its local significance at different points in history, its literary influence, and other such things. A lot of these would be available in back copies of RoF (of which I have a few, but not that many).

I remember going to Chicago a few years ago when there was a exhibition on at the Field museum about Mythical Creatures. This was a great exhibition, because it talked a lot about both localized and internationally known mythical creatures - and when they were internationally known, it spoke about how the stories had traveled. I wrote a post about the exhibition not long after I visited; it's here.

Also, for those of you who may be interested in the history and folklore behind Japanese mythical creatures, I highly recommend the Obakemono Project, a constantly developing website that has illustrations of creatures and citations from stories in which they've appeared, tells you which regions of Japan they're from, etc. As time goes by, people have also been adding to the website illustrations from classic texts of the ghost tales.

Now, a few thoughts, inspired by my own experience and by a discussion I had with a friend recently. This friend of mine is working on a really wonderful academic project, trying to understand how people interpret literature and why, and how it is that this process has become so difficult to teach to those who need to learn it. Her topic turns out to be relevant here in an interesting way.

We were talking about metaphors, and what they do. Generally speaking, a metaphor is a comparison of sorts: it draws two things into a relationship that weren't in that relationship before. I'll include similes here, because I'm not interested in the technical distinction of "this is that" versus "this is like that." A metaphor has two parts. Those parts play different roles. If we say "I could get lost in the midnight of her hair," we're relating hair, and midnight. One of these is concrete, an object in the story we know basic parameters of but are looking to learn the quality of. The other is more abstract - midnight has lots of qualities. But when the two are in relation, we search for ways that they might be the same. For that phrase, I get that her hair is black (no question), but the addition of "lost" particularly brings in some more connotations of midnight - a sense of space that makes me think she has lots of hair, but also hints something to me about the relation between people.

A metaphor makes new meaning. It puts two things in juxtaposition and challenges us to create a meaningful relation between them. It can act like a bridge for us to understand more about something familiar than we did before, or to reach for new meanings that we haven't yet seen.

A parable, then, is a metaphor on a larger scale. It creates relations between people and challenges us to see the relation between it and our own lives. This is where the folklore angle comes in for me, because folklore to me is a fundamental activity of creating meaning.

The activities we engage in when we understand metaphor and parables are very basic to human minds and to how we understand the world. They aren't flowery extras that you learn in English class. They are forces of meaning much greater than that, which have existed throughout human history and even earlier - imagine how flat and dimensionless life would be without them! And imagine also how difficult it would be to reach for significance amidst unfamiliar things and experiences, without the tools of understanding that metaphor and parable provide. Metaphor is one of the driving engines behind proverbs, for example - and proverbs are I think intended to influence behavior. Janice Hardy uses them wonderfully in her book "The Shifter."

Before I go, I need to talk about the role of metaphor and parable in fantasy and science fiction writing. I read an interesting article here about moss trolls - it talks about the problem that arises when you are letting people in a fantasy environment use metaphors willy-nilly and then have to make up all kinds of world details to back it up.

Metaphors are your friends, but not just in the way you think (I'll let this extend to parable, but I don't use parable as much as metaphor). People use metaphors on all kinds of levels, not just to describe objects or places but also to describe life situations and to understand interactions, etc. So by all means, let your characters in your fantasy or science fiction scenario do this as well. Watch out for moss trolls - make sure that the metaphors you use aren't cosmetic, but are really integrated into your world. And that means you can't assume your characters are going to use the same metaphors that you do. They'll use the ones that make sense to them. How do they conceptualize life and struggle? They'll put it into a metaphor that is grounded in their world.

Rulii in my story "Cold Words" understood his whole life and goals in terms of hunting. Where do their stories come from? Nya in The Shifter has a background of proverbs and stories about the Saints that she draws on constantly. I have a character who lives in an underground city and has never gone to the surface of her planet. So when I send her up there for the first time, I have her describe what she sees in terms of what she knows. Human beings on Earth have a tendency to describe mundane things and compare them to objects in nature. She doesn't know nature, so I turn the metaphors backwards. A field of grass billows like bedsheets. A lake gleams like a clean plate. It feels totally different from the metaphors we'd use because it's been turned around.

A great example of folklore/parable being used to this effect comes from Ursula K. LeGuin's classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. She interweaves stories of the local people into her main narrative, to marvelous effect. The stories she relates give dimension to these people, helping to establish the subtleties of their morality and the grounding of their behavior in a way that simple description never could - and since this aspect of the people is central to the main conflict, the stories contribute beautifully to her purpose.

Metaphor and parable are integral to all stories, on more than one level - indeed, the stories we write are in one sense parables themselves. It's cool if you can look at your story in that light, and see the kinds of layered meanings you're creating. I hope that in some small way, this post helps you to do that.

Hayley, thanks again for suggesting this topic, and I'm sorry you had to wait so long for me to get to it. Josephine, thank you for all the illuminating discussions of your work.


  1. Hi Janice. Thanks for the great post.

    I'm curious. Is there any link to the Moss Troll article mention that does not require you to be signed up for Facebook? I know it's odd, but I'm one of the few people NOT signed up for it (and I don't plan on signing up.) If it's too much trouble then don't worry. I'm just curious what the Moss Troll problem is.

  2. I'm working on the underwater aliens I posted in the first Worldbuilding workshop.

    When told from Talioth's point of view, I'm trying to give every metaphor an underwater twist. So, when she manages to paint herself into a corner...hmm, that doesn't work underwater, now does it? Perhaps she feels caught in a logic trap as hard and unforgiving as a snaptrap shell.

  3. Hello, David! Good to see you. Interesting ideas. Snaptrap is interesting, but a bit oblique unless a person can get caught in it - which would involve a lot of explanation (see moss trolls). See if you can come up with something a bit more complex, like some kind of situation that involves a person of her species feeling trapped. When might that happen? In what context? Underwater caves? If it involves a logic trap, might it resemble checkmate in some kind of underwater game they play? There are lots of options.

  4. Thank you, Juliette, for taking the time to give this question such a thorough answer. The connection you've drawn to the literary significance and how such tools enable us to interpret things really resonates with me since literature always seems to be my primary viewpoint. Folklore and folktales offer ways to make sense of the world around us and explain what cannot be grasped. It makes sense, then, to turn those tales on other encounters, new or familiar, and use that lens to interpret and internalize.

    In return for the links, I'll leave one with you that I came across recently, the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, which I gather is still a new project, but looks to be putting together an impressive bibliographic index and focusing on folk/fairy tales and their influence on both culture and literature.

  5. Hayley, I'm so glad you made it! I felt bad about how long you had to wait. Thanks so much for the link, too - I'll check it out.