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The Science of Fairy Tales, An Enquiry Into Fairy Mythology

Edwin Sidney Hartland


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Chapters include; The Art Of Story-telling; Savage Ideas; Fairy Births And Human Midwives; Changelings; Robberies From Fairyland; The Supernatural Lapse Of Time In Fairyland; and, Swan Maidens.

This book has 285 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1891.

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Excerpt from 'The Science of Fairy Tales, An Enquiry Into Fairy Mythology'

THE art of story-telling has been cultivated in all ages and among all nations of which we have any record; it is the outcome of an instinct implanted universally in the human mind. By means of a story the savage philosopher accounts for his own existence and that of all the phenomena which surround him. With a story the mothers of the wildest tribes awe their little ones into silence, or rouse them into delight. And the weary hunters beguile the long silence of a desert night with the mirth and wonders of a tale, The imagination is not less fruitful in the higher races; and, passing through forms sometimes more, sometimes less, serious, the art of story-telling unites with the kindred arts of dance and song to form the epic or the drama, or develops under the complex influences of modern life into the prose romance and the novel. These in their various ways are its ultimate expression; and the loftiest genius has found no fitter vehicle to convey its lessons of truth and beauty.

But even in the most refined products of the imagination the same substances are found which compose the rudest. Something has, of course, been dropped in the process; and where we can examine the process stage by stage, we can discern the point whereat each successive portion has been purged away. But much has also been gained. To change the figure, it is like the continuous development of living things, amorphous at first, by and by shooting out into monstrous growths, unwieldy and half-organized, anon settling into compact and beautiful shapes of subtlest power and most divine suggestion. But the last state contains nothing more than was either obvious or latent in the first. Man's imagination, like every other known power, works by fixed laws, the existence and operation of which it is possible to trace; and it works upon the same material,--the external universe, the mental and moral constitution of man and his social relations. Hence, diverse as may seem at first sight the results among the cultured Europeans and the debased Hottentots, the philosophical Hindoos and the Red Indians of the Far West, they present, on a close examination, features absolutely identical. The outlines of a story-plot among savage races are wilder and more unconfined; they are often a vast unhidebound corpse, but one that bears no distant resemblance to forms we think more reasonable only because we find it difficult to let ourselves down to the level of savage ignorance, and to lay aside the data of thought which have been won for us by the painful efforts of civilization. The incidents, making all due allowance for these differences and those of climate and physical surroundings, are not merely alike; they are often indistinguishable. It cannot, of course, be expected that the characters of the actors in these stories will be drawn with skill, or indeed that any attention will be paid to them. Character-study is a late development. True: we ought not to overlook the fact that we have to do with barbarous ideals. In a rudimentary state of civilization the passions, like the arts, are distinguished not by subtlety and complexity, but by simplicity and violence of contrast. This may account to some extent for what seems to us repulsive, inconsistent or impossible. But we must above all things beware of crediting the story-teller with that degree of conscious art which is only possible in an advanced culture and under literary influences. Indeed, the researches which are constantly extending the history of human civilization into a remoter and remoter past, go everywhere to show that storytelling is an inevitable and wholly unconscious growth, probably arising, as we shall see in the next chapter, out of narratives believed to record actual events.

I need not stop now to illustrate this position, which is no new one, and the main lines of which I hope will be rendered apparent in the course of this volume. But it is necessary, perhaps, to point out that, although these are the premises from which I start, the limitations imposed by a work of the size and pretensions of this one will not allow me to traverse more than a very small corner of the field here opened to view. It is, therefore, not my intention to attempt any formal proof of the foregoing generalizations. Rather I hope that if any reader deem it proper to require the complete evidence on which they rest, he will be led to further investigations on his own behalf. His feet, I can promise him, will wander along flowery paths, where every winding will bring him fresh surprises, and every step discover new sources of enjoyment.

The stories with which we shall deal in the following pages are vaguely called Fairy Tales. These we may define to be: Traditionary narratives not in their present form relating to beings held to be divine, nor to cosmological or national events, but in which the supernatural plays an essential part. It will be seen that literary tales, such as those of Hans Andersen and Lord Brabourne, based though they often are upon tradition, are excluded from Fairy Tales as thus defined. Much no doubt might be said both interesting and instructive concerning these brilliant works. But it would be literary criticism, a thing widely different from the scientific treatment of Fairy Tales. The Science of Fairy Tales is concerned with tradition, and not with literature. It finds its subjects in the stories which have descended from mouth to mouth from an unknown past; and if reference be occasionally made to works of conscious literary art, the value of such works is not in the art they display, but the evidence they yield of the existence of given tales in certain forms at periods and places approximately capable of determination: evidence, in a word, which appropriates and fixes a pre-existing tradition. But even in this they are inferior in importance to historical or topographical works, where we frequently meet with records of the utmost importance in considering the origin and meaning of Folk-tales.

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