Fairy Tales, Sleep Paralysis, Coding, and Ghosts: 5 Gateway Books to Folklore Studies

February 25, 2020

If you’re like us, you could spend all day with your nose in a book. Preferably a fantasy novel or a fairy-tale retelling or a gorgeous graphic novel. Luckily, these things are all comparatively easy to find: by word of mouth, scrolling through social, or hunting through Goodreads.

But what if you want to read about fairy tales or folklore themselves? If you want to dive into the world of folklore and fairy-tale studies, it can be tricky to know where to start. And honestly, there’s just so much misinformation out there that it can be hard to sift through it to find the good stuff – and the stuff that’s actually readable. (We love us some jargon-heavy books, but it’s… an acquired taste.)

So, if you’re new to the world of folklore studies, welcome! And here are a few books to start you off. These are books that we return to again and again. They’re written by TOP NOTCH scholars who know their stuff and who know how to write scholarship that’s fun to read. So hit your local library, and enjoy!

The Classic Fairy Tales (Second Edition) edited by Maria Tatar

When people ask us where to begin with fairy-tale studies, we almost always start with this book. It’s an anthology of fairy tales and scholarly writings, with introductions to each section written by Tatar. The fairy tales are grouped together by theme or author. For example, the Cinderella section contains 10 different versions of the story from all over the world (China, France, Egypt, etc.), while the Oscar Wilde section provides three of his beautiful literary fairy tales. The entire thing is readable and informative, and its super-absorbency once saved Sara’s computer when her humidifier betrayed her and leaked all over the table, preventing Sara from having a mental breakdown but necessitating a second purchase of the book. Thanks, Maria! <3

The Incident.
[reenactment, colorized]

Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies by Lynne S. McNeill

Do you love folklore, but you’re not exactly sure what it is or how to define it? (Do not despair, you are not alone, and folklorists have been trying to define it for over a hundred years at this point.) McNeill makes the foundational concepts of the discipline terrifyingly easy to understand, providing background, breaking down the basics, and introducing the questions folklorists use to analyze folklore. The book is short, funny, and super approachable, with only five chapters: 1. What is Folklore?, 2. What Do Folklorists Do?, 3. Types of Folklore, 4. Types of Folk Groups, and 5. What Do I Do Now? Also, the book has a Hyperbole and a Half illustration that became the “Do All the Things” meme, which pretty much tells you what you’re getting into.

Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture edited by Joan Newlon Radner

We love this book. Love. We’ve recommended it in just about every Carterhaugh course that we’ve taught (with the result that if you look this book up on Amazon, the first review you’ll see is from one of our students!) Basically, it’s a collection of essays that addresses different aspects of folklore and gender. There are essays on a scandalous Sunbonnet Sue quilt, purposeful dinner burnings, trauma and recovery in fairy tales, and so much more. The theme that unites the book is the idea of coding, or covert expressions of transgressive ideas – in other words, subtly passing along messages that would be disturbing or disruptive to those with more power. Coding, the authors argue, can be deliberate or unconscious, and it’s a frequent feature in art, stories, and activities by women and other marginalized groups.

The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions by David J. Hufford

So, Brittany hasn’t actually read this entire book (because she is scared… excerpts were quite enough for her!) Sara has, and only had nightmares for a few days. We are, however, total wusses, so do not let this put you off on reading it, unless you are, like us, delicate nightmare flowers.

It’s SO COOL THOUGH. Hufford explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis and all the supernatural cultural baggage that it has accumulated at different times and places. This phenomenon used to be known as the “Old Hag” or “mara” experience, a seriously disturbing event in which a sleepers claim to feel suffocated, paralyzed, and immense terror. In the most extreme cases, people believe these feelings are caused by an encounter with a malicious entity or creature. The “Old Hag” is shockingly common, and Hufford writes that about 15% of people experience it at some point in their lives. Fascinatingly, different cultures have their own names and stories to explain the experience – including stories about fairy or alien abductions! Like we said: SO FASCINATING. Hufford’s “experience-centered” ideas are really cool too – basically, he insists folklorists must never judge beliefs, even when they seem completely unbelievable, because they are very real to those who experience them. We must honor that to be good at what we do.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand

Have you heard the one about the babysitter and the man upstairs (yep, he’s calling from INSIDE THE HOUSE)? How about the one about the Kentucky fried rat, or the snake in the blanket? Everyone comes across urban legends in their life, and this book is a classic study of how and why we tell them (and what they might actually mean.) Why do we have so many stories about people terrorizing babysitters and children? Why are we always so fearful of weird things in our food, in our household items, or in our cars? Exploring urban legends is one of the best ways to see that folklore is alive and well in our society (and definitely not just through the old stuff.) We’re creating and repeating urban legends all the time, sometimes without even realizing that that’s what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you actually believe or not – the fun is in deciding whether or not you do and why.

So there you have it! 5 of our favorite books to get you started in your journey studying folklore. Do you have any scholarly folklore books you absolutely love? Let us know in the comments (and happy reading!)


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