What Makes a Story or Tradition Authentic?: Folklore, the Past, and the Right Now
January 21, 2020
This week’s post grew out of one of the wonderful discussions unfolding in our current course “Kindling a Light in the Darkness: Winter Folklore and Fairy Tales.” We’ve had a LOT of questions and comments circling around the idea of roots: basically, how to trace folkloric stories, practices, or rituals back in time. Underneath those questions lies another set of questions: which stories, practices, and rituals are truly authentic. These questions are fascinating – there’s a reason we get them so frequently in our courses and elsewhere! – but they are often questions without simple answers. So, for our post today, we decided to tackle just a little of the epic tangle that is the Time / Authenticity / Age / Value issue.
Folklore is a balancing act between continuity and change (or “conservatism and dynamism,” the “twin laws of folklore process” as brilliantly laid out by folklorist Barre Toelken.) It’s the push and pull between a connection to the past and the influence of the present. It’s about adapting what came before to speak about and to the present. This is how we get urban legends and personalized wedding vows and fan fiction communities – we collect bits of the past and use them to weave something that fits the world we live in now.
A lot of what we create in this way is quite new. Our stories and traditions are connected to the past, but they often have giant leaps or even complete breaks in continuity. Sometimes, they are inspired by our dreams of what the past was, rather than what was. That doesn’t mean what we make is any less powerful. There’s often an assumption that a story or practice has to have ancient roots – that it needs to be directly connected to the ancient in a bright, blazing line – in order to be real or valuable or authentic. And that simply isn’t true.
This kind of thinking can make people tie themselves up in knots trying to prove tenuous (or, sometimes, simply non-existent) connections in order to justify stories or practices that they find meaningful. And that’s just not necessary. (And much of the time, it’s impossible to prove a definitive connection due to passage of time or lack of written records.) If a practice or a story is meaningful and resonates with people, that’s what matters from a folkloristic perspective. Old does not automatically mean better, and something doesn’t have to be old to be authentic. People are constantly creating new folklore, from old traditions, from new experiences, from bits and pieces of things that they encounter throughout their lives. It’s chaotic and unwieldy instead of tidy and linear, and that’s part of what makes it so wonderful!
Folklorists don’t judge folklore based on its age or pedigree. Instead, we care if it brings people together or means something to them or helps them communicate who they are.
It is incredibly common for people to believe that if something is older, then it is more valuable or somehow truer. Or they think that if we could somehow go back to some idealized time, everything would somehow be better because it’s more authentic. But we find the folklorist perspective to be ultimately much more rewarding. We’re no longer trying to force really iffy theories that can’t be proven – instead, we get to spend our time studying and appreciating the things that people love.