Tuesday, August 11, 2009

strong themes

One of the things I wanted to do when I grew up was to catalogue fairy tales. I read a few collections of fairy tales from various countries and noticed that there were notable similarities between folk tales from completely unrelated countries. I decided I would hunt down these similarities, compare them, and find out why this was.

When I grew up, I found this had already been done. Well, fairy tales had been catalogued- centuries ago. There were universally acknowledged and referenced 'types', which you can refer to by number if you know the catalogue well. This was fairly discouraging. I guess I should have seen it coming, what with the collections of comparative folktales and all, but you always hope. They'd even tried to figure out why. This is where Jung's idea of the collective unconscious theory comes in. As far as I understand it, the theory states that human experience is to some extent innately shared between all humanity, without needing to be learned, and this knowledge encompasses a large portion of mythology, and perhaps language to an extent.

I kind of like that theory, it has an implication for the shared humanity of all people, and that everyone has something in common deep down. But I think it's largely discredited, maybe there's some correlation between the preference for nurture over nature in the nature vs. nurture debate. Which has now swung back, at least a bit. Also modern science and psychology doesn't sit well with it. So maybe I will have to give up on it. Another theory involves migration.

Long story short, I find fairy tale comparisons fascinating. So many variations, so similarity. Joseph Campbell tried to condense the comparison even further, by theorising that most tales share one basic structure, involving hero going on a journey. This was famously used by George Lucas as the basis for Star Wars. It's interesting that where fairy tale similarities are seen as a sign of shared humanity, works of popular culture which share similar themes are often seen as derivative. That seems somewhat unfair. So I'm glad to see that they have now catalogued tropes in popular culture in a handy online location- TVTropes. Although, I will warn you that XKCD has classified that site as addictive, so view at your own peril.

I wonder how much overlap there is between folk and fairy tale tropes and popular culture tropes?


  1. It is sad that in comparing fairy tales and pop culture, that we are so romantic, grass is greener on the other side almost.
    I guess in this litigious society, and such a small, small world now, the cynicism of people, well, it doesn't need to be explained, does it really?

    BTW, I started up another blog http://spuninmorejam.blogspot.com

  2. Anonymous13/8/09 22:22

    Nature / nurture? It depends on which trait you are looking at, but mostly 50/50. A little more nature for intelligence apparently, especially as you get older you revert to type on that score. Jung seemed to be working mostly with his imagination - not much empiric data.
    Still, I like the idea that genes are not destiny (and they are not), but they are shared around the globe, and our human experience is fairly similar from here to Terra del Fuego. And maybe there are folk memories of migrations 50,000 years ago, which we all share.
    I wonder if anyone will read these erudite musings? We certainly all share a desire for fame.

  3. I certainly think that tropes pass from folk tales to modern pop culture, and TV Tropes (which is incredibly addictive; I once spent five hours browsing it) is an excellent modern-day motif-index.

    This is a really interesting post, and it's something I haven't thought about for ages (I used to write about the use of folk motifs and themes in modern fantasy literature). Sorry to be commenting so late.

  4. It takes me a little while to reply to comments...

    Minerva: Thanks for the link! Although I disagree slightly with your "it doesn't need to be explained"- are you trying to say that we use pop culture as romantic escapism from the realities of modern life?

    Dad: I was really trying to say that the dominant idea when Jung was writing was probably that nature was most important, which has changed with a century or so of scientific research, to be sure.

    Ronni: I agree that tropes pass from fairy tales to pop culture, and I think it would be so interesting to see the similarities and differences between the two... Also thanks :)