Preface - German folktales

The value of national stories and legends has in late years become very widely recognised. Folk-lore has recently received a large amount of attention, and the thought and labour bestowed upon the subject have been rewarded by results which prove that its investigators have entered upon no unfruitful, however long neglected, field.

This book, and its successors in the series which it is proposed to issue, may come into the hands of some who, having little opportunity afforded them to consider how the legends and tales it contains may be of the value we claim for them, may be glad to have the "case" for legends and national stories presented to them in a few words.

The peasant's tale, the story preserved through centuries on the lips of old wives, the narrative which has come down to us having done duty as a source of amusement in the fireside groups of preceding generations, may seem to some to afford slight matter for reflection, and may even appear so grotesque in its incidents as to be fitted only to excite a smile of wonder at the simplicity of those among whom such stories could obtain reception, and surprise at the fantastic imagination in which such tales could find their origin. Modern thought has, however, been busy asking itself what is the meaning of these stories, and it has done much to supply itself with an answer. This, at least, it has done: it has discovered that these legends and tales, which so many have been inclined to cast aside as worthless, are of a singular value, as throwing a light which little else can afford upon the mind of primitive man. At first the collection of national stories was undertaken merely for the purpose of affording amusement. Folk-tales were diverting, so they found their way into print, and were issued as curious literary matter fitted to supply diversion for a vacant hour. Many of the tales are very beautiful, and their mere literary merit sufficed to make them sought for. But legendary lore was soon observed to possess much more value than could attach to its merely amusing features. It was obvious that in these legends were preserved the fragments of the beliefs of the ancient folk. "The mythology of one period," remarked Sir Walter Scott, "would appear to pass into the romance of the next century, and that into the nursery tale of the subsequent ages." "Fiction," said Sir John Malcolm, "resolves itself into its primitive elements, as, by the slow and unceasing action of the wind and rain, the solid granite is crumbled into sand. The creations embodied by the vivid imagination of man in the childhood of his race incorporate themselves in his fond and mistaken faith. Sanctity is given to his daydreams by the altar of the idol. Then, perhaps, they acquire a deceitful truth from the genius of the bard. Blended with the mortal hero, the aspect of the god glances through the visor of the helmet, or adds a holy dignity to the royal crown. Poetry borrows its ornaments from the lessons of the priests. The ancient god of strength of the Teutons, throned in his chariot of the stars, the Northern Wain, invested the Emperor of the Franks and the paladins who surrounded him with superhuman might. And the same constellation, darting down its rays upon the head of the long-lost Arthur, has given to the monarch of the Britons the veneration which once belonged to the son of 'Uthry Bendragon,' 'Thunder, the supreme leader,' and 'Eygyr, the generating power.' Time rolls on; faith lessens; the flocks are led to graze within the rocky circle of the giants, even the bones of the warriors moulder into dust; the lay is no longer heard; and the fable, reduced again to its original simplicity and nudity, becomes the fitting source of pastime to the untutored peasant and the listening child. Hence we may yet trace no small proportion of mystic and romantic lore in the tales which gladden the cottage fireside, or, century after century, soothe the infant to its slumbers." The works of the brothers Grimm, the appearance of the Kinder- und Haus-Mährchen, in 1812, and of the Deutsche Mythologie, in 1835, threw a new light on the importance of national tales, and awoke the spirit of scientific comparison which has made the study of Folk-lore productive of such valuable results.

With regard to the diffusion of national stories, it is remarkable that we find substantially identical narratives flourishing in the most widely separated countries, and this fact has given rise to several explanatory theories, none of which seems perfectly satisfactory. The philological discovery of the original unity of all the Aryan races may account for the possession by the Aryan peoples of similar stories. It may be, as Sir George Cox suggests, a common inheritance of such tales as were current when the Aryans "still lived as a single people." We find, however, that these tales are also current among people whom, accepting this theory, we should least expect to find possessing them, and so the wide diffusion of the stories yet remains unsatisfactorily accounted for. Identity of imagination, inheritance, transmission, may each have played its part.

As to the origin of the tales much debate has arisen. It is obvious from the nature of the incidents of many of them that they could only have originated in a most primitive state of man. "Early man," says Sir George Cox, "had life, and therefore all things must have life also. The sun, the moon, the stars, the ground on which he trod, the clouds, storms, lightnings were all living beings; could he help thinking that, like himself, they were all conscious beings also?" Such, according to this authority, was the origin of primary myths, secondary and tertiary myths arising in the course of time from the gradual misunderstanding of phrases applied by primitive man to personified objects. According to Professor Max Müller, animism, or the investing all things with life, springs not in the first place from man's thought, but from the language in which he clothes it. Man, he says, found himself speaking of all things in words having "a termination expressive of gender, and this naturally produced in the mind the corresponding idea of sex." He thus came to invest all objects with "something of an individual, active, sexual, and at last personal character." However hard it may be to discover the reason for the origin of the tendency to animism, the fact is certain that the tendency is to be found generally existing among savage peoples, and it would seem that we must accept the national stories which have come down to us embodying this tendency in grotesque incidents as relics handed down from the savage days of the people with whom the tales originated, as the expression of portions of their thought when they had as yet only attained to such a degree of civilisation as exists among savages of the present day.

Strange and grotesque as some of the national stories are, they may be regarded as embodying the fragments of some of man's most primitive beliefs; and recognising this, it will be impossible to dismiss the folk-tale as unworthy of careful consideration, nor may it be regarded as unfitted to afford us, if studied aright, very much more than merely such amusement as may be derived from its quaint incident and grotesque plot.

C. J. T.