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Researching the Folktale

By Aaron Shepard

First printed in the SCBWI Bulletin, Feb.-Mar. 1996. Copyright © 1996, 2000 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any educational, noncommercial purpose.
This and other articles can be found on Aaron Shepard's Kidwriter Page.

Aaron Shepard is the author of The Business of Writing for Children: An Award-Winning Author's Tips on How to Write, Sell, and Promote Your Children's Books. He is also the Webmaster of Aaron Shepard's Kidwriter Page, where he offers free resources for children's authors. My thanks to Aaron for letting me host this on The Purple Crayon.

Table of Contents:

Where Did It Come From?
The Long Arm of the Law
The Search for Sources
The Quest for Context
Don't Forget to Write

Folktale retellers are being watched. Editors, reviewers, and librarians are demanding greater authenticity in retellings, along with documentation of sources. And retellers must watch themselves as well, to avoid infringing copyright law.

What it all means is that retellers must conduct more thorough research than ever before, both for sources and for cultural background.

Where Did It Come From?

When you come across a folktale you might like to retell, your first question should be, "Where did this story come from?" Did the author collect the story firsthand? If so, there will probably be some mention of that in an introduction, foreword, or author note.

But most folktales in children's collections are retold from earlier versions. (Often the author was not as careful about copyright law as you should try to be!) Your job then is to trace the story back to its earliest printed source. This is the version that will be most authentic, because someone did collect it firsthand.

If you're lucky, the book in which you first read the folktale will have a source note. But usually you'll need to search on your own. And even if a source note is provided, you may be able to find other and possibly better sources than those used by the author.

A word of caution: Many original stories are written in a folktale style, and some may even falsely claim to be folktales. An experienced student of folklore can usually tell the difference, but most people can't. This makes it all the more important to look for an earlier source.

The Long Arm of the Law

Authenticity is not the only reason to search for the earliest printed version. You are also trying to step out of reach of the long arm of the law -- the copyright law, that is.

In the United States, changes in that law have made the situation increasingly complex, as well as increasingly unfavorable to retellers. But here are the basics for works originally published in the U.S., for anytime up through the year 2018. (Note: This information is based on copyright law as of 1999. For details and updates, contact the U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559, 202-707-3000, http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/.)

What if the work was originally published in another country? If you're publishing in the U.S. yourself, then U.S. law applies to all works you might wish to use -- but the protection given by that law may still differ. Works from some countries are not legally protected at all! For most countries, though, figure that anything published in 1923 or after is protected, while anything published earlier is not.

Many people believe that folktales cannot be copyrighted. It's true that the tale itself is in the public domain, but how the tale is retold belongs to the author. For instance, the author is likely to have named a character, created dialog, or modified a plot incident. Original elements such as these are covered by copyright, and for as long as the story is legally protected, you're not supposed to use them.

To avoid problems, work with at least one version that is no longer in copyright and that you can use as your primary source. If that's not possible, you might work with several distinct versions -- retellings from different firsthand sources -- in order to reconstruct the tale in generic form.

The Search for Sources

In general, your goal is to find as many sources as possible, and the earliest ones possible. The more sources you have, and the more authentic they are, the better you can see what in the tale is essential, what can or should be modified, and what options are available for manipulating it.

This search for sources will usually include standard folktale bibliographic references. One or more of the following will be on the reference shelf at most larger libraries:

The Storyteller's Sourcebook, Margaret Read MacDonald.

Index to Fairy Tales, Mary Eastman/Norma Ireland. An index to collections.

Annotated Bibliography and Index to Single Editions, Elsie Ziegler. An index to picture books.

The Types of the Folktale, Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson.

The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Stith Thompson.

The first two sources will be the most useful to retellers. The two Stith Thompson indexes are best suited to multilingual scholars, but you would do well to study his one-volume overview, The Folktale.

Often you will find that the retellers of tales of a particular geographic area have mostly based their work on a mere handful of older, authoritative, adult sources -- sometimes on only a single book. Such a book may have been compiled, for instance, by a British resident of an African colony at the turn of the century, or by a north European nationalist scholar searching for his literary heritage in the late 1900s.

You can identify these treasurehouses by looking for works often cited in source notes. Many are mentioned in Thompson's The Folktale and in the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. It also pays to comb the shelves of major public and university libraries.

Nowadays, much of my own bibliographic research is done from the comfort of my home, connecting to major library catalogs online. Most university libraries now offer catalog access via direct dial-up, telnet, and/or the Web. My favorite service is MELVYL (www.melvyl.ucop.edu, or via www.cdlib.org), which catalogs the collective book holdings of the University of California campuses. I can search the catalog by title, author, subject, language, or any combination of these. When I find a likely title, I order it from my local public library as an interlibrary loan.

Of course, when you find a prime source, you may find not only an earlier version of the folktale you've seen, but also new folktales to consider.

The Quest for Context

Traditional storytellers in other cultures don't need to pause and explain details of custom or tradition found in their tales. They are telling their stories to people who know those details quite well. Retellers, on the other hand, are writing for people who may have no inkling of them. So retellers must make sure to understand the cultural context and then relay it to their readers.

One obvious but good place to start for background information is the Encyclopedia Britannica. For information on foreign customs, travel guides are good, and so are travelogues written before the days of Third World modernization. You might search out an immigrant for answers to some of your questions.

A fair amount of my own background research has now moved onto the World Wide Web. You can often unearth highly useful but obscure material through a search at AltaVista (www.altavista.com) or another search engine. For instance, when I retold the Chinese legend of White Snake, I was able to locate online photos of West Lake, one of the story settings.

The Web is also a good place to find people who can answer questions. For example, I needed to name the heroine of a folktale from the Chagga tribe of Mount Kilimanjaro. I managed to find the home page of a Chagga tribesman teaching at Pennsylvania State University! By email, he suggested several names, one of which was perfect.

Internet newsgroups and email discussion lists can be helpful as well. Many are dedicated to specific countries, cultures, or religions. When I queried an Iranian newsgroup about the tale of Mushkil Gusha, one respondent in the U.S. supplied a complete variant he'd heard often from his grandmother while growing up in southern Iran!

Don't Forget to Write

You've done the research and retold the tale. But don't leave it there. Follow up by writing a great author note. Impress us with your obscure sources. Enlighten us with interesting cultural details. Maybe even tell us how to say the names. Reviewers and librarians will give you higher marks, and your books will be more useful in the classroom.

Go ahead and show off a little. You've earned it.

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