The Blue Band: Stith Thompson and the Folklore Index, Part One.

I’m more of a mythologist than a folklorist; my wife (and sole collaborator on this blog) is the inverse. As a result I get to hear more than my fair share of theoretical folklore, especially as she finished her doctoral dissertation.

Now, if you’ve spent any time around folklorists, you’re bound to come across their various classification schemata. Of these, you’re certain to hear about the Aarne–Thompson classification system. To quote the scholar Alan Dundes:

“the identification of folk narratives through motif and/or tale type numbers has become an international sine qua non among bona fide folklorists”

So, over years of grad school, marriage, and my wife’s PhD work, the words Aarne-Thompson, and specifically Stith Thompson, have kept resurfacing.

So I found myself wondering: who was Stith Thompson, and what led him to create what is essentially the Dewey decimal system of folklore studies?

And that, dear readers, is what leads us into the proverbial woods…

*

Before entering those woods, a note for researchers: I’m drawing from two sources here. The first is Language Series, volume 2, issued by Colorado College. The second is American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent by Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, with a foreword by the aforementioned Alan Dundes.

For everyone else, back into the woods…

*

Imagine this:

You’re a doctoral candidate at Harvard, in the early 1900’s.

Your bachelor’s thesis was titled “The Return of the Dead in Folk Literature” (University of Wisconsin, 1909), which is frankly one of the best titles I’ve ever heard.

You follow this up with your master’s thesis, The Idea of the Soul in Teutonic Ballads and Literature” (University of California, Berkeley, 1912).

And now you’ve made your way to Harvard for your doctoral studies.

It’s here that a random, unrelated lecture will change your life…

Your name is Stith Thompson, and this is what you heard:

*

The class in question was Medieval Romance.

The teacher in question was George Lyman Kittredge, a noted Shakespearean scholar.

And the short lecture came about from a letter he had just received from a fellow academic.

This is how Stith Thompson recalled the lecture in his memoir, Folklorist’s Progress:

One morning he opened his lecture a propos of nothing with the following: “Gentleman, today I received a letter from…[an anthropologist working in Saskatchewan] working with the Chipewyan Indians. He has been collecting tales…which he suspects may be of European origin.”

Kittredge proceeded to tell his class two narratives.

Thompson’s life was changed. He was going to catalog as many of the tales he could gather from Native Americans.

This would be the groundwork of his doctoral dissertation, as well as the basis for the Aarne–Thompson classification system.

So, what was the story that transformed him?

We’ll get there.

But first, who is Aarne?

At the time, Stith had no idea.

*

It’s been said that Da Vinci said no work of art is ever finished, just abandoned.

If you ever do academic research, nine times out of ten you’ll find that one, single piece of data that would have been pivotal to your thesis right after you publish your work.

And that’s what happened to Stith.

Stith published his doctoral dissertation in 1915.

However, in 1920, he came across a work published in 1910 by Antti Aarne, who had used a similar approach to study folklore in Finland. To quote Stith’s own surprise at the find of Aarne’s The Types of Folklore, he recorded:

“How much would have I not given to have this when I working on my own thesis!”

His subsequent reworking of Aarne’s work into English resulted in the Aarne-Thompson classification.

So what was the story that triggered Stith in the first place?

It’s only fragmentary, but here’s what we can glean from Language Series, volume 2, issued by Colorado College

*

Here are the bullet points from the original Norwegian version:

  • There’s a Magic Belt;
  • A treacherous Mother
  • The Hero (son) who bluffs a Giant (who marries the Hero’s wicked mother)
  • Tasks imposed through the feigned sickness of the Mother
  • Rescue of a Princess
  • Secret strengths of the Belt discovered
  • The Hero is blinded by the conniving mother, and the Magic Belt stolen
  • Blindness cured by imitating animal guides
  • Recovery of the Magic Belt
  • Recovery of the Princess

Now, let’s consider the Native American version:

  • There’s a Magic Belt;
  • A treacherous Mother
  • The Hero (son) who bluffs a Giant (who marries the Hero’s wicked mother)
  • Tasks imposed through the feigned sickness of the mother
  • Rescue of a girl
  • Secret strengths of the Belt discovered
  • Our hero is assisted by a chief’s cook
  • The Hero is blinded by the conniving mother, and the Magic Belt stolen
  • Recovery of the girl
  • Blindness cured by imitating animal guides
  • Recovery of the Magic Belt

I’ve placed events that are out of sequence/differ in bold, however…

As Stith realized, pretty much, the song remains the same.

And that was what gave birth to the Aarne–Thompson classification system.

If longevity is a measure of success, it’s still in use today.

And what of Stith Thompson?

He lived to be ninety years old.

Sounds successful to me.

Up next, a reconstruction of the tale itself…

2 thoughts on “The Blue Band: Stith Thompson and the Folklore Index, Part One.

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