Reclaiming Classical Nordic Folklore Theories: A Post-Modern Appraisal

Galit Hasan-Rokem, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem

March 2000

In the following paper my aim is to delineate a systematic reconsideration of a number of Nordic folklore theories that have been central in the formation of the discipline, not only in the confines of this area but have also inspired and influenced folklore theory and folklore methodologies worldwide. I shall concentrate on three clear cut statements of theoretical issues of Nordic scholarship that seem to have the strongest impact on the discipline beyond the region itself, namely Olrik’s famous Epic Laws, the geographical-historical Arbeitsmethode, and the concept of oikotyp, or ecotype.

Each of these will be reinterpreted in the framework of a later theoretical development. The Dane Olrik’s laws will be shown not to be at all super-organic as he claimed and as Alan Dundes restated in his 1965 head note for the article in The Study of Folklore. On the contrary, it seems that these laws gain new sense and are quite organically explainable with reference to contextual analysis of performance, which gained a central place in folklore studies in the US from the late sixties and onward, and influenced scholarship around the world.

Likewise the original purposes of the geographical-historical method, also called the Finnish school, whose classical ouvre – Krohn’s Arbeitsmethode – was published in Norway, namely looking for the original types and forms or delineating the exact track of distribution and transmission have lost their appeal for folklore research. However the principal theoretical terms of the method, type and motif have gained new meaning within the framework of new theoretical frameworks, especially formalist, structuralist and semiotic ones. Thus contextualized, type and motif are integrated in a system, rather than treated atomistically or per se.

Von Sydow’s oikotype was reinvigorated by the theoretical reevaluation invested in the term by Lauri Honko (1979, 1981) from a functionalist and neo-functionalist point of view. The integration of the concept in the construction of national identity by Dov Noy (1978) was followed by several of his students in the late eighties and the nineties in more explicit studies connected with identity politics of various orders.

The move delineated by the discussion could be understood within the context of postmodern theorizing, which privileges inclusion and synchronization of diachronic discourses.