Valdimar Tr. Hafstein:

Biological Metaphors in Folklore Theory

– An Essay in the History of Ideas –


Metaphors and the Forging of Interdisciplinary Links

Ever since the early Romantics first asserted the vital importance of folklore, and up until the end of the 20th century, an astonishing number of folklorists has consistently chosen to couch arguments in natural imagery and biological analogies. No mere illustrations, these metaphors both presuppose and entail certain conceptions of the ‘nature’ of folklore. I submit that, as argumentative devices, they should be presumed both armed and dangerous. They are best regarded as tropes deployed in the discursive practices of scholars. These practices are subject to discursive conventions, which include a mutable repertoire of metaphors. It is through these practices that the scholarly community defines and delimits its objects and the modes and methods of understanding these objects. These discursive conventions also imbue these understandings with authority.

Folklorists cannot help but be familiar with biological metaphors: life, growth, evolution, death, extinction, natural laws, morphology, ‘Märchenbiologie’, and tradition ecology, to mention only a few. From Herder and Grimm through van Gennep, von Sydow, and Propp, I argue that these metaphors are not only more pervasive in the scholarship than we usually recognize, they have moreover helped constitute some of the ways in which folklorists have approached the objects of their studies and constructed the discipline.

I hasten to add the obligatory disclaimer: my examination of biological metaphors will focus on the discursive practices of what I think are the greatest minds in the history of the discipline, prior to the advent of the ‘New Perspectives’ of the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent developments in scholarly discourse on folklore. Although my approach is critical – I attempt to expose the metaphorical underpinnings and rhetorical implications of theoretical constructs, – I am not criticizing their theories, their rhetoric or their application of metaphor. Indeed, such criticism would be an exercise in futility: we’re stuck with the history of the discipline, whether we like it or not. As I see it, however, it is our duty as its heirs to engage that history, to understand how its developments have constructed the materials, methods, and boundaries of our discipline, and to define the positions we occupy vis-à-vis those taken by our predecessors. In this sense, my analysis of biological metaphors and the arguments they render plausible presents a critique – a history of the present if you will, insofar as these metaphors occupy the interstices of past and present paradigms of research.

The borrowing of expressions, models, and representations from one discipline to another, in and of itself, is of course not a bad thing – in the late 20th century, in fact, interdisciplinary borrowings were generally encouraged. Nor are such borrowings anything new: solutions to chronic problems within one field of knowledge have often been supplied by scholars who have incidentally had a sustained interest in another discipline. They have brought concepts from that field to bear on new problems, transferred methods, and extended insights (see Schlanger 1971: 20). What needs to be stressed, though, is that the direction of borrowing is almost always vertical, from higher status to lower status disciplines; along with terminology, models, and methods, an attempt is made to appropriate the authority of results attained by practitioners in other fields.

Disciplines in the bottom rungs of the hierarchy, a position all too familiar to folklorists, are seldom the source of solutions to intellectual problems in fields with a higher standing in academia (Ben-Amos 1973: 116-117). When they are, their contribution is likely to go unacknowledged; officially, at least, they don’t lend, they borrow. The models of natural science, on the other hand, along with those of mathematics, have held a certain logical and hierarchical priority within Western epistemologies and philosophies of science since the 17th century. At the point in time when the study of folklore and related subjects was first struggling for legitimacy (to some extent that is an ongoing struggle), the procedures of the natural sciences were taken to represent the norms of sound and scientific knowledge. In order to gain admission to the scientific domain, and to enjoy the intellectual and social privileges contingent on admission, students of culture and society, including folklorists, modeled their discursive practices on the epistemologies of natural science.

While the admissibility of biological metaphors is not in question – in principle, at least, any metaphor can further analysis, – I maintain that we need to examine the use to which scholars have put these metaphors in their writings. As Judith Schlanger convincingly demonstrates in a seminal work on organic metaphors (1971), "an analogy is never independent of its application; the application defines it and reveals its purpose" (256, my translation). In what follows, I attempt to show how biological metaphors and discursive practices deploying them have constructed folklore, or, in the words of Judith Schlanger, how "the norms of knowledge indirectly determine the nature of the knowable" (168, my translation).

What is in question, then, is not whether the study of folklore is really a biological science in some sense – we needn’t read the metaphors literally. The real question is what folklore has to be in order for us to conceive of the study of folklore as biological, or, at least, as analogous to biology. The answer, as will become clear, is that folklorists have chosen biological metaphors for a remarkably constant set of reasons: these metaphors can impart to their referents a semblance of natural concreteness, bounded units, immanent principles of growth (codifiable in natural laws), and an autonomy of form and purpose. While the theories advanced by these folklorists are a motley crowd, to be sure, the biological metaphors they rely on differ only in emphasis and not in essence. Their variation depends on two things. The first is the primacy of diachronic or synchronic perspectives. That is to say whether organic growth and descent are foregrounded or whether the focus is on organic form and unity (cf. Abrams 1953: 170-175, and Wimsatt 1972: 66-69). The second is in which unit of analysis ontological priority is vested (e.g., type, genre, tradition, folk).

The Folk Organism: Enlightenment and Romanticism

Folklore’s involvement with biology and organicism goes all the way back to the ideological current that gave rise to the discipline, National Romanticism. The roots of this current of thought have been traced back to the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement in the German-speaking lands of Europe at the turn of the 19th century. The most illustrious figures of that movement were Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). The former brought organic tropes to a new and unprecedented prominence in his writings on social philosophy, whereas the latter envisioned and actively promoted a united science of nature and art. Both took great interest in folklore and play prominent roles in the history of folklore scholarship.

Of the two, Herder is more immediately connected with the study of folklore and his gospel surpasses that of Goethe in its significance for the subject of this investigation. Following Herder’s lead, the German Romantics anchored their ideology in the concept of the organism (see Schick 1971 for a literary analysis of Herder’s organicism). In his writings, and that of his intellectual descendants, the machine (most often the clockwork, hitherto a positive model of rationality) was reinvented as the antithesis of the organism. Though the characteristics attributed to each category in Romantic discourse tended to fluctuate, their polemical evaluation did not: the living organism afforded the tropes for all things positive, the dead mechanism for all things negative (Schlanger 1971: 48-51; see also Schmitter 1992). Enlightenment thinkers, on the contrary, had valued the mechanism as a product of will, and hence as an objectification of creation, which they opposed to what they depicted as the chaos of the preceding age of darkness. The crucial difference between organic and mechanic analogies, from a modern point of view, is this: unlike the mechanism, the organism is not willed. Instead, its principles of life were seen as immanent and autonomous.

The emergence of organicism was an element in the general exaltation of nature that characterized Romanticism. A sharpened self-consciousness of refined, elite culture led philosophers and artists to engage with its counterparts, nature and popular culture, often conflating the two. Nature, its four seasons and endless epiphanies, provided substance and inspiration to poets and authors, painters and composers, as well as to intellectuals and other men of letters. The prominence of biological metaphors in learned expositions is but one aspect of this much larger trend. The rise to glory of natural science at around this time is another aspect. The use of biological metaphors in theories of folklore reflects this relationship. They may be organic or natural metaphors, biological in the sense that they refer to forms of life (biology as subject), or they may be analogies to the science of life-forms (biology as science), or both.

Enlightenment philosophers were committed to a social and intellectual project which promised the triumph of reason over tradition and cosmopolitanism over parochialism. As Giuseppe Cocchiara shows in his monumental History of Folklore in Europe, the category of the folk or the ‘peuple’ is their invention (1981: 89-92). Fontenelle (1657-1757), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Voltaire (1694-1778), and their colleagues and contemporaries were deeply involved in the emergence of a new middle class and its creation of a differential identity for itself. They found their symbolic Other in the common people, the masses (cf. Abrahams 1993, esp. 3-4). The criteria by which they distinguished the categories were, of course, a direct representation of their values: the middle class was the champion of reason, the folk was the locus of tradition; the middle class was cosmopolitan, the folk’s horizon didn’t extend beyond the village; and, of course, while the middle class was urban, the folk was rural. While a middle class man (for the male of the species was the locus of reason) might adhere to religious tradition or avail himself of certain other aspects of tradition, he did so as a matter of an individual and informed choice, not as a factor of his social class. In contrast, the folk were depicted as blind, unenlightened followers of tradition – they were categorically traditional. By criticizing their customs and folklore, by characterizing traditions as errors, and thus the very opposite of reason and enlightenment, these writers distanced themselves and their audience from the masses, creating a category of people against which they could define themselves (ibid.). Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has convincingly argued that we are entitled to see the formation of folklore studies in their works, bearing such suggestive titles as Sir Thomas Browne’s Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors (1649), and that the Enlightenment agenda, furthermore, made no small contribution to the way the discipline developed (1996: 245-246).

Ushering in the cultural populism and anti-rationalism that came to characterize the Romantic movement, Herder retained the Enlightenment category of the folk as an undifferentiated mass, opposed to an individualized middle class. However, he turned the evaluation on its head; thus he spoke of "children and folk, the most noble part of mankind" (1877-1913, v. 6: 309, my translation). Cosmopolitanism and reason are all very well if you’re participating in the construction of an empire, like the French state that fostered the Enlightenment, but Herder’s agenda, and that of the German Romantics, was altogether different. To some extent, the German-speaking population in Europe was coterminous with the Other of Enlightenment intellectuals. Most parts of what later became Germany were comprised of feudal societies, and, while peasants were the vast majority of the population, the ruling class associated itself with French civilization and language. Under these circumstances, German National Romanticism transformed tradition into a well of inspiration and parochialism into a cardinal virtue (Herder, in fact, coined the term ‘nationalism’; see Cocchiara 1981: 181-182).

The crucial point, to steer back on track, is that Herder conceived of ‘das Volk’ as an organism. His use of the concept ‘Volk’ was clever and served his arguments well: in it he was able to juxtapose two different semantic fields of the word, the nation and the rural lower classes (see Simpson 1921: 4-14). Stressing now one, now the other, he appropriated peasant traditions for the national cause (Große 1980). In this novel conceptualization, the lack of individualization among the ‘Volk’, taken over from the ‘peuple’ of Enlightenment thinkers, provided the central argument for the formation of a nation-state (Wilson 1973). The German ‘Volk’ – now the nation – was one organism, one indivisible whole. Its component parts, whether individuals or small states, had no separate existence; they were to the ‘Volk’ what a cell is to an organism. His new program for scholarly investigation amounted to what he termed, in his great 1774 collection of old folksongs of the world, a "physiology of the national body as a whole" (1877-1913, v. 25: 65, my translation).

Naturally, the national body had to have a soul, the ‘Volksgeist’. The task that the German Romantics set themselves was to discover, describe, and celebrate this soul. They found it wherever they looked. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) found the ‘Volksgeist’ in language, Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779-1861) found it in customary law, while Herder himself found it in ‘Volkslieder’, folksongs, as well as in the native tongue and customs. The important point is that the medium of the ‘Volksgeist’, in the theories of these early Romantics, partook of the organic nature of the ‘Volk’ and came to be seen as an organism unto itself. Herder characterized folksongs as ‘Naturpoesie’, a poetry of nature, opposed to ‘Kunstpoesie’, artistic poetry (Strobach 1980 and Windfuhr 1980; see also Bluestein 1962 and Kamenetsky 1973). This theorization made folksongs natural products of an organism; in Herder’s terms, "wild flowers" and "sweet fruits" (in Schick 1971: 49). The stage was set for the following generation of writers, who, with the development and expansion of organicism, were prepared to find in this metaphor all the implications of organic growth and unity (Abrams 1953: 201-213).

Multiple Existence and Variation: Goethe’s Morphology

Goethe, Herder’s contemporary and colleague, deserves a place in the history of ideas in folklore, not only on account of influential plays and poems based on oral traditional materials, nor because he went into the field and collected folksongs in Alsace (most of which were not published until 1932). His greatest contribution to the study of folklore lies neither in these literary achievements nor field collections, but rather, of all things, in his study of botany and osteology. Although most of his excursions into the natural sciences met with something short of enthusiasm in the fields to which they pertain – one critic characterizes the reaction of contemporary scientists as one of "embarrassed silence" (Wetzels 1987: 74) – some of his contributions have left substantial traces in scientific theory and terminology. Apart from Goethe’s theory of colors, these contributions revolve around the study of form, morphology – a term which Goethe coined and that is first attested in a letter from 1796, addressed to his friend and confidant, Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) (Kiesselbach 1983: 761).

Morphology, as it is understood within biology, is the study of the structure of organisms and the interrelations of their parts. It is usually contrasted with physiology, the study of function. As Goethe conceived of it, morphology would render intelligible nature’s variety by discovering its underlying uniformity. All organisms could be referred to a limited number of plans, perhaps even a single one, on which they were modeled. His first major application of this method is presented in his Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären, from 1790, wherein he compares the leaves, fruits and flowers of flowering plants and finds that they all represent the same basic form (Puszkar 1990). He later approached the animal kingdom in precisely the same way, with particular attention to osteology. Again, he discovered one basic type expressed in so many different ways in the skeletal structure of animals (Kuhn 1988: 133-145). This underlying form is the prototype.

With this concept of type, Goethe found that he could solve the riddle of unity and multiplicity posed by nature: how natural phenomena could be so consistent and yet so varied. The type and its transformations furnished the answer (Portmann 1987). All organisms belonging to the same type, when arranged in sequence, were shown to be variations on a single form (Kuhn 1988, ibid. and 188-202). In other words, which ring an entire belfry for the folklorist: they represent so many variants of one type.

Of course, Goethe did not single-handedly invent the concept of the type. It had been in the making throughout the second half of the 18th century, in the works of intellectuals such as the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707-1788), encyclopaedist Denis Diderot (1713-1784), and philosopher Jean Baptiste Robinet (1735-1820) (Schlanger 1971: 80). However, the type concept found what may be regarded as its canonical articulation in Goethe’s writings in the last decade of the century. In his formulation, the defining characteristics of the type are, in the first place, the number of elements combined in it, second, the position of the elements, and, third, the arrangement of the elements. Of these, the position is most constant (Lenoir 1987: 23). Again, this is evocative to the folklorist, who finds here the fundamentals of Propp’s analysis of the fairy tale – but more on that below.

Similarities notwithstanding, it should be noted that Goethe’s concept of the type is not yet that of the archetype, but the prototype. It does not involve actual descent, only homology; it expresses unity of form, not genetic cognacy. Theories of descent of one species from another had not yet been introduced into the study of nature, though, in retrospect, they seem imminent in the works of some of Goethe’s contemporaries, including Herder (see excellent discussion in Kuhn 1987, esp. 10-12). For Goethe, the prototypes expressed organic laws, i.e., immanent laws of biological organization, and these could best be described by juxtaposing the variations found in nature, thus revealing the underlying, lawful consistency.(1)

As Timothy Lenoir points out in an enlightening essay on Goethe and "The Eternal Laws of Form" (1987), biological science was headed another way. The search for immanent, organic laws would soon become obsolete. From the vantage point of the Darwinian theory of evolution, natural types "are not the manifestation of biological laws at all; they are simply the effects of a common ancestral form. … By invoking community of descent to explain commonality of form the ‘biological laws’ of the morphologist are simply dismissed by Darwin" (27; see also Wenzel 1983). Thus, through the introduction of history, prototype became archetype, a transformation which would resound throughout the world of scholarship and have a vast impact on the study of folklore.

Representational Authority: Anatomy, Language, Folklore

Having said that, I hasten to add that diachronic, comparative approaches had been codified well before The Origin of Species was published in 1859, only in a different context – historical linguistics. Indeed, Charles Darwin acknowledged this precedent in a paragraph that delighted historical linguists, still struggling, in the latter part of the 19th century, to establish the credentials of their vocation within the academy. In a passage important to his thesis, Darwin argued that there is a ‘Natural System’ of classification, based on ‘descent with modification’. He presented linguistic affiliation as a non-biological example (Harris and Taylor 1997: 187-189).

Franz Bopp (1791-1867) and Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) are most often invoked as the founding fathers of historical linguistics, which also went by the names of comparative grammar and comparative philology (Krapf 1993: 1).(2) Theirs was a discipline dedicated to the investigation of languages in history, to discovering their relations, to constructing language families, and to the reconstruction of ‘proto-languages’ from which extant ones descend (Sampson 1980: 13). The writings of both men are a jungle of organic metaphors, fecund with seeds and sprouts, ripe with fruits and flowers, and one stumbles everywhere across terms like growth, decay, and branching. Furthermore, a large number of their metaphors depend on diverse kinds of zoomorphism and anthropomorphism. (Krapf 1993 and Morpurgo Davies 1987).

The analogies, while characteristic for the Romantic current of thought in general, also demonstrate the intellectual debt owed by these scholars to Herder. Such analogies found further confirmation in the works of scholars like the early Romantic Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), who, in 1808, outlined a program for a comparative grammar that "would lead to new conclusions about the genealogy of languages in the same way in which comparative anatomy had thrown light on higher natural history" (quoted in Morpurgo Davies 1987: 83). Jacob Grimm, in the first volume of his Deutsche Grammatik, from 1819, also suggested that the new comparative grammar was most closely related to comparative anatomy.

Referring to comparative anatomy in those years was tantamount to referring to Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), who established it (as well as paleontology) as a special field of knowledge. Although comparison is the method of inquiry in historical linguistics as in comparative anatomy, it is difficult to find signs of direct influence from the theories of Cuvier in the former (Wells 1987: 60-68). It has been suggested that Cuvier’s typology of animal anatomy, which proposed four fundamental, irreducible types (as opposed to the more usual single, underlying type), altered and expanded the applicability of the type concept in scholarship in general. According to this view, repercussions of Cuvier’s proposition may be seen in the multiple language types of linguists like Humboldt, Bopp and Grimm (ibid.; also, Krapf 13-16 and 50-56). Be that as it may, it must be acknowledged that, whereas Cuvier still operated with the concept of fixed types, the distinguishing mark of the historical linguists was precisely their recognition of language change. In this crucial respect they show no sign of influence from comparative anatomy.

In order to understand their claims to a close affinity with comparative anatomy, one must bear in mind that the historical linguists were defining a new discipline. As more and more scholars declared independence from philosophy, the distinction between natural sciences and what we now call humanities came to the fore, and, as Geoffrey Sampson explains in his Schools of Linguistics, "linguists were anxious to align themselves with the former" (1980: 17). To that end, students of language emphasized the likeness of their method to that of anatomy and depicted their subject, by way of organic metaphors, as a concrete, discrete natural being.

In a review from 1827 of Jacob Grimm’s second volume of the Deutsche Grammatik, published in the prior year, Franz Bopp made what is possibly the most famous statement of organicism in the history of linguistics:

Languages must be regarded as organic bodies [organische Naturkörper], formed in accordance with definite laws; bearing within themselves an internal principle of life, they develop and they gradually die out, after, no longer comprehending themselves, they discard, mutilate or misuse … components or forms which were originally significant but which have gradually become relatively superficial appendages (translated in Sampson 1980: 17).


As is apparent from this formulation, organic metaphors served historical linguists to stress historical aspects of language. The life-cycle of linguistic organisms, their growth, and their change were the main subjects of study, along with the immanent laws which were taken to regulate their formation and their life. In its immanence, this representation of the organism seems more closely aligned with Goethe’s morphology than with Cuvier’s anatomy (Krapf 1993: 12-17).

Jacob Grimm, of course, made substantial contributions in other areas of study, including folklore and law. Veronika Krapf, in her Sprache als Organismus, suggests that the common denominator or overarching rubric of his work in these fields is, precisely, the organic metaphor (ibid.: 6). While Grimm’s use of metaphors, in and of itself, is probably too insubstantial a basis to bear the weight of his oeuvre, Krapf’s formulation does point to the common conceptual matrix of his various works and his metaphors: we know from Herder that language, custom (roughly coterminous with German law, as opposed to that of the French empire), and folklore were all to be regarded as realizations of the ‘Volksgeist’.

Heyman Steinthal, one of Grimm’s devoted followers founded the short-lived discipline of folk psychology along with Moritz Lazarus in the 1850s (see Bunzl 1996: 27-28). In an article from 1866, Steinthal enumerates the following as ingredients of the ‘Volksgeist’: "language, religion and myth, social conditions, law and custom, folklore, and the prehistory of relations to other peoples" (247). Following that inventory, which he proposes as a program of research for folk psychology, he declaims his debt to Jacob Grimm. No one, according to Steinthal, has so thoroughly researched the entire spectrum of the ‘Volksgeist’ as Grimm; he devoted a large work to each of the subjects mentioned, researching "the organic, i.e., the involuntary, unreflective origins of language, myth, legend, folksong, and national law" (248).

As the paradigmatic organism of the German Romantics, ‘das Volk’ was the ultimate index of organicity. And since folk individuals were not allotted any agency in this philosophy – their creations were always collective and generally from the past – it made sense to speak of these self-propelled creations in organic terms. In contrast, the products of individual authors were not the results of an immanent principle of life; unless they partook of the ‘Volksgeist’, their works were contrived rather than spontaneous – more like mechanisms than organisms. As Regina Bendix has demonstrated, this was one of the important notions informing the development of the concept of authenticity in folklore (1997: 47-49).

If we believe Veronika Krapf that organicism is the uniting factor in Jacob Grimm’s work (and, with the reservations just noted, I think we should), then it may be of interest to note what he characterizes as ‘organic’ in the study of language. According to Krapf, Grimm uses the pair of adjectives ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’, at least sometimes, to distinguish the older from the newer. Thus he describes the Old High German sound shift as inorganic, the aspiration that characterizes it as inorganic and not original, a late "imperfection", and the language after the change as inorganic (Krapf 1993: 12-13). This is in full accordance with Bopp’s application of these adjectives; according to Anna Morpurgo Davies’ elucidation of his work, "a sound or an ending or a rule is organic when it belongs to the primitive phase of a language, inorganic when it has been introduced into the language at a later stage" (1987: 86).

Hence, the equation original = organic = authentic. I would suggest that here is a justification, based on a biological metaphor, for the reconstruction, not just of languages, but also of folklore. If changes are inorganic, that means they are inauthentic, and to access an authentic item of tradition one must undo them, i.e., recreate the original, traditional organism. Here the scholar is in a privileged position. As Charles Briggs remarks in an important piece on the history of folkloristics, "one of the fundamental tenets of modern science from the 17th century onwards has been that nature does not speak for itself – it can only be understood scientifically through the use of conceptual models devised by the scientist" (1993: 403-404). He points out, further (and I heartily agree), that one of the most important aspects of the practice of reifying and naturalizing folklore is "the attempt to reserve authority in the process of producing and interpreting folk texts to scholars rather than to the literati or das Volk" (402, emphasis in original). Hence, by adopting the posture of the biologist toward an organism, the folklorist seizes representational authority over tradition.

The Folktale as an Organism: The Folklore Fellows

Looking ahead in the history of scholarship, I want to suggest that the organicist perspective developed in historical linguistics, as well as other branches of philology, and carried over into the study of folklore by Jacob Grimm, was of some significance to the development of the historic-geographic method. The quest for original forms and original homes – chief objectives of the method well into the latter half of the 20th century (see Goldberg 1997: 47-51) – was simultaneously a quest for authenticity and ownership. As Regina Bendix has noted, the Finnish method represents a fusion of the origin quests of two branches of philology, historical linguistics and manuscript studies, through which "linkages between tales in different cultural and historical settings are explained in genealogical and disembodied terms" (1997: 67).

That these terms are organic is evident from the writings of the method’s pioneers and practitioners. As in the works of Jacob Grimm and his contemporaries, the original and the authentic were also the organic; thus in his final codification of Die Folkloristische Arbeitsmethode in 1926, Kaarle Krohn (1863-1933) discusses the necessity to comparative folklore research of "an organically unified (so to speak) basic form from which various variants of an international item of folklore emanated" (1971: 122). The ‘life’ and ‘life history’ of tales are also frequently alluded to by Krohn and his followers (e.g., Aarne 1913: 23, and Thompson 1946: 448). Although these latter metaphors are clearly elements of style, that should not obscure their significance. They are among the surface manifestations of an underlying organicism on which the method as a whole was constructed (cf. Wilson 1976, esp. 244-245). Krohn mentions organic unity as a necessary presupposition, and I would add organic descent. The former is most prominent in the reconstruction of the Urform, whereas the latter is emphasized in the reconstruction of the tale’s ‘life history’ or ‘genealogy’ (cf. Anttonen 1997: 644).

In an illuminating discussion of the history of comparative folktale research, Christine Goldberg explains that "in order to understand the so-called genetic relationship of such tales …, [folklorists] invented a construct, the tale type, which is an abstraction based on many individual variants" (1997: 47). The type is, arguably, the central concept in the historic-geographic method. It is also the most important legacy of organicism in comparative folktale research. The type concept, as already noted, was developed in late 18th century writings on plants and animals, including those of Goethe, to account for stability and variation in form. Mediated through the concept of linguistic types, I would argue that its application by the practitioners of the historic-geographic method represents an attempted naturalization of monogenesis.

This is not to say that the notion of type is inherently and necessarily biological, only that the way it was used by adherents of the Finnish school took for granted a high degree of integration and closure, originally derived from the study of living organisms. Types, like genres, were conceived of as totalities that synthesize the polyphony of texts or performances and array them into naturalized formations. These formations – types or genres – are then accorded ontological priority to those texts and performances. As an argumentative device, the type concept proved useful to diffusionists in their polemics with advocates of polygenetic theories of folklore (Dundes 1989: 70-71). The postulation of types presented one way of dealing with questions of intertextual linkages in tradition, positing natural categories and the natural cognation of texts within those categories.

This brings me to a crucial point about the history of ideas in folklore scholarship. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, organic metaphors – although they were ubiquitous and instrumental for the arguments in which they were deployed – nonetheless were not derived from biology, but rather from the study of language. In precisely the same way as scholars had constructed languages as organic, discrete units, quite independent of speakers, so students of folklore regarded their field as composed of autonomous entities which likewise were to be treated without reference to performers.

19th century linguists, we know, emphasized language history, which they conceived of as the growth of language. One might quote Max Müller as yet another example: "art, science, philosophy, and religion all have a history; language, or any other production of nature, admits only of growth" (1873: 40). Those of a more friendly disposition towards Charles Darwin conceptualized the history of language not as growth but as evolution. In this context, one need merely mention the title of August Schleicher’s book of 1863, Die Darwinische Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft. In much the same way, organic growth and evolution provided the conceptual framework for a great deal of folklore research, along with organic decay.

In order to describe historical processes, folklorists took over from historical linguistics the notion of laws – which linguists had, of course, borrowed from natural science. Thus Kaarle Krohn, in a paper he delivered in 1889, tells us that we know that "all changes in language rely on absolute and physiological laws of grammar, or must be explained by analogy. In the same way, all changes in the ornate fabric of folktales take place according to regular laws of thought and fantasy" (1891: 67, my translation). Antti Aarne (1867-1925) repeats these sentences practically verbatim in his Leitfaden der Vergleichenden Märchenforschung (1913: 23). By ‘laws of grammar’ they surely mean sound laws, which had been systematized by the August Schleicher and the German Neogrammarians in the prior decades (and which had in turn been modeled on the laws of nature; e.g., Harris and Taylor 1997: 190-195, and Jankowsky 1972). The term ‘Lautgesetz’ was first used by Franz Bopp in 1824. The idea that the sounds of languages obey and develop according to set laws that suffer no exceptions was in vogue in historical linguistics in the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The great comparativist Max Müller offers a compelling example: "We might think as well of changing the laws which control the circulation of our blood … as of altering the laws of speech…" (1873, v. 1: 40).

Taken over from the study of language, the ‘laws’ to which Krohn refers were codified by two of his folklore fellows in the next couple of decades. The epic laws – as formulated by Moltke Moe (1859-1913) in Norway and Axel Olrik (1864-1917) in Denmark – were thus most directly indebted to historical linguistics, although the jurisprudential metaphor refers beyond the immediate source and back to natural science.

Though the substance of his ideas on epic laws was only published posthumously in 1914-1917, Moltke Moe developed the concept in the course of the 1880s and 1890s, as a way of describing the historical processes of oral tradition (Alver 1993: 195). He conceived of these processes as subject to certain forces, determined by the nature of the materials and their communication, and attempted to categorize these ‘forces’, calling them laws. With constant reference to the development of language, Moe sought to describe the composition and transmission of folk narratives with an evolutionary or developmental (‘utviklingsmæssig’) model. Moe’s exposition is greatly influenced by the ideas of Heyman Steinthal, the linguist and founder of folk psychology mentioned earlier, as set out in an article on "Das Epos" from 1868. Moe acknowledges this debt (which extends even to the notion of ‘forces’ operating in epic tradition) by taking over Steinthal’s classification of epic:

The German Steinthal has the honor of having first given an exhaustive conceptual division of the epic. He divides all epic poetry into three kinds, which he calls isolating, agglutinative (gluing together) and organic. … This division is absolutely correct, but only conceptual. I propose a corresponding one that is historical, developmental/evolutionary [utviklingsmæssig]. (1914-1917, part 1: 4, my translation)

Moltke Moe expounds on these types in his historical-evolutionary model of epic composition, and they have a significant bearing on the particulars of the "fundamental laws" he proposes. If one refers to the first appearance of this typology in Steinthal’s 1868 article, the rather odd nomenclature of the types is explained:

These three forms of epic composition are analogous to the three methods of word composition in grammatical morphology, and, borrowing the names of the latter, we can call them the isolating, agglutinative, and organic forms of the epic. In the same way as Chinese and Far Eastern languages isolate the roots, so the songs are isolated in the epic; as other languages agglutinate the roots, so Romances are agglutinated, and, finally, the so-called great epics of the third form are analogous to inflectional word composition. (Steinthal 1868: 12, my translation)

The language typology to which Steinthal refers is based on linguistic morphology and may be traced to the efforts of August and Wilhelm von Schlegel in the early 19th century. Subsequent theorization of these types, well established by the time Steinthal was writing, arranged them serially, in the above order, to represent an historical progression from less to more perfect (Sampson 1980: 23). Largely replaced by non-morphological typologies in modern linguistics, this typology classifies languages as autonomous wholes, rather than by parts. In this, it bears the strong imprint of an organicist outlook. According to linguist William Croft, this typology depended on the underlying assumption that "each human language has its organic unity which manifests an ‘inner form’" and it was a logical outcome of the idea that the "morphological type of a language was a manifestation of its organic character" (1990: 39-40). The organic unity referred to here is of the same sort as that imagined to characterize the nation, or folk, that speaks the language. Furthermore, the notion of an immanent character manifesting in the morphological type harks back to Herder’s idea, systematically argued by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 1820s and 1830s, that national languages were the external representations of the ‘Volksgeist’ of individual peoples (Bunzl 1996: 32-35).

Despite claiming to describe the evolution of folk narrative, Moltke Moe’s conception of epic laws reveals precious little influence from Darwin. The twin mechanisms of random variation and natural selection, the hallmarks of Darwin’s theory of evolution, are absent. Instead, folk narratives appear to develop largely according to criteria immanent in tradition. This is to say that Moe’s epic laws are organic laws, more closely related to Goethe’s by then old conception of nature as mediated through linguistic morphology than to the ideas of Darwin or other contemporaries.(3)

In his adaptation of Moe’s epic laws in the early years of the 20th century, however, Axel Olrik took an explicitly Darwinian stance (cf. Holbek 1992: xvi-xvii). The laws, as he presents them, are no longer an integral condition of the folklore itself; they are the laws of thought. Thus Olrik explains the process of tradition, in his great work on The Principles of Oral Narrative Research (published posthumously), in these truly evolutionary terms:

There will always be many individual reasons why accurate transmission of a narrative cannot take place … but the defective forms that come into existence in this way will most often soon die out. … There will always be a ‘struggle for existence’ among narratives. More narratives are heard than can be held in one’s memory… For this reason alone, a selection among the available narratives will constantly take place. The narratives that create the clearest imaginative picture and whose plots aim at definite and universal goals receive preference. Inasmuch as this happens, it seems that a (usually slow) raising of the entire spiritual level of the narrative world will take place." (1992: 62-63, emphasis in original)

Narratives are clearly accorded the status of (metaphorical) living organisms in this passage. Olrik inherited this metaphor from his teacher, the great ballad scholar Svend Grundtvig (1824-1883), but it was hardly an unparalleled patrimony in 19th century scholarship (Holbek 1992: xvi-xxi). It so happens, nevertheless, that Grundtvig is also a major source of the same metaphor for Olrik’s contemporary, Cecil J. Sharp (1859-1924). This is remarkable only because Sharp is the sole scholar of folklore who is as resolute in his Darwinism as Axel Olrik.(4) As student of the English folksong and intellectual heir to Francis James Child (1825-1896), his ideas about folksongs were inevitably informed by those of Svend Grundtvig, whose monumental publication of Danish ballads, beginning in 1853, provided the first major scientific editions of folksongs, and who also exerted great influence on Child’s edition of English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The following passage from Cecil Sharp’s conclusions about the English Folk Song, first published in 1907, gives some idea of his close intellectual affinity with Olrik:

In the evolution of species of the animal and vegetable worlds, those variations will be preserved which are of advantage to their possessors in the competition for existence. In the evolution of folk tunes, as we have already seen, the corresponding principle of selection is the taste of the community. Those tune variations which appeal to the community will be perpetuated, as against those which attract the individual only. (1972: 38)


From Language to Biology: A Shift of Paradigms

While Axel Olrik and Cecil Sharp aligned themselves with evolutionary biologists in the early years of the 20th century, it is nonetheless true – as I hope is apparent by now – that biological tropes in 19th century folklore scholarship share another source: the study of language. Philology was the dominant paradigm in the emerging humanities, so this is hardly surprising. However, all that changed in the second and third decades of the 20th century. In this period, a number of European scholars dissociated themselves from philology and identified themselves, instead, primarily as folklorists. Foremost among them, one may mention Arnold van Gennep in France (1873-1957), C.W. von Sydow in Sweden (1878-1952), and Vladimir Ja. Propp (1895-1970) in Russia. The first two, in particular, were impassioned advocates of an independent discipline of folklore and they engaged in prolonged polemics in its defense. All three shared a common conception of methods and goals: the study of folklore was to be a biological science. Biology would no longer be mediated by historical linguistics. Instead, folklorists would go directly to biologists for their models and methods.

Of course, this paradigmatic shift coincided with the shift in the study of language from historical linguistics to structural linguistics, often dated by the publication of Saussure’s Cours de linguistique général in 1916.(5) It would take a few decades, however, before structuralism made itself felt in folklore studies. Meanwhile, language took a backseat, at least in the work of these scholars and their followers.

The crucial difference between their views and those of their predecessors was that these scholars understood biology to refer neither to growth nor to evolution, but rather to concerns of classification, structure and, in the case of van Gennep and von Sydow, social context. Thus, morphology provided the model of formal analysis, while the analysis of function should be based on anatomy, and the analysis of social context on ecology. Organic metaphors still reigned supreme, but the focus was no longer on organic growth and descent. Instead, organic form and unity were emphasized.

The Biological Method: Arnold van Gennep

In a programmatic piece from 1924, resounding with the din of battle, Arnold van Gennep exclaims that "it is only gradually that we are healing from the disease of the 19th century, which we can call the historical mania, according to which all that is contemporary is significant only in so far as it has a bearing on the past, and which ultimately means that … the Living are significant only in so far as they have a bearing on the Dead" (32, my translation). With a fresh outlook, fieldwork experience, and a taste for polemics, van Gennep was the most senior among this select group of original theoreticians (see also Zumwalt 1982).

Already in 1909, in the second volume of Religions, moeurs et légendes, van Gennep argued that "when we wish to study social phenomena, we must study them both locally, with the help of the historical method, and also comparatively, with the aid of the biological method, so that we can classify them into ‘natural’ categories: family, genus, species" (84-85). As his biographer, folklorist Nicole Belmont, has noted, van Gennep was at this time "using the terms ‘comparative method’, ‘ethnographic method’, and ‘biological method’ more or less synonymously" (1979: 38). In the same year, van Gennep also published his signature piece, based on one such application of "the biological method", Les Rites de Passage.

The year 1916 is often taken to mark van Gennep’s shift away from general anthropology, to an exclusive concern with folklore, mostly that of France. We must, however, wait twice as long, until the aforementioned 1924 work, called simply Le Folklore, for his next major pronouncement on ‘the biological method’: "Whoever takes interest in folklore must therefore first abandon the historical attitude and adopt the attitude of zoologists and botanists, who study animals and plants … alive and in their environment, which is also alive; so, replace the historical method with the biological method" (33-34; my translation, emphasis in original). Thus, in keeping with the more polemical tone of his work, van Gennep no longer wants to combine history and biology, but replace one with the other. His concept of the biological method, however, has been complicated somewhat, for it now involves, in addition to comparison, an emphasis on the contextual study of items of folklore "alive and in their environment, which is also alive." It entails a processual, dynamic approach to folklore and the study of its transformations (cf. Anttonen 1992: 18-20):

The present we observe, it should not even be considered as a present but as the germ of the future… The folkloric sensation is therefore that the phenomenon observed contains germinal possibilities, whereas the historical phenomenon gives the sensation that all its possibilities have already been expressed. This too is the attitude of a biologist; when one adopts it, the multiplicity of forms and factors (or causes, if one prefers), far from being an embarrassment or an obstacle, gives the greater intellectual satisfaction involved in introducing, though reason and knowledge, order in apparent chaos. (van Gennep 1924: 35-36, my translation)


Morphology of the Folktale: Vladimir Propp

Perhaps no student of folklore introduced order into chaos as succinctly as Vladimir Ja. Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale. Published in 1928, four years after van Gennep’s Le Folklore, Propp invited the reader to follow him "into the labyrinth of the tale’s multiformity, which in the end will become apparent to him as an amazing uniformity" (1968: xxv). To demonstrate this, Propp resorted to precisely the same means as van Gennep, i.e., the method of the biologist: "In botany, the term ‘morphology’ means the study of the component parts of a plant, of their relationship to each other and to the whole – in other words, the study of a plant’s structure… It is possible to make an examination of the forms of the tale which will be as exact as the morphology of organic formations" (xxv).

A great admirer of Goethe as poet, scientist, and philosopher, Propp sought inspiration for his own work in Goethe’s writings on morphology. Rather than express his debt directly in the body of his text, Propp provided his readers with a skeleton key to his thoughts in epigraphs printed in the original Morfológija skázki, sought directly from Goethe’s morphological analysis. In a retort to Claude Lévi-Strauss, first published in 1966, Propp complains that the translator of his work into English "has taken an unpardonable liberty" and "barbarously suppressed" the epigraphs (1984: 68). He claims that this omission obscured the significance he attached to the analysis, and it is easy to agree with that claim: "Behind Goethe’s term, we can see the prospect of discovering uniform laws that permeate all nature… By starting some chapters with epigraphs, I paid homage to him. The epigraphs also emphasized that the realms of nature and human creativity are not separated. Something unites them; laws common to both can be studied by related methods" (68-69).

We find a striking parallel, in one of these epigraphs, to van Gennep’s notion of the germinal possibilities contained in folklore. Just as his analysis of the rites of passage demonstrates that they "are all built according to the same plan, a more or less simple linear scheme" (1924: 90), and just as Propp shows that "all fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure" (1968: 23), so Goethe speaks of the prototype of all plants in a personal letter from 1787, quoted by Propp in the epigraph to chapter IX ("The Tale as a Whole"):

The protoplant will be the most wonderful thing in the world, which nature itself will envy me. With this model and a key to it, one can produce an infinite number of plants, all of which will be consistent; plants that, though they do not exist, could have existed. They are not just artistic or poetical shadows or illusions, for they possess an inner truth and necessity. The same law will be applicable to everything that lives (Propp 1984: 205).

Naturally, Propp did not carry on the thought of Goethe unmediated. Rather, he inscribed his work into a current of thought usually known as Formalism, and he was in fact neither the only morphologist nor the only Goethe-aficionado among the Formalists. Others included Nikoforov, Žirmunskij, Čjxenbaum, and Petrovskij, the last of whom also included epigraphs from Goethe in his work, "Morfologija novelly" (Steiner and Davydov 1977: 151-152). Moreover, in the 1920s morphologism was around. As V.N. Toporov points out in an article on Propp’s Morphology in the context of Russian Formalism, "an influential trend in art spoke in its name, and morphological studies forced their way into art criticism. It is appropriate to recall that Spengler’s Decline of the West, part of which appeared in Russian translation in 1923, bore the characteristic subtitle, ‘Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte [Outlines of a Morphology of World History].’" (1985: 252, emphasis in original).

The Laws and Life of Tradition: C.W. von Sydow

Carl Wilhelm von Sydow also took a special liking to the term morphology. As Sweden’s first lecturer (in 1910) and professor (in 1938) of folklore, at the University of Lund, and as founder and editor of the preeminent Swedish folklore journal, Folkminnen och Folktankar (now Arv: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore), C.W. von Sydow enjoyed an unparalleled position of authority in Scandinavian folkloristics in the first few decades of the 20th century. In spite of this, he remained isolated to a certain extent, in part because of his dissent with regard to reigning paradigms, and in part, no doubt, due to his style of argument, which does not always inspire sympathy. Toward the end of his career, however, his contributions gained international recognition (Berg 1971: 188), in particular his innovative approach to genre analysis and his concept of the ecotype, as well as the distinction between active and passive tradition bearers. All of these were set forth and developed in polemical and programmatic articles, in which von Sydow combated the historical reconstructionist methods of philologists, folklorists of the Finnish school, as well as those of the followers of the British School of Anthropology and Wilhelm Mannhardt (e.g., von Sydow 1921a, 1921b, 1927, 1948; see also Bringéus 1991 and Chesnutt 1993). Instead of these paradigms, he proposed a synchronic perspective which he sought to characterize as biological.

In his early work, von Sydow adhered to every one of the paradigms that he later condemned. It was not until the early 1920s that he thoroughly revised all his prior opinions and started developing and propounding his own theories of folktales, customs, and folk beliefs, mostly through his work on genre analysis. The ‘laws and life’ of tradition became the watchwords of von Sydow’s new approach, and they give a fairly good idea of his aspirations. In the 1927 article that marks his break with the Finnish school of folklore, von Sydow introduced the notion of the biology of folktales:

The fallacy of the Finnish school is that it focuses too exclusively on specific tales in isolation and does not give enough attention to what unites different tales… Of course, Aarne distinguished animal tales, wondertales, novella tales, anecdotes etc. in his list of taletypes, but he did not clearly understand that these tale groups even behave differently biologically, i.e., they originate in different environments and in different ways, they are told on different occasions and are subject to different laws (109-110, my translation).

It is apparent from this passage that von Sydow means something rather different by biology than either van Gennep or Propp. The semantic range of the term in their different definitions does overlap. Von Sydow’s mention of different environments and different occasions is reminiscent of van Gennep’s promotion of "the attitude of zoologists and botanists, who study animals and plants … alive and in their environment, which is also alive." Yet, for von Sydow, such study is merely instrumental to the success of his grand scheme: the classification of folklore genres, a task which he proposes to call ‘tradition morphology’.

In the Morphology of the Folktale, Propp reviews the work of the Finnish school and finds that "the problem of classification finds itself in a somewhat sorry state. Yet classification is one of the first and most important steps of study. We need merely recall what a great significance Linnaeus’ first scientific classification had for botany. Our studies are still in their ‘pre-Linnaen’ stage" (1968: 11). In fact, as Propp wrote those words, folklore’s very own Linnaeus was at work, writing such major contributions to genre theory as "Kategorien der Prosa-Volksdichtung" and "Popular Prose Traditions and their Classification" (both reprinted in von Sydow 1948). Like botany’s Linnaeus, this latter-day champion of classification came from Sweden, but had an influence far beyond the borders of his native country. In fact, just as Propp had sought inspiration in the work of Goethe, so von Sydow looked to Carl Linné’s contributions to botanical classification: "Until now, far too little attention has been paid to scientific taxonomy in the study of tales. I use the term in precisely the same sense as it has in zoology and botany, i.e., a correct distinction between different kinds and subkinds, family lines and families, and their mutual relationship" (von Sydow 1927: 117, my translation).

Of course, only a small number of the host of taxonomic revisions and innovations proposed by von Sydow has found acceptance outside the immediate circle of his students. To a large extent, their usefulness is rather dubious, particularly if one regards folklore genres as analytical constructions rather than natural entities that lead an independent life when nobody’s looking.(6) As Lauri Honko notes in an article on genre analysis, "von Sydow himself was clearly led by the thought that genres existed objectively and only had to be discovered and named – Great Nature herself took care of the fact that there was some kind of system. It would be difficult otherwise to understand why he was not more worried by the fact that the genre categories he discovered were all jumbled together and overlapped" (1968: 57).

Von Sydow did not state this assumption explicitly – it is merely implied by his approach and the confidence with which he presents his taxonomy and classifications. This is an instance of the argumentative implications of the biological metaphor. Quietly, neatly, without requiring any justification whatsoever, the transfer of a method from biology to folkloristics becomes a transfer of substance from nature to folklore – folklore becomes nature. And once we admit that folklore is natural, or that it is composed of a multitude of natural entities – genres or types, for example – then we can do away with any lingering suspicions that our classifications are constructed through our analysis.

One thing, at least, is clear: by postulating the object of study – tradition – as a natural entity, composed of natural categories discoverable by scientific means, von Sydow was characterizing folkloristics as a scientific discipline corresponding to a discrete field of study. This must be seen as part and parcel of his dissociation from philology and his advocacy for a young discipline with little institutional backing and all the credibility problems we still associate with folklore. By demonstrating direct dependence on biology, without philology (or linguistics) as intermediaries, von Sydow hoped to show the distinctiveness of folkloristics, as well as to extend to the results of his investigations the perceived legitimacy of natural science.

However, if folkloristics as a discipline is not distinct from biology in its methods and approach to its object, it follws that it must be the distinctiveness of the object itself – of folklore or of tradition – which marks its study as a distinct discipline. Thus, the shift from method to matter is almost inconspicuous: as a positive scientist, the folklorist must deal in concrete, positive reality, and so tradition is reified. As a concrete, unified, living reality, tradition is susceptible to morphological analysis. This points to one of the great dangers inherent in biological metaphors and in an organicist view of folk tradition, namely losing sight of the constructed ‘nature’ of theories – taking the metaphor literally.

Much like van Gennep, C.W. von Sydow found a further use in the biological analogy as a model for contextual analysis. Paralleling the biological organism’s interactions with its natural environment, the traditional organism could be portrayed as an ecological phenomenon. Hence, the concept of the ‘ecotype’ (or ‘oicotype’, as Laurits Bødker, his student and editor of his Selected Papers on Folklore, insists on amending the spelling; see von Sydow 1948: 9):

In the science of botany oicotype is a term used to denote a hereditary plant-variety adapted to a certain milieu (seashore, mountain-land, etc.) through natural selection amongst hereditarily dissimilar entities of the same species. When then in the field of traditions a widely spread tradition, such as a tale or a legend…, forms special types through isolation inside and suitability for certain culture districts, the term oicotype can also be used in the science of ethnology and folklore… (von Sydow 1948: 243 n. 15, emphasis in original)

When he first introduces this concept in print, in 1927, von Sydow acknowledges that "the term ecotype was first used by docent G. Turesson in his landmark research on the types and varieties of plants." (130 n. 1, my translation). It may be of interest to note that the biologist to whom he refers, Göte Turesson, coined the term only five years earlier, in a doctoral dissertation he defended at the University of Lund, von Sydow’s own institution. It is a fairly safe assumption that von Sydow had incorporated the ecotype into his lectures in the intervening years, before it found its way into his publications, especially in view of the fact that it appeared simultaneously in his student’s, Sven Liljeblad’s, dissertation in 1927.

The term was not to everyone’s liking, however. Another one of his students, Waldemar Liungman (1883-1978), was a loyal follower of the Finnish school of folklore and often found himself at odds with his old professor. In one of their interchanges, Liungman makes clear the polemical value of the ecotype, in the wider context of biological analogies, and objects:

I regret to say I can’t fully appreciate the importance of the Sydowian theory of ecotypes. First and foremost, I find that the term ecotype is borrowed from and that it encourages ideas of far too great a resemblance between the biology of tradition and the biology of plants, a resemblance often underlined by von Sydow (1943: 104, my translation).

Liungman’s protests are hardly surprising, nor was he alone among von Sydow’s adversaries to raise objections. It goes without saying that terminology from the natural sciences made a prestigious contribution to scholarly discourse in this period, and few criticisms were as damaging as carefully aimed accusations of scientific deficiency. Von Sydow made regular use of these in his polemics, and this was bound to provoke reactions. Thus, Martin Persson Nilsson (1874-1967), Swedish classicist and folklorist of a more historical persuasion, complains:

The first policy [of von Sydow’s school] concerns the study of European primitive religion and demands that that it be based on research into the categories of folk tradition, its morphology and biology. The new school uses with great affection terms from natural science, especially botany; another favorite term is the ecology of folk tradition. It seems as though one is thereby trying to lend an aura of scientific precision to one’s hypotheses and ascribing to folk tradition an independent life of a nature similar to that of the plant world, governed by laws that are not subject to human influence.

And, referring now to the study of language, he continues:

I seem to recall from times past the famous war on the infallibility of the laws of sound, like those of nature. That was over a long time ago, and the misleading analogy to natural science has been limited to its real and very modest value. Yet, this concerned the natural aspect of language, articulation. Do analogies to natural science have greater value where thoughts, ideas, and customs are concerned? (1941: 96, my translation)


Biological Metaphors and the Reflexive Turn

In the last analysis, Nilsson’s query must be answered in the negative. I, for one, can’t help but admire the extraordinary contributions made to folklore theory employing biological metaphors. Yet, the conceptualization of the objects of study that these metaphors presuppose is incompatible with the way we now theorize folklore. There is an implicit closure in the metaphors (Higonnet 1980), emphasizing, as they do, integration, organization, and immanence (Rothstein 1988). This stands in stark contrast to the fragmentation of reality and dissolution of natural categories in the anti-essentialist trends of recent years. Master codes like these are in abeyance and no longer hold the authority they did in the heyday of positivism. These metaphors are incompatible also with the newfound emphasis on performance as social agency, which goes hand in hand with a view of tradition as an achievement, rather than a natural fact. Such perspectives, which are at the heart of how we think about folklore nowadays, are not adequately expressed through metaphors that make folklore out to be a ‘wild flower’ or a ‘sweet fruit’ or any other discrete organism.

In this light, it strikes one as strangely obsolete when such key figures in folklore studies as Linda Dégh, Lauri Honko, and Max Lüthi are still seen pushing biological analogies in the last quarter of the 20th century. 1979, for example, was a good year for folkloristic biology. The second volume of the Enzyklopädie des Märchens appeared, with an enthusiastic entry by Dégh on the "Biologie des Erzählguts". Honko published a methodological survey of the field of folklore in Ethnologia Europea, in which, in a true Sydowian spirit, he advocated the term "tradition ecology" to describe the study of folklore in its social, geographical, traditional, and situational context (reprinted in Honko 1989). A new edition of Lüthi’s canonical work on the folktale, Märchen, came out that year, with a chapter on "Märchenbiologie", covering roughly the same spectrum of contextual approaches to the folktale.

While it is true that practitioners of folkloristics have by no means depended exclusively on biological metaphors to legitimate their conclusions, these metaphors have been so intimately involved with the authentication of folkloristic practice that the disintegration of the authority conveyed by biological analogies calls for a reconsideration of disciplinary history and its heritage in contemporary theory. The shift in scholarly practices in recent years is well known. Folklorists have turned their attention to concerns which would have been considered off limits not so long ago and treat them in terms that sometimes differ radically from those most common among their predecessors. What I would like to draw attention to is the correlation of this shift in scholarly practice with a shift in the use of language, a rupture in discursive conventions and configurations.

However, if we cannot claim representational authority any more through objectivist rhetoric, then with what kind of authority do we make pronouncements about folklore? If we no longer acknowledge the boundaries set up through biological metaphors, if tradition is now an achievement of social agents anchoring their discourse intertextually in previous performances and other texts, then what must the discipline of folklore be in order to study it?

The investigation of these questions has yet to find anything resembling closure, but a preliminary answer may be gleaned from metaphors that gained acceptance in the discursive repertoire of the 1990s. The major metaphorical expressions – voice, dialogue, performance, actor, tactic, strategy, and so on – refer to three related models: conversation, drama, and war. In contrast to the objectifying and reifying descriptions usually constructed through biological metaphors, these tropes model folklore on human activity and agency. As with biological metaphors in their time, the introduction and acceptance of these new models has been instrumental in shaping a new outlook on folklore that has allowed a thoroughgoing theoretical innovation, one which essentially amounts to a reinvention of the discipline. Just as biological metaphors were a midwife of sorts to the emerging discipline of folkloristics, so these new metaphors have enabled its rebirth.

The discursive value of these more recent metaphors will doubtless gain in perspective from a greater temporal distance. Thanks to the reflexive turn in scholarship, however, it is perhaps not an idle hope that folklorists are increasingly aware of the formative effect of discursive practices upon the object of study, of the way our metaphors encourage certain readings, while they discourage others. With heightened awareness comes a greater burden of responsibility, but also a greater freedom in the metaphorical construction of folklore.



I presented miscellaneous parts of this paper at the 1999 annual meetings of the California Folklore Society in Fullerton, the Nordic Section of the American Folklore Society at Harvard, and the American Folklore Society in Memphis, and profited greatly in each case from engaging discussions following my presentation. For their generous critical comments on various drafts, I want to thank Pertti Anttonen, Alan Dundes, Christine Goldberg, John Lindow, John Niles, Elliott Oring, and Ulrika Wolf-Knuts. I’m indebted to Gunnar Hansson for great references and good advice on historical linguistics. Finally, I would like to gratefully acknowledge valuable discussions with my friends and colleagues who move in the folklore circle at Berkeley, especially JoAnn Conrad, Tom Cooper, Dylan Eret, Merrill Kaplan, Rachel Lewis, Bronwyn Low, Mithra Moezzi, Karen Smith, and Tok Thompson.


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(1) The concept of ‘laws of nature’ was, of course, established well before the time of Goethe, in the works of Scholastic and Renaissance philosophers. In the present context, it may be of interest simply to note that the use of a jurisprudential metaphor entails a certain moralization of nature (and, reflexively, a naturalization of morality); it could be argued that this renders the significance of its subsequent reapplication to the cultural sphere even richer and more complex. See further Friedrich Steinle’s intriguing examination of the transfer of the concept of ‘laws’ from metaphysical writings to the emerging natural sciences in the 17th century (1995).

(2) The relationship between the terms philology and linguistics (or Sprachwissenschaft) was understood differently in different countries and at different times. Here the terms will be used as they most often were in 19th century Germany, philology designating the study of texts (usually for their critical edition), with languages as their vehicle, and linguistics as the study of languages, with texts as their vehicle (see e.g., Sampson 1980: 243; also Krapf 1993: 1).

(3) I know of no good reason to suspect that Moltke Moe was directly inspired by Goethe and I don’t believe he was. There are, nonetheless, some instances in his writings which are hauntingly reminiscent of Goethe’s morphological studies; consider, for example, the following description of fairytales in the light of Goethe’s analysis of the ‘metamorphosis of plants’: "And is there anything stranger than this perpetual metamorphosis of the fairytale, passing from form to form, from thought to thought – tied together, like the links of a chain, in an unbroken series that fades from view in the dawn of times? Is there not in this the same great fundamental law of economy that governs the life of nature, and which does not let anything go to waste, only to change form and function? That makes water ascend as vapor and descend again as rain, – makes solid bodies of all varieties turn to dust and provide soil in which new life may take root? A magnificent cycle from form to form, from function to function!" (Moe 1914-1917, part 3: 75-76, my translation).

(4) Although the influential British School of Anthropology and its intellectual allies fall beyond the scope of this study, the above discussion of evolutionary paradigms may perhaps serve as an excuse for a small note on the argumentative implications of biological analogies for Edward Tylor (1832-1917), whose application of evolutionary theory to the study of folklore was extremely influential. To Tylor, this approach presented a credible scientific procedure and allowed the social scientist to achieve positive results in his investigations. Clearly, discursive practices of this sort had considerable polemical value in the prevailing intellectual atmosphere of the latter part of the 19th century. Thus Tylor gave a paper, at the 38th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1868, called "Remarks on Language and Mythology as Departments of Biological Science", in which he promoted "… the possibility of discovering in the phenomena of civilization, as in vegetable and animal structure, the presence of distinct laws…" (1869: 121). He further entreated his audience (and in this the polemical value becomes apparent) to abandon approaches incongruous with this disciplinary affiliation: "The treatment of accounts of the civilization of tribes of man as details of local geography is connected with a popular notion that these topics are finally disposed of by descriptive treatment; and this notion, in the writer’s opinion, is prevalent enough to be a serious obstacle to knowledge … details of human culture should come under discussion as topics of biology, where, if they have any claim to attention, they must be treated as facts to be classified and referred to uniform and constant laws" (120).

(5) Indeed, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) took his predecessors to task for their organicism and their use of illogical and animistic metaphors for language (Salverda 1998: 192). Despite these objections, however, and in spite of his radical break with traditional philological practices, there is a pronounced continuity between Saussure and his forerunners precisely with regard to biological metaphors. Thus, as Reinier Salverda notes in an article on the use of biological metaphors in the study of language, Saussure defined "the langue, the central object of the new science of language of the 20th century, as ‘un système ou un organisme grammatical’" (ibid.: 200)

(6) For a more recent endorsement of biological metaphors of genre, see an interesting discussion of "Literary Genres as Biological Species" in Fishelov 1993: 19-52.