“Sacred Reading” and Folklore

I remember in Tulsa, Oklahoma I was at a writer’s conference. In one group we were asked, “Can any of you recite the story ‘Hansel and Gretel’?” Now you would think this would be a pretty easy thing to find a person to recite. Yet when I raised my hand, I was the only one who claimed this story as one I heard in childhood. I told the story–I will not copy it here–and people seemed amazed at this accomplishment. Now, looking at the paper which had been handed out, there was the poem. I believe it was Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness,” but I am not sure. I believe it was influenced by the Holocaust. I was ambivalent about the poem. I have the same feeling about Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” and–though I haven’t finished it– “The Robber Bridegroom.” It is not the fact that the moral of the poem or story or novel is bad. It is that I fear these stories being erased and leaving humankind alone in the darkness of having no past and perhaps no future either. I really believe the echoes of ancient stories fill this world with meaning. Perhaps this is why John Milton, the devout Puritan, used pagan imagery in his Paradise Lost. Without this voluptuous past, perhaps Protestantism with seem barren.

Perhaps without being able to recite “Hansel and Gretel” I would not be whole. And the present age of children seems not to learn that there ever was a past… or if there was it was “all bad,” filled with slavery and wars and the Holocaust… but nothing creative and no new ideas before 1965. I sometimes wonder why I watch MSNBC rather than CNN (though FOX is rather too conservative and Trump-y for me). I find great spiritual comfort in “old stories” whether Biblical (for me usually the Hebrew one) or in old children’s books… or in the works of Milton and Shakespeare; Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, and the Brontë sisters; the Elizabeth and Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson; Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot; Hawthorne, Twain, Cather, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Faulkner, McCullers, and more. My current favorites include Robert Morgan… but I admit that I sometimes feel I ought to be more aware of the writers who write now… The point is that it is stories that fill the world with meaning…

At my synagogue I remember learning that there were scholars who called Moses a “folkloric figure,” a figure who may never have lived but who lives on through us. I have trouble telling my Christian friends that I have my doubts about there ever having been an Abraham or a Moses. Whether we have the materials to construct the “historical Moses” I don’t know. I simply believe that in somewhere in the Mountains of Canaan the Hebrew God “spoke” to the Jewish people, making sacred what was once profane. I believe–as do most scholars–that the early Hebrews were slaves. That is part of why their testimony to believe in the God who spoke through them is so moving. The Egyptian religion was based on justifying the status quo in Egypt, the Hebrew religion was based on justifying the people who would be free. I believe that rather than the people Joshua is said to have lead in conquest in the Holy Land, the Egyptian slaves met up with the Canaanite ones in the mountains and the two tribal groups fell in love with the LORD…

I have Christian friends who want to believe the Bible is “all true” or at least “all the people who wrote in it were good people” or judge the Bible through the lens of the New Testament. I don’t really blame them. I suppose most of us want certainty… How else do we know, we think, if there is a God or an afterlife? How do we know that we shall see deceased friends and relatives again in the World-to-Come? How do we know that the feelings we have for these things are not simply delusions? It is easy to see why people want to believe the fallacy that for some of their traditional beliefs to be true, they must all be. Yet in insisting on the “letter of the text” we ignore its spirit. It is not truly important that there was a literal Abraham whom the invisible God spoke to (as Bruce Feiler explained the relationship between the two): it is important that there is an invisible God who speaks to us all… and as for Abraham, whether God speaks to us or we speak to him first is a mystery.

How does all this information about the Bible (which I have been reading lately to set up a class) relate to folklore? It is that Perrault’s Cinderella and Pus in Boots; the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel and Snow White; Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast; Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid; and Joseph Jacob’s Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Little Pigs; are in their way as archetypical as Abraham’s being called; Isaac being sacrificed; Jacob wrestling with an angel; Joseph and his multicolored coat; and so forth. (Of course, this list leaves out the women.) As such they are constantly retold… and are worthy of making more complex stories out of then they at first appear…

Published by hadassahalderson

I am a professional author who lives in Wichita, KS. I went to Friends University and spent one year at Claremont Graduate University. My published work includes: The Bible According to Eve I-IV and Faust in Love.

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