Linda Dégh, Narratives in Society. A Performer-Centered Study of Narration. Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 255. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1995. 401 pp.
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For her anthology Linda Dégh has selected and edited 20 articles analysing the narrative tradition and published in various fora between 1961 and 1992. Only two of the articles were produced specifically for the collection, and three were written jointly by Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsony. The collection is divided into four sections, the first dealing with the creative process, the second with the worldview revealed between fantasy and reality; the third goes under a heading rare in folkloristics, Conduits of Transmission, and the fourth is dedicated to case studies from the new industrial world. The very titles are an indication of the broad range of topics covered by the articles.
Narrators and telling communities occupy the central role in the articles. Once again the reader has a chance to make the acquaintance of Zsuzsanna Palkó and her Hungarian village, as indeed of numerous other narrators of folktales, master storytellers, and the world and message of the new tales from the modern urban community. Linda Dégh’s respect and affection for her narrators are clearly evident, and the presence is strongly felt even of those who remain nameless, such as the soldiers in the article “The Hypothesis of Multi-Conduit Transmission in Folklore”, because their role as users of folklore is shown to be important. The narrator’s creative effort obviously interests Linda Dégh more than the ethnological content of the narratives or their linguistic formulation. How aptly Dégh describes the dimensions of the skilful narrator: “In no other form of folk poetry does personality play such an important role as in the folktale. the art of storytelling requires many skills. Factual knowledge, creative imagination, the gift of formulating and structuring the intricate web of episodes into an enrapturing story, and sensitivity to adapt to audience expectation are the abilities that qualify the narrator to fulfil the mission of entertaining.” (pp. 3839) The voice of the narrator can clearly be heard in some of the articles in the well-chosen quotations. The reader would, in fact, have gladly heard the voices of narrators more in examples of storytelling styles or incredible urban legends but the article, being a concise genre, imposes restrictions on the number of quotations. Fortunately Linda Dégh has recently published the most impressive stories of Zsuzsanna Palkó in English translation in order to throw light on the profile of this narrator and the quality and rich variety of her narrative art.
On reading the collection I was frequently surprised at just how early Linda Dégh mentions research perspectives that still tend to be thought of as rather new. Dégh was, for example, talking about the unique quality of women as narrators even before the matter was taken up by feminist folkloristics. The emphasis is, for Dégh, on the way women develop their repertoires to express their own, feminine views on life. For Dégh was already concerned way back in the 1970s with the various forms and genres of personal storytelling on which contemporary research is, and not without reason, now concentrating. The “nontraditional” nature of this genre of narration, often overlooked and even contested in debate, prompted Dégh and Vázsony to ask way back in 1975: “Is there anything in this world without tradition? By definition, nontraditional things could not have happened to anyone” (75).
Linda Dégh is first and foremost a fieldworker, and her early discoveries in the Hungary of her youth are familiar to anyone researching narratives and narration. The Hungarian folktale research school and above all its spiritual father, Gyula Ortutay, are mentioned time and again in this book by Dégh. In these articles and the foreword to her book Dégh gives Ortutay the world reputation that might otherwise be denied him because of the language barrier. This gesture of gratitude from a prominent pupil to her teacher is undoubtedly felt from the heart, for Dégh would not be where she is today without her youth and her early fieldwork in Hungary. For it is there that the roots of her ideas, her fieldwork methods and ethics are to be found, but then so are the living storytelling communities that the modern folklorist may well envy. At their best the detailed descriptions by Linda Dégh give the reader a clear and, at the same time, colourful picture of the poor peasant community in which storytelling existed within the closely-regulated environment of the affluent farmer: storytelling was permitted during the pauses in the daily toil, or when it did not hinder the work on hand, rather giving the peasants strength to continue and keep awake at their monotonous tasks. It is within this reality that the two worlds of the magic tale described by Dégh are to be found: ” ‘our world’, the world of joyless, hopeless, laborious everydays that is familiar in its realities as well as its unrealities to everyone; and ‘their world’, that of the powerful, the happy, the rich” (108). The world of the folktale provided an escape from reality. One of the key articles in the collection is in fact “The World of European Märchen-Tellers”, and it is also proof of just how poetically Dégh can and dares to write while nevertheless keeping to the point. The opening of many of the articles is so masterly that the reader cannot help but read on.
Linda Dégh makes clever use of her ability to operate over two continents, familiar with the fieldwork and research traditions of both Europe and America. Her knowledge of literature covers many decades and many language areas, and being an active researcher with a command of many languages, she has often been at the heart of the action and debate on old and new genres of narration and their analysis. Dissidents are left in no doubt of her opinion. Her view is clearly stated in the article “The Approach to Worldview in Folk Narrative Study”, where she draws the line at those who, basing their views on the social sciences, have been too hasty in changing paradigms. In the introductory article she again speaks out somewhat surprisingly in defence of her own fieldwork methods. Yet the practices and principles of fieldwork have, more than anything, been replaced time and again in the course of the years; in most cases the researchers nevertheless did the best they could at the time, whether it be listening, questioning, recording, or experimenting with new methods. Why, then, does Dégh feel the need to defend her views?
The collection is so rich and varied that the reader is forced to return to earlier sections, depending on his or her personal interests. A good index would, therefore, have been useful for referring to special questions and terms. I, for one, was left wondering about the meanings of the terms magic tale, Märchen, folktale, fairy tale and tale in their various contexts. And again, an index would make it easier to find the analyses of different narrative genres and Dégh’s theoretical concepts.
The autobiographical aspect of the book running as a subsidiary theme through, among others, the introductory chapter is both welcome and interesting. Students for whom the “great names” really mean something would be glad to read more on the subject of “how I became a folklorist”.
The idea of a collection of articles is excellent, because the studies presented both complement and supplement the image of Dégh the researcher revealed through numerous monographs. Some of the articles are, furthermore, already classics and could well be used as course reading for young folklorists wishing to further their studies.
University of Turku
FF Network No. 15
(April 1998): 15-16