Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj, Narrative and Narrating. Variation in Juho Oksanen’s Storytelling.
Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 261. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1996. 211 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0806-X), FIM 150,­
Soft (ISBN 951-41-0807-8), FIM 125,­

Available at the Tiedekirja bookstore
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According to the classic “Finnish” way of thinking in folkloristics, people were tradition bearers, folklore was anonymous, and the variability characteristic of oral tradition, was in principle unwanted error, due ­ among other things ­ to the fact that memory fails.

One major trait in current folklore scholarship is the new approach to the subject of folklore. The singers of epic were objects of national worship but their idealised personalities remained outside the songs. For folklorists today, personal narratives and life stories are genres of folklore which, in spite of their individuality, follow the general cultural conventions of narration. On the other hand, the traditional genres of folklore, from international folktales and legends to Kalevalaic epic and lyric, are means of expressing personal and local interests. It is precisely this characteristic of folklore which seems to hold the key to its vitality: people are not interested in just handing tradition down to the next generation.

Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj’s Narrative and Narrating, Variation in Juho Oksanen’s Storytelling (FFC 261, 1996, edited on the basis of a Finnish original from 1988) is a good example of our current way of seeing the object of folkloristic research, oral narrative changing from performance to performance. The material for the research, the repeated narratives of sexton Juho Oksanen of Sysmä (1885­1971), was collected during a field project launched in the late sixties by the Folklore Archive of the Finnish Literature Society. The purpose of the project was to record representative repertoires from good narrators in different cultural areas in Finland and in so doing to get rid of the atomistic view of folklore and gradually accumulate material making it possible to see narrative repertoires in their local and personal contexts and even compare the narrative styles of different regions.

The research interest behind Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj’s work is to understand the variation and the narrative strategies employed by her master narrator. Oksanen’s repertoire is interpreted in the light of a clash between the personality of a man of humble origin and the semi-bourgeois cultural milieu and world view of his home parish in Central Finland. The methodology of the careful micro-analysis brings together influences from linguistic discourse analysis and cognitive psychology, much in the same way as in Anna-Leena Siikala’s study of the narrative world of Ostrobothnia (Interpreting Oral Narrative, FFC 245, 1990, originally published in Finnish in 1984). It seems that with these two works, a new Finnish school of folklore studies is appearing which is both fertilised by current international (not only folkloristic) scholarly thinking and deeply rooted in the domestic research tradition, above all in the fieldwork praxis developed at the Folklore Archive. Even Siikala’s material stems from the same field project, which strove to track down locally recognised good narrators.

It may be claimed that with Siikala’s and Kaivola-Bregenhøj’s works the change of paradigm in Finnish folkloristics set in motion by Lauri Honko’s Geisterglaube in Ingermanland (FFC 185) in 1962 has reached a new and solid phase. Yet looking back, one cannot help wondering at the slow progress, the many years from the field ­ in the late sixties and the early seventies – to finished scholarly works. It seems that in order to win a theoretically modern, methodologically solid and humanly interesting perspective on living oral narrative, it is first necessary to actively forget the learnings of the past.
Lesson one: folklore, oral tradition is not “unwritten literature”, a package delivered unopened from generation to generation, but a living cultural process in which meanings are always being created and communicated in changing historical and societal circumstances. This lesson we have, I think, learned. Lesson two is to understand profoundly the nature of our interview situations as a filter through which we get our research material. The path to this understanding is already visible but much remains to be done. It is clearly an echo of the past that we tend to like the polished narratives produced in undisturbed interview situations more than the incoherent chatting around a coffee table.

A third challenge, lesson to be learned, is the orality itself. Juho Oksanen impressed his researcher as an exceptionally good storyteller. I doubt if it is possible to grasp this quality through the printed text. Why not add a tape to the book?

Outi Lehtipuro
University of Joensuu

FF Network No. 14
(December 1997): 22­23

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