Doctor of Philosophy and Senior Lecturer in Folkloristics at the University of Copenhagen passed away on August 27, 1992 at his desk. His death came unexpectedly and sent shock waves all over the world of folklorists, where he had so many friends and practically no enemies. Less than two weeks earlier he had lectured in Turku and in early July he was one of the keynote speakers at the 10th ISFNR Congress in Innsbruck. There was no doubt that Bengt Holbek was in the most dynamic phase of his life. After he had published his monumental Interpretation of Fairy Tales (FFC 239, 1987) he became member of the editorial board of the FFC. Here too he leaves a gap which may be hard to fill; he always found time to talk with prospective authors, and some of the works that he recommended for the series are now in the process of publication.
Bengt Holbek was largely a self-made folklorist who did not choose any of the well-trodden paths of folklore theory. Although he was not a fieldworker, he developed a fine sense for the actual meaning behind the folklore text and he always looked upon the social context as an important factor in the analysis. His article “Games of the Powerless” is an example of how a non-Marxist can apply the tenets of a socio-historical interpretation of folklore in a superb way. Bengt Holbek was never an orthodox proponent of any psychoanalytic approach to folklore, yet his textually well-based argumentations about the actual symbolism in fairytales came close to converting even staunch opponents to psychoanalytic thinking. For Bengt Holbek, fairytales were born in peoples’s hearts on the basis of their life experience and they always meant something special. A storyteller or singer saw different things in the same tale or song in the different stages of his/her life. The stability of folklore was thus questionable at this level. Every performance had a grain of novelty, every tale or song had, in a way, to be composed anew. Mere memorization was not enough. Yet folklore had the power of a weighty form: simple truths repeating themselves in the social life of many generations became reinvented over and over again and clad by a performing individual into expressions which carried the weight of world-knowledge and wisdom with them. It was the capability of the “folk” to create its own culture for its self-expression which fascinated Bengt Holbek.
(FFN 6, March 1993: 8)