April 27, 2013
The Folk-Tale Formula
Joseph Campbell once said “myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (p.3). Myths have been a part of mankind since the dawn of man. Religion, mythology, and even fairy tales all encompass the idea that there is more to the universe than what we see. Religion uses mythology to help explain the unknown, such as where we came from and where we go when we die. Fairy tales are used to relay messages to children through stories. Every culture has its own folk-fairy tales to provide entertainment, explain the unknown, and pass down similar messages. Despite the variety of stories passed down throughout the world, many similarities can be noted in the basic structure of the story. In fairy tales, characters from low position can rise to the top, through magic or marriage, or even through a mighty battle with an evil villain. Symbols of evil, deceit, and corruption are “defeated” and replaced with nobility, justice, pride, purity, etc (Luthi p.138). Many stories follow a hero who is usually oppressed by his family or circumstances, seeks greatness and fortune (in medieval literature, the hero dreams of becoming a knight). This hero struggles to overcome obstacles, and through a series of successes and defeats, returns as a person of significance, falls in love and “lives happily ever after.” This narrative pattern is seen frequently in the medieval times, when knights did exist and young boys all dreamed of becoming a proud, shining knight.
The legend of King Arthur further expanded on that pattern, that narrative skeleton, through the introduction of the Knights of the Round Table. The Knights of the Round Table was a legend that took knighthood to the next level. These knights were the best of the best in all of England, both as warriors and as men. These knights were considered the perfect knights, exhibiting honor, loyalty, and chivalry in everything they did. Because of this, many folk tales of that time consisted of knights going on adventures and quests for noble reasons. While the characters, situations, and events of the folk tales may be different, the underline characteristics are the same. But that begs the question, why are all of the folk stories different? If they all have the same characteristics, how are the stories different, and what aspects of the story-telling make them different if they are fundamentally similar? This can best be answered by comparing two versions of the same story.
In this paper, I will be looking at the similarities and differences in two versions of the story of Gareth. Sir Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” from his book Le Morte Darthur, written in the 15th century, and Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Gareth and Lynette” from his poem Idylls of the King, written in the 19th century, both tell the tale of Sir Gareth as he progresses from a young boy into a knight of King Arthur’s Table. Written nearly four hundred years apart, these two versions of Gareth are very similar in plot, but leave readers with different opinions about the story. We will use the stories of Gareth because in the books, especially in the Idylls, Gareth is one of the simpler stories that progresses in a clear, chronological sequence (Kincaid p. 664). How is this done? What differences are made in the stories to make them so similar, and yet so different? What are the patterns found in this story, and what do these two authors do to make their stories unique? Many scholars in the field will argue that there are differences in the specific characteristics of a folk tale. Joseph Campbell in his Hero with a Thousand Faces claims that over forty different patterns are exhibited by folk tales. Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, however, states that there are only 31 patterns that can be noted in the folk tales of old. While these scholars may claim that