The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction Analysis

The Tale Tradition

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The tale tradition had by far a longer and more complex history than the essay-sketch tradition. Virtually every anthropologist, linguist, and literary historian would agree that tales in one form or another are approximately as old as language, and if language is the distinguishing feature of human beings, then tales must have originated at almost the same time as human beings. Judging from what is known of human nature, one can assume that the first tales took the form of either lies or gossip, which remain among the most seductive categories of narrative today. People must have soon varied the literary fare with the sort of oral tales which seem to have flourished then and which still flourish today among preliterate peoples in just about every culture on the face of the earth: myths, legends, folktales, jokes, anecdotes, and so on—and subsequently with the sorts of refinements and variations of these forms that develop in diverse guises in various cultures at various times. Among the terms (often overlapping) for specifically oral tales with which Stith Thompson deals in his classic study, The Folktale (1851), are Märchen, fairy tale, household tale, conte populaire, novella, hero tale, Sage, local tradition, local legend, migratory legend, tradition populaire, explanatory tale, etiological tale, Natursage, pourquoi story, animal tale, fable, jest, humorous anecdote, merry tale, Schwank, and so on.

Such genres invariably alter, sometimes quite subtly, sometimes fundamentally, when the means of transmission become not the more or less dramatic human voice (with accompanying facial expressions and physical gestures) of a person immediately present but the impersonal pen and ink. Earlier sections of The...

(The entire section is 732 words.)