Saturday, September 15, 2012

Folktale Humor and "The Reluctant Dragon"

Brer Rabbit
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Here’s a common kind of folktale: the humorous tale. Take Grimm's “The Gallant Tailor.” One thing I notice right away is its use of metaphors--not a given in the Grimm collection. Here are some examples:

And his heart quivered with joy, like a lamb’s tail.

“This is too much!” cried he, and sprang up like a madman and struck his companion such a blow that the tree shook above them.

They fled away as if they had been wild hares and none would venture to attack him.

These metaphors heighten the tale’s humor, the incongruity inherent in it. Soren Kierkegaard said that humor comes from joining two things that don’t belong together. I’ve often heard the term “apt metaphor,” but humor depends on something more like “surprising metaphor”—unexpected or inapt metaphor. Such as giants fleeing like wild hares.

Just as a fairy tale is an “apt metaphor” writ large, a humorous tale is an “unexpected metaphor” writ large. But this kind of story also uses more metaphor within the actual telling. The metaphors make the scenes funnier, which makes the story more entertaining. Or, in Mark Edmundson’s terms, they infuse the story with feeling—a humorous one.

The central metaphor for the “Gallant Tailor” is this: “his workshop seemed too small for his valor.” We ponder the incongruity throughout, even as we follow him to his triumph. By the end, this insignificant tailor will become a king. In pre-modern Europe, that’s about as absurd as you can get. But the tailor does it by being clever, as well as insanely puffed up with pride.

Let’s take a second example. I can’t help thinking of Brer Rabbit and his many close shaves. The stories are entertaining; they're funny. Part of the humor is that the smallest animal consistently outwits all the larger ones. Even Mr. Man comes out like a fool. Probably the sharpest contrast is between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. We all know foxes are clever, but here the rabbit is smarter.

Most of the stories turn on Brer Rabbit’s ability to bluff others into doing something that helps him and hurts them. Brer Rabbit gets what he wants—steals it, usually—and then someone else pays for it. Like “The Gallant Tailor,” Brer Rabbit stories are full of metaphors, all of them exaggerated, inapt, unexpected. Like the Gallant Tailor, he wins by being clever, even if he’s not exactly a deserving candidate for his good luck.

Contrast these traditional tales to a modern fairy story, the well-known “Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame’s humor is what I’d call jocular. He pokes fun in an amused sort of way. Consider this example:

What the boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.

Here’s another:

"Scales, you know, and claws, and a tail for certain, though I didn’t see that end of him—I ain’t used to ’em, and I don’t hold with ’em, and that’s a fact!"

The incongruity here is of a different kind: it has to do with the absurd situation of a man discovering an actual dragon, an animal of folklore (of uncultured, pre-modern tales), in a cave. The characters in the story are afraid—the shepherd and his wife in particular—but the reader isn’t meant to be. So—in other words—we’re laughing at him, the shepherd. This comes out in the next dialogue:

“It’s all right, Father. Don’t you worry. It’s only a dragon.”

“Only a dragon?” cried his father. “What do you mean, sitting there, you and your dragons? Only a dragon indeed! And what do you know about it?”

You’ll note the overstatement and understatement, another trait in humor.

When the boy meets the dragon, he’s surprised only that the animal is purring—another incongruity. But the main one for this tale, of course, is that the dragon just wants to be a nice fellow and get along with people. He explains:

“You see, all the other fellows were so active and earnest and all that sort of thing—always rampaging and skirmishing and scouring the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going on generally—whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit, and wake up and think of things going on and how they kept going on just the same, you know!”

We’re meant to laugh, I think: What a funny idea, a dragon who makes fun of other dragons from those old silly tales! What a funny idea, a dragon who just wants to live peaceably! Instead of laughing at the tailor, or laughing with Brer Rabbit, we’re laughing at those dragons of old—at the fairy tales themselves, really.

The jocular tone of the story fits it very well. It’s the appropriate form for a story that says fairy tales shouldn’t be taken seriously. Dragons are the brunt of jokes; knights in shining armor are, when you think about it, foolish kinds of characters. Or—at least they are in a modern world, where these things (we know) don’t happen, where the old tales have lost their meaning. Let’s all have a laugh at our ancestors.

As you’ve guessed, I don’t share Grahame's humor. That's because I don’t share his infatuation with the modern world and its loss of wonder. But I admire the skill with which he’s told his tale, wedding a humorous form to a humorous tale.



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