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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Prose Fiction
II. Popular Prose Fiction
By Professor F. N. Robinson
THE WORKS to be dealt with in the present lecture are widely separated in time and place. They include “Æsop’s Fables,” a collection which bears the name of a Greek slave of the sixth century, but is actually a growth of many generations before and after him; the “Arabian Nights,” which contains Oriental stories of diverse origin; the sagas of mediæval Ireland, as represented by “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel”; and the folk origin; the sagas of mediæval Ireland, as represented by the Grimms or imitated by Hans Christian Andersen. In so broad a range of writings there is naturally great variety of matter and style, and there might seem at first to be few common characteristics. But all the works mentioned—or all except Andersen’s tales—are alike in being popular prose fiction, and Andersen’s collection is an artistic imitation of similar productions.  1

  The term “popular” is here employed, of course, in a technical meaning, and does not have reference to vogue or popularity, in the ordinary sense. Popular works, in the stricter definition of the term, are anonymous and are held to be the product of many successive authors. They commonly pass through a long period of oral transmission before being committed to writing, and they are consequently cast in a conventional or traditional, rather than an individual, style and form. The exact nature and extent of popular composition is a matter of dispute. In the case of ballad poetry, with its dancing, singing throng, the process of communal authorship can sometimes be actually observed; but in the case of the prose tales no such opportunity exists for collective composition. Still even there the changes and additions introduced by successive narrators make of a story a common product, for which no single author is responsible. Popular works in both prose and verse show various stages of artistry; and just as in the Anglo-Saxon epic of “Beowulf,” 1 there is evidence of the hand of a single poet of high order, so in the “Arabian Nights,” 2 for example, one may suspect that the style and structure were largely molded by a single writer, or group of writers, of skill and literary training. There are many mooted questions as to the history of the whole type, or as to the exact nature of particular works, but there can be no doubt of the existence of a great body of literature which is in a real sense public property—popular somehow in origin and transmission, and thereby determined in its character. Both the verse and the prose of this popular sort are well represented in The Harvard Classics, the former by the traditional ballads and the latter by the works enumerated above.

  Writings of the kind under consideration would probably have had a less conspicuous place in a literary or educational collection a few generations ago. For interest in popular literature, or, at least, formal attention to it on the part of the learned and cultivated, is largely a growth of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In earlier periods, and especially in those when classical standards prevailed, the study of literature meant primarily the study of great masterpieces of poetry, philosophy, or oratory, and the art of criticism consisted largely in the deduction of rules and standards from such models. The products of the people, if noticed at all by men of letters, were likely to be treated with condescension or perhaps judged by formal standards, as Addison praised the ballad of “Chevy Chase,” 3 for conforming in great measure to the narrative method of the “Æneid.” 4 But in more recent times the spirit of criticism has changed, and writers have even swung to the opposite extreme of adulation of all popular products. The part of the people in composition has been magnified, until the “Iliad” or the “Beowulf” has been conceived as the actual production of a whole community. With this renewed admiration for popular literature in its highest forms has come an enthusiastic interest in all the minor products of popular or semi-popular composition, and vast numbers of scholars have devoted themselves to the collection and investigation of folk songs and folk tales from every corner of the world. Most interest has doubtless centered in the poetry, as most labor and ingenuity has been spent upon the great epics, such as the “Iliad” or the “Nibelungenlied.” But the excellence of much popular prose narrative has also been recognized, and this also has been very extensively studied.

  Though popular fiction has not always occupied a dignified place in the works on literary history, it has long exerted an important influence on the more sophisticated forms of literature. In the ancient world, it is almost too obvious to point out, the myths upon which drama and epic turned were at the outset often popular tales of gods and heroes. The fable, as the embodiment of moral wisdom, has been, of course, the constant resource of speakers and writers, and in the hands of such poets as Marie de France in the twelfth century, or La Fontaine in the seventeenth, it has received the highest finish of art. Though the “Arabian Nights” collection, as a whole, is of recent introduction into European literature, Oriental tales of the sort which compose it circulated extensively in Europe from the time of the crusades and supplied much material for the fiction of the Middle Ages. In the last century, too, poets have found a rich storehouse in the traditions of the days of “good Haroun Alraschid.” The folktales of northern Europe, again, as represented by Celtic and Scandinavian sagas or by the modern German collection of the Grimms, have been the source of much lofty poetry and romance. Many a great play or poem goes back in substance to some bit of fairy mythology or to a single tale like that of a persecuted Cinderella, or of a father and son unwittingly engaged in mortal combat. The splendid romances of King Arthur 5 have derived many of their essential elements from popular sagas not very different in character from the account of Da Derga 6 printed in this series. In the hands of court poets or polite romancers the original stories were, of course, often disguised beyond easy recognition. Their motives were changed, and they were transferred to the setting of a higher civilization. Oftener than not the authors who treated them were wholly unaware of the history or meaning of the material. Yet a chief result of the critical scholarship of the last hundred years has been to show how the highest products of literary art are derived from simple elements of popular tradition.

  From the historical point of view, then, popular fiction has an important place in literary education. But in and for itself also, without regard to historical standards, this great body of writings possesses a direct human interest not inferior to that of the literature of art. The works selected for the present series illustrate very well the varieties of the type and the phases of life with which it may be concerned. The collections of Andersen 7 and the Grimms 8 offer, in general, the least complicated of narratives. The tales, or Märchen (as they have come to be called in English as well as in German), deal with simple episodes, localized, to be sure, but having for the most part no marked national or personal character. They are universal in appeal, and almost universal in actual occurrence wherever folklore has been collected. A very simple stage of narrative is likewise exhibited by the Æsopic fable. 9 The hero tale of Ireland, on the other hand, is a more complex product. Here there is accumulation of episodes, with something like epic structure; and definite characters, half-historic and half-legendary, stand out as the heroes of the action. The localization is significant, and the stories reproduce the life and atmosphere of the northern heroic age. Both the narrative prose and the numerous poems that are interspersed in the sagas testify to the existence of a distinct literary tradition, still barbaric in many respects, in the old bardic schools. Finally, the “Arabian Nights” presents a still more elaborate development in a different direction. The fundamental elements again are beast fables, fairy lore, and popular anecdotes of love, prowess, or intrigue; but they are worked up under the influence of a rich and settled civilization and depict, with something like historic fullness, the life and manners of the Mohammedan Middle Ages. The collection, like the works mentioned earlier, is of unknown authorship, and is plainly the product of many men through many generations. But the style gives evidence of a finished literary tradition; the nameless and numerous contributors appear to have been men of books rather than the simple story-tellers of an age of oral delivery. Though not in the stage of individual authorship, the “Arabian Nights” stands yet outside the range of the strictly popular and within the realm of literary composition.
  Even in its most elaborate development, however, popular fiction remains something quite different from the customary modern novel or narrative poem. It commonly lacks a sustained plot, worked out with close regard to cause and effect. Still more characteristically it lacks the study of character and the intellectual analysis of such varied problems as occupy the fiction of the present age. The popular romances lay their stress chiefly on incident and adventure or simple intrigue, and set forth only the more familiar and accepted moral teachings. They represent, on the whole, an instinctive or traditional, rather than a highly reflective, philosophy of life. For all these reasons they have come to be regarded chiefly as the literature of children; a natural result, perhaps, of the fact that they originated largely in the childhood of civilization or among the simple peoples in more advanced ages. But it is noteworthy that they were not, in most cases, really intended for the young; and the man or woman who has outgrown them completely has one serious loss to set down against the gains of advancing years.  6
Note 1. Harvard Classics, xlix, 5ff. [back]
Note 2. H. C., xvi, 15ff. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xl, 93. [back]
Note 4. H. C., xiii. [back]
Note 5. H. C., xxxv, 103ff. [back]
Note 6. H. C., xlix, 199ff. [back]
Note 7. H. C., xvii, 221ff. [back]
Note 8. H. C., xvii, 47ff. [back]
Note 9. H. C., xvii, 11ff. [back]


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