a1 School of Oriental and African Studies, London
Once upon a time, scholars believed that tracing the history and diffusion of folktales led to knowledge of a shared human culture. The enlightenment of the twentieth century, however, rooted out this superstition, with its evolutionary and devolutionary premises, and replaced it with a rigorous identification of tales, descriptions of their contents, and, more recently, analyses of the circumstances of their telling. The textual precision and ethnographic depth of these studies, not to mention the increasing number of folktale indexes, have taken us far beyond the naiveté of those nineteenth-century claims for a Buddhist or mytho-poetic origin to virtually all folk narrative. Deriving, for example, an English proverb (‘Don't count your chickens before they hatch’) from a Sanskrit story about a man whose dreams destroy him is almost as entertaining as it is untenable. One wonders, however, if, in reaction to such excesses, research did not retreat into a safer but more limited sphere by studying the stories of a single society. Without wishing to return to the hyperbole of those early folktale scholars, this essay acknowledges their comparative vision, bold hypotheses, and dedication to the international study of the folktale.