Wednesday, July 24, 2013

21st Century Folktales

About a year ago, I posted my thoughts on magic realism.

Through the course of several recent and not-so-recent conversations, my perspective on the genre has evolved, and I've developed a new way of thinking about magic realism that I think answers some of the lingering questions I've long since had on the genre.

The seed for this post came from a discussion about story conventions from different cultures. A poster mentioned that folktales from lots of cultures around the world seem to have elements of magic realism in them, and I wondered if maybe this was backward: that magic realism tends to have elements of folktales in it. After all, aren't folk tales far older than the relatively more modern concept of "magic realism" as a literary genre?

I posted:

"In thinking about it, that does suggest an interesting conclusion to me. Any supernatural fiction arising from cultures for whom folk beliefs are deeply ingrained and interwoven into the culture will probably resemble magic realism when viewed through a Western lens. Take myths from any culture around the world and re-tell it in a modern voice, and it'll probably look like magic realism. This includes Christianity. To this extent, we can use this to develop a definition of magic realism as a genre of modern-day folklore, which—as a magic realism author—I find to be a fascinating and curiously appropriate definition.

"In fact, I think one could say the demarcation of the speculative fiction genres in general may only make sense at all when viewed from a secular, Western perspective. To a person who believes in ghosts and witches, a story that involves ghosts and witches isn't a "fantasy" or "magic realism" story. It's simply a story."

Between my recent musings about magical girl monomyths, and increasingly drawing from Zuni and Japanese folklore for inspiration in my writing, I've been thinking a lot about the role of myths and legends and folktales in literature. Surely many literary genres—fantasy in particular comes to mind—draw inspiration heavily from mythology. But what genre would myth, legend, and folktale fall under?

Although all are related as traditional stories, my discussion will primarily consider folklore, so as not to be burdened with the sacred narrative nature of mythology. The Wikipedia page (forgive the source) describes folklore thusly:

"... folklore can be used to accurately describe a figurative narrative, which has no sacred or religious content. In the Jungian view... it may instead pertain to unconscious psychological patterns, instincts or archetypes of the mind. This may or may not have components of the fantastic (such as magicethereal beings or the personification of inanimate objects). These folktales... speak to deep psychological issues."

While folktales and fairy tales may often share many of the outward traits of the fantasy genre, such as trolls and dwarves and magic spells, it doesn't feel quite right to call them "fantasy," does it? Why? A telling trait of fantasy and science fiction—to me—is an implicit admission or recognition that the fantastical, supernatural, or futuristic elements aren't real. These elements in fantasy and science fiction are deliberate fabrications, consciously departing from a scientific, rational understanding of reality (or the reality of what is possible at the time of writing, for science fiction). While folklore differs from mythology in that it is not usually part of a sacred narrative, it does reflect a particular cultural understanding of the world, a particular perspective of reality.

Perhaps this is why the stories of folklore so often resemble magic realism when viewed through a scientific, Western perspective, and why writers from non-Western cultures where folk beliefs still run deep (or writers who are deeply influenced by such cultures) produce stories that are so commonly called "magic realism."

This brings me to another characteristic that I think is a marker of magic realism (and probably surrealism to an extent as well), which is that in magic realism, there exists a profound belief that the "magic" in the story is an accurate reflection of reality.

This belief may not be true on a literal level, and is often true instead on a symbolic or metaphoric level.

Another way of thinking about this is that while the fantastic elements in fantasy and the futuristic elements in science fiction exist as a deliberate departure from current reality or present-time possibilities, the "magic" in magic realism and the "surreal" in surrealism are used to evoke an experienced reality that is more "true" than could be evoked without their use.

This interpretation is evident in the very term itself, as "magic realism" is fundamentally a form of realism that is not limited by a scientific, rational, Western, linear understanding of the world. This goes back to the interesting, initial observation that the discussion of magic realism as a literary genre is only really meaningful in the context of Western scientific thought. While much of the Western world follows an Abrahamic religion, the role of its more fantastical mythology and folklore has largely been relegated to matters of the afterlife, and not an understanding of the day-to-day life affairs with which magic realism tends concern itself.

Mythology as a sacred narrative examines the world and tries to explain its reality, often through the use of the magical and supernatural. Similarly, folklore uses the same traditional, mythological understanding of world to examine psychological experiences and common themes and motifs of the human experience.

But is that not so unlike magic realism? On the other hand, is that not so unlike much of fantasy as well?

It is here, where the magical merges with one's understanding of reality, where the differences between the two genres dissolve. It seems to me that one's conception and understanding of "reality" is key to distinguishing the speculative genres, if they are to be distinguished at all (from both each other and from straight realism). Much like in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," context is the key to the interpretation of a text. The nature of reality, how one perceives it, and how the reader perceives it, can all drastically change the interpretation of a story and even its very genre. If one writes a science fiction narrative, and all the technologies are then invented, what is left that makes the work science fiction? If a writer or reader believes in the experienced reality described by a story—literally or metaphorically—what makes it speculative anymore?

A final thought is to consider what kind of questions motivate the different forms of stories: if fantasy and science fiction answer "what if," and myth and legend answer "why" or "how," then magic realism and surrealism answer "how does it feel?"

In the end, magic realism are just mundane stories that happen to be magical.

Or perhaps more simply, and more magically, magic realism are just mundane stories told by people who (still) happen to believe in magic.

And maybe I just like to tell fairy tales.


  1. The magical merges with one's comprehending of truth, where the dissimilarities between the two genres disintegrate. It appears to me that one's beginning and comprehending of "reality".

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  2. So I'm wondering, what then of someone who believe in ghosts and spirits, and they happen to write a regular slice of life? I so often find myself in that situation, while I don't believe in ghosts per say, I definitely wouldn't exactly rule it out either.

  3. Me again (left a comment on the original MR post). I concur with everything you said, and in fact, underneath my definition of MR in my notes, I wrote: "As a culture, we don't believe in God, and it shows." It shows in our everyday speech, in the inherent assumption of a secular, rational world. Of course, there are exceptions, but even a majority of professed "believers" do not speak of God the way they speak of a cousin or the President, i.e. as someone who actually exists. I may have to retract what I said in my other comment about MR being moral/religious, because what I was trying to get at is more like what you've described here. Magical realism is basically the manifestation of a worldview minus Western metaphysical assumptions; the antithesis of Rationalism.

    One of my favorite resources and books is Ames and Hall's "Anticipating China" (I highly recommend it). It discusses the philosophical divergence between Western and Eastern thought, devoting a good amount of space to deconstructing the former. It describes myth as an attempt to impose order on chaos, and supplied the ground from which grew descendent traditions including poetry, history, and philosophy. Here is an excerpt (I keep it on my shelf of writing resources):

    "According to the received interpretation of Greek thought, the purpose of the intellect is seen to be that of giving accounts. These may be the sort of accounts that appeal to the logos of physis, the meaning of natural phenomena, or they may be the historical accountings associated with the realm of human action and public events. Behind both of these accounts lie those of the philomythoi who tell of the origins of order from chaos, and those of the tragic, epic, and lyric poets who implicate these cosmogonic accounts into their creations as means of bringing order into human thought, action, and passion. Each of these types of accounting - mythos, logos, historia - privilege the notion of permanence, structure, stability, and law over that of process and change."