Oral and traditional story forms – from fable, myth, fairy tale and folk tale to religious parable – underwrote the nature and purpose of the short story from its earliest incarnations, offering powerful narrative models for authors to imitate, pastiche and subvert. The most obvious common feature of these forms is their didacticism: fables, myths, fairy tales, folk tales and parables are recounted and retold in order to instil specific moral and/or religious values, and to record cultural practices, passing on the wisdom of the ages while reinforcing a collective sense of identity among members of a given community, nation or religious group. Influential studies of the generic structures of oral and traditional written narratives by Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye reveal archetypal patterns which reflect certain universal aspects of human experience, but they also acknowledge how these structures are transformed across periods and cultures, registering both subtle and sweeping shifts in the nature of individual and social experience. Inflections in the use of the earlier forms in a particular national literature can tell us a great deal about changes in attitudes to the coherence of community identity and beliefs, especially during periods of marked historical change.
In this chapter, I will explore how late Victorian and early twentieth-century practitioners of the English short story adapted oral and traditional story forms to address their own historical situations. In doing so, I take for granted the pervasive influence on these writers of the Bible stories; of John Bunyan's religious allegory The Pilgrim's Progress (1678); of Greek and Roman mythology; of key transcriptions of oral tales such as Charles Perrault's Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697) (Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812) (known in English as Grimm's Fairy Tales) and Andrew Lang's twelve Fairy Book compilations of fairy tales (1889–1910); of Aesop's Fables and the fables of La Fontaine; of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales; and of written texts structured around a series of connected oral narratives, like Arabian Nights (first translated into English from Arabic in 1706), Giovanni Boccaccio's Decamerone (completed in 1353, but not translated into English, as The Decameron, until 1886) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
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