Time, Space, and Lutz Röhrich

Publication: Marvels & Tales
Author: Naithani, Sadhana
Date published: January 1, 2011

Lutz Röhrich, one of the founding members of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, is known to have reestablished the discipline of folk narrative research at a time when it stood degraded in the very space where it had been pioneered some two centuries ago - in Germany.1 In this essay I will juxtapose the time and space in which Röhrich emerged as folklorist to the time and space as analytical categories in his works. In other words, while I analyze some of Röhrich's theses articulated in his first work, Märchen und Wirklichkeit, I simultaneously apply his method to my analysis of his time and space.

It is at the end of the Second World War that our story of theoretical transformation in German folk narrative research begins. And we are speaking of an intellectual tradition that went back to the very beginning of folkloristics, as initiated by Johann Gottfried Herder, who coined the term Volkslied ("folksong") in the 1770s, and by the Brothers Grimm, who made the Volksmärchen ("folktale") a symbol of national culture in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The history of German folkloristics since the work of the Brothers Grimm runs entwined with dominant and resistant political movements in German history, culminating in its close association with the Nazi regime in the 1930s.

What happened in this decade has been termed "the Nazification of the discipline" by James Dow and Hannjost Lixfeld, and the concept has been elaborated upon by German scholars in their volume of the same title (1994). The aftermath of this was that when the war came to an end, both the discipline of Volkskunde ("folklore") and its practitioners stood dreadfully tarnished as having provided scientific legitimation for the Blut und Boden culture propaganda of the Nazi regime. Indeed, the discipline of Volfokunde was not the only one to be in this situation, but its place was like no other. The charge was not limited to the individual practitioners who had performed under pressure or with pleasure and who could be removed from active service. The charge was far more serious and all-encompassing: that folklore had at its core those very ideas that the Nazi regime required, and that in scholarship the germs of Nazi ideas had already been present in Romantic Nationalism. After all, the critics continued, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had offered the concept of Kuturnation to rise above the petty political boundaries of early nineteenth-century Germany and see the then nonexistent nation as an entity defined by the Märchen of the German-speaking folk. Hermann Bausinger argues that the deep historical connection between Romantic Nationalism and Volkskunde shaped the Nazi appropriation of folkloristics in the twentieth century: "I will mention the national emphasis. It need not be stressed that this did not just appear in the year 1933. It was part of the beginning of folk research, and it was maintained as an undercurrent during times of international problems, functioning broadly in the public" (13; emphasis in original).

This could go back even further, for it was Herder who coined the term Volkslied, which symbolized for him the conjunction of language, nation, and spirit of a people. The doubts and questioning of the postwar generation were ways of understanding the horrific realities of Nazi Germany - the racism and violence that had shocked the entire world. This discourse of racism and violence was constructed around the categories of Volk and Kultur. After the collapse of Nazism, Volkslied and Märchen were both seriously implicated and suspect in a country from where they had spread to the rest of the world as modern categories of understanding culture.

It is in this context that Röhrich started his study of Märchen, which in 1956 resulted in his seminal work, Märchen und Wirklichkeit (translated into English in 1991 as Folktales and Reality). The disjunction that he experienced from his linguistic and national intellectual tradition of folklore theory is apparent in this work, but it is not a critique of folklore scholarship under Nazism. It is a critique of the way the relationship between folktale and reality has been seen for a very long time, since long before the renowned pioneers Herder and the Brothers Grimm made their contribution to it.

Röhrich remembers that "After the Second World War a tidal wave of press against the 'horrors of the Grimm tales appeared' . . . [and] "the AngloSaxon occupational powers temporarily forbade the printing of any new folktale collection because folktales made the German people cruel; folktales, they claimed, had played a major role in the developments of the methods used in the concentration camps." Röhrich also knows that "There was also no lack of German authors of the same opinion. For example, Günther Birkenfeld commented that in the light of the Grimm tales, it no longer seemed inconceivable that the German people could commit the cruelties of Belsen and Auschwitz" (Röhnch, Folktales 112).

Instead of critiquing or defending these charges, Röhrich takes us far back in time and tells us that this charge is not exactly new or postwar. Plato, Socrates, and Kant were all extremely suspicious of folktales, because they could lead people to think things that, in their opinion as leaders of society, people should not think. Röhrich shows us that folktales have often scared those who wanted to control people, and therefore the ruling elite always tried to control the tales to reduce the imaginative capacities of the people.

Röhrich engages with the worst of charges levied against the folktale after the Second World War. He lists the most gruesome and best-known cruelties from folktales and goes on to question how realistic or fantastic they are. He finds that a number of those cruelties, particularly those meted out as punishment in folktales, were actual legal and judicial practices or ways of punishing offenders. Right up to the eighteenth century people had been burned at the stake, torn apart by horses, or thrown into water as punishment meted out to them by the judicial authorities of various European countries (Folktales 129-31).

Ironically, the documents recording these acts would be considered "folktales" by people today. Many of the cruelties depicted in the folktales were not figments of imagination and actually existed in the reality affecting real peoples' lives. The narrators use these realities imaginatively and transformatively to the extent that their connection to reality becomes difficult to see, letting modern readers conclude that cruelty is in the tale itself. Going by the laws of narrativity and the need to take hold of the listener's imagination, cruelty as a narrative device has been widely used in the folktale. Röhrich shows that this cruelty is hardly subjective; it is a weapon in the hands of both heroes and villains, who use it to establish their supremacy. Of course in the folktale it is only the hero who wins, and his acts are never considered cruel. So cruelty is an attribute of villains, not heroes. Moreover, the hero of the folktale is the underdog. Röhrich argues that there is cruelty in folktales because there is cruelty in society, and not the other way round. It is only with the modern and literary versions of folktales that this cruelty becomes a subjective, contemplated act, voyeuristically described by the writer.

Röhrich frees the folktale from the colors and covers that have been wrapped around it to reveal that folktale is essentially the tale of the socially and politically underprivileged people, born of their experience of reality. As tales, however, they have a life of their own beyond that particular reality, and it is in this afterlife that the powers of the tales become important. Across time and space folktale is used and abused by the powers-that-were and the powers-that-are. Folktale scholars are often accomplices in this process, because they, too, look for reality in folktale, but the genre of folktale does not deal with reality in a rationalist and empirical fashion.

According to Röhrich, "The folktale uses a language of images; images of threat and rescue, of evil and good, of scarcity and abundance, of happiness and sorrow, of beauty and ugliness. . . . Anything else is not folktale" (Folktales 141). This language is the aesthetic device of folktale, not to be confused with the portrayal of reality. It is not the folk who have used the folktale to build nationalist ideologies, to justify politics of race and violence, and to subjugate women. Folktales have in fact reflected the violence inflicted on ordinary people and the subjugation they experience in their socially underprivileged situation. Its aesthetic devices are not used to recreate this reality, but to fantastically overcome it. As such, folktale has had a bigger role than merely reflecting and documenting reality - it has also played an emancipator's role in the lives of the people. And that is what makes it dangerous and attractive for the powerful. Thus, they try to usurp the important role of the folktale for their own purposes. The folktale abstracts reality to such an extent that its location in time and space becomes difficult to see, but that abstraction makes it understandable beyond limited time and space. And thus the postmodern shares with the feudal underdog the wish to rise above all that subjugates him.

Consider, for example, the famous German tale of Hansel and Gretel - the siblings abandoned in the forest by their poor father. Even today people can be so miserably poor that they abandon or sell their children; such cases are reported every day across the developing world. The story of Hansel and Gretel may offer hope that the child victims of this illegal trade will be able to fight and defeat those who bought and sold them. People don't sell their children because stories tell them to; their poverty, the same as that of the father in Hansel and Gretel, makes them do so. A story might be their only hope. If one wants to call it unrealistic hope or escape or fantasy, one should be able to provide the real hope, which in the short time and limited space of an individual's life is often impossible.

All the charges against the folktale accrue from the use of folktale in different times and spaces. Indeed, we only have to look at the uses of folktale by different kinds of powers-that-were and powers-that-are to see how relevant Röhrich's theses still are. The Spanish and the British colonial powers used the folktale to define how irrational, superstitious, and primitive the people of America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands were, because the tales of these people did not conform to the Enlightenment ideals of Europe. And simultaneously, the Spanish and British colonizers collected and translated these tales in order to understand the collective mind of the people they had subjugated. The role of the same texts changes over time and space. For example, the colonial publications read in Europe created new meanings for the understanding of colonized subjects. Given the power structures of knowledge, these new meanings transformed the meanings that were originally attached to them in the space of their oral performance. So the colonized also learned to see their folktales as "traditional" and looked to literature for the experience of modernity

The central thesis of Röhrich's work is that we as scholars should look for folktale in reality instead of looking for reality in folktale - a thesis that emerges from the experience of folkloristics in Germany. The extremity and political nuances of this experience find articulation when he theorizes, "the history of the folktale is the history of gradually changing orientations to reality corresponding to the various stages in people's sense of reality" (Folktales 4).

Röhrich's theses provide a significant new perspective on the relationship of folktale to reality and lead to a new method of analysis. He rejects any external ideological baggage in the analysis of this relationship and proposes discovering the ideological implications by analyzing the role that folktale, as concept and text, plays in a given reality. Röhrich's other writings (for example, his essays on folksongs and folk ballads collected in Gesammelte Schrfiten zur Volkslied- und Volhballadenforschung) show that demystifying the concept of folklore and placing it on a secular plane, where it can be understood with reference to its aesthetic and social evolution, was his constant concern. Dan BenAmos says insightfully in his foreword to the 1991 English edition of Folktales and Reality, "Röhrich constructs his system of genres predicated not upon the human mind but upon human reality" (ix). Indeed Röhrich does that, and selfconsciously so, as when he says, "The topic 'folktales and reality' includes the question of 'folktales and nonreality'; these are two sides of the same coin" (Folktales 1-2).

Röhrich's system constructed upon human reality makes it possible to extend his theses toward understanding different human realities. It has certainly made me do so. It made me question the role of folklore scholarship in colonial contexts of the British Empire, and it made me doubt the claims of colonizer folklorists and look for archival documents of history and folklore to understand colonial folkloristics. In this process I was able to bring forth the role of native scholars in the construction of colonial folkloristics.2

Röhrich's theory of folktale and reality offers the possibility to understand many current transformations with reference to human reality. I am currently examining folk narratives and performative traditions on the Indian subcontinent that reflect precolonial integration of Islamic and Hindu ideas in folk culture and the way their form and value changes in the context of the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Like that of ordinary folk, their lore, too, is subject to usurpation and definitions by the powerful, but in reality folklore is capable of transforming itself into new avatars and continuing to reflect the reality of its narrators. Röhrich's method teaches us to take into consideration the dynamism of the categories of time and space and harness it in analysis.

Röhrich's Folktales and Reality is far greater in scope and analysis than what I have represented here, but what I want to highlight is his concern with time and space as analytical categories. The texts are rooted in some social reality that may or may not be known to us, but their meaning in time grows and changes, often bringing with it issues of ideology. These issues of ideology also change over time and transform how folktales exist and are perceived by the people. Folktale is a dynamic text, and its strength is embedded in the possibility of its transformation. For example, feminists not only critique fairy tales, but they also write feminist fairy tales. They realize the power of those images and believe that the transformation would have the same power and therefore influence reality. Communist activists change the content of folk texts and infuse them with their own ideological perceptions. And yet "folktales stick" - to adapt Jack Zipes's term. The stepmother will continue to be the antithesis of mother and maternal love; the true lovers will be loyal to each other in this and in the other world; no Nike or Adidas will ever make a shoe more famous than the glass slipper of Cinderella. These are not necessarily possible realities but the expression of desire for the inimitable real mother, for true love, and for the fragile fanciful moments. These desires may find ever new translations and ever new denials, but the folktale speaks to them all and can thus be adopted and used by anyone. And that is what has happened every time the socially and intellectually powerful have tried to define and control the folktale, as in German history. Röhrich treats folktale as a character that has come along with us through history, sharing and reflecting our joys and sorrows, but stands, as after the Second World War, charged with heinous crimes, and he becomes that advocate who must defend and prove the innocence of this character. To do so, he deconstructs the two mega-legacies of Romanticism and Nazism and proposes an analytical method that takes time and space into consideration. He is indeed the theoretician of time and space, no less shaped by his own time and space. The relevance of this method is certainly not within Germany but wherever there are people and wherever there are folktales. Regrettably, his work is relatively lesser known in the non-German-speaking world, but, like the stories, it will travel beyond his lifetime and help us analyze folktale in secular and non-ethnocentric ways.

Remembering Lutz Röhrich as my teacher, who said, "Time has not stood still in the folktale" (Folktales 4), I would like to extend the thesis here and say that Röhrich's theory is not limited by time and space either. His theory offers a perspective that can help us see through contemporary forms of romanticization, Nazification, and other ideological demonizations of folklore texts and practices by individual scholars, states, and academic institutions and can help us observe the transformations that are taking place in the ground reality of folklore.


1. This essay was presented at the 15th Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research in Athens, Greece, 21-26 June 2009.

2. See, for example, Naithani, in Quest of Indian Folktales and Story-Time of the Bntish Empire.

Works Cited

Bausinger, Hermann. "Nazi Folk Ideology and Folk Research." Dow and Lixfeld 1 1-33.

Ben-Amos, Dan. Foreword. Röhrich, Folktales ix-xii.

Dow, James, and Hannjost Lixfeld, eds. The Nazification of an Academic Discipline. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Naithani, Sadhana. In Quest of Indian Folktales: Pandit Ram Ghanb Chaube and William Crooke. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006.

_____ . The Story-Time of the Bntish Empire: Colonial and Postcolonial Folkloristics. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010.

Röhrich, Lutz. Folktales and Reality. Trans. Peter Tokofsky Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

_____ . Gesammelte Schrfiten zur Volkslied- und Volksballaàenforschung. Münster, Germany: Waxmann, 2002.

_____. Märchen und Wirklichkeit: Eine volkskundliche Untersuchung. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1956.

Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Author affiliation:

Sadhana Naithani is professor of German studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is currently writing a book on Lutz Röhrich in the context of German folkloristics. She is the author of in Quest of Indian Folktales (2006) and The Story-Time of the British Empire (2010).

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