Folklorists study vernacular culture. “Vernacular” here means ordinary, everyday, commonplace; it doesn’t denote something that is only the property of one group (the putative “folk”), but instead refers to a mode or register of cultural performance and interaction that all humans have access to. An older, but still important, definition of folklore is “artistic communication in small groups” (1). This definition calls our attention to the fact that folklore communicates something, that it has an artistic or creative dimension, and that it has special resonance or meanings to particular people or groups.
But the term folklore isn’t the sole province of academics. Many people invoke the concept of folklore with reference to all sorts of things, perhaps most frequently to certain kinds of stories, beliefs, and forms of material culture (2). Those things can, of course, be viewed as folklore. But academic folklorists view folk culture as extremely complex, permeable, and fluid, not at all limited to one type of thing, one category of expression, or one geographic area.
When popular media invoke the idea of folklore, it is often by referencing a particular type of story–myths and legends, for example–or by portraying a group of people as somehow preserving elements of culture that have remained unchanged from an ancient past. Why do these symbols of “folkness” matter? What value does “folkness” impart to popular works? And how do these uses of folklore differ from academic ones?
These are some of the questions that my colleage Michael Dylan Foster and I set out to address in our edited book, The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World. The book explores pop culture texts and films which explicitly or implicitly use folklore to build fictional worlds, to claim a certain kind of cultural authority, to link their stories to other stories, and to hold the interest of audiences for whom “folkness” of one kind or another matters.
The folkloresque refers specifically to motifs, narratives, characters, concepts, and other expressive forms that are deliberately made to resemble existing folk traditions, but are not (yet) a part of them. A video game about dragons, for example, can be said to draw on existing folklore, but it stands apart from the lifeworlds of the people who make and perform that folklore. Until it doesn’t. The lynchpin of the folkloresque–what Foster calls “the folkloresque circle” (3)–is its propensity to move from popular media into vernacular use. And once something is used by people in their daily cultural expressions and performances, it is folklore.Notes
- Dan Ben-Amos, “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context,” The Journal of American Folklore 84, no. 331 (January 1, 1971): 13, https://doi.org/10.2307/539729.
- Cf. Jeffrey A. Tolbert, “On Folklore’s Appeal: A Personal Essay,” New Directions in Folklore 13, no. 1/2 (September 25, 2015): 93–113.
- Michael Dylan Foster, “The Folkloresque Circle: Toward a Theory of Fuzzy Allusion,” in The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World, ed. Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2016), 41–63.