Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Lesson Six: Fiction, Folklore, and Fakelore

Monday, April 18, 2011

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

We are still on book four of the My Book House series. For this lesson I assigned stories about three American folk “heroes”: Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed.

The main difference between Pecos Bill/Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed is that the first two are total fiction – “tall tales” – while Johnny Appleseed was a historical character. Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan were literally larger-than-life (very big dudes), capable of acts of stupendous strength.

Pecos Bill was a “straight-shooting, hard-riding cowboy,” who played with knives as a baby and was later raised by coyotes. The story begins with his mother saving him from vicious Indians who want to abduct him and goes on to tell of his superhuman battles with bulls and bad guys.

Paul Bunyan also had superhuman powers and led his company of loggers “over Maine and Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, the Dakotas, Kansas, Iowa, Utah, and wherever there were trees.” He chopped down an awful lot of trees and established logger colonies.

Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees. He is generally depicted as a kindly, generous man (clothed in nothing but a burlap coffee sack) who collected apple seeds from cider mills back east, scattering them randomly all over the Midwest and the West. He was such a gentle creature that not even the Indians ever bothered him. He walked the land free and in peace. (Here I pointed to the contrast between this and the way Indians are usually portrayed in American folk tales: Could it be that Indians did not always attack well-meaning and  harmless people? Hmmm…)

I really don’t like to encourage Jack to use Wikipedia for research but it sure was convenient for learning some more about these American heroes. We found a few interesting historical details about Johnny Appleseed and noted how historical people can be fictionalized. For example, Johnny Appleseed did not randomly scatter seeds; he planted orchards. He subsequently sold those orchards and made good money. By selling his trees he brought business to the cider mills who gave him free seeds. He really was a generous and altruistic man but the saintly semi-clothed old man babbling and strewing seeds is fiction.

(Writing this line reminded me of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “April comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers…” – great poem! Contrast with T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land…” – Sorry, off topic!)

We came across an interesting concept on Wikipedia: Fakelore. Fakelore is folklore that is deliberately invented instead of mysteriously springing up and taking root on its own. In America fakelore is often connected to advertising. Paul Bunyan was adopted as a sort of mascot by the logging industry and used to put a folksy face to logging companies massacring the environment. There are huge statutes of Paul Bunyan in many logging towns.

I plan to come back to heroes and legends: epics from many parts of the world and legends based on historical characters, like Joan of Arc. In this lesson I just wanted to make a distinction between total fiction and fictionalized actual people. But the little research on Wikipedia took us on a tangent. I asked Jack what he thought of folktales
versus faketales.

“Not much difference between them,” he said. “They’re all stories.”

“What makes them fake, then?” I asked.

He thought for a minute. “I guess what makes them fake is that they start out as fake. It’s like once you’re a liar or a thief you’re always a liar or a thief. Once you’re a fake you’re always a fake.” Then he added: “But I like the stories anyway, even if they’re fake.”



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