Hello, and welcome to the August 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 1284 "Person Does Not Know Himself" by way of an Irish story entitled "Seán na Scuab" and ATU 1326 "Moving the Church" by way of a German story by the same name. Both tale types feature short, humorous anecdotes about fools, and they form the foundation of this month's broader folkloristic discussion of comedic narrative.
"Seán na Scuab"
Long ago there was a poor man living in Buffickle, west in Béara. He was married. He made his living by making brushes and selling them in Cork a few times a year.
After some years, the mayor of Cork died, and three men were in for the position. When the day of the election came, the three had the same votes. They went to a magistrate to decide between them, but he shook his head and said that he couldn't settle the matter. He told them to go out next morning to a certain place at the edge of the city and to tell their troubles to the first man who came along. Whoever that man named would become mayor. They did so. The first man to come along was Séan of the Brushes with a load of brushes on his shoulder. The three of them stopped him and told him their story. He listened to them and said that it would be hard to pass over two of them and elect the other. So he told them that the best plan was to elect himself as mayor. They did so. That was that.
Séan's old wife was at home when she heard that her husband was mayor of Cork with a gold chain across his chest and two gray horses drawing him from place to place. She set out and never stopped until she reached Cork. She looked about, and next day she saw Séan being drawn by two gray horses, a Caroline hat on his head, and a big gold chain hanging down from his neck. She went over to him.
"Stay out from me, old woman!" he shouted.
"Are you my husband, Séan?" she asked.
"I am," said he, "but keep away from me and don't pretend to know me. I don't even know myself!"1
"Moving the Church"
The church was not standing in the proper place. In the opinion of city fathers, it had to be pushed back a little. So they started pushing. One of them became especially warm. He took his coat off and placed it behind the church, on the very spot to which the church was being moved. A traveling journeyman came along, took the coat, and disappeared. When the owner of the garment looked for it, he believed, and so did the city fathers, that they had pushed the church over the coat. They were very pleased with the success of their effort.2
Both ATU 1284 "Person Does Not Know Himself" and ATU 1326 "Moving the Church" are Anecdotes and Jokes under the sub-category "Stories About a Fool," and the ATU index summarizes them this way:
1284 Person Does Not Know Himself. (Including the previous Type 1531A.) While a foolish man (farmer, numskulls) sleeps, someone modifies his appearance (puts a cap on his head, cuts his beard or hair off, dresses him in new clothes, takes away a significant object, etc.). When the fool wakes up, he does not know himself or mistakes himself for someone else [J2012].3
1326 Moving the Church. Fools want to move (expand) their church (town hall). As a mark they put down a coat (jacket). While the fools push hard together against the wall, the coat is stolen by a stranger. When the fools see that the coat has disappeared, they feel happy about how far they have moved the church [J2328].4
Each tale type has a single associated motif. Here they are, and I've included the parent categories above them as well.
- J2010. Uncertainty about own identity.
- J2012. Person does not know himself.
- J2300. Gullible fools.
- J2328. The moving church tower. To see whether the church is moving someone lays down his coat in front of it. It is stolen. They think that the church has passed over it.5
Both tale types and the anecdotes associated with them may be classified as verbal lore, a genre that also contains insults, retorts, taunts, riddles, word games, and other short vernacular narratives. Closely related to jokes, these humorous anecdotes presume a teller who hopes to entertain a presumed audience by appealing to a shared idea about the world; namely, that foolishness is funny. "Seán na Scuab" gives us three legitimate mayoral candidates who decide to let a stranger govern the city of Cork and a brush-maker who doesn't recognize himself in the trappings of office. "Moving the Church" gives us city fathers who believe it's possible to shift a building by pushing it and congratulate themselves when a coat stolen from behind the church appears to indicate success.
Funny, right? Maybe. Let me tell you a story. Some years ago, my husband and I went to a comedy bar in support of a friend who was performing as a stand-up comedian. We sat in front because we wanted him to see us laughing at his jokes. However, the comedian who came on before him told a string of jokes that negatively stereotyped women in marital relationships, and we find that sort of humour distasteful. Because we were a couple sitting near the stage, he tried to draw us in by asking that we agree with him, but we were so put off that we got up and moved to a different table while he was talking to us.
Let's unpack these ideas a bit further with help from Ian Brodie, a folklorist and scholar of stand-up comedy, who writes in his book on the topic that "In the continuum between wholly unknown to established and celebrated comedian, each is engaged in the task of establishing an intimate exchange between himself or herself and the audience, or, in other words, creating a group through talk."6 This creation of a group through talk points to the necessity for both a performer and an audience in comedic narrative, but it also makes them collaborative agents in the performance. Brodie calls this "deep play" and writes that it can fail or succeed in equal measure.7 If we bring Brodie's scholarship to my story, it's clear the comedian was trying to establish that intimate exchange between himself and the audience through my husband and me. If he had succeeded, his jokes would have landed in sympathetic space, but because he failed, almost nobody laughed.
Adaptation and Subversion
From a folkloristic perspective, stand-up comedy is a good window into comedic narrative of other kinds because even though all narrative is collaborative to some extent,8 comedic narrative is especially so, and our creative writing needs to reflect this. Comedy isn't funny until an audience says it is, and that audience needs a storyteller, performer, or narrator. Both agents arise in specific contexts that add to or detract from the collaboration between them. If you've ever had a joke fall flat because you told it at the wrong time or to the wrong people, you'll have firsthand experience of that. Finally, there's an element of risk in that collaboration and its contexts, as I've already discussed in this edition and as Brodie discusses at some length in his book.
A lot can happen when we play with performer, audience, context, and risk in stories that contain comedic narratives. For example:
- What might happen if a member of science fiction fandom tells an insider joke to hockey enthusiasts who don't like science fiction during the final moments of an important game?
- What might happen if a well-respected elderly woman tells a ribald but hilarious story from her youth to a church full of Sunday School teachers after a Christmas Eve service?
- What might happen if an AI tells a joke derived from other jokes it found on the Internet to a professional comedian on a late night television show?
- What might happen if a young woman tells a funny anecdote about a drinking binge to a circle of friends around a campfire on a Saturday night?
Each of these scenarios contains many possibilities for the characters in them; for awkwardness, for shock, for confusion, for camaraderie, but they also contain many possibilities for the writer of comedy. For example, the well-respected elderly woman might have decided to scandalize a passel of church wives for the fun of it. As a writer working on the scene, you might show the church in an uproar but leave the reader in stitches. For a consummate example of this, do pick up Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign, which contains the funniest, most disastrous dinner party I've ever had the pleasure to read.
Exercise: There's a huge difference between my folkloristic exploration of comedic narrative and writing comedy itself, and what I've given you this month is mostly academic. So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to apply the elements of performer, audience, context, and risk to whatever comedic writing you undertake, now or in the future.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 2014 "Chains Involving Contradictions or Extremes." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
- 1. Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Folktales of Ireland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966): 248-249.
- 2. Kurt Ranke, Folktales of Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966): 179.
- 3. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part II: Tales of the Stupid Ogre, Anecdotes and Jokes, and Formula Tales (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 100.
- 4. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part II: Tales of the Stupid Ogre, Anecdotes and Jokes, and Formula Tales (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 128.
- 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Four J-K, Electronic Edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
- 6. Ian Brodie, A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014): 18.
- 7. Ian Brodie, A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014): 6.
- 8. See the Folklore & Fiction edition "What is performance?" for more on this: https://csmaccath.com/blog/what-performance