Hello, and welcome to the March 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. This is the third of three dispatches inspired by followers of the Folklore & Fiction project, and we owe our thanks for this month's discussion to Danielle Cudmore's interest in writing exercises for her student teachers in Sweden, who want to bring these exercises into their middle school classrooms. So this edition is all about helping young people become better storytellers. Let's begin with a Swedish example tale I won't introduce any further because I want to work on it with you in my analysis.
"The Specter in Fjelkinge"
During the first half of the eighteenth century, several large estates in Schonen were the property of the family of Barnekow, or rather, of its most distinguished representative at that time, Margaret Barnekow, daughter of the famous captain and governor-general Count Rutger of Aschenberg, and the wife of Colonel Kjell Kristofer Barnekow. A widow at twenty-nine, she herself took over the management of her large properties, and gave therein evidence of invincible courage, an inexhaustible capacity for work, and a tireless solicitude for all her many dependents and servitors.
While traveling about her estates, Madame Margaret one evening came to the tavern in Fjelkinge, and was quartered for the night in a room that had the name of being haunted. Some years before a traveler had lain in the same room and presumably had been murdered: at any rate the man himself and all his belongings had disappeared without leaving a trace, and the mystery had never been explained. Since that time the room had been haunted, and those who knew about it preferred to travel a post-station further in the dark, rather than pass the night in the room in question. But Margaret Barnekow did not do so. She had already shown greater courage in greater contingencies, and chose this particular room to sleep in without any fear.
She let the lamp burn and fell asleep, after she had said her evening prayer. On the stroke of twelve she awoke, just as some planks were raised in the floor; and up rose a bleeding phantom whose head, split wide open, hung down on his shoulder.
"Noble lady," whispered the specter, "prepare a grave in consecrated earth for a murdered man, and deliver his murderer to the judgment which is his due!"
God-fearing and unafraid, Madame Margaret beckoned the phantom nearer, and he told her he had already addressed the same prayer to various other people; but that none had had the courage to grant it. Then Madame Margaret drew a gold ring from her finger, laid it on the gaping wound, and tied up the head of the murdered man with her kerchief. With a glance of unspeakable gratitude he told her the murderer's name, and disappeared beneath the floor without a sound.
The following morning Madame Margaret sent for the sheriff of the district to come to the tavern with some of his people, informed him of what had happened to her during the night, and ordered those present to tear up the floor. And there they found, buried in the earth, the remains of a body and, in a wound in its head, the Countess's ring, and tied about its head, her kerchief. One of the bystanders grew pale at the sight, and fell senseless to the ground. When he came to his senses, he confessed that he had murdered the traveler and robbed him of his belongings. He was condemned to death for his crime, and the body of the murdered man was buried in the village church-yard.
The ring, of peculiar shape, and its setting bearing a large gray stone, is still preserved in the Barnekow family, and magic virtues in cases of sickness, fire and other misfortunes are ascribed to it. And when one of the Barnekows dies, it is said that a red spot, like a drop of blood, appears on the stone.
"The Spectre in Fjelkinge" (Hofberg, p. 21) is founded on the ancient belief that innocent blood which has been shed calls for atonement, and the one who has been unjustly murdered cannot rest until the deed has been brought to light.1
The SurLaLune Folklore Database, which is one of the many places you can read this tale online for free, tells us that "The Specter in Fjelkinge" is unclassified,2 meaning it is not found in The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography (ATU index) or its predecessor, the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. So if we want to know what genres might fit the tale, what motifs it might contain, or what tale type it might fall under, we'll have to figure those things out for ourselves.
We can get to the genre of the tale using the Folklore & Fiction archives, and we can get to a few motifs using the MOMFER database,3 which is based on the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. I'm less convinced we can get to a tale type using freely-available resources for reasons that will become apparent soon, but I'm going to use the University of Missouri ATU-AT-Motif library guide to situate the tale as close to a type as possible. So let's see how far we can get on a teacher's salary with reputable online materials and resources. Hopefully this exercise will empower you to analyze folk tales yourself and help your students better understand them.
The first question to ask about "The Specter in Fjelkinge" is "What genre of tale is it; a myth, a legend, a fairy tale, or something else?" It's printed in The Swedish Fairy Book, and that's a great clue, but I also think it would be a good idea to look at a few folklore genres for the sake of comparison.
In "What is a myth?", I write that myths are:
- Narratives: Stories which may be told or written as prose or poetry.
- Sacred: Associated with holy teachings, rituals, and paraphernalia.
- Believed: Taught for the purpose of encouraging or strengthening belief, accepted on faith, and cited as factual.
- Cosmological: Detailing the origin of the world, of humankind, of life and death, of good and evil, and so on. They also recount the origins and lives of gods and other superhuman beings.
- Otherworldly: Set in the distant past or in a place different from the Earth as we understand it.
- Populated: Containing primary characters who are not human but may have human attributes such as gods, giants, elves, dwarves, culture heroes, and sometimes animals.4
That doesn't sound like this tale, so let's move on.
In "What is a legend?" I write that legends are:
- Narratives: Stories which may be told or written as prose.
- Historicized: Occur in the everyday world and not in a fantastical or cosmological one, told as if they are true.
- Believable: Contain elements that reinforce the veracity of the story.
- Migratory: Often widely known by many different variants.
- Strange: Concerned with the ambiguous, unusual, and bizarre.5
That does sound like this tale, doesn't it? "The Specter in Fjelkinge" is situated in a specific place and time, so it occurs in the everyday world. It also names real people (Margaret Barkenow is Margareta von Ascheberg), which makes it believable. Finally, Margaret's encounter with the phantom of a murdered man is certainly unusual and bizarre. Could it be that this tale, which appears in a "fairy" book, is actually a legend about Margaret Barkenow's life? Let's look at the fairy tale genre to be sure.
In "What is a märchen?", I write that fairy tales are:
- Short Prose Narratives: Short stories which may be told or written as prose.
- Both Magical and Mundane: Containing supernatural beings, objects, and other story elements that intervene in the everyday lives of people.
- Infused with Moral Lessons: Imparting social values relevant to the contexts in which they were created, told, and received.
- Resolved by Rewarding the Good and Punishing the Wicked: Often called "happy endings," it might be more helpful to think of these resolutions as logical outcomes of moral lessons the tales impart.
- Passed Down from Oral Traditions: Collected in cultures where people learned these stories from other people.6
That also sounds a bit like this tale. The phantom is a supernatural being who intervenes in Margaret Barkenow's everyday life. Margaret herself is god-fearing and unafraid to help the phantom, and the murderer is condemned to death as a result of her efforts, which might be read as a moral lesson. Finally, the good phantom is rewarded with peace, while the wicked murderer is punished, though neither of those characters is the protagonist of the tale.
It looks as though "The Specter in Fjelkinge" might be a legend or a fairy tale. I've written before that I think human beings have "a sophisticated sense of narrative that helps us to identify story types when we see them based on other stories of the same type we've seen before, and we can do that because of the way these stories are constructed."7 So, what does your sense of narrative tell you? Mine says this is a legend.
The second question to ask about "The Specter in Fjelkinge" is "What motifs does it contain?" There's a reason I mentioned our sophisticated sense of narrative, because we're going to use it now. Remembering that "A motif is a small chunk of story that recurs in folk narrative with enough regularity that it can be seen as a recognizable pattern,"8 what elements of this tale have we seen before? Now, you might be wondering why we're looking for folk narrative motifs in a legend about a woman's life, and if you are, well done! In response, I would argue that this old legend was told again and again before it landed on the printed page, and as it was narrativized, it gathered motifs into itself. I found three.
- "While traveling about her estates, Madame Margaret one evening came to the tavern in Fjelkinge, and was quartered for the night in a room that had the name of being haunted."
- MOMFER Query: "Haunted Room"
- Motifs: E281.3 Ghost haunts particular room in house.
- "The ring, of peculiar shape, and its setting bearing a large gray stone, is still preserved in the Barnekow family, and magic virtues in cases of sickness, fire and other misfortunes are ascribed to it."
- MOMFER Query: "Magic Ring"
- Motifs: D1076 Magic ring, D1380.23 Magic ring protects.
I'm leaving the third motif I found on the table for you to discover, and I've provided a clue in the next part of the analysis, so it shouldn't be too difficult a puzzle to solve. If you do, let me know!
The final question to ask about "The Specter in Fjelkinge" is "What tale type does it fall under?" This part of the analysis might seem daunting, but since "The tale type is a concept invented by folklore scholars to categorize folk narrative story plots,"9 we know that we're looking at the tale as a whole now. What's more, we have a great clue in the note at the end of it, which reads "'The Spectre in Fjelkinge' (Hofberg, p. 21) is founded on the ancient belief that innocent blood which has been shed calls for atonement, and the one who has been unjustly murdered cannot rest until the deed has been brought to light." Longtime followers of the Folklore & Fiction project will remember last year's discussion of ATU 780 The Singing Bone (which I mentioned again last month) and its focus on the truth of a murder coming to light. But the truth in that tale type only comes to light by way of an instrument made from the bones of the murder victim or a tree growing from the grave. If we look to the University of Missouri ATU-AT-Motif library guide for help, we find Religious Tales-The Truth Comes to Light 780-849 halfway down the page, but we don't find any tale type under this category that fits "The Specter in Fjelkinge." This brings us back to the beginning of our analysis and SurLaLune's assertion that the tale is uncategorized. Because it's a legend, this makes sense to me. It's old, it's narrativized, and it contains traditional folk narrative motifs, but its popularity was probably somewhat local to Sweden.
Folk Narrative and Storytelling
Teachers, what do you think so far? Do you feel comfortable attempting a bit of folk tale analysis as you develop lesson plans? I hope so. The University of Missouri ATU-AT-Motif library guide is a real gem for this purpose because it organizes tales by type and provides the motifs associated with them. The companion guide, Linked ATU Tales, leads to hundreds of folk tales you can read for free on the Internet Archive. MOMFER is there for those occasions when you're working with a tale not listed in the library guides, and the Folklore & Fiction archive is there when you want to help students understand the differences between various genres of folk narrative. My work is geared toward people who already have some familiarity with scholarship and writing, but you should be able to draw from it to create lesson plans for young writers.
Now let's go a step further down the road toward that creative writing lesson plan. I have in mind a plan that would span several class sessions, but I know more about folk narrative than I do about teaching middle school writers. So I'm going to provide you with a basic plan, recommend a book, and create a sample exercise. Hopefully this will kickstart your own expertise, and you'll be able to expand upon or change what I've started here.
Folk Tale Analysis and Writing Lesson Plan
- To help students gain a deeper understanding of a familiar folk tale by learning and writing about its motifs, characters, plot, and setting.
- To help students write a story of their own using what they've already learned and written about.
- Students will read a familiar folk tale.
- The teacher will explain what motifs are, present the motifs in this folk tale, and ask students to identify these motifs in the tale they've read.
- The teacher will lead students through three writing exercises to better understand the characters, plot, and setting of the folk tale.
- The teacher will instruct students to invent a new character, plot, and setting based on the previous exercise.
- The teacher will instruct students to select one motif from the folk tale they've read and combine it with the character, plot, and setting they've invented to write a new story.
I'm recommending a book to you titled Brave the Page: A Young Writer's Guide to Telling Epic Stories. It's written by Grant Faulkner, the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and Rebecca Stern, a professional educator and Director of Programs for NaNoWriMo. You can hand it to a high school student who loves to write, and you can draw from it to create writing exercises for younger writers. I've adapted part of the text into a writing exercise so you can see what I mean by this.
In "Quest 2: Recruit Your Characters," Faulkner and Stern write:
Pick a real-life person you’re close to, like a friend, family member, or teacher. Then make a list of their physical traits — describe what you see when you look at this person. Next, make a list of their personality traits — what kind of person are they? Think about what makes this person interesting or quirky or unique. Write down as much about this person as you can.10
Tell your students to do this:
Pick a character in the folk tale you read. What does this person look like? If the tale doesn't describe the character, what do you imagine this person looks like? Write your description down as a list of words. Now think about what kind of personality the character has. Write down this person's personality traits as a second list of words.
Now tell your students to do this:
Invent a new character. You can do this by making up a new description and personality and writing them down as lists of words. Use the work you've already done on the folk tale character to help you with this, but don't use any of the same words.
Brave the Page can help you apply this sample exercise to plot and setting as well.
Teachers, I was that kid. My first story was titled "The Time Machine," and I wrote it in Grade 5. I wrote "Traitor on the Vega V" in Grade 6 during English classes that bored me to tears. I'm not in a position to encourage and inspire young people the way you can and do, but I hope my work here has helped a little, and I'm here to answer any questions you might have. Thank you for knowing that storytelling is important enough to teach young people, and thank you for teaching them. I wish you every blessing.
This edition of Folklore & Fiction represents over twenty hours of research, writing, and production. If you found it helpful, I hope you'll consider supporting the Folklore & Fiction project on Patreon. That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for a look at "Molly Whuppie." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.
- 1. Klara Stroebe, “The Specter in Fjelkinge,” in The Swedish Fairy Book, trans. Frederick Herman Martens (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1921), 199–201.
- 2. “The Swedish Fairy Book,” SurLaLune, accessed January 25, 2022, https://www.surlalunefairytales.com/book.php?id=90&tale=3278
- 3. This website might not load for you immediately, and you might receive a browser error indicating the website isn't safe. It is safe to whitelist MOMFER, but it's running on an expired security (SSL) certificate, likely because the project can't afford to renew its SSL certificate annually.
- 4. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “What Is a Myth?,” Folklore & Fiction, last modified February 6, 2019, accessed January 25, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/what-is-a-myth.
- 5. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “What Is a Legend?,” Folklore & Fiction, last modified March 7, 2019, accessed January 25, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/what-legend
- 6. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “What Is a Märchen?,” Folklore & Fiction, last modified August 1, 2019, accessed January 25, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/what-is-a-marchen
- 7. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “What Is a Myth?"
- 8. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “Introduction to the ATU Tale Types,” Folklore & Fiction, last modified January 4, 2021, accessed January 26, 2022, https://csmaccath.com/blog/introduction-atu-tale-types.
- 9. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “Introduction to the ATU Tale Types."
- 10. Rebecca Stern and Grant Faulkner, Brave the Page (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019).