Tales and the Oral Tradition

 

If there were a nineteenth century synonym for “short story,” it would be “tale.” It is by far the most common term used by nineteenth century authors to refer to their own short fiction. However, its use was not limited to brief narratives; authors also used it to refer to novel-length texts, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), and to narrative verse, such as Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808). Anthony Jarrells explores the variable nature of the tale, arguing that unlike the novel, and later the short story, “the tale remained open to the forms and content that surrounded it and in many cases made no attempt at synthesis.”1Anthony Jarrells, “Short Fictional Forms and the Rise of the Tale,” in The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 2, English and British Fiction 1750-1920. Eds. Peter Garside and Karen O’Brien, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015, 478-94: 491. The adaptable nature of the tale made it an ideal term for authors to use in referring to a variety of texts that might only be united by their oblique reference to a tale-telling tradition.

The term “tale” roots short fiction in an oral tradition. Walter Allen explains, “as etymology indicates, the tale was an oral form, composed to hold an audience, listeners not readers.”2Walter Allen, The Short Story in English, Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1981: 3. The term, then, links the printed fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with its ancient oral precursors—legends, folk tales, fables, myths, tall tales, and fairy tales, among others. As modes of oral story-telling, these traditions have several characteristics that transferred quite naturally to written short fiction: they need to be brief enough to be heard in one sitting (think of Poe’s requirement for a tale—that it be short enough to read in a half hour to two hours); they must entertain their audience, either through compelling action, moral or religious import, or sympathetic bond; and they are rooted in a particular place and people.3Both Tim Killick and Anthony Jarrells discuss these aspects of the tale.  See Tim Killick, British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale, Ashgate, 2008; and Jarrells, 478-94.

Authors relied upon the assumptions inherent to the oral tradition. Tim Killick, in his study of early nineteenth century tales, demonstrates that using the term meant authors “could tap into a wide range of associations and provide a flexible shorthand.” Tales were associated, he finds, with moral instruction, with a “balance between actuality and artifice,” and with “unfussy honesty,” so that an author could “avoid the accusations which a ‘novel’ could attract” of morally dubious content and instruction.4Killick, 19. Similarly, Anthony Jarrells argues that the term tale often indicated moral didacticism (Jarrells, 489)

As the oral tradition of the tale took on written form, the genre encompassed many narratives that exhibited aspects of both oral and written communication. In his discussion of the Irish author, William Carleton, Harold Orel notes Carleton’s indebtedness to an oral tale-telling tradition: “[b]ehind his back [was] an oral tradition, the acknowledged presence of an audience, an emphasis on colorful incident and verbal exaggeration; ahead of him, the more formal cadences of written prose, the weight of English literary tradition, the importance of style and formal design.”5Harold Orel, The Victorian Short Story: The Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1986: 14. Many nineteenth century authors of short fiction exhibited these same tendencies; take, for example, the common practice of including a frame narrative at the beginning of a short tale—perhaps a grandmother relating a story to her grandchild, or shipmates entertaining one another with tales during a lull in their work. The frame sets up a fictitious oral element that more fully integrates the expressions and rhythms of the spoken word with the conventions of a published tale.

“Tale” is not the only term denoting an oral tradition in Victorian short fiction.  Authors of these texts often re-wrote myths, recorded traditional legends, and referred to their fictional work as fables.  What becomes readily apparent is that the constant presence of an oral story-telling tradition underwrites the majority of the short fiction of the time.

Significant Terms

Selected Examples

Notes   [ + ]

1. Anthony Jarrells, “Short Fictional Forms and the Rise of the Tale,” in The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 2, English and British Fiction 1750-1920. Eds. Peter Garside and Karen O’Brien, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015, 478-94: 491.
2. Walter Allen, The Short Story in English, Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1981: 3.
3. Both Tim Killick and Anthony Jarrells discuss these aspects of the tale.  See Tim Killick, British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale, Ashgate, 2008; and Jarrells, 478-94.
4. Killick, 19. Similarly, Anthony Jarrells argues that the term tale often indicated moral didacticism (Jarrells, 489)
5. Harold Orel, The Victorian Short Story: The Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1986: 14.