Censorship in Folklore
An essay by
D. L. Ashliman
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Tales not fit for print
One could argue, as folklorists sometimes do in their professional
meetings and journals, that no true folktale is fit for print. What they
mean by this is that the act of reducing any oral performance to written
language, by the very nature of things, introduces its own set of changes.
Interaction between teller and listener is largely lost, as are nuances of
voice; meaning carried by gestures, and so on.
Collectors and editors of folktales have wrestled with these problems
from the very beginning. How, for example, should one spell the "wolf
whistle" used by insensitive construction workers to signal their approval
of attractive women? "Wheet-wheeo" may get the point across, but it surely
does not carry the emotional impact of the audible whistle. Similarly, how
should one spell the sound of disapproval made by clicking the tongue
against the roof of the mouth? The approximation "tsk, tsk" is about the
best one can do with a written word, but it too is a weak imitation of the
real thing, to say nothing of a statement such as "and he responded with
an obscene gesture."
Further, speech in a regional or socio-economic dialect carries a level
of meaning that can only be alluded to in print. For example, the pioneer
folktale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm bemoaned the loss of texture
and meaning imposed on their stories by translating them from local
dialects into standard German. They did, by way of example, publish a
handful of tales in Low German, Bavarian German, and Swiss German, but the
great majority of their stories are in a simple, but literate and
grammatically correct standard High German, the language of writing, not
the language of ordinary speech.
The problem of reducing speech to print intensifies when one is
confronted with words or acts that, according to longstanding convention,
are "unprintable." Any collector of ordinary people's speech acts will
soon meet up with indelicate, even tabooed language, gestures, and
By today's norms, nineteenth-century (the age of most pioneering
folklore collections) publication standards were exceedingly careful, even
prudish. Although printed anecdote collections from earlier centuries were
normally unashamedly blunt, nineteenth and early twentieth-century editors
and publishers were much more cautious. With few exceptions, they
bowdlerized or omitted any potentially offensive words and episodes.
"Victorian" scholars (and those from later generations as
well) have seen no contradiction in their attempts
to preserve common culture while avoiding that which was vulgar. Virtually
every major collection offers examples. The following quotations speak for
- In this new edition we have carefully removed every expression
inappropriate for children. -- Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, preface to the
1819 edition of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and
Household Tales). These comments are repeated in the authoritative edition of 1857: Kinder und Hausmärchen: Gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, 7th ed., vol. 1 (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), p. xi.
- In our translation of these "Household Stories" ... we have omitted about a dozen short pieces to which English mothers might object, and for good and satisfactory reasons have altered, in a slight way, four other stories. The mixture of sacred subjects with profane, though frequent in Germany, would not meet with favor in an English book. Household Stories. Collected by the Brothers Grimm. Newly Translated. With 240 illustrations by Edward H. Wehnert. Vol 1. London: Addey and Company, 1853, p. iv.)
- A very few of the tales have been omitted, as not exactly suited to young English readers. -- Grimm's Fairy Tales. A new translation by Mrs. H. B. Paull. Specially adapted and arranged for young people. London: Frederick Warne and Company, p. iv.
- And now, before the translator takes leave of his readers for the
second time, he will follow the lead of the good godmother in one of these
tales, and forbid all good children to read the two which stand last in
the book [Tom Totterhouse" and "Little Annie the Goose-Girl"]. -- George
Webbe Dasent, preface to the second edition (dated 1859) of his translation of
Popular Tales from the Norse by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen
and Jørgen Moe (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.), p. vi. Dasent did not include this warning in his first edition of this collection. To the contrary, his preface (dated 1858) to this edition he justifies his unwillingnes to "soften" any of the tales: "Any, who may be inclined to be offended at first ... may find, not only that the softening process would have spoilt these popular traditions for all except the most childish readers, but that the things which shocked them at the first blush, are, after all, not so very shocking. -- George Webbe Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1859), p. vi.
- Many parts [of the old Cornish folk plays] are omitted, as they would
in our refined days, be considered coarse; but as preserving a true
picture of a peculiar people, as they were a century and a half or two
centuries since, I almost regret the omissions. -- Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England (London: John Camden Hotten, 1871), p. 395. Citation from a later edition: Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 3rd ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1881), p. 395.
- "The Swineherd" has certain traits in common with an old Danish
folktale, but the version I heard, as a child, would be quite unprintable.
-- Hans Christian Andersen, "Notes for Fairy Tales and Stories" (1874), as quoted in
The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, translated by Erik Christian Haugaard (Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983), p. 1073.
- I heard another version of the same story ["The Smith and the
Fairies"] in Lewis from a medical gentleman, who got it from an old woman,
who told it as a fact, with some curious variations unfit for printing. --
J. F. Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Orally
Collected, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1860), p. 54.
- Many of the tales in this collection appeared either in the Indian
Antiquary, the Calcutta Review, or the Legends of the
Punjab. They were then in the form of literal translations, in many
cases uncouth or even unpresentable to ears polite, in all scarcely
intelligible to the untravelled English reader. -- Flora Annie Steel, Tales of the Punjab, notes by R. C. Temple (London: Macmillan and Company, 1894), p. v.
First published (without the above disclaimer) in 1884 under the title Wide-Awake Stories: A Collection of Tales Told by Little Children, between Sunset and Sunrise, in the Panjab and Kashmir (Bombay: Education Society's Press; London: Trübner and Company, 1884.
- I have had to omit a certain number of stories as unsuited for
publication. -- Cecil Henry Bompas, preface to Folklore of the Santal Parganas (London: David Nutt, 1909), p. 7.
- Here are a few of the stories told of Johha [a Palestinian trickster
analagous to the Turkish Nasreddin Hodja or the European Till Eulenspiegel].
The majority are unfit for reproduction. --
J. E. Hanauer, Folk-Lore of the Holy Land: Moslem, Christian, and Jewish (London: Duckworth and Company, 1907), p. 84.
- When the tales are found they are adapted to the needs of British
children by various hands, the editor doing little beyond guarding the
interests of propriety, and toning down to mild reproofs the tortures
inflicted on wicked stepmothers and other naughty characters. -- Andrew
Lang, preface to The Crimson Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1903), p. v.
- Whenever an original incident, so far as I could penetrate to it,
seemed to me too crudely primitive for the children of the present day, I
have had no scruples in modifying or mollifying it, drawing attention to
such bowdlerization in the somewhat elaborate notes at the end of the
volume. -- Joseph Jacobs, preface to Europa's Fairy Book: Restored and Retold
(New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1916), p. viii.
- A few (four or five) of the stories are frankly indecent, and are
always expurgated from popular editions of the work in Italy, a course
which I have followed here. Two or three of the present collection are
also a trifle free, but I have decided to leave them in their place, with
a few unimportant excisions and alterations. -- Edward Storer's
introduction to his translation of Il Novellino: The Hundred Old
Tales (London and New York: George Routledge and Sons and E. P. Dutton
and Co., ca. 1925), pp. 31-32.
- Uncle Blessing said some of the tales some preachers told were "too
plumb filthy for any use." Of such tales he told me none at all. When the
tale which he called "The Girl That Wouldn't Do a Hand's Turn" came to a
certain point in the narrative, Uncle Blessing said that after that point
it became a "long blackguard tale too nasty for telling"; and he ended the
story right there.
-- Marie Campbell, Tales from the Cloud Walking Country [Kentucky]
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), p. 209.
- Being productions of a more outspoken age, many of the following tales
are, as was to be expected, of a character that is contrary to the taste
of the present time. I have, however omitted nothing in this book; but in
the case of a few isolated passages and of three entire stories, the
nature of which is such as to preclude the possibility of their
publication in these days, I have been content to print the original
transliterated into the Roman alphabet, but untranslated. -- E. J. W.
Gibb, preface to his translation from the Turkish of The History of the Forty Vezirs; or, The Story of the Forty Morns and Eves by Sheykh-Zada, (London: George Redway, 1886), pp. xx-xxi.
- Some of the tales have been omitted as unsuitable for translation into English. -- B. Hale Wortham, introduction to his translation of The Enchanted Parrot: Being a Selection from the "Suka Saptati," or, The Seventy Tales of a Parrot (London: Luzac and Company, 1911), p. 8.
- In one or two instances I was asked if I would allow a Paharee man, well versed in local folk-lore, to relate a few stories to me; but, for obvious reasons I was obliged to decline the offer, for man Simla Village tales related to me by women, and not included in this book, wer grotesquely unfitfor publication. -- Alice Elizabeth Dracot, preface to Simla Village Tales; or, Folk Tales from the Himalayas (London: John Murray, 1906), p. x.
- As was to be expected in a work devoted to a delineation of the virtues, and follies, and vices of man, by means of proverbs, anecdotes and narratives, a number of stories occur which would have been omitted by an occidental compiler. These have, however, been relegated to the respectable obscurity of the Latin tongue by my friend Mr. J. B. Hodge, M.A., of the Department of Printed Books, British Museum; thus the integrity of the work has been maintained in its printed form, and it is hoped that the general reader will find nothing to offend his taste. -- E. A. Wallis Budge, preface to his translation of The Laughable Stories, collected by Mar Gregory John Bar-Hebraeus (London: Luzac and Company, 1897), p. viii.
- His book is befouled with obscenity, and, like obscenity itself, is
ceasing by degrees to be part of a gentleman's education.... The
translator ... must leave whole pages in the decent obscurity of Latin. --
Michael Heseltine, preface to his translation of the Satyricon of
Petronius, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913, p. xvi.
Similarly, naive readers of the 1891 English translation of The
Facetious Nights by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (ca. 1480 - ca.
1557) are protected from the passages of that collection that are most
wanting in decency by the fact that the editor translates the critical
parts of the most offensive tales (for example, night 6, tales 2 and 4)
from the original Italian into French rather than into English. Uneducated
readers -- who presumably would not understand French -- are thus spared
from the deleterious effects of the racier tales. Educated readers -- who
could read French -- presumably would be protected from negative
influences by their own sophistication.
- Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Facetious
Nights, London: Privately printed for members of the Society of
Not even the works of established and (for the most part) respected
storytellers are safe from bowdlerization.
Decameron, contains a number of tales deemed by some translators
and publichers to be too racy for ordinary
readers, most famously the tenth story of the third day ("Alibech Puts the
Devil Back into Hell," type 1425). Their solution: as was the case with
the above cited translation of Straparola's The Facetious Nights,
they translated the offending passages into French, although the
acceptable portions of the book were rendered into English; or they left
the objectionable portions in the original Italian.
- The Decameron; or, Ten Days' Entertainment of Boccaccio, translated by Walter Keating Kelly (London: H. G. Bohn, 1855). Portions of day 3, story 10, are left untranslated (pp. 191-98).
- Stories of Boccaccio (The Decameron). Translated from the
Italian into English by Léopold Flameng. Philadelphia: G. Barrie,
Importer, 1881. Portions of day 3, story 10, are left untranslated (pp. 172-79).
- Stories of Boccaccio (The Decameron). Translated by John Payne.
Printed for the Bibliophilist Library, 1903. Portions of day 3, story 10, are translated into French (pp. 185-92).
- The Decameron by M. Giovanni Boccaccio, vol. 2. London: Gibbings and Company, 1898). Portions of day 3, story 10, are translated into French (pp. 198-212).
Even scholars of folklore, whose very science depends upon the
unaltered recording of data, are sometimes reluctant to give the whole
story, or -- in some instances -- any of the story. For example, Antti
Aarne and Stith Thompson, two of the greatest folktale catalogers, were
reluctant to provide details for the many erotic tales that they
encountered, sometimes identifying them by little more than a number and
the tag "obscene" (for example, types 1546*, 1549*, 1580*).
Hans-Jörg Uther, in his exemplary revision of the Aarne-Thompson
catalog, adds relevant details to many of Aarne's and Thompson's sketchy
summaries. For example, Aarne and Thompson label type 1547* "The Trickster
with the Painted Member," adding only the vague summary: "The father wants
his daughter's child to be a bishop." Uther labels his entry for the same
folktale type "The Trickster with Painted Penis," then adds two full
paragraphs describing how the trickster uses this prank to dupe a naive
married couple. Returning to the type numbers mentioned above labeled
"obscene" by Aarne and Thompson, with no summaries: Uther omits these
numbers from his catalog.
- Aarne, Antti, and Thompson, Stith. The Types of the
Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. FF Communications 184.
Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1961.
- Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A
Classification and Bibliography. 3 vols. FF Communications 284-86.
Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2004.
The Grimm Brothers
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, as stated above in their own words, "carefully
removed every expression inappropriate for children" from their published
folktales. They did not, however, avoid tabooed material altogether. For
example, their story "All-Kinds-of-Fur" (no. 65) has the threat of
father-daughter incest as its central theme, while "Old Hildebrand" (no.
95) is the tale of an adulterous adventure between a priest and a peasant
woman. But still, in the main the Grimms avoided material that would have
offended their 19th-century bourgeois public.
- Click here for the full text of the Grimms' All-Kinds-of-Fur (in English); or "Allerleirauh," Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, 7th ed., vol. 1 (Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 65, pp. 353-59 (in German).
- Click here for the full text of the Grimms' Old Hildebrand (in English); or "Der alte Hildebrand," Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, 7th ed., vol. 2 (Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), no. 95, pp. 53-56
(in Bavarian dialect).
Aleksandr Afanasyev (the transliteration Afanas'ev is also used)
(1826-1871), the Russian counterpart to the brothers Grimm, published 640
folktales in numerous editions between the years 1855 and 1873. Like the
Grimms, he molded authentic folklore material into a simple, but literate
style, a style that has endured for more than a century. Unlike the Grimms
(and unlike virtually every other nineteenth-century folklorist) Afanasyev
did not shy away from patently offensive material and language. His
published stories are innocent enough, but he also kept manuscript
collections of obscene stories. These were smuggled out of Russia and
first published (in Russian, under the title Russian Secret Tales)
in Switzerland in 1872. Anticlerical, scatological, erotic, and often
crude, these tales, reflect a vulgar side of everyday life in the
nineteenth century that many would rather not think about. But without
doubt it was there.
Two English translations of Afanayef's Russian secret tales
The late twentieth century
For better or for worse, the reading public appears to have lost its
squeamishness with reference to tabooed subjects, and folklorists of today
no longer apologize for their "offensive" material, as did their
nineteenth-century counterparts. Indeed, what few restrictions may have
been imposed by the book publishing industry have vanished into
cyberspace. Here are a few titles by respected folklorists that, a few
years ago were quite daring, but that today seem almost bland.
- Legman, G. Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of
Sexual Humor. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
- Randolph, Vance. Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark
Folktales. New York: Avon Books, 1977.
- Dundes, Alan. Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder: A
Portrait of German Culture Through Folklore. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1984.
In the tradition of fairy tales, I let three examples suffice. And in
the tradition of my Victorian forebears, I leave unsaid why it is that
"life is like a chicken coop ladder," even though as a boy, one of my
chores was to haul the sh-- out of the chicken coop.
Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore,
fairy tales, and mythology.
Revised July 13, 2014.