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Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs (1886)

Contess Evelyn Lilian Hazeldine Carrington Martinengo-Cesaresco

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
It is on record that Wilhelm Mannhardt, the eminent writer on mythology and folk-lore, was once taken for a gnome by a peasant he had been questioning. His personal appearance may have helped the illusion; he was small and irregularly made, and was then only just emerging from a sickly childhood spent beside the Baltic in dreaming over the creations of popular fancy. Then, too, he wore a little red cap, which was doubtless fraught with supernatural suggestions. But above all, the story proves that Mannhardt had solved the difficulty of dealing with primitive folk; that instead of being looked upon as a profane and prying layman, he was regarded as one who was more than initiated into the mysteries—as one who was a mystery himself. And for this reason I recall it here. It exactly indicates the way to set about seeking after old lore. We ought to shake off as much as possible of our conventional civilization which frightens uneducated peasants, and makes them think, at best, that we wish to turn them into ridicule. If we must not hope to pass for spirits of earth or air, we can aim at inspiring such a measure of confidence as will persuade the natural man to tell us what he still knows of those vanishing beings, and to lend us the key to his general treasure-box before all that is inside be reduced to dust. This, which applies directly to the collector at first hand, has also its application for the student who would profit by the materials when collected. He should approach popular songs and traditions from some other stand-point than that of mere criticism; and divesting himself of preconcerted ideas, he should try to live the life and think the thoughts of people whose only literature is that which they carry in their heads, and in whom Imagination takes the place of acquired knowledge.