The Poetics of Immanence in the American Mountain Märchen

Carl Lindahl
Most who pause to commemorate the first half-century of The Singer of Tales will remember, vividly, how they first made its acquaintance. Fifty years since The Singer of Tales marks forty-four since I was introduced to Albert Lord, from the distance of the back row of a Harvard lecture hall where he orchestrated the appearances of other great scholars—Theodore Andersson, David Bynum, Charles W. Dunn, Einar Haugan, Thorkild Jakobson, B. J. Whiting, Evon Vogt—under the arc of a course titled “Oral and Early Literature,” my single most career-shaping college experience. The others spoke about what they knew best—Gísla Saga, Enuma Elish, the Middle English King Horn, Turkish and Norwegian folktales, the Ulster Cycle, the Tsimshian story of Asdiwal. All spoke from great expertise, and all spoke more dramatically than Lord. Lord spoke in an almost whispery voice that nonetheless commanded engagement. Even from the back of the hall I clearly heard his every word on the Odyssey, on the South Slavic heroic pjesme, for which he assigned his translation of the songs from Novi Pazar [1] and, of course, on The Singer of Tales.
The man and the book shared the same soft-spoken boldness. More than four decades later, I still start at the calm audacity of the book’s opening line: “This book is about Homer.” [2] I marvel at how the text follows the South Slavic songs everywhere the singer goes, even when he is not singing. Lord’s take on performance was both braver and more balanced than anything the yet unborn performance school of folkloristics would put forth. [3] Lord’s phrase, “composition in performance” [4] was as powerfully compact as the opening sentence of The Singer of Tales, and the assertion that the traditional singer effected “the preservation of tradition by the constant recreation of it” [5] upended my preconception of an impassable gulf between tradition and creativity. Within two decades of Lord’s book, the performance school, in promoting itself, would make the dialectical overstatement—perhaps the necessary dialectical overstatement, but damaging nonetheless—of dismissing historical and comparative narrative studies to secure their emphasis on the moment of performance, and in the process effectively erasing generations of painstaking and still important scholarship. Lord did no such thing. The singer and his song did not have to abandon their historical context to emerge from it. Indeed, how can something emerge from a thing that does not itself exist for the listener? How can we identify what is emergent if we do not truly know what it emerges from? Lord knew the absurdity of scholarship built on such a feint. What he did instead, I believe, was create an analogue, and the most nearly complete statement to its time, of what German narrative scholars were then calling Märchenbiologie: a thoroughly contextualized, holistic study of how the tale and the performance and the audience live with their shared art and lives. [6]
Among the many treasures of The Singer of Tales, the part that struck me most strongly at first reading was the second chapter, “Singers: Performance and Training,” which introduces the performers both en masse and individually by describing, largely in their own words, how they live with a song. “It has to come to one,” says Sulejman Makić: “One has to think … how it goes, and then little by little it comes to him.” [7] If the singer hears a new song, says Makić, he must live alone with it for a day before singing it in public, “so he won’t leave anything out. It would be possible” for a singer to sing a new song immediately upon hearing it, “but one couldn’t sing it like that all the way through right away.” [8] A second singer, Šećo Kolić, would be alone when he tended sheep on the mountainside, and it was in that isolation, as much as in the village, that he lived with his song:

When I was a shepherd boy, they used to come for an evening to my house, or sometimes we would go to someone else’s for the evening, somewhere in the village. Then the singer would pick up the gusle, and I would listen to the song. The next day when I was with the flock, I would put the song together, word for word, without the gusle, but I would sing it from memory, word for word, just as the singer had sung it … I didn’t sing among men until I had perfected the song. [9]

In the singers’ descriptions, the time lived alone with the songs often assumed an importance that equaled, or even outweighed, that of the time spent singing in public. Some of the greatest singers seemed to prefer a private rather than a public life with songs and, like Sulejman Fortić’s mentor, “lived withdrawn from the rest.” [10] When, in preparation for this essay, I re-read Lord’s chapter on the singers for the first time in decades, it immediately struck me that their words had been the prime shapers of my personal path toward a folklorist’s future, which has been to explore the private dimensions of public performance. What happens in the minds of listeners and narrators as a tale unfolds? What does the tale do to them and how do they live with it when it is not being told?

The performances I’ve come to know best are folktales told in the eastern Kentucky mountains, particularly in one family, the Farmer-Muncy-Lewis family, with a relatively rich textual history, including more than 80 performances recorded between 1949 and 2010. [11] Tales told by living narrators are remembered in connection with earlier narrators—a human chain stretching back about 170 years to the childhoods of the great-grandparents of the women who dominate the family’s art today. The Parry-Lord definitions of formula and formula system cannot apply without a pyrrhic struggle to the oral prose fiction of the Southern Appalachians. Yet Lord’s performance biology helps us construct a “poetics of immanence” for mountain storytelling. Every telling embeds three types of “immanent art” (to use the phrase that John Foley [1991] has gracefully given us): the forestory, the telling itself, and the understory.

The forestory is the flow of past souls and stories that precede and frame the telling. The performance is the present, audible, oral creation. The understory is the tale as visualized within the listener during … performance and held in memory long afterwards. The performance is the rainbow arc above the horizon, but it is only part of a wide and largely hidden narrative circle, from which it emerges and into which it descends. [12]

The three stories converge invisibly during the performance, but the forestory and the understory live on from one telling to another and beyond the confines of the tale itself.

First, through the forestory, the Kentucky narrators live with the textual immanence of the numberless stories they have heard before, and those texts are bound together with the contextual immanence of the people who told them and the places in which they were told. For those listeners who do not themselves go on to gain recognition as storytellers, the context lingers longer in memory and plays at least as great a role in spurring performance as does the remembered text. Whether or not family members now remember much about a story that they once heard, all of them remember in extraordinary detail exactly who told it and where they were when they heard it. The teller and the site of the telling were inseparable from the tale. For Jane Muncy, the major living narrator, the story sprang from a context artfully controlled by the family’s all-time master narrator, her grandmother, Sydney Farmer Muncy. It was 1942, Sydney was 67 years old and Jane, the daughter of a marine off at war in the Pacific, was 4. On the day Jane and I first met, she described to me in minute detail how her grandmother taught her to love the family tales, in the context of a family ritual enacted every night and beginning with an effort to discover where the war had taken Jane’s father and uncle Gill:

[O]ur life together alone took on a pattern of creativity [, with my grandmother] … teaching me how to listen to stories, and … how to read the censored letters that came from my father and my Uncle Gill. Uncle Gill was a straightforward kind of guy, who liked to drink a lot, and he would write on and on and on and … say things that … the war effort people didn’t want him to disclose. So his letters would be one or two sentences, and then a whole lot of cut-outs, and one or two sentences, and a whole lot of cut-outs. It was very frustrating to us, as we were trying to figure out where he was, because he couldn’t tell us. My dad, however, was more cunning, and he would say things … like, “Mom, you know that [shell] necklace that I sent to Jane? Well, that necklace came from Uncle Sol’s store. Remember Uncle Sol? You can remember him, where he lived out on that little place all by himself?” And she would go get the map … and she would say, “Ah, okay, it means he’s on the Solomon Islands, it’s an island all by itself, and that’s the Sol he’s talking about, and they have shells.” And so … we had like a little war map and flags and his picture nearby. And he was my hero.
And she was my comfort … [T]he comforting thing we did at night was, we looked at the map one more time, we listened to the war news, we got into our nightgowns—I don’t remember what mine looked like, but I remember hers was white and cotton and it had tiny bits of lace around the neck and around the sleeves. And then we wound up the clock … we banked the fire, and we went to bed. But that wasn’t the end of the day, because the end of the day usually involved her telling me at least a couple of stories that she had heard as a child—and then drifting off to sleep. I would always drift off to sleep with my ear at her back, because I liked to hear her heart beat.
And then she would talk about all her ancestors: “and so-and-so had so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so, and then they had so-and-so and …” Kind of like reading the chapter of the Bible called Kings, when you just heard who descended from whom and not much else about them.
So we were bedtime buddies and bedtime storytellers, and I would [name] a favorite story I wanted to hear, and she would usually tell that, and then she would tell me the favorite story she wanted to tell me … [13]

In the absence of Jane’s parents, Sydney’s ritual brought the entire family, living and dead, into the bedroom. Just before lights out, Uncle Gill and father Mark were traced on the map; then the line of previous lives that had flowed over centuries into hers were chanted to her in the dark, giving way to a tale that was about all of those lives and somehow also about Jane. Here, all of the absences were bound together and made palpably present to the rhythm of a heartbeat, the primal wordless story we all hear first, pre-born. Grandmother Sydney created the greater audience—through words and gestures that summoned the generations into Jane’s presence.

In the 58 years between Jane’s first hearing her Grandmother’s tales and the account that she shared with me, the texts of Sydney’s tales have never, in Jane’s mind, separated themselves from the circumstances of their telling. But in daily life, there are some verbal shards that break free from memory to create a sort of forestory chorus. Whether or not family members, thinking back, can reconstruct the story’s plot, they remember floating phrases, especially phrases that name magical objects or supernatural beings, and these few words wander freely in the world beyond the tale, functioning as proverbial expressions to bestow names upon objects and people encountered in daily life. “Puddin-tuddin bag” was the name for a magic sack that a witch used to capture her victims in the tale of “Merrywise”—but it was used constantly by the extended family to name any outsize container: a purse, a basket, a shopping cart. [14] “Dirtybeard” was the name of a fairy tale villain who stole food from the hero Jack and his brothers. The name was applied to a long-bearded, itinerant moocher in the neighborhood, and that man in turn, along with his name, then became a central figure in a tall tale often told in the community.
As the example of Dirtybeard attests, the immanence of the forestory flowed both ways: phrases became means by which the story could live on in the outside world or through which the outside world could penetrate the story. Similarly, “Rawhead and Bloodybones,” the widespread name of a bogeyman who hunted down misbehaving children at night, was imported into a family fairy tale to name a different kind of creature who made his eponymous folktale one of the most popular in the neighborhood. With such phrases, rendered as concrete nouns within the tale and applied as metaphors beyond it, the metonymy between the audience’s world and the tale world persisted in the times between performances. In the course of a given day, a teller might utter the name of a figure from a story told last night or to be told tomorrow. The forestory was everywhere. Its immanence assured that the story itself was always on the verge of being realized.
The relationship between the daily world and the storyworld was constant, omnipresent, and deeply personal. It was also visual. Recalling performances long past, listeners would visualize not just the tales’ contexts but, even more vividly, their characters and storyscapes. In 1997, Glen Muncy Anderson, the daughter of master narrator Sydney Farmer Muncy, recalled for me how, 83 years before, she had first experienced the context and telling of “Rawhead and Bloodybones”:

I was four; it was total dark and I’d be in bed in the corner, with my two brothers in other beds and my mother in the big bed, all in the same room. The boys would clamor and clamor to hear “Rawhead and Bloodybones”—and I’d think, “Oh, no, here we go again. Scare me to death.” I’d be awake all night. [15]
I had a pull-out bed … and I would sleep on that for a while, and then I’d get so scared that … [I’d] get up and crawl across the floor and get in bed with [my mother]. [16]
I’m all right now. But at the time I thought they were real. You know, children—things are real to them … Do you see how that might scare a little four-year-old girl sleeping off in the corner by herself? I could picture just a bloody mass of bones, and it would scare me bad. [17]

In the tale, the Rawhead and Bloodybones creatures are, like the Grimms’ Frau Holle, figures of justice who mete out rewards to the good and punishment to the bad. They may be terrifying in appearance but they are predictably fair in deed.

The images evoked by Sydney’s phrases formed the foundation of the understory, the untold tale engraved on the listeners’ minds in pictorial form. Glen saw the Rawhead and Bloodybones, but she never described them. She simply lived alone with the visualized tale in an isolation parallel to that she had felt when lying in the darkened room apart from her mother. Glen did not tell this tale aloud or even to herself, yet she interacted with it intensely and made it her own. She even bestowed private names on the characters: the wicked stepsister who tried to ruin the heroine’s life became “Susie” after a classmate that constantly bullied Glen. Glen grew up to become an accomplished narrator herself, but she found the images spawned by her mother’s performances so unsettling that she avoided telling stories centered on such figures as Rawhead and Bloodybones. Jane, in contrast, savored the same stories, told by the same teller—and cherished the images that they instilled.
As the time for performance approaches, the forestory triggers the tale. Each performance is understood and greeted on the basis of its prior contexts. When Jane Muncy remembers the performances of her aunt Nora, she visualizes a scene vastly different from that in which her grandmother Sydney’s stories emerged.

At Aunt Nora’s house the dark would fall and the fire would be there, and we would sit around in rocking chairs. The little kids would come in and out of the shadows and sometimes we would, at the end of the evening, end up in our … parents’ laps, and listening to the stories, particularly if there was a scary one. And the scary ones would come toward the end of the day when they wanted us to come out of the shadows and … get into the cuddling down period … And the fire would flicker, there was always looking in the fire. [18]

Details of the family’s remembered forestories reveal how various narrators at various times laid the ground not merely for a performance but for a contrapuntal understory.

To open up the understory it is necessary to obscure the immediate surroundings and erase everything extraneous to the forestory. Cultivating the understory is an act of progressive, selective sensory deprivation. To open the mind’s eye, it is crucial to curtail the listener’s ability to see the world before her. The darkened bedroom, where Jane and Glen heard their earliest tales—and the fireside, where flames blinded them to their other surroundings: these were two sites that spurred a listener’s power to visualize. As the visible world melts into darkness or fireglow, the teller speaks in slowly rhythmic, almost whispered tones. [19] Through this combination of darkness and rhythm, the listener begins to see the story, which she absorbs primarily not as a memorized plot, nor as a string of words, but through visual images. The less the light, the better the screen upon which to project the self-made images suggested by the teller, but processed by the listener herself. This one-two combination of diminishing visual, and subtly emerging aural, stimuli bears a not irrelevant resemblance to the stereotypical hypnotist’s technique of using a watch as a pendulum to deaden the eyes while intensifying the suggestive power of whispered words. Then the listener, now focused on the muted textures of the narrator’s voice, is freed to project powerful, internally generated images against a backdrop of darkness. [20]
Jane’s family’s tales are so spare of visual detail that any semi-descriptive name or phrase will leave its listeners with a strong internal image. And it was largely through the persistent visual effects of these self-created images that Jane and other family members recalled their stories. Grandmother Sydney

… would go into more detail with the story, and sometimes less detail, but my picture from my head—and I think in pictures very vividly—my pictures were filling in all the details that she didn’t tell me. [21]

Two types of self-created images prevailed: the explicitly personal and the overtly otherworldly. Jane pictured protagonists that were essentially self-portraits and monsters so real she could touch them. Her favorite folktale character was a boy that her grandmother dubbed Merrywise, a name that seems to have been made up by her grandmother expressly for Jane. [22] This is the picture that Jane created from the name:

He was small, smaller than the other boys of course, maybe up to their shoulders. And he wore sort of a knickers kind of clothing, like little boys would wear. He had a little boy haircut that maybe came down over his ears. It was sort of round, and he had freckles. I had freckles too. [I started out ashamed of them. But my grandmother] always told me that she had freckles as a child. “And freckles … made you beautiful.” And so, when I pictured Merrywise, I pictured Merrywise as sandy blond hair and freckles—sort of like me. Surprise. Surprise.” (Lindahl 2001:88)

The second group of images that strongly struck Jane were the central symbols of the magic landscape, figures not seen anywhere in this world, but powerfully present within her mind. One such figure was Rawhead and Bloodybones, whose tale Jane has heard and then told continuously for seventy years. This creature, aside from the female protagonist, was the only consistent character in the tale. Yet tellers rarely described him. By far the most elaborate description of Rawhead and Bloodybones to appear in any of the family performances is 11-year-old Jane’s fifteen-word characterization in the oldest surviving recording: “it looked like a skull. And it was bloody and it had bones on it.” [23] The second-longest description is “funny-looking thing” applied by Jane at age 62 in her performance of 2000; [24] other recorded performances reveal nothing of how the creature looked. Yet the internal images created by listeners, and re-seen by them every time they heard or told the tales, were indelible and dramatic. Thinking back, Glen recalled that she saw “a bloody mass of bones” when listening to others tell the tale, though she never used such dramatic imagery when she herself told it. Even when the Rawhead and Bloodybones did not instill terror in the listener, they left a lasting visual impression. For Jane, the internal goodness of these creatures outweighed the horror of their faces:

I didn’t find the Rawhead and Bloodybones scary at all. I thought of them as benevolent, even though I could picture them … as a skull, with bones underneath them like crosses, sort of like the kind you might see on a poison medicine bottle—with some bloody, gory stuff coming on them, but they were so good to … the heroine that, that they had to be pretty good critters. And I think that … that’s true, no matter what it looks like, or how you describe it, if it’s good on the inside, it’s good. If it does good, it’s good. [25]

In the forestory, the folktale phrases spoken in everyday life brought together the most magical and the most mundane; similarly, in the understory, the listeners’ everyday human world (Glen’s nemesis, Susie, or Jane’s own, freckled face) inhabited the magic landscape.

The term “formula” is not inapt for describing three of the building blocks of the tale. Each of these three devices corresponds to one of the three arcs in the narrative cycle. First, the proverbial names and phrases of the forestory (like “Rawhead and Bloodybones”) live in family discourse beyond the boundaries of the tale, available to invest future tales with referents and meanings derived from daily life.
The second type of formula is that body of brief memorized phrases pointedly repeated during performance to help structure the tale. These fixed phrases were often chanted or whispered in mantra-like fashion. As many as eight times in the story of “Rawhead and Bloodybones,” the title creature commands characters, “Wash me and dry me and lay me down easy.” [26] At least six times in every telling, the witch in “Merrywise” would chant, “I’ll get up and whet my knife.” [27] Eight times the ghostly child in “Flannel Mouth” calls out “cold in the snow, Mother.” [28]
The third formula type inhabits the understory and therefore exists in a realm beyond words: this is the stock of striking visual images fashioned privately by each listener in response to the narrator. In the second chapter of The Singer of Tales, Lord describes how certain South Slavic epic singers lived alone with their poems, putting together the songs in their minds as they pursued isolated tasks like the herding of sheep. Lord did not extend his definition of formula from the oral to the visual plane, and the South Slavic singers who spoke to him offered only the vaguest hints that visual imaging may have constituted part of their creative process. Sulejman Makić, for instance, pronounces enigmatically that the song “has to come to one”; “One has to think … how it goes, and then little by little it comes.” [29] Yet the current work of Anna Bonifazi and David Elmer strongly suggests that epic singers are guided in their telling by what they “see” in their minds’ eyes. [30] While the role of visualization in the composition of South Slavic epic is just now being explored, Jane Muncy and other master narrators from Appalachia have spoken at length on how visual images have influenced the ways in which they have remembered and retold their tales. [31]
In Appalachia, all three story realms—forestory, performance, understory—possess their characteristic formulas, which are demonstrably more influential in shaping the story than any memorized plot. In Farmer-Muncy-Lewis narrative tradition, the plots are significantly less stable than the formulas. I have listened to nine different recorded and live performances of “Rawhead and Bloodybones” as rendered by Jane and her aunts over a period of 61 years, and I have read three manuscript versions of the tale set down by Jane’s Aunt Nora Morgan Lewis in 1955. [32] The family treats the plot with remarkable fluidity. Some villains change names and identities; the heroine might have one or two stepsisters. The heroine’s helpers could be, by turns, old men, old ladies, hungry dogs, horses, or inanimate objects. The heroine could end the tale living alone with her money or married to a prince. But the forestory proverbs, the shaping mantra that emerges in each performance—“Wash me and dry me and lay me down easy”—and the visual imagery implanted in each listener’s understory are constant from telling to telling. These formulas merge the everyday and the otherworldly so thoroughly that the presumably fictional storyworld fills each house where the tellings unfold.
The formulaic utterances that permeate everyday speech, and the privately cultivated images that those utterances conjure in each hearer’s mind, create threads that tie fantasy to reality and serve as pathways along which the magic world and the daily world meet. The verbal and imagistic intersections of the everyday and the otherworldly are reflected in the tale plots as well. The immanence of the forestory and understory fosters porosity: in Kentucky mountain houses, small containers for larger families, the story, like the family, is omnipresent. The firelight and the darkness are everywhere within as surely as the shadows of the mountains are everywhere without. Through storytelling, the outer shadows and the spirits that they harbor are ushered inside. Reflecting this environment, the two most commonly narrated plot clusters in the Kentucky mountains feature porous houses, houses that however sturdily built and well locked, are eternally open to predators from another realm. [33] The contexts of most family performances, and the images created in response to most, have rubbed off on the content of the most popular tales.
The family repertoire contains no fewer than six similar, if distinctly different plots based on the theme of the porous house. [34] The best known, “Grown-Toe,” is also the most popular Appalachian tale. As Sadie Stidham, a storyteller and local historian who grew up a few miles from Jane’s aunt Nora, once told me, “Every child in the mountains knows that story.” [35] We recognize it as a variant of the “Golden Arm,” featured in Mark Twain’s essay, “How To Tell a Story.” [36] The outline is very simple: Someone, often unknowingly, takes a body part from a corpse or a monster; the violated being comes to the house of the thief to retrieve the missing part; in most versions, the story ends as the creature tears the thief apart. [37]
In Nora’s version, a poor family—father, mother, boy, and girl—makes a spare living digging potatoes: “They were the tater digginest people in the whole country around.” [38] One day the man finds a big toe among the potatoes. The family may be fed up with potatoes, for the father orders the wife to cook the toe for dinner. Late that night, a voice emanating from some unknown place in the house cries out for its big toe. The woman sends, by turns, the boy, the girl, and the husband to search for it; they cannot find it, so the woman goes herself and finally stares up the cabin chimney. In Nora’s words,

And there it sat.
[The old woman] sure was scared by now, and she said, “Come on, old man, quick,” but he could not hear one word she said, as he was covered up head and ears. Well, the old woman kept looking at it; she had never seen anything so mean looking.
“What have you got that long nose for?”
“To smell you up.”
“What have you got those big scaly ears for?”
“To hear what you have to say about me.”
“What have you got those … long black claws for?”
“To tear you all to pieces as you did my grown toe.”
Saying that it jumped down the chimney and began scratching and biting the old woman. She called to the old man, “Help! Help!” but he could not hear her as he had fainted. She grabbed the broom and began to wallop it over the head, and punch it in the eyes. Finally, she knocked it out the door. When she dared to look out it was right smack dab in her garden hiding another toe. Some thought this thing was a varmint, some thought it was a booger, some thought it was a gruesome grudge, but the old woman knew it was a grown toe. [39]

Although “Grown-Toe” contains its opportunities for terror—a terror instantly recalled by Nora’s many childhood listeners decades after they last heard her performances—it is one of her few openly comic stories. Even so, it possesses special wrinkles reflecting the immanence of the performance situation. In the Farmer-Muncy-Lewis households, the women owned the magic. The stories were told almost exclusively by females, and grown men were typically missing from the audience. The forestory that Jane’s grandmother shared with her invoked absent males, but those males lived largely in the imagination: they came home late if they came home at all. In the understory as well, females tended to supplant males, as when Jane re-imaged the boy hero Merrywise as an androgynous creature who looked exactly like herself.

The female narrators have ways of marking the absence of their men. “Grown-Toe,” like the family’s other porous house tales, stresses themes of female responsibility and female power. Although the husband is the one who orders the toe to be cooked and eaten, it is the wife who faces up to the creature and runs it off. The husband becomes a figure of ridicule when his wife takes on the monster while he lies unconscious from fear. This telling bears the marks of a household in which the women did indeed run the families when the men were off at war. Nora Lewis’s tale of “The Rich Woman” presents these same themes, but in a somber manner. Here, the woman seems to live utterly alone. She also kills alone, and then suffers alone as her home becomes her torture chamber. In this tale, as in others told by Nora, the strong female figure is at least as monstrous as the thing that stalks her.

Once there was a very rich woman. She owned a fine white house and a lot of Negro slaves, a fine carriage to ride in and a beautiful purple dress, and she had biscuits every morning. She just about had ever thing, but nothing pleased her at all.
Spring came and she called all her Negro slaves to her. She gave one a task to do. “Now there will be no loafing this spring like there was last spring.” Every one hurried away to do as she said for she whipped Negroes right and left for no cause at all.
She called a small Negro girl who waited on her and did odd jobs in the kitchen. “What do you want, Missie?” the child said.
“I want you to make a lettuce bed; it must be done right or no telling what will happen to you.” The girl picked up the mattock and began to dig. She dug and dug and smoothed the lettuce bed so good. It was a good lettuce bed. She called her mistress to come and see if the lettuce bed would do. She came and did not speak, just picked up the mattock and dug the slave in the head until she was dead, rolled her over in the shade, and called to a Negro boy to “come here and make that lettuce bed right.” Well, the boy dug and dug and had the bed just right. Then he called to the mistress to come and see how she liked it. When she came she did not say one word, just picked up the mattock and dug the boy in the head until he was dead, rolled him over in the shade and called to a Negro man to “Come and do this lettuce bed right.” Well he came and dug and dug until it seemed perfect, called his mistress to come and see how she liked it. When she came she killed him too.
An old Negro slave that had been with her for a long time came out and said, “Missie, I can make the lettuce bed just like I’ve always done.” So the old Negro slave began to dig. She dug and dug, and sifted the dirt three times a pint at the time; when it was done she called her mistress to “come and see.” The woman came and grabbed the mattock to kill the Negro slave. There! She had killed four of her slaves.
Soon the Negro woman’s baby began to cry—she could not stand to hear it cry. It cried all night. The next morning she had the Negros buried. She told one of the Negro women to take the baby some place so she couldn’t hear it cry.
“Now I’ll try to sleep,” she said. “I should not have killed them; they were mine though.” She lay a long time then all at once something got real hot above her. She looked up at the loft; there was a hand white with heat. She got into another bed but the hand just followed her. It was hotter all the time! What could she do? Or where could she go to get away from it? Finally she told them to bring the Negro baby and put it beside her. While the baby was there she did not seem so hot, but she could not keep the baby with her always. When the baby was taken away for one minute the white-hot hand got very close to her, and she could not bear it. She sent for all the preachers to come and pray until it left. A crowd of preachers came and began to pray for the hand to be removed, but the hand stayed right there. Then they went to praying that she might be forgiven. All at once the hand left her, going through the roof, setting the house afire, and burning it to the ground.
The woman raised the Negro baby and loved her very much.
She went ever night to the graves of the four Negroes she had killed and prayed that she might be forgiven until she felt her soul was saved.
From that time on until she died, she was known for her kindness to her slaves. When she died and her will was read she had left all her plantation and money to her slaves. [40]

“The Rich Woman,” like all of the family’s other porous house tales, climaxes in the same readily recognized, sparsely staged setting: the dwelling’s darkened interior. The house—ideally, the family’s ultimate bastion against the worst that nature, or human nature, may send against it—is suddenly rendered hopelessly vulnerable. Something uninvited, or unintentionally invited, has worked its way inside, and it will not be expelled unless or until the woman of the house controls it.

All six of the family’s porous house tales stress isolation and interdependence. As the creature closes in, there is no hope for help from beyond the house. Only one person is responsible for the supernatural attack, but all will suffer if someone does not face down the demon. Both tales project a strong sense of social responsibility, even when the family or the group is divided: to mend the social fabric, one person, nearly always a woman, must shoulder responsibility for all. This is a fundamental understanding of life as shared by the mountain families I know best. The tales that impart this understanding are as porous as the houses they present. The house in which the tales are told, through its immanence, moves inside the tale—as the imagined house, normally hidden within each listener, expands to become immanently public and shared. The forestory, performance, and understory become one.
I did not plan that this essay take its present shape. Rather, it was created inadvertently by the same process it describes, because I could not sit down to work on it without first literally seeing its forestory: the distant figure of Albert Lord, viewed from the back row of a lecture hall, humbly, quietly, audaciously—and immanently—explaining how Homer was composed in performance.

Works Cited

Anderson, Glen Muncy. 1997. Unpublished interview. Recorded by Carl Lindahl. 4 May. Danville, KY.
Azadowskij, Mark. 1926. Eine Sibirische Märchenerzählerin. Folklore Fellows Communications 68. Helsinki.
Bonifazi, Anna, and David Elmer. 2010. “Visuality in South Slavic and Homeric Epic.” Paper presented at the conference, “Singers and Tales in the 21st Century: The Legacies of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. 4 December. Cambridge, MA.
Dégh, Linda. 1977. “Biologie des Erzählguts.” In Enzyklopädie des Märchens 2:386-406. Göttingen.
———. 1995a. “Biology of Storytelling.” In Dégh 1995b:47-61.
———. 1995b. Narratives in Society: A Performer-Centered Study of Narration. Folklore Fellows Communications 255. Helsinki.
Földes, Csaba, ed. 2005. Res Humanae: Proverbiorum et sententiarum ad honorem Wolfgangi Mieder. Tübingen.
Foley, John Miles. 1991. Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic. Bloomington.
Henssen, Gottfried. 1939. “Stand und Aufgaben der deutschen Erzählforschung.” In Teuchert 1939:133-137.
Kapchen, Deborah A. 1995. “Performance.” Journal of American Folklore 108:479-508.
Lewis, Nora Morgan. 1955. Folktales. 47 handwritten and typescript copies of 41 different tales. About 5 of the tales are likely to be Ms. Lewis’s original creations. The texts appear variously in unpaginated notebooks, loose-leaf manuscripts, and typescripts. All of the dated items (about 1/3 of the total) are assigned to 1955. Berea College Special Collections. SAA 96. Berea, KY.
Lindahl, Carl. 1997. “The Oral Aesthetic and the Bicameral Mind.” In Maier 1997:328-336.
———, ed. 2001a. Perspectives on the Jack Tales and Other North American Märchen. Special Publications of the Folklore Institute no. 6. Bloomington.
———. 2001b. “Sounding a Shy Tradition: Oral and Written Styles of American Mountain Märchen.” In Lindahl 2001a:68-98.
———, ed. 2004. American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress. 2 vols. Armonk, NY.
———. 2005. “Proverbs Ever After: Proverbial Links between the Märchen Diction and the Everyday Conversation of a Kentucky Mountain Family.” In Földes 2005:187-196.
———. 2006. “The Uses of Terror: Appalachian Märchen-telling, Folklore Methodology, and Narrator’s Truth.” Fabula 47:264-276.
———. 2009. “Faces in the Fire: Images of Terror in Oral Märchen and in the Wake of September 11.” Western Folklore 68:209-234.
———. 2010. “Leonard Roberts, The Farmer-Muncy-Lewis Family, and the Magic Circle of the Mountain Märchen.” Journal of American Folklore 123:251-275.
Lord, Albert B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA.
Lüthi, Max. 1982 (1974). The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Trans. John D. Niles. Philadelphia.
Maier, John, ed. 1997. Gilgamesh: A Reader. Wauconda, IL.
Ortutay, Gyula. 1972a. Hungarian Folklore: Essays. Trans. István Butykai. Budapest.
———. 1972b. “Mihály Fedics Relates Tales.” In Ortutay 1972a:225-285.
Parry, Milman, coll. 1954. Serbocroatian Heroic Songs. Vol. 1, Novi Pazar: English Translations. Ed. and trans. Albert Bates Lord. Cambridge, MA.
Roberts, Leonard W., ed. 1955. South from Hell-fer-Sartin: Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington, KY.
———, ed. 1969. Old Greasybeard: Tales from the Cumberland Gap. Detroit.
Stidham, Sadie Wells. 2004. Unpublished interview. Recorded by Carl Lindahl, 2 June. Berea College, Special Collections.
Teuchert, H. 1939. Volkskundliche Beiträge: Richard Wossidlo am 26 Januar 1939 zum Dank dargebracht von Freunden und Verehrern und dem Verlag. Neumünster.
Thompson, Stith. 1955-1958. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. 2nd ed. 6 volumes. Bloomington.
Twain, Mark [Samuel L. Clemens]. 1897. How to Tell a Story and Other Essays. New York.
Uther, Hans-Jörg, ed. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. 3 vols. Folklore Fellows Communications 284-286. Helsinki.


[ back ] 1. Parry 1954.
[ back ] 2. Lord 1960:[v].
[ back ] 3. Kapchen 1995.
[ back ] 4. Lord 1960:4.
[ back ] 5. Lord 1960:29.
[ back ] 6. Märchenbiologie, or Biologie des Erzählguts (best rendered in English as “biology of storytelling”), traces its roots as a term and concept to Olrik’s “Biologie des Märchens” (Olrik 1909:3), but came of age with the work of Azadovskii (1926), Henssen (1939), Ortutay (1972b), and their contemporaries. Lüthi (1982:120) defines the purview of Märchenbiologie as “the personality of the … narrator and the role of the folktale and the act of narration in the life of the individual and the community.” The best summaries of the contributions of the Märchenbiologen are by Dégh (1977, 1995a).
[ back ] 7. Lord 1960:26.
[ back ] 8. Lord 1960:26-27; Parry 1954:266.
[ back ] 9. Lord 1960:21. By “word for word,” the singers do not mean to say that they memorize the epic texts; Lord immediately steers readers away from such a conclusion by inserting a note in the text quoted here (Lord 1960:21, 281).
[ back ] 10. Parry 1954:225.
[ back ] 11. The performances include 11 tape recorded by Leonard Roberts from Jane Muncy (1949, 1955); more than 40 (some tales existing in as many as three versions) written by Jane’s aunt Nora Morgan Lewis (1955); 8 audio recorded by Carl Lindahl from Jane’s aunt Glen Muncy Anderson (1997, 2003); 22 audio recorded by Lindahl from Jane (2000, 2001, 2003, 2008); and 1 digitally recorded by Lindahl from Glen’s daughter Peggy Cummins (2010). All of the recordings made by Roberts and written by Nora Morgan Lewis, as well as most of those recorded by Lindahl, are on deposit in the library of Berea College, Kentucky. Previously published versions include 9 tales told by Jane in her childhood (Roberts 1955; Roberts 1969), 10 told by the adult Jane (Lindahl 2001a; Lindahl 2004), 2 told by Glen (Lindahl 2001a; Lindahl 2004), and 3 written by Nora (Lindahl 2006; Lindahl 2010).
[ back ] 12. Lindahl 2010:257.
[ back ] 13. Lindahl 2004:1284–1286.
[ back ] 14. Lindahl 2005:193.
[ back ] 15. Lindahl 2001:85.
[ back ] 16. Lindahl 2004(2):546.
[ back ] 17. Anderson 1997.
[ back ] 18. Lindahl 2004(1):326.
[ back ] 19. It seems to me that the venerable and widespread image of the blind bard, of which Homer is the greatest example, functions as a metaphor for the power of oral art to dissolve the visible world and create a sort of second sight through the suggestive imagery that emerges through the process of selective sensory deprivation.
[ back ] 20. This and the following two paragraphs closely follow the published descriptions in Lindahl 2009:217-219.
[ back ] 21. Lindahl 2009:213.
[ back ] 22. “Merrywise” seems to have been a name used only in stories told to Jane by her grandmother Sydney or by her youngest aunt, Hope. Tales with the same plots, when told by Jane’s older aunts Nora and Glen, indentified the lead character by the name of Jack instead of Merrywise.
[ back ] 23. Roberts 1955:56.
[ back ] 24. Lindahl 2001:62.
[ back ] 25. Lindahl 2001:87.
[ back ] 26. Lindahl 2004:315-321.
[ back ] 27. Lindahl 2004:287-293.
[ back ] 28. Lewis 1955.
[ back ] 29. Lord 1960:26.
[ back ] 30. Bonifazi and Elmer 2010.
[ back ] 31. See, for example, Lindahl 2009:217-219.
[ back ] 32. The earliest of these performances is Jane Muncy’s of 1949, later published by Roberts (1955:54-58); two of Jane’s five later performances (recorded in 2000, 2001 [twice], 2003, and 2008) have been published (Lindahl 2001:60-67, 2004(1): 315-321); one of two by Jane’s aunt Glen (recorded in 1997 and 2004) has also been published (Lindahl 2001:57-60). Three unpublished versions were written by Jane’s aunt Nora (Lewis 1955), and an unpublished version was recorded from Jane’s cousin Peggy Anderson Cummins in 2010.
[ back ] 33. The two most common plot clusters are related, respectively, to tale types ATU 366 and ATU 326 in The Types of International Folktales (Uther 2004); all of the six family tales described below belong to one cluster or the other.
[ back ] 34. The six plots include two subtypes of The Man from the Gallows, ATU 366 in Uther’s Types of International Folktales (2004; see note 9) and four additional unique manuscript tales by Nora Morgan Lewis: “Flannel Mouth” (published in Lindahl 2010:268-269; motifs E234.3, Return from dead to avenge death (murder); Q554, Mysterious visitation as punishment; Q211.4 Murder of children punished [Thompson 1955-58]); “The Rich Woman” (Lewis 1955; published for the first time below; motifs N271, Murder will out; Q554; Q211.4), and two still unpublished tales: “It Came from the Loft” (Lewis 1955; motifs N271; Q211.4; Q554) and “Jack Sees the Headless Man” (ATU 326, The Youth Who Wanted to Learn What Fear Is, the second-most commonly collected Appalachian tale type).
[ back ] 35. Stidham 2004.
[ back ] 36. Twain 1897:13-15.
[ back ] 37. The tale type is ATU 366 (Uther 2004). “Grown-Toe” represents the most common mountain subtype; Nora Morgan Lewis’s manuscript version (1955) is reproduced in part here. A less popular subtype is represented by Jane Muncy’s “Tailipoe” (2 performances, dating from 1955 and 2001, published in Lindahl 2004(1):329-333). Four of the Farmer-Muncy-Lewis recordings represent a hybrid of the two subtypes: two told by Glen Anderson (in 1997 and 2004; the former published in Lindahl 2004(2):545-547) and two told by Glen’s daughter Peggy Cummins in 2004 and 2010 in unpublished recordings.
[ back ] 38. Lewis 1955.
[ back ] 39. Lewis 1955. I have standardized the spellings of a number of words in this passage. Nora Morgan Lewis was a teacher by profession, but the tales that she commits to writing are filled with “oralisms” that were not typically part of her written English: for example, “ever one” instead of “everyone” and “sot” for “sat.” I think it important to note that Sydney Farmer Muncy, her daughters Nora and Hope, and her granddaughter Jane all enjoyed and excelled in both oral and written artistic expression; as a rule, they cultivated written styles that varied substantially from their oral styles.
[ back ] 40. Lewis 1955. I have standardized some spellings and punctuation of Nora’s text (see note 39, above).