As to the origin of popular tales there are three current opinions.
First, it is said the minds of men are similarly constituted in all parts of the world, and when they are similarly placed will produce similar results, therefore similar stories have sprung up simultaneously all over the world, and though they resemble each other, they have really nothing in common. They are weeds of the human understanding which should be rooted out, but which spring up wherever there is a proper soil, and climate, and sufficient ignorance, idleness, and neglect.
Secondly, it is said “These were the work of wise men in the East, whose writings we know; we know when and where these writings first appeared in Europe, and these have spread all over the world.” For example, “Cupid and Psyche,” and all stories like it, originated with the author of the “Golden Ass.”
Thirdly, it is held that these ideas were originally the offspring of the minds of men in the East, at a period when great part of the earth was waiting for men to own it; when language itself was young, before the ancestors of those who now dwell in India and in Barra set off on their travels, before Sanscrit grew to be a language. In short, it is held that these despised stories are the fragments of the early myths and beliefs, moral tales, and heroic pastimes of the early ages of the world, and that Cupid and Psyche is but one phase of an Aryan myth. I have been drawn to all these in turn.
When I sit in a room surrounded by printed books, and trace one through them for centuries; when I read an English translation of a Gaelic story, like one of those told by “Lucius,” that most amusing of asses, I am all for books; but when I sit in a cloud of peat reek beside an old Highlander, with white hair and a skin like crumpled parchment, who cannot speak English or read a word; and listen to the same incidents told in a language which is not in any such book, and in a style which is the narrator’s own, I am driven from my paper entrenchments, and all theories which are founded on books and writings, are scattered to the winds.
I am driven to remember that libraries are but museums, in which collections of ideas are stowed away in paper, like herbariums of dried plants, and that such mental plants grow in men’s minds, and are propagated there, from seeds, like other plants. I feel that as every blade of springing corn is not a separate creation or a full grown plant, so ideas may spring and grow and come from maturity, and sow themselves, and spread far and wide, as plants do, without artificial culture. And so, after two years, I hold the third opinion, having tried the other two.
To make the first theory probable, it is necessary to shew some case in which two men similarly situated have composed the same speech, sermon, or novel, with some twenty or thirty common ideas, following each other in the same order; with the same end in view, and the same plot; and without any previous common knowledge of any historical fact or incident in every-day life from which to set out. We must have two separate creations of the mind.
We must have two “Waverleys,” or two “Hamlets,” without any historical foundation, the pure offspring of man’s invention. It is not only possible, but exceedingly probable, that two men should each contrive a story, which should begin with the birth of its hero, go on with his adventures up to his marriage, and either end with his death, or leave that conclusion to the imagination. Take almost any modern novel whose author is known, and strip it to the bones, and the skeleton will be found to consist of ideas about the birth, education, and marriage of one or more couples of human beings, and in so far popular tales do certainly resemble novels, and might spring up independently without a model, but that is not the resemblance with which we have to deal.
We have not simply a back-bone, but a whole skeleton. We have to deal with such a resemblance as exists between a Turbot and a John Dory. Both are fish, both are flat, both are good; their skeletons are made on the same plan, and consist of the same bones; they are creatures of the very same kind, though the one looks as if he had been crushed vertically, and the other as if his sides had been squeezed together; and a superficial observer sees no resemblance at all.
In order to maintain the second theory, it is necessary to shew how it is possible that uneducated men who never stir from the far west, the most unlikely to have any acquaintance with anything inside a book, should come to know that which is only to be found in rare Italian or Latin books, while a few of those who most cultivate books have the same knowledge. It must be shewn how Donald MacPhie, cottar in South Uist, and his class, came to be acquainted with the incidents of the story of Fortunio, in Straparola, and Cupid and Psyche in the “Golden Ass,” and, when that is shewn, how Grimm’s old German women got hold of the same incidents, and when that is done, how they got to Norway: and, when all that is done, it remains to be discovered how all the stories which resemble Fortunio have something which none of the rest have got, some incident which might be added without interfering in any way with the symmetry of the general plan, and which the oldest books want; some detail which helps out the plot.
It is possible that a Minglay peasant and Straparola neither of whom can have seen a giant, or a flying-horse, or a dragon, or a mermaid, or a talking animal, or a transformed man, could separately imagine all these impossible things, and, having imagined them, simultaneously invent the incidents of the story, and arrange so many of them in the same order?
Is it, on the other hand, possible that all these barefooted, bareheaded, simple men, who cannot read, should yet learn the contents of one class of rare books and of no others? I cannot think so.
I have gone through the whole sea-maiden story, and all its Gaelic versions, and marked and numbered each separate incident, and divided the whole into its parts, and then set the result beside the fruit of a similar dissection of Straparola’s Fortunio, and I find nearly the whole of the bones of the Italian story, and a great many bones which seem to belong to some original antediluvian Aryan tale. The Scotch version is far wilder and more mythical than the Italian; the one savours of tournaments, king’s palaces, and the manners of Italy long ago; the other of flocks and herd, fishermen, and pastoral life; but the Highland imaginary beings are further from reality, and nearer to creatures of the brain. The horses of Straparola are very material, and walk the earth; those of old John MacPhie are closely related to Pegasus and the horses of the Veda, and fly and soar through grimy peat reek to the clouds.
Fortunio used his magic power to become a bird, and fly to the chamber of a princess, who provided him with arms and armour; but the son of the fisherman won his fortune and his princess by hard blows, and by doing his duty faithfully. If it were possible that the rough Highlander had got knowledge of the work of the polished Italian, it is certain that he did not copy its morals. And what is true of the Italian and Gaelic versions is equally true of all others which I know. Shortshanks in Norse, Fortunio in French (Contes de Fees, vol. v., p. 49), the nix of the millpond, the ball of crystal in German, and any other versions, if examined, will be found to consist of a bare tree of branching incidents common to all, and so elaborate that no minds could possibly have invented the whole seven or eight times over, without some common model, and yet no one of these is the model, for the tree is defective in all, and its foliage has something peculiar to each country in which it grows. They are specimens of the same plant, but their common stock is nowhere to be found.