‘Recosts et Contes Popularies dli Berry’ is a charming collection of popular folk tales, legends, patriotic and sentimental songs and even local dances. Genevieve Debais and Michel Valiere have put on record some of the traditions and customs of a region which is in the heart of central France. Berry is distinct from its surrounding areas in its material culture and speech, and the people jealously guard its eccentricities. Not satisfied with a simple presentation of fairy tales and local legends, the authors have attempted to preserve the original flavour by means of direct narration. The main narrator is Juliette Septiert born on 20th February, 1898, in Brenne, at Saint Nozare, where she spent her childhood looking after pigs and sheep. She then worked as domestic servant for some time in Toulouse, (with some bourgeois) came back to Blanc, working again as a cook, a seamstress and died in 1978.
She represents a source of old traditions and beliefs which have been gradually dying since the quality and survival of tales have so far been left to historical chance. This work is an attempt to preserve and restore some of their original importance and aura, of which they were being slowly deprived with a diffusion of the written word and technological developments. As far as possible, the authors have retained the old terms, the exclamations and not introduced any punctuation marks at random. For some of the words which seem to contain no meaning in themselves and are really a kind of non-language (e.g. Lon, and ben) lend colour to the story and express a host of meanings. In fact the pivotal feature of their work is that its provenance is oral tradition. By way of this approach, Valiere and Debais interest themselves more in how people saw things than a mere account of what they were like. The narrator Juliette Seplier’s interest in making linkages with the past corresponds with the authors’ preoccupation with those things which have survived from the past.
All the tales and songs were tape recorded, then meticulously transcribed. There is also a brief biography of their informant along with a photograph, and a geographical, topographical description of the setting, the community, its economic activities and social past-times. Thus we are told that from an unhealthy region where ‘nature herself seemed to suffer’, Brenne was transformed in the 19th Century thanks to agricultural and medical progress. Folk lore however survived, passed on from generation to generation, through mothers and aunts to their children.
The tales dealt with here are classified under three genres: the enchanted, the humourous and folk songs. The first category includes fairy tales, we are not told about their origin. One is struck by the emphasis given to female characters in many tales, for example Les Douze filles du roi (The King’s Twelve Daughters), La Belle aux chevenx d’or (The Beauty with Golden Hair), and Les deux soeurs (The Two Sisters). Is this because many of the raconteurs were women and thus tended to stress female characters and situations? They take us into a world where all the objects of nature are imbued with life. Witches, fairies, demons are all living creatures. Some fairy tales are common to all regions, and it is surprising that the informant leaves out ‘Snow White’ from her repertory of tales. What distinguishes these stories is her style of narration and the technique adopted in telling them. The surprising uniformity of fairy tales comes across in the initiatory structure and seems to imply the operation of psychological and cognitive universals. More often than not she ends in the first person ‘Je suis altee’ a la noce (I went to the engagement) thus removing from the readers mind any doubts concerning the authenticity of the tale. This technique of stressing her presence in the story towards the conclusion is linked to the traditional skepticism of the listeners.
It is through the spoken word that a rapport is established with the audience and the link is maintained throug1}.out the text. Some of the tales are interspersed with songs as in ‘Mes sept freres les boeufs’, and even If most of the tales are not specific to Brenne, they are narrated with charm and simplicity. A consideration of these stories is necessary for an analysis of cultural variations, though the main events, episodic sequences and formulae generally remain constant. They reveal the rich culture of Brenne which are important part of the popular culture, providing a mirror into the undercurrent of thought of a particular community and express the deep attachment to ancient traditions.
In recent years’ there has been much debate on the links between fairy tales and myths or legends. Certainly, the essence of these stories is the magical dimension added to nature, while the elements of the supernatural, scorn and pity towards man appear to a lesser extent. These simple tales are astonishingly rich portrayals of particular vision of human life, which speak of the ordeals and terrors of human development, and suggest a meaning to this seemingly chaotic world—that man can expect a happy destiny if Ife will but listen to his soul. Heroes and heroines in fairy tales do not ordinarily succeed because they act, but because they allow themselves to be acted upon, helped, protected, saved or transformed by the magic of the fairy world.
The stories thus can be interpreted in more than one way. Sometimes immediately concerned with a rather simplistic moral message, they carry for an adult important messages of a psychological and sociological nature. For him the characters are always stylized, no more than stock figures, underlining various functional and symbolic values which need to be studied rather than read. However, the magic which is so much part of the world described in these tales is not to be mocked at. What is required is an unquestionable acceptance of the rules of this enchanted land and the sequence of wonderful events. The fantasies and illusions are always presented as real and are not to be treated as figments of the imagination.
Conies Facetieux or humourous tales leave this magical world to depict an ethos of ancient times, evoking, through satire and humour an image of a society and activities which disappeared completely with modernization are recreated. ‘Le Petit Marcelot’— (The Little Merchant) reveals the world of hawkers going from farm to farm selling their merchandise—thread, scissors, needles and hankies. Peddlers from Touraine went as far as Brenne and even beyond to Berry. We are told that ‘at this time one went on foot’ and ‘there was nothing!’ (p. 112). The temptation to read more into the tale than a mere story is great. The system of family relationships husband and wife and parents and children presented to us (e.g. Fin. voleus) are proof of the continuities and discontinuities. In ‘Cochon de Noel’ the division of work is clearly stated. ‘The man went to work and the woman stayed at home’. ‘Le Paysan at son patron’ the peasant a story and his Marter of eight lines, movingly reveals the position of the peasant in the village social hierarchy, vis-a-vis the farm owners. The peasant compares himself to the cow’s fifth calf who like him would only look at others eating, but not get anything herself. These stories unlike the tales in the previous section seem to be exclusive to this region. They do not occur in the more common collections of popular stories, testifying only to an evolution in oral traditions, for tale telling has always been a dialectic dramatic event, understandably so in a time when it must have provided a form of escape from the slightly dull, chores of guarding sheep’ and pigs daily. In an age when the nearly complete absence of forms of transport locked a community within the parameters of their little village, these tales were a means of entertainment appealing to both children and adults. Naturally,_ they reflected local conditions, values, systems and customs with a large dash of wonder, marvel and enchantment which the narrator added. Cultural styles and historical cycles are telescoped into them. They probably represented, initially an attempt to attain in a manifold way an inacessible ideal present only in the imagination and which every human being craves for.
We also get a glimpse of the festivals celebrated and there are references to local saints—Saint Marin, Saint Luc and Saint Cecii. Women who wanted babies prayed to Saint Gueurluchon and pilgrimages were a very necessary and common occurrence, undertaken to cure all kinds of ills. Brenne also had its share of sorcerers, as did other rural areas in the Centre Ouest and there were complicated procedures to ward off these evil spirits.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the third section, devoted to songs—some lullabies, others—patriotic. The patriotic songs proclaim their love for the country, glorify the idea of death for the nation and are full of enthusiasm for a war to win back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorrine. Still others recounting tales of love or marriage with an added sequel of divorce! There is also an account of regional dances, the chariovari, the bouree, and La danse du batai. The broom dance, The absence of musicians or instruments made no difference and very often the youngsters danced only to the accompaniment of song. Photographs of chateaus, churches, local costumes, along with a map of Berry, conceptualize the situation, and depict the life styles of people in 19th Century Berry. They are of undoubted significance to an understanding of modern culture.
Arundharti Virmani is Research Scholar, Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.