Sunday, April 02, 2006

April 2: Allusions from Folklore Day

Today is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), the renowned Danish storyteller. In honor of Andersen, the International Board of Books for Young People in Switzerland established April second as International Children's Book Day.

Before becoming a write, Andersen attempted a career as an actor. He wrote poetry and a novels, but he made his name as a writer of more than 150 fairy tales. Among his best know stories are The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, and The Emperor's New Clothes.

The Emperor's New Clothes is an example of a story from folklore that is so well known that it has entered the English language as an allusion, a reference by a writer to a famous person, place, or thing that assumes the reader knows the reference. In writing or in conversations, these stories are a kind of cultural shorthand, where the universal themes in the story become a metaphor for a modern situation. For example, say two co-workers are sitting in a restaurant eating lunch. One brings up the staff meeting where no one said anything in response to their boss' dumb idea of Hawaiian Shirt Friday. The co-workers look at each other with a sudden realization: "The Emperor Wears No Clothes."

Long before anyone was writing them down, stories were a powerful part of human culture. Before we learn to read, people told and read us stories like those by Han Christian Andersen. These stories are more than just a path to literacy, they teach the universal aspects of being human.

One powerful example that illustrates the importance of allusion and metaphor in story, is an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Darmok (Season 5, Episode 2). In the episode, Captain Picard and his crew encounter a race of aliens who speak in nothing but allusions to their own mythology and history. At first communication is impossible, but Captain Picard is able to avoid war by learning the stories behind the allusions. Armed with the stories, he is able to communicate using the images, metaphors, and allusions from the past to present situtations.

The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Oxford University Press 2003) is an excellent reference work for looking at the themes of stories. It organizes and cross-references about one thousand allusions from history, literature, mythology, the Bible, and folklore.

See if you can match the following four Hans Christian Andersen stories up with the themes listed below:

1. The Little Match Girl
2. The Emporer's New Clothes
3. Thumbelina
4. The Ugly Duckling

a. Small Size
b. Change
c. Illusion
d. Poverty

Check your answers below, after the Quote of the Day.

Today's Challenge: Allusion Anthology

If you were putting together a collection of must-know stories from folklore, what would they be? What are the stories we use as an cultural shorthand to communicate themes and ideas. In other words, what stories are so well known that a single mention of them with conjure characters and situations that relate to universal human themes?

Quote of the Day: A life that hasn't a definine plan is likely to become driftwood. --David Sarnoff

1. d 2. c 3. a 4. b

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