As an anthropologist and folklorist, Andrew Lang believed that fairy tales and folklore serve as records of the past in the cultural realm, much like the tradition of common law in the legal realm. Through the study of cultural norms and folkways, one can understand the mores of the present.

Some men should never have been forgotten. One such man was a profound Scottish man of letters, classicist, historian, biographer, Aristotelian, mythologist, folklorist, novelist, poet, literary critic, anthropologist, translator (and the titles could go on and on): Andrew Lang (1844-1912). In his own day and age, he was spectacularly famous, especially as a Homer and Aristotle scholar and as a collector of fairy tales. If he’s remembered today at all, though, it’s really only by and through the prestigious Andrew Lang Lectures, still held at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the most famous one delivered by J.R.R. Tolkien as “On Fairy-Stories” in 1939. There’s also a nice website, dedicated to preserving his numerous writings. Like so many wonderful things of the Victorian and Edwardian periods of history, he has been largely forgotten.

To make Lang even more interesting—a sort of a Russell Kirk of his era—he was addicted to writing, skeptical of materialism, a believer in ghosts, a romantic, and an anti-progressive Neo-Jacobin. The latter role—being a member of the Order of the White Rose—is especially fascinating, tying his monarchical leanings to those of T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Tolkien.

As an anthropologist and folklorist, Lang believed in a Chestertonian “democracy of the dead,” noting that fairy tales and folklore serve as records of the past in the cultural realm, much like the tradition of common law in the legal realm.

The natural people, the folk, has supplied us, in its unconscious way, with the stuff of all our poetry, law, ritual: and genius has selected from the mass, has turned customs into codes, nursery tales into romance, myth into science, ballad into epic… The student of this lore can look back and see the long-trodden way behind him, the winding tracks through marsh and forest and over burning sands. He sees the caves, the camps, the villages, the towns where the race has tarried, for shorter times or longer, strange places many of them, and strangely haunted, desolate dwellings and inhospitable. But the scarce visible tracks converge at last on the beaten ways, the ways to that city whither mankind is wandering, and which it may never win. We have a mankind is wandering, and which it may never win. We have a foreboding of a purpose which we know not, a sense as of will, working, as we would not have worked, to a hidden end. This is the lesson, I think, of what we call folk-lore or anthropology.[1]

Through the study of cultural norms and folkways, one can understand not just the mores of the present, but how we arrived at where we today stand. Like law in the common law, then, folklore, properly understood, is emergent and revealing. Stories—especially folk tales and fairy stories—preserve and conserve that which was (and, to a great degree, still is) most vital and fundamental to a people. “While the attempt is made to show that the wilder features of myth survive from, or were borrowed from, or were imitated from the ideas of people in the savage condition of thought, the existence—even among savages—of comparatively pure, if inarticulate, religious beliefs is insisted on,” Lang claimed.[2]

Further, Lang insisted, only in a progressive world would we need reminding of any of these things. “We must remember, what we are so prone to forget, the quite unbroken nature of peasant-life, and of peasant-faith. The progressive classes had advanced comparatively but a little way in the evolution of the creeds and customs when they left the rural people behind,” he explained. Again and again, “they have turned back on these” in moments of ecstasy.[3] Again, he noted, progressivism demands that those who are not progressive remember the essence of norms and traditions and mores, to combat the “effete” forces of progressivism and progressive civilization.[4]

Rather famously, Lang challenged the Germanic philological conception of mythology as a “disease of language,” a theory that claimed that myths were simply byproducts of garbled speech and equally garbled thought. In opposition, Lang argued that, if anything, language was a disease of mythology, an attempt to explain—rather poorly—the complexity of story at the heart of humanity. The greatest story, universally known by the human person, Lang argued, was the belief, at least originally, in one supreme god or “All-father,” a creator, judge, and sanctifier. There was, he wrote, “‘a maker of everything,’ a primal being, still in existence, watching conduct, punishing breaches of his laws, and, in some cases, rewarding the good in a future life.”[5] This understanding stood at the root of all primitive understandings of the world, that is, it stood prior to the corruption of such thought into religions and mythologies.

Humans experienced mythology, then, not by racial categories, but by stages of culture, universally. It matters not whether the mythology comes from the Great Lakes of North America or the Outback of Australia—the characters, the stories, and the plotlines are almost universally valid.

Still, problems arise when studying mythology across cultures. As such, mythologies almost always contain within them the rational and the irrational, a dualist tension that holds mythology together. Lang offered an example. In almost all mythologies, a creator gives something—fire, earth, water, air—to his people. This is, by almost any logical understanding, rational and, to a great degree, comforting to all peoples. However, depending on which mythology one chooses, the creator might appear in the shape of a crow or a turtle or a frog. This, Lang continued, is deeply irrational and often quite disturbing to the outsider who simply cannot comprehend the irrationality. Yet, Lang asserted, both sides reveal something about the nature of humanity: The rational represents love, and the irrational represents mischief. Unfortunately, the materialists, such as the German philologists, cannot see past the irrational aspect. “For the spirit is not, if Mr. [Herbert] Spencer be right, a primary intuition, but a hypothesis derived from reflection on the phenomena of life, death, sleep, trance, and shadow.”

What more could any conservative want? Remember Andrew Lang.

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Notes:

[1] Andrew Lang, quoted in Roger Lancelyn Green, Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography (Leicester, ENG: Edmund Ward, 1946), 69.

[2] Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, volume 1 (London, ENG: Longmans, 1899), xi.

[3] Andrew Lang, “Mythology and Fairy Tales,” Fortnightly Review (May 1873), 618.

[4] Ibid., 620.

[5] Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, volume 1 (London, ENG: Longmans, 1899), xiv.

The featured image is a photograph of Andrew Lang (1901) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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