Censorship in Folklore

An essay by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1997-2021

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Tales not fit for print

One could argue, as folklorists sometimes do in their professional meetings and journals, that no true folktale is fit for print. What they mean by this is that the act of reducing any oral performance to written language, by the very nature of things, introduces its own set of changes. Interaction between teller and listener is largely lost, as are nuances of voice; meaning carried by gestures, and so on.

Collectors and editors of folktales have wrestled with these problems from the very beginning. How, for example, should one spell the "wolf whistle" used by insensitive construction workers to signal their approval of attractive women? "Wheet-wheeo" may get the point across, but it surely does not carry the emotional impact of the audible whistle. Similarly, how should one spell the sound of disapproval made by clicking the tongue against the roof of the mouth? The approximation "tsk, tsk" is about the best one can do with a written word, but it too is a weak imitation of the real thing, to say nothing of a statement such as "and he responded with an obscene gesture."

Further, speech in a regional or socio-economic dialect carries a level of meaning that can only be alluded to in print. For example, the pioneer folktale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm bemoaned the loss of texture and meaning imposed on their stories by translating them from local dialects into standard German. They did, by way of example, publish a handful of tales in Low German, Bavarian German, and Swiss German, but the great majority of their stories are in a simple, but literate and grammatically correct standard High German, the language of writing, not the language of ordinary speech.

The problem of reducing speech to print intensifies when one is confronted with words or acts that, according to longstanding convention, are "unprintable." Any collector of ordinary people's speech acts will soon meet up with indelicate, even tabooed language, gestures, and events.

By today's norms, nineteenth-century (the age of most pioneering folklore collections) publication standards were exceedingly careful, even prudish. Although printed anecdote collections from earlier centuries were normally unashamedly blunt, nineteenth and early twentieth-century editors and publishers were much more cautious. With few exceptions, they bowdlerized or omitted any potentially offensive words and episodes.

"Victorian" scholars (and those from later generations as well) have seen no contradiction in their attempts to preserve common culture while avoiding that which was vulgar. Virtually every major collection offers examples. The following quotations speak for themselves:

Similarly, naive readers of the 1891 English translation of The Facetious Nights by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (ca. 1480 - ca. 1557) are protected from the passages of that collection that are most wanting in decency by the fact that the editor translates the critical parts of the most offensive tales (for example, night 6, tales 2 and 4) from the original Italian into French rather than into English. Uneducated readers -- who presumably would not understand French -- are thus spared from the deleterious effects of the racier tales. Educated readers -- who could read French -- presumably would be protected from negative influences by their own sophistication.

Bibliographic reference:

Not even the works of established and (for the most part) respected storytellers are safe from bowdlerization. Boccaccio's The Decameron, contains a number of tales deemed by some translators and publichers to be too racy for ordinary readers, most famously the tenth story of the third day ("Alibech Puts the Devil Back into Hell," type 1425). Their solution: as was the case with the above cited translation of Straparola's The Facetious Nights, they translated the offending passages into French, although the acceptable portions of the book were rendered into English; or they left the objectionable portions in the original Italian.

Bibliographic references:
A further example is offered in W. H. D. Cowell's translation of The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (Cambridge: University Press, 1895), no. 273, pp. 246-47. Without explanation, this tale is translated from the Pali into Latin instead of into English. Presumably readers who understand Latin will be intelligent enough not to misunderstand or otherwise misuse the story's offensive contents.

Even scholars of folklore, whose very science depends upon the unaltered recording of data, are sometimes reluctant to give the whole story, or -- in some instances -- any of the story. For example, Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, two of the greatest folktale catalogers, were reluctant to provide details for the many erotic tales that they encountered, sometimes identifying them by little more than a number and the tag "obscene" (for example, types 1546*, 1549*, 1580*).

Hans-Jörg Uther, in his exemplary revision of the Aarne-Thompson catalog, adds relevant details to many of Aarne's and Thompson's sketchy summaries. For example, Aarne and Thompson label type 1547* "The Trickster with the Painted Member," adding only the vague summary: "The father wants his daughter's child to be a bishop." Uther labels his entry for the same folktale type "The Trickster with Painted Penis," then adds two full paragraphs describing how the trickster uses this prank to dupe a naive married couple. Returning to the type numbers mentioned above labeled "obscene" by Aarne and Thompson, with no summaries: Uther omits these numbers from his catalog.

Bibliographic reference:

Counter examples

The Grimm Brothers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, as stated above in their own words, "carefully removed every expression inappropriate for children" from their published folktales. They did not, however, avoid tabooed material altogether. For example, their story "All-Kinds-of-Fur" (no. 65) has the threat of father-daughter incest as its central theme, while "Old Hildebrand" (no. 95) is the tale of an adulterous adventure between a priest and a peasant woman. But still, in the main the Grimms avoided material that would have offended their 19th-century bourgeois public.

Aleksandr Afanasyev

Aleksandr Afanasyev (the transliteration Afanas'ev is also used) (1826-1871), the Russian counterpart to the brothers Grimm, published 640 folktales in numerous editions between the years 1855 and 1873. Like the Grimms, he molded authentic folklore material into a simple, but literate style, a style that has endured for more than a century. Unlike the Grimms (and unlike virtually every other nineteenth-century folklorist) Afanasyev did not shy away from patently offensive material and language. His published stories are innocent enough, but he also kept manuscript collections of obscene stories. These were smuggled out of Russia and first published (in Russian, under the title Russian Secret Tales) in Switzerland in 1872. Anticlerical, scatological, erotic, and often crude, these tales, reflect a vulgar side of everyday life in the nineteenth century that many would rather not think about. But without doubt it was there.

Two English translations of Afanayef's Russian secret tales are:

The late twentieth century

For better or for worse, the reading public appears to have lost its squeamishness with reference to tabooed subjects, and folklorists of today no longer apologize for their "offensive" material, as did their nineteenth-century counterparts. Indeed, what few restrictions may have been imposed by the book publishing industry have vanished into cyberspace. Here are a few titles by respected folklorists that, a few years ago were quite daring, but that today seem almost bland.


In the tradition of fairy tales, I let three examples suffice. And in the tradition of my Victorian forebears, I leave unsaid why it is that "life is like a chicken coop ladder," even though as a boy, one of my chores was to haul the sh-- out of the chicken coop.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised October 17, 2021.