[This is the fourth of seven short installments of the story Crone: a Fairy Tale]
A prefatory clearing of phlegm rumbled up from Grendel’s throat as he stirred on his chair.
“That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?”
Gildersleeve nodded her head in silent agreement. Normally I would have expected her to be more voluble at a juncture like this.
“Extreme?” Schädling wondered. “How do you mean?”
“Well,” Gildersleeve began tactfully, “folktales are considerably older than the eighteenth century. Why, you could argue that all of Beowulf is an extended folktale with embedded smaller cycles.”
“And what about the Odyssey?” Grendel asked.
Gildersleeve was popping to life.
This would be another battle of the blind Indian wise men, one observing that the elephant is a kind of snake, another correcting that it is more like a tree, and the third insisting that it is actually a mountain side.
“The Odyssey?” Schädling asked in astonishment. “That’s not German, or even Germanic,” she added with conviction, as though this informed remark should obviate any discussion that might lead her into the epistemological darkness of unfamiliar forests without any trails of cookie crumbs.
We all drank some more from our coffee cups.
I thought idly of the cold quarter mile to the post office.
Around us stations were crowded with eager talkers hunched over tables and leaning into each other to be able hear above the din of other voices. A constant river of people in heavy bundles of clothing flowed in and out of the Montparnasse. The waiters and waitresses with their expressos and lattes and pastries streamed expertly among the customers.
“The fact is,” Gildersleeve objected, “folktales are hardly the property of any one time or place. They’re everywhere and have probably always existed.”
“That’s a certainty.” Grendel seemed pleased to be supporting her.
“How can you know that?” Schädling asked.
“I think it’s pretty well accepted by most serious scholars,” Grendel explained. It made him just a little more tolerable to find that he was capable of irony. Gildersleeve, too, pulled at the corners of her mouth with a barely perceptible smile. Schädling was apparently too much in full spate to appreciate that she was being mocked — kindly, but mocked nonetheless.
“It’s a field that was developed by Germans,” she persevered, shifting ground with the obdurate determination of the academic whose proprietary assumptions about in-field ‘expertise’ have been challenged.
“I don’t think anybody would object to that,” Gildersleeve volunteered, not without kindness. “With the possible exception of the French. But that wasn’t the point at issue, was it?”
My own view, unarticulated at the time, was that Gildersleeve was trying to be too crisply Socratic with this mushy messy mixture of a Franco-Germanic mind.
“No. The issue was not the origin of folklore studies, but the origin of folklore. Wouldn’t you agree there is a difference?”
Now it was Grendel’s turn to support her with his sharp nods of affirmation.
“I suppose you have a point,” Schädling admitted reluctantly. “I think I see what you mean.”
Thank heavens for small favors, I thought to myself. At last, enlightenment for the benighted.
The entire silly discussion was tedious beyond belief. Beating dead horses, reinventing the wheel — use whatever vulgar analogy you wish — explaining the obvious to idiots or trying common reason with them are tasks that would have gotten Sisyphus himself to run shrieking down his hill in defeat. It almost surprised me that Gildersleeve and Grendel (it’s an irresistible alliteration, isn’t it?) had been so patient and gentle, for I knew that neither one suffered fools of this ilk gladly. And both were knowledgeable as well as insightful on myth and folklore. It may have been that they had a comfortable enough mastery of the subject that they did not feel it necessary to deride a colleague’s uninformed enthusiasms simply to validate their own sense of academic merit. If so, my hat is off to them for a charitable act of kindness unusual in our all too often feral profession of the humanities.