James Hogg : a study in the transition from folk tradition to literature
In recent years the writings of James Hogg have attracted much critical interest. Illuminating work has been done, but so far scholarship has not successfully come to terms with Hogg's great debt to tradition, despite the fact that this debt has long been recognised. Sir George Douglas wrote in 1899 that in his better prose tales Hogg "has incorporated the whole body of the floating popular mythology of Scotland - a fact which, should the day ever come when the stories fail to charm as stories, will still command for them the regard of students of history and folk-lore. An understanding of the role and use of folk tradition in literature has been difficult to achieve because of the lack of proper critical tools to permit objective assessment. By literary standards folk tradition has been devalued to the status of "fairy tales" something pleasant for children - and its workings often seem to smack of the irrational or highly coincidental. The fact that Hogg, or any other writer, uses folk tradition in his literary work should not be taken as some sort of aberration from literary convention but rather as a positive contribution. However, merely recognising its presence is not enough. The present work will therefore concern itself with the kinds of tradition Hogg uses, the status and meaning of these traditions and the way in which Hogg adapts and develops them to meet the needs of a new audience that is literary rather than traditional. Any discussion of Hogg's relationship with folklore must first examine Hogg's upbringing and education and the nature of the Border community in which he grew up to try and discover something about the kind of traditional sources Hogg would have known, the kind of material available and the status it would have enjoyed. All these things governed Hogg's own attitude to different types of folk tradition and therefore helped to determine the ways in which he presented his material and ideas. It is helpful to begin a study of Hogg's work by way of his songs. Songwriting provides a natural and acceptable transition from folk tradition to literature as it has a well-developed tradition of its own. This stage of Hogg's work is very important in helping to establish an idea of the unity and homogeneity of his work. Hogg was able to compose songs with apparent ease and throughout his career he turned this to good account but his greatest achievements are to be measured in his narrative verse and prose. The narrative verse shows Hogg beginning to develop his own ideas more creatively, hammering out the themes that were eventually to dominate his work. From there it is then possible to make a deeper study of the key themes, principally superstition, the supernatural and religion, history and community. The discussion will concentrate here on the wealth of short prose which forms the bulk of Hogg's work. This is partly to emphasise where the main force of Hogg's creativity lay for this concern seems always to have been with narrative or story. However, the dominance of the novel in literary tradition has led to critical emphasis on the Confessions at the expense of the other shorter works. The nature of the contemporary literary community with its proliferation of magazines, journals and annuals did foster Hogg's preoccupation with the short anecdotal form. Despite this, the preponderance of folk tradition in Hogg's works and the emphasis on a traditional tale telling context and on the sort of community environment in which this tradition survived is illuminating. It suggests that Hogg was not trying to write novels but to recreate in some way the traditional story telling experience through his tales. This can be seen on a larger scale in the Queen's Wake or the story-telling competition in the Three Perils of Man. It is in the form and structure of Hogg's work that the most subtle links are to be found with folk tradition. In particular, by studying form and structure, it is possible to understand more clearly Hogg's exploitation of the narrator's role. Taken over all, this thesis hopes to show the clear links in theme, idea, form and structure between the shortest of Hogg's pieces and longer, more sustained efforts such as the Brownie or the Confessions. An understanding of Hogg's use of folk tradition can therefore do much more than explain certain motifs or odd references. It shows that tradition is not an excuse for sloppy structure or improbable events but a real tool by which Hogg enlarged his creative capability. Thus tradition provides the reader with an important key to Hogg's work. The concern with folk literature in the discussion which follows has necessitated the use of a number of terms drawn from the critical analysis of folklore. The meaning of these terms should be clear from the context but the following brief guide may be helpful. The name Marchen is employed when discussing the magic tale, the fullest and most elaborate form of folk narrative. Examples form types 300-749 in the Aarne-Thomson classification system and the name is taken from Kinder-und Hausmarchen, the collection compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. This term is used to avoid the idea of "fairy tales" which has rather dismissive overtones of the nursery. In a traditional community the folktale has a serious role in addition to its entertainment value and these distinctions are important to an understanding of Hogg's use of folklore. The term "informant", used in the discussion of Hogg's family, refers to a source or transmitter of items of folklore from whom material is recorded, learned or otherwise preserved.