Dogs and peasants

A question of moderately pressing significance: Is there anything I share with the hapless blunderer that was Stanley Pleeber? You may have noticed by now that I insist on treating this man with disdain. I have poured less maple syrup on a pancake than scorn on his dead head. Why? I suppose it is because he falls so short of being the hero that, in one sense, he ought to be. Scholars of the European folk-tale owe him a lot; his collection of tales is not only one of the largest in the world, it is most probably the best. He gathered together the materials for future generations to peruse at their will – and we must thank him.

So why is it so hard to? Another question beckons: to what extent did he gather the materials together? Aha – therein wallows the rub. In actuality, Pleeber didn’t gather all that much himself. Like many sensible rich men, he paid for other people to do the gathering. One of the problems with folk-tales, as you many know, is their reliance on ‘oral traditions’. They can be tenuous, flimsy things – like signet feathers drifting in a stiff spring wind. They are rarely written down – not in any resolved form at least. They need to be constructed, in fact, from a variety of sources; some of which are living, breathing, sweating people. And here’s the problem. Who wants – or has the requisite skills – to traipse around old Croatian villages asking old women to recount that story about the sheep they may remember their grandfather once telling them? Pleeber didn’t – and neither, I must admit, do I. Oh, I’ve done my fair share: I’m not a complete wimp. I still believe that the only worthy critic is the one who (as I put it here) likes to ‘reject the well-trodden path and rush off into the prickly undergrowth’. Even so, I will accept the fact that, on occasion, I have had to concede defeat.

I’ll talk about the peasants later. For now a word about their dogs. Dogs come in many shapes and sizes. In the spirit of equality, I dislike all of them, from the plausibly genial types I met on Boston common this afternoon, to the probably frenetic kind one is likely to encounter in an Hungarian hamlet. ‘If I hear a dog yapping in a man’s house, I do not enter that house’ said Pleeber. Extreme, maybe, but I have to agree. Academics will do a lot for their work (and so they should) but braving a mad Norwegian bloodhound does not have to be one of them.

Of course, I don’t have an assistant to tame the dogs for me. Pleeber did. In fact, he had several. And these people, in many (if not all) ways, are the hidden heroes of his collection. After all, they did the collecting. He merely paid their way. Had he shown any awareness of this fact, we (or I to be exact) might forgive him. Instead, he neglected to mention his helpers at every juncture. For all the eccentricity and peculiar wisdom of his tastes, he remains a curiously arrogant, fundamentally conservative fellow. He funneled thousands of dollars into a venture in which he took no personal part and, on its completion, very little personal interest. Like many of us, he is two parts an enigma, but four parts a bore.


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