Bethan McKernan reports for the Guardian about Turkey’s mission to preserve its fairy tales:

The oral folktales of the Anatolian plateau are a remarkable blend of storytelling motifs and traditions, drawing on the Arabian Nights and Brothers Grimm, as well as Kurdish, Persian, Slavonic, Jewish and Romanian influences. Dr Ignatuis Kunos, a Hungarian Turkologist who was one of the first academics to collect and write some of them down in the 1880s, compared the treasures of Turkish folklore to “precious stones lying neglected in the byways of philology for want of gleaners to gather them in”.

He worried that the steady creep of modernisation – particularly the railway – would erode Anatolia’s cultural heritage. Happily, more than a century later, the oral storytelling tradition has survived, and a mammoth academic project called Masal is collecting and indexing a goal of 10,000 stories to preserve for future generations.

Members of the public and academics from university literature departments around the country can submit a fairytale to Masal’s online portal, where it is then examined by three rounds of researchers and language editors. The project is funded by the Atatürk Cultural Centre in what is the first undertaking of its kind in Turkey.

The stories are indexed according to which of seven regions they are from and which of five different types of stories: animal tales, magical or extraordinary tales, realistic tales and humorous tales. Zincirlemeli tales follow a strict formula, almost like a poem, in which characters and events at the beginning and end form mirror images.

There are often several different variants of one story, requiring painstaking cross-referencing to figure out how a tale can differ over time from one region to another: there are 20 different versions of Tın Tın Kabacık, about two little girls abandoned by their father, in the province of Muğla alone. Many stories and poems over the years have morphed into Turkish from original Kurdish, Laz, Armenian and Circassian versions.

If a submitted tale is approved it becomes part of Masal’s online database, which will eventually be available to the public. More than 3,300 tales have been collected from 77 different areas to date, and the project’s directors hope the corpus will be completed by February 2022.

This is the kind of thing of which I approve. Thanks, Trevor! (Incidentally, Turkish masal ‘fairy tale’ is from Arabic maṯal مثل; cf. Nişanyan.)


  1. Ireland has been a pioneer in this area, with the Irish Folklore Commission (Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann) operating since 1935 and doing much valuable work.

    A lady I know told me that when she was a little girl in rural Kerry, all the children in her school were asked to collect stories from their parents and grandparents and turn them in to their teacher, who would give them to the Folklore Commission. An ingenious idea, as the Folklore Commission was always short of funding.

    However, there were a few problems with the plan.
    -The stories collected would be the sort that grandparents would tell their grandchildren, so there would be a lack of adult themes. Not just sex, but things like drinking, faction fights, politics, the Civil War would tend to get filtered out.
    -The school teachers were nuns, so most likely they had been tasked with deleting any stories that would show the Church in a bad light.

    Probably there was quite a lot of good material collected, but there was an inherent bias based on what was NOT collected. (This project is mentioned in the Wikipedia article.) Still, given the resources available and the fact that these stories were passing out of memory, it was probably a good idea.

    Good luck to the Turks, but I am skeptical that they will be finished by February 2022.

  2. Good luck to the Turks, but I am skeptical that they will be finished by February 2022.

    I don’t imagine they will, but I never take projected termination dates seriously. (See every multivolume dictionary ever.)

  3. David L. Gold says

    The Uysal–Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative, now part of the library of Texas Tech University, has a wealth of material recorded in Turkey, part of which has been published.

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