Generic and Moral Ambiguity in Robert Louis Stevenson's Märchen

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Thibodeaux, Toni
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Middle Tennessee State University
Robert Louis Stevenson was an enthusiastic experimenter in a variety of genres who viewed the writer’s role as both that of an entertainer of his readers and as a provocateur regarding the moral and ethical. Märchen, patterned on old German folktales, allowed him to amuse his audience and to bring to their attention important issues of his day and how they impacted the cultures in which the stories were situated. While he directed that three of his stories be published together as märchen, his publisher ignored his instructions. The two Polynesian märchen were published with another Polynesian story that he insisted did not belong with the märchen. His Icelandic märchen, an adaptation of a saga, was not even published during his lifetime. This thesis examines the three stories that Stevenson intended to be published together in one volume of märchen: “The Bottle Imp,” “The Isle of Voices,” and “The Waif Woman.” It claims that these stories, one original and two retellings, should be considered as märchen based on the author’s stated intention and the generic elements of the stories. The study arose, in fact, from questions about critical reluctance to treat Stevenson’s three märchen in terms of his insistence on their generic character and the lack of scholarship examining these stories in terms of fairy tale adaptation. He wrote the works that this study analyzes while he was living in Hawaii during the late nineteenth century, soon before he settled permanently in Polynesia, specifically Samoa, a region that he had come to love. Two of these tales, “The Bottle Imp” and “The Isle of Voices,” reflect his fascination with Polynesian culture and his strong interest in the impact of colonialism and Christianity on native populations. In these two stories, Stevenson explores nineteenth-century Polynesian society precisely in terms of the effects of the meeting of traditional beliefs and practices with European colonialism and Christianity. The third story, “The Waif Woman,” is set in medieval Iceland during the time when Christianity was established there. Based on a saga translated and published by William Morris and Eirikr Magnússon during the time that Stevenson was writing, Stevenson adapts one episode of the saga, transforming its epic narrative into a domestic folktale that features both the magic and supernatural aspects of Icelandic tradition alongside Christian practices. Employing studies of fairy and folk tales by the Grimms, Propp, Tolkien, Zipes and other theorists of fantasy genres, this study analyzes the features of märchen that made the genre so appealing to Stevenson and suitable to his purposes. Specifically, the genre features elements of folk and fairy tale, allowing Stevenson to write engaging stories that also record vanishing folk ways. It features the fantastic, which appears in Stevenson’s stories as elements of traditional beliefs that he sought to record. Furthermore, märchen employ elements of legends by situating stories in particular cultural times and places, a feature through which Stevenson documented disappearing traditions in Polynesian culture and explored Icelandic heritage that Scotland inherited. This study looks at how Stevenson’s adaptation of previously existing tales and his subversion of generic elements critique social, economic, and political structures resulting from invasion and colonialism, a historical process that he recognized as pervasive in terms of the formation of national identities. Finally, the märchen genre enabled Stevenson to develop his observations that all humans are capable of good and evil—colonists, natives, missionaries, those in power, and those who are ruled. His märchen demonstrate that all human-constructed systems, whether meant for harm or help, are capable of both good and evil. The world of Stevenson’s märchen is thus a morally ambiguous place where situations and people, like genres and history, do not fit neatly into categories. The study concludes that Stevenson’s insistence that his stories be read as märchen should be taken seriously by scholars since to do so elucidates the complex cultural work they perform.
Literature, British and Irish literature