Legend and Belief. Dialectics of a Folklore Genre. By Linda Degh. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001. Pp. 498, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.)
Linda Degh is one of the researchers whose works on legend and storytelling belong to the 'canonical' corpus of 20th century folkloristics. This monograph is an outcome of her life's work, the result of co-operation with her late husband, Andrew Vazsonyi, and of lively dialogues with many folklorists to whom Degh gives credit in her acknowledgements (vii-viii). One of the distinctive traits of the book is its belief in the existence of scholarly truth, in valid theory that leads us to the correct understanding of the complex world of folklore and the genre of legend in particular. Although Degh pursues a master theory, making her discourse authoritative and monological, she ponders other expert opinions, starting from the Grimm brothers. She relies upon "intensive field ethnography, archive and library research, and rigorous text and context analysis" (9). The book aims to present a coherent theoretical framework for interpreting legends that the author sees as "a traditional product of the Western world" (9). This sets some frames for her study, which deals with European and North American 20th century folklore, both oral and written. Degh introduces the reader to contemporary "New Age" beliefs and occultism: ghosts, haunted places, Satanism, sensitives, UFOs, etc. However, she does not explore the occult phenomena but instead "examines the world of legend that surrounds them" (4).
Degh examines the extensive research on legend and sees a major "communication gap between armchair legend scholars, who deal with abstracts and fossils, and those who in their role as fellow travelers pursue the dynamics of narration as it unfolds, conscious of being a participant in the enterprise" (95). Being a fieldworker herself, Degh clearly favors the latter. Although she acknowledges research done in the archives on past storytelling practices, she writes that such works "cannot compete with firsthand observations by the analysts themselves" (207). Thus she finds historical and philological research of limited value; she also criticizes folklorists who have truncated legend texts and published them without any data about storytelling context and without professional commentaries. As negative examples, Degh refers to many European anthologies of urban legends (96).