Far more, too, has been published on this subject than is usually realized even by many of the students who have recently taken some interest in the subject.
Although at first some people refused to believe that tales of such striking similarity to European folk-stories and fairy-tales could really be indigenous to Africa, this similarity of content gradually became accepted.
By the end of the century, Chatelain could assert with confidence in his authoritative survey that many myths, characters, and incidents known elsewhere also occur in African narratives, and that African folklore is thus a ‘branch of one universal tree’.
There had been a few isolated efforts before then, notably Roger’s retelling of Wolof fables from Senegal (1828) and an increasing awareness of the written Arabic tradition.
But until the mid-century there was no available evidence to refute the popular European image of Africa as totally without literary pretensions. African linguistic studies were emerging as a specialist and scholarly field, and this in turn led to a fuller appreciation of the interest and subtleties of African languages.
There was little attempt to relate the texts to their social context, elucidate their literary significance, or describe the normal circumstances of their recitation.
There are many questions, therefore, which these texts cannot answer.Nevertheless, the very size of many of these collections, presenting a corpus of literature from a single people, often throws more light on the current literary conventions among a given people than all the odd bits and pieces which it became so fashionable to publish later.And the linguistic and missionary motive was not always so narrow as to exclude all interest in the wider relevance of these collections.This introductory chapter traces briefly the history of the study of African oral literature over the last century. First, there have been so many assumptions and speculations about both Africa and oral literature that it is necessary to expose these to clear the way for a valid appreciation of our present knowledge of the subject.Second, the various sources we have for the study of African oral literature need to be assessed and put in historical perspective.A number of scholars noted the connections between their work and the progress in comparative studies in Europe.Bleek, for instance, significantly entitles his collection of Hottentot stories , to bring out the parallelism between African and European tales.Both the climate of opinion to which he felt he had to address himself and his own conclusions on the basis of his study of the language come out clearly in the preface to the early work by Koelle, It is hoped that the publication of these first specimens of a Kanuri literature will prove useful in more than one way.Independently of the advantages it offers for a practical acquaintance with the language, it also introduces the reader, to some extent, into the inward world of Negro mind and Negro thoughts, and this is a circumstance of paramount importance, so long as there are any who either flatly negative the question, or, at least, consider it still open, ‘whether the Negroes are a genuine portion of mankind or not’.A considerable amount of work has been published on the subject of African oral literature in the last century or so. There is no metre, no rhyme, nothing that interests or soothes the feelings, or arrests the passions . .(Burton 1865: xii)Even those who would immediately reject so extreme a view are still often unconsciously influenced by fashionable but questionable assumptions about the nature of literary activity among non-literate peoples, which determine their attitude to the study of African oral literature.But the facts are scattered and uneven, often buried in inaccessible journals, and their significance has not been widely appreciated. We still hear, for instance, of the ‘savage’ reliance on the ‘magical power of the word’, of the communal creation of ‘folktales’ with no part left for the individual artist, or of the deep ‘mythic’ consciousness imagined to be characteristic of non-literate society.