Stories of Transylvania: BYU students collect folklore

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Trent Leinenbach spent a month in Transylvania learning about the supernatural and divine folklore there.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU

Transylvania may be the home of the feared count who dwells in a prominent, sinister castle in the mountains overlooking the region in Bram Stoker's classic novel "Dracula."

However, Transylvania is not simply a place of fiction in a book; it is a place of folk stories, culture and historical border disputes. This is why Trent Lienenbach and Nick Jones, English majors at Brigham Young University, traveled to one of the most mythically recognized lands in the world this summer — to uncover folk tales from a place shrouded with mystery.

"We wanted to collect folklore, Transylvanian and Hungarian folklore," Lienenbach said. "BYU was very generous in helping, not just with money but professors who volunteered to be sponsors and work with us."

Lienenbach and Jones spent July in Transylvania with the help of an ORCA grant — $1,500 awarded to undergraduate students for research or creative projects of their choice.

Once they received the funding, they flew to Hungary to spend some time there, and then took a bus to Transylvania to begin their journey.

"We began talking to locals and making friends and collecting folklore," Lienenbach said. "We went to festivals and watched dances. There was always a lot of customary folklore dress and food … there was folklore and folk tales shared. All of that we used as a lens for our research questions."

The pair collected numerous tales as they traveled through the region and met people everywhere, including stories about a witch who accurately predicted the death of locals, ghosts that haunted villages and curses that caused things to happen to livestock, as reported in a BYU news release.

One piece of popular culture not found in Transylvanian folklore is that of Dracula. Though based on a Transylvanian count, known as Vlad the Impaler in Stoker's novel, Dracula is not a part of lore in the region and is more important to Romanians than to Hungarians, Jones said.

"If you were to bring up Dracula as a person or historical figure, he is very much a national hero for Romanians in the area," he said. "The Hungarian population is aware of him and know the history well, they have heard about it mostly from American pop culture and have a high awareness of Vlad and his military tactics and his cruelness. … For Romanians, you'll see statues and plaques around showing where Vlad did different things."

Vlad's castle is now a tourist hot spot, but most of the people don't seem to be bothered or opinionated about the Dracula fad, according to Lienenbach.

"The bookstores are full of vampire books, but that's much more due to Stephanie Meyer than Bram Stoker or their own folklore," he said. "It's kind of the cherry on the top when looking at issues of identity; the primary mode of identity pushed on them by people not in their country is not something that has anything to do with them."

The research questions focused on the different ways the people of the region identified themselves, with so many past border and cultural changes.

Many of the stories had deeply rooted messages from the subconscious of the people and their past, often with a theme of obvious social functions — the way men and women are supposed to act, the way families function and the class structure in the area, Jones said.

Both young men had served LDS missions in Hungary, and while there they had heard a lot of talk about the long-lost brothers of the country who had been cut off — those who lived in the region of Transylvania. The nation of Hungary used to be three times bigger than its modern-day size, until after World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, in which a lot of land was stripped away and Transylvania was given to Romania, Lienenbach said.

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