FASHION in historical writing is now changing so fast

that every few years we have to worry about a new shift in direction. This suggests that there are things going on in the present which would awe us, could we but rightly grasp them. Being in history and therefore in movement, we change the past in the very act of trying to look at it. The darker the social omens, the more likely we are to alter our vision of the past. Since current historical thinking is riddled with change and fashion, the chances are that we live in a time of unnerving flux.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has been in the front line of historical practice for 15 years. His older essays, partly collected in The Territory of the Historian (French edition, 1976), make for a primer of "quantitative history," the mode which began to capture the profession in the late 1960s. With Montaillou (1978) and Carnival in Romans (1979) he pressed over into a new field, the historical study of "popular culture." Now here he is in the vanguard again with Love, Death, and Money in the Pays d'Oc, a book which hurdles the gap between history and folklore, literature and popular yarn, while drawing its unusual method of inquiry from structuralism, folklore, and literary analysis.

His focus this time is a famous tale, Jean-l'ont-pris (1759), written by a priest, J.-B. Castor Fabre, and fully reproduced here. Considered the masterpice of modern Occitan literature -- Occitan was the romance language then universally spoken in southern France -- the tale goes as follows:

Truquette, a poor cobbler, marries Margot, already pregnant by him, and they have one son, Jean-l'ont-pris. Margot's mother talks Truquette into organizing a band of thieves. Quickly becoming a rich notable, Truquette is soon betrayed, despoiled, and hanged. Margot runs off with a knife-sharpener, and Jean is reared by his grandmother. He runs wild, takes to theft, and one day is caught stealing peaches in an orchard. At the end of the tangle of ensuing confusion, centered on beatings and mistaken identities, Jean is hired as new keeper of the orchard. The owner, Sestier, a self-made man, turns out to have been one of Truquette's partners-in-crime years before. Jean's poor grandmother dies, unexpectedly leaving him a fortune which she had stealthily filched from Truquette during his days of wealth. Concealing this so as to avoid raising suspicions, Jean now thinks himself in a position to marry Sestier's daughter, who is destined to inherit an even larger fortune. Instead, Sestier frames him -- has him charged with the pregnancy of the supremely ugly and disgusting Garouille, Sestier's own mistress. Discovering that Garouille is near death anyway, Jean agrees to marry her; she dies; and at the end of the story he is on his way to try to lay claim to Sestier's daughter, who is already pregnant by Jean.

Acclaimed as a classic of 18th-century "village realism," this 30-page tale elicits nearly 500 pages of analysis, no more than 30 of which are conventionally historical. Most historians will not find enough history here, but I would urge that Le Roy Ladurie's achievement is in his method, while granting that the job could have been done in fewer pages. The bulk of the book sets forth an elaborate argument: namely, that Jean-l'ont- pris is in fact the riddling parody of a fable then widespread in Europe and usually known to folklorists as Godfather Death. Particulars vary over time and place but the primal story is the following:

A poor man can find no one to baptize his newborn son. He encounters Death, who agrees to be the godfather and then, in gratitude, rewards the family. When the boy is 18, Death teaches him to become a great physician bystery wy empowering him to predict life or death whenever he is called to a sick person's bedside. The trick is that if Death is standing at the head of the bed -- and only the young man will see this -- the patient will die; if at the foot, recovery will follow and the "physician" is to give a placebo. So doing, the young man reaps fame and fortune and may end, depending upon the version of the story, by marrying the king's daughter. Meanwhile, he has to trick Death at least once, for example by suddenly turning a bed around, whereupon the doomed patient lives. But Death naturally triumphs in due course and kills his godson.

Fabre, the author of Jean-l'ont-pris, was a writer of burlesque and a lover of old fairy tales, and while Le Roy Ladurie notes this, his case rests on a comparative study of plots, characters, and essential particulars of the whole cycle of Godfather-Death stories, examined in strict relation to Jean-l'ont-pris.

The analysis is an obsessive tour de force and all the book's remarkable novelty is here. The key to Le Roy Laduries's interpretation is in his use of words like code, encode, homology, structure, kinship, function, equivalent, and decipher. The magician shows his hand: he has been schooled in anthropology, structuralism, linguistics and semiotics. Thus he looks for homologous events, characters, and dramatic sequences among the many narratives of the Godfather-Death cycle and Jean-l'ont-pris; he dwells on linguistic affinities, puns, parallels, mechanical reversals; he also studies names, symbols, metaphors, and lexical ambiguities. Inevitably he relies on the work of folklorists and on the great collections of folk tales published in the 19th century. Combining superior and unconventional historical skills with a diversity of analytical strategies, he is able to see his way back to the unrecorded, oral background of Jean-l'ont- pris to an age of popular myth, fairy tale, superstition, and "non-elitist" mentalities. Godfather Death probably originated in Germany, at the time of the 14th-century plagues, and apparently survives today in the Andes mountains.

Le Roy Ladurie's performance shows us a way to sneak behind 19th-century compilations of folk tales to the imaginative content and structures of oral folk fiction. It is a quest for history through a study of the "the magical and the marvelous," the wild and the irrational. The cycle in question clusters love, death, and money -- final things with a supernatural aura -- around the young hero (the tradition is sexist), as he looks for entry into and status in the adult world: a passage signaled by all the financial problems connected with marriage in medieval and early-modern Europe.

Past and present are wedded together in historical method: change the present and you change the past because you change the eyes of the present. This is one of the corollaries of the notion summed up in the word "historicism." I suggest, in this connection, that the historian's new interest in the early history of folk consciousness, in what was there in the form of "oral literature," arises in part from our profound uneasiness as we confront the present. Where else, as historians, can we turn to look for happier signs (optimsim), or where else look for the dark roots of the present (pessimism)? Not surprisingly, therefore, we reach out for the rich but shadowy "grounds" of consciousness, in an obscure effort to find some primordial and saving good there -- or something ominous.