Folktales: What are they?

By Stacy Carney. LSEM 240

Baba Yaga from North/South
Books

Illustration from Baba Yaga, a Russian folktale illustrated by Katya Arnold. Courtesy of North South Books

Folktales, according to Carl Tomlinson and Carol Lynch-Brown's Essentials of Children's Literature are "stories that grow out of the lives and imaginations of the people, or folk." They are a form of traditional literature which began as an attempt to explain and understand the natural and spiritual world. The origin of the folktale lies in the oral tradition, until the twelfth century, when first literary sources began to circulate in Europe.

Some scholars argue that folktales were passed through the migrations of peoples. Once developed, they spread from country to country through people, for example "sailors and soldiers, women stolen from their tribes, slaves and captives of war, traders, minstrels and bands, monks and scholars, and young men on the grand tour," as stated by Sutherland and Arbuthnot in Children and Books. The stories circulated in consistent, yet shifting form due to the fact that each teller would slightly alter the words. Interestingly, the folktales that traveled by land changed a great deal because of the retelling process, while those that traveled by sea were more similar in version. Folklorists agree that most folktales were created at early stages of civilization.

Folktales can be categorized into several predominant kinds.

1. Cumulative tales are the simplest of all. There is not much plot involved, but they carry a lot of rhythm. Events follow each other logically in a pattern of cadence and repetition. The House That Jack Built, The Old Woman and Her Pig, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and One Fine Day are good examples of cumulative tales.

2. Talking Beast Stories are stories in which animals and creatures talk just as humans do. Generally, they teach a lesson such as the rewards of courage, ingenuity, and independence. They are primarily good entertainment due to their lively nature, as in Puss in Boots, Story of the Three Little Pigs or The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Children enjoy the exaggerated characterizations of human beings in the animals.

3. Drolls or humorous tales are those meant for fun and nonsense--silly stories about sillies. They revolve around a character who makes unbelievably funny mistakes. One popular noodlehead story is the Norwegian husband who had to take care of his house and nearly destroys it. Good stories include When Schlmiel Went to Warsaw by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jack and the Three Sillies or Obedient Jack in Chimney Corner Tales.

3. Realistic stories deal with characters, plots, and settings that are possible. There is little exaggeration and no magic involved. Blue Beard is a good example of a realistic tale.

4. Religious tales are another form of literature from the oral tradition. Such stories may be humorous or didactic. Noah's Ark by Peter Spier is a Caldecott Award Book.

5. Romances are tales wherein enchantments and impossible tasks separate lovers and magic may reunite them. The characters are frequently stereotypes as in Beauty and the Beast.

6. Tales of magic are the folktales which children commonly refer to as fairy tales. They deal with magic or enchantment in plot, characters and setting. They are the talking mirrors, magic kisses, and enchanted forest. Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp is one magic tale.

There are several distinctive elements of folktales. First is the introduction which introduces the leading characters, time/place of the story and the conflict or problem to be faced. These may be short such as "Once upon a time" or "Back in the days when the animals could talk." Setting is also stock such as a road or a bridge or in a forest. Following the introduction is the development. Here the action mounts steadily until it reaches a climax, where the problem or conflict will be resolved. Typically, the hero or heroine faces many obstacles and is usually reduced to helplessness before the climax. Finally comes the conclusion which is usually "short and sweet." Everything is resolved-- the heros and heroines are happy and the villains are punished. One convention conclusion is "and they lived happily ever after." A very distinctive element of folktales is the importance of the plot and the shallowness of the characters and setting.

For children, the appeal of folktales lies in the qualities that youngsters respond to in a story. The tale starts quicky with action throughout. Children often enjoy the humor in such stories. They also appeal to a child's sense of justice--good is rewarded and evil is punished. Characters are generally stereotyped--good or bad. The rhyme and repetition of many folktales attract children. Stories are usually short and with a definite conclusion. According to Sutherland and Arbuthnot, "the folktale has all the things that children, especially small children, like." Andre Favat in his study of folktales, especially fairy tales, concluded that fairytales generally represent the world as children perceive it. Also they like the predictable form and content of the stories. The fact that folktales are objective and understandable also appeals to them.

Literary reviews of folktales are generally favorable--after all, these stories have stood the test of time. More importantly, however, is what fairy tales offer children. The child's social consciousness is improved because through folktales he or she learns that good will triumph over evil. Maria Perez-Stable's article, "Understanding American History Through Children's Literature" argues that children can connect with America's past through folktales. In Charles Cornell's article in Young Children, he states, "many of our traditional rhymes and folktales, when used conscientiously, can offer excellent in-roads to an understanding of our customs and culture." He warns, however, tht "rhymes and folktales that induce or enhance negative stereotypes can threaten a child's identity and self-image, particularly when the child is of an ethnic or racial minority." Although Cornell is warning against possible potential dangers of using folktales as an educational medium, most critics agree that they are an excellent source for teaching culture.

Folktales, a specific type of folklore, have lasted through a long period of time due to their universality. They remain among children's favorite forms of literature. Folklorists who study the form to understand the who, what, where when and why of folktales agree upon only one thing: folktales have been the cement of society.

References

Cornell, C. "Language and Culture Monsters That Lurk in Our Traditional Rhymes and Folktales." Young Children, v. 48, Sept. 93, pp40-46.

Cox, M. An Introduction to Folklore Singing Tree Press, Detroit. 1968, pp283-87.

Lynch-Brown, C. and Tomlinson, C. Essentials of Children's Literature Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993, pp100-110.

Perez-Stable, M. Understanding American History Through Children's Literature. 2nd ed. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1994.

Sutherland, Z. and Arbuthnot, M. Children and Books HarperCollins Pub., New York, 1991.

Thompson, S. The Folktale. New York: Dryden Press, 1946.


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