Illustration from Baba Yaga, a Russian folktale illustrated by
Katya Arnold. Courtesy of North
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
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
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
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.
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
Sutherland, Z. and Arbuthnot, M. Children and Books
HarperCollins Pub., New York, 1991.
Thompson, S. The Folktale. New York: Dryden Press, 1946.
Young Adult Literature