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Encyclopedia ArticlefromEncarta
Folktales
Multimedia
Little Red Riding HoodLittle Red Riding Hood
4 items
Article Outline
Introduction; Folktale Scholarship; Myths; Legends; Märchen; Overlapping of Forms; Other Folktale Forms; The Role of Folktale
IIntroduction
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Folktales, generic term for the various kinds of narrative prose literature found in the oral traditions of the world. One of the many forms of folklore, folktales are heard and remembered, and they are subject to various alterations in the course of retellings. As they are diffused (transmitted through a culture), some folktales may pass in and out of written literature (for example, the “Rip Van Winkle” story), and some stories of literary origin may cross over into oral tradition (for example, the anecdote about George Washington and the cherry tree). Nevertheless, an essential trait of folktales—and all folk literature—is their diffusion, and their passage from one generation to another, by word of mouth.

The principal kinds of folktales are myths (see Mythology), legends, and Märchen, or fairy tales
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. In common usage, these terms are interchangeable; they refer to any highly imaginative concept or narrative and usually carry an implication of falsehood and incredibility. To folklorists, however, each of the three represents a distinct form of the folktale. Other forms include animal tales and fables, tall tales, formula tales, jokes and anecdotes, as well as cante fables (folk stories partly in song or verse). See also Ballad.

IIFolktale Scholarship
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In the early 19th century great interest in folktales was created by the publication of Household Tales (2 volumes, 1812-1815; translated 1884) by the German philologists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (see Grimm Brothers). Their work stimulated writers of many other nations, including the Scottish classicist and folklorist Andrew Lang and the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, to publish and retell similar materials of their own peoples. The Grimm brothers noted great similarity in themes and characters among German and other European folktales; later folklorists discovered resemblances between European folktales and those of other continents.

Much 19th-century scholarship concentrated on attempts to account for these similarities. Generally, the 19th-century scholars were unaware of the vast store of African, Native American, and Oceanic lore that existed independently of the Indo-European tradition. They sought their explanations in those parts of the world that seemed important to them. Thus, the Grimms postulated a common Indo-European origin for folktales, and the German philologist Theodor Benfey as well as the Scottish writer William Clouston believed that stories diffused by way of travelers migrating east and west from India. Such theories, however, have proven incomplete and inadequate. Nevertheless, the research of these and other scholars greatly stimulated interest in folklore and folktales. The German scholar Max Muller held that myths originated when Sanskrit and other ancient languages began to deteriorate, and when the Scottish classicist and folklorist Andrew Lang attacked this view, folktales became the subject of additional attention. Research was further stimulated by the immense popularity of The Golden Bough (1890), a 12-volume compendium of ancient lore by the British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

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More recently, researchers—many of them influenced by the German American anthropologist Franz Boas—have collected and made in-depth studies of tales and lore from every part of the world. Some, following the leads of the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne and the American folklorist Stith Thompson, have prepared full geographical and historical surveys of all the known variants of widely disseminated tales, always with an eye to discovering and cataloging the basic tale types and motifs. Aarne produced a catalog in 1910, which Thompson enlarged and translated in 1928. This catalog became the Type-Index; it classifies the plots of a variety of folktales. Thompson’s Motif-Index catalogs narrative elements—such as objects, special animals, concepts, actions, or characters—found in folktales. As a result of the work of past researchers, few folklorists today believe that any one theory is satisfactory in explaining the similarities and variations in the folktales and folklore of the world.

Some modern authors, critics, and literary scholars, heavily influenced by the writings of the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, use the term myth in a more generalized way than defined here. In this usage (which varies from writer to writer), myth refers to recurring symbols and motifs that are shared by all people in all places and that serve as a common language for the expression of ideas, values, and emotions. When used in this way, myth is not sharply distinguished from legend or Märchen, or even from literary genres such as novels and dramas, which are all considered more recent forms assumed by humanity’s urge to express itself through myths.

IIIMyths
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When strictly defined, myths are folktales that are religious and explain the universe and its inhabitants. Such stories are considered true by both the narrator and the audience and tell of the creation and regulation of the world—tasks usually performed by a deity (god or goddess) who exists in chaos, in a void, or in some other world. With a series of offspring and companions, the deity gives form to the world and introduces life to it, then proceeds on a series of adventures and struggles in which he or she does such things as liberating the sun, the moon, water, or fire; regulating the winds; originating corn, beans, or nuts; defeating monsters; and teaching mortals how to hunt and plow.

Called a culture hero, the being who performs these tasks may take the form of a human (as does Zeus in ancient Greek myths) or an animal (as do Coyote and Raven in Native American tales). He or she may frequently change shape. Some mythologies, such as those of the Native Americans and the West Africans, involve whole cycles in which the culture hero is a trickster who is small and resourceful, as well as greedy, pretentious, deceitful, and stupid—a paradoxical creature who is tricked or tricks himself as often as tricking others. Thus, Anansi the Spider, the trickster-hero of a great body of West African folktales, seems both to instruct human beings in what not to do and to illustrate the price of such rebellion from the proper way. Analogous figures in folktales of other cultures are Brer Rabbit in African American folktales, as well as Coyote, Raven, and Hare in North American tales.

IVLegends
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Legends are folk history, and even when dealing with religious subject matter they differ from myth in that they tell about what has happened in the world after the period of its creation is over. They are believed by both narrator and audience and encompass a great variety of subjects: saints; werewolves, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures; adventures of real heroes and heroines; personal reminiscences; and explanations of geographical features and place-names (called local legends).

Legend differs from formal history in style of presentation, emphasis, and purpose. Like other folktale forms it tends to be formulaic, using cliches and standardized characterization. Little effort, for example, is given to recording what a hero was really like. Jesse James, a real-life American outlaw, is presented as a modern-day Robin Hood: a good-hearted character who stole from the rich to give to the poor. The American wilderness scouts Davy Crockett and Kit Carson are virtually the same character in legends. Likewise, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra (of ancient Egypt), Deirdre (of Irish legend), and more recently the modern actor Marilyn Monroe have passed into folklore as symbols of female beauty with almost no individuality. A similar patterning of characters and plots occurs in ghost stories, local legends, and in some cases even in family reminiscences. Such stories, though they may be presented as history, are too patterned to be trusted as objective historical accounts.

Urban legends are contemporary stories that are set in an urban environment and reported as true (sometimes in newspapers) but that contain patterns and motifs that reveal their legendary character. The context of these legends may be contemporary, but the stories reflect timeless concerns about urban living, including privacy, death, decay, and vermin.

VMärchen
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Fairy tales, or Märchen (the German word preferred by scholars to designate this genre), are fiction. Taking place in a wonderland filled with magic and strange characters, they are believed by neither narrator nor audience. Although the supernatural abounds in Märchen, few of them have to do with fairies (see Fairy and Fairy Tale). Although Märchen deal with a great range of subject matter (as stories such as “Cinderella,””Snow White,” or “Little Red Riding Hood” demonstrate), a typical plot involves an underdog hero or heroine who is put through great trials or must perform seemingly impossible tasks, and who with magical assistance secures his or her birthright or a suitable marriage partner. Frequently, such stories begin “Once upon a time” and end “And they lived happily ever after.” Often (especially in the United States) called “Jack Tales” after the name commonly given to the hero, Märchen have become popular stories for children, although originally adults and children alike enjoyed them.

VIOverlapping of Forms
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Attempts at clear-cut definitions such as those given above for myth, legend, and Märchen may be useful, but must not be taken too literally, for the three forms overlap. Bodies of tales such as those relating the exploits of Hercules or King Arthur are mixtures of myth and legend, hovering between the two forms, frequently using concepts and motifs common to Märchen as well. A major reason for this is that tales are continually shifting function (and so definition) as societies conquer one another, mingle, and change beliefs. A story no longer accepted as religious and explanatory may survive as history or even fancy. On the other hand, legendary heroes and heroines may assume godlike qualities, and their adventures may become encrusted with mythological significance.

The definition of any folktale depends on its function in a society and the way the narrator and the audience think of it at the time of performance. Brer Rabbit stories were recited as part of the mythology of West Africans before Africans were brought as slaves to the American South. In America, however, West African religion was almost obliterated by Christianity, and although African Americans continued to tell Brer Rabbit stories, these tales no longer functioned mythologically.

VIIOther Folktale Forms
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The other forms of folktales are also widespread throughout the world. Animal tales fall into two major categories: those, such as the trickster tale, in which animals are actually believed to have the power of speech and the ability to conduct themselves as humans; and those in which the animals’ human qualities are simply a convention that is accepted during the course of the narrative such as in the medieval beast cycles (for example, the tales of Reynard the Fox), or in the fable, with its moralistic ending. When they are not mythological, animal tales have often been a means to hide political or social satire. Although the point is sometimes disputed, the Brer Rabbit stories may have served a similar function. Certainly the medieval beast cycles were filled with criticism of church and state that would have been dangerous to present directly.

Tall tales, stories that the narrator does not believe but that are supposed to dupe the naive listener, are particularly associated with the U.S. frontier, although variants of such stories were well known in earlier times in Europe and Asia. In the United States, tall tales were presented to the city dweller as true pictures of life out West. They rely for their comic effect on the incongruity between sober narration and fantastic elements in the stories themselves. They feature two protagonists whose character traits are frequently interchangeable: the Roarer, a bragging, swearing, hard-drinking brawler; and the Yankee, a quick-thinking trader who is a rogue beneath a bland exterior. The American frontier scouts Davy Crockett and Mike Fink are two of the most famous characters in American tall tales, but many of these stories do not feature a hero; they simply tell of such phenomena as corn that grows so fast it knocks people down or hoop snakes that roll in pursuit of their prey.

Formula tales include endless stories (a person carrying grains of wheat across a river one at a time); cumulative tales, involving additions to a repeated basic statement (for example, the well-known “House That Jack Built”); and catch stories, with surprise endings that often shift the story from serious to punning or clever. Many formula tales, and a good many tall tales as well, are related to the vast body of jokes and facetious anecdotes that circulate in all societies. This genre comprises a huge range of material—both inoffensive and risqué—from vignettes about numskulls and fools, sexual encounters, and confusions caused by dialects, to the modern shaggy-dog story.

Another folktale form is the cante fable, a form that has always been more popular in the Caribbean region than in mainland North America. The cante fable is a story, often an animal tale or a Märchen, in which song or rhyme is interspersed into the spoken prose narrative. The Märchen”Jack and the Beanstalk” has such a rhyme: “Fee-fi-fo-fum/I smell the blood of an Englishman.” Where Caribbean influence is strong in the United States, singers may perform songs such as “Frankie and Johnny” or “John Henry” as cante fable, reciting more than they sing.

VIIIThe Role of Folktale
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Human beings have always been storytellers. Where they have not had a Bible, history books, novels, or short stories, and before such literary forms were devised, they have entertained themselves, instructed younger generations, and kept their records with the many-faceted folktale.

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