What makes a folktale?

I mentioned before that the trinity of myth, legend, and folktale is semi-standard within folklore. Those aren’t the only narrative forms out there — we could talk about fables and tall tales and so on — but for whatever reason, those three form a kind of core within the field. And since they have their own distinct influences on fantasy, I want to take a little while to discuss each one in more detail, starting with the humble folktale.

In casual conversation, these more often get called “fairy tales,” from the French term contes de fées. (The German is märchen, sometimes translated as “wonder tale.”) Folklorists are more likely to use the term “folktale,” though — and not just because it’s a good Saxon compound. See, the odd thing about fairy tales is how few of them involve actual fairies. Is there one in “Hansel and Gretel”? How about “Little Red Riding Hood”? Or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”? Are the dwarves fairies or not? And what about stories like “Cinderella,” where the helpful donor figure is only sometimes a fairy godmother?

Easier to call it a folktale: a story told by the folk, the everyday people. That’s a category that can, at least in theory, be applied worldwide. But of course it doesn’t solve the problem of defining what a folktale is. How do we decide whether something in another part of the world belongs in a category with material from the Brothers Grimm? And, for that matter, why do we apply the term to literary inventions like the stories of Hans Christian Andersen?

If you came here hoping for a simple answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Folklorists have argued these questions for decades, and still don’t entirely agree. Most would say, though, that folktales are secular in nature (which differentiates them from myths), and are understood to be fictional (which differentiates them from legends): nobody believes, or used to believe, that the events they describe ever happened. They often, though not always, include what we would call a “speculative element,” i.e. something supernatural.

The connection with fantasy is obvious when we talk about straight-up retellings, taking a narrative generally agreed to be a folktale and revamping it in some fashion. (I’ll probably talk more about those later.) But sometimes we refer to original narratives as seeming like a fairy tale, and at that point, the points I made above fall short. George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is widely recognized to be secular and fictional, with speculative elements, but it is nothing like a folktale. Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel, however, is folktale-ish enough that I once wrote a paper on it for a folklore conference. What are we looking at when we differentiate fantasy along those lines?

I could answer that question now, but my reasoning is lengthy enough that I think it needs to be its own post. So I’ll come back to this in two weeks, and in the meantime leave you all to chew on the question yourself. Give your own answers in the comments, and we’ll see what kind of consensus (if any) emerges.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of A Natural History of Dragons and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies of Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire. Her first BVC release, the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy, is on sale now. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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17 Responses to What makes a folktale?

  1. Hi Marie.

    Not truly my field, so my opinions aren’t backed up with a lot of evidence or anything other than the ideas that my idiosyncratic reading has picked up over my life.

    Anyway, to me, a folktale at the bottom is a magical story featuring bourgeois or lower-class protagonists whose method of transmission was originally oral, or person-to-person. It has fantastic or magical elements, often but not always, faeries.

  2. Koby says:

    Very interesting. My definition… well, it’s a bit vague (though the question seems to demand that). I’d say a folktale is a story generally accepted to be fictional, because some parts of it are simply too fantastic to happen in real life, primarily because the narrative demands it. Whether it’s because of implausible coincidences, characters who do not act as human nature usually dictates, or because of supernatural elements. Game of Thrones is a good example of this – it may be too realistic (heavily based as it is on English History) to be considered a folk tale.

    I actually find this really intriguing, because folk tales changes from ‘folk’ to ‘folk’, and as one widely versed in Jewish folk tales, I can see how most of the definitions you suggest cannot apply. Even the secular one usually falls by the roadside, because Jewish folk tales are religious by their very nature.

  3. Paul — how, then, do you account for the fairy tales whose protagonists are princes and princesses? “Snow White” is a well-known one, but there are many others.

    There are also stories collected as folktales that don’t have a single non-realistic element — but, to be fair, some of that gets into the question of whether the things collected as folktales actually form any kind of coherent category, which they arguably don’t. Whee, messes! :-)

    Koby — I don’t know enough about Jewish folklore to judge, but when you say the stories are “religious by their very nature,” is that the same thing as sacred? When I talk about folktales being secular, I don’t mean that they ignore religion; I mean that they are not sacred, if you can follow what I mean by that distinction. They are not, themselves, sacred texts, in the way that scripture is sacred.

    But it’s hard to talk about this without talking about a hundred other things at the same time, so possibly it will have to wait for future blog posts before my points will really become clear. :-)

    • Koby says:

      Oh, no. They are not sacred texts like the Bible or the Tractate. But here is where it gets confusing – because some Jewish Folk Tales (the really old one, the archetypes) are basically parts of the Tractate or the Midrashim, where a story is told. Which makes them sacred texts, of course. But most Jewish Folk Tales, though based on the archetypes presented in the sacred texts are not sacred texts in and of themselves.
      However, they still maintain a strong religious element – there is no magic to save the day, the wise old man is always a Rabbi, and the person who gets rewarded or punished deserves it because either he was appropriately religious or secular. Even much later folk tales (such as, say ‘Hanukkah with George Washington in Valley Forge’) revolve around some religious element (in the above case, lighting the Hanukkah Menorah).

      • Well, stick around for when I talk about myths later on — then I think the framework I’m talking about will become clearer. :-) (This is starting to drive me crazy, realizing the extent to which I can’t talk about any one thing without first establishing five others, some of which really need that first one before they can be established.)

    • Well, a lot of fairy tales are rags-to-riches tales, or the lost prince/princess, or the prince/princess laid low. Sleeping beauty doesn’t fit this, but Snow White does.

      • True . . . but laying royalty low is not quite the same thing as starting with a peasant. And again, there are plenty of folktales not in the familiar Disney canon that are about royalty, minus the laying-low part.

  4. Lance Foster says:

    Hmmm, what we are talking about here are taxonomies of folk narratives. There are many ways to come up with taxonomies, and none of them are “wrong,” but some are more useful. I am not a folklorist but I am an anthropologist. I am learning about the whole folktale motifs and tale types in connection with a project I am doing, which is a study and re-telling of my tribe’s traditional stories.

    My tribe, the Ioway, just has two categories of tales, the wekan and the worage. The wekan basically are considered to be sacred, as they deal with things far back in time: origins of creation, origins of clans, origins of ceremonies…but also stories of when animals talked and behaved as people do, in ancient times. We don’t consider them to be secular or to be “myths” (yes I know the term means something different when Joseph Campbell etc. use it, but most Native people still think it means “untruth” so it is held to be a pejorative term). Wekan are distinguished also by the fact you can only tell them in winter. This is because the guardians of sacred things like the wekan, guardians like the Thunder and the Snakes, are away or asleep in winter. If you tell them during the summer, they will hear, and the snakes will come and bite you.

    Worage are not sacred in that sense, though some individuals may hold them with great wonder and respect. They are basically news, things that really happened in recent times, some of them told in extended narrative forms. Even a story of a person’s encounter with the supernatural, as in a vision quest, is considered to be a worage.

    As I said, I am working on a collection of our Wekan and Worage, in part to preserve them in a more accessible way for the tribe, in part to better embed them in myself, in part to better understand them in a functional and larger context, and finally, to be able to become a better traditional storyteller to keep the stories alive as they were meant to be.

    As an aside, I just happened upon this blog today, and wonder if you guys have any recommendations for other blogs or resources on folktales (especially the codes on motifs and tale types).

    • That sounds like an awesome project, Lance!

      Other blogs on the topic, I don’t really know. Book-wise, it sounds like you’re already familiar with the Motif Index and the Tale-Type Index (but if not, I’ll be talking about the latter on Friday). I know Alan Dundes wrote some about the morphology of North American Indian folktales, but I also know it was kind of high-level theoretical stuff (at least, the bits I read were) — not really addressing the kinds of topics that would be likely to help you in your work. You might try looking into the work of Dennis Tedlock? Most of what he’s done has been on Mesoamerica, but he also did at least one collection of Zuni tales, Finding the Center, that demonstrates a method for writing down a story that also includes performance cues — sort of a “score” for how the story was told. It’s weird-looking, but potentially useful.

      Regarding terminology, “myth” is absolutely the accepted term for sacred stories about the origin of things, not just in the Joseph Campbell pop-culture end of the field, but throughout. I know what you mean about it sounding pejorative, though — in fact, that’s one of the things I intend to talk about when I get to discussing myths in a later blog post. Worage sound like legends for the most part (again, using that term in its technical sense), though of course I don’t expect the Ioway categories to map precisely to the common Western ones. (If you didn’t see it already, one of my earlier posts talks about the contrast between external and internal taxonomies.)

      Anyway, please do speak up if you have more questions or additions. It’s great to talk to somebody working with folklore!

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  6. Julie says:

    I disagree with idea that nobody believes folk tales ever happened in real life. Some of them could have started out as true stories. Alterations and supernatural elements are easy to add in retelling over the years.

    • They could have been inspired by real events; but that isn’t the same thing as people believing the stories are true accounts. And, of course, I’m not saying that nobody ever thinks stories with supernatural things in them are true — that would be pretty blatantly foolish. Just that one of the productive ways to group stories, especially European ones, is to look at which ones purport to be about real things that happened to real people in real places — “back in the days of King Charles, a man coming home from the war was walking past that hill along the road when….” — and the “once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom” mentality of folktales.

  7. I like your separation of myth, legend and folktale, but I’m investigating Japanese folktales for a project, and of course they’re going to track differently just to be difficult.

    They mostly have some supernatural elements in them. They also have historical people show up – who may not have been recorded as having had such a run-in as the tale documents. The tales may have gods or demons appear. Often they reveal things about character or lack thereof, which is more what I thought a folktale was about.

    So they may or may not be secular, they may at one time have been believed as truth (and still may be — shrines are common in Japan, and there are territories where fox spirits are still a strong belief.) Yet so far the majority seem to be soundly in the camp of “created by the people for the people.”

    • Yes, this is one of the times where emic vs. etic categories become a relevant issue. Certain things may come to attention if you view those stories through the folklore/legend/myth lens, but different aspects will show up if you examine them from the perspective of Japanese categories.

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