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.