Folktale style

(Not to be confused with Gangnam Style.)

The “folktale vibe” of a story has more to it than just the grammar of its plot. It’s also a matter of style.

I don’t mean prose style, though certainly there are phrases that have come to be iconic markers of a folktale: “Once upon a time,” “and they lived happily ever after,” etc. Diana Wynne Jones’ lovely novel Howl’s Moving Castle begins, “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” Those opening lines are a clear invocation of the genre; how many folktales have you read where there are three brothers or three sisters or three guardians along the path? (I should note, though, that threes are a European thing. Indigenous North American stories, for example, are more likely to have fours.)

But there’s a deeper layer than that, that you may recognize subconsciously even if you’ve never given it much direct thought.

Last time I talked about Vladimir Propp; this time I’m going to talk about Max Lüthi. Specifically, his book The European Folktale: Form and Nature, which talks about the stylistic conventions of . . . well, you can read the title for yourself. Some of them get a bit arcane, but the starting ones are pretty familiar to anybody who has read a lot of non-literary folktales.

The easiest way to describe them is by contrast with legends (which is the approach Lüthi takes). As a general rule, legends take place in specific locations, and often real ones in the teller’s own neighborhood: that river, that hill, that lonely old willow tree. They may take place at specific points in time, too: during the reign of King Henry VIII, or back when the teller’s grandfather was a boy (even if that turns into a moving target over the generations).

When and where does a fairy tale take place? “A long time ago, in a faraway kingdom . . . .” That kingdom is generally not France. Usually it has no name at all, nor does it have much in the way of history. This is why so many people have been able to write about worlds where all folktales coexist together: the TV show Once Upon a Time, the comic book Fables, a variety of roleplaying games.

Furthermore, there’s a difference in how characters behave in legends vs. folktales. In the former, a headless horseman comes riding up to the heroine while she’s crossing a bridge late at night. The heroine freaks the ever-loving hell out, because this guy has no HEAD and he’s RIDING AROUND and OMGWTFBBQ. In the latter, a lion comes charging out of the bushes at the hero and says, “I’m going to crunch your bones!” The hero is very understandably concerned that the lion may indeed crunch his bones. But you know what he doesn’t do?

He doesn’t say, “A talking lion? That’s unpossible!”

There’s actually a neat symmetry buried in that. As Lüthi puts it — I’m paraphrasing — in legends the weird stuff is physically close (i.e. in the real neighborhood) but spiritually distant (and therefore strange), while in folktales it’s physically distant (in some nebulous never-never-land) but spiritually close (and therefore mostly taken in stride).

Corollary to the unflappable folktale protagonist: nobody ever says “ow.” Remember how, in the gorier versions of “Cinderalla,” the step-sisters cut off bits of their feet to try and fit into the slipper? The blood gushing out eventually gives them away . . . but it doesn’t seem to bother the girls themselves in the slightest. They’re prancing off to the castle, ready to marry the prince. The hero comes to a mountain made of glass (which he treats as entirely normal, even though he’s never seen anything like it before) with a locked door at its base; without so much as batting an eyelash, he cuts off his little finger and uses it as a key. Whatever injuries they suffer are plot devices or symbols of something else. They’re never the debilitating wounds they would be in real life.

As you might guess, this makes for an interesting tension with modern retellings, which often conform to the conventions of realistic fiction when it comes to giving the characters interiority and psychologically plausible reactions. They also tend to provide more in the way of setting specificity than a folktale does, even if the specificity is entirely made-up. I’ll come back to this later, in all likelihood, but for now we can note that this is the reason why the fiction which feels the most folktale-esque is often the stuff that is also the most stylized or dream-like.

If you want a nice example, take a look at Meredith Ann Pierce’s novel The Darkangel. That link goes to an article I wrote for Strange Horizons, which is itself an adaptation of another conference paper I presented in graduate school. It goes into more detail on Lüthi’s analysis of the folktale style (and also — fair warning — has spoilers for Pierce’s book). There’s a reason I chose The Darkangel as an example back when I asked what made a folktale; it’s a lovely hybrid of that style with the conventions of modern fiction, using enough of the latter to be more emotionally engaging than most fairy tales, but leaning far enough toward the former that it feels strongly like a fairy tale itself.

There’s more to say, of course, but I’ll postpone it until the new year, and use my time slot two weeks from now to talk about something more seasonally appropriate. Until then, I’d love recommendations of other novels that follow the folktale style, or reader reactions to same. Do you find the psychological flatness of the genre off-putting, or does it help you project yourself into the protagonist’s shoes?



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Folktale style — 8 Comments

  1. So the question is, can you inadvertently de-folkloreize a folklore tale by too-loose adherence to the stylistic conventions, even if the matter, plot and characters are straight from folklore?

    And if you can and do, what do you have? “Just” fantasy?

    • Welcome to the topic of an upcoming post. 🙂 But the short form is that I would say you have a hybrid, in the same way that you have a hybrid if you do a techno remix of “O Fortuna.” There’s still opera in there, but that isn’t the same thing as saying the piece as a whole is operatic.

  2. And if we wish to write a tale where the setting is more realistic physically, but the spirit/magic is also near – is that contemporary fantasy?

    For some reason, when you asked about folklore, and modern tales, the book “Summers at Castle Auburn” popped into my mind. Some people dismiss it as one of Shinn’s lighter books, but something of it — choices, coming of age, seeing beneath masks — felt very much like what I think of in faery, whether faerytale or folklore. It both teaches and entertains in a manner that feels timeless to me.

    I may need to memorize your definitions to continue following your posts.

    • Urban fantasy where the mystical is a secret often feels like a legend in that regard: the setting is “close” to us but the supernatural is far, in that it freaks out the mundane protagonist who encounters it. Urban fantasy where the mystical is known and integrated is a different flavor of story, different in that respect from both legends and folktales.

      “Timelessness” is an interesting thing, and (naturally) hard to pin down. A lot of it often has to do with archetypes; if characters or events or even themes fall into patterns familiar to the reader, the story tends to either come across as timeless, or boringly cliche. 🙂 (I think a lot of the difference between those depends on how meaningful the patterns in question are.) But of course much of that reaction depends on the reader’s own experience: a “timeless” Southeast Asian story (or a boringly cliche one) will feel very individual and new to me, because I don’t know the traditions it’s drawing on, even if those traditions are thousands of years old.

  3. So, an urban fantasy with magic known to some but freaking out others — legend with touches of other traditions.

    I think I know what you mean about timeless VS cliche. Eragon bored me to tears, but then I recognized every trope in it, and I didn’t feel like anything new was being brought to the table, not even a new perspective. But to the young people who haven’t read the books and stories that inspired him, it was all fresh and exciting.

  4. I recommend Katherine Catmull’s Summer and Bird as an example of folktale style. to use your terminology, I’d call it physically distant while spiritually (and psychologically) close.

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