Step One- Forms of Folk Literature

Directions: Use this page to take notes on the different forms of folk literature. You will be asked to identify the forms of each of the folk tales you read and you will be tested at the end of the unit on your knowledge of the different forms of folk literature. (Scroll down and use the entire page.)
  • Legends and traditions -- a three-pronged term for a story told as a fact and covering
    1. creation and/or origin;
    2. supernatural beings such as elves or ghosts;
    3. historic or pseudohistoric characters, such as Robin Hood.
  • Fairy tales -- always fictional and occurring in a never never land, and thus different from legends and traditions; they include such stories as Cinderella and Snow White.
  • Animal tales -- stories about animals who act and behave like humans, such as Puss in Boots, or the Uncle Remus cycle.
  • Fables -- animal tales with a moral  
  • Myths -- a complicated term that may refer to some of the above, but more often to the exploits of gods, demigods, and heroes, or to a glorified past age.
Encyclopedia Mythica: Folktales. 26 Apr. 2003 <>. 
Fairy tales are usually set in a vague time, "a long time ago." They have make-believe people who have strange tasks or challenges to meet, and who are helped by magical, mysterious beings. (Example: "Cinderella" being helped by her fairy godmother)

Legends are usually set in a recognizable place and time. The main character is a human hero who performs super-human deeds. They are usually based on a real, historical figure who possesses powers that are exaggerated each time it is retold.

Fables are very short tales and usually contain a moral. Some have human characters and some have animal characters that act like humans. (Example: "The Tortoise and the Hare" - slow and easy wins the race.)

Pourquoi stories tell why or how something in nature came to be that way. The characters are usually animals. (Example: "Why Rabbit has a Short Tail")

Trickster tales are usually about animals who trick other animals. The trickster usually wins due to his cleverness and some kind of character flaw of his victim. (Example: "Bre'r Rabbit, Bre'r Fox, and the Briar Bush).

Folk Tales: Lesson 2. 26 Apr. 2003 <>.

There are many types of folktales. Such tales are traditional--that is, we do not know who created them; they are very old, carried and preserved by word of mouth, and intended for all audiences regardless of age, sex, class, etc. In recent years, literary tales have been written. We know their authors, they are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and their content is usually more detailed and complex than that of traditional folktales. The following discussion of the folktales ranges from the simplest to the most complex types. It is important to note that many tales contain elements of more than one tale type.
  1. Cumulative Tales are the add-on type of story in which there is minimum plot and maximum repetition and rhythm. There is little magic in these tales and a simple or absent conflict. These can be told to very young children. Some examples of traditional cumulative tales are "The Old Woman and Her Pig," "Johnny Cake," "Teeny Tiny," "The Gingerbread Man," and "The Strongest One of All." Examples of literary cumulative tales are The Elephant and the Bad Baby and The Napping House. Variations are repetitive tales, such as Millions of Cats, where the structure is not "add-on," but there is a lot of repetition, and chain tales, such as If You Give a Moose a Muffin, where there is a hook or a pattern ("if you give a") that ties the tale together.
  2. Animal Tales are ones whose characters are humanized animals who demonstrate some simple lesson about human nature. Usually they offer no other magic, especially those tales that come from western culture. These involve repetition, usually by threes, and are only slightly, if any, longer than the brief cumulative tale. Examples of traditional animal tales are "The Three Bears," "The Three Little Pigs," "The Three Billy Goats Gruff, "The Little Red Hen," "The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids," and "The Bremen Town Musicians." There are many, many literary animal tales--Potter's tales about Peter Rabbit and his friends and family, Rey's books about curious George, many of Leo Lionni's books about mice, fish, and other creatures, and all the books about Francis, Babar, Veronica, Lyle, Carl, and countless others. There are more picture books of this type than any other. Literary animal tales have fuller characterization of their main characters, they are more childlike, and they experience situations typical of the young child today--first day of school, the birth of a sibling, moving, etc. Nursery Tales are either cumulative or animal folktales, not literary animal tales or trickster tales, which can combine elements of animal tales, humorous tales, and myths. Trickster tales about coyote and br'er rabbit, for example, are common in native American, African, and African American cultures. When they deal with creation, they clearly are more mythic, but when they focus on outsmarting some other animal or person, they are humorous. In either case, they most often seem morally ambiguous.
  3. Humorous Tales offer examples of outrageous human stupidity. This stupidity results in slapstick and, more rarely in the traditional tales, in word play, allowing the listener to feel superior. Characters in the traditional tales are mostly low class, ordinary people and are often very childlike. In the end, they often succeed despite their huge mistakes. These tales are more complex than most nursery tales because they demand a sufficient grasp of reality to recognize the absurdity of what these numbskulls and fools do. In some cases, these numbskulls and fools are the victims of tricksters, another common character in humorous tales and one requiring sufficient maturity to follow and understand the tricks played. Without tricksters, humorous folktales demand the beginnings of a sense of humor. With tricksters, they require a somewhat more developed sense of humor. Examples of traditional humorous tales are "The Three Sillies," "Lazy Jack," "Mr. Vinegar," and "Master of All Masters." The latter is a bit more complex than many because it involves some word play, but a bit simpler than many because it is also a cumulative tale. Examples of literary humorous tales are Sendak's Pierre, Russell Hoban's How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, Sesyle Joslin's What Do You Say, Dear?, and Virginia Kahl's The Duchess Bakes a Cake. All of these involve word play--nonsense, puns, nursery-rhyme-like rhythm--and Tom is a trickster, which makes them more complex than the traditional tales. They are also longer than them.
  4. Fairytales are full of magic--giants, witches, magical tablecloths, beans, and sticks--all sorts of magic. These are set in a fantasy land, involve upper class characters--princes, princesses, kings, and queens, and frequently rely on the pattern of three. The conflict portrayed is generally life and death. At the end the fortunes of the lowly, childlike, good protagonist and the adult like, evil, antagonist are usually. Castles, journeys, mysteries, huts, woods, rivers, bridges, a talking or otherwise helpful animal frequently appear. There is also bizarre but not graphic violence. The magic and the violence make this type of tale more complex than the types already discussed. Traditional fairytales are appropriate only to children whose grasp of reality is sufficient to allow them to recognize these tales as fantasy. Examples of traditional fairytales are "Cinderella," "Snow White," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and "Puss in Boots." Literary fairytales often seem closer to the contemporary child's reality or at least more realistic than traditional fairy tales, which are clearly set in a world apart. Literary fairytales are often about children, for example, Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There and Van Allsburg's Jumanji, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and The Polar Express. The same is true of Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which although the characters are animals, has a very childlike protagonist. That it is both an animal tale and a fairytale surfaces another important fact about both the traditional and the literary tales. They are often mixed types, containing features of two or more types. See also Nodelman's chapter on fairytales in The Pleasures of Children's Literature, pages 245-263.
  5. Tall Tales are about people who supposedly really lived and about places which really exist. Their protagonists, however, perform superhuman deeds, like roping a tornado, digging the Great Lakes, swimming underwater the length of the Mississippi, and greasing the axis of the world. Exaggerated and often humorous, this type has been especially popular in the United States, where the task of taming a vast wilderness seemed overwhelming and demanded great perseverance and a good sense of humor. Because they are usually longer than the other types, more involved, and ambiguous about the distinction between reality and fantasy, they require a more mature reader than the other types. Traditional examples are tales about Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Mike Fink, Slufoot Sue, Pecos Bill, and John Henry. There really are no literary tales of this type as there are no literary legends or myths for children.
  6. Legends are half way between historical fact and myths, with less of the supernatural and more authenticity than myth. Like those of the tall tale, their protagonists supposedly lived and were important to the history of their respective countries. Legends often indicate the lore of the people and serve as expressions of the racial or national spirit. Examples are stories about St. George and the Dragon, Robin Hood, King Arthur, Buddha, and Muhammad. The legends of native peoples "may be anecdotes told in connection with a person or a place, or they may be the most primal of creation myths. What they share is a fragmentary dreamlike structure appropriate to their continued survival as stories recited within a living tradition" (Saltman, 480-1).
  7. Myths are sacred stories, which supply "models for human behavior" and "give meaning and value to life" (Eliade, Myth and Reality, 1-2). Western civilization has been strongly shaped by Greek, Roman, Norse, Celtic, and Judeo-Christian mythologies. Today we also possess African, Asian, and native American mythologies (See also Saltman, 475-80 and Nodelman, 264-8). Myths are stories about gods. They attempt to explain the creation, divinity, religion, human nature, features of the natural world, and death. Some critics see all literature as myth, believing that in our urge to tell stories we seek to give order and meaning to our lives even when our stories are not about gods or other supernatural creatures. As a type of literature, though, a myth is a very old story, often believed to be divinely inspired, and dealing with the relationship between people, their culture, and their god(s). The  stories about Zeus (Jupiter) and his wife and children, the stories about Odin and Balder and Loki, and the stories of druids, mysterious and magical women, of Bran. Saltman offers the myths of Demeter, Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus, Atalanta, Midas, Odin, Balder, Thor, Loki, Glooskap, Coyote, and Sedna. Pourquoi (French for why) tales may function as myth, offering a seriously intended explanation of how something came to be, or was created.  There are also pourquoi tales which are humorous, sometimes folktales, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears and sometimes literary tales, Rudyard Kipling's pourquoi tales, collected as The Just So Stories.

Types of Folk Tales. 26 Apr. 2003 <>.

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