#FolkloreThursday: Folk Narrative

#FolkloreThursday: Folk Narrative April 14, 2016

Illustration from Mighty Mikko; a book of Finnish fairy tales and folktales (1922), from Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from Mighty Mikko; a book of Finnish fairy tales and folktales (1922), from Wikimedia Commons

“Folk narrative” is a term I throw around a fair bit, so I thought I’d define it for a #FolkloreThursday post in order to refer back to it easily.

To accomplish this, we need to break the term down into its two components: “folk” and “narrative.” I’ll start with narrative.

A narrative is a story, or a framed retelling of events in which something happens or changes. Basically, there needs to be a plot. A narrative is not a snippet or a brief summary, though narratives (of course) can be summarized.

Now on to the folk part: if folklore is traditional, informally transmitted culture, then adding “folk” as a prefix to something means it partakes in this type of cultural transmission. It means you can prove that it oscillates between tradition and variation. We do this by documenting that a text or type of performance has multiple existence and variation (e.g. you can collect it from different narrators/performers/believers, and it won’t be exactly the same each time).

So to show that something is a folk narrative, you need to demonstrate both its folk-ness (that it comes from folklore and not print culture, the mass media, etc) and its narrative-ness (that it’s a story, and not some other form of verbal folklore that doesn’t contain any narrative aspects).

Folklorist William Bascom describes folk narrative as prose narrative, as seen in the three key genres of myth, legend, and folktale, saying that they “are related to each other in that they are narratives in prose, and this fact distinguishes them from proverbs, riddles, ballads, poems, tongue-twisters, and other forms of verbal art on the basis of strictly formal characteristics” (7). In other words, other verbal genres of folklore like riddles, proverbs, and tongue-twisters wouldn’t count as folk narrative because they’re not telling a story, though they are expressed linguistically (as opposed to non-verbal genres of folklore such as rite of passage, which are expressed in actions rather than words, though they may have verbal components to them). Oh, and I might consider ballads to be a form of folk narrative, because even though they’re put to music, they usually do have a plot…but that’s a discussion for another time.

Bascom also classically defines the big three genres of folk narrative, which I’ll relay here (follow links for blog posts on each):

  • Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction (8)
  • Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past (9)
  • Legends are prose narratives which, like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considered less remote, when the world was much as it is today (9)

Finally, I’d like to point out that folk narrative and its main genres are analytical categories not native or ethnic categories. Amy Shuman and Galit Hasan-Rokem distinguish these as such: “Analytic categories refer to the scholars’ genre classifications; the categorization systems used by particular groups are ethnic genres” (64). Genres are resources for communication, whether we’re using them in a scholarly context and imposing our own language, or whether people are using them strategically to get a point across in their own contexts. Very few people walk up and say, “Now I shall regale you with a folk narrative!” So keep in mind that while the term’s useful in a scholarly setting, it may not get much play elsewhere.

And that’s the brief way to define folk narrative in folklore scholarship!


Bascom, William. “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” In Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, ed. Alan Dundes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 5-29.

Shuman, Amy, and Galit Hasan-Rokem. “The Poetics of Folklore.” In A Companion to Folklore, ed. Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell , 2012. 55-74.

Browse Our Archives