From Aesop’s fables to narrative jokes to Little Red Riding Hood, folktale is a folklore genre that academic folklorists define a little differently than you might expect…but we have our reasons. Such as two+ centuries of folktale scholarship, and a few millennia worth of written and oral texts.
Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction. They are not considered as dogma or history…although it is often said that they are told only for amusement, they have other important functions, as the class of moral folktales should have suggested. Folktales may be set in any time and any place, and in this sense they are almost timeless and placeless. (8)
This is pretty close to the definition I use when teaching folklore classes: that folktales are fictional, formulaic narratives. I include “formulaic” because they tend to include traditional expressions and repetitions, such as how things come in threes in fairy tales. They are often secular, in contrast to myth which is related to religious belief, and they are not often believed to be true, in contrast to both myth and legend.
Since folktale is considered a large umbrella-ish genre of narrative folklore, it makes sense to talk about the sub-genres of folktale, which are usually widespread enough to be worth talking about as their own genres. These include (among others):
- Fairy tales
- Animal tales (tales like Aesop’s fables with talking animal protagonists)
- Narrative joke/anecdotes (as opposed to Q&A style jokes like knock-knock jokes)
- Fabliaux (comic and/or bawdy tales, usually from medieval French literature)
- Formula tales (such as the Gingerbread Man, aka the Runaway Pancake)
I don’t have a proper #FolkloreThursday post up for fairy tales yet (except now I do!), but the very first post on my blog from October 2011 more or less defines fairy tales: they’re folktales (hence fictional and formulaic, which in fairy tales usually means things come in threes), with the addition of magical elements, quests, and transformations, usually to the tune of the protagonist changing from youthful to mature, low-status/poor to high-status/rich, and from single to married. But there are always exception; tales like Little Red Riding Hood are undeniably part of the fairy-tale tradition, though it doesn’t end in marriage, and it doesn’t even always have a happy ending. To see this in action, check out folklorist D.L. Ashliman’s collection of LRRH texts, only some of which end with her devoured by the wolf. Again, when we’re talking about folklore, we’re inevitably talking about variation, so documenting multiple versions of a tale and then demonstrating where tradition and variation appear is one way to study the folktale.
Some of the folktale subtypes are less well known today. Jokes and anecdotes that were known in European oral tradition as jests about married couples and priests are no longer in fad. But as Jan Brunvand points out, numskull jokes, which “attribute absurd ignorance to people” (238), are still prevalent, often in the guise of jokes about immigrants or other stereotyped ethnic groups.
Okay, on to some folkloristic tools for studying folktales! I’ve written about tale types in relation to a Twitter trend (maybe we can resurrect it! eh? eh?), and here’s my brief definition (expanded upon here):
The tale type system, pioneered by Finn Antti Aarne in the early 1900s and revised by American Stith Thompson in the mid-20th century and updated by German Hans-Jorg Uther in 2004, assigns numbers to tale plots. So “Cinderella” is Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) 510A, “Little Red Riding Hood” is ATU 333, and so on.
In other words, yes, folklorists are such giant nerds that we invented a system to classify folktale plots by number, and we’re still using it. Heck, it’s useful – “Cinderella” isn’t called such in every culture where it’s told, and thus having a system to categorize folktale plots based on something other than the tale’s title is essential for international research.
Tale types are useful for a number of reasons, among which because they help us track the tranmission and performance of tales regardless of whether they appear in oral or literary contexts. This is a vexed relationship, which many scholars have debated. I tend to follow the assertions of fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes, who writes:
Fairy tales were first told by gifted tellers and were based on rituals intended to endow meaning to the daily lives of members of a tribe. As oral folk tales, they were intended to explain natural occurrences such as the change of the seasons and shifts in the weather or to celebrate the rites of harvesting, hunting, marriage, and conquest. The emphasis on most folk tales was on communal harmony. […] With the rise of literacy and the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, the oral tradition of storytelling underwent an immense revolution. The oral tales were taken over by a different social class, and the form, themes, prodution, and reception of the tales were transformed. (10-11)
The main convention in folktale scholarship these days very much follows Zipes’s work, distinguishing between the oral folktale (also called the oral wonder tale) and the literary or written fairy tale. Many times the plots, motifs, and themes of the texts are continuous, while changing the context is enough to make significant changes in how the tales function, and what their textures are like.
In regard to the importance of context, Cristina Bacchilega incisively observes:
A tale told by peasants in Medieval Europe simply does not express the same desires or values as the “same” tale written by a Romantic German poet…narratives often symbolize different needs and aspirations for different social groups. (6)
Bacchilega also famously called folktales and fairy tales “ideologically variable desire machines” (7). These narratives alternately function in liberatory and normative ways, oscillating between sending emancipatory messages and conformist ones. And these messages are more often than not gendered; Bacchilega is one of many scholars bringing feminist theory and queer theory to the table, in order to better understand the folktale and fairy tale’s “narrative construction of magic as ‘natural,’ with an emphasis on the gendered implications for women” (6).
Folktales are important to study because as folklore, they reflect culture. However, once you’re in the realm of fiction, just how is culture being reflected? Obviously we depart from reality – with, say, talking animals showing up in a folktale – once we need to account for how we’re not seeing the literal reflection of culture at that point. So are we seeing metaphor, or symbolism, or a reflection of some subconscious aspect of an individual’s or society’s worldview? It can be tough to say, and this is one reason why there are multiple theoretical approaches to interpreting folktales.
Of course, folktales are also elusive in part because they’re so amorphous. When folktales were documented in writing (since, again in European contexts they often had lower-class connotations), they tended to appear alongside other forms of narrative. Take Greek mythology: “Cupid and Psyche” is the same plot as “Beauty and the Beast” (in the ATU 425 family, dealing with monstrous/supernatural bridegrooms), but it appears embedded in Apuleius’s fictional work The Metamorphosis. Similarly, Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops, whom he blinds and outwits by claiming to be nobody, appears in a narrative we’d categorize overall as an epic, but the plot of that snippet is found in international folktale traditions around Europe (it’s tale type 1137, if you were curious).
A number of folktale plots also appear in ancient Indian writings like the Panchatantra (a collection of tales that dates from the 3rd century BC). As noted folktale scholar Stith Thompson has stated in his monumental study The Folktale, a number of studies (including those done by the Grimm brothers) “posited India as the fountain from which the European tales had all flowed” (379). The comparative impulse remains strong in folktale studies today, though we tend to be less concerned about origins than about context and reception more generally.
Whether certain folktale plots derive from monogenesis or polygenesis, we may never know. But we can study their paths of transmission where we have the documentation to do so, and we can analyze how they’re reinterpreted in new media texts such as film, novel, and comic book. Folktales continue to be relevant to people in various situations, and thus we’ll continue to find a balance between studying their history and interpreting their updated and revised versions.
Bacchilega, Cristina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
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.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].
Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977 .
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.