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Folk Tales: Definition, Characteristics, Types & Examples

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  • 0:00 Introduction to Folk Tales
  • 0:45 What Makes a Folk Tale?
  • 3:40 Some Common Types of…
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

From ghost stories to fairy tales to animal fables, folk tales are beloved by people of all ages in all cultures. Find out more about the characteristics and types of folk tales in this lesson.

Introduction to Folk Tales

The campers huddle nervously around the fire as the smoke wafts up in eerie patterns. The counselor tells the familiar old ghost story in a low, spooky tone, building the anticipation as the young children squeal in terrified delight. They've heard this story dozens of times before, but it's part of camp tradition, and every year they ask to hear it again and again.

The campers in this situation may not know it, but they're participating in the ancient tradition of telling folk tales, which are stories passed down verbally from generation to generation. Ghost stories, of course, are just one kind of folk tale. We'll take a closer look at what defines a folk tale and examine some different types.

What Makes a Folk Tale?

There are many different kinds of folk tales, with thousands of regional and cultural variations, but they all share a few common characteristics. At the most basic level, we can say that a folk tale is a story passed down orally from generation to generation. Let's look more closely at a few defining traits. Folk tales usually:

Feature regular people: Our English word 'folk' comes from the German word volk, meaning 'people.' So, as you might guess, folk tales are stories about everyday life and the day-to-day issues of humanity. Sometimes the stories involve supernatural elements, like the ghost story we discussed above, but they usually happen to people just like you and me. Other kinds of folk tales involve animals, but the animal characters behave like humans, with realistic emotions, flaws, and failings. This is part of what makes folk tales so enduring and appealing - listeners can relate to the characters in the story and imagine what they'd do in the same situation.

Are simple: Think about the word 'folks' or 'folksy.' What image comes to mind? Maybe you think of grandmas and grandpas, farm life, and simple villagers. When we talk about 'folklore,' we're talking about the kind of knowledge used by everyday people, not the refined kind of book-learning you'd find in universities.

Think about chicken soup versus antibiotics. Generally speaking, folk tales originated among peasants and villagers without much formal education. These stories were shared among generations as a way of presenting everyday life lessons and useful information in an easy-to-understand format. They also help connect listeners to the common cultural values of a particular tribe, ethnic group, or culture.

Are passed down orally: The camp counselor keeping her charges entertained knows that folk tales are meant to be told out loud. They're part of an oral tradition, stemming from a preliterate age before the invention of writing. Today, we have the option to read folk tales in books because of people like the Brothers Grimm. In the 19th century, they traveled around rural Germany, collecting folk tales that had never before been written down.

Even now that books are widely accessible, anyone who's gone to summer camp knows very well the impression a well-told story can make on eager listeners. Or, perhaps you have enjoyed listening to a grandparent tell the same old family story over and over again. Listening to a great storyteller is a lot different - sometimes scarier or more moving - than reading the same story out of a book. Hearing a story from an elder (the traditional format for folk tales) brings it to life in a special way.

Contains a moral: Many folk tales contain a moral, or lesson, that comes at the end of the story. The fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare, for example, finishes with the pithy line, 'Slow and steady wins the race.' These tales are designed to sugarcoat tough life lessons and give listeners (often children) pointers on how to behave.

Some Common Types of Folk Tales

Fairy tales: 'Cinderella', 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Snow White', and the 'Little Mermaid' are all classic fairy tales. These stories offer fantastic embellishments on the basic elements of human existence: birth, adolescence, work, marriage, jealousy, love, death, etc. Often these tales are allegories; that is, narratives that use symbols to explain larger abstract concepts.

'Little Red Riding Hood', for example, can be read as an allegory of a young woman's path to adulthood. Little Red Riding Hood has to leave the safety of her home (her family) and travel through the dark woods (adolescence). Along the way, she encounters many dangers (the Big Bad Wolf), but she is rescued by a loving and protective man (the Good Woodcutter). She comes out safely and is rewarded by marriage and family life.

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