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Traditional Literature: Definition, Characters, Types & Books

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  • 0:01 What Is Traditional…
  • 1:05 Traditional Characters
  • 1:53 Types of Traditional…
  • 5:03 Popular Traditional Literature
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Learn what makes traditional literature such an influential part of our culture. This lesson will break down its definition, purpose, and popular examples.

What Is Traditional Literature?

You have probably heard of tales like 'Cinderella' and the 'Three Little Pigs', but do you know how many times they have been retold? Stories like these are part of the genre known as traditional literature, which are stories that have been passed down through generations. Much of traditional literature was initially told orally and written down later on. Because of this, the stories are often altered slightly in each retelling. For example, Cinderella's name in other versions has been 'Zezolla' and 'Cendrillon.' Nevertheless, the heart of the story will still remain.

The purpose of traditional literature is having the story be relatable to everyone. For this reason, universal themes are important to the genre. Some common themes include good versus evil, the weak versus the strong, the beautiful versus the ugly, and the rich versus the poor. Even if the characters are magical or nonhuman, the message of the story is always one that the majority of people can understand and value.

Traditional Characters

While traditional literature can vary in type, most stories of this genre share common characteristics, especially character archetypes. To help readers easily recognize the story's problem, its characters are broken into clear good versus evil. The hero of the story is usually given a mission that seems impossible to achieve, and the villain is set to keep the hero from accomplishing it.

The main characters can be humans, gods, or animals. They are usually very one-dimensional, meaning that each character will have one definable trait used to describe him/her. These traits could be physical or related to the characters' personalities. For example, if there is a witch character, the witch will most likely be defined by her evil personality, with 'no personal growth' or change of heart.

Types of Traditional Literature

Traditional literature can fall into a number of categories: proverbs, fairytales, folklore, fables, animal tales, myths and legends, etc. The following are explanations of four of the more common types.

Fairytales

Often romantic and always fictional, these stories usually occur 'long, long ago' in 'a far away land.' They are stories of enchanted creatures like witches, giants, and dragons, and fanciful settings like castles or forests. Common characteristics include reoccurring numbers, royalty and, of course, the happily-ever-after ending. For example, take 'Cinderella', the story that began in the late 17th century. Cinderella, a beautiful girl enslaved by her evil stepmother, longs for a better life. When her fairy godmother appears to grant her a wish, Cinderella meets the Prince, who saves her and marries her. The lesson is that kindness and love will triumph over selfishness and evil.

Fables

Also fictional, these stories are typically short in length and heavily allegorical or symbolic. They use morals to both entertain and educate the readers. Common characteristics include talking animals, few characters, and a lot of action, with the lesson of the story appearing at the end. For example, take the fable of 'The Tortoise and the Hare'. The Hare mocks the Tortoise for his slowness, so the Tortoise challenges him to a race. Though the Hare is stronger and faster, he lets pride and over-confidence get in his way. The Tortoise, who is slow yet steady, wins the race, concluding to the readers that perseverance is more worthy than speed or strength.

Legends

Unlike the other two, this type of traditional literature is based on real people and events, or those thought to have been real. The stories are exaggerated to depict heroism, or to give explanation to something not necessarily explainable. Common characteristics include events that have occurred in the recent past, secular themes, and a hero with an astonishing ability. For example, 'The Legend of Paul Bunyan', first referenced in 1904, describes the giant and hardworking lumberjack and his companion, a blue ox named Babe. Paul was thought to have saved the people with his superhuman strength, which was used to explain the creation of such things as lakes and animal migration.

Myths

Myths can be stories about people and non-living subjects, like elements of nature. Found all over the world, myths are typically set in the very distant past and used to explain natural phenomena or religious practices. Common characteristics include unknown authors, heroic or godly characters, and magical elements. An example is the myth of Persephone, goddess of crops and harvest, who was kidnapped by the god Hades and taken to the underworld. This myth was told to explain the changing of the seasons

Popular Traditional Literature

If you are interested in reading more about traditional literature, you do not need to look far! Here are a few traditional literature texts still popularly read today. In fact, some of them you may have already read or heard of.

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