In this lesson, learn about fables, folktales, myths and legends, stories that entertain and serve instructive or educational purposes. Discover how these types of stories differ from one another and about their prevalence throughout the world.
Fables, Folktales, Myths and Legends
The summer before 5th grade, I happily enrolled in a Greek mythology summer school class. We read and studied all the famous stories, from 'King Midas and the Golden Touch', to Daedalus and Icarus. It was super-nerdy fun. I liked how the stories were fantastical, but had deeper meaning.
Myths, legends, fables and folktales are types of stories originally passed by word-of-mouth, but are now found in writing. They vary in their subject matter, from explaining the natural world and delivering life lessons, to exaggerated events and people grounded in history. What they have in common, though, is their durability as both forms of entertainment and as teaching tools.
Fables are short tales that usually feature animals (real or mythical) given human-like qualities to deliver a specific moral or lesson. Many fables originated from an oral tradition and exist in every culture, but the most famous 'writer' of these fables is Aesop, a Greek slave believed to have lived around 560 BC. Of course, many disagree whether or not he actually wrote all, or even some of the fables we identify as 'Aesop's Fables' today.
Not to be confused with parables - those are the instructive tales featuring human characters we associate with the Bible and other religious texts. One of the most famous fables of the West, and often attributed to Aesop, is the story of 'The Tortoise and the Hare'. If you don't remember the plot, the speedy hare and the slow tortoise take part in a race. The hare, sure of his victory, decides to take a nap under a shady tree. The hare oversleeps, the tortoise wins, and we are reminded that 'slow and steady wins the race'.
You don't have to look far for modern-day fables: from George Orwell's Animal Farm to many of Theodor 'Dr. Seuss' Geisel's children's books. For example, Dr. Seuss' story, The Lorax, teaches us that natural resources are precious and finite. At one point, the Lorax even says, 'I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues', which is also the function of a fable.
Folktales also stem from an oral tradition, passed down by the 'folk' who told them. The term 'folktale' is often used interchangeably with fable, since folktales can have a lesson at the end. Folktales are different from fables because they feature people as their main characters, but often with a twist. For example, stories like 'Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox' and the American cowboy Pecos Bill lassoing a tornado, show people and animals performing amazing feats of strength. Just as there are folk in every country, every country has its own folktales. Sometimes, countries as far apart as China and France can have very similar traditional tales. The story of 'Stone Soup', for example, is one told all over the world.
A common version of 'Stone Soup' begins with three soldiers, hungry and tired, entering a village. The villagers are greedy, not looking to share their food, but the strangers are smart. They put large stones in a pot to boil in the town square, and the villagers stop by one-by-one to ask what they are making.
Soon, each villager is convinced to add an onion or some carrots or a handful of beans to the 'stone soup'. At the story's end, a delicious feast is enjoyed by the entire village, brought together by strangers. Found in different countries across the world, the folktale of 'Stone Soup' serves as a reminder to people to work together, share their resources and show hospitality to the needy among them.
Myths are stories from every culture that, for centuries, have explained natural phenomena and answered questions people have about the human condition: origin and creation stories, stories about life, death and life after death. Big picture stuff.
It is for this reason that myths are sacred, religious stories to the people who believe in them, from Norse myths about Thor, the powerful god who uses his mighty hammer to protect mankind, to Native American stories about the Earth's origins. In the Northeastern United States, many native tribes believed that the land was formed on the back of a giant turtle from the sea. An Iroquois myth recorded in 1816 begins:
'In the beginning before the formation of the earth; the country above the sky was inhabited by Superior Beings, over whom the Great Spirit presided. His daughter, having become pregnant by an illicit connection, he pulled up a great tree by the roots, and threw her through the Cavity thereby formed; but, to prevent her utter destruction, he previously ordered the Great Turtle, to get from the bottom of the waters, some slime on its back, and to wait on the surface of the water to receive her on it. When she had fallen on the back of the Turtle, with the mud she found there, she began to form the earth, and by the time of her delivery had increased it to the extent of a little island.'
Like fables and folktales, myths are found throughout the world - from Egypt, to North America, to Asia - but myths you likely learned in school are often from Ancient Greece. Greek myths are populated by familiar characters and familiar tales: Icarus, who didn't listen to his father and flew too close to the sun, or Persephone, daughter of Zeus, who ate a few pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, giving us the seasons.
Unlike the other types of stories featured here, legends are based in history, even if they are never confirmed as true. Legends don't explain the mysteries of the world the way myths do, nor do they use animals to deliver a lesson like in fables. And unlike folktales, they aren't so exaggerated that they completely leave the realm of belief. Legends are stories on the edge of reality, often featuring the miraculous or the incredible.
One legend that demonstrates all these qualities is that of Robin Hood, whose story is that he took from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin Hood is most often associated with the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189 - 1199), particularly the years when Richard's brother, John, mismanaged the government. It makes sense that - real or fictitious - a character like Robin Hood appeared in stories about a time when the poor of England were most in need of a protector.
A particular type of legend, the urban legend, deals with stories that are passed around by word-of-mouth about the dangers of the modern world: The friend of a friend who woke up in a bathtub of ice, missing a kidney; the woman who knew a kid who died from eating a combination of fizzy candy and fizzy soda. These stories seem almost possible, but are likely kernels of truth exaggerated to serve as warnings for all of us to be careful when navigating the big, bad world.
For centuries across the world, stories were (and continue to be) shared from person to person. Fables feature animals given human characteristics and deliver a lesson or moral. Folktales are stories with people as main characters that sometimes include feats of strength. Myths are stories told to explain the world around us, from the origin of the world, to why there are seasons. Finally, legends are grounded in reality, but aren't necessarily true.
After completing this lesson, you should be prepared to describe fables, folktales, myths and legends as well as give examples of each.