The Folk Tale Genre

Folk Tale – Tall Tale – Fable – Myth – Legend – Fairy Tale

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Hello Lovelies, and welcome to the blog. Last week, I gave you an introduction to the five main pillars of genre. Today we’re diving deep into the first pillar, talking all about the Folk Tale genre. I’ll also be giving you an introduction to the specific subgenres that folk tales encompass.

Folk Tale

Wikipedia defines a folktale or folk tale as “a folklore genre that typically consists of a story passed down from generation to generation orally.” This simple definition may seem too simple at first glance, but is actually exactly what the folktale genre is about. Folktales are usually passed down by mouth, and what makes them different from one another is sometimes difficult to discern. The main thing that categorizes a folk tale subgenre is how the story is being told, and the level of belief the person listening has upon receiving the tale. 

To elaborate on this further, folk tales are all the little stories that we are told throughout our journey in this life. They are the ones that teach us where we came from as people. They are the ones that caution us on how to behave and give us morals and values. They can be based in reality, or totally made up. They can be someone’s boastful account of how an event happened, or unquestionably accurate. Whether you believe it or not is entirely up to you.

Tall Tale

Tall tales are stories that are told, usually by an unreliable narrator, in that they have unbelievable elements but are told as if factual and true. When a person exaggerates their story a little, it is usually still believable. It is when they exaggerate it to unbelievable lengths that the story stretches into tall tale category.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Paul Bunyan the massive lumberjack who eats 50 pancakes in one minute and who dug the grand canyon with his axe, and has a blue ox named Babe who made the Mississippi River? Or maybe you’ve heard of Davy Crockett, the so-called “King of the Wild Frontier” as the song might suggest? These are two examples of tall tales where one person was real and one was completely fictional, but both told unbelievable stories as if they were true.

Fable

Fables are the short stories where anthropomorphized creatures feature prominently and come together to tell a story with a moral at the end. While the creatures are largely what makes up this genre, other things like inanimate objects, plants, or forces of nature, could also play a major role in the story, turning these things into their own characters, as a sort.

If your first thought, like mine, was The Tortoise and the Hare, you’d be exactly correct. A similar story I loved as a child, called The Name of the Tree, featured a tortoise who set out on a mission to bring back the fruit from the tree across the desert, a fruit of which he could only harvest by saying the name of the tree so that it would bend its branches down and allow the tortoise to collect the fruit from lowered branches. Though his progress was slow, he called out the tree’s name with every step closer so that he would not forget the tree’s name, thereby collecting the fruit at the end.

Myth

A traditional story, usually concerning the early history of a people or otherwise explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events is considered a myth. When we say supernatural being, it generally means a higher power, but can also include other supernatural creatures. Generally, myths might involve humans, but do not feature them prominently in their stories.

Myths also have the bad connotation of being entirely made up or falsified. As this is a second definition of the word that doesn’t relate to the genre, it is easy to see how one might equate such a story with being entirely untrue. I want to point out that we cannot always know where any folk tale comes from, or the extent of the truth of such a tale, as by definition, they are handed down orally from generation to generation, and the oral tradition has been notoriously difficult to record accurately until quite recently. Many religions have their own stories based in myths, and this is not going to be the place to discuss the validity of one against another. Each person must come to their own conclusions about the truthfulness of the religion to which they do or do not subscribe.  

Legend

Legends are the stories that are told about real people in human history that are believed to have taken place. Often, we can’t prove or disprove a legend to be true, but we don’t outright disbelieve it either, as it seems fairly plausible to have occurred. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t false, simply that we generally believe it for a truth upon hearing its telling. 

Johnny Appleseed is a legendary figure who is said to have planted apple trees all around the new territory in America. There is historical evidence of a John Chapman who did travel west and planted nurseries of apple trees as he traveled. As another example, there is historical evidence of King Arthur who led the British against invaders. However, the details of the Arthurian legend-the knights of the round table, Camelot, and Queen Guinevere-are likely made up and exaggerated. 

Fairy Tale

At the risk of oversimplifying the definition, a fairy tale is a story that is usually meant for children and involves any kind of faerie or magical creature. While you may have thought Elves were the only fae, the list of faerie creatures is actually quite vast, including pixies, gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, goblins, griffins, mermaids, talking animals, unicorns, or even witches. And of course there are many, many more.

 The Grimm’s Brothers might have popularized the corner market on the fairy tales most people will think of first, such as Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty. Other stories, like Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots all also fall under this fairy tale category.

Next Week

I hope this brief overview of the Folk Tale genre has sparked your interest in telling stories handed down from the oral tradition. Next week, we are going to go even deeper into the Folk Tale genre by looking specifically at the Tall Tale subgenre more in-depth. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your favorite folk tale subgenre?
  2. Do you have a favorite folk tale, and what subgenre would you say it falls into?
  3. What genre is your favorite to read in, and do you write in the same genre or a different one?
  4. What is the most important reason writers should be aware of genre and its conventions?
  5. What questions would you like to see me answer in a blog post or podcast episode?

Leave your answers in the comments section for this post!

Click this link to hear this blog post as a podcast with your favorite podcasting app!

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