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“Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

In this month’s installment of our continuing exploration of literary genres, we’ll be looking at folklore and folktales, along with related forms such as fairy tales, fables, legends and myths.

Storytelling is common to every culture, and storytellers have catered to the desire for a “good story” since the beginning of civilization. The terms “folklore,” “myth,” “legend” and “fairy tale” are often used interchangeably for cultural stories, leading many to believe they refer to the same thing. However, while there is overlap among the forms, they each provide a unique reader experience. In general, folklore is an overarching term that refers to the collection of traditional stories of a community or culture. Folklore can include art, songs, dances, sayings, myths, legends, tales, stories, beliefs, superstitions and practices, which all add up to a cultural heritage.

Folktales are a particular subset of folklore, and refer to stories that were traditionally passed down verbally from generation to generation, though many of the stories can now be found in written form. Typically, the original author is unknown and there are often many versions of the tale, both within one culture and across different cultures. Some of the tales may have been based on a partial truth embellished with storytelling flourishes. Many folktales were used to explain things that were difficult to understand, to discipline (or frighten) children, or to provide a moral lesson. Folktales can take the form of legends, myths, fairy tales or fables.

The term “legend” describes a subgenre of folklore that consists of stories that are generally regarded as historical but not completely verifiable. They are often based on real historical people or events and can be narrowed down to a specific time in history. While legends are often embellished over time with miraculous or mythical elements, they are rooted in reality. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate. The stories of King Arthur provide a good example of a legend, since it has been established that he was a real person in history, though his achievements are often exaggerated.

A myth is another type of traditional story that concerns the early history of a culture. While legends are based on historical events and real people, myths are largely rooted in a religion or belief system. Some myths have their origins in something real, like a place, or a group of people that existed historically, but a myth’s purpose is to explain a natural phenomenon, and often contains supernatural or fantastic beings, gods, and demigods. Greek mythology is an excellent example, as those myths were derived to explain the seasons or weather. But they also explain, and are strong reflections of, Greek culture and thinking. Paul Bunyan is an example of what might seem like a legend, but is actually a myth. His large size, his super-human strength, and the fact that he wasn’t a real person place his tale in the camp of mythology.

Many of our favorite childhood stories fall into the category of “fairy tales,” which are less rooted in reality than legends, or even myths. Fairy tales are traditional stories, usually written for children, which often involve imaginary creatures (such as unicorns, elves, witches, mermaids, or gnomes) as well as strong elements of magic. The traditional versions of fairy tales originated in oral folklore and often contain clear narratives that identify good and evil. While many fairy tales have morphed and changed throughout the years, they remain a popular foundation for both children and adult stories alike.

Finally, a fable is a short tale passed down through the generations that is intended to teach a moral lesson. Fables generally feature talking animals, or other creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that are given human qualities. The ancient Greek storyteller Aesop is famous for his collection of fables.

Learn more about another culture (or your own) with these folklore-inspired books and movies!

If you’re interested in other genres, check out past posts on magical realism, science fiction, horror, historical fiction, or biographies.