Folktale. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

A fictional narrative varied in length and rich in symbolic and metaphorical meaning, oral
in origin but now found more often in printed collections. The term “folktale” is often
used loosely to describe all forms of traditional narratives, from brief jokes and anecdotes
to lengthy adventure tales. Here the term applies only to the more complex narratives, the
wondertales (Märchen), of European origin that were brought from Europe to the New
World in oral and printed form by successive waves of setders. This kind of story is
popularly known as a fairy tale, though this is not an accurate description of its content or
The broader definition of folktale is more current in Europe, where comparable terms
refer to oral fictitious stories in general. In the New World, the generic use of “folktale”
is often not appropriate; hence, the narrower definition is more useful. For example,
“folktale” is not a suitable description of aboriginal narratives, many of which are more
appropriately viewed as sacred or historical legends.
Folktales are filled with fantastic creatures, events and objects, but their main
characters are ordinary people (lazy Jack, clever Polly, common farmers, among others)
who are the recipients of wondrous bean trees, cups that never empty, or the granting of
three wishes. Such tales have been regarded either as escapist fantasies that take one out
of reality, or as profound metaphors that carry one deeper into an inner reality. There is
continuing controversy over their suitability for children, given their fantastic nature as
well as the violence often a part of these tales. It should be noted that while fairy tales
now appear mostly in books intended for children, the original oral tales were and are
more often directed to adult listeners, though children were not necessarily excluded.
Many of these stories still exist orally in the United States (notably in regions of the
South) and in Canada (in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces). These regions were
among the first colonized and farmed by Europeans and their descendants in the 17th and
18th centuries. Many early settlers were from England, Scotland, Ireland, and France;
hence, folktales from the British Isles and France exist to this day in these older rural
regions of both the United States and Canada, though much diminished. In later decades,
settlers from other parts of Europe, and from non-European areas as well, added their
own wealth of oral narratives to the growing treasury of New World folktales. Changes in
social and economical environments and the loss of original languages have taken a
heavy toll on folktales in the New World, but they persist.
Folktales arise in an oral tradition; thus, one cannot identify original or authoritative
texts. There are as many texts of any particular folktale as there are people who have told
it over many generations. Widespread stories like “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the
Beast,” for example, have countless variants, each as original and authoritative as any
other, although the aesthetic quality of a text also depends on the artistry of the individual
teller. This rich variety is reflected in the titles of contemporary folktales from five
different North American collections. “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the most widely
collected tales, has eighteen separate titles, including “Bully Bornes,” “The Pretty Girl and Her Lost Children,” and “White Bear Whittington.” Even more popular is the clever
and often lazy young man known as “Jack” or “Little Jack” in English-speaking tradition
and “Ti-Jean” in French tradition, the protagonists of stories still told in the 1990s.
Despite the wealth of such stories, modern reworkings of folktales still focus on popular
European tales instead of New World counterparts such as the Kentucky variant of
“Cinderella,” called “The Girl Who Could Do Any Job of Work.”
Each folktale has an author, since active tellers reframe stories firom their own
experiences. Unfortunately, some collectors failed to include the names of diose who told
the stories, which gave rise to the notion that folktales were anonymous, communal
creations. This is an inaccurate reflection of the skill and sophistication of excellent
narrators, the best of whom are comparable to authors of written literature. Even in the
New World, where storytelling traditions often did not survive the passage across the
ocean and the hard life that followed, there are still a number of skilled traditional
narrators with a rich legacy of folktales handed down in family and community settings.
The Hicks and Ward families from North Carolina, for example, have kept alive tales
from their ancestor Council Harmon (1807–1896). Many of these family stories were
collected and then rewritten by popularizer Richard Chase, who claimed them as his own
property (cf. Chase 1943, 1948). Other North American collectors have been more
careful in crediting the individual tale-tellers themselves.
Collections of New World folktales, unlike those of Europe, date from the middle
decades of the 20th century. European collectors were initially inspired by the works of
the Grimm brothers in Germany in die early 19th century, a time when the United States
was still a young nation and Canada was not yet a unified country. Thus, the nationalism
that fueled European collecting found different expression in the New World; regional,
ethnic, and racial considerations were more significant motivators in North American
There was a resurgence of interest in folktales in libraries and schools in the early part
of the 20th century, drawing largely on the stories of Charles Perrault, the Grimm
brothers, and Hans Christian Andersen. The more recent rekindling of interest in the early
1970s grew from this earlier book-oriented tradition but has blossomed to include stories
from oral, printed, and electronic media. This new form of storytelling parallels, but does
not arise from, the older oral tradition. Each has unique social and communal needs,
aesthetic patterns, and performance contexts. The older oral storytelling usually exists in
small family and community groups already familiar with both tellers and tales, and this
tradition rests firmly on oral tales brought from Europe by their ancestors. The newer
storytellers, still reliant largely on written tradition, are individual artists generally
independent of a particular community; many perform for large audiences not directly
connected with the tellers or their tales.
Kay F.Stone
Baughman, Ernest W. 1966. Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America.
The Hague: Mouton.
Campbell, Marie. 1958. Tales from the Cloud Walking Country. Bloomington: Indiana University
Chase, Richard. 1943. The Jack Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
——. 1948. Grandfather Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Fauset, Arthur Huff. 1931. Folklore from Nova Scotia. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society.
Fowke, Edith. 1979. Folktales of French Canada. Toronto: NC Press.
Gardner, Emelyn. 1937. Folklore from the Schoharie Hills, New York. Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press.
MacNeil, Joe Neil. 1987. Tales until Dawn: The World of a Cape Breton Gaelic Story-Teller.
Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Randolph, Vance. 1952. Who Blowed up the Church House? New York: Columbia University
——. The Devil’s Pretty Daughter. New York: Columbia University Press.
Roberts, Leonard. 1955a. South from Hell-fer Sartin. Berea: Council of Southern Mountains.
——. 1955b. Up Cutshin and down Greasy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
——. 1969. Old Greasybeard. Detroit: Folklore Associates.
Thompson, Stith. 1946. The Folktale. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston