Short Fiction Unit

Short Fiction Unit

Lecture: Overview of Fairytales, Folktales, and Myths

We begin our exploration of literature with some of the oldest stories in existence -- fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. You may have watched the Disney versions of these stories when you were growing up, or raising your own children. Anne Duggan, a scholar of fairy tale studies at Wayne State University, has observed that fairy tales remain popular because they are literally everywhere. If we want to dress up as a fairy tale character for Halloween, we can easily purchase a costume at Target or Walmart. Advertisements for all sorts of products use fairy tale themes to encourage us to buy them. Sports competitions often feature a "Cinderella team."

Fairy tales, folk tales, and myths have many features in common with literary fiction. Both types of stories have characters who encounter conflicts that compel a profound personal transformation. Fairy tales, folk tales, and myths, however, are more likely than a work of literary fiction to have a prominent moral or lesson. These morals or lessons speak to deep cultural values and needs. The prominence of the lessons makes these tales good texts for students learning how to analyze literature, because the themes are so clear.

The following paragraphs provide brief descriptions of the distinguishing qualities of fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.

The Myth

Myths are some of the oldest stories ever told. Ancient humans, looking around the mysterious natural world, created stories to explain what they saw. Myths answer the questions: Where did we come from? Why do we exist? Who created this world? Why does the sun rise, the winter come, the rainbow appear?

Western culture is founded on Greek and Roman cultures. These two cultures shared many of the same stories, although the languages were different. These stories have many of the same characters. Most come from a large family of gods who walked on Earth and often interacted with humans. The mythology of Greece and of Rome influence Western culture even today.

Many myths have these qualities: They involve gods, humans with god-like qualities, half-human, half-animal monsters, or humans who transform into animals or plants. They are set in ancient times. They often explain natural phenomena, answering questions like “Why do we hear thunder?” or “What happens after we die?” Finally, a single myth is often part of a much larger set of stories about the same characters.

The Folk Tale

Every human culture has countless folk tales. These are the stories spoken aloud and shared from the time before technology was used for entertainment. Folk tales are shared for amusement and pleasure, but they also share cultural values such as what a parent is responsible for, what makes a good wife or a bad wife, how power should be handled, and why people should be honest. Unlike a fable, a typical folktale does not end with a specific moral. The characters of a folk tale are often human. Sometimes the teller of a folktale includes qualities to make it more authentic, adding sentences like “This happened in my grandmother's time” or by naming a specific town or part of a country.

There is no strong division between a folktale and a myth, but folk tales are typically more informal, passed along by word of mouth and not written down. Unlike a myth, a folktale almost never has a god as a character, and the characters in one folk tale usually do not appear in any other folktale.

The Fairy Tale

Fairy tales are a special group of folk tales which are often told to children. While a folk tale might be extremely violent or scary, a fairy tale typically focuses on more pleasant things, such as fairies, talking animals, and treasure. The plot of a fairy tale is almost always the same: a person faces a challenge, and if they are good, honest, and kind, they are rewarded - with marriage if they are female and with wealth if they are male. Interestingly, many fairy tales told today include a stepmother as a villain, or “bad guy.”

Like a fable, a fairy tale usually has some sort of lesson, but the lesson is implied rather than direct. The first words of a fairy tale are usually “Once upon a time,” and the last words are usually “... And they lived happily ever after.”

Attribution and License

"Overview of Fairy Tales, Folks Takes, and Myths" is a derivative of ESOL Reading 7: Short Story Workbook by Davina Ramirez, used under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. The derivative work is by Judith Westley; it adds introductory paragraphs and is licensed under identical terms.

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