Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Folktale

A narrative derived from oral tradition which relates a well understood and recognizable story. Usually dependent upon a nation's Folklore, the folktale will reflect a cultural identity and be part of that nation's heritage. Folktales may be about national heroes – like Robin Hood, Arthur, William Tell or Siegfried, whose deeds have become part of Legend – but they can also be about everyday people and focus on morality rather than adventure. Many of these stories are Taproot Texts for Fairytales. The story may once have had a basis in fact, but has been subject to generations of embellishment, resulting in a familiar and often many-layered text (> Twice-Told). Folktales are almost always set in this world, usually in the past, and while the supernatural may dictate the events its presence is often accepted rather than sensationalized. Folktales are thus precursors of Supernatural Fiction rather than Otherworld fantasy. Not all folktales involve the supernatural or fantastic but many rely upon a feeling of Wrongness drawn from Superstition.

Many early folktales spread with tribes across Europe and Asia and are known in different versions in divers lands; this spread of a tale into many cultures is a key element in defining a folktale. The tale upon which Cinderella is based has been identified in almost 700 versions spread over 1000 years. Folktales are always being created and passing into national currency.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the literary fairytale and the folktale. The fairytale is a literary artform that brings structure and style to the folktale, which is otherwise an unencumbered transcription of a simple tale. While folktales still have the essence of being twice-told, some lack the depth of Story and appear anecdotal. A folktale is not as brief or pointed as a Fable, and as a story may be even shallower – though some can be immensely imaginative.

Folktales, like Legends, have been collected since earliest times. The Papyrus Westcar (circa 1600BC) from ancient Egypt may be the oldest known such compilation. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are other early examples.

Most of the well known traditional fairytales began as folktales but were sculpted into literature. The best-known English folktales concern Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer (> Jack), Tom Thumb, Dick Whittington, Lady Godiva and Robin Hood. A selection is found in English Fairy Tales (coll 1890) and More English Fairy Tales (coll 1894), both assembled as English Fairy Tales (omni 1979) by Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) and more recently in Alan Garner's Book of British Fairy Tales (coll 1984) (> Alan Garner). English language and literature has been widely influenced by Celtic, Nordic, Greek and Arabian tales and Legends (>>> Arabian Fantasy; Celtic Fantasy; Greek and Latin Classics; Mabinogion; Nordic Fantasy).

The original Arabian Nights Entertainment is essentially folktale. The development of these stories by Antoine Galland into the texts we know today shows the conversion of folktales into fairytales. Galland translated and freely adapted the stories, and seven volumes of Les mille et une nuit appeared 1704-1708; five more volumes were added over the remainder of Galland's life, with the final volume appearing in 1717.

This same process affected the stories now generally known as Grimms' Fairytales. The Grimm Brothers were assiduous in collecting local folktales and determined not to embellish them but to capture the oral tradition. Their first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (coll 1812) comprises literal transcriptions of local tales. It was only later, as friction developed between the brothers about how pure the stories should remain, that Wilhelm began to embellish, and thereby develop some of the best-known Fairytales.

The scholarly work of the Grimms encouraged others to research and compile national tales and legends. Allan Cunningham (1784-1842) produced Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry (coll 1822); Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854) assembled Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (coll 1825); Thomas Keightley (1789-1872) produced The Fairy Mythology (1828; rev 1850) and Tales and Popular Fiction (coll 1834); and James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips (1820-1889) compiled the seminal Nursery Rhymes of England (coll 1842) and Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (coll 1849). Perhaps the best-known example of folktales being developed into a structured form to produce a national literature is the Finnish Kalevala.

It is quite common for "fairytale" and "folktale" to be indistinguishable in book titles, even though each is a distinct form. Fairy Tales of All Nations (anth 1849; vt The Doyle Fairy Book 1890) ed Anthony R Montalba and illustrated by Richard Doyle is an early example. The muddle was perpetuated in the 12-volume series of coloured Fairy Books by Andrew Lang, starting with The Blue Fairy Book (anth 1889), which is notable for its diversity in collecting folktales from cultures worldwide. Lang's research (and the indefatigable translations of his acquaintances) brought together one of the most accessible and well read series of folktales yet published. The confusion of terms continues today. For this reason many critics prefer the term Wonder Tale to "fairytale".

Writers are more likely to draw upon folktales when seeking to establish some form of universal truth, whereas the fairytale is reserved for exploring the Marvellous. The folktale form thus lends itself to religious and cultural stories and parables. An example is the way that Rudyard Kipling used the folktale form in his Just-So Stories (coll 1902). Folktales are particularly relevant to the wider heritage of diverse cultures seeking their roots, as when Joel Chandler Harris drew upon the Negro folktales of the Georgian plantations for his Uncle Remus stories. Other examples include: the stories in The Celtic Twilight (coll 1893) and similar volumes by W B Yeats; the Native American stories in Mystic Women: Their Ancient Tales and Legends (coll 1991), The Mysterious Doom and Other Ghost Stories of the Pacific Northwest (coll 1993) and Phantom Waters (coll 1995), all by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and the anthology Tales from the Great Turtle (anth 1994) ed Piers Anthony and Richard Gilliam (1950-    ); and the African folktales retold by Geraldine Elliot (1899-    ) in The Long Grass Whispers (1939), Where the Leopard Passes (coll 1949), The Hunter's Cave (coll 1951) and The Singing Chameleon (coll 1957). In similar vein are the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, who during his days as a journalist often retold local tales from New Orleans, later collected as Fantastics (coll 1914) ed Charles Woodward Hutson. In the same way Kate Chopin used local Creole and Cajun beliefs in Bayou Folk (coll 1894) and A Night in Acadie (coll 1897) and John Bennett collected the rather more grotesque folktales and legends of Old Charleston in South Carolina in The Doctor to the Dead (coll 1946). Hearn went on to salvage folktales from China and Japan in Shadowings (1900 US) Kotto (1902 US) and Kwaidan (1904 US) (>>> Kwaidan [1964]).

There are too many collections of folktales to detail here. A comprehensive bibliography is contained in the series Index to Fairy Tales, commenced by Mary Huse Eastman in 1915. There have been many series of folktales and legends, often based on national or cultural themes, of which the best-known are the 12-volume Myths and Legends series published by George Harrap (> Legends) and the more recent Myths and Legends series published by Oxford University Press. All-round compendia are Best-Loved Folktales of the World (anth 1982) ed Joanna Cole (1944-    ) and the Folktales of the World series ed Richard M Dorson. [MA]

Oxford Myths and Legends: African Myths and Legends (anth 1962) ed Kathleen Arnott; Armenian Folk-tales and Fables (anth 1972) trans Charles Downing; Chinese Myths and Fantasies (coll 1961) by Cyril Birch; English Fables and Fairy Stories (coll 1954) by James Reeves; French Legends, Tales and Fairy Stories (coll 1955) and German Hero-Sagas and Folk Tales (coll 1958) both by Barbara Leonie Picard; Hungarian Folk-Tales (coll 1960) by Val Bíro; Indian Tales and Legends (coll 1961) by J E B Gray; Japanese Tales and Legends (coll 1958) by Helen and William McAlpine; Tales of Ancient Persia (coll 1972) by Picard; Russian Tales and Legends (coll 1956) by Downing; Scandinavian Legends and Folk-tales (coll 1956) by Gwyn Jones; Scottish Folk-tales and Legends (coll 1954) by Barbara Ker Wilson; Welsh Legends and Folk-tales (coll 1955) by Jones; West Indian Folk-tales (coll 1966) by Philip Sherlock.

Other titles of interest: West African Folktales (coll 1917) by William H Barker; The Rain-God's Daughter and Other African Fairy Tales (coll 1977) by Amabel Williams-Ellis; Australian Legendary Tales (coll 1896) and More Australian Legendary Tales (coll 1898) by Kate Langloh Parker; Canadian Wonder Tales (coll 1918) by Cyrus Macmillan; Celtic Fairy Tales (coll 1892) and More Celtic Fairy Tales (coll 1894) both assembled as Celtic Fairy Tales (omni 1994) ed Joseph Jacobs; Celtic Wonder Tales (coll 1910) by Ella Young; Myths and Legends of China (coll 1922; vt Ancient Tales and Folklore of China 1995) by Edward T C Werner; Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies (coll 1979) by Moss Roberts; Danish Fairy and Folk Tales (coll 1899) by J Christian Bay; Egyptian and Sudanese Folk-tales (coll 1978) by Helen Mitchnik; Legends and Folk Tales of Holland (coll 1963) by Adele de Leeuw; Régie Magyar Mondák ["Hungarian Folk Tales"] (coll 1972) by Dénes Lengyel; Icelandic Folk-tales and Legends (coll 1972) by Jacqueline Simpson; Old Deccan Days, or Hindoo Fairy Legends (coll 1868) by Mary Frere; Indian Fairy Tales (coll 1892) by Joseph Jacobs; Indian Fairy Tales (coll 1946) by Mulk Raj Anand; Tales and Legends of India (coll 1982) by Ruskin Bond; Indonesian Folk Tales (coll 1970) by A Koutsokis; The Japanese Fairy Book (coll 1903) by Yei Theodore Ozaki; Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan (coll 1918) by Richard Gordon Smith; Japanese Fairy Tales (coll 1962) by Juliet Piggott; the Nigerian Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Tales (coll 1947) by Cyprian Ekwenski; Russian Popular Legends (coll 1871; trans and adapted W R S Ralston as Russian Folk Tales 1873) by Alexander Afanasief; Russian Fairy Tales (coll 1893) and Cossack Fairy Tales and Folk Tales (coll 1894) by R Nisbet Bain; Fairy Tales from Turkey (coll 1946) by Margery Kent.

Critical/historical works: Morphology of the Folktale (1928; trans Laurence Scott 1958 US; rev 1968 US) by Vladimir Propp; Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (1949; rev 1972) ed Maria Leach; The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955-1958 6 vols) by Stith Thompson.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.