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Mythology and Folklore


imaginative concept, Jack Tales, incredibility, Marchen, impossible tasks

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Folktales, generic term for the various kinds of narrative prose literature found in the oral traditions of the world. One of the many forms of folklore, folktales are heard and remembered, and they are subject to various alterations in the course of retellings. As they are diffused (transmitted through a culture), some folktales may pass in and out of written literature (for example, the “Rip Van Winkle” story), and some stories of literary origin may cross over into oral tradition (for example, the anecdote about George Washington and the cherry tree). Nevertheless, an essential trait of folktales—and all folk literature—is their diffusion, and their passage from one generation to another, by word of mouth.

The principal kinds of folktales are myths, legends, and Marchen, or fairy tales. In common usage, these terms are interchangeable; they refer to any highly imaginative concept or narrative and usually carry an implication of falsehood and incredibility. To folklorists, however, each of the three represents a distinct form of the folktale. Other forms include animal tales and fables, tall tales, formula tales, jokes and anecdotes, as well as cante fables (folk stories partly in song or verse).


Fairy tales, or Marchen (the German word preferred by scholars to designate this genre), are fiction. Taking place in a wonderland filled with magic and strange characters, they are believed by neither narrator nor audience. Although the supernatural abounds in Marchen, few of them have to do with fairies. Although Marchen deal with a great range of subject matter (as stories such as “Cinderella,””Snow White,” or “Little Red Riding Hood” demonstrate), a typical plot involves an underdog hero or heroine who is put through great trials or must perform seemingly impossible tasks, and who with magical assistance secures his or her birthright or a suitable marriage partner. Frequently, such stories begin “Once upon a time” and end “And they lived happily ever after.” Often (especially in the United States) called “Jack Tales” after the name commonly given to the hero, Marchen have become popular stories for children, although originally adults and children alike enjoyed them.

The Role of Folktale

Human beings have always been storytellers. Where they have not had a Bible, history books, novels, or short stories, and before such literary forms were devised, they have entertained themselves, instructed younger generations, and kept their records with the many-faceted folktale.


Coffin, Tristram Potter

Professor Emeritus of English abd Folklore, University of Pennsylvania. Coauthor of "The British Traditional Ballad in North America". Coeditor, "Folklore of American Holidays".

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