Folktales From Simple to Complex


                                                                                                     Marilyn A. Kinsella


"Folktale" is the umbrella from which all other folk stories hang. All folk stories have folktale qualities - they are ancient stories from cultures from around the world; they were passed down from generation to generation for years before they were collected and put into books; they contain the collective wisdom of a culture displaying at times: Customs, Morals, teachings, humor, religious beliefs, cautions, and even foolish behavior.

Oftentimes, a particular tale can be categorized in different ways. These are my definitions honed over years of telling stories and research on how others differentiate among folktales.

Proverbs, Old Wives' Tales, Customs, Morals, Quotes, Sayings,  and other Bits of Folklore: These are the building blocks to folk stories condensed into a few words. They make great starts to inspire one to tell...the rest of the story.

Parable - a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as main characters while parables generally are stories featuring humans.   (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

Fables - Short ( from one to three minutes long), teaching tales with talking animals and inanimate objects. The moral of the story is clearly expressed at the end of the story. Or, as Peter Kohler explains: "A fable is a short, pithy animal tale, most often told or written with a moral tagged on in the form of a proverb. Thus to convey a moral is the aim of most fables, and the tale is the vehicle by which this is done, providing both an illustration of and compelling argument for the moral."

Examples: Aesop's Fables.

Morality Tales - The main purpose of this story is to teach the listener a cultural more, a taboo, a caution or a desired character trait. This moral is usually disguised and not blatant.

Examples: From the simple Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood to the more daunting Mr. Fox  .

Reality-based folktales - They do not contain magic or talking animals. They sound quite plausible, but at the same time...improbable. These could have been the urban legends (see below)  a long time ago or the creative story of a good storyteller of long ago that made its way into being a folktale. Examples: Mr. Fox and Good News/Bad News.

Pourquoi  (French word for "why" or "because") Stories. Also called "How and Why Stories". They explain why something is the way it is in nature. For my paper on writing original pourquoi, click on "The How and Why of Writing a Pourquoi." 

Examples - Why Possum's Tale is Bare

 How Mosquitoes First Came Into This World.

Myths - Myths are like the Pourquoi, but they involve the religious beliefs of a culture - the beginnings of the world, the cosmos, human nature. They are often not looked upon as "a story" but as truth. They talk about the Creator, gods, and goddesses. As such, they are often not listed in the folktale's 398.2 section in the library, but with the books on religion.

Examples - Pandora's Box,  Legend of the Red Cedar,  and Noah's Ark.


"What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."
                                                                                                                     (G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909)

Fairy Tales - Sometimes, people use the term folktale and fairy tale to mean the same thing. A fairy tale is a folktale, but a folktale is not always a fairytale. A fairytale is usually longer than most folk stories and takes place in the nether realm of far, far away and a long time ago. They often have some sort of royalty involved in the story (including the fairy realm); the main character (s) go on a journey where he/she is tested; they have some sort of magical help along the way; good triumphs over evil; there is a transformation or reward at the end. They usually start with "a long time ago, in a place far away" and end "happily ever after." The characters and the journey are often metaphors for  people and challenges that are universal.

As fellow storyteller, Judith  says, "Fairytales have archetypal characters, many times without particular names: "the old woman," "the king," "the princess" "the old man," etc. The characters may start as poor, simple people, but through the way they do tasks or the choices they make, they find riches. Or they may begin as royalty, lose their way and find their way back. Many fairytales involve a quest of some kind. Many times a supernatural or elemental being ("fairy") helps them out in some important way. There is always a moral (although not necessarily stated); justice always prevails: bad people get punished, and good people find their rewards. Fairytales present archetypes of good and evil, and have a deeper meaning than the plot. Fairytales are about the essential nature of mankind and the evolution of the soul, and they provide glimpses of the elemental world. Many fairytales involve the transformation of an animal into a human being through magic."

"If you want your children to be brilliant, tell them fairy tales. If you want your children to be even more brilliant, tell them even more fairy tales."                                                                                                                          Albert Einstein

Examples: Sleeping BeautyBaba Yaga,  Iron John 

Tall Tales - There are two types: the standard tall tale that may or may not have extremely tall characters (Paul Bunyan) in the story who carry out feats way beyond the scope of mortal man (John Henry and Pecos Bill); the exaggerated story that begins sounding like a reality-based story, but as the story goes on the "truth" is stretched beyond belief such as many hunting stories.

Legends - Usually refers to an actual, historical person and are placed in a certain time and place. However, over time, the escapades are been exaggerated and even "enchantment" can make its way into these stories.. What started as real, crosses over to fiction.

Examples: King Arthur , ,Robin Hood, Davy Crockett

Saga - Stories that take hours, day, weeks, and even months to tell. Sometimes, stories are told that are part of a saga.

Examples: Norse Saga of Beowulf; Native American Saga of Nanabozho

Folktale specialization: Some folktales also are categorized by other characteristics. Any folktale could also be a trickster tale, ghost story, noodle head story, cautionary tale, talking animal story,  reality-based story, and stories of enchantment. They could also be categorized by form - like a cumulative tale or a circle story..

Trickster Tales: A quasi-folk hero that at times acts like a hero and other times acts like the fool. like:

bulletAfrica - Anansi the Spider and Zomo the Rabbit;
bulletGermany - Till Eulenspiegel
bulletNative America - Iktomi - , Coyote -,  Raven; 
bulletFrench - Reynard the Fox.
bulletOr, they can be stories that have a clever trick played in the story - Clever Manka

Ghost Stories: These stories rely on some form of the supernatural to help or hinder the main character of the story.

Examples: Jack and the Haunted House and Mary Culhane and the Dead Man.

Fractured Fairy Tales: Usually, the fractured tale is a folktale (most commonly a fairy tale) from the oral tradition that is retold to find unexpected humor in the way it portrays characters, uses a different vernacular, has plot deviations, or uses writing ploys. Example:: Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. See the paper and study guides on Fractured Tales.  A more in depth look at fractured tales in Fractured Thoughts -

Refracted Fairy Tales: A term I use to define well-known folk  tales (most commonly fairy tales) that "refracts" them into a deeper more profound tale. Characters are three-dimensional, behaviors are explained, mores and modern issues are explored, and "happily ever after" is not always the norm.

Examples: Lucy Dove by Janice Del Negro and the collection of stories by Milbre Burch called Sop Doll & Other Tales of Mystery & Mayhem

Noodle head Story - Funny, droll, humorous...they often rely on the "academically-challenged" to do something so contrary to what is expected that it elicits a laugh. However, the story often turns, when it is the noodle head that comes out the winner in the end.

Examples: Some of the  Jack Tales,

And, a folktale could be a mix of motifs:


bulletPourquoi - Anansi and the Hat-Shaking Dance is an animal and trickster tale, but ends by explaining why spiders have bald heads.
bulletSaga - Several Legends of King Arthur are told as fairy tales and stories that use enchantment.


The earmarks of a folktale are that they are ancient...that they were told for generations within a particular culture before being collected. There are three categories that defy this:

Urban Legends - Present-day stories that are rumors with usually no basis for truth other than it happened to a friend of a friend. These could be the beginning of a reality-based  folktale as the ideas are told for generations to come. Jan Harold Brunvand is one of the first to collect urban legends and put them into books.

 Examples: The Vanishing Hitchhiker, (and my version -                         ) Mrs. Field's Cookie Recipe

Puns - Sometimes called "Shaggy Dog Stories" or "feghoot". Short stories that end with a play on the words in the story. These are passed around orally, but because they rely on idioms, and play on words, and modern references, they do not translate well into other countries and probably will not be passed on to the next generation.

Authored Folktale-like Stories - they rely on folktale motifs so much  that they are often mistaken as folktales...perhaps, one day they will be considered folktales. Before the printing press, there were probably other storytellers who made up their own creative stories that made their way into folk literature.

Examples: The Girl Who Cried Flowers by Jane Yolen, Fables by Arnold Lobel, Frederick's Fables by Leo Lionni, Come Again in the Spring by Richard Kennedy. The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson. There are modern-day storytellers whose original stories may also make their way into folk literature: Example: Bil Lepp's Tall Tales - Buck Dog

Storytelling Vocabulary Words

Story, Yarn, Tale, Narrative, folktales, personal experience stories, historical narratives, literary stories, ethnic stories

Storyteller, bard, troubadour, narrator, Griot, Seanachi (Irish storyteller), Windjammer, Yarn Spinner,

Storytelling as it relates to:  Story Reading, Readers' Theatre, Poetry, Comedy, Plays, Puppetry, Ventriloquism

Writing - Point of View, Language, Theme, metaphor, character, character development, plot, dialog, images, humor, drama, content, editing

Performance skills - Movement, gesture, hands,  eye contact, pacing, voice, pitch, stance, empathy, face, style, use of props, reading an audience, timing, microphone use, entrances, exits

Reference Websites:

bullet D.L. Ashliman - Folklore and Mythology: Electronic Texts
bullet SurLaLune Fairy Tales - 47 annotated fairy tales.
bullet American Folklore - divided by genre as well as areas around the country
bullet Aaron Shepard's Folktale Page - references to many books containing folk tales.


                             HOME                                                                                                        Workshop Papers