Folk tales - Fairy tales and folk tales - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


19. Fairy tales and folk tales


Ruth B. Bottigheimer


Folk tales


The definition of folk tales is more fluid than that of fairy tales and tales about fairies. The term ‘folk tale’ normally embraces a multitude of minor genres, like nonsense tales, aetiologies, jests, burlesques, animal tales and neverending tales, but there is good reason to incorporate a discussion of chapbook romances within a consideration of folk tales in children’s literature. Guy of Warwick, Valentine and Orson and Bevis of Southampton typify medieval romances that were borne by printing presses into the modern world and carried further on the backs of chapmen to new readers, both young and old. In their medieval original forms, their dragons, giants, kings, queens, wicked mothers and faithful fairies provided a cast of characters that fit into the schema of the modern fairy tale, but their sheer length distinguished them from the modern fairy tale. When romances were refashioned for chapbook distribution, they were shortened drastically, although they kept their familiar panoply of royalty, giants and dragons. Romances required dragons, as the adventure-filled Seven Champions of Christendom indicates. Newly assembled in 1596-7, it included the obligatory dragon, but did without heroic romantic involvement, as befitted its cast of seven national saints as protagonists. Fortunatus, another medieval romance, included Oriental magic in the form of a bottomless purse of gold, and a hat that could cause him to be transported anywhere in the world. Thus romances were ready-made for chapbook wear.

Another set of tales, Jack and the Giants, Tom Hickathrift, Robin Hood and Tom Thumb, embody and thematise the confrontation of a small, weak, poor but witty hero against a large, strong, rich but stupid real or metaphorical giant. The early eighteenth-century chapbook Jack, ‘brisk and of a level wit’, could irreverently best a clergyman as well as cunningly defeat a giant. He used the common tools of a Cornish miner - horn, shovel, and pickaxe - to dig a pit and decoy the giant Cormilan into it, and after killing him he gained the giant’s treasure. Amazing adventures follow hard upon one another - Jack killed several more giants, released maidens from captivity, succoured a virtuous prince and gained magical objects, including a coat that conferred invisibility, a cap that furnished knowledge, a sword that split whatever it struck, and seven-league boots. With these, Jack overcame the Devil himself and was made a knight of the Round Table. A second part recounts more encounters with English giants, all of whom Jack gorily vanquished, their heads sent to King Arthur as announcement and proof of his valour. Jack himself ended his days married to a duke’s daughter and rewarded ‘with a very plentiful Estate’ where they ‘lived the Residue of their Days in great Joy and Happiness’ (Opie and Opie 1974: 51-65).

Jack, Robin and the two Toms are true folk heroes who rise from penury to esteem, and whose stories bear many close resemblances to fairy tales. Each of these tales became ‘folk tales’ by virtue of their wide chapbook circulation among the ‘folk’. That ‘folk’ also included literary worthies, such as Samuel Johnson (1696-1772), Henry Fielding (1701-54), William Cowper (1731-1800) and James Boswell (1740-95), who all record chapbooks and their adventurous stories as beloved, even inspiring, childhood reading.

The term ‘folk tale’ suggests an intimate relationship between tale and folk; nineteenth- century scholars therefore defined all minor genres that comprised folk tales as belonging peculiarly to unlettered country dwellers. Either as an example of cultural infancy or as an artefact of an early stage of individual maturation, fairy and folk tales’ association with children remained unchallenged until J. R. R. Tolkien disputed the belief that children understood fairy tales better than adults do (Tolkien 1964: 31-62). Unlike fairy tales, nearly all folk tales enjoy an ancient literary lineage. Some folk tales can be documented in the Indian Panchatantra or in the Bible. Many animal tales derive from classic collections like Aesop’s Tales, and many burlesques and jokes circulated orally and are documented in the text or in the margins of medieval literature.

Children must have overheard folk tales when they were told in small groups or were alluded to in theatrical productions, and they also had formalised contact with them when Latin translations of Aesop’s Tales were adapted as classics by monastic schools and used as textbooks. Aesop’s Tales continued to serve this function well into the early modern period, as attested by the number of translators and editors under whose names they appeared: John Henryson, John Brinsley, Roger L’Estrange, Nathaniel Crouch, John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, Charles Hoole, Samuel Croxall, Samuel Richardson, Robert Dodsley, John Newbery (possibly the work of John Oakman) and ‘Phaedrus’. Animal tales also circulated as part of court literature from the Carolingian period into the high middle ages, when they flowered in Reynard cycles in England, Germany and France. From the thirteenth century onward, preachers integrated Aesopic fables into sermons. It is reasonable to assume that children came into contact with fables in both of these milieus, even though court and church literary traditions would have affected different segments of the population. In the sixteenth century Steinhowel, Luther, Erasmus and Waldis all prepared fable collections whose contents eventually found their way into school readers, and in the seventeenth century La Fontaine’s humorous and psychologically subtle reworking of Aesopic material became foundational for European children’s literature; German writers - like Friedrich von Hagedorn, Johann Gleim, Johann Gottfried Herder and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing - embraced the genre enthusiastically in the eighteenth century, and produced not only collections of tales but also theory about them. Aesopic material, unlike fairy-tale magic, was approved for general use in both Catholic and Protestant countries, and hence it joined Bible stories as a narrative corpus shared in common by children all over Europe.

By the eighteenth century, the only folk-tale genre to have survived for children’s reading was the fable, and it had done so in large part because its brief texts with miniaturised plots could be easily edited to produce morals acceptable within the reigning social code: a single fable might - and did - have different morals attached to it at different times, in different places, and for different readerships.

Folk tales, as a whole, as opposed to the sub-genre of fables, flowered as a component of children’s literature in the nineteenth century. The chief source was Grimms’ Tales, the majority of whose tales derived from folk-tale genres. ‘Clever Gretel’, a good example, is a cook who helps herself so generously to the dinner she is preparing for her master and his guest that not enough remains for their meal. By an ingenious ruse she scares off the guest and simultaneously blames him for the missing chicken. Generations of little girls have delighted in her clever cover-up, and their brothers have similarly enjoyed the antics of ‘Brother Jolly’, who sinfully transgresses one prohibition after another only to be rewarded with free entry into heaven. The folk-tale component of fairy-tale collections expanded with the publication of Ludwig Bechstein’s Deutsches Mdrchenbuch (1845 et seq.), which incorporated many tales from the Panchatantra, like ‘The Man and the Serpent’ (no. 57).

By the end of the nineteenth century many people believed so unquestioningly in the appropriateness of folk tales for children that new stories were collected or composed directly for them. Some of the Uncle Remus tales by Joel Chandler Harris fit this paradigm. As animal tales whose plots detail the eternal enmity and repeated encounters between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, the Uncle Remus stories bear a close resemblance to the tales of the medieval Reynard cycle that form the basis of so many of the animal tales in Grimms’ Tales.

A distinctly American folk-tale cycle was composed by the American poet Carl Sandburg in his three volumes of Rootabaga stories (1922, 1923 and 1930). They begin with railroads and continue with a nonsense cast of characters and actions that express midwestern humour, at once gentle and outlandish. Here, as in other examples of folk tales in children’s literature, generic boundaries remain fluid.



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Further reading

Anderson, G. (2000) Fairytale in the Ancient World, London: Routledge.

Arabian Nights Entertainments (1705-8) 4 vols, London: Andrew Bell.

Bottigheimer, R. (1990) ‘Ludwig Bechstein’s Fairy Tales: Nineteenth Century Bestsellers and Burg- erlichkeif, Internationales Archiv fur Sozialgeschichte der detuschten Literatur, Tubingen: Max Niemeyer.

Canepa, N. L. (1999) From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de i cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Hannon, P. (1998) Fabulous Identities: Women’s Fairy Tales in Seventeenth Century France, Amsterdam: Rodolpi.

Harries, E. W. (2001) Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the Fairy Tale, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hearne, B. G. (1989) Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

The History of Abdallah and Zoraide: or, Filial and Paternal Love (c. 1750) London: J. Miller.

Zipes, J. (1983) Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. The Classical Genrefor Children and the Process of Civilisation, London: Heinemann.

- (1988) The Brothers Grimm. From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, New York: Rout-ledge.