Traditional Literature

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What is Traditional Literature?

Traditional literature is a genre that deals specifically with stories that were passed down through oral storytelling from generation to generation. Traditional literature consists of songs, stories, poems and riddles from anonymous sources.

There are many forms of traditional literature (myths, fables, epics, ballads, legends, folk rhymes, folktales) and many of the categories do overlap.

Folktales are a major form of traditional literature found all over the world. These stories have some elements in common and come in several different forms. Some types of folktales are: fairy tales, noodlehead tales, cumulative tales, pourquoi tales, and animal stories.

Folktales are considered part of the larger category of folklore that includes everything from nursery rhymes and fables to home remedies and proverbs.

Distinguished from folktales are: myths, legends, tall tales and epics. These are also stories from a culture’s oral tradition, but are not generally considered folktales. These stories emanate from a culture’s historical events, religion, and tradition.

Information compiled by Jennifer Stanbro—July 2006

Glossary of Folktale Forms

Fairy tale
This is the best known type of folktale, and one of the most popular. Fairy tales, sometimes called "magic stories," are filled with dreamlike possibility. Fairy tales feature transformations, magical interventions, enchanted forces, and, of course, magic. Fairy tales always have a "happily ever after" ending, where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Characteristics:

Tale of some length, with a succession of episodes and motifs Setting does not have a definite location or time
Includes magic and/or magical characters and marvelous adventures

Sleeping Beauty by Mahlon F. Craft
Cinderella by Ruth Sanderson

Folktale
Folktales feature common people, such as peasants, and commonplace events. Characters are usually flat, representing human frailty. Folktales have tight plot structures, filled with conflict. There is often a cycle of three in folktales. Elements of magic or magical characters may be incorporated, but logic rules so the supernatural must be plausible and within context.

Hansel and Gretel retold from the Brothers Grimm and illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky Tikki Tikki Tembo by Blair Lent Young Ed
Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story From China by Ed Young

Noodlehead story (droll, numskull story, humorous story)
A noodlehead story is about a silly or dim-witted person who nevertheless often wins out in the end. The main character in a noodlehead tale makes the same mistake over and over until the resolution of the story. Humor is an aspect of this type of tale, resulting from the absurdity of the situation and the foolishness of the characters. These stories are often nonsensical and meant for fun.

Ming Lo Moves the Mountain by Arnold Lobel
Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap! by Tom Birdseye
Lazy Jack by Vivian French
Epossumondas by Colleen Sally

Pourquoi story (explanatory tale, etiological tale)
Pourquoi (por-kwa) means "why" in French. Pourquoi tales explain observable facts and phenomenon for which early people lacked scientific knowledge to explain, such as why the sun falls from the sky, why beavers have flat tails, and how tigers got their stripes. The explanation is not scientifically true and while this type of folktale is often serious, it has hilarious aspects integrated into the telling. Pourquoi tales are often found in mythology.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears Aardema
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story by Joseph Bruchac

Talking Animal Tales/ Beast Tales
Beast tales feature animal characters with human characteristics. They walk like humans, they talk like humans, and they exhibit all of the other follies that befall...
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