Just Out!
Just Published: Cursing Columbus,
the exciting sequel to Double Crossing
An Explanation of Folktales, Fairytales, Myths, Legends, Fables
History of Modern Folktales
What Makes a Folktale?
Folktales from Around the World
Contemporary Retellings

Prime Essays

Why do people tell folktales?

Picture yourself living long ago, before the invention of electricity, computers, or television.  Perhaps you are living before the printing press was invented, or you only have a few books in your home.  It grows dark.  After supper you sit with your family or friends around the fire.  You are tired after a hard days work in the fields or the factory. Soon you will be going to bed, but right now, you want to relax and take your mind off the hardships of your life.  Sitting together in the flickering firelight, someone begins to tell a story they heard from another storyteller about a poor person like yourself who gained a fortune.  Everyone listens intently, even the smallest children.  When the story is over, they ask the teller for another.  You listen until your eyes grow heavy.  Children fall asleep and are carried to bed by their parents. The fire dies down.  Finally all the listeners go off to bed.

But do people still tell folktales today?

I loved to go to camp in the summer.  We would sit around the campfire toasting s’mores and someone, perhaps a counselor, perhaps another camper, would tell the story of Robin L. Gruen who disappeared in the woods.  Then there was the monster in basement that I (almost) believed lived in the basement of my parent’s house. And the story of the couple whose parked car was attacked by an escaped asylum inmate but who managed to escape, only to find the…but I had better stop here.  You get the idea.  These were horror stories told at my camp year after year, sometimes with slight changes.  Of course we knew they weren’t true, but sitting in the woods in the dark, you could believe almost anything.

Were these folktales? 

No, they were probably what we now call “urban legends.”  Urban legends are stories that are presented as true but are either completely false or have only a small grain of truth in them.  The storyteller usually claims that the story happened to someone they know or that the person who told them the story knew the person or someone who told them the story…and so on.

So people don’t tell folktales today?

In many parts of the world, people tell folktales. There are places that still support an oral culture, as in parts of Africa, the Pacific islands, or the Caribbean.  But even in these places, folktales are dying out as more and more people turn on the television in the evening, rather than sitting together to tell stories.

What is storytelling like?

Several years ago I collected some folktales from an Ethiopian immigrant in Israel. Rabbi Josef David was a religious leader in his community.  He told me four stories and I recorded them and wrote them down.  When I got home, I transcribed them so that they were grammatically correct.  I then sent them to the Israeli Folklore Archives. 

There was an enormous gap between the stories I heard and the stories I wrote down.  The written stories lacked dramatic pauses and change in tone and pitch.  They lacked the smiles, the winks and the other facial expressions that the teller used.  They lacked his laughter.  And they lacked my reactions, and his reactions to my reactions: the interweaving that occurs between teller and listener that makes each storytelling unique.  In short, they lacked the personal human element that a good storyteller conveys.

I am not a storyteller, but I have told stories to children and to adults.  Telling a story in front of an audience is very different from telling a story aloud in a practice session, or reading a story from a book. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience infuses life into the story, and influences the pace, the content, and the language the teller uses. I once had a child fall asleep on the floor while I was telling a story.  Another child in the same audience skipped around crowing like a rooster (the subject of the story) when the story was over and declared it the best story he had ever heard.  My conclusion: storytelling is an individual experience.

In my novel Double Crossing, the protagonist Raizel loves to tell folk tales. The stories are woven into the plot and reflect back on it. To read more about my storyteller, click here.

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What a Folktale Isn’t


Folktales are often confused with fairytales, myths, legends and other types of stories.  Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences in order to understand them better.

Myths vs. Folktales

A myth is a comprehensive story that strives to explain and organize the world through narrative.  Myths tend to be epic in scope with a large cast of characters.  Often they attempt to explain the primal forces of nature.  Gods and goddesses intercede in the world of humankind. Myths grow out of a strong religious tradition.  It is difficult or impossible for someone unfamiliar with that tradition to understand them.  Myths need to be interpreted for someone from outside the culture.

You cannot write a myth. History writes myths.

Folktales, on the other hand, are a miniature self-contained narrative.  The characters are usually poor or middle class.  They sometimes deal with magic and with animals that act like people. Many characters do not have names, but have titles that define their role like “youngest son,” “tailor”, or “fisherman.” The same or similar folktales are found in different cultures throughout the world.

Fairytales vs. Folktales

It is difficult to define a fairytale. When created by a single author, it is called a literary fairytale.  Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin all borrowed from traditional folktales to write original fairytales. Often the literary fairytale uses the same patterns as traditional folktales.

Folktales grow out of the oral tradition of storytelling.  They are not the work of a single author but rather the work of many cumulative authors.  Each teller makes personal changes to suit his personality and audience.

Just to complicate matters, a folktale containing fairies, elves, trolls, dwarfs, giants, and other imaginary creatures is usually called a fairytale.  Fairytales have an element of magic or enchantment. A fairytale is often a story about royalty, rather than common folk. Thus fairytales can be considered a sub-category of folktales, but the name is often used interchangeably.

Legends vs. Folktales

Legends often have a regional connection.  They are associated with a particular event or person.   Both myths and legends may have religious content, but myths take place outside time, while legends are rooted in a particular time and place. Legends do not usually have the neat shape that folktales have, but they often have a religious message.  Legends may be transmitted orally or written down.

Folktales are not connected to a specific time, place, or historical character. While good characters are usually victorious over evil, some folktales are immoral.  In Jack and the Beanstalk, poor Jack is the hero even though he foolishly sells his cow for a handful of beans.  When the beans grow into a giant beanstalk, he proceeds to steal from the Giant, who has done him no harm.  He chops down the beanstalk, killing the giant, and causing great grief to the Giant’s wife, who helped Jack.  Jack winds up rich and happy, but I wouldn’t want to have him for a neighbor!

Tall Tales are related to legends but do not claim to have a basis in fact.  They often provide an explanation for the creation of a natural phenomenon like a mountain or river.  A Tall Tale can also be a highly exaggerated story about an historical or fictional person like Paul Bunyon, but the line between fact and fiction is clearly drawn.

Fables vs. Folktales

Fables are short stories that contain a moral about human behavior.  Sometimes the moral is explicitly written out as a maxim: “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” and “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” for example.  Fables attempt to teach their audience how to behave.  They often use talking beasts, as in the stories of Aesop and La Fontaine. Anyone can write a fable.  A fable whose narrative suggests a modern parallel is called an allegory. While folktales may contain a message about human behavior, this message cannot usually be capsulated in a maxim. What would be the moral of Hansel and Gretel, for example?  If you eat too much candy the witch will get you?  Short-sighted witches belong in the oven?  The story is too complicated to be resolved with a maxim. 

Folktales and fables share the character of the talking beast, but in folktales the beast is usually a secondary character, and human characters are also present.  In fables, the animal character is used instead of a human being, representing a person, rather than interacting with them. 

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A Bit of History about Folktales

As literacy grew and the art of printing made books more accessible, storytelling began to die out. Worried that these stories would fade from memory and disappear, collectors of oral tales published them in books.

1.    Charles Perrault – In 1697 Charles Perrault, a well-educated man with connections in the French court, published a book entitled Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe, or stories of past times. This book contained eight stories, including stories familiar to us today, like “Cinderella” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”  

2.    The Grimm Brothers - The first edition of the collection of folktales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm was published in Germany in 1812. The brothers’ original purpose in collecting the tales was both scholarly and political:  they wanted to encourage the cultural unity of the German people.  Often the Grimm brothers did not use original sources for their tales. They combined different versions and changed them to suit their own middle-class Christian values. For example, the evil stepmothers we find in so many Grimm tales were actually birth mothers. (Yes, the wicked stepmother in “Snow White” was her mother!) Although they did not originally publish their stories for children, they made changes from edition to edition of their works as they realized that children were an important (and lucrative) audience for their collected tales.

3.    Joseph Jacobs – collected English fairytales using early written sources. Among the best known tales he collected in his English Fairy Tales (1890) and More English Fairy Tales (1894) were “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” He also published collections of Celtic and Indian folktales.

4.    Hans Christian Anderson  - unlike Perrault, the Grimm brothers and Jacobs, Hans Christian Anderson wrote original fairytales, although his stories have roots in traditional folktales from many cultures.  His first collection of fairytales was published in Danish in 1835 and he published several additional collections.  Among his best known stories in English are “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Little Mermaid.”  These stories are so popular that we can say they have almost turned into folktales, although Anderson’s authorship is not in doubt.

You can read his tales on-line at:

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What Makes a Folktale?Rackham2

Many folktales share common characteristics:

Setting:  The setting of folktales is non-specific in terms of time and place.  The reader cannot identify where or when the story occurs.  In the European folktale tradition, the setting often includes enormous castles, deep dark woods, and the huts of the poor.

Characters: The characters in folktales are not complex.  They do not mature or become wiser during the course of the story. They are usually stereotyped characters that fall into one of two groups: the good and the wicked.  The good characters are rewarded, while the wicked are punished. Usually...

Plot:  The plot of folktales usually involves a movement from powerlessness to power, and poverty to wealth.  A man or woman is helped, often through magic, to gain power over the person who is oppressing them. The evil oppressor sometimes receives a gruesome punishment.  Most heroes and heroines are passive characters who do not really succeed through their own hard work.  Instead, they are assisted by a magical helper.  Cinderella is helped by her fairy godmother.  Snow White is saved by the huntsman who spares her life, the dwarves who take her in, and the prince who sees her in her coffin.  Sleeping Beauty cannot resist learning how to spin and would still be sleeping if she hadn’t been rescued.  The wicked fairy is not even punished for her curse. 

Animals:  In folktales, animals often talk and act like human beings.  The animal characters interact with people. Many animals act as “magic helpers” to the human hero or heroine of the tale.  Talking animals are taken for granted in these tales.

Mnemonic Devices:  A mnemonic device is something that helps us remember.  (I can list the names of the Great Lakes by remembering the word “homes.” “Homes” is a mnemonic [pronounced “ni-ma-nik”] device.)  Mnemonic devices were very important, since storytellers had to remember the plot of their stories without writing them down. In folktales, different mnemonic devices are used:

1.    Stock or Set Openings and Closings – “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” are familiar mnemonic aids used by storytellers in English.

2.    Formula Three – in folktales, events often occur in threes and there are often three characters.  For example, there may be three brothers and each goes out into the world to have an adventure, so there are three adventures. Seven is another formulaic number in folk tales.

3.    Set Descriptions – rather than describe a character in depth (He had brown eyes, a wide nose, and crooked teeth in his smiling mouth.), characters are described using a single adjective that reoccurs in many stories:  the wicked stepmother, the youngest son.  Very few characters remain in our memory unless they depart from this stereotype.  We remember the brave tailor who killed the flies, for example, not because he was brave, but because a tailor is not the typical hero of a story and we do not usually associate a tailor with bravery.  [Read the Anderson story at:]  Comic folktales tend to have more memorable characters.

Tricksters – Trickster characters are found in the folktales of many cultures.  Unlike the majority of characters in folktales, they are a mix of good and evil.  Sometimes they help people, while at other times they are mischievous.  Brer Rabbit in the stories collected by Joel Chandler Harris, Anancy the spider in Caribbean and African folktales, and coyote and raven in Native American tradition are trickster characters. Human characters can also be tricksters.

The folktales that Raizel tells in my novel Double Crossing incorporate many of these elements and include many humorous tales. Double Crossing gives you a sense of how folktales come alive. To read more, click here.

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Familiar Yet Different: Folktales throughout the worldSleeping Beauty

Different versions of the same type of folktale are found throughout the world.  They may have grown from a single story that was told and retold until different versions developed in different languages throughout the world. On the other hand, people may tell the same type of story because all stories grow out of human experience which shares the need for food, shelter, love, companionship and much more.  Or perhaps the answer lies in a tangled web of the two.  In any case, it is interesting to read unfamiliar versions of stories we have grown up with. You can find a variety of Snow White type stories at, a fascinating site which has many versions of familiar stories.  At you can find Sleeping Beauty type stories.

The first system to attempt to classify folktales was published by Antti Aarne in 1910.  His system was expanded by Stith Thompson and today is called the Aarne-Thompson Classification System. It classifies some 2500 basic plots found in folktales throughout the world.  The motifs found in these stories are given a number, title, and brief description.  The stories in a particular category all share the same motif, although the other details of the story may vary and the stories come from different cultures. For an explanation of how the system works, see

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Jewish Folktales

Click here to learn more about the Jewish folktales that Raizel tells in Double Crossing.

Short Bibliography of Contemporary Retellings of Folktales

In my novel Double Crossing, I tried to keep the original oral character of folktales, because the stories are part of a work of historical fiction. Many contemporary authors have “retold” traditional folktales, sometimes adding a modern twist.  Part of the fun in reading these books is to discover how they differ from the familiar story. 

Scieska, Jon. The Stinky Cheese Man  Picture Book  (if you haven’t read this, run out
and get it. It’s a hilarious picture book that twists
folktales into something else).
Scieszka, Jon. The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf Picture Book
Munsch, Robert. The Paper Bag Princess. Picture Book
Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted. Cinderella
McKinley, Robin.  Beauty  Beauty and the Beast
Block, Francesca Lia. The Rose and the Beast  Beauty and the Beast
Napoli, Donna Jo. Beast. Beauty and the Beast
Pullman, Philip. Clockwork An original.
French, Fiona. Snow White in New York Picture Book
Yolen, Jane.  Briar Rose. (uses the Sleeping Beauty story to create a chilling tale of the Holocaust)

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Thank you to Art for the wonderful illustrations!