Once upon a time, not so very long ago...
And they lived happily ever after.
Little pig, little pig,
Let me come in.
Not by the hair of my chinny, chin, chin!
The Three Little Pigs
This unit provides you with the skills needed to effectively evaluate traditional stories and modern fantasy.
The literature we now call folk tales comes from the oral tradition. These are the stories that were created and handed down from generation to generation, long before people could read or write. Considered a “mirror of the people” (Sutherland and Arbuthnot, 163) these stories were meant for all ages, not just children.
It is interesting to note that different versions of the same folk or fairy tale appear in many cultures around the world. This is not an accident. For example, there are more than 500 different versions of Cinderella world wide.
Hillman notes that while those who first studied folk tales developed the theory of monogenesis (mono = one; genesis = beginning) which stated that all traditional stories came from northern Europe:
This has since been refuted with a more logical polygenesis theory, which insists that humans in every culture express the same basic needs and desires – to love, to hate, to search for meaning, to laugh, and to learn – and therefore similar patterns, characters, situations, and so on. (60)
No one knows who first told these stories. But we do know who were the first to collect and publish traditional European tales.
The earliest collectors included –
Charles Perrault (1628-1703)
- Published Histories ou countes du temps passé avec des moralities in France in 1697
- Wrote down oral stories for the entertainment of the court at Versailles
- Included such well-known tales as Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood
- Softened the rough edges of the stories and added a moral to each one
- Translated and published in English as The Histories, or Tales of Past Times in 1729
Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859)
- First collection published in Berlin in 1812
- First translated into English in 1823
- Collected stories that were familiar to most western Europeans
- First substantial collections of folk tales for their own sakes
- Inspired serious collecting of folk tales in Britain
Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916)
- Collected and retold the stories loved by British young children including Jack the Giant Killer and The Three Little Pigs
Andrew Lang (1844-1912)
- Collected tales from around the world
- Published Blue fairy book, 1889, first of a series of 12 books, all with a colour in their title
It is important to understand the differences between traditional tales and literary folk tales:
Stories written by modern authors and patterned after folk tales, such as the work of Hans Christian Anderson and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, are often confused with the traditional tale that has no author. However, these tales are modern fantasy stories, for they originated in written form. (Jacob and Tunnel, 66)
Purpose of folk tales
There are many theories about the origins of folk tales. While the actual beginnings of the stories have been lost in the mists of time, we can still speculate on the origins of the tales. Many believe that some of the stories originated as nightmares or dreams in the minds of the storytellers. Another theory suggests that some of the stories demonstrate some of the unconscious frustrations or daydreams of the people who listened to them. For example, the presence of so many kings can be taken as a sign of wish fulfillment on the part of those who created the stories.
Some folk tales are remnants of early nature myths, devised to explain some aspect of the forces of nature which puzzled the early peoples. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood is believed to be a very early explanation for the sun’s apparent journey across the sky. Finally, other stories may have been created to teach survival skills. Hans in luck, for example, shows how a fool may easily be tricked into loosing everything. (Sutherland and Arbuthnot, 165) But speculation aside, this is what we do know about folk tales. They are created at a very early level of civilization. They often contain elements from past religions and rituals. On a symbolic level they satisfy people’s basic emotional needs. In addition, they served as the “cement” in early societies, providing the rules that everyone was to live by. (Sutherland and Arbuthnot, 166)
Characteristics of folk talesFolk tales have many characteristics in common. These include –
- A brisk beginning
- Lots of action in the middle section of the story
- Stock or flat characters who are not well developed
- A satisfying and definite ending which often appeals to children’s sense of judgment
Most folk tales are quite short. Some include rhyme or repetition making them easier to retell.
If a folk tale contains magical or supernatural elements, it is more properly called a fairy tale.
Distinctive elements of folk tales
Folk tales contain a number of distinctive literary elements. These include plot and story structure, characters, literary style, settings, tone and themes. The plot and story structure for a folk tale includes –
- Beginnings which are brief and to the pointThe first few paragraphs will typically introduce the main characters, describe the setting and outline the problem or conflict that has to be overcome.
- Plots which move quicklyIn folk tales plots are more important than characters. Story lines are characterized by lots of action and suspense and are usually logical.
- Conclusions which are also brief and to the pointEndings come quickly and tie together everything that was started at the beginning of the story. Typically, good behavior is rewarded and wicked behavior is punished.
The characters in folk tales are called stock characters. Because the stories focus more on plot development than character development, the characters tend to be flat or underdeveloped. This does not, however, make them any less interesting. Some of the characters found in both folk and fairy tales include –
- wise women
- witches and wizards
- magicians and sorcerers
- giants and ogres
- animals with magic powers
- enchanted people
Folk tales can also be distinguished by their use of language. Because they originated from the oral tradition folk tales tend to employ a more economical style. There is usually very little in the way of description of settings or characters. The repetition of key phrases make the stories easy to memorize and retell. For example, have another look at the quote at the beginning of this module. Dialogue is often used to keep the story going.
Folk tales are also characterized by their settings. These are usually vague and distant. The teller often begins with the phrase, “Once upon a time…” and the reader is immediately removed to a distant fantasy land.
The tone of folk tales is harder to categorize. Tone is tied very closely to the characters and plot. It can vary from the sentimental or romantic, for example, Beauty and the Beast, to the humorous, such as Hans in luck to the more objective such as Chicken Little.
Finally, themes in most folk tales, especially those from Western tradition, clearly demonstrates the key values of that culture. Russell explains –
Folk tale themes are usually quite simple, but always serious and powerful. Themes deal with such subjects as escaping mighty and evil enemies, earning a place in the world, accomplishing monumental tasks, and so on. Values are clearly defined; there is seldom a question about what is right or wrong, folk-tale heroes and heroines usually do not wrestle with perplexing moral dilemmas. The choices are typically very clear but they are also typically demanding. (111)
A note on multicultural literature
A generation ago, most Canadian children were exposed only to the folk tales of western Europe. Today, a wide range of stories are available from many diverse cultures. Take some time to familiarize yourself with tales from other cultures. Children should be exposed to them as well. Of particular note are the tales that originated with North American native groups.
European versus North American folk tales
A brief comparison between European folk tales and those told by the native people of North America shows that there are significance differences:
European folk tales start in an ambiguous or dreamy fashion, thus encouraging the listen to enter an imaginary setting. North American native stories, on the other hand, tend to have beginnings that seem more straightforward and less ambiguous.
European folk tales are characterized by abrupt and conclusive endings. In contrast, North American native tales often don’t have a clear ending that wraps up all the threads of the story. Sometimes stories are linked together as part of a large circle.
- the use of numbers
Three is the number that so often appears in European folk tales. While in North American native stories, the number four is used. The use of four relates to the four directions the wind blows.
Traditionally, the major expectation from a European folk tale was entertainment. In the North American native tradition, the expectation was more of the passing on of beliefs, culture and history.
Classifying folk tales
Folk tales are grouped according to their content. Some of the more common types of folk tales are –
- Cumulative tales
These stories are short on plot, but long on rhythm. Their episodes neatly follow one another to a logical and sometimes hilarious conclusion. An example of a cumulative tale is The turnip. As each family member or animal comes to help with the task of pulling a giant turnip from the ground, the entire list of participants is repeated.
- Talking beast tales
These stories feature animals who can talk to humans or to each other. Sometimes the animal characters present an exaggerated characterization of humans. “Puss in Boots” is an example of a talking beast tale.
- Droll or humorous tales
These stories use humour to expose human foolishness. They frequently poke fun at the characters in the story. If the main character in the story is a fool, these may be called noodlehead tales. Hans in Luck clearly demonstrates the characteristics of a noodlehead tale. At the beginning of the story, the reader is told Hans has worked for his master for seven years. His reward is a piece of silver “as big as [his] head.” He is on his way home to visit his mother when he encounters a number of characters who manage to swindle him.
His final encounter is with a scissor-grinder:
Hans stood for a while, and at last said, “You must be well off, master grinder, you seem to happy at your work.”
“Yes,” said the other, “mine is a golden trade; a good grinder never puts his hand in his pocket without finding money in it: - but where did you find that beautiful goose?”
“I did not buy it, but changed a pig for it.”
“And where did you get the pig?”
“I gave a cow for it.”
“And the cow?”
“I gave a horse for it.”
“And the horse?”
“I gave a piece of silver as big as my head for that.”
“And the silver?”
“Oh! I worked hard for that seven long years …”
And so it goes – by the end of the tale Hans loses even the grindstone, which he traded for the goose. But even that doesn’t seem to bother him:
“How happy am I!” cried he: “no mortal was ever so lucky as I am.” Then he got with a light and merry heart and walked on free from all his troubles, till he reached his mother’s home.
- Realistic tales
These stories feature a character who was a real person, but in the telling of the tale has been made fabulous. The stories about the character Bluebeard are examples of realistic tales.
- Tall tales
These tales focus on characters and events that may be real or fictional. Tall tales are characterized by their use of humor and exaggeration. Often they have their origins in stories about real people. For example, there are many tall tales about the American hero, Davy Crockett.
- Pourquoi tales
These stories were originally told to explain natural phenomena. An example of a pourqoui story is Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears?
- Trickster tales
These tales often feature an animal protagonist who can outsmart everyone else (including the humans!) in the story. Tricksters’ characters vary from sly to helpful. Raven is featured as the trickster figure in many traditional tales from west coast Indian tribes.
- Ghost stories
“…ghost stories are perfect examples of the living folk tale, told by the folk to the folk – with each tale adapted to the occasion.” (Russell, 107) They are enjoyed by many children who like being scared by stories of ghosts and evil spirits.
Why folk tales appeal to children
Folk tales appeal to children for a number of reasons. First, they are often empowering stories. Children learn about heroes who overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. Second, children can laugh at the foolishness of the characters found in noodlehead tales. Third, the clear cut endings, with their rewards for good or glorious behavior appeal to children’s sense of justice.
Other types of traditional literature include fables, myths, epic and hero tales. The balance of this module will discuss these types of traditional literature as well as modern fantasy.
While folk and fairy tales evoke mental pictures of lands far away, fables tend to be more crisp and dispassionate.
Children are not ready for fables until they are at least five years old. They need to have acquired some knowledge of people’s foibles to understand how fables work. Fables are appropriate after folk tales have been introduced and before myths and legends are introduced.
The best known fables are credited to Aesop, a Greek slave. Fables are usually brief and contain one single action that includes a moral lesson. They often feature an animal or inanimate object that behaves like a human being. The virtues celebrated in fables are not the heroic, but rather the commonplace virtues needed for everyday living. For example, the moral from the tale The tortoise and the hare is “slow and steady wins the race.”
Two modern author/illustrators who have produced illustrated collections of fables are Leo Lionni and Arnold Lobel.
Pan, the god of the woods and fields, of flocks and shepherds, dwelt in the grottos, wandered on the mountains and in the valleys, and amused himself with the chase or in the leading the dances of the nymphs.
The Age of Fable
Myths are early science, the results of men’s first trying to explain what they saw around them.
MythologyLike folk tales and fables, myths are very old. They are the stories of gods and goddesses of a culture. Myths are more complicated than fables and frequently contain symbolism. Myths are divided into three categories based on their themes:
- Pourquoi tales
These stories attempt to explain some aspect of nature or human existence. For example, the Greek myth about Demeter, the earth mother and her daughter, Peresphone, was used to explain the onset of winter.
- Ways of gods of mortals
These tales are clear warnings about what happens when mortals interact with the gods. The results, as in the story about King Midas, the man with the golden touch, are usually not positive.
- Warnings against particular sins
These myths carry strongly worded messages against certain kinds of behavior. Arachne, for example, pays clearly for her habit of boasting about her weaving abilities.
Another characteristic of myths is that they frequently give human characteristics to the impersonal forces of nature. Making a god like Zeus responsible for lightning, helped the ancient Greeks to better cope with forces that they didn’t comprehend.
Many myths also deal with the gods’ relationships with one another. These stories frequently contain morals about what is appropriate behavior.
Myths are now available from many different cultures. The Greek, Roman and Norse myths have a significant impact on Western culture. Older children are interested in seeing how the names of many characters from these stories have permeated our culture. For example, mortals’ fear of the god Pan and his magic flute led to the word panic being introduced into peoples’ vocabulary. You can also take a look around your own community and see how many businesses have used names from ancient myths, Midas Muffler being one example.
Epic and hero tales
King Arthur made his court at Camelot and, aided by Merlin, reigned over a peaceful and prosperous land. Arthur was as brave as any knight, always ready to risk his life for justice.
King Arthur and the knights of the round table
Epic and hero tales may still be myth, that is, their basis is a made-up story, but the centre of these tales is a human, not a god. This hero embodies the ideals of his/her culture. They are buffeted violently by both the gods and other humans, but they dare to accomplish great deeds and most often suffer without complaining. They are survivors and they endure until the end.
Many characters in epic and hero tales were probably real. Some were actual historical figures such as the American hero, Paul Bunyan. Other heroic characters were probably real, such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, but they now loom larger than life.
There is a direct link between the ancient heroes such as Achilles and Ulysses to today’s superheroes such as Batman and Superman. Children who enjoy modern tales of derring-do will enjoy retellings of the epic and hero tales.
Epic and hero tales include dynamic and well defined characters. There is plenty of action. The hero is able to overcome all the obstacles placed in his path and emerge victorious at the end of the story.
Evaluating traditional literature
The biggest problem in evaluating traditional tales seems to be our need to determine which version is the “correct” one. Because the tales were originally told orally and because they often changed every time they were told, there is no one “correct” version for folk tales. Instead, we can evaluate traditional tales by a careful analysis of its literary elements.
Hillman suggests that the following characteristics are important:
a linear or cumulative story structure; one dimensional characters with the exception of the hero; clean, spare language with occasional word play and stylistic patterns; and humorous or value-laden themes that speak to the truly important reasons for society’s existence. (70)
If you are looking at a story or a collection of stories from another culture, consider the following questions that are posed by Norton:
- Does the literature help children learn to appreciate the culture and art of a different country?
- Does the literature encourage children to realize that people from another part of the world have inherent goodness, mercy, courage and industry? (286)
Stories from other cultures can help further children’s understanding of other peoples and other places.
Besides analyzing the literary elements, examine any illustrations that accompany the story or stories. There is no “right style” for illustrating folk tales, but the mood of the pictures should match the mood of the story.
Modern fantasy for children began with the publication of the ground-breaking book, Alice in Wonderland, in 1865. Fantasy stories are tales of pure imagination. They contain people or creatures and sometimes a setting that does not really exist. The best fantasy for children demonstrates two characteristics:
- It shows a strongly realized vision of a fantasy world. That world, however fantastic, must still be logical.
- It usually contains a moral or lesson. Themes are frequently demonstrated through symbolism.
Fantasy is created by the author’s manipulation of three elements:
Characters range from humans, such as Alice in the books, Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the looking glass. She interacts with a broad range of fantastical creatures, including a deck of playing cards that can walk and talk. In other fantasies, the characters are humanized creatures, such as the hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Characters can also be personified animals such as The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson.Modern fantasy is divided into a number of subgroups, based on themes:
- Tales of pure imagination
- Modern tales of talking beasts
- Personified toys
- Humorous fantasy
Much fantasy contains some element of humour. But that humour may be too subtle or difficult for a younger child to understand. Younger children prefer a more open, slap-stick type of humour. Dr. Seuss with his many fantastical creatures, such as The Cat in the hat, and Sam-I-Am in Green eggs and ham, remains a perennial favourite. A more contemporary author/illustrator, who is extremely popular, is Stephen Kellog. His cartooning style of illustration is a perfect match for the zany tales he illustrates. His expansion of the old tale, Chicken Little, is particularly enjoyed by young children.
The main criteria for evaluating fantasy is believability. And while that may sound paradoxical, (we are, after all, discussing fantastical – not realistic – literature) it is the key to a well developed fantasy story.
Believability means that within the fantasy world created by the author, everything – characters, setting, plot, and so on, makes sense.Additionally, you’ll want to look for the following:
- Well developed and appealing characters
- Plots that move the action ahead to keep children interested
- Authentic settings
In short, you use the criteria outlined in module 1 to evaluate the literary aspects of the modern fantasy stories.
In addition to analyzing the literary elements, examine any illustrations that accompany the story or stories. As with traditional stories, there is no “right style” for illustrating modern fantasy, but the mood of the pictures should match the mood of the story. Use the criteria outlined in the module when evaluating illustrations.
Traditional tales and fantasy stories are important for children. They represent one way of passing on a culture’s values, but their importance is more complex than that. Jacob and Tunnel express the importance of traditional tales this way:
However simple and straightforward traditional fantasy may seem, it is the mother of all literature. There are literally no character types, basic plots, or themes that have not been explored in the oral tradition. Traditional fantasy is a wonderful metaphor for human existence, and because of its rich imagery and dreamlike quality, it speaks to us deeply. (68)
Cruikshank, George. trans. Grimm’s fairy tales. London, England: Puffin Books, 1971. First published, 1823.
Hillman, Judith. Discovering children’s literature. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill, 1995.
Jacobs, James S. and Michael O. Tunnell. Children’s literature briefly. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1996.
Russell, David L. Literature for children: a short introduction. New York, NY: Longman, 1994.
Sutherland, Zena, and May Hill Arbuthnot. Children and books. 7th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1986.
Appendix A: In defense of traditional fantasy
The use of traditional tales with children is not without controversy. The tales have been the subject of adult scrutiny for a very long time. The following excerpt from Children’s literature briefly by Jacobs and Tunnell explores some of those issues.
“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defense, as reading for children” (Lewis 1980, p. 213). These words by C.S. Lewis, who is known for his enduring fantasy series, the Narnia Chronicles, were written as part of his defense of traditional tales in 1952. Yet, in far less than a hundred years – in fact, on a regular basis – “wiseacres” have been attempting to censor traditional stories. We have already discussed the importance of fairy and folktales but now wish to provide some response to the major complaints voiced against traditional literature. These objections mainly fall into four categories: psychological fantasy, violence, frightening to young children, and waste of time. Psychological fantasy
Some adults fear that fantasy stories will lead children to be somehow out of touch with reality, to suffer from fantasy in the clinical, psychological sense of the word. Psychological fantasy, the inability of the mind to distinguish what is real, does not result from reading literary fantasy. In fact, children who read stories that contain “unrealistic” elements – animals who talk, magical events, time travel – are actually less at risk of losing touch with the realities of daily life. Bruno Bettleheim (1977) confirmed this position when he said that fairy stories not only are safe for children but also necessary, and that children deprived of a rich fantasy life (which traditional tales provide) are more likely to seek a psychological escape through avenues like black magic, drugs, or astrology. Through fairy and folk tales, children may vicariously vent the frustrations of being a child controlled by an adult world, for they subconsciously identify with the heroes of the stories who are often the youngest, smallest, least powerful characters (Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Aladdin). They also are given a sense of hope about their ultimate abilities to succeed in the world.
C.S. Lewis goes a step further, believing that certain realistic stories are far more likely to cause problems than good fantasy. He points to adult reading as an example:
The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie … prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches, and bedroom scenes – things that really might have happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. [T]here are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease. (1980, p. 215)
ViolenceCritics suggest that violence acts in some traditional tales will breed violence in young children. The work of psychologist Ephraim Biblow shows how wrong-minded this sort of thinking is. In his experimental study, Biblow showed that children with rich fantasy lives respond to aggressive films with a significant decrease in aggressive behavior while “low-fantasy” children showed a tendency toward increased aggression. “The low fantasy child, as observed during play, presented himself as more motorically oriented, revealed much action and little thought in play activities. The high-fantasy child in contrast was more highly structured and creative and tended to be verbally rather than physically aggressive” (Biblow 1973, p. 128).
Much of the violence in fairy and folktales involves the punishment of truly evil villains. Children are concerned from an early age with the ramifications of good and bad behavior, which is represented in fundamental, archetypal ways in traditional stories. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development describe the young child as being in the “Premoral Stage” (up to about eight years), which basically means that “the child believes that evil behavior is likely to be punished and good behavior is based on obedience or avoidance of evil implicit in disobedience” (Lefrancois 1986, p.446). According to Bettleheim (1977), the evil person in fairy tales who meets a well-deserved fate satisfies a child’s deep need for justice to prevail. Sometimes this requires destroying the evil altogether.
Violence in movies and many books cannot be equated with the violence in fairy and folktales. Even in Grimm’s version of Cinderella, one of the bloodiest of fairy stories, the violent acts are surprisingly understated. Both truly wicked stepsisters mutilate themselves (a trimmed heel and a cut-off toe) to make the slipper fit and are revealed by the blood. Later, birds peck out their eyes as punishment for their treachery. Yet, the tale simply, compactly states the fact of each violent act. We don’t read of viscous fluid streaming down faces or blood spurting on walls and floors. That’s the stuff of slasher horror movies, sensationalism designed to shock or titillate, but not a careful comment on justice.Frightening for young children
Many adults worry that some of the traditional tales will frighten children, causing nightmares and other sorts of distress. However, because dangerous story elements, such as wicked witches or dragons, are far removed in both time and place from the lives of children, they prove much less frightening than realistic stories of danger that focus on real-life fears (Smith 1989). Lewis felt that insulating a child completely from fear is a disservice. “Since it is so likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not bright but darker” (Lewis 1980, p. 216).Waste of time
Fairy and folktales provide children a message of hope. No matter how bleak the outlook or how dark the path, these stories promise children that it is possible to make it through and come out on top. In fact, children who recoil from strong images of danger in fairy tales have the most to gain from the exposure (Smith 1989).
Some adults feel they can circumvent the problem of frightening children by choosing softened versions of fairy and folktales. What if this caused children to be more distressed? Trousdale (1989) tells the story of a mother who used only the softened version of The Three Little Pigs with her young daughter. In this version the pigs are not eaten and the wolf is not killed in boiling water. Instead, he comes down the chimney, burns his derriere, rockets up the chimney, and disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again. The little girl said, “He’s gonna come back,” and began to have nightmares. Trousdale (1989, p.77) advised the child’s mother to read the Joseph Jacobs version and soon received a letter that said, “Well, we put the Big Bad Wolf to rest.” The evil was destroyed and thus the threat eliminated.
Perhaps the most insidious complaint is that traditional fantasy is a waste of time. Adults simply do not select fairy or folktales to use with children in favor of more substantial stories and books about the real world. However, no genre of literature better fosters creativity than fantasy (both modern and traditional). Recall that Biblow’s study showed high-fantasy children to be “more highly structured and creative.” Russian poet Kornei Chukovsky (1968, p. 17) felt that fantasy is “the most valuable attribute of the human mind and should be diligently nurtured from the earliest age.” He even points out that great scientists have acknowledged this fact and quotes eminent British physicist John Tindale:
Without the participation of fantasy … all our knowledge about nature would have been limited merely to the classification of obvious facts. The relation between cause and effect and their interaction would have gone unnoticed, thus stemming the progress of science itself, because it is the main function of science to establish the link between the different manifestations of nature, since creative fantasy is the ability to perceive more and more such links. (Chukovsky 1968, p. 124)
As the story goes, a woman with a mathematically gifted son asked Albert Einstein how she should best foster his talent. After a moment of thought, Einstein answered, “Read him the great myths of the past – stretch his imagination” (Huck 1982, p.316). Teachers bemoan the lack of creative and critical thinking in today’s students. How can we then not promote the very books and stories that cultivate imaginative thought?
Jacobs & Tunnell. Children’s Literature Briefly. Merrill/Prentice Hall. 1996