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What is a Folktale?

By K T Solis
Updated May 23, 2024
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A folktale is a type of traditional story that tries to explain something, or which is meant to help people behave well in the world. Such stories usually are fiction-based with magical or supernatural elements, and they often are woven around talking animals, royalty, peasants or mythical creatures. Initially passed down through oral tradition, they were a major means of educating and entertaining prior to the development of printed materials and modern technologies, and they remain instrumental in preserving aspects of the culture in which they develop.

Main Characteristics

Exactly how to define what is or is not a folktale is under debate, but stories that fall into this category generally exhibit some very distinguishable characteristics, such as starting with "once upon a time" and ending with "and they all lived happily ever after." They traditionally feature fantastic elements or magic, as well as creatures such as giants, goblins, fairies, elves and dwarfs. They are usually fairly short, often taking just a few minutes to tell or read, and the plots often are melodramatic in nature, featuring a conflict between a hero and villain where everything ends happily, good triumphs and justice properly is served.

Another trait of a folktale is that it survives through or is well known by multiple generations. Initially, people passed down these stories orally, and this method of sharing the tales, coupled with general difficulties and slowness in travel, often resulted in more than one version of the same story developing. Even so, the heart of the plots and the reasons for telling them typically remain the same, mirroring the values and culture of the society from which they originated.

Realism and Purpose

In general, these stories usually are fiction, meaning that the people, places and events depicted are largely imaginary. In fact, people usually readily admit that they probably aren't true. They are connected closely to legends, however, in that people sometimes come to see at least one aspect or character as real. A good example might be a tale about a witch told among a group that believes witches really exist.

Regardless of how true audiences believe the stories are, folktales almost always provide some practical or moral lesson. Alternately, it can explain how something works or came into being. The Three Little Pigs, for example, teaches that being willing to work and thinking critically about how to prepare can protect someone against intruders or general danger. The fact that people can derive and apply practical meaning from the characters and plots is part of what makes them so popular and enduring.

Reasons for Initial Common Use

Before the Internet, newspapers, radio, television and other types of media, it wasn't possible to rely on technology to pass the time, and much of the world was illiterate. People relied on storytellers for both entertainment and education as a result. Furthermore, groups needed ways to preserve their cultures. Folktales met all these needs, providing long-lasting lessons while being constructed in a way members of a group could understand based on their experiences and beliefs.

Rise to Print

In 1450, when Johan Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, the emergence of the book publishing industry made it possible for people to publish books within a variety of genres. In the 1800s, Europeans actively began collecting regional folktales into books in an effort to record and preserve their cultural history. Examples of people who were involved in this movement are Joseph Jacobs from England, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm from Germany and Peter Asbjornsen and Moe Jorgen from Norway. Their versions of these stories can still be found in anthologies and picture books throughout the world.


Various types of folktales exist in the world today. The cumulative variety features a plotless story where events follow a repetitious pattern. Tales of this type include The House That Jack Built and There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Beast fables or tales, such as The Three Billy Goats Gruff, feature animals who speak like humans, and they usually teach lessons about the rewards of being brave, independent and clever. The humorous subcategory involves silly stories about characters who do ridiculous things and make funny mistakes. A good example is Jack and the Three Sillies.

There are also realistic folktales, such as Blue Beard, that contain very little magic and feature a more believable or true-to-life plot, setting and characters. Religious tales feature biblical or other faith-based characters, while romances are peppered with stereotypical beautiful, sweet women and handsome, strong men, who often are mistreated but rise to love, power and fame, or who are some type of royalty — Cinderella is a classic in this subcategory. Magical versions center around spells or enchanted items that usually help the main character succeed. The Chinese story The Magic Belt falls into this group. Other kinds include why or pourquoi, fairy, drolls, trickster and tall tales.


With oral tradition carrying these folktales from generation to generation and place to place, tracing an original author is difficult, if not impossible. Most of the time, they are labeled either as "anonymous" or "traditional," but occasionally, specific versions sometimes have attributions that note the person or group of people who wrote down or preserved particular tellings, which helps keep the different arrangements of the same stories straight. Sometimes, this appears in print along with the country from which the story is thought to have come.

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Discussion Comments
By anon322505 — On Feb 27, 2013

Folktales did not always end happily. In Little Red Riding Hood in the version by Charles Perrault, there was no happy ending, but it still implied the moral do not talk to strangers.

By tellastory — On Jun 03, 2010

In the past, telling folktales around a fire or hearth was a way for families to spend time together, much in the way that families in our time play family games or watch movies together. It's a tradition that, in my opinion, should still be carried on. However, we have become such a multi-media run world, it's hard to get families into this mode of thinking.

By truebkaddict — On Jun 03, 2010

I have read that historically folktales were used as cautionary tales to children. For instance, Hansel and Gretel would have been a warning against forests or a lesson in an issue of the time, such as famine. Little Red Riding Hood might have been a warning against strangers. And for girls of the age, when making a good marriage was all important, stories like Cinderella or Snow White might have illustrated to them that if they were good and kind they would end up with a handsome prince. In other words, a good marriage. A bit antiquated for girls of our time, but in the past it was important.

By leilani — On Feb 24, 2010

Most memorable times I can recall were the ones when my father would be telling us stories, the tales of old. It usually happened on long winter evenings, when outside was cold but the family felt warm both from the fire and the togetherness and closeness of its members.

That is one of the more beautiful memories of my childhood.

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