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Folklore

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English Literature

As a set of traditional knowledge and beliefs, folklore has inspired many works in literature, from poetry to novels. What exactly is folklore and why is it important? Keep reading to find out!

This article explains what folklore is and its role in literature. The importance of folklore is discussed and you will be taken through the main types of folklore and the elements that make a piece of literature folklore. You will encounter common characteristics of folklore literature in this article and there are some examples that highlight some of these common characteristics.

Folklore in literature and meaning

Folklore refers to traditional knowledge and beliefs which have usually been passed down by word of mouth. Folklore can consist of dramas, rituals, fairy tales, riddles, poems and songs. Although it has been used as a tool to pass down a civilisation’s history, these civilisations may or may not have had a written language. This means that some folklore is only available via word of mouth.

The stories shared through folklore tell a vivid story about the culture of a people. These stories are often fictional stories involving animals and people. The origins of some of these tales are unknown and remain unknown. It can be difficult to trace the origins of some folklore tales because they have been passed down by word of mouth – some communities’ languages have no written record. It is also likely that they have been altered during this process.

How to remember what folklore means: ‘Folk’ means a community of people. ‘Lore’ is derived from the Old English word ‘lar’ which means knowledge or learning. Therefore, folklore is the knowledge of a community of people.

Importance of folklore

Folklore acts as a record of the history of a community’s culture. There is familiarity in the stories that are shared from generation to generation, and this connects people from a community across generations. There is often wisdom you can glean from folklore and you can learn about the successes and failures of a specific community. Folklore can have a moral lesson at the end and can show different perspectives within a story in order to teach this moral lesson.

Elements of folklore in literature

The anthropological element to folklore means you can see how an author has used folkloristic elements. There is a borrowing of tales from different cultures, and the context of the folklore materials used. For example, which community do they come from? Which era was this folklore most likely to have come from and what can that teach us about the morals and values of the time? How do these influence how we interpret folklore?

Analysing folklore consists of two paths: identification and interpretation. Identification consists of identifying similarities in folklore and between folklore. Interpretation consists of identifying differences in folklore and between folklore. Identification is where you consider the similarities your chosen subject material has with folklore from the past. Interpretation is where you consider the differences your chosen subject material has with folklore from the past.

Examples of folk literature

Let's look at some popular examples of folk literature.

Brothers Grimm The Sleeping Beauty (1812, 1815)

The German Brothers Grimm were credited with being the first people to collect German fairy tales with an emphasis on preserving the plot, characters and style in which the original stories were told as they were passed down through generations.

The Sleeping Beauty is an example of one such tale. In this fairy tale, a princess is cursed by an evil fairy to sleep for a hundred years. The only way to end the curse is for a prince to awaken her. A good fairy places all the living beings in the palace to sleep as well so that the princess does not wake up from her curse alone. This tale has the element of good and evil which is common in fairy tale folklore.

The main lesson in The Sleeping Beauty is considered to be that you should be patient in waiting for love.

Folklore Sleeping Beauty StudySmarterThe Sleeping Beauty, pixabay

Pandora’s Box

Pandora’s Box is a well-known Greek myth. Pandora comes across a box which she is told to look after by her husband. Out of curiosity, Pandora opens the box and unleashes pain and suffering upon mankind. This was supposedly the first instance where pain and suffering were inflicted on mankind. In some retellings of the myth, Pandora was the first human woman on Earth. The box she opened came to be known as Pandora’s box.

The myth of Pandora’s Box tells of human weakness, the pitfalls of curiosity and how pain and suffering were first inflicted on mankind.

Folklore Pandora's Box StudySmarterPandora's Box, pixabay.com

The Arthurian legends

The Arthurian legends are tales about King Arthur and the adventures he had in his life. These legends are well-known in British mythology. As is often the case with legends, the existence of King Arthur and the veracity of these tales cannot be determined by historians. It is believed that the character of King Arthur was based on a warrior from the sixth century (known as the ‘Dark Ages’) who spearheaded British armies against Saxon invaders.

The main lesson of the Arthurian legends is moral integrity, defending the weak, and loyalty.

Folklore King Arthur StudySmarterKing Arthur, pixabay.com

The Tortoise and the Hare

The fable of The Tortoise and the Hare involves a tortoise who challenges a hare to a race after the hare makes fun of his speed. The tortoise progresses slowly along the racetrack, whilst the hare speeds away and, as he is certain he will win, he takes a nap along the racetrack. The tortoise continues steadily along the racetrack, passing the hare. Once the hare wakes up, he notices the tortoise crawling steadily across the finish line.

The main lesson in The Tortoise and the Hare is that the best course of action for success is to take things steadily and slowly instead of in a haste.

Folklore tortoise and the hare StudySmarterTortoise, freepik.comFolklore tortoise and the hare StudySmarterHare, freepik.com

Characteristics of folk literature

To determine if a story draws on folklore, consider whether it shows these characteristics of folk literature.

  • Folklore is typically passed down orally through generations. So, there are often variations in their telling.

  • A community’s culture is shared through folklore. Folklore could tell of an important event that affected the people of that community in a prominent way.

  • Folklore could tell of the values and morals of a community. If there is a moral lesson at the end, it could reflect teaching that the community believed in.

  • Folklore involving heroic tales often incorporates singing with the accompaniment of musical instruments. This helped the formation of poetic forms with meters that developed and were passed on over time. An example of this is the Greek epics.

  • Tales in folklore often involve animals or characters or a combination of both and explore how they manage everyday life events and crises.

  • Characters in folklore may have to solve a problem or prove they have a certain moral value.

  • Good and evil are explored through characters who embody these values. The idea of punishment and reward is also explored.

The four types of folk literature

The four types of folk literature are the most common folklore genres. These are:

  • Fairy tales: this is a story that often incorporates magic into its storytelling. It includes a hero, a villain and a trial or adventure which the main character has to overcome to receive their reward and good fortune. There can be a moral or lesson to learn at the end.

Cinderella is an example of a fairy tale. Cinderella grows up with her evil stepmother and stepsisters who try to prevent her from going to a ball where the Prince of the kingdom will be picking his wife from the guests in attendance. A fairy godmother helps Cinderella get to the ball where she is able to meet the Prince.

  • Fables: fables exclusively involve animals having characteristics that would typically be attributed to humans and doing things that humans would do. This is known as anthropomorphism. The aim of fables is to show the pitfalls of human behaviour and how they can be overcome. Fables teach a moral and this is explained explicitly by the end of the tale.

The fable about the fox and the grapes is a tale about a fox who sees some grapes high up on a branch he wants to eat. He jumps multiple times to reach them but fails each time. He eventually walks away scornfully. The moral teaching is that people pretend to hate what they cannot reach.

  • Myths: a myth is known as a symbolic narrative, meaning that this narrative stands for something else. Myths can stem from tradition and religious beliefs, but their origins are sometimes uncertain.

An example of this is Little Red Riding Hood acting as a symbol of innocence, not just a young girl who wandered into the woods. So the story itself is a symbolic narrative.

  • Legends: a legend tells the tale of a figure in history either through a story or through a series of stories. Legends usually consist of stories that are not accurately recorded, if at all, so they may or may not be true. Legends can change over time as those who retell the story may alter parts of it.

One famous legend is the story of Icarus, son of a craftsman in ancient Greece. In an attempt to escape from an island, Icarus and his father craft wings out of feathers and wax. Whilst flying away, Icarus flies too close to the sun, his wings melt and he plummets into the sea.

These genres of folklore sometimes overlap and it may be difficult to determine which category a tale belongs to.

Folklore - Key takeaways

  • Folklore refers to traditional knowledge and beliefs which have usually been passed down by word of mouth.

  • Folklore can consist of dramas, rituals, fairy tales, riddles, poems and songs.

  • The stories shared through folklore tell a vivid story about the culture of a people. These stories are often fictional stories involving animals and people.

  • Folklore can have a moral lesson at the end and can show different perspectives in a story in order to teach this moral lesson.

  • Folklore involving heroic tales often incorporates singing with the accompaniment of musical instruments.

  • The four types of folk literature which are most common are fairy tales, fables, myths and legends.

Folklore

Folklore refers to traditional knowledge and beliefs which have usually been passed down by word of mouth.  

Examples of folk literature are Pandora's Box, The Arthurian Legends, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Tortoise and the Hare

The four most common types of folk literature are fairy tales, fables, myths and legends. 

To determine if a story was a folklore, consider if it has the following characteristics: 

  • Folklore is typically passed down orally through generations. So, there are often variations in their telling. 

  • A community’s culture is shared through folklore. Folklore could tell of an important event that affected the people of that community in a prominent way. 

  • Folklore could tell of the values and morals of a community. If there is a moral lesson at the end, it could reflect a teaching that the community believed in. 

  • Folklore involving heroic tales often incorporates singing with the accompaniment of musical instruments. This helped the formation of poetic forms with meters that developed and were passed on over time. An example of this is the Greek epics. 

  • Tales in folklore often involve animals or characters or a combination of both and explore how they manage everyday life events and crises. 

  • Characters in folklore may have to solve a problem or prove they have a certain moral value. 

  • Good and evil are explored through characters who embody these values. The idea of punishment and reward is also explored. 

Folklore is important as it acts as a record of the history of a community’s culture. There is familiarity in the stories that are shared from generation to generation, and this connects people from a community across generations. There is often wisdom you can glean from folklore and you can learn about the successes and failures of a specific community. Folklore can have a moral lesson at the end and can show different perspectives within a story in order to teach this moral lesson. 

Final Folklore Quiz

Question

What is folklore in literature? 

Show answer

Answer

Folklore refers to traditional knowledge and beliefs which have usually been passed down by word of mouth

Show question

Question

What are examples of folk literature? 

Show answer

Answer

Examples of folk literature are Pandora's Box, The Arthurian Legends, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Tortoise and the Hare

Show question

Question

What are the 4 types of folk literature? 


Show answer

Answer

The 4 most common types of folk literature are fairy tales, fables, myths and legends.  

Show question

Question

How would you determine if a story was a folklore? 


Show answer

Answer

To determine if a story was a folklore, consider if it has the following characteristics: 

  • Folklore is typically passed down orally through generations. So, there are often variations in their telling. 

  • A community’s culture is shared through folklore. Folklore could tell of an important event that affected the people of that community in a prominent way. 

  • Folklore could tell of the values and morals of a community. If there is a moral lesson at the end, it could reflect a teaching that the community believed in. 

  • Folklore involving heroic tales often incorporates singing with the accompaniment of musical instruments. This helped the formation of poetic forms with meters that developed and were passed on over time. An example of this is the Greek epics. 

  • Tales in folklore often involve animals or characters or a combination of both and explore how they manage everyday life events and crises. 

  • Characters in folklore may have to solve a problem or prove they have a certain moral value. 

  • Good and evil are explored through characters who embody these values. The idea of punishment and reward is also explored. 

Show question

Question

What is the importance of folklore? 

Show answer

Answer

Folklore acts as a record of the history of a community’s culture. It connects people from  a community and often has a moral lesson at the end which may reflect on the successes and failures of a specific community.   

Show question

Question

What is the main lesson of The Tortoise and the Hare?

Show answer

Answer

The main lesson in The Tortoise and the Hare is that the best course of action for success is to take things steadily and slowly instead of in a haste. 

Show question

Question

What is the main lesson of The Arthurian Legends?

Show answer

Answer

The main lesson of the Arthurian legends is moral integrity, defending the weak, and loyalty.

Show question

Question

What is the lesson of Pandora's Box?

Show answer

Answer

The main lesson of Pandora's Box is about human weakness and the pitfalls of curiosity.

Show question

Question

What is the main lesson of The Sleeping Beauty?

Show answer

Answer

The main lesson in Sleeping Beauty is considered to be that you should be patient in waiting for love.

Show question

Question

How do you remember what folklore means?

Show answer

Answer

‘Folk’ means a community of people. ‘Lore’ is derived from the Old English word ‘lar’ which means knowledge or learning. Therefore, folklore is the knowledge of a community of people. 

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