Oral Narratives

Gather round! Gather round! Make yourself comfortable because I'm going to tell you a fascinating tale about the history of oral narratives. 

Oral Narratives Oral Narratives

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Table of contents

    Once upon a time, long before we could curl up with a book, jot down our to-do list, or use the newspaper to get up to date on current events, there were oral narratives. Oral storytelling is as old as humankind. It's so old, in fact, that it makes writing look like a modern invention. The art of telling stories to large groups has always impacted how we perceive the world. Everything, from religion to history, myths to legends, bedtime stories to ancient proverbs, has been shaped by humankind's remarkable tradition of reciting oral narratives.

    Interested in learning more? Let's start with a basic oral narrative definition, look at some defining types of oral narrative, and explore some fundamental characteristics of the genre. We'll then show you examples of oral narratives, including literature you may never have known began off the written page.

    Oral narrative definition

    Let's start with a basic definition of 'oral narrative' before exploring its use over time.

    An oral narrative is a story told via word of mouth rather than being written down and read.

    Oral narratives can be fiction or non-fiction, but they are more than just funny anecdotes and historical accounts. Óral narratives are elaborate tales passed down through generations, recited by a passionate speaker to an audience. They are adapted to the listener and often contain theatrics. The oral narrative is more closely related to drama than prose, but while the visual elements of a play are often the most exciting part for an audience, the oral narrative is all about listening.

    Oral narratives have existed on Earth for as long as language has. Without the benefits of modern science, stories likely spawned from a yearning to feel at ease with the phenomena of our natural world. What caused that giant explosion? What are those colourful lights in the sky? Why is the Earth shaking? Narratives are explanations for our existence, and reasons for our existence provide security.

    Oral narratives also allowed early humans to consider the fundamental questions of our universe. Where are we? What brought us to this location? Why are we here? Oral narratives were of great benefit to those with no other way to study these philosophical problems. It allows the unknown to become known, making terrifying things more fathomable.

    Oral narratives Kathak traditional storytellers StudySmarter Fig 1. - Many cultures still practise traditional storytelling today. This pair from Kathak in North India are combining their oral narrative with theatrics to make the story more memorable.

    The key points to remember about oral narratives are:

    • Oral narratives are a significant part of cultural heritage, carrying values, beliefs, and history across generations.
    • They are dynamic and adaptable, changing with each performance and in response to different audiences and contexts.
    • Oral narratives are not simply stories but also serve important social, cultural, and pedagogical functions.
    • Studying oral narratives offers insight into language use, narrative structure, cultural values, and community identity.

    Genres of oral narratives

    Oral narratives are not limited to a specific genre; they can take the form of prose or poetry. The storyteller typically employs theatrical devices but is only obligated to include them if they see them as necessary to the story.

    The only consistent characteristics of the oral narrative are that the teller recites the story to an audience and that the narrative is typically passed down and adapted through generations. Every other choice relating to genre, style, or narration is subjective to the storyteller.

    Let's explore some of the more common types of oral narrative in more detail.

    Types of oral narratives

    The oral narrative has taken many forms throughout history. Some of the most significant types of oral narratives are epics, myths, legends, fables, folktales, and anecdotes.


    The epic is the defining genre within the oral narrative tradition. This poetic form tells lengthy tales of extraordinary people, superhuman feats, and incredible deeds. The epic poem usually contains a hero who embarks on an immense journey and encounters challenging obstacles and powerful enemies. Most epic narratives also track the protagonist's growth from a flawed individual into a worthy hero who will be remembered for eternity.

    The first known example of the genre is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which began as a series of Mesopotamian poems in approximately 2100BC. While archaeologists recovered the version of the narrative we know today from ancient clay tablets, many scholars agree that the story was initially composed as an oral narrative and passed down through generations by storytellers.

    Some other notable examples of the epic genre are Beowulf (8th century) and Homer's (c.8th century BC), The Illiad(8th century BCE) and The Odyssey (8th century BCE), all of which existed as part of an oral tradition for hundreds of years before being committed to writing.

    Attributing dates to an ancient epic is often challenging precisely because the stories existed within oral traditions for many years beforehand. This means that knowing when and how a story was created is often impossible to say for certain.


    A myth typically concerns the origin of something or is an attempt to explain a naturally occurring phenomenon. Mythical stories often include supernatural characters and regularly tackle religious themes.

    Myths are often the most complex form of oral narrative for an outsider of a particular civilisation to understand, because they are a direct reflection of the views, ideas, and beliefs of a specific culture. Without the necessary context, it can be hard to understand how a story came to be.

    'The Genesis creation' story in Hebrew culture, 'Sumerian creation myth' in ancient Mesopotamia, and 'story of Heliopolis' in Ancient Egypt all tell a unique version of how the world came to be.


    Legends differ from myths because they are usually based on actual historical figures and are generally considered authentic by the narrator and readers. Legends depict human feats and struggles, dealing with topics like war, dynasties, and personal battles.

    Storytellers also typically exaggerate legends to make them more interesting. The main hero's feats, strengths, or attributes may be overblown so that their character seems more incredible than they were. The legendary stories of 'King Arthur' and 'Robin Hood' are good examples of the genre.


    Folktales, also known as fairy tales, are short fictional stories often passed down from generation to generation. They are typically aimed at children and often contain moral lessons. The folktale is a more universal oral narrative genre because the short, accessible messages often translate well across different cultures.

    The power of the oral narrative is evident when examining the longevity of folk tales. Stories familiar to many of us, like 'Three Blind Mice', 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears', and 'Jack and the Beanstalk', have been passed down through generations of the English language for hundreds of years.

    The oldest surviving example of the English fairy tale is believed to be the story of 'Tom Thumb', which was printed in English in 1621. However, many other cultures have surviving folktales dating back far longer. The origins of 'Rumpelstiltskin' and 'Beauty and the Beast' are believed to date back to 4,000 years ago!

    Features of oral narratives

    Some of the defining characteristics of oral narratives include:

    1. Theatrics: Oral narratives are typically performed, not merely recited. Tone, body language, and vocal variation are important elements.
    2. Repetition: This is often used for emphasis and to aid in memorization.
    3. Formulaic Language: Oral narratives often use set phrases and structures to make the story easier to remember and recite.
    4. Audience Interaction: In oral narratives, the audience often plays an active role, sometimes participating in the storytelling.
    5. Adaptability: Each performance of an oral narrative can differ, as the storyteller may adapt the tale for different audiences or circumstances


    While the focus of most oral narratives is on the content of the story, tellers often use theatrics to enhance their tales. Facial expressions, gestures, dance, and props help to bring a story to life. The storyteller may also strengthen their story with visual imagery and use rhyme and rhythm to make their narrative more memorable.

    Throughout history, talented storytellers who combined captivating stories with theatrics have often been prized members of their communities. Traditional bards, troubadours, and minstrels were typically very intelligent and exceptionally versatile. They could perform well-known narratives, sing, dance, play multiple instruments, perform tricks and even recall important information from popular university theses. At a time when many people were illiterate, gifted performers and storytellers like these were considered invaluable.

    Oral narratives Filip Višnjić StudySmarterFig 2. - This 1901 drawing commemorates Filip Višnjić (1767-1834), a blind Serbian poet and storyteller famous for his 13 original epic poems detailing the Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

    Moral lessons

    Many oral narratives contain important moral lessons and messages intertwined within the story. For example, fairy tales provide the audience with a cautionary lesson or instruct them on the right way to act. Folktales are a valuable way for many cultures to teach their children lessons before they can read. Before mass literacy, many epics, myths, and legends were also used as moral lessons to instruct and guide adults as well.

    Personalised narratives

    One of the defining features of the oral narrative is its adaptability. Storytellers can modify their stories to suit the needs and wants of the audience. They may set their narrative in locations familiar to the listeners or reference events relevant to the time. Using familiar contexts involves the audience in the creative process, forming an intimate bond between the storyteller and listener.

    As oral narratives are so frequently adapted, it's often impossible to state which version of an ancient story was the original. For example, there are many variations of 'Little Red Riding Hood', some of which are dated to over 1000 years ago. In some versions, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are eaten; in others, the grandmother is eaten, and the wolf impersonates her to trick Little Red Riding Hood. In yet more narratives, both Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother survive.

    In some tales, the wolf is not a wolf at all but an ogre or a tiger! Which version came first? How can we ever be sure when the oral narrative existed for hundreds of years before anyone committed to writing it?

    Examples of oral narratives

    Examples of oral narratives include 'The Tortoise and the Hare' (Fable), 'Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox' (Legend), 'The Creation of the World' from many cultures (Myth), and Cinderella stories from various cultures (Folktales).

    Curious to learn more? Here's a list of some literature from around the world that started out as an oral narrative.

    Examples of oral narratives
    Title of oral narrativeCountry of origin
    The IliadGreece
    The OdysseyGreece
    The AeneidGreece
    Aesop's FablesGreece
    One Thousand and One NightsIran, Saudi Arabia, India
    The Epic of GilgameshMesopotamia
    'King Arthur'Wales/Northern England
    'Tom Thumb'England
    'Sleeping Beauty'France
    'Jack and the Beanstalk'United Kingdom

    Oral narratives - Key takeaways

    • An oral narrative is a story, either fiction or non-fiction, that is told via word of mouth. Oral narratives are elaborate tales passed down through generations, recited by a passionate speaker to an audience.
    • Oral narratives are not limited to a specific genre. They can take the form of prose, such as in the tales of myths and legends, or poetry, such as epics.
    • The most common types of oral narrative are myths, legends, folktales, and epic poetry.
    • Some characteristics of oral narratives are moral lessons, experimenting with theatrics, and personalising the narrative.
    • Examples of oral narratives include 'The Tortoise and the Hare' (Fable), 'Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox' (Legend), 'The Creation of the World' from many cultures (Myth), and Cinderella stories from various cultures (Folktales).


    1. Fig 1. Kathakeerthan Nirupama Rajendra storytellers traditional costume (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Kathakeerthan_Nirupama_Rajendra_storytellers_traditional_costume.jpg) by Vinod Gowda licensed by CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Oral Narratives

    What are examples of oral narratives?

    Some examples of oral narratives are The Iliad (8th century BCE), The Odyssey (8th century BCE), and Beowulf (8th century).

    How important are oral narratives?

    Oral narratives are extremely important because the art of telling stories to large groups has impacted, and still impacts, the way we perceive the world. 

    What are the features of a narrative?

    Some features of oral narratives are moral lessons, experimenting with theatrics, and personalising the narrative.

    What is the most common characteristic of oral narratives 

    The only consistent characteristics of the oral narrative are that the teller recites the story to an audience and that the narrative is typically passed down and adapted through generations. 

    How are oral narratives classified? 

    Some of the common classifications of oral narratives are: myths, legends, epics, and folktales.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    An oral narrative can only be fiction. Is this true or false?

    Oral narratives are not limited to a specific genre. Is this true or false?

    What is the defining genre within the oral narrative tradition?


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