What is folklore? Here’s a quick and simple definition:
Folklore refers to stories that people tell. These include folk stories, fairy tales, urban legends, and more.
Folklore encompasses a wide array of stories, many of which have become quite well-known today, although they did not start out that way. The stories are dependent on the culture they originate from. This refers to the content as well as the way its structured and its inspiration. It can define a group’s values and beliefs in its depiction of a character’s actions, right and wrong.
Definition and Explanation of Folklore
The world “folk” means regional people, and “lore” means story. Together, the word evokes the tradition of storytelling, passed down through generations among those of a common group.
Folklore from various cultures, while popular today, was once only kept alive through oral tradition. This meant that the stories were passed down from person to person without ever being written down. After the invention of the printing press, that all changed. Folklore, including legends, and fairy tales, reached a broader and now worldwide audience. Most folklores involve someone, a group of people, or an animal learning a lesson by breaking an important cultural rule or making some other kind of mistake.
Elements of Folklore
In folklore, stories often use techniques like repetition, many of which are helpful in regards to memorization. This is incredibly important if the story is going to be passed down from generation to generation. This is even more true for long stories, such as Beowulf. The repeated passages enable the storyteller to draw out their story or cut it short if they so desire.
There are also several recognizable formulaic expressions in folklore. This refers to standard lines like “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after.” Folklore, as noted above, often includes fantastical elements like talking animals, gods, and magic. These elements make the stories far more engaging than they would otherwise. They also help those who crafted them tap into their surroundings in a more impactful way.
Examples of Folklore in Literature
Although Beowulf has no known author and was written sometime between 700-1000 AD, it is one of the most important examples of folklore. It is also an example of a story that was once passed down through oral tradition and was eventually written down. The story presents a seemingly impossible evil, Grendel, and a hero who finally defeats him, Beowulf.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
This series is an incredibly popular contemporary example of a writer creating their own world, culture, songs, dances, and stories to tie it together. Tolkien creates folklore within the various cultures, from the hobbits to the elves, that help readers understand what fuels the characters and what their belief systems are based in. For example, the songs/poems that Tolkien features in his books like ‘The Riddle of Strider.’
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The Jungle Book is another great example of how traditional folklore has inspired writers to create their own works. In the novel, as well as in his Just So Stories, Kipling includes Indian traditional stories and characters with Indian-sounding names. It is important to note that authors like Kipling have been critiqued for using stories without giving significant credit in regards to their origin.
Types of Folklore
Fables and Folktales
These are the stories of common people who learn lessons due to their mistakes or accidents they’re involved in. For example, the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The latter spent all summer playing and wasting time while the former, the ant, prepares for winter. Or the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Mythology is one of the most popular types of folklore. It involves explanations for everyday phenomena through the creation of gods and other powerful beings. For example, the story of Quetzalcoatl, the serpent from an Aztec legend who created humankind, or the story of Prometheus stealing fire for human beings.
Fairy tales are stories that include fantastical elements, magic, and sometimes royalty. The most popular was written by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. For example, “The Little Mermaid” and “Rapunzel.”
Folk Songs and Dance
A folk song is a song into which a group of people has imbued their stories. These might be stories of everyday people or grandiose heroes. Some of these include “O Danny Boy” and “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee.” Folk music, just like regular folk stories, can be inspired by real people, or people who very likely lived at one time, such as John Henry, the inspiration behind “The Ballad of John Henry.” This American song tells the story of a remarkable steel driver who may have lived in the 1860s or 70s.
A folk dance is a traditional dance that’s passed down from generation to generation. They are usually performed at important gatherings. For example, the tarantella from Italy and the square dance from American culture.
Provers are short messages, usually one or two sentences, that reinforce some part of a culture’s belief system. For example, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” an English proverb. Or, “It takes a whole village to raise a child,” an African proverb.
Why Do Writers Write Folklore?
Folklore is incredibly important to writers because of the moral lessons it teaches and the insight it can provide to the lives of those who crafted the stories. These stories give children, or any reader no matter their age, an idea of what it takes to overcome evil, become stronger, or simply become a good person. It provides children with stories of heroes risking their lives for what’s right and tap into a need for human beings to share stories of life, happiness, sorrow, and death. Through storytelling, humans are able to connect over spans of time and place.
The folk story, folk tale, myth, legend, and tale.
Related Literary Terms
- Allegory—a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Antagonist—a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Anti-Hero—a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Audience— the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
- Epic Poetry—a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Frame Story—a narrative within a narrative. It occurs when one character decides to tell another story to the other characters around him/her.
- Listen: Top 5 Terrifying Stories from Russian Folklore
- Watch: Japanese Folk Tales: The Mirror of Matsuyama
- Listen: 10 Dark English Legends
- Read: Folktales From Around the World