I’ve been throwing around a lot of terms–folklore, folk tales, fairy tales, myth, legend–without stopping to define or differentiate them. Not out of thoughtlessness, or under the assumption that visitors already knew this vocab inside and out. Oh, no.
Remember how I said I’m no expert? (Did I say that yet? I must have.) Yeah. This whole time I’ve been wondering whether I was using all these terms correctly, but kept forgetting to check. I couldn’t go on like that any longer, and besides, I figured some of my readers (as presumptuous as it feels to say “my readers”) might find these explanations–well, maybe not interesting, but useful.
Elements of a culture (narratives, beliefs, superstitions, sayings, songs, poems, etc.) passed down by word of mouth (rather than written or otherwise recorded).
Folklore, Folktales, Fairy Tales…and More
Folklore covers the entire body of a culture’s oral traditions, which spread from person to person and from generation to generation. From my understanding, the strict definition specifies that folktales at least originate in oral tradition. But I think there’s an argument for including things like creepypastas in this definition, even though they may not originate from an oral tradition. I’d describe folklore more generally as tales and other beliefs arising from the general populace, without a clear point of origin, subjected to transformation and permutations as it passes from person to person and place to place.
Several other terms fall under the umbrella of folklore:
Fairy tales are tales that include fairies (duh) and/or other fantastical elements, and often originate in oral tradition. Sometimes, though, a fairy tale was either rewritten or written entirely by a specific person, as with the tales of Hans Christian Anderson. Even then, they tend to draw on the conventions and elements found in folktales.
Myths are stories that answer questions about human life and the world we live in, with ancient origins. Common types include creation myths, myths about the creation of natural land forms, and myths that describe human and animal characteristics. Often they include gods and fantastical creatures.
Legends, rather than explaining truths of human existence, focus more on an event or person, presented as a historical occurrence (though there’s rarely much evidence for it).
Fables are (usually short) tales that teach a specific lesson (often stated at the end) about behaviors and moral values.
Archetypes are–as the word implies–general “types” or forms for characters, plots, settings, and so on. They’re sort of the basic version of a character/etc. on which all characters are built. Certain archetypes are common in fairy tales (think of “wicked stepmothers,” “damsels in distress,” “knight in shining armor”).
In literature in general, motifs are an element in a story (an action, a sound, an object, etc.) that recurs throughout to reinforce a message. In the study of folklore, though, a motif is any identifying detail in a story (characters, objects, events, places, etc.), especially (at least in my understanding) if that detail shows up multiple times in other tales.
Folktale Classification Systems
In the study of folklore, there are a few different systems used to catalog and describe folktales. These systems define and group tales by types or motifs to which they assign numbers. Systems like this come in handy when you are looking for shared symbolism/motifs or tale variants.
The main classification systems are:
- Aarne-Thompson-Uther: Uther’s 2004 revision of the Aarne-Thomspon system. Click here for a good explanation of the ATU and AT systems.
- Aarne-Thompson: This earlier system catalogs Indo-European tales (though the types it lists also tend to work with other cultures). It groups tales by basic “types” rather than by motifs.
- Aarne-Thompson Motif-Index: This groups tales by specific elements or motifs, rather than general descriptors of type.
A term I use a lot. Most folktales/fairytales have variants, a natural result of them being passed from person to person and place to place, which results in refinement, addition or subtraction of elements, combination with different cultures, and so on. Different versions of a tale, sharing multiple motifs, and apparently descended from the same original tale, are known as variants.
Were there any terms I missed? Did I get something wrong? Please let me know in the comments!
Note on sources: For sections without/with few links, I used a combination of prior knowledge, online dictionary lookups, and the following resources: