Folk tales—stories as old as speech. They are, along with ballads, fairy tales, and epics, part of the great oral tradition of mankind. They were spoken throughout communities reflecting local beliefs and eventually were adapted around the world. The central themes of narratives are the beauty of goodness and the ugliness of evil. Infusing magic to entertain and instilling a sense of wonder, folk tales are the original audio book. They use cleverness as a weapon to defend good while defeating evil. The great imagery and brutality of folk tales, popular during the Middle Ages, describes life in all its forms and all of us are richer for it.
The giants of folk tale are Perrault and Grimm. From the streets of villages and hamlets, the art of storytelling made its way to the French court of Louis XIV. Charles Perrault, a member of the court and a lawyer, penned the world’s most beloved folk tales, The Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, Puss in Boots, Toads and Diamonds, and Cinderella, among others. These children’s stories were the first literature beyond The Horn Book. From there, we thank the Brothers Grimm, lawyers turned linguists, for collecting and publishing German folklore.
Finnish father and son Julius and Kaarle Knohn developed a scientific method of plotting the history and geography of folk tales. The Finnish movement resulted in a world organization for folklore scholars and enthusiasts. From that movement, the Motif-Index of Folk Literature was published, the first and most extensive organization of folk tales in the world.
Source: Anthology of Children’s Literature 4th Edition, 1970, Houghton Mifflin Company.
The Grimms gave us The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids. Before Mother Goat goes to the forest to find food, she warns her Kids of the wolf. The Kids tell her “Don’t worry, Mother, we can take care of ourselves.” The Wolf tries to fool the Kids, but in the end it was the Wolf who was fooled by the Mother Goat.
Toads and Diamonds is the tale of a widow and her two daughters.
The older was like her; the younger, like her deceased father. One day, while drawing water from a spring, the younger daughter met a fairy disguised as an old woman who gave her a magical gift. The mother send her older daughter to be given the same gift and the fairy gave each daughter her just due.
There is one more folk tale I’ll mention. This one is close to my heart because, like I am, it’s Irish.
The Children of Lir
King Lir had four beloved children. Their wicked step-mother, Aoifa, turned them into swains. Fionnuala, the girl swain proclaimed, “O Wicked Woman, a doom will come upon you heavier than the doom you have put on us today. And if you would win any pity in the hour of your calamity, tell us now how we may know when the doom will end for us.” Thus, the children of Lir told a story terrible and magical, deep and mysterious. To this day, the Irish bless swains, “My blessing with you, white swain, for the sake of Lir’s children.”
I invite you to read these three folk tales and more. Let me know what lessons you find in them so that you and your children can discover again and again its wonder.