I. What is Folklore?
Folklore refers to the tales people tell – folk stories, fairy tales, “tall tales,” and even urban legends. Folklore is typically passed down by word of mouth, rather than being written in books (although sometimes people write down collections of folklore in order to preserve the stories of a particular community). The key here is that folklore has no author – it just emerges from the culture and is carried forward by constant retelling.
Some stories, such as the Grimm’s fairy tales, are mistakenly referred to as folklore, but actually they are not: they have a specific author, and therefore don’t fit the definition of folklore. Such stories include Pinocchio, Hansel & Gretel, and Rapunzel. These are all fairy tales, but they aren’t folklore, because they have specific authors.
II. Examples of Folklore
It’s interesting to notice the way common themes run through the folklore of various cultures. For example, the story of the frog prince is of unknown western European origin; but there are many other similar stories, such as the Finnish tale “Mouse Bride.” In these stories, someone is looking for a spouse, but only finds a small animal. After showing kindness and love to the animal, the main characters are rewarded when the animal changes back into a human and reveals that their animal form was simply the result of a witch’s curse.
Modern-day folklore often takes the form of “urban myths.” Although these stories are usually not actually myths (see §6), they are very popular. One common urban myth tells of a couple travelling to a foreign country where there are many stray dogs roaming the streets. They see one sick puppy and decide to adopt him, but upon bringing him back home they soon discover that they’ve rescued a rat instead of a dog.
III. The Importance of Folklore
G.K. Chesterton, the famous philosopher and author, explains the importance of folk tales in this way:
[They] do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of evil. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon.
That is, folk tales speak to an innate psychological need shared by all human beings. As we encounter the world, we see pain, loss, and emptiness everywhere. How can we face such a world and not feel despair? Part of the answer is that we tell stories bout gods, heroes, and monsters – when the good guys win, we gain a psychological boost and learn valuable lessons about courage and perseverance.
IV. Examples of Folklore in Literature
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a perfect example of an author making up folklore to enrich his fictional cultures. He wrote an entire book, The Silmarillion, giving the folklore/mythology of the Elves. Of course, the entire Lord of the Rings saga was heavily influenced by Nordic, Welsh, and Finnish folklore, so Tolkien had plenty of excellent source material to draw from.
The story of Beowulf has no known author, and was almost certainly a popular Anglo-Saxon folk tale before it was eventually written down. This story is an example of the “monster-slayer” story, one of the most common story types in the world. Nearly every culture has such stories, from Thor in Scandinavia to Hercules in Greece and the Hero Twins of Navajo mythology.
Thousands of books have been written with folk stories as their inspiration. Often, such books will take a character or situation from the folk story and expand on it. For example, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley is based on the Arthurian legends (folktales about King Arthur and the Round Table), but focuses more on the female characters rather than the male ones.
V. Examples of Folklore in Pop Culture
Monster-slayer stories were extremely common in ancient societies, and they have not declined in popularity – even as our storytelling technology has changed, our love of these stories has stayed the same. Think of how many video games have been made around this concept – the hero emerges and slays and increasingly difficult series of monsters before facing the “final boss.”
Popular culture is full of “cryptozoology,” which is a kind of folklore based on the supposed existence of mysterious creatures. Stories abound of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, the New Jersey Devil, and hundreds of other strange creatures. Although there is no scientific evidence to support any of these stories, they are fun to tell and retell, and survive in popular culture because of their psychological effect.
VI. Related Terms
Folklore and mythology are very similar terms, and the line between mythology and folklore is pretty subjective. The basic difference is that a myth is somehow held in sacred or religious reverence, whereas a folk tale is popular but not sacred. Some of the most famous myths are creation stories. For example, the Hindu creation myth holds that Vishnu was sleeping in the coils of a giant cobra when he was awakened by the sacred sound, ohm.
Unfortunately, the word “myth” is often used as a synonym for “falsehood,” which leads to serious problems when speaking across different religions – if myths are necessarily false, then one culture’s myths are another culture’s sacred truths. Thus, it’s important to remember that something can be a myth and still be “true,” at least in a metaphorical or non-literal sense.
A legend is a kind of folklore. Legends are typically thought to have some truth in them, but they may be highly exaggerated or distorted. For example, the legend of Robin Hood is a very popular piece of English folklore – it was probably based on a historical figure who lived at some point in the Middle Ages, but no one is exactly sure what the truth is.
Folk music, like folklore, emerges out of the cultures of everyday people. In fact, the two concepts are so closely related that folk music is often written about stories from folklore – for example, “The Ballad of John Henry” is a popular American tune that tells the story of the powerful steel driver John Henry. (This story is also a legend, since John Henry was probably a real person who lived in the 1860s or 70s.)