Using Folklore as a Starting Point

July 13, 2022

Folklore, which includes folk and fairy tales, legends, myths, fables, ballads, rhymes, riddles, jokes, and proverbs, offers a rich menu of ideas to use in your writing. You can retell a traditional tale or include a character from a tale in your own story. Items of folklore are in the public domain, which means that you are able to reuse them without worry (unless you are borrowing from someone else’s reworking of folklore because that work is protected by copyright). If you're planning to adapt existing folklore, the safest thing to do is try to find a copy of the original folklore as it was collected, before it was rewritten or adapted by someone else.

FOLK TALE and FAIRY TALE

We often use these two terms interchangeably as they both describe stories that have formulaic language (“once upon a time”) and structure (such as things happening in threes), and they involve sympathy for the underdog or character least favored to be the winner. In my mind, however, fairy tales are a subset of folk tales, in that fairy tales involve the little people, such as faeries and leprechauns, while folk tales are stories of ordinary beings having extraordinary adventures. The story of “Rumpelstiltskin” is considered a fairy tale because of the magical nature of the little character, while the story of “The Three Little Pigs” is a folk tale with animal characters instead of human ones.

MYTHS

Myths are sacred stories that attempt to explain the origin of the world, its natural features, and the gods and goddesses that created the world before humans lived here. The Greco-Roman and the Norse myths are especially important to English language writing as the characters and beliefs are generously sprinkled in our daily lives. Many of the days of the week, for example, are named after the gods: Thursday (Thor’s Day) is named after the Norse god of thunder.

Pourquoi myths explain why and how natural phenomenon such as the sun and moon came into being and, because they are based on careful observation, include a wealth of information about the natural world. These reminders are particularly important today as they offer lessons on the power of nature as well as environmental warnings of what could go wrong.

LEGENDS

Legends are stories of the heroes of ancient times in a world that is recognizable to us. :Legends are usually based on some historical truth, although it may be difficult to prove. They include stories of heroes such as Robin Hood and King Arthur as well as regional heroes such as famous outlaws. Legends can also be used to tell stories about haunted houses and places.

Contemporary legends, or urban belief legends, relate modern concerns in present-day societies and share many features of other types of folk stories. They are usually anonymous, exist in numerous versions, and are told and believed by followers of various economic, family, or cultural groups. One of the subsets of contemporary legends you might be familiar with are conspiracy theories.

FABLES

Fables are brief teaching tales featuring mostly animal characters designed to make a point or demonstrate a lesson. We often know them by the moral that has become attached to them. A familiar example is the hare and the tortoise, which teaches that slow and steady wins the race.