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ENGL 2240: Pt. 2: Folk, Fairy, and Tall Tales

Lecture Notes

Folk, Fairy and Tall Tales:  Characteristics and Related Information

FOLK:  Generally, folk tales are stories of the "common man."  They employ limited, but obvious, social stratification (much like myths which have gods, demigods, and mortals) through their characters: peasants and royalty,  prostitutes and religious leaders or ministers, theatrical players, drunkards and high-ranking government officials. Although there may be various versions of the story, each is usually "localized" by the writer's substitution of ordinary things his reader would recognize: geographical landmarks, like mountains, rivers, towns, or even noted historical figures.  Like fables, folk tales usually have a moral, or lesson, the reader should recognize, appreciate, and adopt.

The famous brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, became interested in folk tales and their history, and began to travel extensively gathering many of these "localized" versions of the same story, and set about trying to reduce them to a "singular version," while also trying to trace the story to its original roots.  They found numerous versions of the "Cinderella" tale (with most not meant for children, having grotesque elements, like one of the step-sisters who cut off parts of her feet in order to force the glass slippers to fit).  Through them, the concept of "The Oral Tradition," the notion of passing along stories and song (and local/family history) down, by word of mouth, from generation to generation, helped to standardize literary research and criticism.

FAIRY:  Obviously, these tales, by their very nature, always include supernatural, mystical, or magical elements.  These can be characters (fairies, ghosts, pixies, banshees, leprechauns, witches, etc.), places or settings (Xanadu, Shangri-La, Brigadoon, etc.), or even cryptozoological animals (unicorns, dragons, centaurs, etc.).  Most often, the stories change both through the retelling and "local color."  These tales utilize a relatively common dichotomy:  good vs. evil.  The protagonist generally represents the innocent/pure (good) vs. the antagonist, who represents evil, darkness, ignorance, etc.  These tales often share many similarities with folk tales.

TALL:  Tall tales are not a predominantly American phenomenon, (although the reading selection is) but scholars have traced elements of these tales back to the stories of Baron Munchausen.  R. E. Raspe's collection of the Baron's tales, Baron Münchausen's Narrative of his Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1786) was so very popular that by 1800 the book had been translated into five languages, and by 1835 there were at least twenty-four American editions of the work.  In recent years, a number of other more modern, similar styles of  stories from foreign countries/cultures have surfaced.  They make constant and repeated use of hyperbole, or gross exaggeration, in order to create preposterous and laughable situations, humorous mistakes and bad choices, and highly unlikely and suspect outcomes.  Sometimes the protagonist is portrayed as unsophisticated and ignorant, while the story itself shows the character's true shrewdness, guile, and ability, eventually, to overcome all obstacles (no matter how improbable) and succeed/win/marry, etc.