WHAT ARE
MYTHS, LEGENDS,
FOLK TALES AND FAIRY TALES?


Traditional stories are part of the shared heritage of any human community.
  • They are a universal aspect of human culture, found in virtually every society, living or extinct, simple or complex, small or widespread.
  • They tend to be imaginative, existing outside normal time - often with a dream-like quality - and freely mix realistic and supernatural characters and events.
  • They usually reflect universal concerns, e.g. fear, conflict, good versus evil and the problem of authority.

MYTHS are the most complicated and serious type of traditional story. Their actual content may be dramatic, horrific, moving or even amusing; but they always have some deeper purpose and meaning. They tend to deal with sacred, political, social or cultural matters. Their characters typically include deities, spirits, heroes, anthropomorphic animals, supernatural beings and tricksters.

LEGENDS are based at least partly on historical or geographical fact - a real person or event, or a place - though this may be overwhelmed by much imaginary detail. The historical character becomes larger than life, mingling with magical characters and doing impossible deeds. A real place becomes haunted by ghosts or fantastic figures. Well known legendary characters include King Arthur and Robin Hood.

FOLK TALES are the most popular type of traditional stories, providing light hearted entertainment, though many also contain a serious moral. Their style ranges from long, elaborate fantasy narratives to short domestic anecdotes. Their protagonists are typically anonymous stereotypes: ‘a queen’, ‘a peasant boy’ etc., often mixed with supernatural characters such as dragons and monsters. They have a stark and simplistic morality which generally favours the underdog and ends with ‘justice fairly done’.

FAIRY TALES are folk tales with special appeal to children. Also known as ‘household’ or ‘nursery’ tales or by the German name Märchen, they are widespread throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia.


WHERE DO MYTHS, LEGENDS AND FAIRY TALES COME FROM?

Originating from oral tradition, and hundreds or thousands of years old, their original composers are unknown. They often exist in many different versions, which have evolved as each reteller added or changed particular aspects or details.

Some of the world’s most important myths were written down in antiquity. Amongst the oldest are the Hindu stories of India, some of which were recorded in the Vedas dating from 1500 BC. Many of the Greek myths were written down by Homer in the 8th Century BC and Hesiod in the 7th Century BC. The Norse Myths of the Viking Age were written down in the 13th Century AD by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (though quite possibly not in their pure forms). The oldest books of Arthurian legends date from the 7th Century AD, with the first full account being written in 1136.

As more people became literate - a change surely as dramatic as today’s digital revolution - a movement began to collect the old oral stories and write them down for posterity. The oldest known book of The Arabian Nights (also known as One Thousand and One Nights) dates from the 9th Century. In the 17th Century, Charles Perrault collected some of the best known French fairy tales; an example which was followed in the 19th Century by the Brothers Grimm (Germany), and Asbørnsen and Moe (Norway). At the same time, colonial administrators, missionaries and social anthropologists working in Africa, the Americas and Asia were busy writing down the traditional stories of the indigenous people they were working with. The result was a great wave of important and fascinating collections.

All these books were originally written for adult consumption. Sadly most are out of print, though some have reappeared in new editions and there are many second hand copies in circulation.