Characteristics of Folk Literature
employ certain characteristics or conventions common to
virtually all tales. The most familiar involve the setting,
character, plot, theme and conflict, and style.
folktale settings remove the tale from the real world,
taking us to a time and place where animals talk, witches
and wizards roam, and magic spells are commonplace.
settings are usually unimportant and described and
referred to in vague terms (e.g., “Long ago in a land
far away…” and “Once upon a time in a dark forest…”).
settings reflect the typical landscape of the tale’s
culture, for example, medieval Europe with its forests,
castles, and cottages, Africa with its jungles, India and
China with its splendid palaces.
characters in folk literature are usually flat,
simple, and straightforward. They are typically
either completely good or entirely evil and easy to
identify. They do not internalize their feelings and seldom
are plagued by mental torment.
Motivation in folktale
characters tends to be singular; that is, the
characters are motivated by one overriding desire such as
greed, love, fear, hatred, and jealousy.
characters are usually stereotypical, for example,
wicked stepmothers, weak-willed fathers, jealous siblings,
faithful friends. Physical appearance often readily defines
the characters, but disguises are common.
or heroine is often isolated and is
usually cast out into the open world or is apparently
without any human friends. Evil, on the other hand, seems
overwhelming. Therefore, the hero/heroine must be aided
by supernatural forces, such as a magical object or an
enchanted creature, to fight against evil forces.
generally shorter and simpler than in other
genres of literature.
tends to be formulaic. A journey is common
(and is usually symbolic of the protagonist’s journey to
self-discovery). Repetitious patterns are found,
suggesting the ritual nature of folktales and perhaps
to aid the storyteller in memorization; for example, events
often occur in sets of three (e.g., three pigs, three
bears, three sisters, three wishes),
is concentrated, no lengthy explanations and
descriptions. Conflicts are quickly established and
events move swiftly to their conclusion. The action
never slows down. Endings are almost always happy
(“They lived happily ever after”).
D. Theme and Conflict
folk literature are usually quite simple, but
serious and powerful. Folktale themes espouse
the virtues of compassion, generosity, and humility
over the vices of greed, selfishness, and excessive
folktale themes include the following (pp. 160-161):
struggle to achieve autonomy or to break away from parents
(“Beauty and the Beast”)
undertaking of a rite of passage (“Rapunzel”)
discovery of loneliness on a journey to maturity (“Hansel
over the failure to meet a parent’s expectations (“Jack and
over one’s displacement by another – the “new arrival”
themes are at the very heart of growing up. Also,
they are similar to the themes of Greek tragedy: Wisdom
comes through suffering. For every benefit there is a
condition; nothing in life comes without strings attached,
responsibilities to be met, and bargains to be kept.
language is typically economical, with a minimal
amount of description and a heavy reliance on formulaic
patterns, e.g., conventional openings and closings.
Repetitious phrases are
common; they supply a rhythmical quality desirable in
oral tales and perhaps aided in memorization the stories.
is frequently used; it captures the nature of the character
often use a technique – stylized intensification,
which occurs when, with each repetition, an element is
further exaggerated or intensified. This has the effect of
increasing the drama.
motifs (i.e., recurring thematic elements) are quite
prevalent; they may have served as mnemonic devices
when the tales were still passed on orally. Examples of
common motifs include journeys through dark forests,
enchanted transformations, magical cures or other spells,
encounters with helpful animals or mysterious creatures,
foolish bargains, impossible tasks, clever deceptions, and
folktales have powerful visual images that we can
readily identify, such as a glass slipper, a bean stalk, a
spinning wheel, a poisoned apple, a red riding hood, a magic
lamp, and a blue bird. These stark visual elements
give the tales their enduring strength.
folktale motifs (i.e., recurring thematic elements)
are examples of magic: helpful animals,
enchanted transformations, granted wishes, etc. The magic,
when it appears, is always greeted by the characters with
matter-of-factness. Characters acknowledge magic as a
normal part of life without surprise or disbelief. This
stylistic feature distances the folktale from reality, and
it provides an important distinction between folk
literature and literary/modern fantasy.
often lift their heroes and heroines to higher and more
refined levels where they remain beautiful, noble, and
pure through the process of sublimation.