Children's Literature

Instructor: Chi-Fen Emily Chen, Ph.D. 陳其芬

Department of English, National Kaohsiung First University of Science and Technology, Taiwan


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Folk Literature

 

 Please read Chapter 9 from Russell, D. L. (2009). Literature for children: a short introduction.

Introduction Characteristics Types Issues

Characteristics of Folk Literature

Setting      Character      Plot      Theme     Style

Folktales employ certain characteristics or conventions common to virtually all tales. The most familiar involve the setting, character, plot, theme and conflict, and style.

A.  Setting

  • Most 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.

  • The 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…”).

  • Some 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.

B.  Character

  • The 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.

  • The 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.

  • The hero 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.

C.  Plot

  • Plots are generally shorter and simpler than in other genres of literature.

  • The action 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),

  • The action 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

  • Themes in 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 pride.

  • Common folktale themes include the following (pp. 160-161):

  1. The struggle to achieve autonomy or to break away from parents (“Beauty and the Beast”)

  2. The undertaking of a rite of passage (“Rapunzel”)

  3. The discovery of loneliness on a journey to maturity (“Hansel and Gretel”)

  4. The anxiety over the failure to meet a parent’s expectations (“Jack and the Beanstalk”)

  5. The anxiety over one’s displacement by another – the “new arrival” (“Cinderella”)

  • These 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.

E.  Style

  • The 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.

  • Dialogue is frequently used; it captures the nature of the character speaking.

  • Folktales 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.

  • Folktale 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 so on.

  • Some 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.

  • Many 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.

  • Folktales often lift their heroes and heroines to higher and more refined levels where they remain beautiful, noble, and pure through the process of sublimation.

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