These last few days, fellow Teaching Authors Mary Ann, April, JoAnn, Esther and wonderful new TA Carla have discussed the blending of fiction and nonfiction. In the end, as I noted in my post, I offered that we are story animals, as Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007) suggests. We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.
Stories are so old, so intimately connected with language, some researchers suggest that language was created to express stories. Researchers have found that telling stories at an early age helps develop math abilities and language literacy. And teachers know that understanding the story process helps young readers understand the organization of language.
A simple definition of a folktale would be that it is a traditional story, usually dressed in metaphor and symbol, told by a people—of a particular community, group, or nation—to help explain how and why things happen, how one meets the challenges of life, or how one might become a better, or wiser, person. But such a simple definition negates a bigger truth embedded in these tales.
Traditional tales are like icebergs; we see only the tip. Jung would call this tip the “personal unconscious,” the aspect of story derived from personal experience and acquisition. But the greater meaning of the tale lies beneath this surface of consciousness. Carl Jung calls this deeper layer the collective unconscious, an inherited “psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is defined in all individuals.” (Man and His Symbols, 1968).
As Rafe Martin tells us, traditional tales belong to the world of the imagined, to the portals of dreams. “They are the eternal literature of humanity.”
Remember the child’s game, “Telephone”? Everyone sits in a circle, and then the teacher whispers a joke or a story to the student next to her. That student whispers the same story to the one sitting next to her. That student whispers the same story to the one next to her until the story makes its way around the circle. The last student recites the story to the group. Of course, with each retelling, the child puts her own spin on the tale, sometimes reordering the events, recasting it in personal symbols, and reinventing characters as she understands them. That’s the folklore process in action. Someone tells a story. That story is told and retold, and with every telling, the story changes as the teller makes it her own. Despite the many changes the story underwent, there remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” Not necessarily factual, but certainly true to what it means to be human.
In true rough-and-tumble fashion, the hero and heroine of the tall tale mocks and defies convention. The tall-talk of the tall tale, like the hero who inhabits these tales, is as wild and unabashed as the frontier that created it. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight, structure of formal grammar. It mocks it, in fact, using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. The result is a teetotaliciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. The grander language captured the bigger ideas of frontier life.
In reading such tales, a young reader develops an appreciation for language itself, for language is more than mere words: the rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed.
As Mary and Herbert Knapp suggest, the traditional tale plays a vital role in holding together “the frayed, factory-made fabric of our lives.” Such tales connect us to the past and to each other, exist when people share an identity, “and since all of us once belonged to that group of human beings we call children, the folklore of childhood brings together all of us.” (One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children, 1976).
What are your favorite traditional tales?
Thank you! A version of this article was published by Children’s Literature Network (2012). Thank you to Vicki Palmquist and everyone at Winding Oaks Children’s Literature for all their support for the children’s education and literature field.