A Folkloric and Literature Resource
for Teachers and Librarians
Philosophy and some Warnings
Folk stories have been used by cultures to entertain, but also to pass on
values. Folk stories are the distilled wisdom of a people, presented in the form of metaphor, and
it is the accumulation of stories within a culture that illuminates the underlying principles
that the culture is preserving.
While the collected folklore of a culture helps to define that culture, it is
in the comparison of the stories of many cultures that one perceives the basic thought patterns
of all peoples. That the same story form appears all over the world demonstrates the unity of the
human race; the variations of that story exemplify human diversity.
The study of folklore can be approached developmentally on three levels of
- Cultural literacy. References to the basic
stories, rhymes, and characters of fairy tales and nursery rhymes occur daily in all media.
Humpty-Dumpty, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Jack and the Beanstalk,
Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestilskin , Rapunzel are references that every literate American
recognizes immediately. They are part of the intellectual baggage of every educated person, and
they are acquired early in life.
- Literary structure. Jane Yolen, in Touch
Magic, says that myth is the grammar of literature. All the world's stories have been told
before; the archetypes of literature are to be found in myths, legends and fairy tales. The
simplest of nursery tales has a structure that fits into the grand pattern of literary
archetypes. Even a young child can begin to understand the underlying pattern if it is
- Metaphor. Humanity explains itself in its art
and literature; the archetypes discovered in ancient tales are there because they contained
meaning for their creators. That meaning remains today, and these metaphors, deeply embedded in
human culture, constantly refresh contemporary human creativity. Noted folklorist, the late
Joseph Campbell states in The Power of Myth, the book created from his public television
conversations with Bill Moyers, that "A fairy tale is the child's myth. There are proper myths
for proper times of life. As you grow older, you need a sturdier mythology." In order to
explore that sturdier mythology the child needs a foundation of story on which to build future
These levels of thinking about folklore are sequential. One must approach the
material on the first level before one can see the patterns and archetypes of the second level.
And it is only after much study and immersion in the material that the underlying wisdom
Given the opportunity, even young children are able to see and predict the
patterns in literature. Children gain power and confidence from understanding literature on an
A couple of caveats:
- Well meaning people often try to "soften" the force and, yes, violence of
famous folk tales, thinking they are modernizing them, and making them more appropriate for
today's children. Don't do it! These stories are hundreds of years old and what is in
them has meaning often far beyond what you see. Don't mess with something you may not
understand. If you don't like the story don't use it, but don't try to "fix" it. An example:
some people don't like the poor Gingerbread Boy getting eaten by the fox. But think of the
implications of having a world where your food can get up run away! Far more scary than the
original tale. Besides, kids know that cookies are supposed to get eaten.
- A corollary to the above: Don't use Walt Disney versions of fairy and
folk tales. The Disney company is guilty of sweetening old stories to the point of
destroying the folkloric pattern and eviscerating the story. Yes, the movies are skillfully
done and entertaining, but they are also diminished from their original power. Among the
illustrators and authors who can be trusted to use the old and complete versions of the stories
are Paul Galdone and Trina Schart Hyman.
Particular titles are recommended to use with various lessons. Some of these
are going to be unavailable and out of print. Your school librarian will know of newer
versions of these classic tales. Many of the titles used are prize winning books and should be
available, even if they are old.
If you have questions or comments about any of the material offered here,
please email Carole at carole at slattery dot com.