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general term for any of numerous varieties of traditional narrative. The telling of stories appears to be a cultural universal, common to pre-industrial, ancient, and more modern and developed societies alike. Even the forms folktales take are demonstrably similar from culture to culture, and comparative studies of themes and narrative techniques have been successful in showing these relationships. Among the foremost folklorists of the 19th cent. were Oskar Dähnhardt in Germany, S. O. Addy in England, Paul Sébillot in France, and Y. M. Sokolov in Russia. Major 20th-century scholars in the field include Franz Boas, Richard Chase, Marie Campbell, and Stith Thompson. Folklorists make distinctions among the categories of folktales. Legends and traditions are narratives of an explanatory nature concerning creation and tribal beginnings, supernatural beings, and quasi-historical figures (e.g., King Arthur, Lady Godiva). These stories are related as fact and concern a specific time and place. Fairy tales are entirely fictional and often begin with such formulas as "Once upon a time …" and "In a certain country there lived … ." Popular examples recount the supernatural adventures and mishaps of youngest daughters, transformed princes, mermaidsmermaid,
in folklore, sea-dwelling creature commonly represented as having the head and body of a woman and a fishtail instead of legs. Belief in mermaids, and in their counterpart, mermen, has existed since earliest times.
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, and wood fairies and elves (e.g., CinderellaCinderella,
heroine of one of the most famous folktales in the world. She is rescued from a life of drudgery by her fairy godmother and eventually marries a handsome prince.
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, Rumplestiltskin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel). Animal tales abound in every culture; most of them are clearly anthropomorphic, the animals assuming human personalities. Such tales are classified according to three subdivisions: the etiological tale, or tale concerning origins (e.g., Great Hare and Coyote among Native Americans); the fable pointing to a moral (Aesop's fables); and the beast epic (e.g., Reynard the FoxReynard the Fox
, the supreme trickster and celebrated hero of the medieval beast epics, works predominantly in verse which became increasingly popular after c.1150. They are found chiefly in Latin, French, Low German, Dutch, High German, and English.
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; see bestiarybestiary
, a type of medieval book that was widely popular, particularly from the 12th to 14th cent. The bestiary presumed to describe the animals of the world and to show what human traits they severally exemplify.
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). Myths, which are more difficult to define satisfactorily, treat happenings of a long-ago time; they generally concern the adventures of gods, giantsgiant,
in mythology, manlike being of great size and strength. The giant has been the symbol for the expression of certain recurring beliefs in the mythologies of all races.
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, heroeshero,
in Greek religion, famous person, who after his death, was worshiped as quasi-divine. The heroes might be actual great men and women, real or imaginary ancestors, or "faded" gods and goddesses (i.e., ancient gods who for some reason were demoted to human status).
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, nymphsnymph
, in Greek mythology, female divinity associated with various natural objects. It is uncertain whether they were immortal or merely long-lived. There was an infinite variety of nymphs. Some represented various localities, e.g.
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, satyrssatyr
, in Greek mythology, part bestial, part human creature of the forests and mountains. Satyrs were usually represented as being very hairy and having the tails and ears of a horse and often the horns and legs of a goat.
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, and villains, as well as etiological themes. There is also a rich tradition of African-American folktales. See also mythologymythology
[Greek,=the telling of stories], the entire body of myths in a given tradition, and the study of myths. Students of anthropology, folklore, and religion study myths in different ways, distinguishing them from various other forms of popular, often orally transmitted,
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; monsters and imaginary beasts in folkloremonsters and imaginary beasts.
The mythologies and legends of ancient and modern cultures teem with an enormous variety of monsters and imaginary beasts. A great number of these are composites of different existing animals or of human beings and animals.
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; elfelf,
in Germanic mythology, a type of fairy. Usually represented as tiny people, elves are said to dwell in forests, in the sea, and in the air. Although they can be friendly to man, they are more frequently vengeful and mischievous.
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; fairyfairy,
in folklore, one of a variety of supernatural beings endowed with the powers of magic and enchantment. Belief in fairies has existed from earliest times, and literatures all over the world have tales of fairies and their relations with humans.
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; goblingoblin
or hobgoblin,
in French folklore, small household spirit, similar to the Celtic brownie. Goblins perform household tasks but also can make mischief, such as pulling the covers off sleepers. They like wine and pretty children.
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; gremlingremlin,
in American folklore, malicious, airborne supernatural being. Gremlins were first heard of during World War II as creatures responsible for unexplainable mechanical failures and disruptions in aircraft.
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; trolltroll
, in Scandinavian folklore, dwarfish or gigantic creature of caves and hills. Variously friendly or malicious, trolls toiled as smiths. The mountain king in Ibsen's Peer Gynt is a troll.
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See S. Thompson, The Folktale (1946); V. O. Binner, American Folktales (1966) and International Folktales (1967); R. M. Dorson, America in Legend (1974); H. Courlander, A Treasury of African Folklore (1975), A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore (1976), and The Tiger's Whisker and Other Tales from Asia and the Pacific (1995); A. Clarkson and G. B. Cross, World Folktales (1984); H. L. Gates, Jr. and M. Tatar, The Annotated African American Folktales (2017).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(in Russian, skazka), one of the principal genres of imaginative oral folklore; an epic fictional work, generally in prose, dealing with magic, adventure, or everyday life.

The term “folktale” applies to various types of oral prose, and consequently there is disagreement in defining the genre’s characteristics. The folktale differs from other types of epics in that it is imparted by its narrator and perceived by its hearers first and foremost as a poetic invention and a play of the imagination. This, however, does not deprive the folktale of a link with reality; it is reality that determines the folktale’s ideological content, language, plot, motifs, and images.

Many folktales reflect primitive social relations and concepts, totemism, and animism. Folktales that originated during the period of feudalism contain such figures as a tsar, tsarevich, knight, and king. During the period of capitalism, the folk narrators turned increasingly to the themes of money and trade. Folktales expressed the contrast between wealth and poverty and, to an even greater extent, contained motifs of class antagonism. Today, some folktales still survive in books, while others have disappeared; some are of interest only to children, and others continue to interest adult audiences.

The folktales of all peoples have much in common, owing to similar cultural and historical conditions. At the same time, they possess national characteristics and reflect the way of life of a given people, its work, everyday life, and natural surroundings. The narrators impart to the folktales they perform their own individual traits, and consequently most folktales are known in many variants.

Each of the most characteristic groups of folktales has its own distinctive morphological structure. Tales about animals are prominent in the folklore of the USSR’s Far North, of North America, and especially of Africa. Some of these evidently originated before the formation of classes and were connected with totemism. In the course of time they lost their mythological and magical character and became akin to moralizing fables. Some fairy tales were also originally connected with myths and had a magical character. Fairy tales about combats with dragons, about stepmothers and stepdaughters, and about obtaining miraculous objects became prevalent throughout the world. The fairy tales of all peoples are richly ornamented stylistically and are marked by repetitions and by intricate introductions and conclusions.

Tales of adventure recount the unusual adventures of a hero, generally without magical fantasy. The heroes of these tales are quick-witted, resourceful, and shrewd. Akin to these works are tales about historical figures. Folktales about everyday life often have a strong social orientation; the hero is usually a poor peasant, worker, or soldier, and the setting is one familiar to the narrator. Also well known are nebylitsy (fantastic tales) and dokuchnye skazki (wearisome tales).

Folktales have been the subject of a great deal of research. Folklorists who adhere to the mythological theory have studied folktales as “fragments of ancient myths.” Comparatists have generally been concerned with similarities between plots and motifs in the tales of various peoples and have sought to establish the route taken by folktales in their migration. The adherents of the anthropological school founded a theory of a single environmental and psychological basis for the spontaneous emergence of folktale plots. In their studies of folktales, Soviet folklorists have relied on the theories of Marxism-Leninism, on the studies of the revolutionary democrats, and on M. Gorky’s writings on folklore. Soviet scholars have contributed important studies of the interrelationship between the individual and the collective principle in folktales.

The best collections of the tales of various peoples have become a part of the treasury of world literature. These include the collections of eastern tales One Thousand and One Nights, the Indian Pachatantra, the German tales of the brothers Grimm, and the collection of Russian folktales compiled by A. N. Afanas’ev. During the years of Soviet power, numerous collections of the folktales of the USSR’s nationalities have been published.

Folktales remain an enduring source of material for writers, who have extensively utilized characters, themes, and plots from folktales and have created a literature based on folktales. This literature includes the tales of A. S. Pushkin, H. C. Andersen, W. Hauff, and C. Perrault and, in Soviet literature, the tales of A. N. Tolstoy, K. N. Chukovskii, and S. Ia. Marshak and the folktale plays of E. L. Shvarts. Examples of the use of the folktale as a vehicle for satire are the tales of M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin. Artists and composers as well have utilized characters and plots from folktales.


Andreev, N. P. Ukazatel’ skazochnykh siuzhetov po sisteme Aarne. Leningrad, 1929.
Thompson, Stith. Motif-index of Folk-literature, vols. 1–6. Bloomington, Ind. [1955–58].
Bolte, J., and G. Polivka. Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, vols. 1–5. Leipzig, 1913–32.
The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Antti Aarne’s Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson, 2nd ed. revised. Helsinki, 1961.


Azadovskii, M. K. Russkaia skazka: Izbr. mastera, vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad [1932].
Veselovskii, A. N. Sobr. soch., vol. 16. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938.
Meletinskii, E. M. Geroi volshebnoi skazki: Proiskhozhdenie obraza. Moscow, 1958.
Pomerantseva, E. V. Sud’by russkoi skazki. Moscow, 1965.
Propp, V. Ia. Morfologiia skazki, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1969.
Propp, V. Ia. Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki. Leningrad, 1946.
Novikov, N. V. Obrazy vostochnoslavianskoi volshebnoi skazki. Leningrad, 1974.
Lüthi, Max. Mä rchen, 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1964.
Thompson, S. The Folktale. New York, 1946.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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