The Folktale

‘A folktale may be described as a fictional narrative which is traditional in the sense that it is usually handed down orally from one person to another.’

Ó Súilleabháin, Seán, Storytelling in Irish Tradition, Cork, 1973.

‘[A folktale is] a multi-episodic structured narrative with a recognisable form which is not believed by an individual or group and which is not bound by reference to local or known people, places or events.’

O’Connor, Anne, Child Murderess and Dead Child Traditions, Helsinki, 1991.

In non-literate societies, the folktale often takes the place of the novel. Oral versions of folktale may be in decline, but the form lives on in films, novels, children’s storybooks. There are five main types of international folktale. They include the Animal Tale, which generally tells of talking animals and fantastic episodes, and is prominent today in children’s storybooks; Tales of Magic and Wonder Tales, which tell of magical events, fantastic places, princesses, and dragons, and is of particular interest to creative writers and psychologists; Religious Tales, which are generally frivolous and imaginative stories, such as the story of Jesus and the owl, and are sometimes included in religious education at primary school level ; realistic or romantic tales, including the “Taming of the Shrew”, which later went on to provide the basis of a play by William Shakespeare; and Tales of the Stupid Ogre.

All of these international folktales have been classified and documented by the folklore scholars Aarne, Thompson and Uther, and each has an “ATU index” number. The ATU Index can found in large libraries, particularly university libraries. Folktales have been extensively studied, and were notably brought into the commercial world by the printing press, especially by the Brothers Grimm (1785-1863) in Germany and Charles Perrault (1628-1703) in France. Recently, global celebrations have marked the 200th anniversary of the Grimm’s book enormously influential book Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). But the literary and historic versions, as with myths and hero tales have had an influence on each other.

The story of Little Red Riding Hood, which has been documented in Ireland, France, China, and across the world, has the index number ATU333. The story of Little Red Riding Hood has proven remarkably resilient, and of particular interest to creative writers. The plot is elaborated in John Connolly’s novel The Book of Lost Things, in Angela Carter’s famous and influential story The Company of Wolves, and Wolf by Gillian Cross. A film version of Carter’s story, from Irish director Neil Jordan, has been the most successful adaptation to date; a 2011 American film, Red Riding Hood, proved to be a critical and commercial flop. Other popular international folktales, from Snow White (1938; the folktale is given the ATU number 709) to Rapunzel (in the film Tangled, 2011, recorded as ATU 310: The Maiden in the Tower), have also been given the Hollywood treatment.

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