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Folk Tales

Origin and Transmission

The Primer offers nine folk tales; the First Reader, thirteen; and the Second Reader, eight or ten more. It might be well to inquire immediately, therefore, what folk tales are, and why they appeal to all children and to grown persons likewise. As the prefaces to the Readers assert, these folk tales here given are the literary products of many minds, and have survived the centuries. It is a mistake, however, to believe that the making and transmission of folk tales is a process only of the past. Wherever mothers or nurses or teachers tell and retell stories to children, folk tales are growing up, expanding, changing.

Of universal interest. There is to-day a science of folk-lore. Great scholars study the simple stories of the people as they study other evidences of past belief and present custom; for what has amused mankind continuously for long periods, they argue, must have in it the essence of man’s thinking. The growth and dissemination of folk stories is a phenomenon of importance. The popularity of the narratives is no more a fact of the past than eating is. The form of what we eat and the way we eat it may have changed from time to time, but the elemental food-stuffs remain the same. Man’s nature craves them, and when it gets them they prove satisfying. We need not be surprised that the natural man, the child, and the jaded epicure alike find folk stories pleasing. They are elemental food. But not to carry the figure too far, and simply bearing in mind the fact brought out by it, let us go back to inquire what a folk tale really is, and along with general impressions gather a few specific distinctions. Since a science of folk-lore exists, for a student who wishes to understand these stories, there is a nomenclature to be learned, a set of definitions to be borne in mind, a history to be glanced at, some great names to be remembered.

What are folk tales? A folk tale is a story that grows up among a people, or folk, around an idea either originated of adopted by the folk. The earliest form is always of an oral nature if not actually oral, and its usual transmission—a far more important fact than source—is oral. To-day, despite our many books and newspapers, folk tales circulate orally. Our favorite narratives we seldom if ever saw in print when we were children, although they were in print no doubt before we were born. Our mothers, or nurses, or big sisters, or teachers, told us the stories first, even if we read them later. The delight of the reading was no less but greater because of the familiarity. The phrases on the pages seemed to be of the very structure of our thinking. Hence the delight.

How they grow. It is said that a folk story "grows up" because no one seems to know who first starts such a narrative on its way, or because the later versions because of oral repetitions vary among themselves and are each different from the earlier, and because the story represents common folk thinking. Right here it might be well to preclude confusion. Everyone recognizes a possible double meaning in the word "folk tale"; namely, that of "tale composed by the folk" or simply that of "tale told among the folk," even though it may have been originally a translation or importation.

The distinction may have a meaning and it may not. If the first definition is understood to imply that a whole folk instantly and collectively composes a piece of literature without the intervention of individuals, the definition becomes nonsense. Or if it is understood to imply that a piece composed by one man or one woman or one child might not become loved by the folk as a whole, taken to their hearts, told and retold among them, become a part of their household thinking—in other words, might not become to them and through them a real folk tale—then, too, the distinction is nonsense. In fact, all that is needed is time. It is because the world has forgotten the authors of our best folk tales that we cannot mention them. Because we can mention Perrault, however, our common version of Cinderella  is no less a folk tale. That the process of story-making was any different in the days of Rameses II from what it is now, except for the facility of reproduction and transmission, a thinking man cannot believe. Human nature has not so changed in three thousand years. We have but to look about us to know the folk story process. We have but to read history to verify our understanding of it.

Length of life. But when we look about us we must remember that the process we are investigating is essentially an oral process, that the stories we are investigating are living things that change so long as they live. When they have ceased to change, they have ceased to live as folk stories. Some may linger on, perhaps, as grim ghosts of departed literature or be found on shelves as mummies of antiquity. But actually a good folk tale is both as eternal and as changeable as the folk that tells it; indeed, and excellent story always overpasses locality and country—even more than a virile folk overpasses. For this reason, if for no other, children have a right to hear and to read folk tales; most of them are a rich heritage and an everlasting possession. The rude common sense as well as the nonsense of the ancients and the moderns is stored in them.

How originated. Any set of events, actual or imaginary, occurring anywhere, may become a folk story after undergoing the folk story process. The immediate handing down is very simple. It is easily explained by a household fact. A new mother naturally tells the favorite narrative her mother told her when she was a child. The stories pass on down the generations, and become in time traditional, current among a large family, a village, perhaps a whole folk finally. When the narrator has a larger audience than immediate kin, the diffusion is much faster. If the new mother came from a neighboring or a foreign people, how the stream of family tradition is enriched! The word "tradition" is a simple word and does not necessarily belong to scholars. Any particular story, belief, or usage handed down becomes a tradition.

Link ages and people. A number of folk stories, like the Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty narratives, have lived longer than the races that now cherish them. "It is certain," says Andrew Lang, "that the best-known popular tales were current in Egypt under Rameses II, and that many of them were known to Homer, and are introduced or alluded to in the Odyssey." This is a lovely thought, because it makes the solidarity of the human race a more vivid fact. The small child in the classroom in America to-day, with perfect confidence, puts his hand into the brown palm of the great king of Egypt, and enjoys with him the old, old stories—stories no doubt old to his people then, a thousand years or more before the Christian era.

It is essential to folk tale that the appeal be universal, although national peculiarities are apparent in the versions. Sainte-Beuve has reminded us that had we inherited no such tales, and had we started to tell stories in the nursery in full civilization, the incidents of Puss in Boots  would not have been invented. Sainte-Beuve is right, but he has reminded us only of the fact that folk stories are made out of known elements or similar elements. So is everything else.

Place of origin uncertain. The idea of the persistence of the same story has proved extremely fascinating to scholars. It has called out a long line of inquirers, who have kept themselves busy for a century at least. There is nothing very mysterious about the matter, however, but just something materially difficult—the discovery of reliable records and evidence. Indications there are a-plenty, but proofs that this locality instead of that gave rise to a particular story are hard to find. And that one locality and only one was the cradle of all marchen, or popular tales, is a still harder thesis, as its advocates have learned by reason of their many doughty opponents. When we know where the first acorn or the first oak tree came from, perhaps we can answer the question as to where the first folk tale, or the first version of a given folk tale, originated. Until the scholars have brought that time about, we must content ourselves with the knowledge that individualized versions spring up and flourish for a century or two and then die, or lose their identity, but that the form and general content of folk tales go on forever.

Variation. A common condition connected with the oral transmission of even our best-established stories is variation. Minute particulars are seldom transmitted orally. They are left out or created spontaneously under local inspiration. Only the large central events that make one tale recognizable as itself and not another, remain the same. And sometimes even the events change and shift and nothing but the motif, or central idea, stays fixed. The simplicity of the versions of the folk tales in primers and first readers is consequent upon this fact of the adaptability to audiences. On the other hand,—and here is a psychological truth that all good narrators take advantage of,—striking and charming peculiarities of style or utterance often persist even though they may be connected with only minor details. Mothers and teachers know how the big voice or the little voice at the expected place in an oral narrative is demanded by the experienced listener, and how the occurrence of the emphasis favorite with other children seldom fails to delight the novice. Crude rhythm, rhymes, and repetition of situation are all aids to oral delivery, and in our ancient stories are evidence of it. They are aids both the narrator and to the listener. They make memory easy on the part of the one and attention easy on the part of the other. Repetition of situation permits extension also, which is a delight to both the narrator and the listener when a good folk tale is going. Hence often the end of one story is added to that of another.

Before we look at the stories themselves and assort them to their types, we should note at some length how they were got together and who it was that did the work.

Charles Perrault


Charles Perrault, a Frenchman, was one of the first of the moderns to create an art interest in folk tales; and he created it by the very simple process of retelling the stories. He presented to the public (1694-1697), in charming and simple prose form, eight household narratives taken down from oral recitation. He sent them first as contributions to a small magazine published at The Hague, called Moetjen’s Recueil  (Miscellany), then later put them out as a book bearing his son’s name, Perrault Dermancour.

In the hall of fame. At the time that he began to publish the stories of the people, Charles Perrault was a member of the royal academy under Louis XIV, and was the noted hero of the great Battle of the Books, which the critics had been waging for ten years over a remark of Perrault’s in a poem read by him before the Academy in 1684. As a result of the poem and the controversy, Perrault had become recognized as the champion of the moderns; and Boileau, properly enough, the champion of the ancients. Perrault in his poem entitled The Age of Louis XIV  had found fault with the Odyssey  for containing "old wive’s fables," and had said that Homer would have written better had he had the good fortune to be born under Louis XIV. Boileau had angrily declared Perrault’s poem an insult to the great men of past times, and had begun taking revenge in their name by writing epigrams on Perrault. Thus the war continued and spread to other countries. Some members of the Academy took Boileau’s side in the controversy, some Perrault’s. Racine, mild man that he was, pretended not to think Perrault in earnest; but Perrault continued to uphold his arguments, and to make fun of persons who think it a fine thing "to publish old books with a great many notes." In the crisis of the controversy Perrault wrote what he imagined would be his monument of immortality, The Comparison of the Ancients and the Moderns  (1688-1694) and Eulogies of Illustrious Men of the Age of Louis XIV  (1703). But these have no proved to be his monument. Men do not to-day read lengthy, argumentative poems on the foolish subject of which is better, the moderns or the ancients; but all the world reads Perrault’s versions of traditional popular stories his "Mother Goode’s Tales."

Old tales made new. These stories are usually called "fairy tales," though Perrault did not call them fairy tales, but "Stories, or Tales of Past Time." And that is what they are, as we shall see—folk nursery sagas. Perrault felt the common folk tone of the pieces, and acknowledged it and defended it, although he did not realize the great antiquity of what he was retelling or the ultimate significance of the preservation. He told the stories as current, oral literature coming down from the past. It is interesting to note that the Recueil  advertised itself as a repository, or miscellany, of "pieces curious and new." The oral tales of the peasants would be curious and new to the affected literary world of Louis XIV’s day.

Twenty years before Perrault began to write down the oral narratives of the people, fairy stories and naïve literature in general had become popular at the court, although only in oral form; but the popularity was rather a fad than a revival of real simplicity, and it was in no sense a pledge of scientific interest in the life of the populace.

Perrault’s part in the world. But Perrault’s stories ring true, as the real product of the peasantry of France and of past ages of peasantry in other lands. The elements are older than France, older than French civilization as we think of it. Though these stories manifestly have other civilizations besides the French reflected in them, they are, however, in Perrault’s versions truly French as well as truly human. How did the result come about? Simply enough. Perrault took the narratives, not out of his own imagination, but directly out of the mouth of the people through the mouth of a child. Perrault’s little son repeated them as the peasant nurse had told them; and Perrault the father wrote them down, or his son wrote them down in a more or less crude, natural form, and Perrault edited them. This conclusion seems to be the best judgment of the critics as to what part Perrault and as to what part his son had in the composition; for the eight prose tales edited in book form, as we have said, were attributed to the son, Perrault Darmancour—although Perrault, the father, the noted academician, when they were attacked, defended them and acknowledged a share in the writing. Contemporaneous criticism seems to establish the probability that the stories were written down or recited by the boy as exercises in composition. Perrault was well known to be interested intelligently in the education of his children, and to give a good deal of his time to directing it personally. He fostered ingenuity and originality. He called the process of putting into acceptable literary form the stories of the nursery and of the French peasant households "original composition" on the part of his children. It was original in the truest and most valuable sense. When the little boy and his father began, few or none such tales had be3en written out in French, at least no in that age. The father rightly thought the work more contributive than the frivolous re-doing of the Greek and Roman classics which occupied the school children of the day. The Perrault family believe in things "curious and new."

It is beautiful to think, though, that this jolly, companionable, modern father, the famous hero of the Battle of the Books, finally, in spite of himself, and in plan contradiction to his supposed position, was meeting Homer on his own ground as a teller of "old wives’ fables." It is also satisfying to know that what created such a storm in Perrault’s day is accepted as an obvious fact now—namely, that the great epics of Homer, in their elements, first belonged to the people.

The motive. Perrault’s stories will live forever as well as Homer’s. The delightful blending of age and youth in them makes them more valuable than they were before. Perrault was himself, despite his luck and elevation, essentially a man of the people. His impatience with scholarship, his breezy and unblushing amateurism in everything, prove the fact, as well as does his innate sympathy with the folk of his country. Perrault is to be remembered for his love of little children and of the common people shown in a practical way, also, when he was retiring from his service as minister to the king. It was proposed that the Tuilleries gardens should be closed to the public and reserved for royalty only. Perrault protested in the name of little French children and of common mothers and fathers and nurses, saying, "I am persuaded that the gardens of the kings are made so great and spacious that all their children may walk in them." It was decreed that the gardens should be kept open in the interest of children forever.

The list. Perrault published three verse tales as well as the eight prose tales. The prose versions, as we have said, will always live. They have passed over the boundaries of city and country and become native in England and America as well as in France. One has but to give a list to prove the contention instantly, with a single exception. Here is the list: La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty), Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), La Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard), Le Maistre Chat, ou Le Chat Botte (Puss in Boots), Les Fees (Toads and Diamonds), Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella), Riquet a la Houppe (Riquet of the Tuft—not popular in English), and Le Petit Poucet (Hop o’ My Thumb). These tales received in England the title of "Mother Goose’s Tales" because on all the English chap-books, with various slight alterations, the frontispiece of the 1697 French edition persisted. It represents an old woman spinning, and telling tales to a man, a girl, a little boy, and a cat with a broad grin on its face; and announces on a placard





that is, "Mother Goose’s Tales."

The Brothers Grimm

Jacob Ludwig Carl (1785-1863)

Wilhelm Carl (1786-1859)

The founders of the science of folk lore where the brothers Jacob and William Grimm, who published, in 1812-1815, their Children and Household Tales, a collection of popular tales taken for the most part directly from the mouths of the common people of Germany.

The mutual friendship of these brothers was in itself fundamental and folk-like. Its simplicity and devotion have passed into a proverb. While their name stands for what is highest and best in German scholarship, it stands also for what is loveliest in human nature—kindliness, industry, enthusiasm, patience, and brotherly love, in both the restricted and universal sense.

Live and work together. Jacob and William Grimm were born one year apart, 1785, 1786. They attended school together, worked together, lived together for seventy-two years, with the exception of one year when William, the younger, was ill, and his brother Jacob went up to the University of Mar burg a few months in advance in 1802. William followed, however, in 1803. As boys they had gone through the public school of Cassel together. When William was married, Jacob continued to live with him; and it is said that the children of the family loved their uncle almost as much as they loved their father, and recognized little difference between the two. As men in the world, Jacob and William were brother librarians, brother professors, brother sufferers in the cause of constitutional liberty. When Jacob was professor and librarian at Gottengen and William was under-librarian, they signed, with five other members of the faculty of the university, a protest against the King of Hanover’s abrogation of the Constitution he had given to his people a few years before. In punishment the brothers Grimm were dismissed, and went back to Cassel, where they remained without an appointment for three years.

In 1840, however, at the invitation of the King of Prussia, they both accepted professorships in the University of Berlin and membership in the Academy of Science. Jacob lived five years longer than William, but always in the halo of their past companionship. The greatest sorrow that ever came to Jacob’s heart was the loss of his brother. He paid a noble and touching tribute to William in a review of his life in an address before the Academy—a pathetic address in which the speaker broke down and cried.

Nature of their work. The brothers Grimm did more than Perrault in that they not only told the stories of the past simply and well, but created a love in the minds of other persons for the simple folk products of all nations and created a reverence for race literature just as it is found. They went at the work of preservation in the spirit of science. For instance, they would collect variants of a story and then, comparing the variants with the best straightforward version they had, they would decide, through their knowledge of the dialects and of anthropology in general, what was probably the ancient and most natural form or the best evolved form. This they would put into the body of their book and would offer the remainder in the notes and the discussion. Some stories, they took from manuscript and other collections, and commented on the source.

Asbjornsen and Moe

Like the Grimm Brothers, Peter Christen Asbjornsen (1812-1885) and Jorgen Engsbretsen Moe (1813-1882) have come down in literary fame together. They met when one was fourteen and the other was thirteen years old, and remained fast friends the rest of their lives. Each one, inspired by the work of the German collectors, determined to write down for preservation whatever Norse folk tales he should come across from day to day. After working a year or more alone, the young men decided, in 1834, to do the final revision and the editing and publishing together. It happened, or came as a result of their association, that they had practically the same way of thinking and the same vigorous and charming narrative style. The partnership was extremely fortunate. It resulted in one of the best books of Norwegian literature, and altogether one of the best folk story collections in the world. These narratives, even when retold in the simplest form for young readers, retain the crispness of northern thought and expression.

How they gathered stories. Asbjornsen, who became zoologist and spent much of his time investigating for the university in the way of his profession along the coasts of Norway, collected many of his stories meanwhile, especially from the west coast and the Hardanger fjord; and Moe, who became a clergyman, searched in the southern mountains and the remote districts as his duties and holidays permitted.

The first volume came out in 1842-1843 under the title Norse Folk Tales,  and the second volume in 1844. These two volumes were received with acclaim, and have been deservedly popular ever since. Dr. George Webbe Dasent began translation them into English almost immediately, and after fifteen years published a first edition in Edinburg called "Popular Tales from the Norse." This volume lacked thirteen of the Norse stories, but contained a long preface by Dasent on the Origin and Diffusion of Popular Literature. Later, in a second edition, the preface was revised and extended, and the remaining Norse stories added. The English translation of Asbjornsen and Moe is, in itself, an excellent and noted book. In 1871 an augmented edition of Norse Folk Tales  was published under the names of the lifelong friends and collectors.

Norway is a small country with only about two and a half million inhabitants, but she has always given a good account of herself in literature. To Asbjornsen and Moe’s popular stories Jacob Grimm gave the palm for freshness and sincerity.

Notes on the Folk Tales


In its widest sense, as a generic term for community composition, folk tale includes stories of at least five types: Myth, legend, fairy tale, nursery saga, and fable whenever the story is traditional and very old. Most fables are sophisticated and plainly bespeak individual authorship, as likewise do some myths and some fairy tales. In a more limited sense, when used a specific term, as it is used in the indexes to these Readers, folk tale includes only the more domesticated myths and stories with myth elements, like The Little Sister of the Sun  and Why the Sea Is Salt; and the simpler and more homely legends in the form of nursery sagas like Boots and His Brothers; and the traditional fairy tales, like The Elves and the Shoemaker. This is the sense in which the term "household tale" or "nursery tale," is usually understood. The Queen Bee  is a nursery saga. For literary reasons the following distinction is sometimes made between fairy tale and nursery saga, which may both be household tales; in the fairy tale, the fairy or supernatural creature like a fairy is the chief actor; whereas in the nursery saga, the human being is the chief actor, is the hero. For this distinction the word "saga" is borrowed from the Norse language, where it signifies "hero-legend." The addition of the adjective, "nursery" makes the phrase mean that the story is told of a child’s hero or heroine. Often the hero is the youngest of three brothers and is supposed to be a ne’er-do-well: often the heroine is a neglected step-daughter or orphan.

Here are the formal definitions of these two types, set over against each other:

(1) A Fairy Tale is a narrative of imaginative events wherein the chief actors are beings other than man and the gods—beings who have the power utterly to destroy him. It is to be noted that the interest centers about the supernatural creature.

(2) A Nursery Saga is a narrative of imaginative events wherein is celebrated a human hero of more or less humble origin, a child’s hero or heroine, who by native wit and energy (or supposed lack of wit and energy) together with the possession of a charm or secret helper is enabled to do stupendous deeds, which bring material happiness. It is to be noted that the interest centers about the human hero, the boy or girl, not the fairy who may help or the charm that may win.

Drolls. Comical folk tales are called drolls.  Now, a nursery saga, we have just said, has a human hero; but a droll may have only a humanized hero. That is, the chief actor in a droll may be a cat or a mouse, a donkey or a pig, a gingerbread boy or a pancake; but as an actor it must seem human. In that fact resides the fun. A droll does not need to be satiric, though it generally is, but it must be jolly. The student will note the difference between a droll and a fable, though a fable also is satiric and has humanized animals and talking inanimate objects for actors. The forms are different. The fable is usually short and the nursery droll longer—the droll having the air of a saga. Besides, the fable is always in earnest; it is didactic and utilitarian, while the droll may be nothing but a laugh in narrative form. The idea of seriousness is the dividing line, too, between the nursery saga proper and the nursery saga droll. Some one has pleasantly conjectured that the usual nursery sagas must have been related originally by the women of the tribe, and the drolls by the men. The speaker had in mind, no doubt, such drolls as Hans in Luck  and Thumbling. It is to be noticed that these stories retain the human hero, but are manifestly satiric, though they do not cease to be genial, especially Hans does not. The conjecture itself is droll and rather pat. It could hardly be proved, however.

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