Ubiquity of Folktales

Collective Wisdom

Folktales are stories rooted in oral traditions among common people, most of whom were illiterate.  They reflect universal experience, and similar tales are ubiquitous the world over. One imagines many stories circulating throughout history yet it is only a select few, those that contained polished nuggets of wisdom, that managed to be passed down through generations until they were eventually collected and published by individuals like Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm.

(Hansel & Gretal, by Arthur Rackham, 1909)
Who Were the Brothers Grimm?

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who died in 1863 and 1859 respectively, were German scholars with an interest in culture who studied linguistics and collected folklore. Their first volume of tales published in 1812 was widely translated and had a profound

influence on other European scholars who set out to do similar work collecting folktales from their home countries.  This soon gave rise to folklore societies whose interests expanded into collecting songs, poems, proverbs, games, traditional lore and folk medicine.

Tales not Meant for Children

Even though the Grimms’ first collection was originally titled “Children’s and Household Tales,” the book was not written for the young and many changes through many editions were done by request to make the tales more suitable for children.  Over time, cruel mothers were replaced with stepmothers, sexual references were removed and religious references were added. The violence and gore of the original tales however, were left intact. Selectively censored key omissions over time have resulted on certain occasions, in obfuscating the plot.

It is interesting to note that the word ‘grim’ does not share an etymology with the surname Grimm, though one would have thought so as the Grimm tales are very grim indeed!

Oral Culture

It is difficult to trace the age of folktales as few traces remain except in the memories of tellers and listeners. A folktale is a lot like a language and is really and truly only alive when it exists orally and is free to evolve over time. Changes and embellishments are intrinsic to the folktale tradition and the process of transformation and adaptation from person to person and from generation to generation is what keeps them spirited and breathing. Conversely, stories and folktales die a little when fixed in time and print since one reading invariably becomes the same as every other.

Because folktales are in essence part of oral culture, structural elements such as rhymes, verses and repetition were often introduced as mnemonic devices. They can be partly told and partly sung.  There is no definitive way to deliver a folktale.


Below is a link to an excellent site called Learning to Give.  This site offers folktales from around the world which speak specifically to the trials and rewards of leading a generous life.  It also offers excellent lesson plans:


The False Knight on the Road –  i have included a link to this old folksong which takes its motif of outwitting the devil from folktales.  A version from Sweden casts an old woman, possibly a witch, in the place of the knight.


A fascinating series from the BBC in which historian and mythographer Marina Warner explores the Grimm brothers’ tales.


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