What are Pourquoi Tales? (7 Characteristics)

Ever read something or heard somebody talk about Pourquoi tales? In this article, I tell you all about them.

Pourquoi tales often make me smile. It is refreshing to hear a story explain something in a world where most gets explained by science.

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What is a Pourquoi Tale?

A Pourquoi Tale is a short fictional story explaining why a natural phenomenon is the way it is. Pourquoi tales originate in the oral tradition, feature archetypical characters, and have a clear, straightforward structure.

Great collection of Pourquoi Tales
for kids to read and tell
Check it out on Amazon

What does Pourquoi mean in Pourquoi Tales?

Pourquoi is the French word for ‘Why?’.

Why this French word is used, instead of the English ‘Why’? Nobody seems to know. ‘Why Stories’ just might not sound as cool as ‘Pourquoi Tales’.

We all love to ask ‘Why?’

‘Why?’ is the question all young children love. While writing this article, I cannot help thinking about my nephew. He asks ‘Why?’ all the time, and no matter how many questions you answer, he will have some more.

‘Why?’ is not only a question children ask, though. It is also a question adults have asked from the time memorial. Although many Pourquoi tales nowadays seem childish to us, they were not all children’s stories in their time.

Scientists (and other curious adults) are still asking many of these ‘Why?’ questions and coming up with new answers. These are usually not stories, though.

7 Characteristics of Pourquoi Tales

1. Each Pourquoi tale answers a clear question

Pourquoi Tales explain why and how something came to be. Why are things how they are?

Often, the title of a Pourquoi tale is the question the tale answers. Examples:

  • Why the Sea is Salt
  • How Camel Got its Hump
  • Why Hens Scratch in the Dirt

This is not always the case though. I frequently tell a tale which explains why the shell of a tortoise is made up of separate plates. This story has several names, I read it for the first time as ‘The Turtle Who Couldn’t Stop Talking’.

2. Pourquoi tales are short, stand-alone stories

Whereas myths are part of a collection of stories and feature overlapping deities, Pourquoi tales can stand alone. You don’t need to know other stories to understand them.

They are short and can usually be told in 5-10 minutes. No grand epics.

3. Pourquoi tales are originally oral stories

Literacy might have saved the Pourquoi tales by collecting them in books, but they did not start in books. Pourquoi tales are part of the oral tradition, the collection of folkloristic tales transferred through speaking and listening.

Pourquoi tales usually belong to a certain culture. They don’t have one author but are part of the folktales, the tales of the folk (you and me).

Of course, tales like the Just-So Stories of Rudyard Kipling and modern Pourquoi stories do have an author.

4. Pourquoi tales deal with natural things everybody can perceive

Pourquoi tales don’t try to explain why people get sick. They don’t explain what jealousy is. They don’t tell you how the universe was created.

Instead, they deal with concrete, visible phenomena in nature. The stripes of the zebra, the tail of the bear, the seam of a bean, the sun coming up when the rooster crows, etc.

5. Pourquoi tales have a clear, set structure

Pourquoi tales explain how things came to be as they are. Their structure is almost universally the same:

  1. What was the situation in the past?
    Example: The Bear has a long tail.
  2. What is the problem in the story?
    Fox plays one of his endless trickster tricks on Bear.
  3. How does this problem get resolved?
    Bear falls for the trick and loses his tail.
  4. What is the situation now?
    Example: And that’s how the bear ended up with a stumpy tail.

6. Characters in Pourquoi tales have no names

Characters in Pourquoi tales are archetypes. The Bear stands for all bears, the Fox for all foxes, Man for all Men, and Woman for all Women.

The tales are not so much about a particular bear or fox, but about all bears and foxes.

7. Characters in Pourquoi tales have human characteristics

The characters in Pourquoi tales are often animals, yet they think, behave and speak as humans do. The same with things like the sun, the moon, and the thunder.

3 Famous Pourquoi Tales Examples

1. How the Camel Got His Hump

How the Camel Got His Hump is a Just-So story written by Rudyard Kipling. In the middle of the desert lives a camel who does not want to work. The only thing he says is ‘Humph!’. The other animals ask a Djinn to do something about it. The camel says: ‘Humph’, once too many times and he gets a hump from the Djinn with enough water and food to work for three days.

Read the entire fairy tale: How the Camel Got His Hump (fairytalez.com)

2. Why the Sea is Salt

Why the Sea is Salt is a Norwegian folktale about a mill that grinds whatever you want until you stop it. Of course, the mill falls in the wrong hands. The skipper who gets it at the end of the tale tells it to grind salt. However, he does not know how to stop it and throws it overboard. It’s still grinding salt on the bottom of the sea and that’s why the sea is salt.

Read the entire fairy tale: Why the Sea is Salt (surlalunefairytales.com)

3. Why the Bean has a Seam

The Straw, the Coal and the Bean Fairy Tale

The Straw, the Coal and the Bean is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about three characters who meet in the kitchen of an old woman. They escape and travel the world together. Unfortunately the straw burns, the coal drowns, and the bean bursts from laughing. A tailor repairs her and that is why beans have a seam.

Read the entire fairy tale: The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean (internationalfairytales.com)

Pourquoi Tales go by other names

There are different names for the kind of story we call a Pourquoi Tale.

Origin stories

An origin story is the background story of a character. It explains why they are what they are now and what drives them. The term is mostly used in the context of comic books and superhero movies.

Pourquoi tales usually answer the question ‘Why?’ for things that can be seen and touched. They mostly don’t deal with the inner psyche. Origin stories differ from them in that they explain both the characters’ abilities you see and their inner drive, which you can’t see.

The origin story of Spiderman / Peter Parker explains how he got his abilities and what drives him. The Pourquoi tale ‘Why bear has a stumpy tale’ explains only why a bear has a stumpy tail (and not how this existential crisis will drive him to save the universe). 😉

Etiological tales

An etiological tale is a tale that explains the origin or cause of something.

Etiological is an adjective term that is used in many ways. Creation myths that explain how the universe and life were formed are for example also designated as etiological myths.

So while a Pourquoi tale can also be called an etiological tale, not all etiological stories are Pourquoi tales. Pourquoi tales and myths are both part of the family of traditional oral literature, but they are not the same. The first deals with down-to-earth natural phenomena, the second with the cosmos, gods, and the end of everything.

A beautifully illustrated retelling for young children of 5 of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So-Stories
Check it out on Amazon

Just-So Stories

Rudyard Kipling, the famous writer of the Jungle Books, also wrote a collection of stories that he supposedly told to his little daughter. They explained various natural phenomena, like ‘How the camel got his hump.’

These stories needed to be told ‘Just-So’, as his daughter said. Kipling bundled these stories in his book ‘Just-So Stories’.

The stories in Kipling’s book often have the same characteristics as the much older tales that we call Pourquoi tales. Like Just-So stories, they offer an explanation that you just have to believe.

However, while Kipling purposely wrote for little children, Pourquoi tales were undoubtedly not only told to little children. They were part of the oral culture of tribes and valued by adults and children alike. They were true, just so.

People did not so much dissect them to find whether they were ‘true’ or not, because they were not so obsessed with viewing the world through the lens of science and the enlightenment.

Is a Pourquoi tale a fable?

Many Pourquoi tales deal with animals, are short, and have a simple lesson. They might also be classified as fables. However, not all are fables, because many don’t feature animals.

Is a Pourquoi tale a folktale?

A Pourquoi tale is often, but not always, a folktale. It explains why something in nature is as it is. Most of them are folktales, but some of them are also better characterized as legends or tall tales.

Discover more…

Great collection of Pourquoi Tales
for kids to read and tell
Check it out on Amazon

Photo credits: AURELIE LUYLIER, You’re Welcome! from Pixabay

💡 Once a month, I send out an email with new writings on storytelling and fairy tales.

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