Is it a folktale, a fairy tale, a fable, or a myth? With all those different types of traditional tales, it’s no wonder you become confused. So let me clear things up.
First, I need to make one caveat: I am an oral storyteller, not a folklorist. There are a lot of finer points on this page that people could argue about for ages (and they do!).
That being what it is, I work a lot with older, traditional stories. It helps to have a working knowledge of the different types of traditional tales, both in searching for stories and telling them.
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What are the most common types of traditional tales?
|Type of tale||Examples||Characteristics|
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
|comedy, fools, tricksters, Pourquoi stories, explanation or warning|
Jack and the Beanstalk
The Little Mermaid
|magic, royalty, rags-to-riches, happy ending (more characteristics of fairy tales)|
|fable||The Tortoise and the Hare|
The Lion and the Mouse
|short tale about animals acting as humans, moral lesson, allegory|
|explaining the universe (creation, natural phenomena, life after death, etc.)|
Romulus en Remus
|inspirational tale rooted in (local) history|
|tall tale||Paul Bunyan|
|entertaining stories, everything greatly exaggerated|
|ghost story||The Flying Dutchman|
|scary stories, not always with ghosts|
Types of traditional tales: definitions
Within what is called folklore, there is the genre of the folk(loric) narrative. Within that genre, you find all the different types of traditional tales.
What is a folktale?
A folktale (tale ‘of the folk’) is a fictional story passed down from generation to generation orally.
Examples of folktales collected by the Grimm Brothers:
💡 Not all the Brothers Grimm stories are fairy tales. Many of them are folktales, legends, fables, etcetera. I will give some examples below of each type of tale.
What is a fairy tale?
A fairy tale is a short fictional tale with human characters set in a magical fantasy realm. There are fairy tales that have been passed down orally from generation to generation and fairy tales that have been composed by a single writer.
Examples of fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers:
What is a fable?
A fable is a short fictional story about animal characters who speak and act like human beings. A fable usually has a clear moral point.
Examples of fables collected by the Grimm Brothers:
What is a myth?
A myth is a sacred story that took place long before most things took place. It explains part of the cosmos and how it came to be like it is. Myths usually feature deities.
In the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, you find two excellent collections of myths:
- Greek myths: Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, G. Schwab
- Norse myths: The Norse Myths, K. Crossley-Holland
What is a legend?
A legend is a story rooted in history, usually about a person that really existed. That does not mean that all parts of a legend really happened.
Examples of a legend collected by the Grimm Brothers:
What is a tall tale?
A tall tale is a hero story with fantastical elements, told as if it were true and factual.
Examples of tall tales collected by the Grimm Brothers:
What is a ghost story?
A ghost story is a short, scary story. Ghost stories have become a synonym for scary stories, so a ghost story does not need to include ghosts.
Examples of ghost stories collected by the Grimm Brothers:
How to tell the different types of traditional tales
I hope the different types of traditional tales are clearer to you now. I work as a professional storyteller, and knowing which type of tale a story is, helps a lot.
Each type of tale asks for a slightly different way of telling.
|Type of tale||How to tell this type of tale|
|folktale||Folktales are about humans: their emotions, their vices, their interactions. The characters are flat (no inner psychology) and often cartoonish.|
Tell these stories with energy, exaggeration, and some humor.
💡 Tip: video of storyteller Ben Haggarty about telling folktales
|fairy tale||Fairy tales need to evoke wonder and a feeling of magic. Ask yourself where you find the magic in the fairy tale. Visualize strong, multi-sensory, powerful images.|
💡 Tip: blogpost How to Tell a Fairy Tale in 5 Steps
|fable||Fables are simple stories with a clear lesson. Take some time to find the physicality of the animals in the fable. You don’t need to fully act them out, but it will inform your telling.|
|myth||Myths are originally sacred stories. They call for reverence and respect. Of course they contain many playful elements, but it is important not to forget the importance these stories once held for a whole culture. When telling a myth, a long line of ancestors is standing behind you.|
|legend||Legends are based on history. Make sure you know the history.|
Legends often contain parts that people will not believe. You might want to tell those with some winks and tongue in cheek humor.
|tall tale||Tall tales are larger than life. Personally, I like to start them very believable and make them slowly more outrageous, to see how long I can get people to still believe me. You can also start outrageous and focus more on the comedic element.|
|ghost story||Ghost stories need the right atmosphere to tell them. Find and tell ghost stories that also scare you a little.|
💡 I wrote a whole guide on telling scary stories.
Below I have added some specific questions that people often ask. I have tried to answer them in a concise yet complete way.
What is the difference between fairy tales, folktales, and fables?
Fairy tales, folktales, and fables are all folk narratives. Fairy tales are rooted in magic, while folktales are rooted in the real-world, human problems, and emotions. Fables have a clear moral and feature animals as the main characters.
|Type of tale||World||Characters|
|fairy tales||magical world, no time and place, problems are solved with magic||humans (+ fantasy creatures)|
|folktales||real-world, human problems and emotions, problems are often solved with wit||humans|
|fables||animal world, animals acting like humans, allegorical stories||animals|
Is a fairy tale fiction or non-fiction?
Fairy tales are fiction. Although fragments might be based on things that really happened, they seldom contain references to events or places in the real world.
What’s the difference between fairy tales, fantasy and science fiction?
Fantasy and science fiction are literary genres. Fairy tales are a specific kind of story, a subgenre of fantasy. Science fiction deals with the future, whereas fairy tales and fantasy are primarily in the past. Science fiction usually doesn’t contain magic, while fairy tales and fantasy do.
Type of traditional tales: Sources
For this article, I did a lot of research. I asked contacts in a Reddit community, searched the web, and dove into my dusty books. Some sources that I used:
- Wikipedia on the Traditional Story
- Amber Pepper, knowledgeable folklorist on Quora
- Masterclass article on folktales and fairy tales (with some obvious faults)
- Sur La Lune (great site) on the question ‘What is a fairy tale?’
💡 Once a month, I send out an email with new writings on storytelling and fairy tales.