Why should students read folktales from other times and places?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Folktales are reflective of the culture from which they originate. As such, they provide insights into the beliefs, the moral principles, and the important events of life within this culture, as well as being rewarding entertainment with their cadre of fantastic creatures. Reading folktales from other cultures gives students a window to what is considered proper social behavior, the truths of adult life, and the humor of a particular culture.

Indeed, folktales are part of the history of a culture.

  • Among African-American folktales are those of The Complete TalesUncle Remus. While the hyper-sensitive politically correct sensationalists have condemned some aspects of this book, there have been generations of children who have innocently delighted in these tales in which Brer Rabbit has out-foxed Brer Fox, or duped Brer Bear. The controversy about these tales lies in the subsumed text of which children are unaware. In this text, the former slaves cheerfully live on the plantation and seem to enjoy their subservient positions. But, Brer Rabbit represents these former slaves, and he tricks his masters. Thus, there is a strong moral lesson that one may be in a lowly position, but he/she can yet maintain his/her dignity. Joel Chandler Harris's amusing tales reveal another side to the African-American experience of his time--that former slaves were more clever than known and possessive of an indominable spirit and much humor.
  •  American folktales are those about Paul Bunyan, his Blue Ox, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. These tales of superhuman feats, daring, and adventure have long entertained readers. But, they also provide children with legendary heroes while nourishing a wide range of emotions. The legends of America give children something larger to believe.
  • Italian folklore is prolific, and many of these examine truths about life. One author, Italo Calvino, has written tales based upon such American tales as Puss-n-Boots and Little Red Riding Hood. One character who is popular is

... the irascible fool Giufà, whose misfortunes almost always turn a lucky profit and whose own mother dupes him for her personal gain. Giufà is an interesting character—he appears in six folktales form Sicily—and represents a fascination for life’s inconsistences inherent in many Italian folktales.

While different cultures do have different folktales, there are several unifying elements.

  • Folktales usually include different classes, but often these groups have equally important roles in the tale, thus creating amity and respect among the classes.
  • Often the importance of faith and religion is expressed in folktales. In Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy, for instance, the intercession of saints in dire situations saves the victims of misfortune.
  • Folktales offer hope to readers as they celebrate how the human spirit can triumph over the tribulations of life.