Guide to Literary Terms Folklore

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Folklore - the long-standing and traditional beliefs, legends, and customs of a people. It is a general term for the verbal, spiritual, and material aspects of any culture that are transmitted orally, by observation, or by imitation, and passed on and preserved from generation to generation with constant variations shaped by memory, immediate need or purpose, and the degree of individual talent. Not only does folklore entertain, but it passes on the culture and behavior models of a people, which psychologist Carl Jung called “the collective unconscious.” Folklore is comprised of folk tales.

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The term comes from Old English folc which became Middle English folk, meaning “people,” and the Anglo-Saxon lar, meaning “learning.”

The word was coined in 1846 by the Englishman William John Thoms in Athenaeum to replace the word then being used: antiquities. Once this embraced only orally transmitted materials, but now includes written accounts of traditions, literature, craftsmanship, and folk habits. There is much folklore in ballads, epics, fables, fairy tales, maxima, myths, and riddles.

Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are all heavily invested with elements of folklore.

see: ballad, fairy tale, myth, proverb, riddle

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