Folk tales

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The fairy tale of Cinderella - drawing by Adrian Ludwig Richter

Folk tales are a traditional form of fairy tales . They are based on orally transmitted material and, in contrast to art fairy tales that are written down directly, do not have a fixed text structure that can be traced back to a single author. Before they were fixed and edited by collectors, they existed in different narrative versions.

Generic characteristics



  • Indeterminacy of location ("In front of a large forest ...", "In front of a king's palace there was a magnificent pear tree ...") and time information ("Once upon a time ...", "In ancient times there was a king ..." ): In contrast to sagas or legends , the fairy tale is geographically and historically nowhere explicitly anchored. However, z. B. Robert Darnton points to many implicit references to the historical situation at the time the fairy tales were written down.
  • Talking animals and plants appear and come into contact with the hero as helpers or opponents.
  • Fantasy creatures such as giants, dwarfs, elves, mermaids, trolls, witches, wizards and (good or bad) fairies appear, as do mythical animals such as dragons and unicorns.
  • Fantastic events can be found in the middle of everyday life: For example a stone that turns into a lump of gold, a mountain that opens up and reveals treasure, or a gingerbread house in a forest clearing.
  • Repetition structure: for example, the hero often encounters three puzzles or tasks to be solved.

The focus is on a hero who is often freed from his initial disadvantage (for example, he is a stepchild, the youngest, the apparently dumbest, etc.) or who is freed by helpers, then reaches happiness and prosperity. The initial situation is usually characterized by an emergency, a task or a need. A task can be to find a valuable object, solve a riddle or to redeem a bewitched person. To cope with the task, the hero often has to risk his life. In addition to the hero, other typical characters also appear: the opponent, the helper, the envious, the adviser and the rescued or to be rescued. During the course of the story, magical or supernatural elements can appear again and again . However, a happy ending is not always guaranteed.

Characteristic of the fairy tale is the sharp contrast between good and bad, with the good being rewarded and the bad being punished. Nevertheless, there are also ambivalent characters in fairy tales. Fairy tales often have a cruel or violent content, especially when it comes to punishing villains, and are therefore controversial in their effect on children.

Stylistic characteristics

Folk tales are easy to understand, have simple structures and a graphic style. As a result, they are also accessible to children, but were not originally intended for children. Characteristic stylistic features are (after Max Lüthi Das Europäische Volksmärchen ):

  • Formula-like: The fairy tale, above all the folk tale, is characterized by recurring opening and closing formulas that make it easily recognizable as such for the reader or listener. For example, initial formulas such as "Once upon a time ..." or final formulas such as: "... and if you haven't died, then you are still alive today."
  • Distant from reality: Sublimation as "unrealization" of both the magical and the everyday: The motifs that appear in a folk tale come from reality. But they are realized through magical and mythical elements. So the fairy tale always looks at the whole world, not just an individual fate.
  • One-dimensionality of the perception of reality: The here and the hereafter are connected without the two being particularly different. The one on this side does not imagine to be in a completely different dimension in the hereafter.
  • Flatness: The characters in a fairy tale lack both physical and emotional depth. Furthermore, body and character traits of characters are rarely mentioned in folk tales, apart from purely physical strength or special artistic skills.
  • Abstract style: folk tales consist of several links in a row. In fairy tales there is no simultaneity of different events. The narrative perspective is always that of the hero, and only the most important people are presented.
  • Isolation and solidarity: In folk tales, the hero usually goes his own way. This isolation allows the hero to bond with everyone and everything.
  • Number symbolism: Three numbers occur frequently and serve to memorize individual text passages in rhymes and actions. For example, the hero has to perform a certain action three times or overcome three different obstacles in order to reach the goal. The same applies to the numbers seven and thirteen.
  • Popular are the poor, stupid, naive, hungry, weak and youngest. At the end of the plot they usually appear as the successful ones who have overcome all dangers and made their fortune.

Publication history

Until the invention of the printing press, folk tales were orally handed down prose stories with the content described. They were originally (and in the Orient partly still today) by a narrator to a group of listeners professionally with a certain performance practice in language, gestures and facial expressions , but also by people familiar with fairy tales in the family. By no means were and are only children the audience.

The oldest collections of European folk tales come from Giovanni Francesco Straparola (Merry Nights, 1550), Giovanni Battista Basile (Pentameron, 1634) and Charles Perrault (1696/97). The German-language publishing tradition begins in the 17th century with Johannes Praetorius . However, especially the children's and house tales by the Brothers Grimm, first published in 1812, have achieved world renown . Other well-known German folk tale collectors and editors were Ludwig Bechstein (1801–1860) with his German fairy tale book (1845) and Johann Karl August Musäus (1735–1787) with his folk tales of the Germans (1782–1786). In Austria it was Franz Ziska who published the fairy tale Da Schneida and da Ries in print in the weekly news in 1819 . This story by a peasant woman from Döbling was also included in the collection of the Brothers Grimm in 1843. Tyrolean folk tales were published in 1852 by the Zingerle brothers under the title Children's and Household Tales from Tyrol . Theodor Vernaleken with the Alpine Fairy Tales (1863) and Karl Haiding with Austria's Fairy Tale Treasure (1953) brought together other extensive collections . Another supraregional fairy tale edition, which, along with Haiding's work, could be considered representative of Austria, was the collection of the Vienna school director Karl Haller from 1915.

The oriental collection Thousand and One Nights also belongs to the type of folk tales , the origins of which go back to the 9th century, but which only began in the 16th and 17th centuries. Century in Egypt was written down and published. It goes without saying that fairy tales from all cultures on earth are known today and are being published in ever increasing amounts in many translations.

Typology of the folk tale

The folk tale became known as a generic term through the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm . According to them, there are three types of folk tales:

  • the animal fairy tale, in which grateful and helpful animals appear,
  • the unsteady fairy tale , in which the comic-joke is in the foreground, and
  • the so-called "real fairy tale", which differs from the first two types through its multiple components and can in turn be subdivided into three forms:

The fairy tale represents a special type . Fairies (French: fée = fairy) are benign or malicious women from a supernatural realm who come into contact with normal people. Often these women are sorceresses or based on nature spirits or goddesses of fate . The motif of the fairy as godmother appears often.

Fairy tales follow the tradition of Egyptian - Indian magical tales , Persian ghost tales and Arabic - oriental demon tales (cf. 1001 Nights , Peris and Djinnes ). Since the time of the Crusades ( 12th century ), they have merged with local, especially Celtic, ideas ( albums or elves in German-speaking countries ). This gave rise to the idea of ​​a fairy realm, to which the fairies also kidnap beloved earthly men.


The motifs of folk and art fairy tales are based on a wide variety of traditions. Many of them come from the Orient in their original form and were brought to Europe at the time of the Crusades . In addition, especially Celtic and Germanic myths were processed. The German fairy tale Frau Holle probably goes back to a pre-Christian deity . There are also motivic connections with epic poems and animal fables .

In an international comparison, it can be seen that the same motives appear in different countries and cultures . This can partly be explained by the normal mutual influence. However, if this is unlikely - for example because the cultures concerned had no verifiable contact at least at the time the fairy tale was written - the so-called theory of archetypes developed by Carl Gustav Jung is often used as an explanation . According to this, humanity has a collective unconscious with a store of certain common ideas. Another explanation assumes that certain fairy tales, so-called initiation tales, describe the rite of initiation in an alienated form .

Well-known fairy tale motifs are for example:


  • Lüthi, Max: fairy tales. Stuttgart and Weimar, 1996. 9th edition. (= Metzler Collection. Realities on Literature, Volume 16)
  • Ludwig Bechstein: Thuringian folk tales , Rockstuhl Publishing House, Bad Langensalza, Reprint 18523/2002, ISBN 3-936030-71-5
  • Ludwig Bechstein: Romantic fairy tales and legends , Rockstuhl Publishing House, Bad Langensalza, Reprint 1855/2003, ISBN 3-936030-93-6
  • Zingerle Brothers: Children's and Household Tales from Tyrol, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, Reprint 1852/1976, ISBN 3-487-05154-0
  • Wittmann, Helmut: The big book of Austrian folk tales, Ibera Verlag, Vienna, ISBN 3-85052-209-1
  • Lüthi, Max: Europäische Volksmärchen, Manesse, 1994, 8th edition, Zurich, ISBN 3-7175-1120-3
  • Post, Thomas: Volksmärchen, Märchen, Fantastik, Verlag E-Publi, Berlin 2015, ISBN 3737540039 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Folk tales  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Robert Darnton: The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episosed in French Cultural History. New York 1985.
  2. Christoph Schmitt: Homo narrans - studies on popular narrative culture, Waxmann Verlag, Münster 1999, p. 126. See: Karl Haller (1915): “Volksmärchen aus Österreich”. Vienna / Stuttgart / Leipzig.