Talking about the Oral Tradition

In my previous post I told you something about my experiences as a teller, a teacher, and a writer. Now we are going to talk about the oral tradition. After defining myth, legend, and folktale, you can watch a video of one of my favorite folktales. (Not fairy tales – you’ll learn the difference.)

The oral tradition (defined as stories that originally spread from one storyteller to another), consists of three broad genres, myth, legend, and folktale. The term “myth” refers to stories that are considered sacred in that they contain the religious truths of the culture that tells (or told) them. Legends are stories about individuals (or groups of individuals) whose existence can be verified in history, even though the strict “truth” (in the contemporary sense) of the events in the story is questionable.

Saint Columba converting the Picts, William Hole, via Wikimedia Commons

My old friend Columba of Iona is known to have been born in Ireland in 521. He travelled to Scotland in order to evangelize the Picts in 563, and died in Iona, the abbey he founded, in 597. This his history. The reason he left Ireland veers into legend. It is said that Columba asked to make a copy of a Psalter that belonged to another Irish Abbot. When that Abbot refused, Columba snuck into the scriptorium and copied the entire Psalter in the course of a singe dark night. His work, according to his biographer, was illuminated by his fingers, which “shone like the moon.”

Whatever the strict truth of that part of the story, the quarrel that arose between Columba and the other Abbot led to the King of Ireland issuing the first ruling on the matter of copyright: “As to every cow belongs its calf, to every manuscript belongs its copy.” Columba’s reaction to this ruling led to a small but intense Irish war and he is said to have gone to Scotland vowing to bring as many Picts to Christ as there were men who lost their lives in that war.

Finally we come to folktales. Folktales are fiction, stories that were probably created by a single (unknown) individual, probably a talented storyteller. As the story spread, other individual tellers created their own versions of the story. Folktales, as well as being fiction, are set in no particular time or place – that’s what “once upon a time” signals. When the characters are animals, the animals are representing human behavior. Fairy tales are considered a sub-genre of folktales. They are defined, quite simply, as stories that include the supernatural beings known in English as “fairies.” The lines between folk and fairy tales is blurry so I’ll leave it here: all fairy tales are folk tales but not all folk tales are fairy tales.

Here’s a folktale I like so much that I’m including it in my upcoming book, Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce” released by The Small Tooth Dog Publishing Group (Click on the link to order your own copy).


Now that you know the difference between myths, legends, folktales (and fairytales), you are ready to learn a simple story analysis technique. We’ll do that in my next post.

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