By Megan Powell, Magali Prel and Natasha Smith
On 22 August, World Folklore Day will see people from all over the world come together to celebrate some of the most beautiful, fascinating and morally wise tales from history. We saw this celebration as the perfect opportunity to explore some of our favourite examples of folktales. Now, the definition of folktale varies from fairy tale, with the former relating to oral storytelling and the latter indicating written stories that were meant for wider consumption. Therefore, although you might recognise some of our examples as fairy tales, we have strived to find tales with roots in folklore.
Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault
Donkeyskin (known as Peau d’Âne in French) is a fairytale written in verse by Charles Perrault and was first published in 1695 as part of a collection of stories titled Tales of Mother Goose. However, before being written by Perrault as the story we know today, Donkeyskin first started out as a classic folktale. It is classed among the folktales of Aarne-Thompson, a catalogue of folktale-types used in folklore studies, under the category “unnatural love.”
The tale begins with a powerful king whose beloved wife tragically passes away. Before dying, the queen makes the king promise her that he will only remarry if he finds someone more beautiful and virtuous than herself. However, even after looking all over the world, the king is unable to find this impossibly beautiful and virtuous woman. The king realises that his only option is to marry his daughter who possesses both the beauty and virtues of her late mother. Disturbed by the grotesque proposition, the princess seeks a way to avoid this unwanted fate. She turns to her fairy godmother for help and is provided with magical gifts, including a donkeyskin, which the princess uses to disguise herself. She escapes the palace in the donkeyskin, hoping to hide away from her father.
Donkeyskin is a classic folktale that explores themes of twisted love, identity and the power of inner beauty.
The Legend of King Arthur
The famous legend of King Arthur can be argued to be derived from folklore, where it has been passed down through literature and linked to historical accounts, resulting in many interpretations and potential authors of the story. Despite the tale’s exploration of human nature and Arthur’s development – showing themes of courage and bravery – the myth is tied to a medieval background, using dukedoms of true English locations (such as Cornwall) within its story, making it difficult for readers to distinguish between fiction and reality in the tale. It is believed the myth originated in Wales or Northern Britain, where Arthur, a knight and king, would lead his men against the Saxons to protect his people and his land, Camelot. One of the most famous themes from the folktale is the importance of equality, observed through the Knights of the Round Table, where none have status over another. A reason why King Arthur is so cherished by many readers is his devotion to his people, his knights and his constant efforts to protect them from abusers of power, such as his nephew, Mordred. Mystical elements attribute divine qualities to Arthur, evident through his retrieval of the magical sword Excalibur from a stone, which resulted in his becoming king. Associated with the early Welsh Myrddin, Merlin uses magic and prophecies foretelling the future to protect and guide Arthur. The two figures’ fates are entwined, signifying wisdom and mentorship.
The Laughing Prince by Parker Fillmore
Parker Fillmore was born in 1878 and was a collector of Czechoslovak tales and Slavic folklore. His most notable work is the collection under the title The Laughing Prince. Published in 1921, the collection features a variety of folktales that mirror the essential formula of imparting wisdom, values and morals. The titular tale follows this convention through Stefan, a farmer who forms a reputation of being a jokester, earning himself the nickname “the boy who could talk nonsense.” While working on the farm, Stefan would make everyone laugh with his jokes. In a distant land, a princess was getting tired of her life in the castle and refused to eat until someone could make her laugh. Her father, the Tsar, sent his heralds far and wide to find someone who would be successful in doing so. Stefan rises to the challenge and begins telling a story that is full of nonsense in the hopes of making the princess laugh. He is successful and, despite the tsar’s original promise that whoever could make the princess laugh would marry her, the tsar has difficulty standing by his decision, not wishing to allow his daughter to marry the son of a farmer. The princess threatens to not eat again, forcing the tsar to relent and see his daughter happily married to the “laughing prince.”