Folk Tales, Myths and Legends

Any valuable literature study should include folk tales, myths and legends.

Kids love tall tales and bigger-than-life heroes. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Johnny Appleseed. John Brown. And they love listening to creation myths and legends from cultures that have been passing down those stories for generations.

How Rabbit Lost His Tail was one of my own favorites from childhood – a Native American folk tale that I first read in 4th grade.

Similar to a fairy tale or a fable, a folk tale always has a message for the listener. Folk tales don’t have morals at the end (as with Aesop’s fables). And they don’t have predictable endings, like fairy tales often do. But if you pay close enough attention, you’ll learn something. Just as the elephant’s child did, in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story, The Elephant’s Child. (Kipling’s Just So Stories are similar to both creation stories and folk tales, and have been a huge favorite with generations of children for over 100 years.)

Folk Tales: Windows to Other Cultures

By the end of 3rd grade, most children have read their first folk tale. Because of the unique qualities of this type of story, folk tales are usually popular with kids. There are several reasons for this:

  • Animals are often the main characters.
  • They’re usually humorous, and sometimes ridiculous.
  • Mischievous behavior is often part of the story (as in Native American “trickster” tales).
  • The people in these stories are very different than the people the child knows in his or her own life, whether the story is from another country or about an unfamiliar area of the United States, as in the The Classic Tales of Brer Rabbit – folk tales that originated in the Appalachians, in the eastern region of the country.


Myths

Children are usually introduced to myths through Greek legends and mythology, although Norse myths are also easy to find in books.

The Norse gods Odin, Thor, and Loki are almost as familiar to some students as Zeus, Ares, and Hermes – three of the ancient Greek deities.

When myths are tied to religion, they’re called mythology. When they’re not, they’re fiction.

The myth has been described as a “story with a purpose” – a tale that tries to explain the way the world is, and is typically based on tradition. American tall tales and other folk tales are closely related to myths and legends.

Legends

Legends are the “superheroes” of literature: King Arthur and Robin Hood are two examples of legends, based on real people who lived in a different time and place. Johnny Appleseed is a good example of an American legend. So is John Brown. Although these people really lived, the stature they’ve been given in books is something no mortal person could ever live up to.

Legacy from the Past

All three of these types of literature have one thing in common: they’re all links to our past and they’re universal in nature. If a child in Europe reads a Native American folk tale, he or she will still be able to relate to it. That’s because the underlying themes between folk tales of all cultures are the same. All ancient cultures have creation tales, mythic heroes, and legends in their literature.

One of the best ways to introduce children to these unique story forms is through storytelling , an ancient art form that brings stories to life and helps children understand the world around them a little better.


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