I know what they say—that folktales are told to children as a way to transmit and preserve cultural knowledge and norms. Grandparents tell simple stories in the nursery to keep children quiet and entertained, while also keeping alive tradition and custom. But I also know many of those stories scare the pants off us. And I know this too—they are not simple because they’re for children. Children understand plenty. They are simple because that makes them easy to remember, and because they convey straightforward truths that don’t need dressing up.
We call fairy tales simple because they rely on stock characters (often nameless heroes, villains, millers, and youngest daughters…) and they are mostly plot, with little extra description, rationalization, or back story. But just because they are plot-heavy, and modern novels tend to be character-heavy, developing round, rich, psychologically real characters, does not mean plot-heavy works are lesser. What they are is speedy.
Folktales communicate their lesson and their drama in as little time as possible; sometimes it seems even as few words as possible. Stock characters inhabit familiar scenes—a challenge, some assistance, punishment, or reward. Tales leave out anything that doesn’t contribute to the narrative action. A mother has daughters with one, two, and three eyes, respectively, and Little One-Eye and Little Three-Eyes bully their sister mercilessly, but no one asks how on earth it came to happen that a child was born with three eyes.
Think of Little Red Riding Hood. We know precious little of her. She is loved by the women in her life—her mother and grandmother—and she has a red cloak that suits her. Newsflash: the color red suits LOTS of people—whole ethnicities, really—huge swaths of the world. We don’t know clearly how old she is, what her favorite food is, even if she’s been asked to run questionable errands for her mom before now. We know what we need to know: she’s an innocent, young girl. Grandma is old and (at the moment) feeble, and mom is confident in Red’s ability to find Grandma’s house or too busy to go herself. The wolf is ravenous. And scheming. Those two traits define him. If he weren’t scheming, he’d eat her on the road. If he weren’t ravenous, he couldn’t eat two humans in two gulps.
Given these skeletal characters, we are invited to project our own ideas on to the characters. Red can be any little girl—just like your little sister or your neighbor—and we begin the process of identifying with the narrative, concretizing the words in to images in our heads, building up a character we know, who will be unique from anyone else’s. The mother is any harried but well-meaning parent. She puts Red on the path and then lets her go. We know kids who are let loose too young, who don’t have enough guidance or tools to deal with the world, and we know what happened to them! So keeping the characters spare encourages us to build them up in our heads, to clothe them in what we know of the world, and to make the tale seem personal. It speaks directly to us.
With so little time spent developing character, the bulk of a folktale consists of plot. What does Red do? What does the wolf do? The actions define the tale. Is this a questing tale or a rags to riches tale? A coming of age, or a tale of retribution? The plots are often simple and focused on one problem or stage in life, because that’s the way we experience things. Human life is formulaic: we are born, we grow, we thrive as adults (often by means of choosing an occupation and starting a family), we age, and we die. But we deal with one phase at a time, as folktales allow us to.
Folktales give us familiar crises and supply solutions. They help us learn to think our way out of problems, and depict others successfully escaping the jaws of the Threat Of The Day. That is why they are loved by adults as well as children, and that’s why they mean different things to us at different ages. They’re therapy. (Second Newsflash: literature is therapy.) But folk literature uses a unique method of stock characters and scenes that allow us to project people we know in to the story, so it becomes more individualized, and hence, more meaningful. The gaps we fill as we read or listen render the tale much more complex than it looks, because it is unique to each reader.
That is the magic and the allure of folktales, and why even in an age of digital effects and science fiction, we can’t get away from them. We just keep retelling them. The television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time first aired the same season, for goodness’ sake. We’re not just not done with fairy tales; we seem not to be able to get enough of them. The wolf is as terrifying today as ever he was, and we all have to face him. May we all see him for what he is, as Red does, when we do.