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In a recent craft discussion at the GLVWG monthly meeting, professional storyteller Charles Kiernan discussed the evolvement of literary storytelling.  Before the invention of the Guttenberg Press, or handwritten accounts by trained scribes, legends, folktales, and mythology were passed down through generations by word of mouth. The following are notes from Charles’ seminar.


 Mythology, legends, folktales, and fairytales can be lumped together as pre-literary.

Mythology: Myths are the creation stories of a given culture, replete with characters representing fundamental aspects of that culture. And yet those characters have personality traits that appear to be individual. These gods and goddesses are both universal and unique. We, as individuals, tend to identify with one or another of these divine beings. Each of us has our primary myth.

Legend: This form of storytelling deals with maybe/historical heroes and heroines, again associated with a given culture. King Arthur, Sigurd, and Roland come to mind. They touch on and converse with mythological figures. The distinction between the two is not always clear.

Folktales: More often stories of the common people, although not always. Legendary figures like the indomitable Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill can appear as Fin McCool, a downgraded, buffoonish giant in the folktale.

Fairy Tales: These are a sub-category of folktales. The distinction between the two is that fairy tales have the element of magic. It hurts me to say “sub-category.” Fairy tales are superior to folktales and perhaps the origins of myth.

There is the argument among folklorist about whether fairy tales come out of myths, or if myths come out of fairy tales. I suggest the answer is “yes.”

 Literary Fairy Tales: These are, of course, fairy tales written down with an eye on the literate reader, one use to literary conventions. His name is Hans Christian Andersen.

Ok, maybe that is not fair, but he does exemplify the literary treatment of fairy tales.

Fairy tales have their own unique structure.

  • Few characters have names. Typically, they are identified by their position—king, queen, youngest son, old soldier.
  • Descriptions are sparse. We are told little of how things look.
  • Tales are in the third person objective. We never get inside the character’s heads.
  • Tales are not dialog driven. Dialog is used to highlight parts of the story.
  • There is more telling than showing. Showing is a wordier process than telling. Telling is succinct, as are the tales.

Moving beyond structure:

  • There is a propensity for the number three. For example, in The Goose Girl we see three drops of blood. Later on in the story there are three stream to cross, and three passages through the dark gateway.
  • Royalty has magical powers. This is always assumed, perhaps a reflection of the times.
  • Animals can talk, and not simply animals talk to animals, but also animals talking to humans.
  • Evil must be punished and good rewarded. Typically, evil is destroyed in rather graphic terms.
  • Story usually ends happily. You can have a fairy tale without fairies, but happy endings are the rule. However, there are cautionary tales that do not end so happily.

Shared traits between oral and literary storytelling.

Both (usually or frequently) have:

  • A beginning, middle, and end.
  • Characters, particularly protagonists and antagonists.
  • Plot.
  • Crossing the threshold.
  • Helpers.
  • Conflict.
  • Rising action.

(Note: The above list is less applicable to literary fiction than it is genre fiction. Also, I did not include romantic relationships as a common trait, although there are plenty of fairy tales ending in marriage.)

Limitations of oral storytelling.

Fairy tales:

  • Are presented in the third person; never first or second person.
  • Lack character development. (Most characters do not even have proper names.)
  • Do not get into the heads of its characters. (It is a hallmark of a literary fairy tale when the story does so. As soon as the tale describes what a character is thinking, you know this is not a traditional fairy or folktale.)
  • Are highly limited in physical descriptions. (Princesses are typically “beautiful.”)
  • Are rarely tragic or melodramatic. (There are cautionary tales that end badly, but do not rise to the level of Greek tragedy.)


My suspicion is that fairy tales are based on the dream structure of pre-literate, oral storytellers.

According to Marie-Luise von Franz (Jungian psychologist) in her Interpretation of Fairy Tales, “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”


Old Woman in the Wood, Brothers Grimm, Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales)

The Turnip Princess. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, Erika Eichenseer (Editor)

The final element I want to mention, that is common to oral and literary storytelling, is the narrator. In the case of oral storytelling we are dealing with real live narrators, who being human are ephemeral. The literary narrators—including those of fairy tales written down—for being virtual, are more likely eternal.

What this means is, for your narrator in your story, who may or may not be you, there is the DNA of long ago storytellers floating beneath your tale.


Samual Clemmens

The GLVWG resident expert on the art of fairytales and the telling of tall tales, Charles Kiernan is the coordinator for the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, the Pennsylvania State Representative for the National Youth Storytelling Showcase, the Pennsylvania State Liaison for the National Storytelling Network, and recipient of the 2008 Individual Artist Award from the Bethlehem Fine Arts Commission.

He loves to tell the Brothers Grimm and other fairy tales. But, be warned, he does tell them in their original spirit, under the belief that the “grimness” of Grimm serves a purpose, and should not be removed.

He performs at theatres, listening clubs, schools, libraries, and arts festivals.

You can contact Charles at cjkiernan01@gmail.com, and follow him at his website, Chaztales.Wordpress.com, Lostdollar.net, and his Facebook Page.