Living Columns & Blogs

Folk tales teach kids that sometimes, yes it's true, life isn't fair

Long before there were books, children from all countries, races and languages have been pleading, "Tell me a story!" Fairy tales and folk tales were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. And when people migrated to new lands, these tales were adapted with local flavors and customs of the local culture.

Just as folklore from every aspect of life has withstood generation after generation -- foodways, customs of farming, handicrafts and folk art, tool making, birth, burial, weddings, and other rites of passage -- storytelling has endured the test of time. Folk tales grew out of something real; something important that once happened -- so important that they were considered worthy of remembrance and sharing with future generations so they would never be forgotten. While folk tales and fairy tales are not texts that are told verbatim, their core of truth still remains. They continue to evolve to suit the purposes of teaching about one's culture, and they survive because they teach morals and bring joy and laughter, wonder and magic, and because of their deep vitality.

We find unique differences in the cultures that help define a region or a people, such as Africans, the mountain people of Appalachia, Italians, Peruvians, or Native Americans. We may also find similarities in our beliefs and customs, and these commonalities and disparities teach children about multiculturalism and tolerance.

The simplicity and magic of the fairy tale has an appeal for all ages. The interplay of the visible and the unseen worlds captures the imagination. Who is to say where reality begins or ends? Children who haven't been jaded by the harsh realities of life are still very close to the magical. Their eyes behold the wonder of the life stretching before them and at every turn is something new to behold -- to be curious about, to dazzle. Thus, they are fascinated with animals, witches and fairies, and magicians, all either good or bad, and are thus introduced to concepts of good and evil.

Children rally for the underdog and identify with the peasant who gets the better of a man who considers himself shrewd and important. These stories reward acts of kindness, humility, courage, perseverance, hard work and not damning people because of a plain or unbecoming exterior. It's more fun for children to hear about princes and witches and sorcerers, and they will recognize their underlying truths because they are not preached at them. Tales come wrapped in enchantment, giving young minds a break from reality and transporting them to faraway lands with fantastical creatures.

Inherent in fairy tales is the transforming power of the imagination, that which feeds a child's love of make-believe. Infused among the sparkling images of magic and wonder are deep truths about human nature and human behavior. The kindhearted and humble overcome the wicked and the proud in the fairy tale world. By experiencing the anguish of the stories' heroes and heroines, we allow ourselves to rejoice in their triumphs, which allow us to bring hope and strength to our own everyday lives. While most tales contain suffering and cruelty, they also include magical help and happy endings. After all, we want them to end well so the natural justice of these tales satisfies our sense of what is right.

Children also learn through folk tales that life isn't always fair. Many folk characters pretend to be friendly, generous and ever so nice, but it's just an act. This teaches children not to be gullible, but to weigh each situation carefully. Punishment often awaits those dastardly characters who pretend to be good.

Most tales are humorously told, to the delight of children. Some common themes found in tales include:

  • The man who wanted too much.
  • Brains over brawn.
  • Two sisters -- one kind, the other unpleasant and selfish -- and what happens to them.
  • A pastor not fit for his duties.
  • Keeping one's word.
  • A young lad who saves a group of grown-ups from certain disaster.
  • Corruption among the powerful.
  • Honesty and one's conscience; honesty is the best policy.
  • Mortality is frequently in question, as is looking for the good in humanity.
  • Fight for what she or he believes is right or moral, even against all odds.
  • Modesty, intellect and caring for others
  • Wit and wisdom of the common peasant.
  • Man can accomplish great things when he has hope.
  • Arrogant, rich men get their just desserts.
  • Pulling together amidst scarcity and sharing what you have.
  • Today, we're likely to hear "Read me a story," rather than "Tell me a story," since folk tales and their many variants come in beautifully illustrated picture books. One of the delights of parenthood comes usually at bedtime when a parent reads, and a child listens to a much-loved story. They may want to hear a favorite story again and again, because there is a comfort and a joy in knowing what comes next. There is closeness between a grown-up and a child that seems to happen at no other time. It is one of the library's missions to foster this lovely communion between grown-ups and children, and to instill a love of books, reading and the time-tested art of storytelling. There's an e-card making the rounds on the Internet that says, "Reading to children, even before they can understand the words, teaches them to associate books with love and affection. Reading aloud to children helps develop and deepen their enjoyment of literature, promotes their psychological well-being, and expands their social awareness."

    Come visit one of the five Beaufort County library branches and bring a child. Introduce them to some of your favorite fairy tales or folk tales. Snuggle up and watch their eyes light up and grow with wonder upon their reading.

    Brendagael Beasley-Forrest is a catalogue librarian at the Beaufort library.