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Text type: Traditional tales guidance

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Derivation and range

The genre we identify broadly as traditional stories includes a range of narrative types that originated in the oral storytelling traditions of many cultures, including myths, legends, fairy tales and fables. Passed on from place to place by storytellers and handed down orally from generation to generation before the invention of printing, they relied on predictable story structures and repetitive, patterned language to make them memorable for the teller and listener. Many can be described as folk tales because they originally presented, explained and justified the beliefs of the ordinary folk and were passed on by them.

They served important social purposes and helped to forge cultural links between isolated communities before the days of instant communication and fast travel.

  • Traditional stories were a way of sharing kinship, wisdom and experience.
  • They passed on vital knowledge about everyday life (travelling through the forest alone can be dangerous) so many were originally told for children’s benefit.
  • They also depicted and exemplified spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions, giving people simple reasons to behave in certain ways. In the days before printed words, these stories (which included prose and verse narratives such as sagas, poems and songs) were at the heart of an individual’s cultural inheritance.
  • The stories influenced behaviour and united people in their culture so it was important that content remained constant, another reason for the patterning of structure and language that we associate with them. Successive storytellers might change the details but the core message or moral did not change over time or distance when the stories travelled further and merged with the traditional narratives of other cultures.

It was important that the audience listened carefully and remembered the content of these tales, so today they still measure up very well to the criteria we might choose for evaluating a story’s quality. They are often humorous, exciting or intriguing. The features that help us to categorise traditional stories tend to be the same ingredients that make them entertaining, memorable and enduring.

Traditional stories have continued to develop and change through publication as printed and moving image texts, including live-action films, animations, multimodal texts and games. Modern adaptations sometimes increase the complexity of plot, merge stories from different sources or update the characters and settings. Even so, many new publications for children, including film and ICT texts such as interactive stories, use the same basic structural and linguistic elements as the traditional stories that were their precursors.

Most traditional tales use the same broad range of conventions and there is a lot of overlap between different types of traditional tales but myths, legends, fairy tales and fables can be identified as sub-classes. They each tend to have a typical purpose and conform to particular structural and language features.

The ways that different kinds of traditional stories use language for their own purpose and audience (vocabulary, patterns and structures, themes and styles) are closely linked with their essential qualities as texts. This makes them useful starting points for children to explore and compare the different effects of each and to try these out in their own writing. The ‘conventions’ of traditional tales should not be viewed or used as rigid templates because their strengths as narratives derive as much from their diversity as any similarities between them.