I was teaching one afternoon several months ago when a fellow teacher looked over at me and said, “You know, I know there’s a difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale, but I don’t know what it is. Do you?” After a moment of thought, I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know, either. I’ve grown up with fables, fairy tales, folklore, and mythology my entire life, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between them on the spot.
What’s really embarrassing is that these stories are our history. Teachers’ history, I mean. Storytelling is one of the original teaching methods, and we’re now reconnecting with the power and strength of the story to make topics sticky enough to be learned. Those who wove these stories are really our masters now, those we should be looking to for guidance on how to re-incorporate the story into our teaching…and two teachers sat there realizing they couldn’t tell you which type of story was which.
It turns out sorting them out is relatively simple. The fable is a story, usually featuring animals, that teaches a moral or a life lesson. The folk tale, folklore in the collective, is a story that orally conveys the customs, assumed history, and beliefs of a culture. The fairy tale is a lesson wrapped up in a fantastical story. As they involve animals and humans, they are considered a subset of fables. Fairy tales were told shared orally as entertainment and education until someone finally started recording each story (and its many variations). The myth is a story about a god or a legendary hero that searches to explain the scientific observations of the originating culture. Some cultures have also woven bits of their history, exaggerated a bit, into their mythology as a means of asserting their dominance in an area or to assert cultural pride.
While these stories can’t be easily identified with a core subject, they’ve lasted throughout time, often teaching the modern people who hear them today.