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Märchen

Comments extracted, condensed & distilled from
The Folktale by Stith Thompson, UC Press

The folktale (is) an important art, vital to most of the race and underlying all literary narrative forms.

The limitations of human life and the similarity of its basic situations necessarily produce tales everywhere which are much alike in all importnt structural respects. They have as definite form as the pot, the hoe, or the bow and arrow.

Perhaps the most frequent of all concepts to be met when one studies the folktale on a world-wide basis is that wich the Germans call Märchen. We have nothing in English that is quite satisfactory, though the term is usually translated by "fairy tale" or "household tale." The French use conte populaire. Fairy tale seems to imply the presence of fairies; but the great majority of such tales have no fairies. Household tale and conte populaire are so general that they might be applied to almost any kind of story. The German Märchen is better, and is fairly well agreed on.

A Märchen is a tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite characters and is filled with the marvelous. In this never-never land humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms, and marry princesses.

  • Other kinds of folktale include
    • the novella, e.g. Sindbad the Sailor
    • local legends, e.g. the Pied Piper of Hamelin, haunted houses, lovers' leaps
    • explanatory or pourquois stories
    • animal tales
    • myths
    • fables
    • jests
    • saints legends
  • These forms, Thompson emphasises, are not rigid, but "blend into each other with amazing facilty."

The oral story need not always have been oral. But when it once habituatates itself to being passed on by word of mouth it undergoes the same treatment as all other tales at the command of the raconteur. It becomes something to tell to an audience, or at least to a listener, not something to read. Its effects are no longer produced indirectly by association with words written or printed ona page, but directly through facial expression and gesture and repetition and recurrent patterns that generations have tested and found effective.