BY REBECCA ROBINSON
A silver sliver of crescent moon hangs low in the sky like a charm. All around you is the deep silence of dark night, plush and enveloping as velvet. The only sound you can hear is the pop and crackle of the campfire and amongst it all, the rich silken sound of the storyteller’s voice.
There is something in this scene that resonates with us deep down in our bones. We can imagine it and feel it almost as if we are there. This is because we have all experienced moments in our life like this, moments where we huddle around the flame and draw closer to the weaver of words.
We have all experienced how it feels to become intimately connected with the telling of a tale, with the interweaving of story, surroundings, and social setting. Remember how it felt to be read to as a child, sitting cross-legged on the floor at school during story-time, or when you heard your first campfire tale? In moments like these, we become drawn into the sacred act of storytelling. Emotionally, we are right there, in the heart of the action. In moments like these, we become an active participant in the ancient magic of folktale.
Folktales are simply one strand in a fascinating tapestry of global folkloric history, which encompasses the nature of art in all its forms, from music, song and dance, charms, riddles and proverbs, to crafts, clothing, and visual art.
As a writer, poet and storyteller, folktales excite me, along with fairy tales, fables, legends, and myths – those most sacred origin stories of a people.
Interestingly, ‘fable’ comes from the Latin word, fabula, meaning ‘story’ and is where the word ‘fabulous’ comes from. One of the differentiating hallmarks of fairytales, though, is that they are often woven throughout with magic and fantastical creatures like dragons, wizards, and faeries – those nature elementals that transformed the Victorian era, going from fierce and frightening to delicate and dainty.
The word ‘folklore’, however, is a combination of two Old English words – folc, which means ‘ordinary people’ and lar, which means ‘learning or knowledge’. So, a folktale is, by definition, a story that shares the wisdom of ordinary folk – people like you and me.
Folktales fascinate me – those tales of ordinary folk leading ordinary lives (but whose literary companions may well be a fabulous talking animal), of the battle of good versus evil, and of the ecological landscape in which the tale is told.
Folktales very often connect us to the land beneath our feet, to the country in which we live, and to the fords, forests, and fields that best reflect ‘home’ – and the landscape is often depicted as vibrantly as any character, connecting us even more profoundly to the natural world in which we live.
Whenever a tale is told, a sacred relationship begins between the storyteller, listener, and scribe. But one of the notable things about folktales – those fireside stories that were handed down from one generation to the next – is that, for a very long time, many were not written down at all. Folktales were predominantly an oral tradition that powerfully wove into words the beliefs and customs of a community, weaving a personal and shared mythology and identity.
These stories were shaped by the individual teller who drew upon the version that they had heard, perhaps as a child sitting upon their grandmother’s knee. As such, each folktale is a collective creation and infused with a collaborative essence that naturally brings people together around the fireside. The true power of folktales is in their ability to unify, to turn strangers into friends.
When we recount the events of our lives, these day-to-day happenings become stories, and through our personal storytelling, we discover who we are and establish our own identity. We find the moral and make meaning from the maelstrom and mayhem of the every day, writing ourselves and creating our own mythologies. We all have that family member who tells tall tales of daring-do and wildest adventures, becoming larger than life through their personal legends.
In folktales, though, this is writ large. Deeper cultural truths are told, with wisdom infused into each imaginative tale, often crafted from those ordinary things we might encounter every day. Folklore often communicates in a lush tapestry of textures that allow us to take from it what we need.
Folktales have within them a wildly transformative power, awakening archetypes that live within us as part of the collective unconscious – and the telling of these tales is what brings us together, creating a conversation between past and present, between ancient and modern storytellers and folklorists from all corners of the earth.
Folktales inspire each of us to ask: who am I, what matters to me most, and what legacy do I wish to leave behind?