Folk tales are the stories shared by a culture, a people group, a tribe, a folk. They are traditional stories composed and passed on by ordinary people. In this genre are cautionary tales, told to communicate a warning: bedtime stories told to frighten children to keep them away from harm. There are humorous stories, told for shared laughter and camaraderie. Some are “tall tales,” stories of larger than life figures who accomplished larger than life deeds. Animal tales, where animals act like people, are in this genre. These comprise a segment of the oral traditions of a people group, and were seldom recorded in print before the last 400 years or so. The Brothers Grimm were famous collectors of such stories. Although their stories are commonly published in English as “fairy tales,” the brothers were folklorists, seeking to preserve the oral traditions of a people, in this case, Germany. Anansi stories from Africa, Paul Bunyan stories from the North Woods and Brer Rabbit from the Deep South of the United States, Coyote trickster tales among Native Americans – these are all examples of folk tales, records of an oral tradition. There are many folk tale versions available today. See this interesting article about the Grimm brothers:
Fairy tales are often considered to be equivalent to folk tales. Most indeed are based on oral lore, making them another subset of the genre of folk tales. Yet they differ in that fairy tales are wonder tales and have an element of the fantastic, the marvelous, the inexplicable. Do they always have fairies and magic and happily ever after? No, not always. (Have you read The Little Match Girl?) Along with the Grimm brothers, who recorded folk tales of many kinds, Hans Christian Anderson (from Denmark) and Charles Perrault (from France) are famous composers of fairy tales. Their works were written so long ago, the commonly known ones are in the public domain. There are many modern fairy tales writers as well.
Disney versions are sanitized
The pre-Disney folk tales and fairy tales are not always pretty and not always nice and there is seldom a “happily ever after,” not without a steep price. In the original Little Mermaid, the rescued prince marries another woman and the heartbroken mermaid forfeits her life. This is in stark contrast to the Disney version. In most Disney movies, we find a curious mixture. On the one hand, the stories are usually sanitized versions of the original, always edited to include a virtuous hero (often a prince in disguise) and a beautiful heroine (usually a princess) and a happily ever after. On the other hand, the villains are so graphic, so exaggerated, so much larger than life – especially on the big screen. While I enjoy watching Disney films with teenagers, I think they are way too scary for the small children they were marketed toward. I would rather have my 8-year-old try to pick up the Brothers Grimm to read, with its not-happy endings, than have Disney’s graphic villains forever imprinted upon her brain. At least when a child reads it herself, it is her own mind that supplies the images for the scary parts of a story.
Fairy tales aren’t always suitable for children and I do recommend parents be aware of content of the stories you provide. Although I may choose to avoid some (like Donkeyskin), I don’t rule them out just because of the magic or fantasy elements. I might even call magic one of the enduring pillars of childhood. A better word to use could be “wonder.” Everything to a child’s eyes is new and surprising, everything is magical. I have no objection to stories of magic and fanciful creatures and don’t even feel the need to emphasize that this is “not real.” Children will have to encounter reality soon enough; excellent stories make it easier to do so when they must. This is one way the non-sanitized stories are better – I would rather children read about hard things before they experience them. If happily ever after doesn’t come without work and effort, they can have hope that the hard things they experience can be worked through as well.