Folktales are a type of narrative, which are very popular within an eclectic number of cultures. During a course I took in Lethbridge we focused on early modern France and I chose to conduct research focused on the popularity of folktales amongst the peasantry at this time.
As I discovered researching folktales provide an understanding of the people who tell them. By focusing on the main themes and ideas within the tales a sense of society develops. Understanding folktales and folklore in general can actually be extremely difficult, though when we tell fairytales today the underlying meaning is often never realized or thought about.
There are many obstacles to overcome in the analysis of folktales as they can be interpreted in a variety of ways; no one can simply say this is exactly what the people telling them actually meant. People, however, will always look to them to see what life might have been like. Ultimately they do tell us about the realities of the society that they were made popular within.
There are issues with using folktales to understand the mentalities of people; however, one is able to pick out recurrent themes, which do parallel what society would have been like. This includes a focus on food and people getting what they deserved in the sense that a trickster was often the protagonist unless tricking someone who did not deserve that treatment. Folktales, therefore, do successfully provide a glimpse into the realities, values, and wishes of those who participated in telling them.
France in particular has many folktales, which help explain certain attitudes and beliefs of the peasantry within the early modern period. Folktales were a way for people to express themselves as well as relay what they thought about their place in the world. For this reason many cultures will actually have similar themes found within folktales, though the content may be different. Therefore, folktales were constructed with purpose and served specific functions.
Folktales were meant to be a form of entertainment as well as a way for society to teach lessons of life to their younger members, such as stressing the importance of wits. As forms of entertainment they were told at a fireside in early modern France, called a veillée. The veillée was a gathering held by peasant families a couple times a week or more. People would assemble to warm themselves at the fire and engage socially with others, which is where they would participate in the telling of folktales.
These were everyday people who attended these firesides, and although some tales have been toned down for the elite in these societies, the majority who participated in folktales within early modern France were commoners.
The peasants were not literate and could not write about themselves, while the people who did write about life were concerned with other aspects of society such as dueling, the court, and the complexities of religion in early modern France.
The peasantry, however, were the ones perpetuating popular culture including folktales, which means that studying folktales allows a glimpse into their world, even though they were not recorded until years later when they began to be gathered, because the peasants were responsible for the origins of folklore.
Though participating in folktales was not denied to anyone, there became designated people to tell the tales. As with any form of storytelling, some people succeed in relaying stories in better ways than others. At the veillée it meant the story tellers would be able to read the audience and make changes to the tale depending on the mood of the group, this is different than the fixed written tales that have carried over into today.
Folktales tended to have elements of reality and fantasy within them and have evolved into the fairytales that we now know today, though many of our popular fairytales come from the Grimm brothers who were focused on recording German folktales one of the most popular French tales is Cinderella.
In the version I read of Cinderella, for the purpose of my class, there is a focus on food. During the course of the story Cinderella was given a cow, which she is able to produce cheese with, and later an apple tree that only she can reach by her godmother. Though working hard provides Cinderella with good fortune, as delivered by her godmother, there are continual tasks which allude to the fact that work is never finished.
In the end Cinderella finds herself marrying a prince. This would have been far from commonplace for someone of her standing, the act of movement in regards to social status would have been unheard of; but, it was a possibility within the folktale because the use of magic could mean an outlandish reward was possible. It was a happy ending, one that meant Cinderella's hard work had paid off and she was rewarded for never giving up despite obstacles placed on her by her step family, which was also typical of the time.