Folklore is a relatively new term (1846) used to describe a tradition practiced since the beginning of time. Oral tradition was a necessity in society before the use of written communication and, afterward, when very few people were educated in its use. Generations translated their customs, religious beliefs, traditions, behaviors, and more through storytelling. This not only ensured the continuity of these cultural precepts, but was used as a form of entertainment. Today, these tales from all over Europe have survived, and still thrive in the halls of education and in stories for children.
Though the Medieval Period is often overlapping in its timeline with the Renaissance Period, many of today’s medieval legends came out of both of these eras, and some began before the Christian Era.
Celtic Mythology grew from ancient lore, both Irish and Welsh, and was ordered into four cycles by Christian monks of the 12th century and later. These cycles, Mythological, Ulster, Fenian, and Kings “Historical,” each deal with their own subject matter and contain stories relevant to each.
The Book of Invasions told of the supernatural visitors during the Mythological period, and included people, demons, and divine entities: Partholonians, Nemedians, Fomhóire, Fir Bholg, and Tuatha Dé Denann, and the Milesians.
The Ulster Cycle grew from the ancient lore about heroes in the northern province of Ireland, such as the tale of Connor MacNessa, as told in the Sons of Usnach and Tain Bo Cuailgne.
The Finian Cycle tales deal with Finn mac Cumhal, the leader of an Ireland-roaming warband under the reign of King Cormac mac Art. The stories include The Coming of Finn, The Quest of the Sons of Turenn, The Salmon of Knowledge, The Giant’s Causeway, and many others.
While there are more than just legends and sagas from Ireland and Wales, the Welsh Mabinogian (fairy tales) resemble the stories in the Book of Invasions of Irish origin.
The Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table characters are also of Celtic nationality, and so there is some mention of them in that mythology. The Arthurian Legends are many, and some of the wars within the tales give credence to the thought that King Arthur may have actually existed around the 6th century A.D.
Camelot was the geographical setting for King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Gawaiin, Perceval, Lancelot, Galahad, and Tristan are as famous as the king himself. The Age of Chivalry they ushered in arrived after the Dark Ages and lent much romanticism to the stories. The French tales of Kid Charlemagne, known as the Song of Deeds, predated Arthurian legend, but have been incorporated into them in most literature as rival tales.
This English poem of old describes events which occurred in Sweden and Denmark and is dated somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D. It describes a history of epic adventures and is believed to have been handed down through oral tradition. The only manuscript is currently in the British Museum and has survived the destruction of the monasteries under King Henry VIII and the fire that destroyed the personal library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571 – 1631 A.D.).
This lengthy tale (over 1,300 lines long) depicts a Danish kingdom ravaged by a demon (Grendel) and a young Geatsman hero who comes and defeats the monster, unarmed, by ripping off its arm. Later, Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on the village and Beowulf must, once again, destroy the monster. He succeeds in his battle and rids the kingdom of its final threat. The hero returns to his own country and later becomes king of the Geats and reigns for 50 years before another villain, a dragon, rears its head in his native land and he slays it. However, he is slashed in the neck by it and dies shortly after.
This ancient piece of literature remains a topic of study in modern education.
The Tales of Mother Goose, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen, and many more, are stories that are mostly familiar to society today. A look into their history and other writers of children’s fantasy reminds us of the oral tradition once used by the ancients and continued through present day parents, as they recite the familiar stories of Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Rumplestiltskin, and other childhood tales.
Though most of these feel-good stories of moral value engage young children, a look at some of the original texts leaves parents questioning their telling as the story originated. The truth is that the original fairy tales were written for adults, and contained violence and unimaginable evils. Over the years, these stories have been altered to enable their telling to children, as they always had a moral truth in the underlying theme. Through their continued use in books, television, movies, and song, these stories of old have had their place in shaping moral thought in society. And as with all folktales, ancient lore, medieval legends, and fairy tales, they live on through the generations, in the art of oral tradition.