Characteristics of Traditional Literature

Traditional literature is a genre of stories passed down through many generations by word of mouth. At some point, these stories take a fixed form in one or more kinds of storytelling, such as with fairy tales, whose details have been altered to make them more appropriate for children. Traditional literature includes a variety of story types such as legends, fables, riddles, myths, epics and tall tales.

The Origins of Traditional Literature

The origin of these stories is speculative, since information about their authors or original tellers is unknown. Often, a traditional story is not the work of a single individual but of a collective, which modifies the story until it begins to settle into a form. Usually, the telling begins for a purpose such as to communicate beliefs, explain natural phenomena or to hand down values that are important to a culture. Sometimes, stories begin in pre-literate societies in which writing was not possible. Stories can also begin in cultures where writing is not common or was not available as a form of entertainment.

Themes in Traditional Literature

Oral stories have simple themes such as good vs. evil, weak vs. strong or beauty vs. ugliness. The polarization of opposites serves to highlight each theme and draw attention to the theme’s qualities. These opposite characteristics often pit one against each other in a battle for power, respect or love. The theme then guides the plot elements of the story.

Characters in Traditional Literature

Just as with themes, characters are simple. The heroes of traditional literature are not nuanced characters with complicated personalities. The characters are one-dimensional, polar opposites who represent good or evil, so the choices between them are clear to children and grown-ups. With simple opposites, listeners and readers can easily relate to a character in the hope that children will emulate a good character.

Plots in Traditional Literature

Because these stories are passed along by word of mouth, the plot elements are simple but unchanging. In all fairy tales, good and beauty always win out over evil and ugliness. As in the case of Snow White, the evil stepmother is beautiful on the outside but the story tells readers she is ugly on the inside. Snow White is beautiful inside and out, so she is the victor in this story.

Settings in Traditional Literature

Traditional literature is set in an ambiguous or indeterminate time and place. Because the themes and characters of these stories should have universal appeal, the setting is left vague in order to make it easier to for people to relate. Using a specific setting could potentially alienate a reader.

Some Examples

The canon of traditional literature is full of interesting and instructional examples. Greek and Roman myths explain the natural world. Sun and moon gods drove their orbs across the sky. Tall tales and legends such as Johnny Appleseed explained the prevalence of apples in certain areas and taught people about the strength and determination that characterized the settlers of the early United States. Fables such as those of Hans Christian Andersen teach good behavior and moral decision-making.

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