I translate less-known Bengali Folktales and German Märchen. I also face questions from readers about how we differentiate between Folktales, Fairy tale, Märchen, Myth, Legends, Fables etc. Are all these same with different names? We are sure about the existence of Gorakhnath or the Siddha poets — shall we include their stories in folktale or in legends? If Märchen are fairy tales why the stories of fox and fowl are included in Märchen? If Myth exclusively deals with gods, then why the story of the Swabian and the God is included in Märchen and not in Myth?
Categorizing stories based on definition is difficult; more difficult because definitions too change with time. Studies of Märchen and Volkskunde began in 18th -19th century in Germany while Folklore studies gained momentum at global level in post 1950s. The definition Germans used in 19th century has become obsolete in 21st century, but when we study literary works collected in 19th century, we have to search for stories following 19th century definitions. We also have to remember that numerous stories have been developed in every human community everywhere in the world, but the subject called folklore studies is developed only in 20th century. Akbar loved to listen to stories and Singhasan Battisi was translated in Persian Nama — Khirad Afza (Wisdom-enhancing book) by Bada’uni, but none recognized Singhasan Battisi or its original Sanskrit Siṃhāsana Dvātriṃśikā as folktale or myth or legend before British government came with their administrative and ethnographic research programs.
Same happened with German folk stories. Mostly collected during 18th-19th century by Grimm brothers, Ludwig Bechstein, Josef Haltrich and many others, all stories were first defined as Märchen. Grimms had separated their collected traditional tales into two broad categories — Märchen and Sagen. Märchen were fictional stories and included tales of magic (fairytales), comic, religious, nursery rhymes and animal tales, while Sagen were legends or narration of incidents believed to have actually happened.
Hence when we translate or adapt Märchen, those will include all of fictional stories, fantasy, tales of magic (fairytales), comic, religious, nursery and fables. After folklore studies gained momentum in 1950s, new definitions of folktales, folklore, fantasy, fiction, fairy tales, fables, legends and myth were created to distinguish each field so that academic study of traditional culture follow better scientific method.
Märchen are illustrative prosaic narration without idea of space and time. This ignores reality and has focus on protagonist — usually hero and heroine. Confrontation between good and evil as well as presence of natural and supernatural forces are must. Good and evil are clearly distinguished here, mostly using good and bad characterization. The good wins in the end while wish-fulfillment of hopeful ending distinguishes Märchen from other kinds of folktales so that we can equate this with fairytales. According to content Märchen or German fairytales can be divided into four categories.
Zaubermärchen is the “real” fairytales which narrates the miraculous ways that bring fortune for the hero and heroin. The miracle is obvious here, as it is found in the Frog-prince in the Grimm’s fairy tales. Tale of enchantment and liberation from sorcery is the theme of most of these types of Märchen.
Novellenmärchen describe “unheard occurrences” like the literary novel does. Common or natural incidents appear as miracle helping to reach the happy ending. The Clever daughter of the peasant is god example of this.
Schwankmärchen is droll fairytale where hero wins fortune not by magical power or supernatural help but using own wit, smartness and courage. Applying own skill he defeats the sorcery that is used against him. Obvious that this too shows happy ending.
Tiermärchen are those where we see animals as characters, hero and heroine, but unlike fable these do not end with a moral. Only the story of the triumph of good animals against the bad or odd is ensured. “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten” is good example.
Again, according to origin, Märchen can be of two types. Volksmärchen or Folktale, and Kunstmärchen or fairy tale.
We all know European folktale is much-discussed segment of world literature. These are orally transmitted stories created, developed and popularized by unknown people, i.e. people of the land. The Swiss Literary scholar Max Lüthi distinguishes folktale on the basis of one-dimensionality, areal aspects of the characters and abstract style. The hero here is simultaneously isolated and connected. The theme comes from reality but the reality is twisted and often sublime. The characters including hero and heroine lose individual value, but gain transparency.
In contrast to folktales, Kunstmärchen are written by individual author like any fictional story. The author’s work is not evaluated on the basis of some literary rating, but his style and content becomes matter of interest. Fairy tales created by Hans Christian Anderson or Wilhelm Hauff belong to this category.
Myth is pictorial and pre-scientific explanation of imagined reality. In other words this is basic human interpretation of reality which they believe to be true. Myth is sacred narrative of imaginary world of gods and demi-gods and demons — their activities and characterizations. E.g. The mythical stories of Krishna.
Legends are religiously inspiring, popular narrative of the worldly life of a sacred person or extraordinary individual and miracles in his life. Differentiating legends from Märchen sometimes becomes difficult , especially when these have Christian content, include dogmatic statements and developed in mixed format. Eg. The legend of the Saint Valentine.
Collective term of mostly orally transmitted old or new short stories. These are stories of the terrifying, which speak of human fear. These show the wide spectrum of human engagement with himself and everything around him — by it nature or technology. These are also about the conflict between human’s historical reality and contemporary reality. The events or legends mentioned in these stories are believed to be true by local residents or those who refer to the stories. We all know of the large collection of Sagen\tales by Grimm brothers.
Short, witty or satirical tales where animal, instead of humans are the characters. They talk and behave as if to mimic humans, revealing the good and evil of human nature, establishing moral wisdom humans need to live an ideal social life. The stories are wrapped with a moral or political statement. E.g. Aesop’s fables
Hope this will clarify.