What Are Traditional Stories?

Daniel Liden

Traditional stories are narratives that have some significance in the cultural history of a given group of people. The term "traditional stories" is also sometimes used to refer to narratives that adhere to traditional rules and practices of storytelling, regardless of whether the story has cultural significance. Traditional stories are often important parts of a given culture's literary canon. There are many different types of such stories, including myths, fables, epics, fairy tales, and other narrative forms. In many cases, such stories exist in many different forms by a variety of writers; the origin of the story may not even be known with certainty.

Fairy tales, like Little Red Riding Hood, are considered traditional stories.
Fairy tales, like Little Red Riding Hood, are considered traditional stories.

In most cases, traditional stories are quite old. They are significant to the cultural history of a certain group of people, and may even provide alternate histories of the origins and actions of a given group's ancestors. Such stories were, in some cases, originally told orally and were only recorded on paper some time after their original telling. The actual origin of some traditional stories is not known with any confidence.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Faust" is a traditional story that appears in many different forms throughout history.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Faust" is a traditional story that appears in many different forms throughout history.

Many traditional stories, particularly those that have major cultural significance, exist in many versions by several different authors. The Faust story, which tells of a brilliant scholar dissatisfied with his life who makes a deal with the devil, for instance, is a traditional German story that has been told in many different forms throughout history. Literary scholars and historians cannot say with certainty when the story originated.

Themes and motifs from traditional stories are easily recognizable and are often re-used by writers, artist, musicians, and scholars. The Faustian deal with the devil, for instance, appears in many different artistic works. This is particularly true in the German artistic tradition in which the Faust story originated. Borrowing one or more themes or motifs from a traditional story tends to call others to mind. Many writers count on this fact when borrowing from a traditional story and intend for the work to have greater weight and significance because of the literary or artistic tradition behind it.

Scholars may also use the term "traditional stories" to refer to stories that follow conventional narrative practices. Such stories tend to follow normal grammar rules, follow traditional and chronological story arcs, and focus primarily on details relevant to the narrative itself. Nontraditional stories, by contrast, may follow unusual and non-chronological story arcs and may focus on details that are largely irrelevant to the progression of the narrative itself. In such works, the writer is often attempting to make a point and create an aesthetic affect that is not directly related to the narrative events.

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Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - It's interesting how many stories we think of as traditional might not have actually been all that traditional. I always thought of The Little Mermaid as being a traditional story and perhaps it does qualify, but it was written by an author rather than passed down to us from our ancestors. The same with other stories like Pinocchio, and even Aesop's fables (obviously, I guess).

It's kind of weird to think that these stories were the product of someone sitting down to write them, rather than tales that were told around the campfire back in tribal days.


@croydon - The other thing most people don't realize was that they weren't really collecting those stories for children. They were doing it in order to legitimize Germany as a single country, when it was previously just a bunch of city states and regions bound together by politics.

They hoped to create a foundation of traditional stories that would allow German people to have something to be proud of and something in common.


I took a course on fantasy stories recently and one of the collections we read was the Grimm brothers work. I was actually really surprised to find out that what I thought I knew about them was wrong. Everyone knows the story of how they traveled around picking up fairy tales from everywhere and collecting them for this book.

But in fact, that was a story they made up for the most part and most of their tales came from a single source, who was a lady in their town. And scholars think that she actually got most of them from a particular book and just changed the details.

Which puts a bit of a spin on things, really. It kind of messes with the magic a little bit.

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