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updated: 9/12/2012 2:34 PM

The story behind folk tales, fairy tales, legends, myths and fables

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  • A Paul Bunyan figure stands over Lambs Farm near Libertyville.

      A Paul Bunyan figure stands over Lambs Farm near Libertyville.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer


• Students in Elise Diaz's fifth grade class at O'Plaine School in Gurnee asked, "What is the difference between a folk tale, fairy tale, legend, myth, and a fable?"

Folk tales, like the story of Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox Babe, use colorful characters to describe daring feats from long ago.

Those stories, along with fairy tales, legends, myths and fables, are a framework writers have used to comment on the world around us, the troubles humans face throughout life, and to explain natural phenomena like the change of the seasons.

Some of these stories are written, while others are retold through oral tradition. Some of the authors are famous, like Aesop, a Greek slave who wrote more than 350 fables. Other age-old sagas have passed through so many generations that the original author has been forgotten.

"Myths often have superhuman or divine characters. Although every culture has its own myths, some of the best known come from ancient Greece," said Nathan Breen, professor of English at the College of Lake County.

Legends tell the stories of human heroes, Breen explains. Folk tales are a type of legend and usually are not in written form.

Fairy tales feature good and evil fairies.

"One of the most famous fairy tales is 'Sleeping Beauty,' written by Charles Perrault over 300 years ago," Breen said. "In Perrault's version there are eight fairies -- seven good and one bad -- whereas the Walt Disney movie simplifies this to three good fairies and one bad."

Fables are short stories that often use talking animals to narrate the story.

"In most cases, the lesson is given as the last line of the story," Breen said.

All of these types of stories are popular literature.

"Myths, fairy tales, folk tales, legends and fables all fall into the category of popular literature, literature for and usually by the people rather than the elite classes," Breen said.

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