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Oral Origins of British Folktales

Once folktales have been written down and transmitted in written form through several generations, it can be more difficult to ascertain the oral origins of those stories. However, there are certain formulas which may indicate a probable beginning as an oral narrative and certain methods of telling a story that are more common to oral presentation. An examination of a set of British folktales will provide narratives that may show evidence of earlier oral form.

"Jack and the Beanstalk" is a fairy tale that shows evidence of having developed as an oral narrative. The story opens with a common oral formula: "There was once upon a time a poor widow who had only one son named Jack. . ." The story ends with another common formula: ". . . they lived happy ever after." The same formula can be found elsewhere. "Jack the Giant-Killer" ends with the statement, ". . . he and his lady lived in great joy and happiness all the rest of their days." "Tom Tit Tot" begins with "Once upon a time," as do "Lazy Jack," "Teeny Tiny," and "Molly Whuppie." Many of these stories begin with a sense of a beginning in time--a beginning at a precise moment when the individuals of this story lived and the events occurred, and they end with a finality that includes the idea that the people involved lived on and were happy, or never again encountered their nemesis, or managed after this to live a life that pleases them.

Another element that recurs in these stories is some form of sing-song poetry or spoken rhyme, a formula for warding off evil or for identifying evil itself. In "Jack and the Beanstalk" the giant states,

I'll grind his bones to make my bread!

The precise same words appear in "Jack the Giant-Killer," as does the phrase at the beginning of each story to the effect that the farmer (or the farmer's wife) "had only one son called Jack." A variation appears in "Mol


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