Many attempts have been made to define, classify, and describe the folktale. None of these attempts, no matter how erudite, did a completely satisfactory job; the folktale is just too inclusive for such division. The term covers almost any traditional narrative, either oral or literary. Its diverse forms include:
- Legends and traditions (sagen in German) -- a three-pronged term for a story told as a fact and covering:
- creation and/or origin;
- supernatural beings such as elves or ghosts;
- historic or pseudohistoric characters, such as Robin Hood or Till Eulenspiegel.
- Fairy tales (märchen in German) -- always fictional and occurring in a never never land, and thus different from legends and traditions; they include such stories as Cinderella and Snow White.
- Animal tales -- stories about animals who act and behave like humans, such as Puss in Boots, or the Uncle Remus cycle.
- Fables -- animal tales with a moral
- Myths -- a complicated term that may refer to some of the above, but more often to the exploits of gods, demigods, and heroes, or to a glorified past age.
These are just some of the forms, and many folktales combine elements from several and defy any classification. The themes are surprisingly universal.
The oral folktale is handed from one generation to the other. On one hand, it is remembered and repeated, preserving its ancient core. On the other hand, additions, changes, and embellishments are part of the storytelling tradition. The literary, or written folktale has been easier to transfer from one country to another, mostly in the forms of collections used for education, perhaps preserved by priests, and for entertainment, collected by writers and travelers. These written tales had also been altered by the various cultures that took them and made them their own.
The story tellers of old did not concern themselves with forms and distinctions. Their job was to tell a good tale. And simply because the stories were indeed so good, they lived on and stayed with us. Naturally, modern folklorists wish to study, classify, and analyze, and much can be learned from their valuable work. But the storytellers of today continue with the old tradition, and so the folktale remains an organic entity that feeds not only upon its past forms, but also upon its current culture. It is as alive today as it had always been, and can be simply retold, or shifted into a new story, or made into the script of a movie, or even a computer game!