The most simple definition of a folk tale is a narrative originating in an oral format and passed down from one generation to another.
We don't know who was the original creator of a specific folktale. Indeed, the tale itself is in the public domain. Anyone can publish one's own version of "Cinderella," but you can't copy a published retelling and change a few words.
(A wonderful book written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott about my favorite African trickster.)
Every culture has a treasure chest of folktales that mostly began their life in print in the 19th Century.
Some famous collectors were the Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang, and Joseph Jacobs.
Folktales reflect the ethics of their culture and teach universal truths and values.
If there existed a list of Folktale Land commandments, the first few would be: (1) Be kind to others less fortunate than yourself; (2) Never be greedy; (3) Virtue is rewarded. All these traits can insure a character a happily ever after ending.
No one ever said folktales reflect real life. They reflect a better life. A world in which happiness can be found with a little luck, good character, and hard work.
Folktales were never meant to be a genre in children's literature. Folktales belong
to everyone. J.R.R. Tolkien* believes that folktales, especially fairytales, a sub-genre, can bring joy, escape, and solace to people as they grow up and grow old.
Tricksters, fools, simple-minded sons, witches, giants, ogres, trolls, dragons, enchanted princes, princesses, queens and kings populate this world. And this world can be Asian, African, European, Russian, American, Mid-Eastern, etc., etc.,etc.
Here's the scoop: I was a perfectly normal English Literature college major before I became a children's librarian and began to read and tell folktales to children and their parents. Four decades later, I am still besotted with these gem-like stories.
* Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf. Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
See a special feature about Enid's Hanukkah folktales in The Los Altos Town Crier, pp. 12-16. Click here.