Oral Traditions and Modern Adaptations:
Survey of Appalachian Folktales in Children's Literature

By Tina L. Hanlon
Ferrum College
© 2000-2004

This paper was originally presented at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference, March 26, 2000, in one of two sessions surveying Appalachian children's literature, sponsored by the project Teaching Appalachian Literature (see About AppLit page). This project was sponsored by a Cheatham Fellowship from Ferrum College (where Tina Hanlon is Associate Professor of English) and an Education Focus Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Other AppLit papers developed for this project include "'Miz Jackson was just talking outta her head, girl': A Survey of Realism in Appalachian Picture Books," by Judy A. Teaford; "A Greater Fairness: May Justus as Popular Educator" by George Loveland; and "Sociological Threads Within the Quilt of Appalachian Children’s Literature: A Survey of Historical Fiction," by Susan V. Mead. Most links within this article are to AppLit pages that give additional information on particular tales or traditions.

Overview: This is a survey of Appalachian folktales in books, films and dramatic adaptations for children and families. It analyzes modern methods of adapting tales from oral traditions, including treatment of gender roles and regional language. Connections with earlier European, Native American, and African folktale traditions are discussed. Different styles of illustrating and dramatizing folktales are compared. Links on names are to AppLit pages that give additional details about these tales and storytellers, including complete citations. AppLit was not yet online at the time this paper was written, and AppLit's folktale pages now list many more tales not mentioned here. In some cases, complete texts of tales discussed are available in AppLit. Additional adaptations and novels that incorporate folktales in innovative ways have been published since this paper was written. See Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction.

The first half of the essay discusses Appalachian folktales in relation to the oral tradition, popular culture and education, literary studies, Appalachian studies, and the margins between children's and adult literature. The second half of the essay presents examples of the following contemporary approaches to transmission and adaptation of folktales:

  1. Faithful retelling of old tales
  2. Finding and reprinting old tales that have been neglected by mainstream society but appeal to modern values
  3. Making subtle changes in well-known traditional tales
  4. Transplanting folktales from one region or culture to another
  5. Combining motifs from traditional tales in new stories
  6. Satirizing traditional tales
  7. Incorporating folktales into longer works of literature in new ways

Appalachian Folktales as Children's Literature

Since the theme of the 2000 Appalachian Studies Association Conference emphasized regional stewardship for the millennium and integration, I discussed some of the ways Appalachian folktales in contemporary children's literature integrate, or cross the boundaries of, a number of cultural developments, social concerns, and genres of folklore and literature. Our "stewardship" of the folktales we share with children is especially important because we want children to know the history and experience the cultural traditions, both oral and written, of Appalachia and other regional and ethnic groups throughout the country and the world. Folk revivals and movements promoting multiculturalism and diversity in the late twentieth century have helped in this cause. Yet Appalachian people, Native Americans, and other previously marginalized and maligned groups do not want their culture to be defined by outdated stereotypes prevalent in mainstream popular culture throughout the twentieth century, including idealized, oversimplified, or "childish" images associated with rural folklore and quaint traditions of the past. Although Appalachian folktales are usually set in the past—either the vague distant past of "once upon a time" or "way back yonder" (Still), or specific historical settings—recent adaptations encompass a wide variety of places, times, artistic forms, modern technologies, and ethnic traditions. And folktales are never as simple as they seem on the surface. Over the past millennium folktales were brought to the Appalachian mountains by Native Americans and then Europeans and Africans, and the stories of Asian and Hispanic immigrants will probably get more attention in the future. Thus folktales portray diversity within the region and link it with larger traditions of world folklore and literature.

Modern folktales integrate the realms of oral traditions and formal literature, possibly more than any other artistic or rhetorical form. Our society has been so literate since before the twentieth century that many modern readers forget that language and storytelling were originally and are primarily oral, that writing is a relatively new invention used with a small minority of the world's languages, and that all literature is linked with oral traditions of the ancient past. We are all born illiterate, so the development of each individual, as well as the history of world literature, remains tied to oral and visual experiences with stories, rhymes, pictures, and songs—the language and folklore of our families and communities. It wasn't until I started studying children's literature in 1993 that I was reminded of some of these important and fascinating realities. By the strictest definition the term "folktale" applies only to a story being told and heard through a natural oral tradition. Yet most of us in this literate, multimedia society encounter folktales in writing or other fixed modern forms such as films. The storytelling revival that has grown since the 1960s has inspired not only the work and pastimes of many professional and amateur storytellers who carry on the oral tradition, but an explosion in the production of folktale retellings and adaptations in books, films and drama.

Another prejudice prevalent in twentieth-century education and scholarship is the idea that truly educational and enriching literature is produced with words on a page, not through outdated traditions such as rural storytelling or through new-fangled inventions such as film, television and computers. Luckily, many late-twentieth-century cultural developments have worked against these prejudices, including the coming of age and growing prestige of scholarly research in folklore, popular culture, Appalachian Studies, and children's literature. The wonders of modern technology give us access to the voices and faces of talented storytellers through audio and video recordings, and modern cinematic and electronic media have been producing interesting adaptations of folktales for decades. Drama, long considered a major genre of literature, is still largely ignored in studies of children's literature. Yet plays, movies, picture books and computer programs are audio-visual methods of passing on literature; they supplement—but don't replace—the ancient audio-visual traditions of people watching and hearing each other tell stories. At least I think it's more fun and productive to view them that way rather than condemning them, and to help children critique and enjoy stories through all these media, rather than decrying the detrimental effects of modern technology and the alleged decline in verbal and cultural literacy among children.

In addition to being adapted in a variety of contemporary media, folktales are linked with many other oral and literary forms, including nursery rhymes, jokes and riddles, ballads, folk songs, legends, romances, and myths. For my classes I developed diagrams of overlapping circles to show that many forms from oral traditions are interrelated, and the labeling of specific examples can vary. There are many types of folktales that are frequently adapted for children—some more closely related to mythology or to written literary traditions than others—such as trickster tales, animal tales, wonder tales, noodlehead stories, tall tales, ghost stories, and pourquoi tales that explain the phenomena of nature. These types are blended within many of the well-known Jack Tales, which focus on a young descendant of European folk heroes such as Jack the Giant Killer. Barry Moser's 1992 picture book Polly Vaughn, a prose adaptation of an old ballad, contains some very contemporary details and illustrations, but it continues the tradition in which many ancient stories have been passed down in both verse and prose—as ballads and folktales. John Henry, the African American steel driver who competed with a steam drill when railroads were being built through the mountains in the nineteenth century, is a prominent Appalachian example of a folk hero known through prose tales and songs. As Tracy Roberts discussed at this conference in 1999, his story is reprinted in both forms in a number of recent children's books, sometimes with a musical score provided [1]. He is both a legendary figure, associated with real places and historical events, and a tall tale hero born with superhuman abilities. Some folk songs look very much like folktales in Appalachian picture book adaptations that combine prose introductions with song lyrics and illustrations, such as such as Billy Boy by Richard Chase and Glen Rounds (1966), and She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain by Tom and Debbie Holsclaw Birdseye (1994). The Birdseyes, whose family always wondered who came round that mountain, added some prose narrative about the Sweet clan anticipating a visit from their "dear friend, Tootie."

Just as it is difficult to decide exactly which stories to include and exclude when surveying folktales, it can be hard to decide which books, films, and dramas to label as children's literature. Folktales have integrated the experiences of children and adults since ancient times, and I think this tradition has remained stronger within Appalachia than in other, mainstream cultures [2]. By the late twentieth century, the annual festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee became a center of an American storytelling revival, but the oral tradition had not waned in many other Appalachian communities. There are numerous modern folktales in collections published for adults, and they are often worth sharing with children, but generally in the realms of literature and popular culture, folk and fairy tales had been relegated to the nursery by the twentieth century, and they continue to be ignored or spurned by most modern adults except when reading bedtime stories to children. Judy Teaford and I have argued many times that older kids and adults who think picture books are for babies are missing out on an exciting part of their cultural heritage, and we use them in our college courses.

Many recent Appalachian books, plays and films contain background notes, narrators or frame stories acknowledging the oral sources of stories as they were passed down through generations from adults to children during everyday routines of working and relaxing together. In Richard Chase's Grandfather Tales, a frame story depicts old, middle-aged, and young neighbors who take turns telling tales and listening. This book and Chase's 1943 Jack Tales, which have remained among the most popular collections of folktales in America, are dedicated to both old and young storytellers and readers. The assumption is that audiences of all ages enjoy stories about people of all ages, that both child and adult characters can be foolish, wise or heroic in different situations. In southwestern Virginia, performances by the Ferrum College Jack Tale Players have been very popular in retirement homes as well as schools since 1975, and Lime Kiln Theater's folktale dramatizations also attract family audiences. As filmmaker Tom Davenport developed his methods of adapting fairy tales in Appalachian settings from the 1970s to the 1990s, he became most interested in reaching what he calls "the under-served audience of preteen and adolescent girls and their families." Although the folktales I've studied contain a few child characters, and a multitude of extended families, they most often focus on young adults exploring the boundaries between childhood and adult life, finding their way in the world beyond their family homes. Nina Mikkelsen's analysis of Chase's Jack Tales as a "touchstone" in the mainstream canon of children's literature, so designated by the Children's Literature Association in the 1980s, notes the important American symbolism in Jack tales that depicts "the emergent adolescent [. . .], the trickster using initiative to gain his ends, and the road as passage to opportunity" ( “Richard Chase’s Jack Tales" 45).

Perhaps this integration of audiences and characters of different ages also produces stories that blend entertainment and education more easily than many other types of children's and young adult literature. Since children's books became a tool for religious indoctrination among seventeenth-century Puritans and a lucrative and popular mass market commodity in eighteenth-century England, debates have raged about whether they should focus on innocence or experience, on instruction or delight. Adapted folktales have been made more overtly didactic, less violent, more realistic, more sentimental, or more satiric—and at times they are condemned outright as harmful for children—according to the ideologies of different groups of adults. Although Appalachian storytellers often mention the importance of teaching children, and some adaptations seem to be trying too hard to instruct us in the good old folkways of the past, most tales simply demonstrate that learning about life is a lifelong process: we succeed or fail depending on our responses to adult instruction; to communal rituals such as sharing stories, work and meals; to direct experience with good and evil forces in the world; and to the impulses of our individual personalities. Folktales are generally more realistic and more relevant to ordinary human experience than myths and other heroic and sacred stories of the world because folk heroes are not always as smart, hard-working, charismatic, or lucky as they should be, but they usually get lucky or figure out how to overcome danger and adversity. In "Jack and the Northwest Wind," the first tale in Gail Haley's collection Mountain Jack Tales, it takes three frustrating trips for Jack to learn that it's foolish to go after the winter wind to stop it from blowing so cold, and it's important to follow the advice of a wise old man and not trust the tricksters who steal the magic rewards Jack earns by helping the old man. When he finally learns to use the magic objects to punish the tricksters, Jack improves the future of his own family and the community by recovering his property and making them promise not to steal from other travelers.

Terrapin or Turtle learns comparable lessons in Cherokee tales told in Appalachia. In Susan Roth's 1988 picture book Kanahena, Possum shows Terrapin that it is possible to trick Bad Wolf into choking on the persimmons he steals, but Terrapin goes too far by taking Bad Wolf's ears to use for spoons as he eats kanahena, or cornmeal mush, with friends. When other wolves try to drown Terrapin he tricks them into throwing him in the water where he knows he can save himself, but in the process his shell is cracked permanently. In twenty-four pages containing a spare inner narrative and collage illustrations, the little Cherokee girl in the brief frame story learns from her grandmother about complex interactions of good and bad, natural and unnatural acts.

These examples also show that Appalachian folktales integrate fantasy and reality. This combination is the key to their fascination and endurance. There are realistic folktales about human fears and foibles, joys and triumphs, but most stories from the oral traditions of the world convey universal truths about the world and human experience through fantastic plots and flat characters who are helped or hindered by magic or supernatural forces. The reality that humans can thrive even though they can't "go messing 'round with the natural seasons," as Haley writes (Mountain Jack Tales 19), or that turtles have shells that look cracked, is combined with magic such as hens that lay golden eggs, and talking animals who eat a traditional human dish for which a recipe is given at the end of Roth's book. Folktales are linked to each other by timeless themes, recurring motifs, and symbolic details that are subject to infinite varieties of interpretation, yet they also reflect realities of the time and place in which they are told. They are used by contemporary historians and Marxist critics to analyze the lifestyles, values, and beliefs of the folk within particular communities, although changes in transplanted folklore do not always occur consistently or accurately. For example, the Ferrum Jack Tale Players make jokes about kings and queens appearing in Virginia in some of the tales.

It's a tricky business for adapters of Appalachian folklore to maintain the best balance between the real and the unreal. Some, such as James Still, Joanne and Kenn Compton, and the Jack Tale Players, like to use specific place names from their own home territory in their picture books and dramas. Without culturally specific details of setting and language, there would be no Appalachian folktales. "Jack and the Wonder Beans" or "Jack and the Bean Tree" would be no different from European Jack and the Beanstalk tales. The hero of the Appalachian "Mutsmag" or "Muncimeg" would be indistinguishable from her English and Scottish cousins, Molly Whuppie. "The Terrapin's Escape from the Wolves," the Cherokee source of Roth's Kanahéna, would be like countless other pourquoi tales of the world about why turtles have cracked shells. On the other hand, flat characters, comic exaggeration of foolish behavior, use of dialect features, and other specific details can feed into negative regional stereotypes if the adapters and their audiences are not careful about how they use or interpret culturally specific elements. Judy Teaford's thesis on Appalachian picture books discusses many details in those that perpetuate stereotypes of illiteracy, ignorance and squalor, such as some of Glen Rounds' books [3], but she highlights even more examples that convey accurate, positive images of regional food, clothing, customs, and so on, in books such as Gail Haley's Jack and the Bean Tree and Teri Sloat's Sody Sallyratus.

Now that there are so many adaptations of Appalachian folktales in different media, the diversity of styles, approaches, and interpretations they reflect works against tendencies to stereotype stories and people from the same region. Ashpet, an Appalachian Cinderella character found in Chase's Grandfather Tales, looks quite different in the Comptons' 1994 picture book, in Tom Davenport's 1990 film set during World War II, and in Rex Stephenson's adaptation for the Jack Tale Players. Davenport's 11 films all have specific historical settings with authentic costumes, songs and other details, while the Jack Tale Players use very simple sets, props, and costumes—mainly wearing bluejeans and checked shirts that might be worn by any twentieth-century storyteller [4]. It's also interesting to compare the dragaman who lives underground in Chase's Jack Tales, drawn by illustrator Berkeley Williams, Jr. as a giant mountain man blowing lots of smoke out of his big pipe, with Gail Haley's colorful linocut illustrations in Jack and the Fire Dragon, where Fire Dragaman transforms from a semi-human pipe-smoking cave dweller into a "slinky, scaly fire-breathing dragon." The scary story Tailypo is retold in picture books with both white and African American characters living in Tennessee. Joanna and Paul Galdone, in a picture book popular since 1977, depict a white Tennessee man scared by a furry creature, while Jan Wahl and Wil Clay created a 1991 picture book called in which an African-American man experiences the same terrors.

One good thing about the astronomical growth of the children's book publishing industry in recent decades is that seeing multiple adaptations based on the same or related folktales, with different styles of language and illustration, helps us appreciate the diversity of folktales within the region and their links with many stories from other cultures. Metaphors such as a pot of soup or cauldron, a quilt or tapestry, a giant clothing swap, and a web have been used to represent the body of interwoven tales from the oral traditions of the world [5]. One stereotype that is now being disputed is that Appalachians have preserved old folkways so well because of their isolation, yet almost any folktale can lead you to a multitude of stories that keep changing through time and moving around the world. For example, I have compared Richard Chase's "Whitebear Whittington" (in Grandfather Tales) with William H. Hooks' romantic picture book Snowbear Whittington, with Lime Kiln Theater's amusing dramatization of the same tale, using the alternate title "Three Drops of Blood," and with numerous variations in books and films of the Scandinavian folktale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," as well as many other European Beauty and the Beast stories and the Greek myth "Cupid and Psyche" (Hanlon, "Strong Women in Appalachian Folktales"). In "Universal Themes in Appalachian Children's Literature," Roberta Herrin gives examples and activities that are "designed to encourage diversity and to eliminate not only the barrier between home and school, but the perceived (and I believe mythical) barrier between Appalachia and 'the rest of the world,' between Appalachian children's literature and the canon of children's literature" (117).

Source notes in books based on tales from oral traditions also help readers appreciate change, depth and diversity in any culture's folk traditions. Betsy Hearne has discussed the ethics and benefits of acknowledging sources, especially for those writing outside their own culture and borrowing from minority cultures, and the benefits of providing detailed background notes that contextualize the culturally specific details within particular stories. In a recent article she states, "The flexible symbolism of folktales makes them culturally adaptable, and they become our own. When a story fits, we wear it. Is this thievery? Without that jumbo clothes swap, we'd be naked, but we still like to call our clothes our own." In Appalachia, as elsewhere, most recent folktale books give some source notes, but many are still quite sketchy and some give almost no indication of the story's origin. Two paragraphs in Snowbear Whittington acknowledge the richness of Appalachian storytelling and the author's direct encounters with several oral versions, but Hooks' very brief mention of "Beauty and the Beast" as the origin of the story makes me sorry that many readers who don't already know "East of the Sun,West of the Moon," which has been reprinted so often in recent years, may not learn of the Appalachian tale's closer connections with that tale about a heroic wife's struggles to save her enchanted husband. Tom Davenport, on the other hand, provides a wealth of background material on the folkloric, literary, and cinematic origins of his fairy tale films, through books, teaching guides, television appearances, and web sites.

Contemporary Approaches to Transmission and Adaptation

While preparing this paper, I thought about how the Appalachian folktales I've studied measure up in relation to a list I had compiled earlier for teaching about contemporary approaches to folk and fairy tales. The first method on my list, faithful retelling of old tales, is well represented by many recent or living storytellers such as Ray Hicks, his cousin Orville Hicks, Anndrena Belcher, Billy Edd Wheeler, Donald Davis, and Jackie Torrence. Although their performances appeal to all ages, their audio and video recordings often target child audiences [6]. Rex Stephenson usually creates dramatic adaptations, but recent issues of ALCA-Lines contain his written versions of "Jack and his Lump of Silver" and "Jack and the King's Girl," giving us the tales directly from the oral tradition. The first tale was told to him by Raymond Sloan in the 1980s, and he wrote the second after a man told it to him in a Veterans Administration hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. There are many other tales in living memory and in archived transcripts that are waiting to be retold or published, such as the James Taylor Adams Collection of hundreds of unpublished folktale transcripts collected for the WPA, now in the Blue Ridge Institute archives [7].

The late Louise Anderson, a wonderful African-American storyteller, played a wise woman in the fairy godmother role in Davenport's Ashpet film (and he also made a film about her life). Her role in Ashpet of preserving and passing on stories and matriarchal strength, along with many other aspects of Davenport's films, represents the second and third trends on my list, which involve revising the "canon" of popular folk and fairy tales, by searching out old tales that were neglected by mainstream society in recent centuries but appeal to modern values, and by making subtle changes in well-known traditional tales. The German Ashputtle and Appalachian Ashpet are lesser known cousins of the more famous and glitzy French and Disney Cinderellas, and Davenport's film contains many modern details that enhance Ashpet's self-reliance [8].

The strong women in Appalachian folktales are often spunkier and more independent and heroic than their counterparts in European folktales that are so often reprinted in recent feminist anthologies. That is just as true—sometimes more true—in Chase's collections from the 1940s as it is in newer adaptations that incorporate specific revisions to highlight the strengths of female characters or reflect other modern values. I think Mutsmag is more heroic in Chase's version (which has been retold in wonderful adaptations by Tom Davenport and Rex Stephenson), than in Haley's "Muncimeg and the Giant," even though Haley includes statements about women doing as well as men and about Muncimeg being smart and benevolent as well as pretty (Mountain Jack Tales). Although there are controversies among folklorists about Chase's methods of collecting and publishing the tales, he, like the Grimm Brothers, who have been subjected to the same scrutiny, did record many of his sources and changes he made himself in writing his tales for American readers. People tend to distrust or even condemn adaptations that change what they perceive to be the original tale—or at least the version they grew up with (and of course some adaptations work better than others), but in reality there is no original version of most tales from oral traditions. Every tale changes every time it is told orally, so using modern values or technologies to make the tales reflect one's own personality or society is not necessarily a violation of folktales traditions. It's logical for Moser's 1992 Polly Vaughn to contain themes that criticize hunting and gender stereotypes in ways that older versions of the ballad would not, while others might interpret and retell the tragic story of Polly's accidental death in the woods differently.

As all the examples I've mentioned so far suggest, Appalachia in general as well as particular ethnic minorities and women within Appalachia are represented by a wonderful array of recent books, films, and dramas that are helping to make the traditional folktales of these groups familiar to a wider audience in and out of the region. My graduate students in the Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children's Literature, who came from many other states and two other continents, were especially fascinated by the Appalachian tales we studied in one segment of my 1998 course. The fourth type of story we examined was folktales transplanted from one culture to another. Davenport began filming tales from the Grimm Brothers in Appalachia when he realized his rural Virginia surroundings provided appropriate settings for low-budget fairy tale films, and then later used tales that already existed in Appalachia. He adapted Chase's "Jack and the Dentist's Daughter" with an African American cast because he thought the humorous plot fit well into the trickster tradition in African American folklore. As I discussed at this conference in 1998, Barry Moser's trilogy of picture books based on European folklore, The Tinderbox, Polly Vaughn, and Tucker Pfeffercorn, fulfilled his dream of providing more fairy tales with settings based on the mountain landscapes of his native Tennessee. I think Tucker Pfeffercorn is a brilliant feminist adaptation of "Rumpelstiltskin," with a coal miner's widow being oppressed by a ruthless coal boss rather than a greedy king [9]. Becky Mushko transplanted the same tale to the Blue Ridge landscape of her native southwestern Virginia, rhythmically weaving details such as local plants and animals through her story called "Ferradiddledumday." Another interesting example of "transplantation" is The Tale of Willie Monroe, a 1999 picture book in which Alan Schroeder adapted the Japanese tale of three strong women as an Appalachian tall tale about a gullible strong man and two much stronger and cleverer women.

The fifth trend on my list of contemporary approaches to folktales is writing original stories that combine motifs from traditional tales, as writers of literary fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen to Jane Yolen have done. Rex Stephenson's "Mutsmag" and "The Three Old Women's Bet" aren't new stories, but they combine motifs from different sources more than he had done in earlier dramatic adaptations [10]. Look Out Jack! The Giant is Back!  by Tom Birdseye and Will Hillenbrand, is written as a sequel to "Jack and the Beanstalk," with wacky humor about smelly feet and a gluttonous giant eating piles of Southern food. In Anne Isaacs' award-winning 1994 picture book Swamp Angel, with Paul O. Zelinsky's innovative illustrations painted on wood, a new tall tale heroine stars in a story with a pourquoi tale ending. As gigantic and powerful as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, incredible Angelica Longrider becomes "the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee," wrestling with a monstrous bear so long that they stir up enough dust to create the Smoky Mountains. Coyote Sings to the Moon, by Cherokee author Thomas King, combines traditional Cherokee motifs with modern details; this new picture book tale has some resemblance to Euro-American tales about foolish behavior such as "The Three Sillies," as well as older Native American tales with animal tricksters who get themselves into trouble through vain and impulsive behavior.

While there is an abundance of humor in these stories and most Appalachian tales, new or old, the sixth category on my list is not well represented in Appalachian children's literature. That is parodies of traditional tales, or "fractured fairy tales." Satiric tales for children, such as the zany Stinky Cheese Man and other books by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, have become increasingly popular in the past few decades, but they tend to parody the outdated themes and unrealistic events or characters of more generic and mainstream old fairy tales rather than folktales associated with specific regions or minority groups. It's hard to say how much of the rich tradition of humor in Appalachian folklore comes from conscious satirizing of older lore, but many tales poke fun at the foolish behavior of mountain people as well as outsiders [11]. In the comical picture book Rocks in My Pocket by Marc Harshman, Bonnie Collins, and illustrator Toni Goffe, the tourists, who insist on buying shiny rocks that are quite useless in their homes, are much more silly than the happy mountain family using the rocks in practical ways. Rick Carson's audio recording of "Wicked John and the Devil" depicts the second devil's child as Elvis, with allusions to famous Elvis Presley lyrics. In dramatizations of the same tale, Stephenson's Jack Tale Players twist a motif at the end of the old tale to make fun of school teachers or camp counselors (whoever is in the audience). They also make the audience laugh in performances of "Ashpet" by approaching the feet of audience members with jokes about the awkward and smelly business of trying a shoe on lots of girls as the prince searches for Ashpet, satirizing one of the old motifs of Cinderella tales. Stephenson added a number of farcical details to "Mutsmag" as the heroine learns to stand up to her mean sisters and they are threatened by several kinds of dangers (including a dumb "democratic one-eyed gang"), while Davenport's film Mutzmag emphasizes the gothic horror of the dangers and the quiet heroism of Mutzmag without so much humor, yet both are excellent adaptations. There are ancient versions of "Molly Whuppie" and "Mutsmag" in which the heroine goes off alone with her reward, so these modern retellers do not have to fracture or satirize the traditional plot to spare the heroine the stereotypical fate of being married off to a prince. Thus some Appalachian retellers and adapters play up humorous elements more than others, or add some modern jokes, but they don't subvert the structure or themes of the tales as thoroughly as many postmodern adaptations of fairy tales do.

Other innovations in modern fairy tale adaptations blend motifs from traditional tales with experiments in form and point of view. Jeannie Thomas argues in Southern Folklore that folklore scholars and postmodern literary critics should recognize the common ground in their theories and the ways they could help each other better understand phenomena such as the instability of texts and their reliance on tradition. I think some techniques and theories that have new names in postmodern theory and experimental literature have occurred in past storytelling traditions, such as metafiction, intertextuality, and the use of stories within stories. Since the mid-twentieth century there have been many realistic chapter books for young readers, novels and films that contain retellings of old folktales, as well as picture books and folktale collections with realistic frame stories. In Laurence Yep's young adult novel The Star Fisher, a teenage protagonist tells her sister an Asian folktale that helps in her search for her own identity as a Chinese immigrant who has moved to West Virginia. Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is an adults' novel but it depicts in detail the childhood of mountain woman Ivy Rowe, showing that folktales about strong men and women she hears as a child influence her throughout life, until she thinks about the wild bear-man Whitebear Whittington at the hour of her death. George Ella Lyon used elements of the same traditional transformation tale to develop a mysterious story line in a parallel world that intersects the realistic contemporary plot in her young adult novel Gina. Jamie. Father. Bear. In The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, Virginia Hamilton blended traditional African American folk heroes and Appalachian history within a fantastical plot for young adults about persecution and migration in the post-Civil War Southern mountains. Davenport's last and longest fairy tale film, Willa: An American Snow White, is one of the best examples of innovation in adapting a folktale from Europe and Appalachia, blending real Virginia settings, historically accurate elements of American popular culture, and allusions to a number of other sources, from Shakespeare to Dickens to classic movies about young heroes or heroines and jealous older women, such as Sunset Boulevard and Rebecca [12].

In Willa, the Snow White character lives for a while with three men in a traveling rural medicine show in 1911, instead of seven dwarfs. She helps them raise the level of the entertainment they provide and their ethical standards. When she leaves with a young filmmaker headed for California instead of a prince, one of the group of men says, "You've gladdened our hearts, Willa, and we're the better for it." If you read and listen to Appalachian folktales and share them with children you know, they will gladden your heart, and you'll be better for it.

In its original version, this conference presentation closed with a video clip from the end of a performance by the Jack Tale Players. The scene in which Rex Stephenson, the writer and director, is playing the dumb robber in "Jack and the Robbers" shows how Stephenson's method of story-theatre combines an ensemble dramatization with the basic oral tradition of one narrator telling a story to an audience. If you know the German tale "The Bremen Town Musicians," you will recognize the ending of this Appalachian variant, a Jack tale that blends elements of the trickster tale, ghost story, and animal tale (also available in the published script The Jack Tales). Jack and his animal friends outwit the robbers but he also learns that he should go home, obey his mother, and work hard in the end.


1. See, for example, Cohn 152-53. For other versions of John Henry legends, see Adaptations of a Minority Legend by Tracy L. Roberts and John Henry in AppLit's Annotated Index of Appalachian Folktales.

2. See AppLit's "General Guidelines for Teaching with Folktales Fables, Ballads, and Other Short Works of Folklore."

3. See, for example, The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man by Wright and Rounds. Betsy Hearne observes that humor is one of the touchiest elements to translate across cultural boundaries, asking, “How do we draw a line between humor that stereotypes a culture and humor that engages it?” (520).

4. I developed these ideas about differing interpretations of Appalachian folk characters and motifs by comparing visual images of Jack in a number of recent picture books, for a 2001 conference paper, "'Voices and Visions': Appalachian Folktales in Oral Storytelling and Picture Books." Material from this project will appear in AppLit later.

5. See, for example, Herrin and Hearne. Herrin wrote of the diverse storytellers of the South, “Their stories represent the precise amalgam of history, folk pattern, fantasy, biography, and realism that is the foundation of human tolerance,” as we recognize the kinship of characters from different oral traditions such as Jack, Brer Rabbit and Turtle (“Southern Pot of Soup”).

6. See AppLit's bibliography Appalachian Folktales in Film, Drama, and Storytelling Recordings. Jackie Torrence is an African American storyteller from east of the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina, but she was influenced by hearing Chase's Jack Tales read to her, and often retells mountain tales.

7. Stephenson's two tales are now reprinted in AppLit's Fiction and Poems section, along with a number of tales from the James Taylor Adams Collection.

8. Kay Stone develops similar ideas about American and Appalachian tales in "Things Walt Disney Never Told Us," as Nina Mikkelsen does in "Strange Pilgrimages: Cinderella Was a Trickster."

9. Moser says he originally wanted to make the heroine a slave on a Southern plantation, but took the advice of friends who thought it would be too difficult to find a publisher (Remarks).

10. See Hanlon, "Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations."

11. The more obvious parody of earlier lore in rhymes such as those in An Appalachian Mother Goose by James Still shows that children's folk rhymes are often satiric. For example, the "baked bird" in "Sing a song of sixpence" wonders pragmatically, "Why didn't we up and fly?" (5).

12. For more examples and details, see Hanlon, “Magic and Reality," "Once Upon a Time in Appalachia," and especially "Popular Culture and Intertextuality" on Willa, as well as "Folktales in Appalachian Fiction" and "'It Was Sad, But It Was Good'" on Hamilton.


Complete citations for folktale and literature sources not listed below are at the links on titles and storytellers' names in the article above.

Camp, David. "The Making of Willa:  An American Snow White." Interview with Tom Davenport. Press Release on Willa . Delaplane, VA: Davenport Films, 1998.

Cohn, Amy L., ed. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. New York: Scholastic,1993.

Davenport Films. Delaplane, VA. Accessed 27 Sept. 2003.

Hanlon, Tina L. "Diagrams of Types of Folk Literature." AppLit. 9 Sept. 2002. Ferrum College.

---. "Folktales in Appalachian Fiction for Children and Young Adults." Appalachian Studies Association Conference. Richmond, KY. 30 Mar. 2003. (abstract at this link)

---. "General Guidelines for Teaching with Folktales Fables, Ballads, and Other Short Works of Folklore." AppLit. May 2000. Ferrum College.

---."'It Was Sad, But It Was Good': Appalachian Folklore and History in Stories by Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature Association Conference. El Paso, Texas. 7 June 2003.

---. “Magic and Reality in Tom Davenport’s Fairy Tale Films.” Biennial Conference on Modern Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature. Nashville. Mar. 1999.

---. “Once Upon a Time in Appalachia: Tom Davenport’s Fairy Tale Films.” Virginia Humanities Conference. Ferrum College. Apr. 1998. (Abstract at this link)

---. “Popular Culture and Intertextuality in Willa: An American Snow White.” Popular Culture in the South Conference. Roanoke, VA. 7 Oct. 1999.

---. "Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations by R. Rex Stephenson." AppLit. 2001-2003. Ferrum College.

---. "Strong Women in Appalachian Folktales." The Lion & the Unicorn 24 (April 2000): 225-46.  (Available online at this link through Project Muse)

---. "'Voices and Visions': Appalachian Folktales in Oral Storytelling and Picture Books." Children's Literature Association Conference. Buffalo, June 2001.

Hearne, Betsy. “Swapping Tales and Stealing Stories: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Folklore in Children’s Literature.” Library Trends 47 (Winter 1999): 509-28.

Herrin, Roberta. “Southern Pot of Soup.” Southern Exposure Summer 1996: 60-62.

---. “Universal Themes in Appalachian Children’s Literature.” Education in Appalachia: Proceedings from the 1987 Conference on Appalachia. University of KY: The Appalachian Center.117-23.

Mikkelsen, Nina. “Richard Chase’s Jack Tales: A Trickster in the New World.” Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature. Vol. 2: Fairy Tales, Fables Myths, Legends and Poetry. Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette, IN: Children’s Literature Association, 1987. 40-55.

---. "Strange Pilgrimages: Cinderella Was a Trickster—and Other Unorthodoxies of American and African-American Heroic Folk Figures." A Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic Figure in Children's Popular Culture. Ed. Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins. Children's Literature and Culture Series, vol. 18. New York: Garland, 2000, pp. 24-50.

Moser, Barry. Remarks. Children’s Literature Symposium: The Art of the Children’s Book. Clemson University, October 12, 1996.

Roberts, Tracy L. "Adaptations of a Minority Legend: A Look at a Retelling of 'John Henry'." AppLit. Ed. Tina L. Hanlon. 2002. Ferrum College.

Scieszka, Jon. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Illus. Lane Smith. New York: Scholastic, 1992.

Still, James. Jack and the Wonder Beans. Illus. Margot Tomes.1977. Rpt. Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Stone, Kay. "Things Walt Disney Never Told Us." The Journal of American Folklore 88, no. 347, Women and Folklore (Jan. - Mar. 1975): 42-50. (Available online through JSTOR)

Teaford, Judy. “Contemporary Appalachian Picture Books.” M. A. Thesis. Marshall U. Graduate College, 1998.

Thomas, Jeannie. "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Postmodern: Folklore and Contemporary Literary Theory. Southern Folklore 51.2 (1994): 107-20. 

Wright, Jill. The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man. Illus Glen Rounds. New York: Putnam, 1987. N. pag. 

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