Forms of Oral Literature

Forms of Oral Literature


UNIT 7: Types of Literature: Forms of Oral Literature 
In this Unit, the following aspects will be covered:

  • Introduction 
  • Types of Literature
  • Forms of Oral Literature
  • Various Case Studies
  • Conclusion
  • Practice Your Skills 
According to the historical development of literature and literary modes of presentation, literature is divided into two major types, namely, Oral literature and written literature.

Oral Literature
This is a type of literature that is handed down or presented orally through the word of mouth from one generation to another. Historically, this form of literature, oral expression, was practiced much before the invention of writings. Until today, oral literature is still dominant in various societies.
Sometimes in literature, the term ‘folklore’ is used instead of ‘oral literature’ because the former has more and inclusive meaning than the latter one.
Folklore, by definition, refers to the collection of traditional stories, customs, beliefs and culture of a particular area or country. It is any of the beliefs, customs, and traditions that people pass on from one generation to the next.

Forms of Oral Literature
The following are the forms of oral literature.

FOLKTALES. These are the traditional stories about animals or human beings that are usually passed down from one generation to another in a particular society. Most of these tales are not set in any particular time or place, and they begin and end in a certain way. For example, many English and Swahili folktales begin with the phrase ‘once upon a time’ and end with ‘they lived happily ever after’. The story of ‘Cinderella’ is one of the examples of folktales.

FABLES. Fables are animal stories that try to teach people how to behave. They are a particular type of narrative in which animals, plants, or similar characters are anthropomorphized or made to seem as if they were human. The word ‘fable’ comes from Latin word ‘fabula’ which means ‘a story or narration’ or ‘telling’. Fables are sometimes called ‘beast stories’ because they involve beasts or animals. Fables often deliver a moral lesson which may or may not be explicitly stated at the end. The best known collection of fables is ‘Aesop’s Fables’ although it is uncertain whether a historical Aesop ever existed. Examples of fables The Hare and the Tortoise, The Lion and the Mouse and others. 

A Fable Case Study 1: THE LION AND THE MOUSE

A fearsome lion traps a tiny mouse in its paw and is about to eat it when the mouse tells the lion to spare its life in return for a favor someday. The lion, amused by this idea, lets the mouse go. Later, the lion is trapped by hunters and tied to a tree while the hunters go off to find a wagon to carry the lion to the king. The mouse happens along and sees the lion’s plight, so it keeps its promise and gnaws the ropes to free the lion. “No one is too small to help someone bigger”. The moral of this fable is that you should not underestimate anyone just because they are small and appears weak, because in times of trouble they are the ones who can help you. 

The story describes a race between a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise, though it is far slower animal, wins the race because the hare foolishly stops to sleep. This story teaches the moral lesson that someone who works steadily can come out ahead of a person who is faster or has a head start. The following table shows more fables and their moral lessons they try to teach:

Fables and Their Moral Lessons

The Wolf in sheep’s Clothing - Recognizing falsehoods and hidden dangers.

The Ant and the Grasshopper - The value of planning ahead.

The Dog in the Manger - The vice of envy/wanting something only because others want it.

The Lion and the Mouse - The unpredictability of kind actions or making friends with those who are different.

The Crow and the Pitcher - The value of ingenuity.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf - The vice of over creating.

The Tortoise and the Hare - The vice of arrogance, the virtue of consistency and the danger of making assumptions about the abilities of others.

The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs - The vice of greed.

The Fox and the Crow - The vice of vanity.

The Bear and the Travelers - The importance of standing for friends.

FAIRY TALES. Fairy tales are the fictional stories that usually involve magic and mythical creatures such as witches and fairies which possess supernatural powers. Fairy itself is an imaginary creature. They have magic powers to perform good and bad deeds. Fairy tales are set in imaginary land, long time ago and far away. They also contain imaginary creatures like elves, goblins, and trolls. They also feature fantastical elements and they have ‘a happily ever after’ ending. Nowadays, most fairy tales have been adapted into animated stories. The famous examples of fairy tales are ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’, ‘The Seven Dwarves’, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Fairy tales are meant to entertain. 

A Fairy Tale Case Study 1: THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA 
Is the fairy tale by A.C.Andersen that tells the story of a prince looking to marry a ‘real princess’. When a pauper princess comes to his door looking for shelter, his mother, the queen, tests her by placing a single pea underneath a mountain of mattresses, as a real princess would be able to feel the pea despite all the cushioning. The theory proves correct and the prince and the princess subsequently marry. It is a short story that tells a horrible night’s sleep. To test whether a rain-soaked princess appearing at the castle is in fact a true princess, the queen makes her a bed of many mattresses and comforters, atop a single pea. The princess proves she is real and therefore an acceptable match for the prince by complaining about the lump in her bed. 

A Fairy Tale Case Study 2: CINDERELLA.
The story tells the tale of an unlucky girl who is transformed into a princess with a little help from a fairy godmother and love. In fairy tales, the hero or heroine leaves home to seek some goal. After various adventures, he/she wins the prince or a marriage partner in many cases a prince or princess especially in many European fairy tales as well as African fairy tales.

TRICKSTER TALES. Trickster tales are folktales in which a trickster is a hero. Most tricksters are animals who act like human being by playing tricks to other animals and human beings as well. Trickster tales are ones of the most popular folktales because they are found in every culture. Every culture or society has its own trickster hero or character. In Africa, tricksters include tortoise, the hare, and Anansi the Spider. In East Africa, the hare (Kalulu in Kiswahili) is the most famous trickster hero. The book “Kalulu The Hare” by Frank Worthington, has a lot of wonderful stories about the clever and cunning hare.

PARABLES. Parables are religious stories that teach a basic truth, a moral lesson or a religious principle. The parables usually involve ordinary people who are faced with a moral dilemma, or who most make a moral decision and then deal with the effects of that decision. Many folktales from all cultures fall into the category of parables. The word ‘parable’ comes from the Greek word ‘parabole’ that means ‘comparison’. Fables and parables both use comparison, but in fable the audience identifies with a talking frog and in the parable, the Prodigal son. Fables teach moral lesson and ethical lessons, parables include those sorts of lessons, but also deal with larger spiritual truths; parables having both a religious and spiritual aspect. There are secular parables such as ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ and ‘The Man and His Two Wives’ and Religious parables like ‘The Rich and Lazarus’, ‘The Good Samaritan’ and ‘The Mustard Seed’ which are commonly referred to as ‘The Parables of Jesus’. Most of Aesop’s fables also fall into the category of parables because they are also actually parables. 

A Parable Case Study 1: THE MAN AND HIS TWO WIVES.
 Aesop’s fable, ‘The Man and his Two Wives’ tells the story of a middle-aged man with a young wife and an old wife, both of whom love him very much. The man’s hair is turning gray, displeasing the young wife but sitting well with the wife who also has gray hair. The young wife spends every night pulling out her husband’s white hairs, and the old wife, spends every night pulling out his black hairs. This results in the man going completely bald. The moral of this parable is that if you try to please everyone, you will end up with nothing in which you truly believe.
A Case Study 2: A Woman Who Never Took Off Her Choker
For example, there is the tale of woman who never took off her choker. She told her husband to never touch the choker, but never told him why. One night, her husband took the choker off as he slept only to find her head detached from her body. As her head fell away, she looked at him and could only silently cry. 

LEGENDS. Legends are old and well-known stories that tell about brave people, adventures, or magical events. Legends are told from one generation to another as though they were true. They are set in a real world and in relatively recent times. Many legends tell about human beings how meet supernatural creatures such as fairies, ghosts, vampires, and witches. They are also associated with the famous people who have died. In American folklore, John Henry was a black hero of many legends in the south. There is one ballad that describes how he competed to dig against a steam drill. Other American legends include Paul Bunyan who as a child, he could clap hands and break the windows in his house. Paul Bunyan was also able to divert rivers, tame massive long jams, and create wonders such as the Grand Canyon. Another American legend is Davy Crockett who is said that he was the frontiersman and he killed his first bear when he was just 3 years old. 

MYTHS. Myths are the religious stories that explain how the world and humanity developed into the present form. Many myths describe the creation of the Earth and they are different from other types of folk stories because they are considered to be true among the people who develop them. Myth itself by definition is an idea or story that many people believe, but which is not true. In some of these stories, a god creates the earth. In others, the earth emerges from a flood. A number of myths describe the creation of the human race and the origin of death. 
A Myth Case Study 1:  AFRICAN MYTHS ABOUT SPIDER-Abbey Baker. 
Anansi. Perhaps the most well-known and significant African myth about a spider is the tale of Anansi. This myth dates back to thousands of years, and has many variations. The most common variation on the myth says that Anansi tied each of his eight legs to webs so that he could stay near several different pots of food. He almost breaks into pieces from the web pulling, but the ultimate result is that his legs and all spiders’ legs are extremely like this. This both explains the thinness of spiders’ legs, and teaches the moral of not being greedy. 

ANECDOTE. An anecdote is a short written or oral account of an event in a real person’s life. Anecdotes are always short, amusing and interesting stories about real incidents or people. Anecdote is used to illustrate a point. The word ‘anecdote’ is a Greek word which means ‘unpublished’ or ‘not given out’, meaning also those anecdotes are short stories that are told but that are not always published or given out. For example, a parable from the Bible, like The Good Samaritan, could be called an anecdote because it is presented and based on a real incident involving actual persons, whether famous or not but usually in an identifiable place. Like parables, anecdotes are often used by philosophers and teachers of schools and religions to point out truths about real life. For instance, in the daily life, you may tell others about yourself but you can give them an anecdote when you were suddenly caught by your mother stealing a piece of bread.

EPICS. Epics are long narrative poems that recount the exploits of a larger-than-life hero. Also, epics may be books, poems, or films that tell a long story about brave actions and exciting events. The epic hero is usually a man of high social status and who have a great historical and legendary importance. Epics often involve supernatural events, long time journeys, distant journeys, and life and death struggle between good and evil. The most common epics are ‘Beowulf’, ‘Odyssey’, ‘Illiad’, ‘Moses’ and ‘Sundiate’ (An African epic about an Old Mali Empire).

TALL TALE. A tall tale is a folktale about a larger-than-life hero who solve an over-the-top problem in a humorous or outrageous way. Tall tales typically feature highly exaggerated, improbable details and were created by several cultures, including the ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts. Many American cowboys, lumberjacks, railroad workers, and steel workers created superhuman versions of themselves that shared their experiences about how they overcame obstacles. American folk heroes like Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, Pecos Bill, and John Henry are also regarded as tall tale heroes. 

Tall Tale Case Study 1: JOHN HENRY LAGEND. From Ballad of John Henry. 
John Henry was hammering on
the right side,
The big steam drill on the left.
before that steam drill could
beat him down,
He hammered his fool self
 to death”.

BALLADS. A ballad is a short story in the form of a poem or song in which there are two or more people speaking in turn. It is a dramatic type of poem as it is presented like drama. Like other folktales, ballads also were passed down by the word of mouth for generations before being written down. The purpose of a ballad is to tell a story, so all elements of a story are included, that is plot, characters, narrator, dialogue, setting, drama, and so on. Features of ballad are so varied. Ballads are type of closed-form poetry. Hence, they have a specific set of characteristics and most importantly they tell stories. They often include a refrain and they are very rhythmical and use simple, everyday language to tell the story. They are also made up of stanzas of four lines, with the second and fourth lines rhyming. A typical rhyme scheme is aba ab. The rhythm of ballads is based on the first and third lines having four stresses and the second and fourth lines having three stresses. Like songs, ballads also repeat important phrases throughout. Simple, but strong language is used in ballads and because of the story-like nature of ballads, dialogue is often included. The examples of ballads include, ‘Ballad of the Landlord” by Langston Hughes and “Ballad of John Henry”.

RIDDLES. A riddle is a question that is deliberately very confusing and has a humorous or clever answer. Mostly, riddles are the questions or statements testing ingenuity in divining its answer or meaning. Every culture has riddles, which were passed down orally from one generation to the next. There is on famous riddle in the Greek tragic play, ‘Oedipus the King’ where the Sphinx asks King Oedipus; “What has one voice and becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?” Oedipus answers by saying, “Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on the two legs, and finally needs a cane in old age”. They are the puzzling questions, statements; especially ones intended to test the cleverness of those wishing to solve them. A successful riddle often fancifully describes an inanimate object as if it were a living thing. 

Examples of Riddles and Their Answers:
I have three hands, but just one face. I’ll link arms with you as I run my race”. This is the wristwatch. You can get your riddle ideas by listing as many objects as possible and imagine how they might describe themselves if they could speak. Write their descriptions down as a set of phrases, the shorter the better. Other examples of riddles are: 
I wear my jacket all the time. I stand with my back to you, showing my spine”. That is a book. 
I’m all over the place, but I know where I am at. My life goes in circles, but I never feel flat”. That is a globe.
I have the voice of a dog and the pages of a book. I have the chest of an elephant and you will find me if you look”. That is a tree. 
I’ll take you to the top, I’ll wear my hair in plaits. But if you can’t stop I will burn you, and after, leave you flat”. That is climbing rope
There are many riddles in our own societies. Some we play with them every day, but some are forgotten even some others are still in the heads of our forefathers. In Kiswahili, they are called ‘Vitendawili’. So, it is common that we possess one, two or more riddles. 

SAYINGS. A saying is a well-known short statement that expresses an idea that most people believe is true and wise. Saying are also folk statements that are handed down from one generation to another. Sayings include proverbs and idioms. According to Wolfgang Mieder, author of the book “Proverbs Are Never Out of Season”, the definition of a Proverb is a phrase which contains above all wisdom, truth, morals, experience, lessons, and advice concerning life and which has been handed down from generation to generation. Proverbs are also defined as short well-known sayings that state a general truth or give advice and they can be orally transmitted or put in written forms. A proverb can help you perfect your conversational English skills and deepen your understanding, as proverbs often come up in conversation. You may also keep the record of proverbs you read somewhere or hear someone speak. You can also keep your own proverbs that you compose.
Some common examples of proverbs include:
You can’t judge a book by its cover. 
Don’t run before you can walk. 
Don’t teach old dog new tricks. 
Beggars cannot be choosers.
As you sow, so you shall reap. 
A short cut is often a wrong cut. 
Rome wasn’t built in one day. 
Keep your mouth shut and ears open. 
Walls have ears. 

IDIOMS. An idiom is defined as a group of words that has a special meaning that is different from the ordinary meaning of each separate word. It is also defined as a phrase or sentence that is not clear from the meaning of its individual words and which must be learnt by heart as a whole unit. Therefore, the meaning of a whole unit of idiom is not clear, that is, its expression has a meaning other than its literal meaning.
Some common examples of idioms include:
Kick the bucket=die. 
Under the weather=ill. 
On the fence=undecided/dilemma. 
Hold your horses=be patient. 
Give the cold shoulder=ignore one’s presence. 
Bite your tongue=avoid talking. 
Blue moon=a rare event. 
Don’t like a fish=drink heavily. 
Tie the knot=get married. 
Till the cows come home=a long time.

There are also other forms of oral traditions. These include customs and beliefs, superstitions and witchcraft, folk songs and dances, folk heroes, as well as folk holidays.

Written and oral literature
However, many of the things we now call literature began to live without being written at all. Long time ago before we can read the printed forms of literature, there were narrators who told oral tell stories. Even today we have folks songs and verses passing from person to person by word of mouth. In English literature, there were ballads, old songs, legends, folk stories, or folk tales handed down from mouth to mouth because people had not known alphabets. Thus, we see what is called oral literature. Plays were prepared and performed from place to place. 


  1. Collect various proverbs and idioms, and then learn them by heart.
  2. Compose various Swahili Riddles and try to translate them in English.
  3. Tell any famous myth that is found in your society.
  4. Every society has fairy tales. Tell any fairy tale before your fellow students in the class.
Abrahams, M.H (1971) A Glossary of Literary Terms, Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc. New York.

Daniel, K et al (ed.) (2003) Elements of Literature: Fourth Course with Readings in World Literature; Florida Edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Austin.

Daniel, K et al (ed.) (2003) Elements of Literature: Sixth Course; Literature of Britain with World Classics; Florida Edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Austin.

Kinsella, K et al (2003) Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes; Copper Level, Pearson, Upper Saddle River. 



[1] "A Comprehensive Handbook for Ordinary Level Literature" book (PDF), and

[2] "A Comprehensive Handbook for Ordinary Level Literature in English" book (PDF)


For copies of these books,


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See also:


[1] English Language Past Papers – Part 1

[2] English Language Past Papers – Part 2

[3] English Language Past Papers – Part 3

[4] English Language Past Papers – Part 4

[5] Simple FI – FII English Tests With Answers – Part 1


[1] Literature in English Past Papers – Part 1








[1] Academic Words Questions 1 - 50

[2] Adjective Questions 1 – 50

[3] Adjective Answers 1 - 50

[4] Adjective Questions 51 – 100

[5] Adjective Answers 51 - 100

[6] Adverbs Questions 1 – 50

[7] Article Questions 1 - 50

[8] Conjunction Questions 1 – 50

[9] Vocabulary Questions 1 - 50

[10] Vocabulary Answers 1 - 50

[11] Vocabulary Questions 51 - 100

[12] Vocabulary Answers 51 - 100

[13]  English Grammar questions

[14] 51-100 General Grammar Questions

[15] 51-100 General Grammar Answers

[16] 1-50 General Concessions Questions

[17] 1-50 General Concessions Answers

[18] 1-50 General Sentence Structure Questions

[19] 1-50 General Sentence Structure Answers

[20] 1-50 General Tense Questions

[21] 1-50 General Tense Answers

[22] 1-50 General Literature Questions

[23] 1-50 General Literature Answers

[24] 1-50 General Grammar Questions

[25] 1-50 General Grammar Answers

Emmanuel Kachele

Emmanuel Kachele is a founder and Blogger of KACHELE ONLINE Blog, an educational blog where 'O' Level English - 'OLE', 'A' Level English (ALE) and other related teaching and life skills are shared extensively. This is an online center for all Tanzanian Secondary School English Language students and teachers (Forms I-VI) and all interested English Language learners and teachers worldwide.


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