The rather hefty volume you are now holding would at one time have seemed an impossibility. American folktales? We knew what those were. They were the tall tales, the jokes, and the urban legends that Americans love so much. But tales of magic? Tales of clever heroes outwitting giants and ogres and oppressive masters? Tales of beautiful younger sisters wedding handsome princes? The kinds of things we call fairy tales? No, Americans never really told stories like that—except for a few that they got out of Grimm or Anderson and told to children until the children got too old for that kind of stuff. The great European tale tradition did not take root in America, we thought. The fi rst settlers—and the later immigrants as well—were too practical-minded to enjoy such trifl es, and besides there was no time in the busy workdays of our ancestors to tell those long stories. A quick joke in passing, an outrageous lie told around the stove, or a bit of gossip about some horrifi c coincidence that really happened to a friend of a friend—they had time for that, of course. But who had time for the long elaborate stories about kings and magicians and talking horses? About magical advice and magical countries beyond the beyond? Nobody. Certainly nobody in our hard-working democracy. Such was the conventional wisdom passed down in folklore courses and textbooks.
American folklore, we thought, included ballads and dance tunes, arts and crafts, and traditions of cuisine, but not magical stories like those the Grimm brothers edited in early nineteenth-century Germany, Asbjornsen and Moe collected in Norway, and Afanas’ev collected in Russia. But if that is true, if Americans did not tell those stories, then where did this heavy book come from? For here you will read about poor heroes and proud heroines, witches and giants, kings and wizards, magic whistles and talking horses—all the trappings of yams older than Uncle Sam, older, indeed, than memory.