The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Tale: A comparatively simple narrative, either fictional or nonfictional, written or related orally in prose or verse. A tale often recounts a strange event, focusing on something or someone exotic, marvelous, or supernatural. Tales may be attributable to a particular author, whether known or anonymous, or may simply be part of the folklore of a given culture. While tales tend to be relatively short, the term is broad enough to apply to longer works ranging up to full-length novels.

Tale is sometimes used interchangeably with short story, or even as a general term encompassing the short story, among other literary forms, but modern critics typically distinguish between the two. The tale places more emphasis on actions and results than on character, which is the chief focus of the short story. Furthermore, tales are more casually constructed — and, consequently, far looser in terms of plot and structure — than short stories, which bear the mark of an author’s careful and conscious fashioning.

EXAMPLES: Traditional “short” fictional tales include The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), a collection of tales by Geoffrey Chaucer such as “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”; The Thousand and One Nights (also called The Arabian Nights) (c. 1450), an anonymous collection of Arabic tales such as the stories of Aladdin and Sinbad; Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704); and a variety of folk tales (e.g., the story of Chicken Little, the legend of the Cherokee Rose), fairy tales (e.g., Rapunzel, Cinderella), and tall tales (e.g., Pecos Bill and his bouncing bride, Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” [1865]). More modern examples include The Twilight Zone (1959—64), a television show that dramatized tales of the paranormal, science fiction, and suspense, all with a twist ending, and José Saramago’s O conto da ilha desconhecida (The Tale of the Unknown Island) (1998). Contemporary collections of tales written around a particular theme include Why Willows Weep: Contemporary Tales from the Woods (2011), edited by Tracy Chevalier and Simon Prosser, a collection of nineteen “grown-up fables,” each written by a different author about a tree native to the UK, and Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds (2015), edited by Kenneth Wishnia. Examples of broader use of the term tale to encompass longer works include Lady Shikibu Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji (c. A.D. 1000), Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; adapted to television 2017— ) and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013).

Examples of nonfiction tales include Michael Allin’s Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris (1998), a 224-page, sometimes fairy-tale-like account of a giraffe given to the French king Charles X in 1826 by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt; Paul Collins’s Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck (2001), brief accounts of thirteen people famous in their time but virtually unknown today; and Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales: Eleven Graphic Stories about Mental Illness (2010).