According to J.R.R. Tolkien, the "cauldron of story" has always been bubbling. Many stories persist in human memory, beginning long before the invention of printing and passed down through many generations to the present. This heritage, preserved chiefly through the "oral tradition," is the soup in the cauldron of Tolkien's comparison — the ancient stories that have become part of all cultures. Yet, while making themselves welcome in different cultures, these stories have retained their core of individuality. The wide range of this literature has been divided into various categories — myths, legends, fairy tales, folktales, and fables.
Myths are generally about the creation of all things, the origin of evil, and the salvation of a person's soul. Legends, in contrast, are about the affairs of rulers and people in the eras before records were kept. Fairy tales, folktales, and fables are about human behavior in a world of magic. Fairy tales are most often stories with an element of enchantment. Folktales are short stories that have been passed down through word of mouth. As a result, folktales include semi-historical accounts, legends connected with historical figures, and completely fanciful accounts of supernatural beings. The characters are often one-dimensional because the purpose of the folktale is to teach a moral. When an animal tale has a moral purpose, it is generally called a fable. They often become part of legends.
As stories move from the ancient world to our own, they often undergo changes in style and purpose, blurring the distinction between the genres. While critics have spilled a lot of ink trying to make distinctions among these categories, most readers are more impressed by the ways that these stories are similar rather than different. First, everything is clear in a fairy tale or folktale. Readers can easily identify the hero and the villain. The evildoer is always punished; the good people are always rewarded.
Around the turn of the century, a number of authors began to blend the themes, plots, and motifs of folklore into their own storytelling. The most skillful of these writers never destroyed the basic strength of the folktale, but, rather, recreated the genre to forge a new creation. Some critics have dubbed this new creation a literary fairy tale, or art fairy tale. Chief among these writers are Hans Christian Andersen, Eleanor Farjeon, Carl Sandburg, Bernard Malamud, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Amy Tan is working within this genre.