10 Magical Books About Folklore

by Catherine Kovach
Originally Published: 
Close-up view of happy young woman reading a book lying on bed
Xavier Lorenzo/Moment/Getty Images

I am a major fan of folklore and superstition, especially folktales from around the world. There are so many lessons you can learn from fairy tales, and loads of fairy tale retellings that can twist and turn the classical into something totally fantastic and different. I’m personally a fan of Arthurian legend myself, which is a giant folktale constructed over years and years of telling and retelling, but I also can totally get into the dark and dirty of some creepy fairy tales. My favorite fairy tale just so happens to be “The Girl Without Hands," because there’s something super chilling about the fact that someone’s dad could easily sell their daughter to the devil... even going so far as to cut her poor hands off in order to make it easier.

So what lies behind folktales? There’s clearly a history there, given the fact that some folktales have endured for thousands of years. How did the idea of mermaids come about? It couldn’t just be a bunch of sex starved sailors seeing a manatee. What about King Arthur? How did his half-sister/baby mama Morgan La Fey maintain her identity in a world where a woman’s sexuality is constantly suppressed? Well, I’ve compiled a list of 10 nonfiction books about folk tales that will hopefully answer some of these questions, and possibly a few more. Don’t stop believing!

1. Artemis: The Indomitable Spirit in Every Woman by Jean Shinoda Bolen

From the author of The Goddess in Every Woman, this book studies the archetype of the fierce, bold woman who refuses to be a victim. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, a virgin by choice who drove the moon in her chariot. Bolen takes a look at the archetype Artemis originates and how it's been used in literature ever since. All of those Arya Starks, Katniss Everdeens, and Princess Meridas of the world have Artemis to thank.

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2. From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston

Originally written in the 1920s, From Ritual to Romance inspired a lot of T.S. Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land. This is an academic study of the origins of the Grail legend, which has roots in paganism but was later influenced by Celtic culture and Christianity. Read this one to put the medieval texts you love into really fascinating context.

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3. Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People by Janet Bord

Is there a little part of you that still believes in fairies? Of course there is! It's the same part of you that claps to keep Tinkerbell alive. In Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People is not only a study of folklore, but also a compendium that collects sightings of such creatures. Collecting tales of sightings from both modern day and ancient times, this book just might make you a believer.

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4. The Myth of Morgan La Fey by Kristina Perez

She's a lot of things: half-sister to King Arthur, sorceress, sometime mother of Mordred. But in this comprehensive investigation of this enchantress's background, she swiftly becomes a force for feminism. In light of Western culture's on-going desire to put a woman's sexuality in a box as either a "Madonna" or a "whore," Morgan La Fey has traditionally refused to fit into either box, and the struggles of her story and image cast a fascinating light onto gender relations today.

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5. The Arthurian Handbook by Norris J. Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra N. Mancoff

Covering everything you need to know about Arthurian legend — from the Tristan and Isolde love story to the hunt for the Grail — The Arthurian Handbook studies the historical basis of King Arthur, investigating whether or not he was actually real. It also includes a glossary full of characters from the legends.

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6. American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osbourne

From Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack with the big blue ox to the hammer wielding John Henry to Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, who could “outgrin, outsnort, outrun, outlift, outsneeze, outsleep, outlie any varmint," this collection explains many of America's most beloved tall tales.

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7. The Case of the Cottingly Fairies by Joe Cooper

While this is a biography, it's still steeped in folklore. Back during the Edwardian Era (think Downton Abbey times), people believed in fairies with an intensity that seemed almost out of place in the face of the Industrial Revolution. In the middle of this, cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths claimed to have truly seen and photographed fairies, a hoax that ended up fooling the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Cooper worked with Elsie and Frances for six years before publishing this book in the late '90s.

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8. Mermaids: the Myth, the Legend, and Lore by Skye Alexander

Who doesn't love a good mermaid story? These sea creatures have been a staple in folklore for centuries. This book is full of fun facts and information about the mermaid myth as spread throughout the world, and is also gorgeously illustrated to boot! Not only is this an interesting look at mermaids, but it's also a super interesting study on how the same myth can pop up in different ways in different cultures.

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9. The Book of Yokai: The Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster

For those of you who absolutely love Japanese folklore, or want to learn some less Western-centric folklore, there's The Book of Yokai. What's a yokai? It's a relatively broad term that encompasses all the ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural creatures that roam Japan. Based off of years of extensive research in Japan, this book discusses the history of the yokai, while also compiling a glossary of some of the more well known yokai.

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10. The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim

Written by a famous child psychologist, The Uses of Enchantment studies the effect that fairy tales have on children. This book studies the dark lessons that early drafts of fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood's story being an exploration of the dark side of her sexuality. If you're interested in both old school psychology and fairy tales, this is the book for you.

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Image: Xavier Lorenzo/Moment/Getty Images

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