To Marriage and a Throne in 31 Easy Steps: Vladimir Propp's Cataloging System for Folktale Themes
Part of the attraction of Library and Information Science is that it allows one to be omnivorous. One day a patron wants magnetic anomaly maps for northern Canada, the next you are subject analyzing a website of Russian Orthodox nationalist propaganda. The challenge is to avoid being distracted by the information we organize and retrieve. It’s a challenge I often fail. In my first year as a masters student, I couldn’t resist slipping out of the iSchool to take classes that had nothing to do with my degree or career aspirations.
One such class was on Russian folk tales, which was totally fun and revealing. The class was pretty easy: read stories, muse on their meaning, repeat. We would pick apart themes and argue metaphors, I’m sure you’ve been there. I admit I did not take the class to study a new classification scheme, but guess what? Around the seventh week we were discussing Morphology of the Folk Tale by a certain Russian literary scholar of the Structuralist school, Vladimir Propp. Essentially Propp argued that there are only 31 things that can ever happen in a folk tale. It’s highly unlikely that any story will contain all 31, but of the events that it does contain, they will always occur in the same order. Weird, huh?
Remember this is not a system intended to pick apart Disney’s Cinderella or Tolkien’s Hobbit. We’re discussing an art form created and appreciated by illiterate people, transmitted orally and subject to drastic variety and reinterpretation. So the idea that this body of work created by thousands of individuals over hundreds of years could be so rigid, so predictable is nothing less than surreal.
Critics of Propp point out that his system disregards everything that’s fun about the folk tale. The unique characteristics of a hero find no voice in Propp’s system: Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are the same, all that matters is their role vis-à-vis Elmer Fudd. Propp doesn’t catalog dialog, tone, or quality. He’s about narrative elements boiled down to their essence. Propp himself freely admits in Morphology that he’s leaving out some of his own favorite bits, but he feels once we get these similarities worked out, we can get on to all the other things that make folk literature so much fun. Here are Propp’s 31 narrative elements:
1st Sphere: Introduction
1. Absentation: Someone goes missing
2. Interdiction: Hero is warned
3. Violation of interdiction
4. Reconnaissance: Villain seeks something
5. Delivery: The villain gains information
6. Trickery: Villain attempts to deceive victim
7. Complicity: Unwitting helping of the enemy
2nd Sphere: The Body of the Story
8. Villainy and lack: The need is identified
9. Mediation: Hero discovers the lack
10. Counteraction: Hero chooses positive action
11. Departure: Hero leaves on mission
3rd Sphere: The Donor Sequence
12. Testing: Hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities
13. Reaction: Hero responds to test
14. Acquisition: Hero gains magical item
15. Guidance: Hero reaches destination
16. Struggle: Hero and villain do battle
17. Branding: Hero is branded
18. Victory: Villain is defeated
19. Resolution: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved
4th Sphere: The Hero’s Return
20. Return: Hero sets out for home
21. Pursuit: Hero is chased
22. Rescue: Pursuit ends
23. Arrival: Hero arrives unrecognized
24. Claim: False hero makes unfounded claims
25. Task: Difficult task proposed to the hero
26. Solution: Task is resolved
27. Recognition: Hero is recognized
28. Exposure: False hero is exposed
29. Transfiguration: Hero is given a new appearance
30. Punishment: Villain is punished
31. Wedding: Hero marries and ascends the throne
So that’s it. That’s all that can ever happen in a folk tale. To thoroughly catalog a folk tale using Propp's notation system, however, things are just getting started. The first narrative element, "Absention" is represented with the character "α", the system runs through the Greek alphabet until "λ" then switches to the Latin script "A" and runs to "Z." To make sure you're really good and confused he occasionally throws in arrows, letter pairs, and abbreviations to more thoroughly represent a tale in notation. He'll put a "+" or "-" to indicate if the results of the narrative element were positive or negative. He has these little dingbats for something called "connectives" and uses a ">" when a hero decides to take a path at a fork in the road. It’s pretty obvious that Propp didn’t have an LIS degere, otherwise he would have developed a better system. Propp goes on to list the iterations of each narrative element, each of these are notated with a Arabic numeral. I’ll save you the whole list, but here is the set for the eighth narrative element which can fall into two possible classes: the “A” set contains narrative elements in which villainy is involved, “a” on the other hand is used when something is simply “lacking.” Take note also how he switches from an Arabic to a Roman numeral for a variation on an element:
Function 8A: antagonist(s) causes harm or injury to victim(s)/member of protagonist's family:
Function 8a: one member of family lacks/desires something = lower case “a” denotes a “lack” situation
I know, eggs? I’ve read a lot of the Russian tales, I don’t remember the “egg of death or love,” but it must be in there somewhere.
It seems Propp painted himself into quite a corner, but he does give himself one little ‘out’ when he says that a tale can contain more than one arc that can each have its own set. One could cyclically abuse this rule but you really don’t have to. The system holds up quite well in representing the Eastern Slavic canon that Propp used for his analysis. People have gone on to test his system in various folklore traditions around the world. I have seen works that have shown it to be widely applicable but not universal in describing African and Asian folk tales. People have argued there are exceptions on his Slavic home turf as well.
One thing that might strike you is how well the system also describes a great many works of popular entertainment. There are plenty of blockbusters turned out every year that fall squarely in the system. It seems the folk genius still runs strong in modern culture. But it’s also not hard to find a great number of counterexamples as well. Propp made no promises about any other medium than oral storytelling, attempt to apply it elsewhere, and in the words of the Great Joe Janes, "your mileage may vary."
So what does Propp’s revelation tell us? Perhaps it lays bare the archetypal Story that humans want to hear in the core of our psychology. One scholar has pointed out that the tale begins with the enumeration and fracturing of an old nuclear family and ends with creation of a new one. The folk genius seems to have an agenda: marriage and fruitfulness-- material and familial. No tale ever ended in a quiet life of asceticism or austerity.
As a final assignment in my Russian folklore class we had the option of composing our own folk tale that would adhere to Propp’s scheme. Here is mine. I don’t claim it to be great literature, but I do take pride in it being technically correct.