Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for January, 2013

Morphology of the Folktale

Morphology of the Folktale

Vladimir Propp



The fairy tale, on the other hand, is very much the result of common conscious and unconscious content having been shaped by the conscious mind, not of one particular person, but the consensus of many in regard to what they view as universal human problems, and what they accept as desirable solutions.

-Bruno Bettelheim



Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (2nd ed.). (L. Scott, Trans.) Austin: University of Texas Press.




Vladimir Propp was trained as a philologist, meaning that he studied the historical development of language. Trained as a Formalist, Propp is perhaps most famous for Morphology of the Folktale, his attempt to identify fundamental components of Russian fairy/folktales and the relationship of these elements to each other. In this, Propp responded to Antti Aarne, who focused on motifs (i.e., repeated story elements) and developed the Aarne–Thompson tale type index, by arguing that Aarne identified patterns but ignored the function(s) of these elements. Propp’s work would also go on to influence Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss, individuals working in mythology and folkloric studies. Given that Propp was interested in written language, his study of folklore has been criticized for its emphasis on the written form, disregarding that folklore had traditionally been transmitted orally.[1]



In accordance with Russian Formalism, Propp believed that literature was composed of discrete identifiable units and that appropriate analysis would result from the description of these elements and their relationship to both one another and the story as a whole. In order to tackle a study of the breadth of Russian folktales, Propp endeavored to create a comprehensive morphology that listed key elements or constants.


For Propp, the appropriate unit of analysis was the function of dramatis personae (i.e., character plus action), which differed from Aarne’s use of motifs in that Aarne placed more emphasis on the action itself whereas Propp argued that the action must be contextualized by an understanding of its actor (in this case the subject of the action is considered part of the action itself and not its own independent element).


Indeed, the “who” is not particularly important in fairy/folktales as the characters are relatively unambiguous and often derive their names from their social relationship or occupation (which itself hints at a type of social relationship). The individuals who inhabit a fairy/folktale are simple and largely free from internal conflict:  characters who seem good are good and those who seem bad are bad. In a sense, these characters are not really people so much as they are devices.


Furthermore, due to the lack of internal psychology, Propp did not use dimensions like motivation in his analysis. Although modern storytelling in America would seem to place a premium on the “why” (see, for example, the way in which intent is central to the legal system), the straightforward nature of the characters in fairy/folktales made this type of analysis unnecessary.


Propp identified 31 unique functions (see below) in Russian folktales, a morphology that bears a certain similarity to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. However, looking at the elements in both schemas, one can immediately see that fairy/folktales are much more straightforward in that they consist of a specific actor/action while the elements of the monomyth speak much more to a process akin to character development.


It should also be noted that folklore is different than postmodern storytelling, which may use some of these familiar elements but will often combine them in new ways or otherwise play with conventions. For an example of how Propp’s attempt at morphology might be applied in a modern context, see The Periodic Table of Storytelling below.



[1] See, for example, Philip Pullman’s assertion that “A fairy tale is not a text … It’s a transcription made on one of more occasions of the words spoken by one of many people who have told this tale. And all sorts of things, of course, affect the words that are finally written down. A storyteller might tell the tale more richly, more extravagantly, one day than the next, when he’s tired or not in the mood. A transcriber might find her own equipment failing:  a cold in the head might make hearing more difficult, or cause the writing-down to be interrupted by sneezes or coughs.” (Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, xviii)



Fairy/Folktales vs. (Mono)Myth





One of the members of a family absents himself from home The call to adventure


An interdiction (limitation) is addressed to the hero Refusal of the call


The interdiction is violated Supernatural aid


The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance The crossing of the first threshold


The villain receives information about his victim Belly of the whale


The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him The road of trials


The victim unknowingly helps the villain by being deceived or influenced by the villain The meeting with the goddess


The villain harms a member of the family or a member of the family lacks/desires something Woman as temptress


The lack or misfortune is made known; the hero is given a request or a command; the hero goes on a mission/quest Atonement with the father


The seeker plans action against the villain Apotheosis


The hero leaves home The ultimate boon


The hero is tested The refusal of the return


The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor The magic flight


The hero uses the magical agent Rescue from without


The hero is transferred to the general location of the object of his mission/quest The crossing of the return threshold


The hero and villain join in direct combat Master of two worlds


The hero is branded Freedom to live


The villain is defeated  


The initial misfortune or lack is set right  


The hero returns home  


The hero is pursued  


The hero is rescued from pursuit  


The hero arrives home or elsewhere and is not recognized  


A false hero makes false claims  


A difficult task is set for the hero  


The task is accomplished  


The hero is recognized  


The false hero is exposed  


The false hero is transformed  


The villain is punished  


The hero is married and crowned  


Periodic Table of Storytelling