September 2023: The Problem With Propp

Folklore & Fiction

The September 2020 Folklore & Fiction dispatch has been recorded as a podcast, and you can both read and listen to it here. In it, I'm writing about language and verbal lore with help from scholars J.L. Austin and Richard Bauman, author Frank Herbert, Swedish performers Emma Åslund and Åsa Larsson, and others. I'm also exploring the use of language and verbal lore in storycraft and providing you with an exercise on the topic. 

The Problem With Propp

Morphology of the Folktale in a (Very Large) Nutshell

Over the years, a few of my intrepid subscribers have discovered Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale, or at least discovered one of the many online guides to writing fairy tales based on the text, and asked me to discuss it as a storytelling tool. I've been a bit hesitant for reasons that will soon become apparent, but because there are so many new faces among my subscribers this month (Welcome!), I thought it might be a good time to dive into Propp's structural analysis of traditional Russian narratives and tell you why I don't presently teach with it for storytelling purposes.

Vladimir Propp was an early twentieth century Russian folklorist who analyzed Russian fairy tales according to the structure of these narratives and the function of characters in them. His work was groundbreaking at the time and quite different from the work of his contemporary Antti Aarne, who was analyzing folktales based on plots and motifs.1 Propp saw marked structural similarities between the tales he studied, and he offers the following example to introduce them:

  1. A tsar gives an eagle to a hero. The eagle carries the hero away to another kingdom.
  2. An old man gives Súčenko a horse. The horse carries Súčenko away to another kingdom.
  3. A sorcerer gives Iván a little boat. The boat takes Iván to another kingdom.
  4. A princess gives Iván a ring. Young men appearing from out of the ring carry Iván away into another kingdom, and so forth.

Both constants and variables are present in the preceding instances. The names of the dramatis personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change. From this we can draw the inference that a tale often attributes identical actions to various personages. This makes possible the study of the tale according to the functions of its dramatis personae.2

According to Propp, Russian fairy tales are comprised of seven plot sequences and thirty-one functions. Here they are, with a bit of help from English scholar Terence Patrick Murphy's excellent book From Fairy Tale to Film Screenplay: Working with Plot Genotypes:

  • 0 - The Initial Situation: Like it says on the label, this is where it all begins. The heroine is introduced, the prosperity of the family or the beauty of the village's favourite daughter is described, etc. Propp doesn't think this is part of the actual plot, so it gets the number "0" and doesn't have any associated functions.
  • 1 - Preparation: Something happens to cast a shadow over the happiness described in the Initial Situation.
    • 1. One of the members of a family absents himself from home.
    • 2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero.
    • 3. The interdiction is violated.
    • 4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance.
    • 5. The villain receives information about his victim.
    • 6. The villain attempts to deceive his victim in order to take possession of him or of his belongings.
    • 7. The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy.
  • 2 - Complication: Things get worse by way of a complication, usually when some sort of lack or desire is revealed.
    • 8. Misfortune or lack is made known; the hero is approached with a request or command, he is allowed to go or he is dispatched.
    • 9. One member of a family either lacks something or desires to have something.
    • 10. The seeker agrees to or decides upon counteraction.
  • 3 - Gift Donation: The heroine is tested, and if she passes the test, she is given a magical gift and/or transported to a site of struggle.
    • 11. The hero leaves home.
    • 12. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper.
    • 13. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor.
    • 14. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent.
    • 15. The hero is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of search.
  • 4 - Struggle: The heroine and villain meet and come into conflict with each other.
    • 16. The hero and the villain join in direct combat.
    • 17. The hero is branded.
    • 18. The villain is defeated.
  • 5 - The Pivotal Nineteenth Function: The lack or desire introduced in the complication is liquidated or fulfilled. This is the climax of the tale.
    • 19. The initial misfortune or lack is liquidated.
  • 6 - Return: The heroine endeavours to go home.
    • 20. The hero returns.
    • 21. The hero is pursued.
    • 22. Rescue of the hero from pursuit.
  • 7 - Difficult Task: The heroine is presented with a final task upon her return. 
    • 23. The hero, unrecognized, arrives home or in another country.
    • 24. A false hero presents unfounded claims.
    • 25. A difficult task is proposed to the hero.
    • 26. The task is resolved.
    • 27. The hero is recognized.
    • 28. The false hero or villain is exposed.
    • 29. The hero is given a new appearance.
    • 30. The villain is punished.
    • 31. The hero is married and ascends the throne.34

In Propp's view, fairy tale characters lack or desire something, and throughout the course of the tale that lack is eliminated. With this in mind, the most important sequences in his structure are two and nineteen, which together represent the heart of the tale. For example, the hero may leave home in search of a way to cure his mother, who has been imprisoned and poisoned by a villain (1, 2, 9). The hero finds a magical healing elixir and returns with it, but he must defeat the villain before he can give the healing elixir to his mother (14, 16). The hero defeats the villain, rescues his mother, and cures her with the healing elixir (18, 19, 26). In this hypothetical story, the hero's mother lacks a cure, and that lack is eliminated with a healing elixir. Also note that I didn't use every character function in this tale, but I did use the functions in sequence, and these are distinctive features of the structure as well.

The Problem with Propp

From its inception in January 2019, Folklore & Fiction has been a toolkit designed primarily for commercial fiction writers and musicians. As a speculative fiction writer and musician myself, I already knew my fellow artists were using folklore genres, plots, and motifs, and I wanted to make it easier for them by providing good folkloristic scholarship catered to their particular needs. So when I finished producing the "Genre" series at the end of 2020, I decided to make a study of the two most widely-utilized folk narrative indexes; The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature and The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography (ATU index). At the time, they were both expensive and difficult to find.5 However, I knew these indexes had a broader utility for storytellers than Vladimir Propp's structuralist analysis of Russian fairy tales, especially since Propp himself indicates that he is only studying fairy tales, which Antti Aarne classifies between numbers 300 and 749.67 In my view as a folklorist and professional writer, it was a major structural framework to teach for a mere 449 tale types, so I decided against it.8

To be fair, Propp's work has been widely adapted as a plot structure in modern storytelling, especially for screenplays, but that brings me to another concern. It's already been done to death. Much as Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey has been done to death in books and movies,9 Propp's work is popular with storytellers, so you don't really need a folklorist to walk you through it. On the one hand, that's great, because it's a well-worn path to a completed story. On the other hand, using it can be risky for publication purposes, because rigid adherence to Propp's structure can make your story read like everyone else's. A fundamental goal of the Folklore & Fiction project has always been to provide you with a fresh perspective on folklore so that you can tell unique stories, and I didn't want to teach you something that might inhibit your publication chances later.

Finally, Propp insists there are only seven plot sequences and thirty-one functions in Russian fairy tales, and his work speaks only to this structure and not the social, political, or ideological contexts of the tales. So it's a proscriptive and limited template for storytelling. Murphy makes a good point when he writes that while Propp's work was an important foundation stone for folk narrative study:

Propp’s belief in 'an amazing uniformity' is overstated. Not all fairy tales contain the 31 functions that Propp believed to constitute this invariant structure. Some fairy tales, indeed, exist as virtual hideous mirror images of the Marriage fairy tale on which Propp focuses most of his attention. In sharp contrast to the romantic fairy tales that Propp focused on, these mirror image fairy tales provide the basic plot lines for the horror movies of the Hollywood tradition."10

I would add to this that storytellers hoping to subvert the morality of a fairy tale need to understand it first, and this is difficult to do without a contextual analysis of the tale.

Ultimately, I've been concerned that if I teach with Vladimir Propp's structural analysis of Russian fairy tales, readers and listeners will use it too narrowly and stifle their own creativity in the process. I love the subversion of traditional plots and motifs in storytelling, and that requires our imaginations and our engagement with the historical and contemporary contexts of the tales. So for what it's worth, I would encourage you to use Propp's work as an inspirational tool to help you choose a character type or construct an interesting sub-plot. But unless you want to write a traditional Russian fairy tale, handle this folkloristic tool with care.111213

Dispatches from the Word Mines


Originally published in Goblin Fruit, "Fetters" is a poetry selection from The Ruin of Beltany Ring: A Collection of Pagan Poems and Tales. I recorded it some years ago before I had a sound studio as a learning exercise in audio production. Have a listen to it here. If you like the poem, you can buy the collection here.


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