The Aarne-Thompson Classification System
October 10, 2011 4:19 PM   Subscribe

Originally published by Finnish forkloristAntti Aarne and expanded by American Stith Thompson and German Hans-Jörg Uther, the Aarne-Thompson Classification System is a system for classifying folktales based on motifs.

Some Examples:
Beauty and the Beast: Type 425C
Bluebeard: 312
The Devil Building a Bridge: Type 1191
The Foolish Use of Magic Wishes Type 750A
Hansel and Gretel and other abandoned children: Type 327
Women forced to marry hogs: Type 441
The Runaway Pancake: Type 2025

Wikipedia has a complete breakdown and here has examples of most of the tale types.
posted by Bulgaroktonos (13 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
TVTropes turned classy!
posted by Monochrome at 4:28 PM on October 10, 2011

I love taxonomic systems so much, and find them so fucking helpful. This one, which I have seen in other places, is just so elegant, so beautiful, so well ordered. I just want to hug it.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:37 PM on October 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Two points.

1. Any idea if these guys were influenced by the Dewey Decimal System or Universal Decimal Classification?

2. I am deeply sad that I cannot find anything quickly on the tale "The Eel Filled with Sand."
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:58 PM on October 10, 2011

I once spent a lot of time perusing examples via Aarne-Thompson and one of the most interesting things about them is how motifs that were already familiar to me kept reappearing in strange combinations all over the world. I've forgotten exact examples, but you'd see things like Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl who lived with her three wicked stepsisters. One day, while walking through the woods, she came upon a wolf who asked her "where are you going, little girl?" She replied, "I'm off to climb the giant beanstalk that reaches to the sky to see the princess who lives with seven dwarfs."

It became really apparent that many folktales had to have been constructed on the fly by mixing in motifs from other folktales, or by choosing fairly universal "hooks" or forms of exaggeration. The story teller has to keep the interest of the audience; you kind of go along, making up the narrative, and when you get stuck you throw in the next weird thing you can think of.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:46 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Excellent post and idea for a post. This index is such a classic and is incredibly useful still today. The "urban" or postmodern legend still draws on these very same tropes, sort of the DNA of the Western imagination. Nice!
posted by Miko at 6:36 PM on October 10, 2011

Fork lore is the best utensil lore.
posted by kenaldo at 9:16 PM on October 10, 2011

For those who may be interested, Joseph Campbell published an informative and concise monograph entitled "Folkloristic Commentary." First published in The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, Pantheon, 1944. It deals with not only the Grimm tales, but folktales in general. Note: In the book the monograph contains a breakdown of the Grimm tales according to the Antti Aarne system at the end of Part II. This classification does not appear in the linked article.

Also, in that particular edition is an Introduction by Padraic Colum. That old Irishman gives a beautiful, moving and almost mystical sense of what, long ago, folktales meant to the people, the atmosphere surrounding the actual telling of the stories, and the lost art of the storyteller. I recommend it most highly, as well as the Campbell commentary.

After a short perusal of google, I couldn't find a link to the Colum Introduction. But it has to be out there somewhere.

Also, nice post.
posted by TrolleyOffTheTracks at 9:21 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Twoleftfeet has it right: the archetypes of folklore and fairy-tales are so strong and so universally recognised that they can be put together in almost any order and the end result will still be a satisfying narrative.

Twenty years ago two friends and I designed a card game that takes advantage of this amazing resilience and flexibility, and it's still in print. People ask us why we've never done a sequel and the simple answer is that there aren't any other genres that would work as well. I've officially given up on trying to do a ghost-story version, and am half-heartedly trying to create a murder-mystery version, though it'll be a lot more rulesy than the original.
posted by Hogshead at 5:35 AM on October 11, 2011

Twenty years ago two friends and I designed a card game that takes advantage of this amazing resilience and flexibility, and it's still in print. People ask us why we've never done a sequel and the simple answer is that there aren't any other genres that would work as well.

That wouldn't happen to be "Once Upon a Time" would it? 'Cause I've come super close to buying that a bunch of times, but never have.

Also, I'm going to blame the phrase "Forklorist" on the fact that a delicious pizza arrived just as I was finishing up the post, so I didn't proofread. Unless you liked "forklorist" in which case it was a special joke, just to delight you. Aren't I thoughtful?
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:20 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


That sounds really interesting. Do you have a link to it?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:11 AM on October 11, 2011

Bulgaroktonos: yes, it's Once Upon a Time.

Sangermaine: here's the publisher's website and BoardGameGeek page.
posted by Hogshead at 3:08 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not to be pedantic . . . ok, to be pedantic, there's a distinction between a motif and a tale type even though they're classified similarly. A tale type is a whole narrative template, like Cinderella (Type 510), etc. as listed above. There are thousands of examples of the Cinderella story (Type 510A) or its incest variation (Type 510B), all built on the same chassis, with relatively minor but fascinating content variations.

Motifs are smaller narrative components that might come up in a bazillion different folktale types or in other narratives like myths and legends. So The Three Little Pigs is a tale type (there's a nice Turkish version with bunnies), but "poison apple" or "punishment by being turned into a constellation" is a motif -- I don't know their numbers offhand.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:06 PM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, fabulous post, thanks! Oddly enough, when I teach folklore/folk lit, type and motif indexing just don't get the WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC reception from the studio audience that you'd expect them to, so it's lovely to find oneself in the good company of MeFi cataloguing nerds.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:25 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

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