23. The hero, unrecognized, arrives home or in another country.
September 12, 2018 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Morphology of the Folktale - "Propp set out to identify the basic elements of the plots of Russian fairy tales, working at a level of abstraction where "it does not matter whether a dragon kidnaps a princess or whether a devil makes off with either a priest's or a peasant's daughter". He came up with 31 such "functions". Just listing them (chapter 3) has a certain folkloric quality..." (via)
posted by kliuless (16 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Cool! This is going into the research folder for my game.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:44 AM on September 12, 2018

I lose interest on the formal grammar part, but everyone who has read through ten or twenty fairy tale collections in quick succession has had the strong feeling that there is some hidden order operating independently of the usual narrative conventions in them. This intuition often shows up as a form of magic or principle of order in fantasies based on fairy tales, perhaps most famously here:

“The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch's door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.” -- Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Thereby hangs a tale. Long ago, I was running a D&D game for a bunch of six-year-old boys, and a five-year-old girl heard them talking about it on the playground and wanted in. On her first game, I threw her a low, slow one, a zombie that wanted to eat her brains. I figured she would whang it in the head with her staff, stave in its skull, and go away happy. Instead, she said:

"I'm sorry, I can't let you eat my brains because I am using them right now, but if you come with me, I will help you find someone whose brains you can eat."

Straight out of a fairy tale. Specifically, 12, "The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, etc., which prepares the way for receiving either a magical agent or helper." I could actually feel the narrative twisting and changing shape under me. Zombies can't roll for reaction. The zombie rolled for reaction: strong positive. He really did try to be her follower, but he kept forgetting, and after a while wandered off and got lost. I have always wondered what happened to him.

Anyway, point being, once you become aware of these elements and begin making up imitation fairy tales, they begin to operate as explicit rules within the tales.
posted by ckridge at 7:27 AM on September 12, 2018 [60 favorites]

Fans of contemporary belle lettres among you will know that Leslie Jamison wrote a piece called "Morphology of the Hit" which is included in her collection The Empathy Exams, in which she talks about Propp's book and uses the 'functions' as a way to organize an experience she had getting punched in the face in Nicaragua. In the essay (which I briefly taught in an autobiography class but which was generally reviled as too bean-plate-y) she also mentions an online automatic plot generator.

I learned about Propp in grad school and as a nerd with both logical and narrative proclivities, I was of course immediately fascinated with it, and when I read about the online plot generator in Jamison's essay I immediately looked it up. It didn't exist anymore, but thanks to the ever-reliable Wayback Machine, I discovered that in fact, like the phoenix of myth, it never died, and never will die:

proppian fairy tale generator
posted by skwt at 7:29 AM on September 12, 2018 [18 favorites]

structuralism is over when I say structuralism is over
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on September 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Stith Thompson is mind bogglingly comprehensive, covering the worlds heros, goblins, witch's and pretty much everything in mind boggling detail.

Motif-index of folk-literature : a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends.

small example:

G211.2.8. †G211.2.8. Witch as raccoon. U.S.: Baughman.

G211.2.9. †G211.2.9. Witch as hedgehog. England: *Baughman.

G211.2.10. †G211.2.10. Witch in form of bat. England: Baughman.

G211.3. †G211.3. Witch in form of domestic bird.

G211.3.1. †G211.3.1. Witch in form of hen. (Cf. †D166.) *Fb ”höne“ I 750b; U.S.: Baughman.

G211.3.1.1. †G211.3.1.1. Witch in form of rooster. U.S.: Baughman.

G211.3.2. †G211.3.2. Witch in form of duck. (Cf. †D165.) *Fb ”and“ IV 12b.

G211.3.3. †G211.3.3. Witch in form of goose (gosling). England: Baughman.

G211.4. †G211.4. Witch in form of wild bird. U.S.: *Baughman.

G211.4.1. †G211.4.1. Witch in form of crow. (Cf. †D151.4.) Fb ”krage“ II 285b; U.S.: Baughman; India: Thompson-Balys.

G211.4.2. †G211.4.2. Witch in form of partridge. U.S.: Baughman.

G211.4.3. †G211.4.3. Witch in form of heath hen. U.S.: Baughman.

G211.4.4. †G211.4.4. Witch in form of owl. U.S.: Baughman.

G211.4.5. †G211.4.5. Witch in the form of buzzard. U.S.: Baughman.

G211.5. †G211.5. Witch in form of an insect.

G211.5.1. †G211.5.1. Witch in form of fly. (Cf. †D185.) Fb ”flue“ I 315.

G211.5.2. †G211.5.2. Witch in form of bee. India: Thompson-Balys.

G211.5.3. †G211.5.3. Witch in form of beetle. U.S.: *Baughman.
posted by sammyo at 7:54 AM on September 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

G211.2.9. †G211.2.9. Witch as hedgehog. England: *Baughman.

i mean i guess i prefer my specialist witches instead of my generalist witches
posted by dismas at 8:36 AM on September 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this. It's an interesting alternative (or addition, I guess) to what we know about the familiar hero’s (or heroine’s) journey.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:59 AM on September 12, 2018

I can highly recommend Ralston's collection of Muscovite fairy tales on Gutenberg. I downloaded it on a whim and my youngest has been demanding more terrible Russian stories please! The ghost mothers with dead babies, the dosing people in boiling oil and forgetting to take them out, the fools who are sweet until they end up with a cellar full of corpses and still wind up married to a princess!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:09 AM on September 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

I saw a lecture earlier this year from a philosopher who is starting to try do something like this for jokes. I think he's serious.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 9:38 AM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Folklorist here! We have basically abandoned structuralism since the 70s, but still read Propp to understand where the discipline came from. The main issue with his work (and like, most older folklore) is that tales were collected by jotting down summaries, without context of who the teller is or how it was told. In the 1970s we switched to studying performance in context, emphasizing the agency of the teller and how they creatively use and adapt stories within their own tradition (and note that tales move freely into and out of oral and literary traditions). Also the very publication of these texts shaped how the average person understands tales and was used to build national identity in the late 1800s, but that's neither here nor there.

In an early folklore theory class I had to plot out a tale of my choosing using Propp's structure, and there is a /lot/ of ambiguity and personal choice in applying his model to individual tales. This was part of an early era in folkloristics where scholars were interested in the idea of the tale as something almost with its own agency, and tellers were simply "tradition-bearers," vessels for folklore to move through. The Finnish school had its whole historic-geographic method where they took vast collections of tales and tried to find an "origin" (with a brief venture into a theory that all tales come from India and are about the sun or something). These kinds of analyses won't fly nowadays because they don't really have a point-- they're an exercise in rhetoric without linking that rhetoric back to how it operates in a culture and what it means to people.

I can find more specific texts if people are interested!
posted by mystikspyral at 10:50 AM on September 12, 2018 [34 favorites]

It makes sense to look at when and why a story is told, because that changes the story's content. Is it cautionary, exemplary, or illustrative of some point under discussion? Do we always tell it at this time of year? Do we only tell it to people of a certain age, and you are now that age? And so on.

However, it seems to me that seeing stories as particular performances is wholly compatible with seeing them as built out of elements, what people are calling structuralism here. If you tell the story different ways to do different things, you have to be able to tweak it according to the occasion, and the easiest way to do that is to have it broken down into elements which you can make larger or smaller, move around, or even switch between stories as the occasion suggests. I read somewhere that people who recited verse epics from memory had a horde of metrical formulas, most commonly epithets, with which they could fill out a line and which would give them time to remember what came next. It seems to me perfectly plausible that any teller of tales would have a horde of narrative formulas that served a similar purpose, but with plot rather than meter, and that at least some of these are the elements Propp was writing about.
posted by ckridge at 12:51 PM on September 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks for this. It's an interesting alternative (or addition, I guess) to what we know about the familiar hero’s (or heroine’s) journey.

Hmmm, not really. Joseph Campbell has no academic rigour (however misplaced) whatsoever. I'm not a folklorist but read a lot in and around this area as part of my honours degree. Campbell never did a proper survey of any mythological landscape; he just cherry picked what fit his theory. Additionally, his categories are so vague and ill defined you might as well say that every story has a "beginning", "middle" and "end" and act like it's a discovery. Also, I think he's kinda totes sexist but that's a personal call.

The systems that Propp and Thompson created are far more specific and in depth. I get really frustrated with the prominence Campbell has in popular society, when I feel like it's basically a weird cross between self help and chariots of the gods, and about it as meaningful. hero's journey is appealing, but empty.
posted by smoke at 2:16 PM on September 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

What is tragedy?
posted by kliuless at 6:16 PM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am interested in more specific texts please!

From my point of view, I'm trying to pair these kinds of ideas with a game simulation to do procedural history generation that doesn't use physics as its first principles, so I can deal with a bit of ambiguity, and structuralism is already pretty baked in.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:05 PM on September 12, 2018

I wonder if Toady1 has ever had a look at this. The "grammar equations" seem like they'd be well suited for Dwarf Fortress and the way it generates stories. It would actually be interesting to track random historical dwarves or heroes in the game and see if this kind of pattern is already emergent. I wouldn't be entirely surprised with how well the procedural story and historical simulation elements are. Then again, the stories are segments of a living world, so many would be hero stories get cut short by a monster on it's own hero's journey.

Dwarf Fortress storytelling in general would probably be of interest to folks like in the OP.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:32 AM on September 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

(with a brief venture into a theory that all tales come from India and are about the sun or something)

Hey, if we invented zero, why shouldn't we have invented all of folklore?!?!

I went to UC Berkeley for my undergrad and knew a folklorist who contributed to the folklore archive there -- never visited, though. Wish I had.
posted by brainwane at 11:04 AM on September 14, 2018

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