• Sybil Collas

Horses make everything better: Morphology of the Folktale

Who is this for?

Storytellers interested in tales and their theory, theoreticians interested in tales and their stories.

Is it awesome?

It was awesome a century ago - now it's still interesting but less accessible.

How lengthy is it?

In theory it's short, but the math, wordiness, and constant back and forth between abbreviations and the corresponding index make for a tedious read.

Open the book on page 105 (pdf version, p.132). Breathe in. Breathe out.

What was that thing?

In Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp designs a mathematical approach to the structure of fairy tales - the first of its kind. Long after Aristotle defined the components of a plot (and with complete disregard for this funding theory), Propp managed to create a new type of method to dissect and analyze folktales.

This essay presents a collection of narrative functions which are treated as the essential components of a folktale, with a constant parallel to the science of biological morphology. Propp's obsession to define a morphology of tales is omnipresent. And, well, it works.

His 31 functions are essential narrative bits (the villain appears, the hero departs, a helper appears, a horse is gained, etc.) that greatly reminds of Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces. Only much, much more complex, and written 20 years before. A visionary for his time, and no doubt someone who influenced subsequent theories on story structure, Propp managed to come very close to a universal formula.

He understood that narrative, not themes, was the dna of stories. Interestingly, he differs from modern theories in the way he adjusts structure: to him, functions can be interchangeable as long as they follow rules specific to themselves. A story is malleable.

Rather than character-driven or story-driven, Propp defines a consequence-driven structure, one where functions are defined by their endings, not their content, and where functions can merge and result in a joined resolution, despite starting with different premises. His method is pretty refreshing and gives a new (old?) point of view on storytelling structure.

Problem is that Mister Propp writes for a particular audience. Russian scholars. In 1927. Following his examples is a real trial when you don't have extensive knowledge of Russian tales - but it does give you desire to read them, especially when you learn about the countless feats of Ivan's horse. On the other hand, the basis for his essay is questionable: 100 occidental and Arabic tales, chosen randomly from the database of a fellow academician, with no assurance of consistency or widespread representation. This arbitrary choice is not assumed, and the author tends to forget it when he affirms that all tales, anywhere, follow his rules. Which they don't.

His aim to create a mathematical analysis also impedes his work. The many Greek letters and sub-numbers and symbols he uses to define his formulas, if they are justified in his approach, do create a long-lasting headache. The pain level is doubled when you remember he criticized this very approach in his colleagues' works (heh). The second problem is that Propp himself declares the existence of inconsistencies and exceptions to his rules and shoves ill-fitting narratives into a convenient, I quote, 'Unclear or alien forms' bucket marked with a grand X. As awesome as

looks, Maths do not allow for such inconsistency.

The rigidity and faults of Propp's formulas should be overlooked - his own advice -, to be used for the analysis and creation of stories.

Once you're able to look past this, you can enjoy his take on functions, characters, and structure variation and linearity. I'm especially fond of Propp's take on character roles: roles fill certain narrative functions, but rarely all of them (except Ivan's horse, who can talk, fly, fight, and fulfill quests in stead of his owner). More often than not, the same role is fulfilled by several characters; however, several functions can also be given to the same character, birthing a new chimera archetype with accumulated or divided story attributes and forms.


To recap. The functions allow comparison between tales of varied geographical and historical background, but Propp lost himself in his search for little boxes to put stories into. He regularly admits to a crime of superficial analysis.

What's interesting is that despite this weakness, and despite being almost a century old, Propp's method remains close to contemporary theories. Campbell's, Snyder's, McKee's theories of story and structure (to name but a few) have evolved to cover the modern complexities of story and have adapted to the various narrative media that were born in the meantime. They built methods that are far more accurate than Propp's, but never contradict him.

Propp knew his study was fallible and would lay the basis for future, more complete works. And he was very right.

I would recommend reading Morphology of the Folktale after modern studies, to gain insight into the detailed functions of folktale storytelling techniques.

Although you can read the pdf for free here, I strongly recommend getting it in book format to flip back and forth between the abbreviations appendix and the actual text. Or you could go full programmer and open the same pdf in three different, side-to-side tabs. Your choice.

A Proppian outline generator is available here.

10 lessons I learned from this book: - horses make everything better

- the monomyth is also a monotale

- story structure is a unit which can cycle inside another story

- narrative segments call to each other if linked by their function

- agents of change can be living beings, inanimate objects, or a skill

- different characters can fulfill different roles, and inherit their qualities

- likewise, different characters can fulfill the same role and share its qualities

- story thread criss-cross through structure without changing its global shape

- don't dismiss old studies, they're the foundation in which new theories grew

- variants and details vanish with time, and nothing remains but the essence of Story

Thank you for reading and have a great day.

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