Vladimir Propp: The Morphology of the Folktale

[Readings] (12.20.08, 6:13 pm)

Propp is one of the earliest formalist accounts of story structure. However, immediately in the preface, we see an interesting perspective that is not normally accounted for. Morphology as a practice comes from botany, which is a study of the component parts, and then the relation between individual parts and the whole. The botanical metaphor is interesting, and casts the flavor for Propp’s entire analysis. Morphology in botany is used for two things primarily: classification and study of function. The morphology approach in botany is generally usurped by genetics in modern practice. A genetic analogue to the folktale would observe the creation of tales and study their emergence, and the factors that caused them to appear in the way that they do. Morphology is a differentiation and classification among specimens, identifying how some tales may be alike in many ways but different in key elements.

From a computational perspective, Propp’s work is an excellent example of a descriptive or analytic model. This may be used for classifying or understanding a body of work in terms of its parts, but it is not sufficient to generate new material computationally. In fact, it is not generally possible to proceduralize the deconstruction of a tale into a grammar. Human knowledge and context is needed to both interpret a grammar from a story, and to turn a grammar into a new story. These dimensions have a great deal of choice and flexibility involved, and these details are not within the resolution of the descriptive model. Nonetheless, that does not mean that the model is useless or flawed. It may still work as a tool for interpreting and analyzing tales once they have been converted into the symbolic structure required by the model.

The History of the Problem

Propp’s account for the problem suggests that the goal of morphology is to investigate and catalogue, but also provide a history of folktales. The perspective of understanding history recalls the idea of the genealogy of folktales, understanding how the patterns emerged, although this does not seem to be discussed. The study of folktales have attempted to classify tales in various ways, differentiating between animal tales and fairy tales, and so on. Morphology is posed as an alternative to this sort of high level and hierarchical classification. Existing theories have made classifications based on category, theme, and motif. The flow of these ideas gradually transitions into a grammar that analyzes tales in terms of elements. The categorical approach gives a hierarchical, taxonomy, and that is the origin from which Propp wishes to relocate the study of folktales.

The Method and Material

Propp has targeted his material specifically and exactly. The subject of his study are the fairy tales classified by Afanas’ev, from the numbers 50 to 151 (although there was a more recent reordering, which makes the new numbers 93-270). Propp is forming a morphology of only these 100 tales, so his approach may be seen as maybe not a morphology of all tales, but an example of the means by which a morphology may be defined around a collection of works. The morphology is “a description of the tale according to its component parts and the relationship of these components to each other and to the whole.” (p. 19)

More exactly, the tale is broken down into the functions of the dramatis personae. The function is the unit of analysis from which the tales are composed. The set of characters is large, and the set of functions are small. The two dimensions (function and character) lead to a large combinatorial diversity, producing a large potential number of tales. It is important to clarify that the function is not the act performed by a character, but the meaning behind that action. “Function is understood as an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.” (p. 21) Propp defines four theses relating the functional composition of the folktales: (p. 21-23)

  1. Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. The constituted the fundamental components of a tale.
  2. The number of functions known to the fairy tale is limited.
  3. The sequence of functions is always identical.
  4. All fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.

The Functions of Dramatis Personae

This section forms the bulk of Propp’s work. He catalogues with great detail the functions present in a tale, which are identified by Greek and Roman letters, as well as a few symbols. He classifies the functions in order of their appearance within tales, gives several varieties of each type of function, and examples of those variants. The botanical metaphor continues at this level: Propp explains that the task of identifying functions is the extraction of genera. Genera would give way to species, and then varieties. What is interesting is that Propp uses a genetic metaphor to examine the component structures of the folktales, not the tales on the whole.

A good example of a function which has an important role within the morphology is “VIII. The villain causes harm or injury to a member of a family. (Definition: villainy. Designation: A.)” (p. 30-34) Villainy takes on many forms. I will mention a few of them:

  1. The villain abducts a person (A1). A dragon kidnaps the tsar’s daughter (131), a peasant’s daughter (133); a witch kidnaps a boy (108)…
  2. The villain seizes or takes away a magical agent (A2). The “uncomely chap” seizes a magic coffer (189); a princess seizes a magic shirt (208); the finger-sized peasant makes off with a magic steed (138).
  3. The villain pillages or spoils the crops (A3). A mare eats up a haystack (105). A bear steals the oats (143). A crane steals the peas (186).

There is a brief interlude where Propp explains that certain chains of functions have types of their own. Several types of functions work well with each other, or do not work well, and there is a great diversity of possible connections that occur within the catalog of folktales. Generally, illogical connections may exist, but require extra motivation or context in the tale. In computational adaptations of Propp’s work, these connections are extremely problematic, though. In the context of a pure morphology, that is not a problem. This is one point where it is important to realize that Propp’s study is a descriptive or analytic grammar, not a generative one. A human could perform the task of reconciling an illogical chain of functions, but that is generally beyond the power of a computational generative grammar.

For accommodating stories with multiple parts, villainous “moves” are extracted to form subsequences in the grammar. Some of these groups may be cycled and repeated. Additionally, some elements are grouped: prohibition is always paired with violation, for example. The sequence ABC↑ can be understood as a unit, the “complication.” The sequence DEF is the hero’s testing and reward, which also serves as a unit. There are combinatorial variations within these units, but they serve as logical groupings within the grammar itself.

Some Other Elements of the Tale

Tangentially, Propp mentions the issue of motivation. Motivation is extremely important in my own work, and it has an insubstantial role in the formalist analysis. Here motivation is addressed as following from the action (plot) itself. Some motivations are hatred, fear, jealousy, love, lack, and justice. Motivation adds to the quality of the action, but does not address the form of the action itself.

The Distribution of Functions Among the Dramatis Personae

Functions are grouped by spheres of influence, namely, spheres have have authority over certain functions. Characters may correspond to the spheres, or a single character may cover multiple spheres, or many figures may make up a single sphere. These spheres serve as roles within the format, which would conceivably be where agents would intervene if they were able to act within the story as a world. The spheres are enumerated as follows: (p. 79-80)

  1. The villain. The villain performs the villainy, struggles with the hero, and pursues him/her.
  2. The donor (provider). The donor gives the hero a magical agent.
  3. The helper. The helper may undo the misfortune or lack, rescue the hero from pursuit, and transfigure the hero.
  4. The princess (a sought-for person) and her father. This sphere assigns the difficult tasks, brands the hero, exposes and recognizes the hero, and also participates in marriage.
  5. The dispatcher. Dispatches the hero.
  6. The hero. The hero performs the departure and engages with the villain. Oddly, the conflicts are represented in the villain’s domain in this analysis.
  7. The false hero. The false hero appears in some stories, engages in some of the activities of the hero, and has a special function of presenting false claims.

The Tale as a Whole

The methods of recombination are actually rather complex. The opening problem is how to distinguish one tale from another. The first step is to tell how a single tale is structured, identify “what is meant by a tale” (p. 92). Given here are methods of reconstruction, which are moves that may take place in the story. Each move is a conflict and resolution, which actually take on multiple formats by the grammar. Some tales have two full sequences of A-W, another example interrupts a tale so it has three sequences: A-G, a-K, K-W. This diversity of recombination is extraordinarily complex, and does not actually seem to be well integrated into the final grammar.

Some tales are differentiated by the sequences of H-I (the struggle with the villain and victory over him), and M-N (the difficult task and its resolution). Many tales diverge on these. The challenge is reconciling the study of the whole to include both systems of multiple moves, as well as this H-I and M-N distinction. Propp does explain that four categories result: tales with H-I, tales with M-N, tales with both, and those with neither. He observes that when there are multiple moves, then the fight (H-I) move always occurs first and is followed by the difficult task (M-N). The solution for reconciliation is to use a branching path. However, the grammar still does seem unusually inflexible.

The remaining discussion is on the variants of the morphology and the characteristics of the overal forms. Propp finds that many instances of functions are interchangeable, but some are not, i.e. H1 must always be followed by I1. Some functions may change places. Direct violations exist, but are usually exceptional cases. Theme is an ill defined problem in terms of story form.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorPropp, Vladimir
TitleMorphology of the Folktale
Tagsspecials, media theory, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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