Морфология сказки is the Russian name of a book written by Vladimir Propp and published in 1928. It was first translated into English in 1958 with the title Morphology of the Folktale, despite the fact that the Russian word сказки means “fairy tale”, and the book is indeed about fairy tales, specifically, not folk tales in general. The second-edition translation I read, which is from 1968, points this out in the introduction but opts to keep the familiar title of the 1958 translation. Really, then, this book’s English name should be Morphology of the Fairy Tale. But I don’t think anybody uses that title, so for lack of a satisfactory English title, I’m going to refer to the book by its Russian name, Морфология сказки.
Anyway… this is a very interesting book, and it’s introduced me to a whole field of study which I never even knew existed, that of the formal analysis of folklore. I was a little surprised to learn that this kind of analysis was even possible, since folk tales are phenomena of human creativity. I thought it would be like trying to analyse something like literary fiction; such analysis is of course possible (if I understand correctly, it’s what literary criticism is all about), but it doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a formal approach. On the other hand, Propp’s analysis of fairy tales in Морфология сказки is unmistakably formalist. It displays one of the hallmarks of a formalist approach: the development of a special system of symbols which are essential for presenting the analysis. As an illustration, I’ve written out the structure of one of the fairy tales analysed by Propp below, using Propp’s formal language. The fairy tale here is from Afanasiev’s Russian Fairy Tales (1855-1863); its Russian title is Гуси-лебеди, and its English title in the edition I have is “The Magic Swan Geese”.
γ1 β1 δ1 A1 C ↑ [D ¬E1 ¬F]3 d7 E7 F9 = G4 K1 ↓ [Pr1 D1 E1 F9 = Rs4]3
Note that I have made some minor adjustments to the symbols used here, for added clarity. (It’s not the prettiest formal language I’ve ever seen, even with these adjustments.) Let me try and give you an idea of what these symbols mean.
Each of the units separated by spaces (γ1, β1, etc.) represents a particular function in the fairy tale. The word function here has a technical meaning: it refers to an action taken by a character which serves to advance the narrative, or, as Propp puts it:
Function is understood as an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.
These functions are the fundamental building blocks of fairy tales under Propp’s analysis. Here is a partial list of them, including only the ones that are present in Гуси-лебеди.
- γ is interdiction: the hero is told to do or not to do something. In this particular case (that of Гуси-лебеди), the hero, who is a girl, is told by her mother to take care of her little brother and not to leave the courtyard. The superscript 1 indicates that the command is negative, rather than positive (superscript numbers indicate particular ways in which an action can take place in Propp’s formal language).
- β is absentation: one of the members of the family leaves home. In this case it is the parents who leave (to go to work), and this is indicated by the superscript 1.
- δ is violation: the hero violates an interdiction. In this case the interdiction is the one explicitly made earlier (γ): the girl goes out to play in the street, leaving her little brother by himself. But the interdiction may also be implicit (in which case the name for this action should probably just be mistake).
- A is villainy: the villain carries out a villainous act, which can take many different forms. The form taken in Гуси-лебеди is that of abduction of a person (hence the superscript 1): the little brother, without his sister to watch over him, is seized from the air by гуси-лебеди (“geese-swans”). (I don’t know what exactly these “geese-swans” are supposed to be; there is an animal whose English name is swan goose but it only seems to live in a small area of southeastern Siberia, so I’m not sure if it would have featured in Russian fairy tales, and its name in modern Russian appears to be сухонос, anyway, not гусь-лебедь.)
- C is beginning counteraction: the hero agrees to or decides to take action against the villain. In this case, the girl realises her little brother is missing and sets off in search of him.
- ↑ is depature: the hero leaves home.
- The next sub-sequence of three units is enclosed within square brackets, with a subscript 3 after the closing square bracket. This indicates that the whole sub-sequence is repeated three times. That the number is three and not, say, two or four is due to the well-known rule of three.
- D is the first function of the donor: the hero is tested (explicitly or implicitly) by a character called the donor, with a source of help (often magical) available if they pass the test. As this is part of the triple-repeated segment, there are three instances of such a test in Гуси-лебеди. First, the girl comes across a stove and asks it where the geese went. But the stove asks her to eat one of its rye-cakes first, and she refuses. Second, the girl comes across an apple tree and asks the same, but the apple tree asks her to eat one of its apples first, and she refuses. Third, the daughter comes across a river of milk with banks made of pudding and asks the same, but the river asks her to eat some of its pudding, and she refuses again.
- E is the hero’s reaction to the donor’s test; in this case, the girl refuses to eat any of the offers made by the three donors. Because the reaction is negative a NOT sign (¬) is written before the E (Propp writes “E neg.” instead, but I changed the notation slightly).
- F is provision or receipt of a magical agent, or, in this case, a missed opportunity to do so (hence the ¬) because the girl failed the tests.
- After the three failed tests, another DEF sequence occurs involving a hedgehog donor; this time the girl passes the test, and is pointed in the direction of the geese. Now this is an interesting part of the tale, because it could perhaps be said that Propp is taking some liberties to fit this part of the story into his theory. All that happens is that the girl comes across a hedgehog and feels like nudging him (D), but decides against it because of the hedgehog’s spines (E), then asks the hedgehog where the geese went and receives an answer (F). But maybe this is an example of where Propp’s theory actually has some explanatory power. For there is the question of why the fairy tale has to include this line about the girl wanting to nudge the hedgehog. It doesn’t have any effect on the story; the girl could just ask the hedgehog straight away. Propp’s answer to this question would be that it is a way of making the encounter with the hedgehog conform to the DEF structure.
- G is guidance: the hero is transferred, delivered or led to the object of their search. In this case, the hedgehog provides the guidance; the guidance and the help provided by the donor are identical, hence the equals sign connecting the F and G functions.
- K is resolution (Propp does not give it a name, for some reason, but resolution seems appropriate): the initial problem caused by the villainy in A is solved. In this case, the girl comes across a hut standing on chicken legs, in which the hag Baba Yaga is sleeping, while the girl’s little brother is sitting on a bench and playing with golden apples. She takes him away.
- ↓ is return: the hero starts to make their journey back home.
- Pr is pursuit: the hero is pursued. In this case, the swan-geese reappear and start chasing after the girl and her brother.
- During the pursuit, three more tests (DEF sub-sequences) occur, with the same donors (the river, the tree and the stove, in that order) giving the test; this time, the girl passes each test by consuming the substances that the donors tell her to consume, and in return they hide her and her little brother from the swan-geese.
- Rs is rescue: the hero is rescued from pursuit. In this case rescues occur as the help provided by the donors in the final sequence of three tests, and so we write this unit with an equals sign connecting it to F.
If you want to read the actual fairy tale, the original text can be found here (I checked using a copy of Afanasiev’s book that the texts matched). There is also a lovely Soviet short animated film based on the fairy tale that was made in 1949, although the detail of the story differs in some aspects from Afanasiev’s original recorded version.
Now, this focus on the functions of the actions taken by the characters in fairy tales is one of the key characteristics of Propp’s method of analysis. It contrasts with older methods of analysis such as that used in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. In the Aarne-Thompson system tales are classified in a hierarchical manner based on distinctive features called motifs, which are often to do with what kind of characters, objects or qualities appear in the story, rather than what kind of things happen. That is, motifs are often noun-like rather than verb-like. For example, a distinction is made in the Aarne-Thompson index between tales involving animals only and tales involving humans. But fairy tales tend to involve a great amount of anthropomorphism (consider, for example, the fact that the stove, tree and river in Гуси-лебеди are apparently beings with the power of speech, and nobody in the story at any point remarks upon the oddness of this), so that it is often possible to substitute an anthromorphised animal character in place of a human character in a fairy tale, or vice versa, without making the tale any less effective. And it does seem possible that such substitutions can take place as a tale is transmitted across space or time: Propp points out that there is a tale about the sharing of the harvest in which somebody is deceived, and in Russia the deceived one is a bear (an animal), while in the more westerly European countries the deceived one is the devil (a human—well, a being who is supposed to have the rational capabilities of a human). The things that Propp focuses on—actions that advance the narrative—seem like they would be much less susceptible to this kind of substitution, as changing them would often require the course of the narrative to change in a fundamental way.
Another key characteristic of Propp’s method of analysis is the attention he pays to the sequences of functions that appear. In relation to this, he makes the following rather startling assertion. In his words:
The sequence of functions is always identical.
That is, he proposes that the functions which may occur in a tale exist in a specific order. They can therefore be arranged in a kind of universal sequence, and every fairy tale, even though not every function may occur in it, will have the functions which do occur in it in the usual order, so that the sequence of functions within a given tale is a sub-sequence of the universal sequence. There will never be two functions which occur in one order in one tale and the other order in another tale.
As you read further into the book, you realise that this statement isn’t exactly true to the letter. First of all, Propp admits that in a few of the tales he studied there are functions not included among the 31 well-attested functions which he lists in the book, or functions out of the usual order. But, he says, these often appear to be elements transferred from tales of other classes (such as humorous anecdotes, or legends), and in any case they are rare.
Some of the extra functions can be considered to be “auxiliary” functions. Such functions may occur between any two main functions involving different characters, and serve to notify one character of another’s actions. For example, in one tale, after the hero accomplishes his task, the princess who set the task for him holds a feast, and when the hero turns up at the feast he is granted recognition. The holding of the feast is the auxiliary function here, serving to link the functions N (solution) and Q (recognition). Because these auxiliary functions occur in particular environments, they don’t make Propp’s thesis unfalsifiable, and hence Propp doesn’t consider them problematic. They do, however, allow for a certain degree of freedom in Propp’s method of analysis.
Likewise, there are some well-defined circumstances under which certain functions may appear out of order. For example, the DEF functions (testing of the hero by a donor, followed by potential receipt of help) may appear before A (villainy), and the ↑ function (departure) may precede A. But these, again, are not too problematic for Propp’s thesis because of the well-defined circumstances in which they occur. It is still more useful to talk about the universal sequence, and to explain aberrations from this sequence as a result of certain transpositions, than to talk about a number of completely different sequences.
There are also various complicating factors. Sub-sequences may be repeated, one after another; cf. the fourfold repetition of the DEF sequence in Гуси-лебеди. Quite large sub-sequences can be repeated in this way; when the bulk of the narrative is part of a repeated sub-sequence Propp refers to the repeated units as moves. For example, he mentions a fairy tale in which a girl is abducted by a dragon, and then each of her three brothers sets out, one after another, to rescue her, with only the third, youngest brother’s attempt proving successful. Here, the whole segment from A (villainy) to G (rescue) (not including these endpoints) is repeated in three moves. Propp talks about the repetitions of the first kind (applying to relatively small sub-sequences) as if they are a different kind of phenomenon from the repetition of moves, but as far as I can tell, they are not formally distinct and differ only in scale. There is also a set of functions which appear more than once in the universal sequence, once before ↓ (return) and one after it. D, E and F are members of this set, which is why we see two discontiguous occurences of the DEF sequence in the structure of Гуси-лебеди.
Since I haven’t looked at the data Propp bases his conclusions on, and I haven’t read any of the criticisms of his work that have been made, I can’t really make a fair assessment of the validity of Propp’s conclusions for myself. However, even if the supposed universal sequence might not be quite as universal or invariant as Propp makes it out to be, it might still be a useful framework for analysing the structure of fairy tales. The question is not quite whether Propp is right or not, but rather whether the theoretical framework he has developed is useful or not (which is to some extent a question of degree). The way to assess this question would be to look at analyses of fairy tales that make use of this framework and compare their explanatory power with that of alternative theoretical frameworks.
This idea that every fairy tale has a structure which can be described as a subsequence of a universal sequence of functions is the central idea of Морфология сказки. But Propp does talk about some other, more secondary aspects of the fairy tale in his book, too.
For example, he talks about the different characters in the fairy tale. As a corollary of the existence of a universal sequence of functions, there is also a universal set of characters, or more precisely spheres of action, which are made use of in fairy tales. Spheres of action don’t correspond exactly to characters, because, for example, there can be multiple characters which act in the same sphere of action at different points in the story, and a character may occupy more than one sphere of action. There are precisely seven spheres of action, according to Propp. I would talk more about them, but I don’t want to go into too much detail here. Propp also talks about how the different functions are distributed among these characters, and about how new characters are introduced. One interesting remark he makes here is that the initial situation in a fairy tale always involves the introduction of the members of a family, so no two of the characters that are present in the tale from the start are permitted to be unrelated. A striking consequence of this is in fairy tales where one of the starting characters acts as the villain, the villain is always a member of the family; for example, one tale concerns Prince Ivan and his sister, who is a witch and intends to eat her brother. And there are lots of other little pieces of information in the book about what kinds of things tend to happen and what kind of things tend not to happen in fairy tales which might be interesting in their own right.
One thing that is worth noting is that if you wanted to write your own fairy tales, for whatever reason (conworlding, etc.), in as authentic a style as possible, then the insights about fairy tales found in Морфология сказки could be very useful. The book’s list of the functions that occur in a fairy tale could effectively function as a writing guide; all you’d need to do would be to decide on a sequence of functions to use and fill in the details.
Propp’s thesis raises some interesting questions. For example:
- How far does the thesis apply to non-Russian fairy tales?
- How far does the thesis apply to other kinds of folk tales?
- Why does the thesis hold? That is, why is there a universal sequence of functions out of which fairy tales are structured? Why don’t fairy tales display a wider range of structures?
No complete attempt is made at answering these questions in the book, but Propp does make some remarks relating to them.
Relating to question 1, he mentions that his analysis can be applied to the fairy tales in the famous collection of the Brothers Grimm, which do present “the same scheme in general”, but it is more difficult; they display “a less pure and stable form of it”, probably because they have not been preserved in a wholly authentic form. Propp says that “uncorrupted tale construction is peculiar only … to a peasantry … little touched by civilization”. So it seems Propp expects his analysis to be applicable to the fairy tales of other European nations, at least, if they are considered in their authentic forms.
As for question 2, Propp says that many “legends, individual tales about animals, and isolated novellas” can be fruitfully analysed in the same way as fairy tales, and so perhaps a new name should be sought for the folk tales which are amenable to Propp’s analysis, because “fairy tales” is too specific. However, he doesn’t propose any new name. Note that it is also conceivable that other classes of tales may be structured according to different universal sequences, a possibility about which Propp doesn’t say anything.
Propp addresses question 3 quite explicitly, although he is careful to state that he is essentially engaging in wild speculation when he tries to answer it. He basically says that the existence of the universal sequence of functions seems to indicate that all fairy tales come from a “single source”, although he is vague as to what that single source might be. To be honest, I don’t really understand his answer. But, as he says, it is only a tentative supposition; further study is needed to answer this question.
So, Морфология сказки has left me feeling like I know a lot more about the structure of fairy tales, and at the same time realising that there is a whole lot more that remains to be known. This is, I guess, what it generally feels like to be introduced to a new field of study. One thing I would be particularly interested in knowing is whether Propp’s framework or something similar is helpful for explaining how folk tales change over time—that is, whether it is helpful in a diachronic perspective as well as a synchronic perspective.
But, moving away the particular topic of folk tales, there is a more general reason I’ve found reading this book very interesting: by successfully applying formal techniques to analyse a phenomenon that I would have thought was not very amenable to formal analysis, Propp has increased my expectations that formal techniques could also be helpful in analysing other kinds of phenomena. That might not sound like the most exciting thing, so let me try and put it in more illustrative terms. Imagine a pitch-dark room in which the entire set of information contained in the universe can be found. A small candle glows in the corner, and the small region of the room that it illuminates contains precisely the information that is knowable to humans. The pleasure of reading a book like Морфология сказки is that after reading it, you take another look at the candle and realise that it is glowing a little brighter than you thought.
(Edited 07/10/15 with some typo fixes and changes of wording.)