Jasmine's pond of dreams

Jasmine's pond of dreams

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Propp's Fairytales Storyteller's Log 12-16-2012

Vladimir Propp was a Russian structuralist who wrote the Morphology of the Folktale (1928) in which he analyzed Russian fairy tales. Morphology is the study of the form or shape of things. Propp didn't really care what happened in the tale or even who the characters were. What interested him was the structural relationship between the parts. He considered characters important only in that they served a function in the tale. He analyzed eight different funtions the moved the tale along. The villain, the dispatcher, the magical helper, the princess, the father, the donor, the hero and the false hero.
Propp's analysis of 100 fairytales identified 31 actions which recurr in the tales. Here's a few illustrated examples:

INTERDICTION: The hero is warned against some action.

VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: If they don't do this there's no story. Right?

VILLAINY: Villain causes harm.

MORE VILLAINY: A repeating of the function of Villainy.

STRUGGLE: The hero and villain in direct combat.

RETURN: The hero returns.

UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero unrecognized arrives home.

WEDDING: The hero marries and ascends to the throne.

Not every tale will have all 31 and some tales may repeat an action. Propp gave each action a letter and using this method he was able to write the code for each tale. DNA might be a good metaphor for this. In this way you could compare different tales. So they have a different code, what does that mean?
Propp held a belief similar to Joseph Campbell that all stories could be reduced to one tale. I'm not sure what the value of this belief is. And what is the message of this one tale? I think stories have a multitude of messages for those who can hear them.
Propp's morphology doesn't account for the reason for telling the tale in the first place. Bruno Bettleheim explored the reason for telling tales in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bettleheim suggested that fairy tales far from being childish escape, unconsciously guide the child in through the obstacle course of their psychosexual development into adulthood. Propp's analysis can look like a code that's empty of meaning. 
In spite of limitations Propp created a different approach to analyzing stories which was original and led to the development of structuralism.
If you're interested in seeing what Propp's theory and do through the magic of computers you can try the Propp fairytale generator. Just check off a few functions and presto chango! -Instant fairytale. 
This reminds me a story. Scientists were once puzzled whether computers could think so they decided to ask the computer. They typed in the question. The computer whirled to life, lights started flashing, it began to shake, smoke began to pour out. Then upon it's screen was the text- That reminds me of a story.
You can find Propp's fairytale generator here:
Here's an example tale based upon the functions of reconnaissance + receipt of a magical agent + pursuit.
She stood tall and menacing in her fire-infused robes.  "Where are you from," her tongue flickered when she spoke, "and where do you think you are going?" 
The little man handed what looked like a small wooden piccolo.  The small, thin object looked old but not dusty like the man’s worn garments.  "A single note from this musical stick will bring rain from the heavens to satisfy this thirsty land," the little man said to me.  "But heed my words, should you be tempted to produce sweet melodies to entertain yourself and those around you, mother nature will heighten the aching of the earth around you: the sky will heave torrents of rain producing a monsoon that will be echoed by the quaking of the earth as it splits, spewing forth fiery magma that will consume you and your vanity.
The sound of pattering steps quickly nipped at my heels as I ran.  Looking behind me, I saw that the wolf-girl had grown larger.  She carried on her back her sister, a lady wearing dragon scales whose white hair trailed in the wind.
I think even with Propp's help, I'm still lost in act two. 

Here is a listing of Propp's 31 functions from Wikipedia.
After the initial situation is depicted, the tale takes the following sequence of 31 functions:[3]
  1. ABSENTATION: A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero or some other member of the family that the hero will later need to rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. The hero may also be introduced here, often being shown as an ordinary person.
  2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this'). The hero is warned against some action (given an 'interdiction').
  3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale). This generally proves to be a bad move and the villain enters the story, although not necessarily confronting the hero. Perhaps they are just a lurking presence or perhaps they attack the family whilst the hero is away.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc.; or intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often in disguise) makes an active attempt at seeking information, for example searching for something valuable or trying to actively capture someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges information. They may also seek to meet the hero, perhaps knowing already the hero is special in some way.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. The villain's seeking now pays off and he or she now acquires some form of information, often about the hero or victim. Other information can be gained, for example about a map or treasure location.
  6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to take possession of victim or victim's belongings (trickery; villain disguised, tries to win confidence of victim). The villain now presses further, often using the information gained in seeking to deceive the hero or victim in some way, perhaps appearing in disguise. This may include capture of the victim, getting the hero to give the villain something or persuading them that the villain is actually a friend and thereby gaining collaboration.
  7. COMPLICITY: Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy. The trickery of the villain now works and the hero or victim naively acts in a way that helps the villain. This may range from providing the villain with something (perhaps a map or magical weapon) to actively working against good people (perhaps the villain has persuaded the hero that these other people are actually bad).
  8. VILLAINY or LACK: Villain causes harm/injury to family member (by abduction, theft of magical agent, spoiling crops, plunders in other forms, causes a disappearance, expels someone, casts spell on someone, substitutes child etc., commits murder, imprisons/detains someone, threatens forced marriage, provides nightly torments); Alternatively, a member of family lacks something or desires something (magical potion etc.). There are two options for this function, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first option, the villain causes some kind of harm, for example carrying away a victim or the desired magical object (which must be then be retrieved). In the second option, a sense of lack is identified, for example in the hero's family or within a community, whereby something is identified as lost or something becomes desirable for some reason, for example a magical object that will save people in some way.
  9. MEDIATION: Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc./ alternative is that victimized hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment). The hero now discovers the act of villainy or lack, perhaps finding their family or community devastated or caught up in a state of anguish and woe.
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action. The hero now decides to act in a way that will resolve the lack, for example finding a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise defeating the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero as this is the decision that sets the course of future actions and by which a previously ordinary person takes on the mantle of heroism.
  11. DEPARTURE: Hero leaves home;
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc., preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. HERO'S REACTION: Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary's powers against him);
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: Hero acquires use of a magical agent (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help offered by other characters);
  15. GUIDANCE: Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. STRUGGLE: Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. BRANDING: Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. VICTORY: Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. LIQUIDATION: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
  20. RETURN: Hero returns;
  21. PURSUIT: Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. RESCUE: Hero is rescued from pursuit (obstacles delay pursuer, hero hides or is hidden, hero transforms unrecognisably, hero saved from attempt on his/her life);
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: Hero unrecognized, arrives home or in another country;
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. SOLUTION: Task is resolved;
  27. RECOGNITION: Hero is recognized (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. EXPOSURE: False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc.);
  30. PUNISHMENT: Villain is punished;
  31. WEDDING: Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).
Occasionally, some of these functions are inverted, as when the hero receives something whilst still at home, the function of a donor occurring early. More often, a function is negated twice, so that it must be repeated three times in Western cultures.[4]

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