Updated: Jul 27
Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp born 29 April, 1895 at Saint Petersburg in Russia was a Soviet folklorist and scholar who analyzed the basic structural elements of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest intricate structural units.
Морфология сказки is the Russian name of a book and published in 1928. It was first translated into English in 1958 with the title Morphology of the Folktale, regardless that the Russian word сказки means “fairy tale”, and the book is indeed about fairy tales and not folk tales.
He has analyzed many of his country's folk tales and identified common themes within them. He broke down the stories into morphemes and identified 31 narratemes (narrative units) that contained the structure of the stories.
Propp believed that such a system that produces formulae from folklore was essentially academically valuable and that his methodology would be adapted by other fields. While his work has been cited and is unquestionably influential, later academics have viewed it solely as an initial assumption.
He was praised for his structural approach as well as criticized for his lack of sensitivity to subtle story elements such as mood and deeper context. However, his analysis provides a useful tool in understanding ancient and modern stories.
He identified that “Five categories of elements define not only the construction of a tale, but the tale as a whole.”
1. Functions of dramatis personae.
2. Conjunctive elements (ex machina, declaration of misfortune, accidental discovery.).
3. Motivations (reasons and aims of personages).
4. Forms of appearance of dramatis personae.
5. Attributive elements or accessories.
The 31 Narratemes
Propp has identified 31 elements of stories, plus their symbol, interpretations and discussion. Note that some of these functions generally occur in pairs, such as departure and return. They may also be repeated.
Few stories contain all elements, when they do contain elements then will occur in the sequence mentioned below:
0. Initial situation –
Symbol: α (alpha)
Some context is given for the story by the introduction of the hero and the family.
This provides the original state from which change arises from a scene of calm to the introduction of the villain where the trials and suffering that will face by the hero. 1st Sphere: Introduction
Steps 1 to 7 introduces the situation and most of the main characters while setting the scene for the following adventure.
1. Absentation- Symbol: β (beta).
2. Interdiction - Symbol: g (gamma)
3. Violation of interdiction – Symbol: d (delta)
4. Reconnaissance - Symbol: e (epsilon)
5. Delivery - Symbol: z (zeta)
6. Trickery - Symbol: h (eta)
7. Complicity - Symbol: J (theta)
Above points means that after the introduction of the hero, someone close or known to him is kidnapped or goes missing. Hero is determined to get the missing person back but is warned against it. As a typical behavior, the Hero doesn’t heed the warning. Meanwhile the lack seeks something valuable or captures someone for the information. Likewise the villain who has certain character traits tries to cheat the victim with false promises which in turn works in the villain’s favor.
2nd Sphere: The Body of the story
The main story starts here and extends as the hero goes on to the main quest. In this sphere, the plot is decided where the villain’s need is identified and the identity as well as the location is later discovered by the hero. To make his purpose successful, Hero finds out the secret magical items or decides on a rescue mission in order to defeat the villain. Hence, the hero leaves for the mission.
8. Villainy and lack - Symbol: A
9. Mediation - Symbol: B
10. Counteraction - Symbol: B
11. Departure - Symbol: ↑
3rd Sphere: The Donor Sequence
In the third sphere, the hero searches for the solution by certain techniques and gains the magical agent from the Donor. This sequence could complete the story on its own. To summarize, the hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities. For which hero accepts the test and gains magical items in process. Finally reaching the destination, both Hero and villain are entangled in an epic battle. Hero is branded by Villain through the means of poisonous or magical wounds. The good always triumph over evil. Therefore, the villain is defeated resulting in the elimination of original misfortune or of lack.
12. Testing - Symbol: D
13. Reaction - Symbol: E
14. Acquisition - Symbol: F
15. Guidance - Symbol: G
16. Struggle - Symbol: H
17. Branding - Symbol: J
18. Victory - Symbol: I
19. Resolution - Symbol: K
4th Sphere: The Hero’s return
In the final phase of the storyline this might be optional, the hero returns home and hoping to be uneventful to welcome the hero. It should be taken under circumstance that this may not always be the case. In end the villain or false hero is exposed and punished. As most of tales ends with ‘Happily Ever After’, with new appearance, hero is married and ascend upon the throne.
20. Return - Symbol: ↓
21. Pursuit - Symbol: Pr
22. Rescue - Symbol: Rs
23. Arrival - Symbol: O
24. Claim - Symbol: L
25. Task - Symbol: M
26. Solution - Symbol: N
27. Recognition - Symbol: Q
28. Exposure - Symbol: Ex
29. Transfiguration - Symbol: T
30. Punishment - Symbol: U
31. Wedding - Symbol: W
Despite the differences in shape and identity of the characters/landscapes/obstacles, the stories still have the same building blocks.
In this corpus of Russian fairy tales, there wasn’t one story that contained all thirty-one functions. If you want to make a plot, you just select a couple of functions from the list and put them in chronological order (some functions can even be repeated). The sequence of the functions is fixed, as the event consists of a certain order.
Propp doesn’t spend too much time on possible character types, because to him, they are mere vessels for actions, devices to allocate the functions around the story. Nonetheless, he identifies seven-character types, or, “spheres of action”:
1. The villain
2. The donor
3. The helper
4. The princess (or ‘sought-for-person’) and her father
5. The dispatcher
6. The hero (seeker or victim)
7. The false hero
The types might be less but one character may fulfil one sphere and one role can employ more than one character. With these seven spheres of action and the list of thirty-one functions, we can generate the plot of any Russian folktale in Propp’s collection.
Each of these functions and dramatis personae contain several subcategories combined to use as formulae through complicated syntactic representation.
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 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
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, by the definition of Propp:
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.
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 differs with older methods of analysis such as that used in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. In the Aarne-Thompson system, tales are categorized in a tiered method as per typical features called motifs, related to type of characters, objects or quantities appearing in the story. Motifs are often noun-like rather than verb-like. For example, a comparison is done in the Aarne-Thompson index between tales involving animals only and tales involving humans. Fairy tales mostly consist of anthropomorphism, and substitute an anthropomorphic animal character with 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 focuses on actions that advance the narrative and wouldn't be inclined to use this substitution, as changing them would affect the narrative in a vital 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 that occur in a tale exist in a particular order. Thus be arranged in a universal sequence. Even though not every function may occur in every fairy tale, the functions will happen 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. Propp considers the sequence as the central idea and the same is mentioned in this edition.
If one creates fairy tales then the reference for the fairy tales can be easily found in Morphology of the Folktale and could be proven to be very useful. The list of the functions that is mentioned by Propp might be considered as a writing guide. To create a perfect tale the sequence of functions must be decided and then the story can takes it course using the mentioned details.