Tale Types

In my previous post, I raised the question of what makes some fantasy stories feel like folktales.

For the ones that are straight-up retellings, the answer is obvious. For wholly original stories, though (where “wholly original” = “not explicitly basing its plot on an existing story;” the broader “originality” debate is a matter for a much later post, as that gets very complicated) — where was I? For wholly original stories, it’s less clear. My example was that Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel is very folktale-like, but George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is not. What makes the difference?

Well, you can start by drawing parallels between The Darkangel and existing folktales. It tells the tale of a young woman kidnapped away to become the bride of an icarus, a winged, vampiric creature who has already drained the life from thirteen previous wives. Shades of “Bluebeard,” no? But it’s insufficient to just call this “a Bluebeard story” and move on, because it isn’t a Bluebeard story, not really.

Here I have to ask you all to pardon me. I thought, when I wrote my previous post, that I would answer the question I had raised in a single entry. Then, reflecting on it, I realized I should probably break it up into two. And now that I sit down to actually type, it occurs to me that I have to go on a tangent first, and talk about tale types.

One of the monumental works in folklore as an academic field is the Aarne-Thompson tale type index (originally just the Aarne tale type index, later revised by Stith Thompson, and more recently revised and expanded by Hans-Jörg Uther, making it the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale type index, and yes, that’s starting to get unwieldy as a name). The AT (or ATU) index is the basis by which we say something is a variant of “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty” or whatever. It is the folkloric equivalent of Linnean taxonomy: it looks at the motifs that make up a given story (a specific story, as collected from a storyteller; not “Cinderella” but a specific edition of “Aschenputtel” in the Grimms’ collection), and uses those to determine how it’s related to other stories.

Like many classification systems, the result is fuzzy. Certain folklorists have wasted a lot of time arguing about whether a certain story should be grouped here or there. But it turns out that if you do this kind of systematization, you find patterns, and any given iteration of a story may be closer to or further from a particular pattern. I could give a folktale example, but instead I’m going to crib from a paper I once wrote for an English literature class on fantasy, in which I put on my folklorist hat and took a look at the so-called “Tolkien clones.”

Take The Lord of the Rings as the exemplar of a tale type, the Epic Fantasy Quest. Boil it down to its component parts, and we might say that an innocent, ordinary hero is summoned from his peaceful life by a wise old magic user to oppose a powerful, evil force that threatens the world. In order to defeat this force, the hero gathers a motley band of companions and goes on a long journey to destroy a magical artifact and thereby save the world.

I’ll probably come back to this in a future post, too, and talk about Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, et alii in more detail. But odds are good that most of you can recognize what I’m talking about. Some of those later series are more like The Lord of the Rings, and some are less, but you can see how they’re all related to the exemplar, by repeating a greater or lesser number of the central motifs.

“Bluebeard” is a recognized tale type, but The Darkangel doesn’t contain enough of the relevant motifs to count as a variant thereof. It basically just has “sinister husband with dead wives.” The reason for this tangent, though, is that tale types are closely related to the first point I wanted to make about folktale-ish fantasy, which regards the “grammar” of folktale plots.

That, however, will have to wait for the next post. Until then, I invite you all to entertain yourselves in the comments by naming other tale types that show up in fantasy. :-) (No actual folktales, though. That’s cheating!)


About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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13 Responses to Tale Types

  1. Cara M says:

    Hmm… is there a Narnia tale type? Children discover a route to another world, assist in right’s defeat of wrong, and return home with the spoken or unspoken possibility of another adventure? Talking animals a must.

    One thing that I never quite understood about the tale index was what it’s actual purpose was. If it was to track genetic relationships between tales – as you seem to be using it to do – LOTR fathered many and various children, grandchildren, etc – then what does it mean when we find enough matching motifs in tales in unrelated folktale traditions? Are we assuming a UG-style cthonic/olympic set of psychological reference points, or do we attribute it to random parallelism? Is this a debate in the discipline?

    • You could probably map out a portal-fantasy tale type, yeah.

      As for the purpose of the index, it originated in a time period where folklorists were enchanted with the notion of finding (or rather, reconstructing) the “ur-form” of stories: the original version, from which all others descend. It’s called the historic-geographic method, and it’s folklorists trying to do the linguist thing — this was happening around the same time that philologists were figuring out the family relationships of languages and reconstructing ancestral forms. But it turns out that works a lot better in linguistics than it does in folklore, so the historic-geographic method isn’t so much a thing anymore.

      The index, however, persists because it’s useful to have a shorthand (you can say “this is an example of ATU 114” and move on, and anybody who needs that unpacked for them can go investigate for themselves), and because it helps shine a light on patterns — and places where patterns fail to hold true.

      • Cara M says:

        I am a little glad that the ur-story doesn’t hold that much water anymore. Though, being a linguist, I still love the idea that we could reconstruct Proto-Indo-European myths from comparing the descendent stories. Yay for the comparative method!

        But right now, I’m taking a class on trying to reconstruct the PIE verse type, and, unfortunately, what has become clear is that there are somethings that the comparative method works on and something that it doesn’t. Namely, it works on well-attested things that have systematic natural changes, like language and the genome, and it does not work on poorly attested things that change idiosyncratically and allow for originality and novel forms – like stories and verse types.


        • Namely, it works on well-attested things that have systematic natural changes, like language and the genome, and it does not work on poorly attested things that change idiosyncratically and allow for originality and novel forms – like stories and verse types.

          That’s it exactly. Which is why borrowing a theory or a method from one discipline to use in another doesn’t always work so well . . . .

  2. Well probably Quest can be separated out from Epic Quest. If your journey doesn’t involve Saving The World but simply involves looking for and eventually finding (or not) a princess/your fortune/eternal life/a Senate seat then it is just a plain Quest. All the “young man on the road to his fortune” stories must be of this type, as is WATERSHIP DOWN and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    Another big category must be War. We fight them and win (or lose). The main example might be Troy. Which then immediately brings to mind Love. He meets her and wins her (or not).

    • Tale-types are more specific than just “boy meets girl, conflict, happily ever after,” though. “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” are both tales about love (in the folktale sense of the word), but they’re different tale types, because of the characteristic motifs each one possesses. I believe — without being able to consult the index right now to be sure — that the “Cinderella” type is distinguished by the heroine being forced into servitude, disguising herself to meet the prince, and later being recognized by a token she lost. “Sleeping Beauty,” on the other hand, has no servitude or disguises or tokens, but it does have a curse and an enchanted sleep; other motifs serve to distinguish it from “Snow White.”

      There *are* folkloric models that distill things down further. I’ve got a book on my shelf that collates three different approaches to the “hero’s journey” — academic approaches, that is, that predated (and influenced) Joseph Campbell. You could call what they’re modeling a tale type, but it’s broad enough that maybe it’s more a cluster of tale types, under which umbrella my hypothetical Epic Fantasy Quest type would fit, alongside others that are not distinguished by the Magical Macguffin and Motley Companions. This is what I mean by relationships between types; both the more specific and more general models are useful, because they show you where things are similar and where they’re different.

    • Mary says:

      If you want a feel for how many motifs are needed to make tales fall under the same type, I offer up Sur La Lune. Pick one of the tales on the front page. Read it. Go to its “Similar Tales Across Cultures” and read some of the tales there.

      The skeletonal form of the story can be remarkably persistant.

  3. Koby says:

    Hmm, intriguing. Does this mean Harry Potter belongs in the Lord of the Rings category?

    But I think that in itself is a rather strict categorization. Because the reason I love Lord of the Rings is not so much for the story itself (though I greatly enjoyed it) but for the world surrounding it. The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Appendices… When you build an entire world for your story, it becomes different. Sherwood Smith’s Sartorias-deles series/world is another good example of this: You could categorize every story in it in different categories, yet they are all interwoven and part of a greater world/history/plot, with overarching villains who exist throughout time and serve different roles. How could you categorize that?
    Once Upon a Time (the TV series) or Jim Hines’ Princess series Or Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms is an example of how that might happen in (subverted) folk/fairy tales – what happens when all the characters from the fairy tales interact with each other and help one another in those specific tales? Does it then become a universe, or remain fairy tales that are merely linked?

    Fantasy types? Well, you pointed out the main one, but there’s always the smaller version of it, the ‘Prince must save kingdom from threat’, which could spin off in any direction, from ‘find magic artifact’ to ‘forge alliance with powerful people’ to ‘discover enemy’s grievance and fix it’… but this is where I get confused again. Because the last two are rather dependent on worldbuilding – making sure there is such an ally, or discovering more abut the enemy. And the similarity to history is unmistakable. So does it count, or does it deserve separate classification, if such a thing can even be classified?

    • You could categorize every story in it in different categories, yet they are all interwoven and part of a greater world/history/plot, with overarching villains who exist throughout time and serve different roles. How could you categorize that?

      You don’t categorize it, any more than you categorize the entirety of Greek mythology into a single box. One of the episodes in the story of Cupid and Psyche is an iteration of ATU 425A, but that doesn’t mean the stories of Actaeon or the Apple of Discord have to be labeled the same way. Tolkien’s body of work contains dozens of stories, some of which are myths, others of which are folktales or epics or other narrative genres. When I call the Lord of the Rings an exemplar of a tale type, I mean that book, not everything associated with it.

      Tale types are sets of motifs, not single motifs in isolation. That’s why “Prince must save kingdom from threat” isn’t a tale type: it’s just one element, which could (and does) go in a number of different directions. The story in which the prince quests to find the magic artifact upon which the fate of the world depends is very different from the story in which he finds out why the enemy doesn’t like him and takes steps to reconcile that difference. (Additionally, the former is a much more folkloric approach, whereas the latter is a much more literary one. Psychological realism and interiority are a hallmark of modern fiction, and modern fictive treatments of older stories; you don’t find that so much in myths and folktales.)

      But the key thing to bear in mind is that, like any system of classification, this tends to be the most useful when you let it float above the stuff you’re looking at, rather than trying to pin it down 100%. Stories are complicated, and resist perfect categorization. You’re right that there are similarities between Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings (“ordinary” protagonist is called away from his life by a wise old magic-user to face a Dark Lord), but it would be going too far to say it’s the same kind of story (no magical macguffin, no traipsing all over the world, etc). There’s no need to try to force them into the same box, or to figure out which box Harry Potter goes into instead. The point is that tale types give us a way of talking about “Tolkien clones” that helps us see how fantasy can behave like folklore, with a powerful story giving rise to multiple variants that stray to a greater or lesser degree from the original.

  4. Mary says:

    It can be fun getting into retelling the more obscure types. As in, anything except the twelve or so most common ones. You write up a clever version of “The girl helps the hero flee,” and everyone admires the striking originality of the tale and no one even notices how clever you were. (whines, whimpers, whines some more in the most childish manner)

    It can be even more fun trying to retell a lesser known variant of the best known tales: Tattercoats or Catskin instead of Cinderella.

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