The grammar of a folktale plot

Now we return to my question of a few weeks ago: what gives some fantasy stories that “folktale” vibe, and not others?

I digressed onto the subject of tale types because they’re related to the first half of my answer, which I tend to call the “grammar” of a folktale plot (though the term more often used in actual folklore studies is “morphology”). That is to say, above the level of tale types — which are fairly specific plots — there’s a much broader pattern that characterizes folktales as a genre, and helps distinguish them from other kinds of stories (such as myths).

The famous demonstration of this idea comes from one of the guys who criticized the Tale Type Index, a Soviet folklorist named Vladimir Propp. He complained (not without justification) that the index was based on motifs, without much concern for the functions of those motifs. A one-eyed old woman could be a motif, but is she helping out the heroine, or standing in her way?

Propp’s criticism doesn’t negate the usefulness of the index, but it does give rise to another way of looking at folktales, which he demonstrated in a book called (ever so creatively) Morphology of the Folktale. He analyzed a massive body of Russian stories and showed that, while not all of them contain the same functions — a term that, in this context, is kind of an umbrella for conditions, events, characters, objects, and more — the functions they do contain always occur in the same order. Even if part of the story loops, repeating a certain sequence in new form (think of the evil queen making multiple attempts to kill Snow White), it will repeat as a unit: that’s called a sub-move, and doesn’t break up the essential structure of the story.

The full list of functions is here, though reading through it doesn’t give the best sense of what Propp was doing. Not only are the descriptions there a bit short and opaque (they’re just summarizing what he says in the book), going through the whole list at once tends to make you think, “I’ve never read a story like this.” But no single story in the corpus Propp analyzed contained every function. One might skip the reconaissance-delivery-trickery-complicity segment, proceeding directly to villainy/lack; another might do that bit, but bypass the pursuit sequence toward the end. The point is that if you assign these kinds of names to the different parts of each story, and then lay them out in comparison to one another, you’ll never (apart from sub-moves) find the order changing.

Mind you, Propp was talking about Russian folktales. This is one of the key things about morphological analysis: it works best on closely-related narratives. You could do a great morphology of classic Bond films, and some of that structure would apply well to other kinds of action movies, but the further afield you go, the less well it will fit. Similarly, Russian folktales are enough like German or French ones that a lot of what Propp describes sounds familiar, but if you try to shoehorn everything out of the Kinder und Haus-Märchen into Propp’s scheme, you’ll run into problems. And if you try to do that with, say, Iroquois stories, it fails even worse. (Alan Dundes wrote a book called Morphology of North American Indian Folktales, but North America is big enough, and his corpus of tales diverse enough, that his scheme is way simpler than Propp’s. And that’s the other limitation on this kind of study: to describe a less homogenous body of stories, you have to get more general, less specific. You can boil just about every piece of fiction ever down to “villainy/lack” -> “victory/lack liquidated,” but what use is that?)

The point remains, though, that those of us familiar with common Western European folktales have an ingrained sense of how their plots go. We recognize, on a conscious or subconscious level, which narrative structures fit that model, and which ones don’t. (Ditto other kinds of stories: if you watch a lot of action movies, you know what to expect out of their plots, and may be either delighted or annoyed if a new movie breaks that mold in some fashion.)

So even if a novel or a short story isn’t actually retelling a specific folktale, if its narrative structure follows that familiar pattern, it will feel folkloric to you. Look back at Propp’s functions: how well does that fit A Game of Thrones? You can shoehorn things in here and there (the dire wolf pups as gifts from an absent donor figure? any one of a bazillion plot elements as an inciting villainy or lack?), but it’s shoehorning; the structure doesn’t fit well at all. (Corollary: even if a modern author is retelling a specific folktale, it may not feel terribly folkloric in tone. Some of this is a consequence of setting and prose, but it can also come from the author breaking the narrative structure in a fundamental way.)

Contrast with Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, about which I once presented a conference paper at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society. It isn’t my best paper ever (sometimes you end up writing your proposal an hour before the deadline), but it does, at least, demonstrate the point I’m making in this post: Gaiman’s narrative echoes the Proppian model to a noteworthy degree.

The match isn’t perfect, of course. Among other things, Gaiman has more than one plot running simultaneously, which folktales basically never do. (This is another reason why A Game of Thrones isn’t folktale-ish: holy multiplying plot threads, Batman.) If you look at each plot strand individually, though, the pattern of their components sounds familiar. For something that isn’t actually a Russian folktale, that’s pretty good, and gives us something concrete to point at when we say “this seems like a modern fairy tale.” It has less to do with the fairies (after all, lots of folktales don’t have any) and a great deal more to do with the grammar by which the various elements are strung together into a narrative sentence.

Plot structure is only one part of the answer, though. The other part will come in the next post. In the mean time, have at it in the comments: what other fantasy can you think of that follows this kind of structural model?



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


The grammar of a folktale plot — 6 Comments

  1. Having consciously written parts of The Grass King’s Concubine to have a folkloric atmosphere, I now found myself tempted to see how it would fit within the various taxonomies. You can take the woman out of the academe, but you can’t take the academe out of the woman!

  2. Pingback: Folktale style | Book View Cafe Blog

  3. Pingback: Six Degrees of Retelling | Book View Cafe Blog