Propp's Analysis of Folk Tales

Vladimir Propp analysed a whole series of Russian folk tales in the 1920s and decided that the same events kept being repeated in each of the stories, creating a consistent framework. His seminal book, Morphology of the Folk Tale, was first published in 1928 and has had a huge influence on literary theorists and practitioners ever since.

Propp extended the Russian Formalist study of language to his analysis of folk tales. He broke down the tales into the smallest possible units, which he called narratemes, or narrative functions, necessary for the narrative to exist. Each narrateme is an event that drives the narrative forward, possibly taking it in a different direction. Not all of these functions appear in every story, but they always appear in this order.

Propp's Narrative Functions

These 31 functions are as follows:

  1. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced as a unique person within the tribe, whose needs may not be met by remaining)
  2. An interdiction (a command NOT to do something e.g.'don't go there', 'go to this place'), is addressed to the hero;
  3. The hero ignores the interdiction
  4. The villain appears and (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim encounters the villain);
  5. The villain gains information about the victim;
  6. 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);
  7. The victim is fooled by the villain, unwittingly helps the enemy;
  8. Villain causes harm/injury to family/tribe 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);
  9. Misfortune or lack is made known, (hero is dispatched, hears call for help etc/ alternative is that victimised hero is sent away, freed from imprisonment);
  10. Seeker agrees to, or decides upon counter-action;
  11. Hero leaves home;
  12. Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc, preparing the way for his/her receiving magical agent or helper (donor);
  13. Hero reacts to actions of future donor (withstands/fails the test, frees captive, reconciles disputants, performs service, uses adversary's powers against them);
  14. Hero acquires use of a magical agent (it's directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, is eaten/drunk, or offered by other characters);
  15. Hero is transferred, delivered or led to whereabouts of an object of the search;
  16. Hero and villain join in direct combat;
  17. Hero is branded (wounded/marked, receives ring or scarf);
  18. Villain is defeated (killed in combat, defeated in contest, killed while asleep, banished);
  19. Initial misfortune or lack is resolved (object of search distributed, spell broken, slain person revived, captive freed);
  20. Hero returns;
  21. Hero is pursued (pursuer tries to kill, eat, undermine the hero);
  22. 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. Hero unrecognised, arrives home or in another country;
  24. False hero presents unfounded claims;
  25. Difficult task proposed to the hero (trial by ordeal, riddles, test of strength/endurance, other tasks);
  26. Task is resolved;
  27. Hero is recognised (by mark, brand, or thing given to him/her);
  28. False hero or villain is exposed;
  29. Hero is given a new appearance (is made whole, handsome, new garments etc);
  30. Villain is punished;
  31. Hero marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded/promoted).

Although the plot is driven by the actions and choices of the hero (the protagonist), these narrative functions are spread between the main characters. Propp also defined these character categories:

  • the villain, who struggles with the hero (formally known as the antagonist)
  • the donor,
  • the helper,
  • the Princess, a sought-for person (and/or her father), who exists as a goal and often recognizes and marries hero and/or punishes villain
  • the dispatcher,
  • the hero, who departs on a search (seeker-hero), reacts to the donor and weds
  • the false hero (or antihero or usurper), who claims to be the hero, often seeking and reacting like a real hero (ie by trying to marry the princess)

Propp's Influence

Propp's work was translated into English in the 1950s, by which time it had become core to the ideas of theorists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, and was used in literary studies, anthropology and semiology. Other narrative analysts extended Propp's thinking on patterns in myth, most notably Joseph Campbell, whose The Hero With A Thousand Faces has become a blueprint for Hollywood film-makers when it comes to constructing a narrative.

Beyond Propp

Propp's lists are easy to learn - but are they so easily applied to every narrative you come across? We live in a world of very sophisticated narratives - many of them non-linear - which deliberately defy the conventions of traditional folk tales. Can you apply Propp consistently if the hero is female? Can you substitute "science" for "magic"? Are all narratives about struggles between heroes and villains - or do we oversimplify them if we try to claim that they are? Propp's theories rely on 'good' and 'bad' characters. Have we moved beyond fairy tale thinking into a era of moral relativism — many interesting narratives spring from a conflict between two characters who are not easily identified as a protagonist and an antagonist.

Try The Proppian Fairy Tale Generator to see how ridiculous some narratives become if Propp's rules are too slavishly applied.

Further Reading