A fairy tale's structure

A Russian method applied to American fairy tales

Term Paper, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The theory by Vladimir Propp

3. Morphology of “The Queen of Quok”

4. Other Tales out of Baum’s Collection

5. Conclusion



I hereby confirm that this paper was written by myself and that all direct and indirect quotations from other sources have been documented appropriately.

1. Introduction

Fairy tales are an interesting genre to me, so I decided to look upon them in greater detail. To analyze a fairy tale’s meaning seems to be a task almost impossible to fulfill, though. “Every reader reads a different story. Writers who confidently tell us what fairy tales ‘mean’ are over- simplifying their complex, multilayered character,” states The Cambridge Guide to Children ’ s Books in English (Watson 2001: 249) concerning the matter. Further on, it says that fairy tales “do not contain meaning and they cannot impart meaning. They allow meanings to be made” (Watson 2001: 249). I began to wonder how fairy tales can be compared if not by their mean- ing and what they might have in common. The question leads to another approach on fairy tale analysis: a structural one.

Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale gives a scheme for the structure of fairy tales; it will be described in the following chapter. His work was originally written for Russian fairy tales but could supposedly be applied to other ones, too (Propp 1968). Therefore, I decided to try it on a small collection of American fairy tales by L. Frank Baum to find out their struc- ture. The collection is named American Fairy Tales and contains twelve short tales of various types. My interest lay in finding out if Propp’s scheme can be applied to the considered American fairy tales by Baum. This would indicate that they have a similar structure as the tales Propp classifies as fairy tales.

In the following, Propp’s method will be described and is then applied to the tale “The Queen of Quok” out of Baum’s collection (1978: 43-61) in all detail. Further on, examples of the other tales by Baum and the results of their analyses according to Propp’s scheme will be shown. Conclusions are drawn afterwards.

2. The Theory by Vladimir Propp

An overall description for better understanding first: Propp’s scheme contains a list of functions of characters in a certain order, each function designated by a sign. A sequence of these functions represents a fairy tale’s structure. Such a sequence might look as the follow- ing, taken from one of Propp’s examples: [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten]

Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale was developed out of the study of about 100 tales by Aarne Thompson taken out of a collection by Afanás’ev (Propp 1968: 23-24). It was originally limited “to fairy tales or Aarne-Thompson tale types [that can be found under the index] 300- 749 [in Afanás’ev’s collection]” (Dundes 1968: xiv). His concern was a “structural analysis of the fairy tale” (Pirkova-Jakobson 1968: xxi), for which he compared the tales by Aarne Thompson (Propp 1968: 19) and came up with a scheme of a fairy tale’s structure.

He describes his study of fairy tales later as possible to “be compared to the study of organic formations in nature” (Propp 1984: 82). Propp even gives a definition of the word “mor- phology” out of botany: Here, “the term ‘morphology’ means the study of the component parts of a plant, of their relationship to each other and to the whole—in other words, the study of a plant’s structure” (Propp 1968: xxv). This is similar to his way of studying fairy tales.

The definition of a fairy tale remains unclear in the beginning of Propp’s Morphology, since Propp first defines fairy tales as “those tales classified by Aarne under numbers 300 to 749” (1968: 19). What classifies a fairy tale according to Propp becomes clear, however, in the course of Morphology.

Propp speaks of the “two-fold quality of a tale: its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition” (1968: 20-21). He is concerned only with this uniformity, with the “Invarianten” of a tale, as Elisabeth Gülich and Wolfgang Raible name them (1977: 196). If one rejects “all local, secondary formations [of a tale], and leave[s] only the fundamental forms, we shall obtain that one tale with respect to which all fairy tales will appear as variants” (Propp 1968: 89). This can be pointed out as the overall statement of Propp’s work, because his scheme of a tale is such a “fundamental form.” It shows the structure of a fairy tale, and “[ a ] ll fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure” (Propp 1968: 23).

The main point of Propp’s work, according to Gülich and Raible, is that of functions under- stood as the actions of the characters in a tale (1977: 196). His concern lies in these actions and not in the characters (Gülich, Raible 1977: 196). Propp explains that “functions must be defined independently of the characters” and “must also be defined independently of how and in what manner they are fulfilled” (1968: 66). An example of a function would be the action of a character that does, in some way, harm another character. It is important to mention that functions in a tale are not only ascribed to persons, but also to objects and animals (Propp 1968: 5), such as a magical agent serves as a helper, for example (Propp 1968: 82).

A tale is then made up out of a sequence of these functions (Gülich, Raible 1977: 198). The functions are usually defined by “a noun expressing an action” (Propp 1968: 21) and are given a literary sign, which makes it possible to come up with “a formula analogous to chem- ical formulae” after analyzing a tale’s structure, as Claude Lévi-Strauss puts it (1984: 171). An example of such a “formula” has already been given above. Staying with the example men- tioned before, here the function of harming someone would be called “villainy” and given the sign A (compare Propp 1968: 30). Other functions will be defined during the analyses in the next chapters. The number of functions is limited: “Only some 31 functions may be noted,” states Propp (1968: 64). After the study of about 100 of Aarne Thompson’s tales, no new func- tions were found (Propp 1968: 23). The functions have a fixed order: “The sequence of func- tions is always identical,” but they do not necessarily all occur in one single tale (Propp 1968: 22). A missing function does not rearrange the order of the other functions (Propp 1968: 22) and does therefore not influence the structure of the tale.

The most important function in a tale is either “villainy” or “lack”; they are “obligatory elements” (Propp 1968: 102), and “[o]ther forms of complication do not exist,” according to Propp (1968: 36). In addition, “[t]he morphological significance of the hero is [...] very great, since his intentions create the axis of the narrative” (Propp 1968: 50).

Some functions occur in pairs, others in groups, and some on their own (Propp 1968: 64- 65). “[M]any functions logically join together into certain spheres” (Propp 1968: 79). Propp calls them “spheres of action” (1968: 79). An example of a sphere is the “sphere of action of the villain,” which contains three functions of the villain (Propp 1968: 79). Propp names seven spheres and because of their correspondence to the performer (i.e. villain) does a tale consist of seven dramatis personae (Propp 1968: 79-80). These are only prototypes of dramatis per- sonae, because later on, Propp mentions that it is possible that “[o]ne character is involved in several spheres of action” or “a single sphere is distributed among several characters” (1968: 80-81).

To define a tale, later in his work, he gives the following statement:

Morphologically, a tale [...] may be termed any development proceeding from villainy [...] or a lack [...], through intermediary functions to marriage [...], or to other functions employed as a dénouement. Terminal functions are at times a reward [...], a gain or in general the liquidation of misfortune [...], an escape from pursuit [...], etc. This type of development is termed by us a move [...]. Each new act of villainy, each new lack creates a new move. (1968: 92)

This does also lead to the assumption that functions may reoccur in a tale, because, if a fairy tale consists of more than one “move” a whole series of functions starts anew (Propp 1968: 58). This is even possible inside a move, when the first is finished afterwards (Propp 1968: 92- 93).

Tales can be compared by their functions: “Tales with identical functions can be considered as belonging to one type” (Propp 1968: 22). There are four types of fairy tales, according to Propp: first, those containing the pair of functions “struggle” and “victory,” second, those containing the pair “difficult task” and “solution,” third, those containing both pairs but only in the order as they appear in Propp’s scheme, and fourth, those tales that do not contain either one of the two pairs (1968: 102-103).

In Theory and History of Folklore, Propp defines a fairy tale as a tale that fits into his scheme, “whereas any tale that does not belongs in another category” (1984: 83). Nevertheless, exceptions may appear: It is possible that a tale contains a function not defined by Propp or incomparable to those by Propp and still is a tale; these functions are termed “unclear elements” (Propp 1968: 64). In some tales—even in the example-tale Propp shows his analysis on (1968: 96-99)—functions can appear in a slightly different order than Propp’s scheme suggests (Propp 1968: 107). Gülich and Raible take this as “jene Ausnahmen, die die Regel bestätigen” (1977: 197).

In short: Propp has created a structure-scheme of fairy tales consisting of functions in a certain order. All tales that fit into this scheme, that contain a sequence of these functions, are fairy tales according to him. Everything else belongs to another genre, though a few excep- tions can be made.

Throughout his book, it is mentioned that his scheme can also be applied to other fairy tales (Propp 1968) and “is clearly not limited to Russian materials” (Dundes 1968: xiii) but “may be cross-culturally valid” (Dundes 1968: xiv). Frederic James even states that it “has in fact generally been evoked as the paradigm of narrative as such” (2001: 119). Therefore, the application and comparison of it to American material seems possible and is the aim of the fol- lowing two chapters.

3. Morphology of “The Queen of Quok”

I chose to analyze this tale, because it seems to fit into Propp’s scheme most accurately. It is the third tale out of L. Frank Baum’s collection American Fairy Tales (1978: 43-61). The whole tale will be summarized part by part in small paragraphs, each of them followed by its morphological analysis. Since Propp has not analyzed this tale, all found functions are results of comparing the actions of the tale with the actions described in Propp’s scheme.

The opening of the tale is the description of an old king that dies and leaves a 10-year old son in a miserable, poor palace, because he has spent all of his money in “riotous living” (Baum 1978: 43-45). The reader later gets to know that the king’s son has also “lost his mother when a baby” (Baum 1978: 46). Afterwards, the king’s folk meet to plan how to get money into the kingdom again, because they do not want to work (Baum 1978: 45).

Introducing the young boy in the opening situation leads to the suggestion that he is the future hero; Propp says that it is possible that “the future hero [...] is simply introduced by men- tion of his name or indication of his status” (1968: 25), which is the case here. Propp calls it the “initial situation” and gives it the sign α in his scheme (1968: 26). He mentions that “[a]lthough this situation is not a function, it nevertheless is an important morphological ele- ment” (1968: 25). It becomes clear in the following that the boy is in fact the hero of the tale.

The first function then is “absentation” (Propp 1968: 26). As said before, Propp’s functions are usually defined by “a noun expressing an action” (Propp 1968: 21), here, this is “absenta- tion,” and are all given a corresponding sign, in this case β (Propp 1968: 26). Afterwards, there are variations of the functions listed with a short description, usually one sentence, and a few examples out of the tales Propp has analyzed. The function absentation occurs in three variations, designated β1, β2, and β3 (Propp 1968: 26). The second of these, β2, is identified as “[ a ] n intensified form of absentation [...] represented by the death of parents” (Propp 1968: 26). This is the one that fits the considered tale.

In the opening, the villains also enter the scene. These are the folk and the chief counselor, and their role is “to cause some form of misfortune,” as Propp puts it in his description (1968: 27). This is not clear yet but will be proved in the course of the tale. The villain(s) appear(s) after function III in Propp’s work (1968: 27). Function II and III, which are “interdic tion” and “violation [of the interdiction]” (Propp 1968: 26-27) are not included in “The Queen of Quok”; consequently, do the villains already appear after the first function.

The next function in this tale is “preliminary misfortune” taken advantage of by the villains, designated λ in Propp’s work (1968: 30). The misfortune in this case can be ascribed to “extreme poverty” (Propp 1968: 30). In what way the villains take advantage of this misfortune, the hero (young boy) is in, is part of the next unit of the tale:

Here, the folk make up the plan to marry the young boy to a rich lady that would make the kingdom and the folk rich, too. The boy wants to marry Nyana, a girl of his age, but she is too poor. The chief counselor persuades the boy by saying that marrying a rich lady is the only way to get to money. An auction takes place, in which the young king is sold to a bad, old lady for 3,900,624.17 dollars and forced to marry her the next day, which is against his will. The lit- tle king consequently turns very unhappy after the auction, but he is not married, yet. (Baum 1978: 45-52)

In this scene, the folk, or the chief counselor representing the folk, take advantage of the boy’s misfortune in the way that it is used for persuasion. The act of selling the boy to a rich lady whom the boy does not like and forcing him to marry her, is in Propp’s work called “vil- lainy” (1968: 30) with the variation formulated as “[ t ] he villain threatens forced matrimony” and is given the sign A16 (1968: 34). The rich lady is one of the villains because she takes part in the villainous action. The first functions, the ones with Greek letters, build up the “preparatory part of the tale, whereas the complication is begun by an act of villainy,” according to Propp (1968: 31). The boy is a “victimized hero,” as Propp calls it, because he is the victim of villainy, and “the thread of the narrative is linked to his [...] fate” (Propp 1968: 36).

The tale continues as follows: While being so unhappy, the young king happens to find a secret panel inside his bedstead at night, in which he finds a folded paper with instructions written on that should be fulfilled when “the king is in trouble.” After following the instructions, a man appears and asks what the boy wants. (Baum 1978: 52-54)

The man is the “donor” and is going to help the boy. “The donor tests the hero” (Propp 1968: 39) in giving him instructions on a folded piece of paper. This is the first variation of “the first function of the donor” and is given the sign D1 in Propp’s scheme (1968: 39). The fulfilling of the instruction belongs to “the hero ’ s reaction” (compare Propp 1968: 42). “In the majority of instances, the reaction is either positive or negative” (Propp 1968: 42). It seems to be a pos- itive reaction in this tale, because the little king is rewarded by being able to wish for what he needs. “The hero withstands [...] a test” in this case, which is designated E1 by Propp (1968: 42), corresponding to D1.

The boy tells the man that he does not want to marry the old lady to which the man replies that he should “return her the money.” The boy explains that he does not have any money and receives a purse (from the man) out of which he can take “as many twenty-five-cent silver pieces” as he wishes. The man disappears afterwards. (Baum 1978: 54-55)

Propp calls this kind of instant the “provision or receipt of a magical agent” (1968: 43), which is, in this case, the magic purse. The suitable variation is “[ t ] he agent is directly trans ferred,” designated F1 (Propp 1968: 44).

The next day, the boy announces that he will not marry the lady and gives orders to return her the money. The chief counselor is not able to return the money because he has lost it. The boy gives him the magic purse and tells him to pay the lady all her money back out of it. The woman and the chief counselor sit down on the floor and begin to count silver pieces. (Baum 1978: 56-60)

In this case, the “use of a magical agent overcomes poverty,” which is a variation of the function “THE INITIAL MISFORTUNE OR LACK IS LIQUIDATED” and is given the sign K6 in Propp’s Morphology (1968: 53-54). “This function, together with villainy (A), constitutes a pair. The narrative reaches its peak in this function” (Propp 1968: 53). The thread of forced matri- mony is overcome, and the hero is not poor anymore. Another function is fulfilled in this part of the tale: It is called “punishment” with the designation U (Propp 1968: 63). The villains are punished by having to count almost four million dollars in twenty-five-cent silver pieces. Here, the assumption is made that the chief counselor represents the whole folk. There are no vari- ations mentioned for this function, but it is said that “the first villain is punished only in those cases in which a battle and pursuit are absent from the story” (Propp 1968: 63), which is the case here.

After that, the boy “reign[s] in a proper and dignified manner” and after having grown up, marries the one he wanted to and gets children with her. The chief counselor and the old lady still count money, and it is mentioned that this is a punishment for their behavior. (Baum 1978: 60-61)

The marriage is the last function of this tale. It is called “wedding” and designated W in Propp’s scheme (1968: 63). In the first variation, it says that “a bride and a kingdom are awarded at once” with the designation W*

*(Propp1968:63 ). Since the kingdom does already belong

to the hero in this tale, the second variation seems more appropriate: It states, “the hero sim- ply marries without obtaining a throne, since his bride is not a princess” and is designated W*


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A fairy tale's structure
A Russian method applied to American fairy tales
University of Cologne
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Propp, fairy tale, structure, russian formalism, baum, american fairy tales, morphology
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Helga Mebus (Author), 2005, A fairy tale's structure, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/93216


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