The narrative structure of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

An analysis with Vladimir Propp’s structure scheme for fairy tales

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

26 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Theory of Vladimir Propp

3. Morphology of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature


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

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem by an unknown poet. That is an interesting case. The question might arise that the poem is only as popular as it is because of having an unknown writer. That is obviously not the reason. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a brilliant narrative put into a complex structure. Its structure gives and gave reason to look at for many researchers. This paper provides a further viewpoint on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ’s structure.

Considering the textual structure, it is a question of either having a “striking balance of [...] structure” (Randall 1957: 161) or an “extraordinary coincidence” (Hieatt 1968: 346) when talking of the five times five pentangle—one of the two important symbols in the poem—in line 2525. Four divisions with irregular length, no regular length of stanzas, no clear rhythm, but a bob and wheel at the end of each stanza make the structural analysis very complicated. That is probably the reason why studies of the textual structure of the poem are contradictory. Michael Robertson, for example, departs the 101 stanzas of the poem into nine sections in the following way: 22-1-11-11-11-11-11-1-22 (compare 1982: 780). Unlike A. Kent Hieatt, who divides them into sections of 21-6-6-6-6-11-11-11-1-21-1 (compare 1968: 356-367).

While studying the narrative structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in contrast, I was reminded of a research paper I wrote two years ago on the structure of fairy tales with the use of a method by a Russian formalist named Vladimir Propp. The narrative structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to be very similar to that of a fairy tale such as Propp defines it, and Clinton Machann has already done a brief analysis of the poem's actions in Propp's way (compare 1982: 629-637). If the poem fits into Propp’s scheme this will prove that its narrative structure is similar to the one of the Russian fairy tales used by Propp and would be helpful in comparing its structure to other narratives. A deeper analysis of the structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight considering Propp’s scheme is the result.

In the following, a brief description of Propp’s method is given (which is similar to that of my research paper for the Englisches Seminar der Universität zu Köln in 2004). Afterwards, the results of studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight according to Propp’s method are explained and presented.

2. The Theory of Vladimir Propp

Propp’s scheme contains a list of functions of characters in a certain order; each function is designated by a sign. A sequence of these functions represents a fairy tale’s structure. Such a sequence might look as the following, taken from one of Propp’s examples: “ȕ3 į1 A1 B1 C Ĺ H1 - I1 K4 Ļ w°” (1968: 128).

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 for a fairy tale’s structure.

He describes his study of fairy tales as being possible to “be compared to the study of organic formations in nature” (Propp 1984: 82). Propp even gives a definition of the word “morphology” from 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 of the Folktale, 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 of the Folktale.

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 understood 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 to 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 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 chemical 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 mentioned above, 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 analysis in the next chapter. 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 functions were found (Propp 1968: 23). The functions have a fixed order: “The sequence of functions 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), a tale can only consist of seven dramatis personae (Propp 1968: 79-80). These are only prototypes of dramatis personae, 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 also leads 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). One move can even exist inside another one if the first is finished afterwards (Propp 1968: 92-93). Functions may also reoccur in form of repetition inside a single move (except villainy or lack, because they would create a new move as stated above) (compare Propp 1968: 99, 111).

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 tale which Propp uses as an example to show his way of analyzing (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 exceptions 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 the scheme to the Medieval English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems possible and is the aim of the next chapter.

3. Morphology of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In the following, the poem is divided up into segments. Each segment is summarized and afterwards analyzed according to the scheme explained above. Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has not been analyzed by Propp, the found morphological elements are results of comparing the functions of the poem to the functions described in Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight opens with an explanation of the historical background of the story. The poet describes what kind of story he is going to tell us. The actual story begins with a New Year’s feast at Arthur’s court. The present people are made known, Gawain is mentioned, and a description of the court having a pleasant time is given. Arthur explains that he will not eat unless he hears a special story or someone challenges him. (Stanza 1-6)

These first six stanzas provide us with the “initial situation” as Propp names it (1968: 25). Here, “[t]he members of a family are enumerated, or the future hero [...] is simply introduced by mention of his name or indication of his status” (Propp 1968: 25). Who will be the hero of the story remains unclear at this point, because of mentioning more than one person’s name and status in the opening scene. The title of the poem suggests that Gawain will serve as the story’s hero, though.

“Although [...] [the initial] situation is not a function,” according to Propp, “it nevertheless is an important morphological element” (1968: 25). He gives it the sign Į (1968: 26), which makes Į the first morphological sign for our poem. After this introductory element follow the functions (Propp 1968: 26), as we will see next.

Arthur’s will of hearing a special story or being challenged is not considered as having a function. It simply belongs to the “initial situation” because it does not affect the story’s development.

In stanza seven, the Green Knight enters. His outer appearance is described. The next two stanzas provide further descriptions of the knight and his horse. In stanza ten, the Green Knight asks for the king. The next stanza shows the reactions of the present people: They are silent, frightened, but also curious.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


The narrative structure of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
An analysis with Vladimir Propp’s structure scheme for fairy tales
University of Cologne
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Kommentar des Dozenten: "A thorough + careful analysis of Sir Gawain &amp, the Green Knight - testing its structure along formalist-lines. English excellent."
Gawain, Green, Knight, narratology, narrative structure, structure, propp, morphology
Quote paper
Helga Mebus (Author), 2006, The narrative structure of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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