on November 10, 2003
This is an attempt to work out the underlying structural patterns (types of characters, what they do, how they are ordered) of Russian folktales, based on classic collections made in the nineteenth-century. If you are fortunate enough to have read a large collection of such stories -- preferably in translation, not "retold by ..." -- you will soon see the point of Propp's argument. Other European, and some non-European, traditions provide an almost equally good starting point, although the examples often are not so close as to be immediately convincing. Ideally, "Morphology of the Folktale" would be bound with at least a selection of the Russian folktales Propp analyzes, but this does not seem likely to happen.
Taken by itself, however, Propp's exploration is going to seem both dry and confusing. Try to imagine a book about the five-act structure of Shakespeare's tragedies being read by someone who had never seen or read a play before, and you may understand the problem.
Although Propp's exposition sometimes seems labored, he presents a convincing case that at least some oral prose narratives are built up of a stock of situations and events which can be slightly reordered, multiplied, and otherwise complicated, but amount to a "language" (a vocabulary, grammar, and syntax) of story-telling. This puts a new light on the problem of the distribution of folktales, and how they develop variants, two of the great issues of folklore studies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Despite its origins in a single body of oral literature, Propp's methods have been applied to other literature with known or suspected oral roots, sometimes with slightly contradictory results. I know of at least two different Proppian analyses of "Beowulf," for example. This is due at least in part to Propp's attempt to introduce fine divisions between similar plot elements, which, again, seem to work better with his source material than with other groups of stories. (And "Beowulf" has long been recognized to include elements later found in European fairy tales, so the possibility of applying Propp's structures was more intriguing than revolutionary.)
In "Feud in the Icelandic Saga" (1983), Jesse Byock reviewed efforts to apply Propp's methods to the Sagas of the Icelanders, another body of prose literature supposed to be grounded in oral techniques. He argued that a different approach is needed to their formally realistic stories about personalities, and the functioning of society; which does not diminish the validity of Propp's approach to the wonder-tale.
on September 28, 1999
This seminal work is essential for an understanding of structuralist theory and the theory of folklore. It differs from the psychological view of the folktale in its descriptive ability. This theory is based on objective description and sytagmatic conjunction and complementation. Because of that, it is more applicable and flexible than any psychological dissection. Also, two people will reach roughly the same conclusions with this method- something impossible with a psychological approach. This is excellent for anyone interested in attacking the down and dirty working parts of a narrative.
on November 30, 1998
This is the first work to systematically characterize and describe a corpus of folktales. It includes a list of possible plot twists, in their correct chronological order for any story, and numerous examples from actual Russian fairy tales. This translation in particular reads well and makes a point of not departing from the text's literal meaning in any significant way. I would highly recommend this work for anyone interested in folktales or oral literature in general.
on May 13, 2008
I am a screenwriter. And I find that Vladimir Propp's structure works great for my stories. Have a look at it and try to apply it to any modern movie:
1.. A member of a family leaves home (the hero is introduced);
2.. An interdiction is addressed to the hero ('don't go there', 'go to this place');
3.. The interdiction is violated (villain enters the tale);
4.. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance (either villain tries to find the children/jewels etc; or intended victim questions 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.. Victim taken in by deception, unwittingly helping the enemy;
8.. Villain causes harm/injury to family 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, comits 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 (directly transferred, located, purchased, prepared, spontaneously appears, eaten/drunk, help 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 revivied, 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).
This structure works for many stories and films. I do recommed the book for any writer and screenwriter especially for those who write modern fairy tales. It's a must!
on February 5, 2013
Don't buy this version. They cut out the Goethe lines that headed the chapters that Propp intended for meaning but which the unimaginative editors decided were "non- essential"!
on August 22, 2012
If you buy this book you already know what you need it for and what it is about (just read the title).
A must-have for literature students.
Nevertheless, this is not the best edition you can find. The translation is not as precise as could be expected, trascriptios from Russian terms are made into the French phonetic system and stay unaltered in this edition.
Hope it helps.
on October 18, 2009
In this superior translation, it is now possible to bring the work of Vladimir Propp to a new audience in an affordable volume.
Propp tackled the kaleidoscopic tales of his homeland, Russia, searching for the "keys" - the literary and linguistic tropes and themes - powering Russian folklore. In his structuralist analysis of over 300 tales, Propp evolved a structuralist theory of the Russian folktale through which he was able to "pin down" essential facets that make the folktale/"fairy-tale" essentially "run." This is not to say that Propp ever declared that his was the "definitive" work or "Eureka" moment. He never made such a claim insofar as I am aware. But, by painstaking dis-assembly, Propp was able to tag, essentially, what make folktales work and what people expect them to do as evidenced by many points of delightful, familiar repetition of key ideas, personalities, and situations over the course of many tales. And, as a bonus, this edition also reproduces Propp's own charts and tables he used to segregate out the various elements he identifies. His work on what makes the prototypical literary/story-telling "villian" or "bad guy/girl" is especially superior.
His work has been widely criticized, especially by some Straussians and post-modernists, as too formulaic and unwilling to look "behind the page" for deeper layers of meaning. I find this a very silly position for the very simmple reason that this was not the focus of Propp's work and was never intended to be. Indeed, I am even more surprised because, in a post-modern or deconstructionalist analysis, Propp's work would seem to be an excellent first step to take in understanding the basic mechanics of folktale that will not only focus the work of other scholars, but possibly help as a guide to more complete understanding of culturally driven literary constructs. I do not see how one excludes the other, and would seem best working hand in hand.
I also think that Propp's work translates well in understanding the fairy tales and folk-tales of other cultures apart from the Russian. This is not to say that his forumlae will be perfect matches, but as I mentioned in the foregoing paragraph, it would be a good focus point or "launch pad" to enhance comprehension. Psychology and theory can come later!
It is, admittedly, a hard read and a dense read, quite dry as is strictly necessary for clarity in a difficult analysis. But for any lover or student of story-telling, it's an indispensible work.
Recommend without reservation.
Vladimir Propp's "Morphology of the Folktale" is considered to be the seminal source for any study of folklore and fairy tales (terms which seem interchangeable in this text). And it is easy to see why his study of the structures of fairy tales has remained relevant for almost one hundred years, for Propp argues for a pattern of structure that all fairy stories seem to follow, regardless of which country they spring from. While certainly not the entirety of his research on this subject, "Morphology of the Folktale" is an interesting and challenging read for any scholar studying this topic.
Propp argues that there are thirty-one "functions" (as he terms them) that all fairy stories follow, beginning with an absentation and interdiction (where a character is told not to do something or something bad will happen - sound familiar?). The story is set in motion by the villain and the hero enters the story to make amends or to return home victorious. Most stories end with the defeat of the villain, the return/transformation of the hero, and oftentimes, a marriage. For anyone who has read (or watched) a fairy tale, they will certainly see most if not all of Propp's functions in these tales. Critics have argued that Propp did not take into account the cultural background of these tales or examine why we can have so many versions of one story the world over. Why does almost every culture have a Cinderella tale? But Propp does address this issue, but emphasizes that it isn't specific characters and their characteristics that drive the story, but the function they play. Therefore, it doesn't matter if stories vary in different times and different places due to cultural differences, because it is still the same story structurally.
First written in the 1920s but not well-known until the 1950s, Propp's work can be a challenging read, especially for modern readers. This is due to the fact that Propp confined his research to Russian fairy tales and mentions them by code numbers. If one is not familiar with these tales, it can cause some pauses while reading. Also, Propp makes his structural list into a sort of algorithm to be followed, which can cause confusion as well for all its letters and symbols and subscripts. Yet the heart of Propp's argument is easy to follow and clearly explains why "Morphology of the Folktale" has stood the test of time as a premier examination of those tales which certainly are not only for children.
on July 27, 2011
This is a valuable little book about the basic structure of fairy tales and folktales, and similar stories, including modern movies. Joseph Campbell kind of ripped it off, along with Arnold van Gennep's THE RITES OF PASSAGE.
Some critics have denigrated the use of the book, saying that it doesn't really fit these kinds of stories, but they forget that the book is not intended to encourage a slavish application of the story structure presented in the book, but more of a guideline. As such, it is very useful for scholars and storytellers. In fact, storytellers who ignore the lessons in the book can often find that their stories lack the depth and quality which people who consume such stories want. Thus, for example, action movies that fail to take advantage of what the book has to say about the structure of good involving stories often find that their movies will fail to attract the appropriate fan base and audience that shows you've made a classic popular movie that endures.
on May 6, 2012
Modern narratology tends to forget that narrative theory, if not
structuralsim itself, came of age with this book. Why?
Because m.n. likes to cast its net wider that folk-tales,
not just into fiction, but also into the way we tell stories in 'fact' -
in our everyday life (including law). The real attraction of
this book, though, is not just its exegesis of Russian folk art,
but its steely, unsentimental discipline, its awareness of what it
sets aside to reveal deep structures, and its sensitivity to the
crossing of categories. It is concise, easy to read, and the folk-tales
Propp examines are also available in translation in p/back.
Propp is not like Genette: he doesn't need you
to read the whole of Proust first. But he is essential,
not least for those who plunge into the turbulent
waters of comparative literature.