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The Morphology of Tale by Vladimir Propp

In 1928, Soviet humanities researcher Vladimir Propp published an essay, The Morphology of Tale, in which he attempted to determine common narrative structures in a corpus of around a hundred Russian folk tales.

The narrative functions

He thus determines a list of 31 “functions”, which he asserts that they are the prototype of all tales; and that these functions belong to 3 “sequences”. Each sequence of this or that tale contains one or more of the possible functions.

Here is the list Propp gives of functions and sequences:

Preparatory sequence

  1. 1. ABSENCE. A member of the hero’s community or family leaves the safety of the home environment. It can be the hero himself or some other relationship that the hero will have to save later. This division of the family injects an initial tension into the storyline. This can serve as an introduction to the hero, usually presenting him as an ordinary person.
  2. 2. PROHIBITION. A prohibition is transmitted to the hero (“don’t go”, “don’t do that”). The hero is warned against an action.
  3. 3. TRANSGRESSION OF THE PROHIBITION. The previous rule is violated. Therefore, the hero did not listen to the order or the ban. Whether committed by the hero by accident or on purpose, by a third party or an enemy, it usually results in negative consequences. The villain enters the story via this event, but not necessarily facing the hero. He can be a hidden and manipulative presence, or can act against the hero’s family in his absence.
  4. 4. INVESTIGATION. The villain makes an effort to acquire the knowledge necessary to complete his plot. Disguises are often used when the villain is actively seeking information, perhaps to gain something of value or to kidnap someone. The villain may speak with a family member who is leaking crucial information. The villain can also search for the hero, to assess his strengths and weaknesses.
  5. 5. INFORMATION. The villain receives information about the hero or about a future victim or he obtains a map, the position of a treasure etc.
  6. 6. DECEPTION. The villain tries to trick the victim into acquiring a valuable item. He tries to swindle the hero or his allies and gain their trust.
  7. 7. COMPLICITY. the victim is duped or forced to willingly or unintentionally help the villain, who is now free to gain access to a previously prohibited location, such as the hero’s house or a treasure chest, or to gain a valuable item.

First sequence

  1. 8. DAMAGE or LACK. The villain harms a member of the family, by kidnapping, theft, deterioration of crops, looting, banishment or expulsion of one or more protagonists, murder, the threat of a forced marriage , the infliction of nocturnal torments and so on. Simultaneously or alternately, a protagonist finds that he wants or needs something that is lacking in his family environment (potion, artefact, etc.). The villain may still be indirectly involved, tricking the family member into believing that he needs such an item.
  2. 9. MEDIATION. One or more of the negative factors mentioned above attracts the attention of the Hero, who discovers the deception / perceives the lack / finds out the actions of the villain.
  3. 10. START OF THE REACTION. The hero considers ways to solve the problems, by searching for a magical item, saving those who are captured or thwarting the villain. It is at this moment that the hero, until then “normal”, becomes truly hero.
  4. 11. DEPARTURE. The hero leaves the family environment, to accomplish his mission, to reach his goal. Here begins his adventure.
  5. 12. FIRST DUTY OF THE DONOR. The hero encounters a magical object or a donor, and is tested in one way or another through interrogations, fights, puzzles etc.
  6. 13. REACTION OF THE HERO. The hero responds to the actions of his future donor; he passes (or misses) a test, he frees a captive, he reconciles the parties in conflict or renders good services. It may also be the first time the hero understands the villain’s skills and powers and uses them for good.
  7. 14. RECEPTION OF A MAGIC ITEM. The hero acquires a magic item as a result of his good deeds. This can be an item acquired, property purchased or traded for a hard-earned resource or crafted from ingredients prepared by the hero, or magical food that is consumed, or the help of a magical character.
  8. 15. TRAVEL. The hero is transferred, delivered or somehow led to a vital location, such as the donor’s house or the location of the magical object, or the villain.
  9. 16. FIGHT. The hero and the villain meet and engage directly in a conflict, either through combat or through some form of competition.
  10. 17. MARKING. The hero is marked in one way or another, possibly receiving a distinctive scar or an object such as a ring or scarf.
  11. 18. VICTORY. The villain is defeated by the hero – killed in battle, struck down when vulnerable, banished, etc. He loses his negative powers.

Second sequence

  1. 19. RESOLUTION. The previous misfortunes or problems in history are resolved; the objects sought are redistributed, the spells broken, the captives freed.
  2. 20. RETURN. The hero returns home.
  3. 21. PROSECUTION. The hero is pursued by a threatening opponent, who seeks to capture or eat him.
  4. 22. RESCUE. The hero is saved from the pursuit. Something may act as an obstacle to delay the pursuer, or the hero may find or be shown a way to hide. The hero’s life can be saved by another.
  5. 23. ARRIVAL WITHOUT RECOGNITION. The hero arrives, at a point on his return route or at his destination, and is not recognized.
  6. 24. USURPATION. A false hero claims to be the hero, by cunning, by deception. It could be the villain, one of the villain’s subordinates, or another character.
  7. 25. RECOGNITION TEST. A test is proposed to the hero – puzzles, test of strength or endurance, acrobatics…
  8. 26. SUCCESS. The hero goes through the difficult test.
  9. 27. RECOGNITION. The hero is duly recognized – usually by means of his earlier mark.
  10. 28. DENUNCIATION. The false hero and / or villain is denounced to everyone.
  11. 29. TRANSFIGURATION. The hero acquires a new appearance. New clothes, or healing of wounds, or embellishment etc.
  12. 30. PUNISHMENT. The villain suffers the consequences of his actions, at the hands of the hero, avenged victims or as a direct consequence of his own schemes.
  13. 31. MARRIAGE. The hero gets married and is rewarded (receives a symbol of power…) or promoted by the family or the community (becomes king…)

The functions of the characters

Vladimir Propp also asserts that, as with the plots, we can classify the characters into 7 types, which therefore form the abstract prototypes of all the concrete characters existing in the Russian tale:

  1. The Villain – an evil character who fights against the Hero.
  2. The Mandator – any character who sends the Hero on a mission, in quest. It is often the father of the Princess.
  3. The Auxiliary – a typically magical entity that comes to help the Hero in his quest (a sword, a fairy, a horse, a genie …)
  4. The Princess or the Prize – the Hero deserves her throughout the story, but is unable to marry her because of some evil or injustice, often because of the Villain. The Hero’s journey often ends when he marries the Princess, which constitutes the defeat of the Villain.
  5. The Giver – a character who prepares the Hero or gives the Hero a magic item, sometimes after testing him.
  6. The Hero – the character who reacts to the Mandator and Donor characters, counteracts the Villain, resolves any gaps or mistakes, and marries the Princess.
  7. The False Hero – a character who takes credit for the Hero’s actions or attempts to marry the Princess.

How can authors exploit the Morphology of the tale?

One can of course find obvious limits to the conclusions of Propp: his functions of the intrigues and the characters, drawn from a precise corpus, the Russian tale, could only be valid for this corpus; if we applied it to the Chinese tale, to the English novel or to the Italian theater, nothing could be learned from it.

But the interest of Propp’s research is to have been one of the first to show that beyond the appearances of a text, there are deep structures, and that two apparently dissimilar stories are in fact the same mechanisms. – which, for the authors, constitutes a very inspiring idea.

Already in 1895, the French Georges Polti had extracted from a vast corpus a list of 36 dramatic situations, which he claimed to be universal.

In the tradition of Polti and Propp, structuralist researchers, in particular Greimas and Souriau, will, in the years 50-60, deepen the idea that there are universal structures of the story, valid for the plots as for the characters.

Today’s authors can draw inspiration from Propp especially in the field of children’s stories, but also for adventure stories, heroic fantasy, fantastic tales etc.

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