The Bare-Bones Structure of a Fairy Tale

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Most authors who use mythic elements in their work are familiar with the hero’s journey structure introduced by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s. Campbell’s sequence of steps in a journey from beginning to end has been criticized by some for missing important aspects of themes, contexts and cultures, and over-used by others to explain the plots of all movies and plays. Nonetheless, it’s a handy structure.

proppAuthors who want to write fairy tales have a similar sequence worthy of study in Vladimir Propp’s structuralist approach to fairy tales that suggests all tales follow a similar sequence even though each tale doesn’t use all of the thirty-one steps. In addition, Propp says the major characters in fairy tales usually include a hero, false hero, magical helper, dispatcher, villain and donor.

Like the hero in the hero’s journey schema, the hero in a fairy tale is sent out by a dispatcher (wise person, king, friend) who knows of the hero’s needs and sends him/her out to seek a prize, such as the princess/prince, and is assisted by a donor and magical helpers, then fights against by the villain and a false hero (who wants the prize).

Dmitry Olshansky, writing in the “Toronto Slavic Quarterly,” says that “in his research Propp separated variable and constant elements in different fairy-tales, seeking a wonderful uniformity in the labyrinth of multiplicity. (Propp, , Morphology of the Folktale). In other words, he was less interested in the matter than in the structure of the narrative, trying to establish a stable scenario in the relation between parts and whole in a totality of tales.”

Catherine Orenstein, in Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked, calls these elements structural building blocks. These elements are looked at by Propp in chronological order rather than studying the patterns underlying the tale. Propp looks at tales outside the context of culture and time period, a problem that also confronts those who use the hero’s journey sequence too much like a formula.

Sequence

Arthur Rackham's 1909 illustration for "The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm"

Arthur Rackham’s 1909 illustration for “The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm”

You can find Propp’s sequence of steps in multiple places online including Wikipedia and in a nice post by Jerry Everard. However, here is the basic sequence. It’s worth a look, I think, if you’re studying fairy tales with a thought of using the genre yourself:

  1. Hero leaves home. (e.g., Little Red Riding Hood heads for Grandmas’ house.*)
  2. Hero told NOT to do something or go to a certain place. (e.g., LRRH warned about talking to strangers or getting off the path.*)
  3. Hero goes there anyway and meets the villain. (e.g., LRRH picks flowers.*)
  4. Villain tries to find out “treasure/prize.”
  5. Villain extracts information from victim.
  6. Villain deceives victim.
  7. Victim unwittingly taken in by villain begins helping the villain in some way.
  8. Villain harms or injures somebody and/or their property.
  9. Hero discovers misfortune and goes to help.
  10. Counteraction decided upon.
  11. Hero leaves home.
  12. Hero is tested, helped or attacked.
  13. Hero reacts to donor by passing tests, solving problem, performing a service.
  14. Hero obtains magic.
  15. Hero reaches prize/treasure s/he is seeking.
  16. Combat between hero and villain.
  17. Hero “branded” via injury, mark, object (ring, cloak, scarf)
  18. Villain defeated.
  19. Problem/misfortune resolved.
  20. Hero heads for home.
  21. Prince wakes Snow White - Wikipedia photo

    Prince wakes Snow White – Wikipedia photo

    Hero pursued. (e.g., Snow White rescued by prince)

  22. Hero rescued from or hides from pursuer.
  23. Hero arrives home, though friends/family usually don’t recognize him/her.
  24. False hero claims s/he did what the hero actually did.
  25. Hero faced with difficult task or ordeal.
  26. Hero successfully does task or faces ordeal.
  27. Mark on hero brings others to recognize him/her
  28. False hero exposed.
  29. Hero is made whole (looks, clothing).
  30. Villain punished.
  31. Hero marries prince/princess, ascends throne, or rewarded in other way.

surlaluneIt’s fun comparing the steps in this sequence with popular fairy tales. This is easy on the SurLaLune site which has annotated versions of many old favorites.

If you’ve read a lot of fairy tales, you’ve probably already internalized the structure. If not, Propp will prop you up.

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* See Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (Kindle link) for an analysis of the fairy tale using Propp’s sequence.

Malcolm

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2 responses

  1. Hmmm … lots of information here, almost too much to absorb in one reading. Thanks though, Malcolm, for all the time you put into doing this research. You know your stuff.