- The Russian Folktale by Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp
After the Grimms and their successors in the nineteenth century discovered how many folktales were being told in all languages, they realized that “the folk” had an incalculably enormous memory for stories. How were computerless scholars to handle this huge mass? As one answer, Finnish scholars invented a system known as tale types, which catalog up to 2,400 recurrent plots. A more attractive answer, if you did not want to spend your life tracing the versions and variants of a single plot, was the discovery of Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (1895–1970), whose 1928 book Morphology of the Folktale reduced the hundreds of plots of wonder tales, or magic tales, to a constant compositional structure. A hero or heroine leaves home, undergoes adventures, and achieves success. Scholars quickly saw the applicability of Propp’s sort of analysis to films and graphic novels, and the author became known as a Russian formalist literary critic. But he was insistently a folklorist; he rejected the formalist label. In the book under review he barks, “There was no formal school in the proper sense of the word in Soviet folkloristics” (79; my emphasis). His mode of analysis was inseparable from historicizing particular tales, indeed historicizing the whole genre: “Descriptive and historical studies do not exclude each other; rather, they depend on one another” (81). Partial translation of his Historical Roots [End Page 193] of the Wonder Tale (1946) helped to correct his image. So did translations of other writings (Transformations in Fairy Tales, 1972; “The Historical Bases of Some Russian Religious Festivals,” 1974; Theory and History of Folklore, 1984; On the Comic and Laughter, 2009). The Russian Folktale, edited after Propp’s death by his Russian colleagues, now fully and accurately translated by Sibelan Forrester, reveals that Propp was an encyclopedic folklorist.
The book adheres strictly to its title. First, the author lists approved criteria for defining the genre of folktale: (1) the folktale is not believed true, (2) historically, myth is prior, and (3) the folktale is for entertainment, in contrast to myth, which “has sacral meaning” (19), a distinction confirmed by innumerable storytellers and audiences around the world. Reflecting the contributions of colonial ethnography, Propp states that (4) myths come from “aboriginal peoples” and have “religious and magical significance” (20). In literate societies such as ancient Greece, he adds that (5) the characters in myth are “deities or semideities” (21). Finally, (6) myth can develop into folktale by losing its social significance (24). In this book Propp refines his formulation of the myth-folktale relationship. He may be responding to the review of the Morphology in which Claude Lévi-Strauss rendered homage to Propp’s great discovery. As to the genre of legend, treated briefly in The Russian Folktale (27–29), Propp argued elsewhere that the term should be limited to narratives treating characters associated with Christianity (L. J. Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, 1989: 128).
After that introduction comes a clear, informative history of collecting in Russia. Chapter 2 gives a valuable critical history of the study of folktales, concentrating again on Russia but not ignoring European authorities. Some nineteenth-century definitions, says Propp, of the folktale genre were “distinguished by total fantasy” with respect to its early history (72). Wilhelm Grimm’s editorial practices, so much castigated by Western scholars (Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, 1987: 36–37), display “great tact and taste” (91). Propp fundamentally rejects the Finnish method of studying plots one by one; it is “a methodological error” (126–27) that diminishes the social meaning of a tale (255). It is an irony of history that Stith Thompson, the foremost English-language practitioner of tale typing, showed that incidents and characters are mobile and turn up in plot after plot (Stith Thompson, The Folktale, 1946). What, then, is the integrity of the “type”? The concept seems to disintegrate in the latest revision of the catalog (H. J. Uther’s Types of International Folktales, 2004), reviewed in Marvels & Tales in...