Oh, I give up! Weeks I spend, wrestling with this fascinating, nascent concept offered by Hansel and Gretel—because it’s been hovering over my head for a good two months—and it won’t come. The $*&# thing refuses to be written. I have notes I’ll come back to, but I’ve had more than enough of that.
We’ll resume regularly scheduled fairy tales next week. Before we go further, I’d like to cover the Aarne-Thompson system with you a little. It’s a helpful tool, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be confusing.
Of all the folk tales in all the world, some of them are very similar. Some have nothing in common, but the whole point of labeling something a “fairy tale” (see the Genres page for additional context) is that it connects to the human soul. A fairy tale (or folk tale) contains clues about the values and character traits of a culture. Not necessarily religious beliefs—as some fairy tales incorporate culturally “lost” elements, such as fairy godmothers or devils who still live with their mothers. (Yes, really. One of my favorites. Coming soon...)
People will often complain that “all fairy tales are alike.” It’s where we get phrases like “fairy-tale endings” and “happily ever after.” But these stories aren’t all the same. We’ve seen stories about very young people, and very old people. Characters who change and characters who don’t. Or won’t. And while Red Riding Hood has very little in common with Cinderella, but readers all know a “damsel in distress” when they come across one in stories.
These things in common are called “motifs”—meaning patterns. In folk tales, motifs are events or actions by a particular character that make a recognizable design. All of the parts of a fairy tale don’t have to be the same, but when certain scripts show up, labels are easy to apply.
Cinderella is an unbelievably popular tale, but Snow White is a more interesting example here. A couple variations are stashed in the Summaries page. In both the German Snow White and the Scottish Silver-Tree, there is a “mother figure” out to kill our heroine, an escape to a place where the princess is loved, a glass box in which the “dead girl” is hidden, and a miraculous recovery facilitated by a third-party woman. Oh, and a prince whose love for our girl knows neither time nor reason. There are even a couple Italian versions I have not included, all with the same motifs. (The two Italian versions, one is very complicated and the other is very distressing. The latter also has certain motifs in common with “The Goose Girl.”)
Antti Aarne, and later Stith Thompson, developed this index which tracks the patterns of a story. Their studies focused primarily on Northern European and Western Asian stories, but not exclusively. In recent years, a scholar named Hans-Jörg Uther has adapted the indexing system so it can be expanded to include new material, but this has not taken universal hold.
The Aarne-Thompson classification system is designed a little like the Dewey Decimal System in American libraries. Big categories are grouped by the hundreds, then more detailed motifs are subdivided in each category until each story has its own unique number. The Persecuted Heroine, for example, is labeled “510A”—this story is also known as the Cinderella archetype. Supernatural helpers, like fairy godmothers or magic sticks (from “Katie Wooden-cloak”), are the 500 category, and a girl who needs supernatural help is the 10 of 510. “A” and “B” are further subdivisions—510B is a category of stories where good girls are escaping from abnormal circumstances. Animals stories have their own category. So do ogres.
Like any indexing system, it’s not perfect. But it’s still a very useful tool when exploring how to study or think about a fairy tale.
What are some “modern fairy tales” that have motifs from older fairy tales? Can you think of recent stories where the pattern of a particular fairy tale was disrupted to make the story different? How effective were the changes?