Review: Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp

Book: Morphology of the Folktale
Author: Vladimir Propp, Russian academic on folklore
Year: 1928 original, first print in English in 1958. My edition was from 2003.

Summary: This is not a book about games, but rather a systems-focused approach to dissecting folktales. Dense but delicious substance for deep systems designers who love narrative, but if that doesn’t describe you then do yourself a favor and skip this reading.

Morphology of Folktales Book CoverI picked up Morphology of the Folktale after seeing it mentioned in the book Quests by Jeff Howard as a very methodical approach to breaking down narratives into functional parts. I had a few fellow designers who are comfortable with more academic work recommend it to me as well.

The book is pretty short, just 117 pages plus a very useful reference table at the end. However, it’s translated from Russian, originally written in 1928, and was definitely written for an audience of fellow academics of folklore and literature. All those elements combine to create a fairly dense read with a rigorous, academic, dry, analytical tone. However, I found it easy to follow along and the academic references didn’t hinder comprehension (you don’t need to know the references in order to understand the topic).

Morphology of the Folktale is the author’s attempt to decompose fairy tales into their most basic components – a series of functions strung together in a particular predetermined order. While some tales may skip certain functions, the order (almost) always remains the same. A function for Propp is an event or verb – “an absence takes place” or “a warning is given”. Who gives that warning and who receives it doesn’t matter to Propp in this breakdown – the villain could be a dragon or a witch, the hero a peasant or a bird. It’s the action that determines the tale.

Each of these functions are given a specific annotation until a tale can be written like so:


Borrowed from Hypocrite Reader

A notation like β refers to a function – in this case it means an absence takes place. β² refers specifically to the death of parents, a variation on the absence that is common in tales, while β³ refers to the variant in which younger members of a family or household absent themselves (by going out). Each letter and number then has its own significance and allows us to read the ‘form’ of the tale without the details.

At the start of the book, Propp outlines why he feels the need to break fairy tales into components: all the current classification structures are inadequate, arbitrary, or overlap. They rely on themes or motifs but fail to define them thoroughly. The author claims we need to understand these tales at this abstract, formal, grammar level if we wish to start comparing tales across cultures. This should all sound familiar to game designers, as we wrestle with inconsistent terminology and difficulty classifying games by outdated genre definitions.

I really liked this book, but I liked it for its dry, formal analysis of literature that others may find lacking. Algorithmic approaches to storytelling and breaking down a tale into a specific formula fascinates me and horrifies many others. If you find yourself in the second camp I recommend skipping this book. If the mathematically annotation I quoted earlier doesn’t scare you off and you find the rest of the subject interesting, I highly recommend it. However, having a good understanding of the Hero’s Journey would be helpful as there’s a lot of crossover between the two books. For fun, I recommend checking out this PhD thesis that maps Propp’s morphology to the Harry Potter series.

I definitely think it’s worth reading if you are a systems designer with narrative tendencies, or interested in systems design and how that relates to story structure. If anything, it’s refreshing to see a highly formal structure emerge from an art (fairy tales) we’re all very familiar with.

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