The Bare-Bones Structure of a Fairy Tale
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. See updates at the end of this post.
Authors 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.
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:
- Hero leaves home. (e.g., Little Red Riding Hood heads for Grandmas’ house.*)
- 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.*)
- Hero goes there anyway and meets the villain. (e.g., LRRH picks flowers.*)
- Villain tries to find out “treasure/prize.”
- Villain extracts information from victim.
- Villain deceives victim.
- Victim unwittingly taken in by villain begins helping the villain in some way.
- Villain harms or injures somebody and/or their property.
- Hero discovers misfortune and goes to help.
- Counteraction decided upon.
- Hero leaves home.
- Hero is tested, helped or attacked.
- Hero reacts to donor by passing tests, solving problem, performing a service.
- Hero obtains magic.
- Hero reaches prize/treasure s/he is seeking.
- Combat between hero and villain.
- Hero “branded” via injury, mark, object (ring, cloak, scarf)
- Villain defeated.
- Problem/misfortune resolved.
- Hero heads for home.
Hero pursued. (e.g., Snow White rescued by prince)
- Hero rescued from or hides from pursuer.
- Hero arrives home, though friends/family usually don’t recognize him/her.
- False hero claims s/he did what the hero actually did.
- Hero faced with difficult task or ordeal.
- Hero successfully does task or faces ordeal.
- Mark on hero brings others to recognize him/her
- False hero exposed.
- Hero is made whole (looks, clothing).
- Villain punished.
- Hero marries prince/princess, ascends throne, or rewarded in other way.
It’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.
Resources – Last Updated 6/30/18
- See Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (Kindle link) for an analysis of the fairy tale using Propp’s sequence.
- Myth & Moor – Terri Windling’s blog
- Marina Warner Website – Writer of fiction, criticism and history with a strong focus on fairy tales.
- The Endicott Studio – “The Endicott Studio, founded in 1987, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to literary, visual, and performance arts inspired by myth, folklore, fairy tales, and the oral storytelling tradition.”
- “The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre,” by Jack Zipes. A wonderful study of the genre available in paperback and Kindle.
- Fairy tales and Literature – An online bibliography from author and professor Theodora Goss. Great introduction of resource material.
- “Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale,” by Marina Warner – (Oxford University Press, December 15, 2014), 226 pages.
- Heroine’s Journey – an approach to fairy tales. This is an evolving list of essays by author Theodora Goss about fairy tales and journey motifs. Further development in this April 2017 post: Mapping the Fairy-Tale Heroine’s Journey
- Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales – Classification system of folktale themes. Propp was critical of this manner of classification because, among other things, it could result in stories with few similarities being classified together while separating similar tales based on which theme was highlighted for classification purposes.
- Difference Between Fairytale and Folktale – Some scholars say fairytales are a subset of folktales while others find enough differences to disagree. This article provides a quick overview.
- The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz and Kendra Crossen – A good place to start for a Jungian interpretation of fairy tales.
- 20 Honest and Magical Life Lessons from Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales by Alison Nastasi in Flavorwire. “’Unlike the brothers Grimm who were mere collectors of folk tales, the majority of Andersen’s 156 tales were entirely of his own invention.’ The influential writer’s stories contained a healthy balance of dark and light subjects, and offer important life lessons.”
- THE USEFUL DANGERS OF FAIRY TALES: BECAUSE SOMETIMES THE WOLF SHOWS UP UNINVITED, by Amber Sparks, Literary Hub. “Someday, my daughter will ask me why there are so few mothers in fairy tales. Or rather, why there are so few living mothers. Mothers are nowhere and everywhere in these tales: made dead or spirit, found in inner voices or fairy godmothers, transformed into wild or wise beasts. Women told many of these stories themselves, to share with their own daughters. Why write so many stories where you only get to play the ghost?
- The Fairytale Heroine’s Journey, Author, and professor Theodora Goss presents a sequence of steps that outline the structure of a fairy tale. This sequence is similar to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. This website is a work in progress.
- The Horns of Elfland by Theodora Goss. Why she writes fantasy. I like this essay because my reason for writing fantasy is very similar to hers.
- The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy – by Melissa Ashley, in The Guardian. According to this view. “The women who created the first fairytales were far more radical than the Brothers Grimm have led us to believe.”