Everything Old Is New Again
Copyright © 2009 byTrulie
Peterson, All Rights Reserved
nothing new under the sun.” How many times have I heard that? How many
times have I said it? Sometimes the quote is a talisman: comforting
words that assuage my fears that I'm a hack. Sometimes it's an
indictment: Come up with something new why don't you?
fact is that the human experience is universal. We all love it when the
hero succeeds. We all love it when the villain gets his just desserts.
We also tend to agree about just what qualities make a hero or a villain
in the first place. It is because of these archetypes that we say
“There's nothing new under the sun.” These common experiences become
shorthand, tropes so that in folk tales we look at and say, Oh, she is
the youngest daughter so she will be the most beautiful or he is the
youngest son, so he will be lucky. Both are common tropes in folk tales
the world over.
Propp was a Russian scholar who published a seminal work on Russian
folktales in 1928. His Morphology of the Folk Tale was translated into
English in 1958. Although his work concentrated on Russian sources,
further scholarship has proven that his work can be applied to broader
sources. Much like Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces
or Tammi Cowden's Heroes and Heroines, Propp's morphology is
based on the groundbreaking work of Carl Jung's archetypes: the concept
that the human race is grounded in common experiences and common strains
of character that we all can recognize and that then stand as a model
for experiences that come after. However, where Jung and other scholars
such as Claude Levi-Strauss searched for meaning within archetypes,
Propp's focus was solely on the structure of the narrative itself and
how these pieces came together to form the whole.
Propp, rather than examining the characters, in his Morphology of the
Folk Tale he looks at the shape the tales themselves take; the
experiences that tend to hold true over the course of most folk tales.
Broken into 31 narratemes, these are further divided into 4 spheres.
While not all stories contain all 31 of Propp's narratemes and certainly
not all in the same order, most stories contain a majority of these
First Sphere we are introduced to the characters. In the Second Sphere
we enter into the body of the story. The Third Sphere the hero goes on a
quest to obtain what he needs to win the day. In the Fourth, final
Sphere the hero returns home, often with a final task to perform before
Within this framework there are seven main characters that fit familiar
1. The villain
2. The donor – this person gives the hero information or an object to
help him on his way.
3. The helper – often magical in nature, such as a talking animal, helps
4. The princess and her father – For Propp these two often serve the
same purpose in regard to their function within the story. Whether being
sought after by the hero, or setting the hero on his quest, unmasking
the false hero or providing the hero with his reward, both characters
often fill the same space.
5. The dispatcher – this character informs the hero of what is needed,
or the lack, and sends him off on his journey.
6. The hero
7. The false hero – tries to usurp the hero's place either by taking
credit for his actions or trying to marry the princess.
It is not uncommon for some of these arcehtypes to be combined.
example let's look at the story of Beauty and the Beast.
villain is of course the Beast. But wait, he also serves as the
Princess, for in the end he is Beauty's reward. Beauty's sisters are
villains but I have read versions where they are also false heroes;
their actions are fueled by jealousy and the hope that he will be angry
enough with her that they might take her place.
Beauty and the Beast begins in the first sphere with:
Initial situation: A once prosperous family falls on hard times.
1. Absentation: Beauty's father goes on one last business trip in the
hope of saving the family's fortunes
2. Interdiction: Beauty's father is warned not to touch the roses.
3. Violation of Interdiction: Beauty's father plucks the rose for Beauty
8. Villainy and lack: Beast requires Beauty's father to send her to him.
9. Mediation: Beauty discovers what her father has promised.
10. Counteraction: Beauty insists on going so that her father may keep
his word to the Beast.
11. Departure: Beauty leaves for the Beast's castle.
15. Guidance: Beaty reaches the Beast's castle.
12. Testing: Beauty is exposed to the Beast's mysterious, magical
castle. Beast's features are revealed.
13.Reaction: Beauty is able to overcome her fear and strong feelings.
16. Resolution: Beauty and the Beast are friends.
14. Acquisition: Beast gives Beauty the magic mirror and ring
20. Return: Homesick Beauty returns home
27. Recognition: Beauty is welcomed home by her family who are surprised
she looks so well
25 Difficult Task: Beauty must return to the beast within a specific
26 Solution: Beauty stays too long at the urging of her family, but in
the end returns to the beast as he lays dying.
22 Rescue: Beauty recognizes her true feeling for the Beast in spite of
30 Transfiguration: Beast returns to his true form.
29 Exposure: The story of how the Prince became the Beast is revealed.
31 Wedding: Beauty marries her Beast.
can see, not all narratemes are used nor are they always in order.
does this apply to writing and constructing a plot? If you feel some
confusion in regard to how to structure your novel, the components seen
through the lens of Propp's narratemes can help. By placing the
components of your story together you can see how they fit. If there are
plot holes they can become more evident as well.
to use the narratemes is by creating a table. On the X axis list the
narratemes, on the Y axis list the characters you are giving point of
view in your story. At each narrateme that fits the plot of your story,
fill in the blank. For instance in a gritty crime drama, the
interdiction may be a mother's warning to stay away from Cousin Frank;
that side of the family always was trouble. Violation of interdiction
may be that, after the main character loses his job Frank offers him a
place to stay. This will be then be the tipping point leading to the
main character's involvement in a disastrous robbery. But perhaps as you
go along toward the end of your plotting you realize that what is really
missing in your story is a Difficult Task in the Fourth Sphere. Without
this, your story is lacking the final punch before the climax.
Morphology is ideally suited to the fantasy genre, the descendant of
folk tales, but viewed through an archetypal lens it can be applied to
any plot. A magical item can be a bundle of old letters that serves as a
gateway to revelation. Transfiguration can be a psychological change.
Regardless of whether you are writing high fantasy or mainstream
fiction, your hero will be on a journey and in the end the journey will
reveal the hero to himself.