tale types

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Painting by Edwin Henry Landseer, in public domain. You get the reference, I hope.

Welcome to another tongue-in-cheek post about folklore studies pet peeves. This one is about how to approach the study of fairy tales from a perspective that is, well, not dick-ish.

First, we have to clear up the misconception that just because something is in public domain, or has been widely experienced, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s qualified to talk about it in a scholarly fashion. I’ve found this phenomenon occurring about folklore in general (see my blog post on the topic) and also about fairy tales specifically. So, even if you’ve seen every Disney movie and even started to poke around the scholarly web a bit (not that there’s anything wrong with, say, SurLaLune and Dr. Ashliman’s folk-texts, but they’re starting points for further research the same way Wikipedia is), please consider taking some of the suggestions in this blog post.

Next, please be aware of existing folklore scholarship on fairy tales. As my colleague Will Pooley points out, “folklorists are THE experts on oral narratives, such as fairy tales.” We’ve “developed tools and methods for studying this material, but the clickbait stories about ‘myth’ and ‘fairy tales’ often ignore this expertise, preferring dramatic accounts of undiscovered materials.” So I guess it’s not a big surprise, given this reporting trend, that a lot of folks come away with the impression that you can blithely say whatever you want about fairy tales and folklore.

For example, I wrote about hearing a conference paper on “Cinderella” that ignored all existing folklore scholarship on the tale type. This exemplifies my two previous points – someone thinking they’re qualified to present scholarship on fairy tales because I don’t even know why, and ignoring existing folklore scholarship – but in addition, the author got defensive when I politely pointed out that maaaaybe their methodology needed some work.

Snark aside, here are some ideas for how to not draw the ire of folklorists and fairy-tale scholars if you want to come play in our sandbox.

  • Cull the phrase “the original” from your language. Just do it. In a handful of instances, we can identify the first time a fairy-tale plot or motif appeared, as is the case of Hans Christian Andersen’s literary tales (because his “The Little Mermaid” was the first text with its particular synthesis of mermaid motifs from legend, fairy-tale elements like the quest for love, and so on, and it went on to inspire future versions). But mostly, because of the dense interconnection between fairy tales and folklore/oral tradition, it’s impossible to say when a given tale was the ACTUAL first time something appeared, and not just the first time somebody happened to write it down.
  • Be aware of some of the main methods and theories for studying fairy tales. If you are absolutely undeterred from studying origins, for example, make sure you’re familiar with the historic-geographic/Finnish method. If you’re into structuralism, read Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (bonus points for chasing down Bengt Holbek’s simplification of Propp’s 31 narrative functions into 5 moves). Learn what a tale type is. For psychological approaches, get your hands on some of Alan Dundes’s work, because while he’s biased toward the Freudian side of things, he’ll at least mention some of the Jungian stuff out there (I summarize some of the symbolic approaches to fairy tales in my master’s thesis). Max Lüthi’s work does a great job explaining the literary and stylistic qualities of fairy tales. For Marxist approaches you’ve GOT to read Jack Zipes, and for feminist approaches, Donald Haase’s edited volume is a fine start. Heck, we even have digital approaches to fairy tales these days!
  • Make sure you cite existing fairy-tale scholars and scholarship. That includes those of us still alive and kicking, not just references to the greats of the last century. Pick a handful from this list, and acquire their books and articles (many are available in the journal Marvels & Tales, which you can buy issues of or read online from a university computer): Jack Zipes, Donald Haase, Maria Tatar, Cristina Bacchilega, and Marina Warner. Some of my colleagues are doing great work editing and making accessible the work of others, like Pauline Greenhill, Jill Terry Rudy, and Kay Turner, with their own work appearing too in excellent volumes like Transgressive Tales and Channeling Wonder. There are some folks in my cohort of younger scholars doing great work as well. Not all of us have books out yet, but look for our blog posts and journal articles: Claudia Schwabe, Christy Williams, Veronica Schanoes, Linda Lee, Adam Zolkover, Brittany Warman, Sara Cleto, and, of course, myself. Most of these are my American colleagues; I could go on about fairy-tale scholars and folklorists in other countries!

These are just the suggestions off the top of my head; I’m sure I’m forgetting some folks who should be included. The field of fairy-tale studies has a centuries-long history, with its own internal vocabulary, paradigms, and debates. If you plan to play in our sandbox, please familiarize yourself with our history. It’s only polite… and it makes you that much more likely to be taken seriously by us.

Fairy-tale scholarship is a thriving, complex, wondrous field. It is at once highly intellectual and confoundingly creative. We’re working at the intersections of folklore, pop culture, and literature, and with theoretical concerns ranging from psychological symbolism to feminism to aesthetics. If you want to come play with us, please do – but tread as respectfully as you would if interacting with actual fairies. I’m not saying we’re quite that temperamental, but, well, we also get cranky when people come uninvited into our territory and starting flinging their uninformed selves around.

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An illustration from a 1912 publication of the Grimms’ tales in English.

A conversation with speculative fiction authors Max Gladstone and Michael Underwood got me thinking about the importance of the “original” version of stories and other expressive culture to people. Gladstone wrote this blog post about how the Star Wars Expanded Universe is essentially a folkloric variation on a narrative, in the same way that the Greek classics displayed variation even when they were written up into plays and other literary (hence fixed) forms. Underwood, who also has folklore training, leapt in, and the discussion veered into intriguing territory, such as wondering how a version of a text becomes associated with concept of the “original” in someone’s mind.

However, as a folklore instructor, I’ve grown to loathe the concept of the “original” when it comes up in my college classes. This is due to two conflated meanings that I’ll unpack here.

The first – and incorrect – way that references to the “original” crop up in my classes is as an assertion of origin. As in, a student saying that the “original” Cinderella was dark and gory.

Um, no. First, that’s usually a reference to the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, in which the stepsisters cut off toes and/or heels to try to fit into the shoe, and get their eyes pecked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding to the prince. But even then, are we talking about the 1812 version of Cinderella, from when the Grimms first published their collection of tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or from the 7th and final revision which appeared in 1857, or any of the intervening revisions? And then what about translations? We know from various folklore studies that Victorian-era English translators changed bunches based on social norms and ideas about acceptability for child audiences.

Between publication and translation issues, it’s difficult to talk about the “original” version of a fairy tale, even when someone has a specific version in mind. Then you throw in the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to determine when the first existing version of something from oral tradition came into being, and yeah… it’s hardly worth talking about. (for what it’s worth, though, the oldest written version of something resembling Cinderella comes from 9th century China, which means it was likely circulating in oral tradition well before that)

See, I’m not drawn to the pursuit of the origins of older folklore. It might be an intriguing research question, for some people, some of the time… but it’s not why I’m here. I’m in folklore studies because we have our scholarly fingers on the pulse of what people (consciously or not) find relevant enough to transmit, perform, and enact.

Anyway, in folklore studies the question of the “original” is essentially a meaningless one, unless you’re working with a phenomenon that is so recent or so thoroughly documented that you can, in fact, point at the first instance of something. But usually it comes together from a swirl of existing cultural material that get remixed in just the right way to cohere and resonate with people.

The second meaning that the “original” can have in folklore studies (and one that bugs me far less, though I wish we had better language for it) is meaning the first version that stuck with you. So it’s a more subjective meaning, and therefore can’t really be debated in the same way as the first meaning. Which is fine – but people need to realize that the first version they were exposed to isn’t necessarily going to be the same for everyone.

In Fairy Tales and Feminism: New ApproachesDonald Haase covers reception and reader response approaches to fairy tales in his introductory essay. One of the scholars he mentions, Kay Stone, has done pioneering work with women’s and children’s memories of and responses to gender roles in fairy tales. Among Stone’s findings is the impressive insight that women selectively remembered the heroines of fairy tales, sometimes making them more active and heroic than passive, even when their roles in the text seem largely passive. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a ton of work in this area that I know of (at one point I was going to do a study, but the IRB permissions were complicated, given that I wanted to work with children).

For fairy tales specifically, yes, we can blame Disney and their aggressive copyright laws for a lot of the hype around the “original” version of something, down to the color and cut of a princess’s dress. But we should also take into account the intellectual fascination with morphologies and genealogies dating back to the Romantic era and the philological foundations of modern literary, historical, linguistic, and anthropological studies. I’ve got a rant about authenticity, and how every cultural tradition is invented, that I’ll get around to writing up eventually, which would tie in nicely here.

If we each have our own personal first-exposure version of a text – whether a tale type, or a custom, or a proper way of preparing a holiday food – then that can be a potentially interesting avenue of study. When was someone first exposed to the text? By whom? Which facets of it stuck with them (motifs and themes; structure; context) and which are more malleable? How does this color their interactions with other versions of the same plot, text, or tale type?

The personal-first-exposure meaning (we need to find a better term than your original version) is intriguing and grants that our unique life experiences shape our interactions with cultural materials. This is more empowering – and more accurate – than trying to determine which version of something came first, since that’s often a question that leads back to historically privileged individuals and groups (e.g. those with literacy, the power to record their lives, and so on).

So please remove the “original” from your vocabulary when in a folklore context. And check out my other folklore pet peeves, too, such as when people assume we write children’s books, or that all folklorists are obsessed with origins, or that everybody already knows everything there is to know about folklore.

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What better metaphor for cultural transmission than a magic carpet? Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist and belly dancer, I deal with cultural appropriation on a daily basis. There are the accusations that wearing a bindi is disrespectful, and the queries I get about where certain narratives and body adornments first come from. I try to be aware of power imbalances, but I also think human creativity is multifaceted and flourishes regardless of restrictions.

I blog about how American Tribal Style® Belly Dance sidesteps some of the nastier cultural appropriation issues, for instance, by not attempting to imitate specific existing tribal dances but rather creating a new form for a new context. This dance style isn’t perfectly free of the bonds of colonialism and capitalism, but what is?

One concept that, in my mind, helps make the cultural appropriation questions a bit easier, is polygenesis. In folklore and anthropology, polygenesis means that a folklore text or piece of expressive culture – a given narrative, custom, or artifact – has multiple origins. This is in contrast to monogenesis, or a text having a single origin. In a monogenesis situation, once the item has been created, it spreads through diffusion and cultural contact.

In folklore studies we’ve devised whole systems for tracking items that originate through monogenesis, such as the tale type index (which I explain here). We have the Finnish method, also called the historic-geographic method, which we use to trace narratives through time and space, assembling all the versions of a folktale or legend that have been recorded, and then trying to pinpoint their origin. As I’ve already said, I don’t particularly care for the quest for origins, but these methods are still useful because they help us get a better handle on the past.

But when is polygenesis interesting and useful? In my opinion, it’s when polygenesis helps us understand that a given cultural artifact probably has multiple origins, and thus can’t be claimed by any one culture. To give a narrative example, a very basic plot like star-crossed lovers, or a rags-to-riches story, might originate anywhere with enough class hierarchy to make those stories work. Once a narrative accrues enough recognizable motifs, tropes, symbols, and/or plot twists, though, it probably had a single distinct origin point, or it was synthesized from other narratives at a single point, and then spread out from there.

This is a fairly simple concept; I’d imagine most students get it in Cultural Anthropology 101 or some equivalent. However, I think if we apply it to the issues presented by cultural appropriation, it opens up another avenue for discussion. We can ask if the artifact, story, or custom at hand has other points of origin, and how much it’s changed in the process of transmission if in fact it’s a case of monogenesis. Thinking in terms of monogenesis and polygenesis might add some more nuance to our conversations, and might help us recognize that while cultural borrowing should not be a careless free-for-all when there are clearly oppressive forces at work, culture has always interacted with creativity in richly complex ways.

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"Donkeyskin" by Nadezhda IllarionovaI recently had occasion to celebrate a new article being published, my “Sorting Out Donkey Skin (ATU 510B): Toward an Integrative Literal-Symbolic Analysis of Fairy Tales” (which you can read on the Cultural Analysis website for free). That project has been in the works for a while, over a decade at this point. I thought I’d share not only the link to the article, but also a piece that I wrote to accompany my MA thesis (also on this topic) which I submitted in 2007 as part of my coursework in folklore at Indiana University. It’s more personal and process-oriented than most of my scholarship, so I thought it might be an interesting read. Certainly some of my views have evolved since then, but such is life.

So sit back, relax, and get ready for some vintage 2007 writing.

My involvement with ATU 510B, “Donkeyskin,” began in 2002, when I enrolled in Alan Dundes’s “Folk Narrative” class at UC Berkeley, where I was working toward a bachelor’s in folklore (technically, my degree would be in “Interdisciplinary Studies Field” with a concentration in folklore, as there was no undergraduate degree in folklore at Berkeley, just a master’s degree). Professor Dundes gave a lecture midway through the semester about the Electra complex in “Donkeyskin,” which thoroughly infuriated me. Where he saw a psychological attachment between father and daughter in the tale, I saw incestuous abuse. I resolved to write a research paper on the topic, and Professor Dundes heartily encouraged me to do so when I visited him in office hours. Despite my feminist leanings, in that first paper on ATU 510B, “The Problematic Electra Complex vs. Realities of Abuse: Psychoanalytic and Literal Approaches to ‘Donkeyskin’ (AT 510B),” I concluded that psychological and literal approaches to the tale were complementary. In fact, it seemed odd to me that most scholars tended to view the tale from only the one angle or the other, when both approaches had powerful explanatory appeal. This paper is included in Appendix A.

I revisited my research on ATU 510B in 2004. That spring, among the last classes I took at Berkeley were Alan Dundes’s “Psychological Approaches to Folklore” and Andreas Johns’s class on the fairy tale. I expanded my work on ATU 510B, the result being a paper double the length of the first one, titled “If the Interpretation Fits: Psychoanalytic and Literal Approaches to Father-Daughter Incest in AT 510B” (see Appendix B). I referred to more versions of the tale in my analysis, and brought in more theoretical references as well. I also presented my research on ATU 510B at two conferences that year, one version of the paper at the California Folklore Society meeting in Northridge, California in the spring, and the other version at the American Folklore Society meeting at Salt Lake City. I include the latter paper, “If the Interpretation Fits: Symbolic and Literal Approaches to Father-Daughter Incest Fairy Tales,” here as well (see Appendix C).

Those three prior versions of my work on ATU 510B represent different phases of my thinking about not only the tale itself, but also the interpretation process. I started out with the aim to demonstrate that a feminist perspective was necessary to supplement the lacks of a psychoanalytic perspective, but I was unable to completely discard the insights of psychoanalysis, despite its sexist biases. When I began to revise my research, I wanted to explore the spectrum of meanings available within different versions of the tale. I was still interested in the gap between psychological and feminist interpretations, but I wanted to expand the frame of the paper. Hence the shift in the title from psychoanalytic and feminist terms to symbolic and literal terms. The readings I’ve done in psychoanalysis have thoroughly influenced me here, for I first encountered the terms “manifest” and “latent” in psychoanalytic literature. That fairy tales should have both manifest and latent levels of meaning is evident; but how to access these multiple meanings?

Influenced by my classes at Indiana University in folklore as well as gender studies, I began to think about how texts “mean.” Intertextuality, performativity, and other postmodern concepts inspired me to explore the polysemous nature of texts (and also to put more things in the plural and in parentheses than possibly ought to be). I realized that there never was and never would be only one meaning for anything, so why should ATU 510B be treated as a homogenous phenomenon? I also had the opportunity to write articles for The Encyclopedia of Folk and Fairy Tales (forthcoming from Greenwood Press), which, particularly the ones on psychological approaches to folklore, gender, and incest, got me thinking about the frames through which we approach fairy tales.

Like any type of cultural performance or art form with historical ties as well as symbolic content, traditional elements as well as innovative ones, fairy tales fulfill multiple functions, ranging from entertainment and education to political instrumentalization. Fairy tales also provide flexible discursive spaces in which prevailing norms can be debated and alternative identities can be explored. However, fairy tales are also mirrors, to put it simply. I discuss this oft-used metaphor in the “Interpretive Methodologies” section of my thesis paper, for it continues to fascinate me and be useful for thinking. The interesting thing about the mirror metaphor is that it is visually oriented, like much of Western culture, and also that it implies that an objective reality exists, or at least that viewer and viewed, subject and object, are separate. I believe that the prevalence of the mirror metaphor in scholarship is one reason why fairy-tale scholarship has been so one-dimensional, focusing only on one version of a tale, or only on one interpretive frame, and so on. While the mirror metaphor is poetic and can be helpful in explaining why the interpreter or listener or reader of a fairy tale continually sees in the tale what she desires to see, I believe that fairy tales must be approached as more complex than mirrors. Moreover, interpreters must become aware of the perspectives that they bring with them to the interpretive act, for these perspectives may impose a frame upon the materials. This framing process is not necessarily artificial, for fairy tales are multiply framed texts to begin with, but it means that extra caution must be taken if one intends to make theoretical statements about fairy tales.

The purpose of this paper, then, is not only to revise my prior writings on ATU 510B into some publishable form in order to bolster my academic career, but also to get my ideas out there and start some dialogue about how we look at fairy tales (and texts in general). I am excited to get to talk about one of my favorite fairy tales at length, for I take genuine pleasure in working with these materials, but I’m also thrilled at the idea of proposing a syncretic approach to fairy tales that might be interesting and useful to other scholars. This dual purpose—to provide an interpretation of ATU 510B as well as provide a theoretical framework for interpretation in general—was my goal from the inception of this project. However, I have trouble with the revision process, so this project took me longer than I’d anticipated. The theoretical framing of the first few sections was the most difficult; once I got into the interpretation, I was able to coast. A good chunk of this paper is simply interpretation of ATU 510B. I believe that this is as it should be with folkloristic scholarship, for theories without data are just about as unsatisfying as data without theories (channeling Dundes with that statement, perhaps).

Throughout the revision process, I learned about my style of scholarship in an archaeological fashion. The earliest version of this paper was too heavy in quotes and clunky passages, indicating my insecurities as a younger scholar. I sought validation by letting others speak for me, and I hadn’t really found my voice yet. Then, in the second version of this paper, I let my own voice appear more in the text, but I still quoted other scholars quite extensively. I looked for everything that had ever been written on ATU 510B, in part because Professor Dundes had trained us to do exhaustive research on a topic before writing about it in order to avoid repeating what’s already been said, and in part because I wanted to write something authoritative on ATU 510B. Now, I look back and wonder why in order for a paper to be authoritative it must reference everything else on the subject. How much must we demonstrate familiarity with texts within a discipline in order to achieve competence, and by whose standards? Is this an issue of respect towards one’s elders, or is it fueled by a tradition of learning by example? I’m not saying that I regret doing all the reading and synthesizing that I did, nor that scholars should write about a topic without thoroughly researching it first. Rather, I’m wondering why that approach was so thoroughly ingrained in me, and why I clung so fervently to it for so long. I wonder, too, why it was so important to me to write something “authoritative” on a given tale. What baggage comes with the notion of authoritative writing? The attractive position of being an author, surely, as well as being an authority on a subject. But with authority comes the danger of silencing and excluding other perspectives.

This is what I struggle with in regard to fairy tales, and folklore in general: the desire to say something true and important about these texts and phenomena, weighed against the knowledge that truth is relative, everything is subjective, and Western epistemologies for learning and meaning-making are very skewed. I seek validation as an academic—hence my earlier phase of excessive quotation, which I still catch myself doing sometimes—even as I recognize that academic thought is based upon concepts that are grounded in and create historical inequalities, such as Cartesian mind-body dualism, sexism and essentialism, and Judeo-Christian hierarchies. So my work is, in part, about challenging and changing the system from within.

Another aspect of my engagement with fairy tales within academia is the attempt to understand culture and the human condition from one particular angle. As ambitious as I am, I have to accept that I have limits, and I cannot possibly hope to study everything about culture. Instead, I can limit my scope and go deeper into meanings. Fairy tales resonate very deeply with me, and also with the myriad others who read them, write them, and write about them. These transforming and transformative narratives may only comprise one tiny part of culture, a felicitous conjunction of oral and literary traditions and innovations, yet they are also sites where cultural change and conflict, gender issues, and means of production and privilege interact. Fairy tales are artistic expressions of communal and individual concerns, using fictional and formulaic structures, with flexible vocabularies and conventions. For all that they are currently regarded as entertainment in Western cultures, fairy tales are not any less stories about culture and people, with insights into culture and people. What I am trying to express here is my dual frustration at the trivialization of fairy tales and their importance, as well as the trivialization within the study of fairy tales of the significance of certain themes. For example: “What, a story about incest? No, that’s certainly too horrible, it must be a metaphor for something else…” While I’m not certain whether this line actually goes through people’s heads, I suspect that some kind of similar rationalization is put forth for the metaphorization of fairy-tale content. And this question—on which level to understand the content of fairy tales—is one of the central issues I address in this paper.

The fact that fairy tales are generally about individuals within families, whether these families are perceived as real or as symbols for ego-complexes, continues to intrigue me and be relevant to my research. A close friend and I were once discussing why we were drawn to our somewhat bizarre research topics: she to prostitution, and I to father-daughter incest fairy tales. These things were not part of our life experiences, and yet we got something meaningful out of their study. My friend hypothesized that I was so fascinated by the father-daughter dynamic because within a nuclear family unit in a patriarchal culture, the father-daughter relationship is the most asymmetrical. That is, the father has the most power within the family (itself a model for society), and the daughter has the least power. This relationship, then, reflects a tension that resonates with larger power imbalances within societies. And because I am drawn to patterns, to stark illuminations, this relationship entrances me, and compels me to try to explain its presence in stories that have gone through many redactions and guises.

This explanation works, partially. So does the reason that I am drawn to these tales because they were once ostensibly common in the oral traditions of cultures that speak Indo-European and Semitic languages, yet these tales now have been subsumed under their sister tale, ATU 510A, “Cinderella,” in popularity (a topic I address in the paper I will deliver at the American Folklore Society meeting this year). What is going on with father-daughter incest stories, that they ceased to appear in collections of fairy tales and children’s books and movies, but only recently made a resurgence in retellings by modern American feminist writers of fantasy? This reason is the one I give most often to family members and non-academic friends, because I can use a concrete example, “Cinderella,” to discuss the divergences of “Donkeyskin” in oral tradition and literary retellings. Nevertheless, I can only rely on such explanations for a certain amount of validation. It is rather more difficult to provide a satisfactory account of my interest in the tale when my family takes an active interest in my folklore career, and shows up to hear one of my conference papers. This happened at the California Folklore Society meeting in 2004, which was held at Cal State Northridge, of which both my parents are alumni. Since my parents still live in the area, they not only hosted a bunch of Berkeley folklore students for the weekend, but they also showed up to hear my paper on ATU 510B. That was an interesting experience. I felt that I had to act in a scholarly manner, analyzing my material from as detached a distance as possible, in order not to upset anybody or arouse undue suspicion about my attachment to this tale. My parents were, to their credit, not too alienated either by the topic of my paper or by the overly academic, discipline-specific, and jargon-filled approach I took. The processes of meaning-making and revision, then, had different ramifications for this one conference presentation, as I was concerned about how this paper about relationships would impact my own relationships.

Revising my work on ATU 510B for conference presentation was challenging largely because I had so much to say about the tale, it was difficult to fit it into ten pages or twenty minutes, whichever came first. At the same time, that process helped me to cut out unnecessary quotations and synthesize my thoughts in digestible segments. It is difficult to know where to be brief, and where to expand; it is also interesting for those of us who study artistic communication to think about how we communicate insights about said communication. In sum, this project, born of a fascination with a particular story and revised numerous times, represents various phases in my scholarly development but is also marked by my personal life. There are myriad connections between my academic work and the rest of my life, and this is evident in how and why I study fairy tales, particularly how I am drawn to investigate the ways in which multiple meanings can be understood through attention to different layers of the texts.

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For the non-folklorists out there, we use the term “tale type” to refer to a folktale or fairy tale plot that has shown stability throughout time and space. “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are great examples of tale plots that are transmitted in different languages, countries, and time periods. But here you run into the problem of tale title; “Cinderella” doesn’t bear that name in every telling, so how are we scholars supposed to keep track of them all?

The tale type system, pioneered by Finn Antti Aarne in the early 1900s and revised by American Stith Thompson in the mid-20th century and updated by German Hans-Jorg Uther in 2004, assigns numbers to tale plots. So “Cinderella” is Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) 510A, “Little Red Riding Hood” is ATU 333, and so on.

However, there are problems with the system. As fairy-tale scholar Donald Haase writes on his Facebook:

I am happy to announce a new project for folk-narrative and fairy-tale scholars. For decades we have relied on the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index to understand the essence of a tale, but its skeletal description of each type’s essential plot prevents us from seeing other possibilities. The recent revision of the AaTh index was an important first step in rethinking and revising those descriptions. The Internet, however, now makes possible a new way of thinking. Devoted to breaking the magic spell of Aarne-Thompson, I propose a communal catalog of #TwitterTypes. What are #TwitterTypes? Posted on Twitter, #TwitterTypes are new summaries of traditional tales in 140 characters or less (including some version of the tale’s title). Why Twitter? Because the discipline of 140 characters composed on a computer or smartphone forces creative choices about a tale’s “essence,” and those choices reveal, to the Tweeter, the alternatives — the “Tweets-not-taken.”


The cool thing is that Haase basically wants to crowd-source this, a technique noted by digital humanities scholars and which I’m really curious about for fairy-tale studies:

Why a communal catalog? Imagine not a SINGLE effort to capture the SINGLE essence a tale but MANY efforts to express its MANY possibilities. Besides, I don’t want to do this all myself. So this is a CFT — a Call for #TwitterTypes. A call for contributions to the omnipresent, cloud-based #TwitterType Catalog, an endless project that exists everywhere and nowhere, a catalog that grows every time a fairy-tale scholar tweets. The first two #TwitterTypes–for “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Frog King or Iron Henry”–follow soon on Twitter, with simultaneous postings on my Facebook page. (Thanks, Gary, for having inspired this project.)


Examples of Haase’s include Blue Beard: (he-said-she-said) I do.–DON’T!–I won’t.–YOU DID!–I didn’t.–YOU’RE DONE FOR!–DON’T THINK SO!! (He didn’t; done in.)

I’m going to start posting some of my own, and I encourage fairy-tale enthusiasts to do the same, and please share this link! In an update, Haase announced that we’ll go with the hashtag #TwTy since it’s shorter, allowing for more creativity within Twitter’s character limits (though I think starting with the #TwitterTypes hashtag to let searchers know that you’re participating might be helpful). Looking for inspiration? Folklorist D. L. Ashliman runs a great site of electronic folklore & mythology texts, many of which include tale type numbers. His Grimms’ tale listing is here. Another great fairy-tale site online is Sur La Lune. If you can’t find the tale type numbers, that’s fine, I think using the title will work too.

So, have at, and pass it on!

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