Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
Vladimir Propp (1894-1970) was a Russian folklorist who studied mythical stories, seeking to find the basic components that tethered all kinds of different stories together. The Proppian Analysis that he constructed sought to do just that. In total, Propp's Analysis consists of 31 different "functions," which are basic components to the narrative structure of the tale. Propp also created eight (or sometimes seven) character archetypes that slot themselves into the story. Propp started with Russian fairy tales, but the functions which Propp analyzed can be attributed to all different stories, whether they be ancient myths or modern tales.
Though Propp's Analysis lists 31 different functions, they really can be summarized in eight main ones, so these eight are combining Propp's functions. This article will forgo Propp's character archetypes for another day, considering only the functions in stories.
The absentation is the first part of the Analysis. Once the beginning of the story is given absentation comes in. The hero is introduced, and something goes missing, or someone leaves. This doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. The powerful magic scepter being stolen from the Wizard is bad, yes, but the hero leaving to seek his fortune may not be so terrible. Something has to "leave," though. This brings in conflict, either the desire to retrieve the missing object or the desire for the hero to stay.
Some classic examples of the absentation in stories include the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son, with the son taking his inheritance and leaving his father and brother. The theft and subsequent loss of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. The vanishing of the pig Hen Wen in The Chronicles of Prydain, which forces Taran to go after the pig.
Taran Goes After Hen Wen
Next up, an interdiction is given to the hero by some other character. The hero wants to take on the quest to fill the absentation—to slay the Dragon, free the Princess, topple the dark kingdom—but he is warned against it. A Wizard, old man, or friend will come and tell of the dangers taking this quest will bring upon the hero. Physical injury, internal pain, death most likely. They spell out the dangers, the enemies, the price that must be paid. Whether it's going somewhere or taking some course of action, the hero is told not to do anything.
Some classic examples of this include the fairytale "Bluebeard," where the heroine is warned by her husband not to use her keys to enter a certain room; otherwise, she will find a devastating secret. Luke in Star Wars being told by his uncle not to take the droids to where Obi-Wan Kenobi is and not to get embroiled in Jedi business. Little Red Riding Hood in her fairytale being told by her mother to not talk to strangers as she journeys through the woods.
Ultimately, the hero or heroine breaks the command that they have been given. They go against the warnings they have been told, and they are now no longer safe. Often, this is where the hero encounters the villain in some form or another. It could be that he or she encounters the villain physically, running into him or having him come after them. Otherwise, tales of his wickedness could be told, he could harm people or places dear to the hero, or he could swear revenge on the hero and come after him or her. Here, the villain's presence just needs to be made known. It's not necessary for the villain to do something at this point.
For the above examples above, the violation would be: Bluebeard's wife entering the room she is forbidden to enter and being physically threatened by her husband. Luke meeting Obi-wan and his relatives being killed, cementing his conflict with the Empire. Little Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf and conversing with him, bringing his evil plan to fruition and Granny and Little Red herself into danger.
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Here is where the villain begins his assault on the hero, though not physically. Here, the villain attempts to learn as much as he can about the hero. Why the hero is coming, who the hero is, if the hero is special in any sort of way. That, or he takes some action towards his main goal. Finding the power source he needs, seeking the special weapon, whatever. The villain uses this to make waves in the story against both the hero and his other intended victims.
Examples of this in stories can be Gaston in Beauty and the Beast speaking to Belle's father to learn more about the Beast and to plan his scheme. Syndrome in The Incredibles sending Mirage after Mr. Incredible to lure him into his trap. The Ringwraiths were approaching Hobbiton to learn about Frodo after he escapes with the Ring.
Loki Kills Coulson
Villainy (or Lack)
This is an area that can have two functions. First, the villain actually does something. He's learned about the hero, so now he takes action towards eliminating this threat. Secondly, the hero finds a lack, either with his people or with himself. It could be that he discovers that he needs a certain magical item to help defeat the villain, or maybe he understands that he wants to change internally or realizes that he doesn't have the family or personality that he's always wanted. This could either be part of the main story or a sub-plot for the hero.
Examples of this include: The Queen in Snow White asking the Mirror who the fairest of all is and finding that Snow White is still alive. Marie's death in The Bourne Supremacy, giving Bourne the urge to take action against his creators. The death of Coulson in The Avengers, making the team realize they need to group together to defeat Loki.
The actions of the villain have been discovered. The hero has found the loss that has impacted him, his family, or his community. Now he prepares to take action. This is the time to finally bring the villain to his knees, and the hero is prepared to do just that.
Since this is a response to the villainy, the mediation to the above would be: The Dwarves chasing after the Queen after she has poisoned Snow White. Bourne chasing after Treadstone after his girlfriend's death. The Avengers taking on Loki and his army to "avenge" Coulson.
Death of Scar
Death Star Explodes
The battle is on. It's the hero versus the villain in the ultimate showdown. Of course, we know the good guy wins out in the end, so skip right to the ultimatum: what to do with the bad guy? Sometimes he's killed during the battle, dies by his own hand, or is accidentally killed. Other times, he could be imprisoned or banished. However it happens, he gets his comeuppance.
Examples of this include the death of Scar in The Lion King. The destruction of the Death Star and the Emperor. Cinderella's sisters being turned into her servants forever or losing their eyes.
After such a long and dangerous quest, the hero gets rewarded. It could be a wedding, marrying his or her love, or it could be any kind of reward that the hero receives. Maybe they become the king or queen of a country, get a lot of money, or go back to live in their society happily forever.
Examples of the wedding include Flynn and Rapunzel's marriage at the end of Tangled. Batman's retirement at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Bilbo's portion of treasure at the end of The Hobbit.
Summary of Propp's Functions
Something goes missing or someone leaves
A command is given to the hero
Hero breaks command; villain introduced
Villain seeks to gain information
Villainy (or Lack)
Villain brings about physical harm or lask is identified
Hero prepares for showdown and goes after villain
Villain is defeated and punished
Hero is rewarded for his or her actions
- Mediaknowall AS&A Level Key Concepts — Vladimir Propp
Introduction to Vladimir Propp's narrative theory, Character Functions, narrative functions, narratemes, Morphology of the Folk Tale, application to fairy tales, for AS and A2 Media Studies
- Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale
Vladimiar Propp defined a 'Morphology of the Folk Tale', identifying the major themes in Russian fairy tales.
- Vladimir Propp - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
© 2014 Nathan Kiehn