Myths, fairytales, folktales: the prototypes of all narrative? [full version]

Myths, folktales, fairytales— these are the prototypes of all narrative, the ancestors and the models of later fictional developments… modern times forms have developed which elaborate and transform the basic constituents of primitive fiction almost beyond recognition, but … modern fictional forms have never lost touch with the primitive entirely and have frequently returned to their sources to draw upon the almost magical power they possess. (Scholes, 1974:60).

Fairy tales, folk tales and myths became common to all cultures and races, possibly since they developed languages. They have been —and still are— used as educational or cautionary tales and as ways of making sense of the world or accounting for human experience (Lévi-Strauss, 1967). In modern times, Disney and Hollywood have adapted fairytales and myths into full-length cinematic productions. Authors such as Terry Pratchett write satirical pastiches of them (Witches Abroad) and even Disney parodies its own history of creating animated versions of fairy tales (Enchanted, 2007). However, Scholes (1974) is referring to all narrative, not just the obvious and direct derivations and adaptations such as Snow White (1937) or Troy (2004). Barthes’ definition of narrative, from his Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, casts dispersions on Scholes’ statement:

There are countless forms of narrative in the world…  a prodigious variety of genres, each of which branches out into a variety of media…. Among the vehicles of narrative are articulated language, whether oral or written, pictures, still or moving… narrative is present in myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy… drama, comedy, pantomime, paintings… stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation… it is present at all times, in all places, in all societies… Like life itself, it is there, international, transhistorical, transcultural. (Barthes, 1975:1).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a prototype thus, ‘The first or primary type of a person or thing; an original on which something is modelled or from which it is derived; an archetype’ (OED, 2009). The argument here will be that myths, fairy tales and folktales are the prototypes of all narrative, but that, contrary to the views of many scholars, including Scholes (1974), the narrative theories of Propp, Lévi-Strauss and Todorov are unable to satisfactorily posit a model that accounts for all underlying structures in all narrative. These theorists were selected for discussion based on their previous scholarly application to the field as ‘all-encompassing’ theories. The discussion will mainly examine these in relation to film and prose fiction because they are prolific and two of the most popular (Lacey, 2000) and accessible forms of narrative in modern times.

Propp was one of the first theorists to propose the idea of an underlying structure of narratives, albeit in the narrow genre of the Russian ‘wondertale’ (a sub-genre of the Russian fairy tale, which in turn is a sub-genre of the Russian folktale). Proppian analysis has been posited as applicable to all forms of narrative if suitably revised (Greimas 1976 in Bordwell, 1988; Wollen, 1968, in Bordwell, 1988)

Propp’s basic tenet centres on his seven spheres of action (or tale roles), thirty-one functions of unvarying sequence that are grouped into six ‘moves’, which may be repeated  (for the full list of these functions et cetera, see Toolan, 1988 pp. 15). Propp’s theory can be applied successfully to the films Se7en (1995, in Lacey, 2000) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). The spheres of action in the latter are as follows: Jed is the villain, Bridget’s friend Shazzer is the donor, dispatcher and helper, Bridget is the princess, Darcy is the hero and Cleaver is the false hero. The functions that can be seen include 4 reconnaissance, 7 complicity, 9 mediation, 11 departure, 15 spatial change, 16 struggle, 18 victory, 19 liquidation, 20 return, 23 unrecognised arrival, 27 recognition, 31 wedding (implied by engagement and Bridget catching the bouquet).

Propp’s theory, however, sometimes requires distortion to fit, for example, the Resident Evil films, which are based on the game series Biohazard and follow the same premise. In the first film (2002), for example, the villain is the Umbrella Corporation, the donor is the Red Queen, who is also the helper along with Matt Addison and Kaplan, the princess can be seen as either Matt or humanity, the dispatcher is the Umbrella Corporation, the (victim-) hero is Alice and the false hero is Spence. However, though all three films can account for the spheres of action and many of the functions, some of the crucial functions cannot be accounted for, i.e. the villain is not defeated and the hero is neither rewarded by marriage or materialistic ascension, nor even truly victorious at the end of any instalment of the trilogy.

This is a similar pattern to that of Alien (1979), Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992) and Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987), which, as stand-alones, also lack clear resolution or triumph over the villain at the close and in the case of Alien 3, actually involves the death of the hero.

As seen above, in order to make Proppian analysis fit a modern narrative, it is necessary to stretch or distort the model (Bordwell, 1988). For example changing the sequential order,

Adhering stringently to Propp’s order of functions distorts the events in the text at hand, but ignoring the order makes Propp’s scheme merely an incomplete assortment of possible plot actions. Either way, to make the scheme “fit,” Propp’s deepest assumptions must be violated (Bordwell 1988 p.15).

Bordwell (1988) points out that Propp’s functions are very specific and some scholars, naming Wollen (1968) who’s analysis of North By Northwest Bordwell dismantles, wishing to champion his view have bent them to try and make them apply to cinema and other contemporary narratives. Bordwell goes on to state that Propp himself notes the tendency of people to misinterpret what he means and that there are “thousands of other tales not resembling fairy tales.” (Propp, 1928, in Bordwell 1988:7). In this respect, Propp’s theory cannot be claimed to be the prototype of all narrative.

Claude Lévi-Straus developed his own theory of how narrative structures work, based on his study of myth and folktales. He did recognise the ‘order’ of events as presented in narratives, but he decided to ignore that ‘order’ (Dundes, 1997). The basic concept here is that of binary opposites, which can be seen in many narratives, both fact and fiction. Lévi-Strauss contended that mythical thought ‘always moves from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation’ (Dundes 1997:1) and further that ‘the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction’ (Lévi-Strauss, 1976, in Dundes 1997:1).

In other words, in a hero/villain tale, the purpose of the hero is to mediate between the opposition (among others) of good and evil. In theory, these kinds of oppositions can be found throughout all narratives. Using Resident Evil: Apocalypse as an example, the oppositions include: good vs. evil, alive vs. (un)dead, hero vs. villain, beauty vs. ugliness, helpless vs. dangerous, right vs. wrong, light vs. dark, predator vs. prey, the many vs. the few, saved vs. abandoned, infected vs. uninfected, human vs. nonhuman and power vs. powerlessness.

Dundes claims that binary oppositions are ‘just as strong in folktales as they are in myths’ (1997:7) shown by the fact that it appears Lévi-Strauss analysed myth and folktales indiscriminately (1997:5) even though he claims to study only myth. Dundes explains this comment by stating that Oedipus is a folktale, not a myth (4). Binary opposites are clearly applicable to narrative due to the fact that stories are structured by ‘the attempt to resolve conflict, characterised by the opposition between the hero and villain (Lacey 2000:65). In addition, according to Lacey, one side of the opposition holds a privileged position over the other and as such the hero, who represents what society holds as good, correct or moral ‘invariably wins’. This guarantee of success is part of the function of entertainment (2000: 67). However this ‘invariability’ proves false when applied to many modern narratives where the hero dies, for example, Fun (1994), Drag Me to Hell (2008), Alien 3 (1992), Kids (1995), Titanic (1997) and Donny Darko (2001).

Tzvetan Todorov proposed a different model, which, in terms of a more all-encompassing applicability, improves upon those of Propp and Lévi-Strauss and moves closer to providing a potential prototype for all narrative. Todorov’s theory comprises five stages: initial situation, disruption, recognition of disruption, attempt at resolution of disruption and resolution, also understandable as a transformation from equilibrium through disequilibrium and back to (a modified) equilibrium. This model can also be mapped onto Propp’s functions (see Lacey, 2000), but are, due to their simplistic nature, more flexible and as such can be applied to a much broader range of narratives.

Lacey (2000) has shown Todorov’s theory applies to William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), the 1997 film The Full Monty and Star Wars (1977). Further examples are Neal Stephenson’s (1992) novel, Snowcrash, the Harry Potter book series by J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lords of the Rings, and the films Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), The Birds (1963), The Shining (novel 1977, film 1980), The Fifth Element (1997), Snatch (2000), Wanted (2008), Labyrinth (1986) and The Exorcist (1973), the later two of which are analysed below.

In Labyrinth (1986) the initial situation is Sarah babysitting. Sarah wishes for the baby, Tobey, to go away, leading to him being stolen by Jared (disruption), Sarah realises that the baby is gone and asks for him back (recognition). She then has to journey to the centre of the Labyrinth to rescue him (attempt at resolution). She gets there, defeats Jared and returns to the real world (resolution).

The Exorcist (1973) revolves around a mother and child (Regan) who live together (initial situation). A presence is felt at the house and Regan becomes ill (disruption). As a result a priest, Karras, is called after doctors can’t diagnose her. Karras eventually realises/admits that Regan is possessed (recognition) and performs an exorcism with fellow priest Merrin (attempt at resolution). The demon is cast out and Regan is well again (resolution), albeit at the cost of Karras and Merrin’s lives.

However, even with a flexible model like Todorov’s, there are exceptions. The 1991 film Night on Earth (a series of five vignettes observing the occurrences when 5 taxi drivers in different cities around the world move their fares from place to place), in terms of any disruption or disequilibrium is completely lacking; the Resident Evil trilogy also dismisses this model as resolution/equilibrium are not restored by the end of the narrative(/s).

Another example is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), which also presents a segment of characters’ regular lives as opposed to any great dramatic (or particularly ‘disruptive’) events. The suicide of Septimus Smith could be seen as an exception in this case, save the relative imperviousness to this news of the titular protagonist. Woolf, however, was deliberately writing outside of traditional conventions, in the heyday of Modernism.

Modernist and postmodernist narratives pose a challenge to all the above analyses of narrative structure due to their tendency to deliberately flout the conventions of traditional narrative. Examples from these two genres include Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 (1969), Pulp Fiction (1994) and to a lesser extent much of Tarantino’s other work. Fiction without hero/-ines or linear narratives, without oppositions, lacks or disequilibriums to be resolved or even without any real sense of ending, for example, The Carriers (2009), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) and I Am Legend (2007) do not so easily fit into the models of Propp, Lévi-Strauss or even Todorov.

There is also the risk of distortion when trying to make all narratives fit a particular model. Herstein–Smith (1980 in McQuillan, 2000) cites the successive attempts by Cox (1893), Rooth (1951) and Tung-Ting (1974) to gather all the versions and variants of the Cinderella or ‘rags-to-riches’ story, which amounted to over a thousand between the researchers and included ‘all Charles Dickens novels, The Divine Comedy, Pilgrim’s Progress, King Lear, The Aeneid‘ and a magazine article claiming to contain the ‘real-life Cinderella story of Sylvester Stallone’ (Herstein-Smith, 1980, in McQuillan 2000:143). Herstein-Smith goes on to recount a comment from Cox’s (1893) preface, saying that she felt if she has researched long enough, all stories would have turned out to be Cinderella (Herstein-Smith, 1980, in McQuillan 2000:143). However, it is hard to conceive of a way in which many of the films and novels mentioned above could be (mis-) construed as having Cinderella as their prototype.

There have been several attempts to identify the core number of stories in the world. Todorov posited eight, these being: the quest, redemption, journey to another world, the beast transformed by love, the solving of riddles, the ‘biter-bit’, the stranger saviour and the rise and fall (Lacey, 2000). Christopher Booker (2004) isolated nine basic plots, which are: overcoming the monster (Beowulf, Predator (1987)), rags-to-riches (Cinderella, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Maid in Manhattan (2002)), the quest (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Adams’ Watership Down), voyage and return (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia), comedy (Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, Blazing Saddles (1974), tragedy (Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde), rebirth (Sleeping Beauty, Clueless (1995)).

In the face of even so few ‘basic plots’ and the reality of the postmodern era, it is hard to conceive of the models of Lévi-Strauss or Propp being able to account for the basic underlying structure of all narratives. Even Todorov’s theory, as demonstrated above, cannot cope with the plethora of deviations in modern narrative fiction.

In conclusion, it is certainly the case, by simple virtue of the placement along the human temporal spectrum of the oral telling and retelling of myths, folktales and fairytales prior to that of written retellings, that they are the prototypes and origins of all narrative. There was speech before there was writing and therefore contemporary narratives, immortalised in all their media and versions, must have as their prototypes the myth, fairytales and folktales ‘of old’ as that is, historically, where our concepts of storytelling, the structures and links therein, derive from. However, the full gamut of narratives cannot be reduced down to the theoretical models of Propp, Lévi-Strauss or even Todorov because they were not formulated in the face or light of modern and postmodern narratives. Moreover, as Barthes describes above (1975), narrative is extremely diverse and many contemporary narratives are deliberately constructed to deviate from exactly the conventions  that theorists have sought to map.


Barthes, R. & Duisit, L. (1975) An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, New Literary History, vol. 6, No. 2, On Narrative and Narratives, pp. 237-272, The John Hopkins University Press, Available from: Accessed 22nd January 2010.

Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, London, Continuum International Publishing Group.Available from: Accessed 27th January 2010.

Bordwell, D. (1988) Aproppriations and ImPropprieties: Problems in the Morphology of Film Narratives, Cinema Journal, vol. 27, No. 3. pp. 5-20. Available from: Accessed January 24th 2009.

Dundes, A. (1997) Binary Opppostions in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss debate in Retrospect, Western Folklore.Available from: Accessed 27th January 2010.

Lacey, N. (2000) Narrative and Genre – Key Concepts in Media Studies, Bastingstoke, New York, Palgrave.

Oxford English Dictionary online at:

Scholes, R. (1974) Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction, London, Yale University Press.

Hernstein-Smith, B. (1980) Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories, in McQuillan, M. (ed.) (2000), The Narrative Reader, pp. 138-145, London, Routledge.

Toolan, M. J. (1988) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction, London, Routledge.

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  • Comments (4)
  1. Lol short version is still massive!
    Good though :)

    • this isn’t the short version, that’s on the home page;):-

      • Ahhh okay, I followed a link that said ‘short version’ & it came here so I assumed this was supposed to be the short one, fair enough! What did you get for this?

        • hmm, maybe i put the wrong link up:S:- I got 67%, very pleased:):-

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