Fairy Tales: A Great Way to Learn Story Structure

The Methods of Fairy Tale Analysis

In this section we will turn to fairy tales as a simple form that illustrates both fundamental elements of narrative structure and archetypal patterns.

Fairy tales show narrative structure and the psyche in bold relief.

Learning how to work with a simple tale shows us how to work with a more complex tale.

That’s the point of studying fairy tale structure. It’s the easiest way to learn how to read for plot.

I hold to maybe the facile belief that if we can learn to read for structure and meaning in fairy tales we can apply those same basic ideas to reading more complex stories.

I provide three different perspectives in three distinct theorists:

  • Vladimir Propp, an exemplary model of Russian Formalism. From Propp we learn about the morphology of a fairy tale.
  • Maria Louise Von Franz’s psychological approach to the interpretation of a fairy tales.
  • Maria Tatar’s work in fairy tale and her synthesis of a formal, psychological, and historical approach as necessary to hold the tension and discover what is at play in a fairy tale narrative.

What I want to bear in mind is that these methods suggest models or maps- meaning a way to read a story that offer tremendous navigational tools for interpretation.

In looking for maps or models for/of reading, the primary issue is: how do we approach a text? What are the questions we ask of a text/take to a text? What we have learned in our postmodern age is that what are we looking for guides how we look. We’ll spend quite some time exploring what Propp is looking for as he argues that he has found a more primary form of analysis. Von Franz’s approach in contrast looks for and finds archetypal patterning. Propp uses deductive techniques, accessing vast amounts of fairy tale material to find four laws and 31 functions. Von Franz, assuming the hegemony of a Jungian approach to fairy tale analysis based upon dream interpretation, inductively applies one theory through which she sees one fact playing out in myriad forms. What we must also bear in mind with Propp and Von Franz is the ambition of their methods and the time out of which they wrote. Neither take into account issues of socio-historical context and yet, Propp as Tatar will tell us, laid the ground for what has become cultural analysis. However, as Tartar makes clear,  Propp on his own, structural analysis on its own, is arid without a secondary psychological interpretation into what the form of fairy tales mean. We must find a middle way.

It is to Maria Tatar’s The Hard Facts of Grimms’ Fairy Tales that we will turn for a synthesis. She insists on holding the tension between a psychological approach and a structural approach mitigated by socio-historical grounding. I will pull out a list of questions from Tatar’s approach to suggest a middle way for how we might handle narrative in general. Although Tatar references Bruno Bettelheim as her psychological model, a Freudian reading rather than Jungian, it is again her ability to hold the tension between these poles that I will take as model. Tartar’s The Hard Facts of Grimms’ Fairy Tales is neither a morphology of fairy tales nor an introduction to the analysis of the genre. Rather, Tatar writes a kind of cultural history of the Grimms’ fairy tales that in the process explores the structure of a tale and interpretive approaches. I will use her approach admittedly selectively to demonstrate the value of integrating a formal understanding of a fairy tale’s basic structure as preliminary to interpretation.

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