Classifying folktales
by Dr. Hans-Jörg Uther, Privatdozent
Enzyklopädie des Märchens

Scarcely 40 years after the second revised edition of the international tale-type index, it is imperative that the publication of a new edition of the folktale catalogue begun by Antti Aarne (1910) and Stith Thompson (1928, 1961) be undertaken. The method used in that catalogue of describing and annotating tale types has furnished useful information about the historical and recent folk narrative of Europe, especially in the genres of fables, animal tales, legends, Märchen, humorous anecdotes, and formula tales. Inevitably, in the intervening decades, there has been a shift in the historical-comparative paradigm used for folk-narrative study, which must have an effect on the new edition of this catalogue. However, in spite of the recent interest in new genres of folk narrative, all the oral and literary forms of the world cannot possibly be documented in the Aarne-Thompson system. There are many reasons for this, most of which spring from the fact that the tale type index is structured according to genres and arranged according to themes. Certainly the use of the term Märchen as the international equivalent of “folk narrative” has blurred the distinctions between narrative genres. The Grimm brothers were part of this trend: they included, in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen, etiological myths, fables, animal tales, moralistic stories, humorous anecdotes, exempla, legends, religious legends, and various mixed forms such as religious jests and humorous Märchen. While we can see from the history of folktale classification that all these various genres can suitably be placed in the tale type index, there are other folk narratives that do not fit in its thematic divisions. These primarily include myths, epics, legends, and etiological tales, short forms such as anecdotes, jokes, rumours, and modern genres such as life history, family history, and refugee accounts. These kinds of texts must use alternative systems of classification, often the Motif-Index of Folk Literature (21955-58), such as was done in the catalogue by Johannes Wilbert and Karen Simoneau that indexes narratives of small Indian tribes in South America, Walther Heissig’s index of Mongolian epics, and Rudiger Schott’s index of narratives of the Bulsa of Ghana.

For the current revision of the Aarne-Thompson catalogue, which was graciously funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, we intend to find ways around some of the restrictions that narrowed Thompson’s scope. According to him, “Strictly, then, this work might be called ‘The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples’ ” (p. 7). However, a world-wide register of international narratives of all sorts of literary genres is impossible.

In spite of the heterogeneity of narratives of the past and the present, and notwithstanding the principles of classification that have previously been used for the tale type index, the goal of the third revision of the index will be to eliminate certain defects in the index and to supplement it with new entries and other information. It is important to document the geographical distribution and the temporal existence of each narrative, as well as to note important research pertinent to the various tale types.

Continuing interest in the documentation of popular narrative is evident in the many catalogues registering tales in various regions of the world which have appeared in recent years. Another somewhat surprising development has been that scholars who carry out thorough fieldwork in Europe still continue to find numerous examples of classical narrative genres circulating in oral tradition. The result is that throughout Europe, there are thousands more texts of old and newly-discovered tales, legends, and fables. In addition, the number of catalogues that document non-European narrative has greatly increased.

Without discarding the traditional method of presenting the tale types, the present revision will answer the criticisms against the old index. The most prominent criticisms are contained in the following eight points:

1. Classifying narrative implies a scientific exactness that does not in fact exist, and that works as an “ideal type” only for certain texts in a limited region.
2. The descriptions of the tale types are in many cases too short and are often imprecise. Many are sexist, in that when the variants refer indiscriminately to a man or a woman, the summaries assign men to respectable roles and women to ignoble ones.
3. Incorporating the so-called “irregular types”-those in small print-is a dubious practice. Often these types have a long and continuous distribution.
4. The emphasis on oral tradition often obscures the older, written versions of the tale types.
5. The inclusion of oicotypes with only a few variants expands the system unnecessarily and blurs the picture of the general tradition. Often new types are proposed from nationalistic sentiments, which should rightly be placed under existing types.
6. The Aarne-Thompson catalogue covers European folktale traditions unevenly: for example, it lacks references to eastern- and southern-European tales.
7. The catalogue is oriented towards traditional genres and does not take smaller narrative forms into consideration.
8. It often lacks references to relevant secondary literature.

The prospective revision must take these criticisms into account. In order to avoid misunderstanding and misclassification, it must present a detailed description of each type, indicating its essential structural elements. It is important that it should indicate tale types that alter their shapes and also indicate those that form traditional combinations with other tale types. Then, the users of the new index will be able to see clearly the relationship of oicotypes and other subtypes to the main types.

A romantic preference for oral tradition governed the descriptions of the present tale types. The new catalogue must confront and reduce this bias by enlarging the presence of older, literary versions of the tales. The sporadic references to scholarship will be made more comprehensive. New tale types will be integrated into the present system, and the network of cross-references will be augmented. It is self-evident that the revision must cover previously-proposed enlargements of the tale type system, and must find a way to include the regions of Europe that have until now been underrepresented. Thompson barely considered Austrian and Swiss tales, neglected tales from southern and eastern Europe, and particularly Slavic tradition.

A systematic inspection of the Motif-Index has shown that many significant folktale complexes that have not previously been included in the tale type index can be integrated with no difficulty. These new items belong to all genres, particularly anecdotes, but also fables and religious tales. Many of these neglected tales are found in ancient, medieval, and later written sources, and also appear in oral tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, there is an anecdote of a basket-maker who beats his wife for refusing to praise his work. This tale, with its traditional misogynistic theme, fits under AaTh 1365: The Obstinate Wife (EM 8, 281f. [Korb: Gottlob, der K. ist fertig!]). Another anecdote that fits in the same place tells of insults exchanged by a bride who is not a virgin and a groom who has only one arm (Rotunda J1545.10*: Small cause for complaint). This tale is one of many with sexual themes that Thompson left out of the tale type index. It has a considerable currency, and has been studied by G. Legman and later by F. Hoffmann. Another politically-incorrect anecdote insults beggars: patients who only pretend to be sick are induced to leave the hospital by a trickster posing as a doctor who threatens to kill them for their fat (Mot. K 1955.1; Tubach, no. 1323, EM 8, 504-506). This can be placed under the Schwank about the remarkable healer, AaTh 1641ff.: Dr. Know-All. The now popular story about a crafty bankdepositor who deceives the bankmanager and gets extra cash can be placed under AaTh 1617: Unjust Banker Deceived into Delivering Deposits by making him expect even larger (Mot J1141.6, Tubach no. 696). In another tale of cleverness, a son travelling with his father greatly exaggerates the size of an animal he says he has seen. The father does not comment on this obvious lie, but mentions that later in the journey, they will come to a bridge where any liar will break his leg. As they approach this bridge, the son reduces the size of the animal (Mot. X1718: Lies about bridges). This anecdote can be classified either under AaTh 1920D: The Liar Reduces the Size of his Lie, and/or under AaTh 1960ff.: The Great Animal or Great Object. The many myths and legends about the Man in the Moon are subsumed under a new number, AaTh 777 A*, appended to AaTh 777: The Wandering Jew. Another story concerns an honest thief, the only prisoner in the king’s jail who admits that he stole, when all the others protest their innocence. The honest thief is given his freedom so that he will not corrupt the other prisoners. This can be placed, as Kurt Ranke suggested, under 921 A*: The Frank Thief.

These few examples show that it is possible to supplement the present system with newly-recognised tale types. This idea has been held by many editors and authors of tale-type indexes and comparative tale studies, such as H. Schwarzbaum, F. C. Tubach, P. Kippar, and C. Goldberg. As early as his first revision in 1928, Thompson discovered that Aarne’s system required considerable expansion. Aarne had proposed that new types be incorporated into the proper thematic group by adding Roman numeral superscripts to the existing numbers. Instead, Thompson preferred to designate new types with an asterisk (*). He indicated types proposed by other scholars but not incorporated into the first (1928) revision in a list (“Types not Included,” number followed by *, pp. 214-252). Later, in 1961, he integrated these into the main system, with a number and *, **, etc. In order not to overload the asterisks (as many as 8: ********), he decided to append to the tale type numbers a letter plus an asterisk. Thus, in 1961, Thompson established a new format that indicated that some of the types were documented only in limited regions.

Among the first thousand numbers, there are only a small number of gaps that represent numbers available for new tale types. Between 1 and 100, new types can be added in the following positions:

11-14, 16-19, 22, 24-29, 35, 42 [*], 45, 46, 47 [only 47 A-C], 48 [*], 54, 66 [only A-B], 69 [*-**], 74, 79 [*], 82-84, 86, 87 [A*, B*], 88 [*], 89, 91 [A*-C*], 94, 95 [*], 96 [*], 97-99.

Between 100 and 999, gaps of more than three numbers exist in the following places (not considering the difference between regular and irregular or limited types):

137-149, 183-199, 215-219, 254-274, 339-359, 370-399, 413-424, 486-499, 520-529, 581-589, 594-609, 614-619, 623-650, 679-699, 716-724, 728-734, 789-799, 814-819, 863-869, 902-909, 991-999.

This shows that in some thematic areas, there is hardly any space. Therefore, if we are to maintain the system that has been used for nearly a century, we have two choices: 1) to insert new type numbers between the present types, with letters and asterisks, to indicate new international tales; or, 2) to keep the dubious present system that includes irregular or limited types, and add a completely new classification system for the new international types.

The revised catalogue, which is solidly based on historical and comparative folk narrative research, will permit quick identification of international and regional tale types and their relevant secondary literature. After such identification, the internal motifs of the tales, as well as their external functions, and the changes in their paradigms over time, can all be investigated.

The following steps are planned for this three-year project of creating a new edition of the tale type index:

1. Verifying and completing the bibliographical references.
2. Procuring and examining the important primary and secondary literature to create a comprehensive set of references to the relevant scholarship.
3. Constructing an archive of regional type indexes to assess the importance and positions of the new or revised types they have proposed. In some cases, different regional indexes have used identical numbers for different tales, so some of the proposed numbers must be altered.
4. Completing and verifying the list of tale types.
5. Composing and revising the descriptions of the types.

Preliminary work has begun on all these points, and some parts of the work on steps 1 to 5 can be done concurrently. At the present time (July 2000), it is expected that this project can be completed within about three years. Generous offers of assistance and support from many colleagues at home and abroad have helped to facilitate this goal.

Enzyklopädie des Märchens
Friedländer Weg 2, 37085 Göttingen, Germany
E-mail: huther@gwdg.de
Tel.: 0551-395355, Fax: 0551-392526

(FFN 20, November 2000: 11-13 )