Satu Apo, The Narrative World of Finnish Fairy Tales. Structure, Agency, and Evaluation in Southwest Finnish Folktales. Folklore Fellows’ Communications No. 256. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia (Academia Scientiarum Fennica), 1995. 322 pp.
Hard (ISBN 951-41-0770-5), FIM 175,-
Soft (ISBN 951-41-0749-7), FIM 150,-

Available at the Tiedekirja bookstore
Kirkkokatu 14, FIN-00170 Helsinki, Finland
fax: +358 9 635017; email:

Satu Apo’s interest in the structural analysis of folk narratives dates from the early 1970s, when she was a member of a group of young scholars at the University of Helsinki interested in the structural studies of, for example, Vladimir Propp, Claude Bremond, Eleasar Meletinsky, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. In those days she wrote a Proppian study comparing the plot structures of a James Bond novel and a magic tale told by one of Linda Dégh’s master narrators, György Andrásfalvi. The Proppian analysis of narrative structures was a hot topic in the 1970s, whereas at the end of the 1980s it was difficult to find a study without at least a reference to Rumelhart’s scheme analysis. The present study, The Narrative World of Finnish Fairy Tales, is a translation of Apo’s Finnish doctoral dissertation (1986), with minor omissions and very minor additions. This work represents the final achievement of a systematic, long-standing interest in structural studies which is now available for the international audience.

The research includes the structural analysis of 235 fairy tale texts from Southwest Finland dating from 1852 to the 1930s; the material covers nearly 3% of the collections of fairy tales (Märchen) at the Folklore Archives of the Finnish Literature Society (which are estimated to number 8,000 texts). The Western Finnish tales belong to the western tradition, thus differing from the eastern, Karelian fairy tale tradition. Knowing the multi-episodic nature of these tales, and the difficulty of producing an accurate structural analysis of a lengthy narrative, Apo’s work deserves the highest respect.

The goal of this study is to “construct an overall picture of the main contents and meanings of a complex genre”. To this end, Apo uses structural analysis as a tool in describing the plot structures and the tale roles in a corpus of Southwest Finnish fairy tales. The Proppian tool involves two analytic approaches: one which focuses on plot structure, and the other centering on tale role analysis. The former produces an interpretation of the themes, the latter is more useful in opening up a socio-historical interpretation of the texts.

As a result of her analysis, Apo distinguishes four basic plot types: Hero/heroine wins spouse, hero/heroine wins fortune, hero/heroine overcomes threat of monster, and hero/heroine overcomes crime. The first three deal with obtaining a good fortune (including a spouse), only the fourth does not include the idea of getting rich. Apo writes about the values of the tales and concludes, not surprisingly, that “marked materialism can be discerned in oral fairy tales in the light of the Finnish texts” (160).

The culture and the milieu of the narrators of these fairy tales was agrarian and semi-literate. Most of the narrators represent the poor strata of the class society at the end of the 19th century. The archived texts from the 19th century often lack information about the narrator’s age, sex, occupation and some other contextual elements, but given the available data, this short chapter about the narrators is illuminating: the typical narrator of fairy tales was male and fairly young. Interesting insights into late 19th century society are also provided by the chapter concerning the relationship between the oral and the literary fairy tale tradition. Apo has discovered convincing evidence of interest in the printed word among the illiterate. Although literacy was generally poor, the literary fairy tale collections of the 19th century had an effect on the oral tradition, mediated by those of the folk who could read. In any case, the narration of fairy tales was still quite lively in 19th century Western Finland, but the tradition was by no means purely oral. In the context of Finnish folkloristics this observation is valuable, because there has been a tendency to overemphasise the orality of the folklore materials of the 19th century.

The main title of the Finnish dissertation was “The structure of the fairy tale” whereas the main title of the English-language work is now “The narrative world of Finnish fairy tales”. The subject matter covered by the title has thus greatly expanded, which leads one to expect a problematisation of this nearly metaphorical, and quite fascinating, concept of the narrative world. What is a narrative world, what is its relation to the world of the narrators, etc.?

Satu Apo’s extensive study is well-ordered and carefully made, it proceeds in a logical way, it is methodologically sound and discusses or touches on many essential aspects of the fairy tale genre. Yet I cannot help but feel that, after all, some sort of a gap exists between the careful structural analysis of the plot sequences and the analysis of meanings. An analysis of narrative plot structure in itself does not seem very productive, especially if we consider the way in which it is laid out for the reader. In this respect, the tale role analysis, illuminated by various interpretative viewpoints, seems more fruitful in the present study. Reading Apo’s book has also made me wonder what might be the secret formula that would give an added life spark to this good, solid research. Could it be an attitude which leaves space for new questions? Could it be the intensity in maintaining the train of thought, an inner coherence? Or in the case of fairy tales, could it be the fact that this specific genre relies so much on expression, humour, excitement, and fantasy ­ all elements which are closely connected to the narrators, the real people, the subjects of tradition? Unfortunately, the narrators as producers of tradition had to be left, for the most part, outside the scope of the present study.

Irma-Riitta Järvinen
Finnish Literature Society

FF Network No. 15
(April 1998): 16-17

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This