Folklorists love classifying things, and our concept of type, specifically tale type, demonstrates this usefully.
In my post defining the folktale, I mentioned tale types as distinct folktale plots that folklorists categorized by giving them numbers (in what is now the Aarne-Thompson-Uther or ATU index). To expand briefly on that explanation of type, I’ll add some information from Stith Thompson – yes, the same Thompson whose name now appears in the type index because he was one of the main people who revised it. He wrote:
A type is a traditional tale that has an independent existence. It may be told as a complete narrative and does not depend for its meaning on any other tale. It may indeed happen to be told with another tale, but the fact that it may appear alone attests its independence. It may consiste of only one motif or many. Most animal tales and jokes and anecdotes are types of one motif. The ordinary Märchen (tales like Cinderella and Snow White) are types consisting of many of them. (415)
Motif is different than type (being the smallest unit of a unit that can persist over tradition), and it’ll get its own #FolkloreThursday post next week. Most types have motifs associated with them; just think of Cinderella (ATU type 510A) and the glass slipper, Little Red Riding Hood (type 333) and the color of her cloak, and you get the idea.
While there are now tale type indexes for almost every major region of the world, the first type index, created in 1910 by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne, was but one slim volume. Animal tales (like Aesop’s fables) are numbers 1-299, fairy tales numbered 300-749, and so on from there, with other folktales numbering up into the thousands. American folklorist Stith Thompson published an updated version in 1928 (which was also translated into English, as Aarne’s index was published in German). Thompson’s version took into account more of these regional versions and corrected some inconsistencies. However, as feminist scholars have noted, the tale type index still contained many erasures of female agency, which the Uther revision of 2004 finally addressed (see Lundell).
So, why are we folklore scholars so into tale types? They allow us to study the international transmission of folktales and fairy tales. You can bet your Bettelheim that “Cinderella” isn’t called “Cinderella” in every culture where it’s told, so it’s useful to have a way to keep track of the types as they travel through different linguistic and cultural regions. Because folklorists document the interplay of tradition and variation, having a starting point for comparison – the type – is extremely useful.
Is the type a perfect concept? Does it exist independently of human observation? Ehhh not so much. Francisco Vaz da Silva takes folklorists to task for having “fallen into the habit of taking arbitrarily defined types for things out there and…thinking accordingly” (115). This can lead to problems if we assume that there are, in fact, ideal/prior versions of tale types that extant versions should live up to, and that the versions in circulation are faulty or degraded if they don’t. In reality, types are quite fluid, so it’s helpful to keep that in mind even as we use tools like the type index to help with our research.
If you want to work with tale types, you have to get your hands on the updated tale type index, the 2004 one released by Hans-Jörg Uther. This site has a good breakdown of many of the tale type numbers, including an explanation of what was changed in the most recent vesion of the index. Trust me, it’s a real folklore pet peeve when people use AT numbers instead of ATU numbers… the ATU index has been out for over a decade, people! Get your hands on it, or get to a library that has it!
(Speaking of recent things, check out the TwitterTypes hashtag, which I discuss here, for a cool modern take on the idea tale types.)
Most folklorists can rattle off at least half a dozen tale type numbers, which makes for a fun party trick if nothing else. At any rate, the concept of the type has been around for almost a century (longer if you trace out its history in philological writings of the 19th century), and it’s central to the way folklorists study narrative.
Lundell, Torborg. “Folktale Heroines and the Type and Motif.” Folklore 94.2 (1983): 240-246.
Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977 .
Vaz da Silva, Francisco. Metamorphosis: The Dynamics of Symbolism in European Fairy Tales. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.