#FolkloreThursday: The Epic Laws of Folk Narrative

#FolkloreThursday: The Epic Laws of Folk Narrative May 18, 2017

Someday I will have a #FolkloreThursday post attempting to define epic. Today is not that day. But there’s some cool narrative stuff here worth knowing.

Photo of Axel Olrik. In public domain in the U.S. (from Wikimedia Commons).
Photo of Axel Olrik. In public domain in the U.S. (from Wikimedia Commons).

In my conference recap of ICFA 38: Fantastic Epics, I mentioned that I was on a panel about the intersections of fairy tales and epics. While defining epic is its own – dare I say – epic task, I thought I’d bring a little something else to the table today: Axel Olrik’s epic laws of folk narrative.

I apparently have a thing for dead Danish folklorists. Axel Olrik is one of these people.

Olrik (1864-1917) was a pioneering figure in international folkloristics, earning him a spot in Alan Dundes’s edited volume of that title. Among other things, Olrik was instrumental in founding the Folklore Fellows, an international scholarly society that helped grow the academic discipline of folkloristics, and is still in existence today. Olrik studied with Svend Grundtvig, a major Danish ballad scholar, and Norwegian Moltke Moe (who collaborated on a classic folktale collection).

As Dundes summarizes Olrik’s contributions:

One of Olrik’s apparent goals was to determine whether there were characteristics of what he called “Sage,” an inclusive terms by which he meant myth, folktale, legend, and folksong that could help to distinguish folklore from written literature. He suggested that as a given oral narrative enters written domain, it tends to lose its distinctive character as reflected in various epic laws. Regardless of whether this is so and also of whether Olrik’s laws apply to the folklore of non-European cultures, there can be no question that his effort to articulate laws or principles of folk narrative constitutes a landmark in international folkloristics (86).

So what are these epic laws? I’ll turn now to Olrik’s own words:

In popular narrative, storytellers have a tendency to observe certain practices in composition and style that are generally common to large areas and different categories of narratives, including most of the European narrative tradition. The regularity with which these practices appear make it possible for us to regard them as “epic laws” of oral narrative composition. (41)

When we study folk narrative, we tend to break it into distinct genres, based upon stylistic qualities, relationship to reality/belief, and so on. What Olrik’s saying is that what matters more than genre boundaries is that it’s verbal folklore, orally transmitted, since there are narrative conventions that performers tend to follow in order to aid with cohesion, audience memory, and so on. Olrik ties the epic laws to the need for clarity of narrative when a narrative is being transmitted orally, with all the constraints that entails.

Without further ado, here are the epic laws:

  • The Law of Two to a Scene: in most folk narratives, we’ll see two characters at a time interacting, unless a third is briefly introduced to play a subordinate role.
  • The Law of Concentration on a Leading Character: Olrik describes this as how “The narrative always arranges itself around a main character. It includes what concerns him and disregards everything else” (49).
  • The Law of Contrast: as Olrik puts it, “When two characters appear at the same time, the narrative will establish a contrast in character between them, often also a contrast in action. The contrasts between good and evil, poor and rich, big and small, young and old, etc., are very common” (50).
  • The Law of Twins: “When two characters appear in the same role, they are both depicted as being weaker than a single character” (51).
  • The Law of Three: “The narrative has a preference for the number three in characters, in objects, and in successive episodes” (52). We see this magnified as things coming in multiples of three, too, such as a dragon that has siblings with nine and twelve heads.
  • The Law of Final Stress: “When several narrative elements are set alongside each other, emphasis is placed on the last in the sequence: the youngest of three brothers, the last of three attempts, etc. The epically important character is normally in the ‘position of final stress.’ On the other hand, the most impressive character is placed first: the eldest of several brothers, the mightiest of several gods, and the like. This is designated as ‘initial stress’ and does not concern narrative research” (52). I followed the footnote to figure out what Olrik meant here, and it’s not entirely clear, as this publication was prepared from his lecture notes. My guess is that he was hinting that initial stress is more a thing in religious or written literature than oral tradition.
  • The Law of Opening: “In the beginning of the narrative, one moves (1) from the individual to the multiple, (2) from calm to excitement, and (3) from the everyday to the unusual” (55).
  • The Law of Closing: “The account normally ends after the decisive event, but preferably not so suddenly that the audience is startled; the atmosphere must have time to calm down and to disappear gradually from the main character and the main episodes. A short, concluding story serves this purpose, e.g., (1) the later fate of the main character, particularly in such a way that one follows him through to a lasting, often lingering or resting state; (2) the influence of the fate of the main character on others, e.g., that his mother or his betrothed dies from grief; (3) the fate of the subordinate characters, e.g., the punishment of the villain in the account; (4) visible memories of the event, such as the reappearance of the protagonist as a ghost” (55-56).

There are also a number of epic laws that aren’t as pithy as the ones summarized above; these include repetition through progressive assent (each fight the hero must win is more difficult than the last), the unity of the plot (how a plot aspire to a single event and excludes extraneous details that don’t contribute to this), and the single-strandedness of plot (how folk narrative plots don’t generally break away to return to something that had already happened, unless it’s super relevant to the plot moving forward). There’s more about unity of plot vs. ideal epic unity of plot, but I won’t go into that here.

Stylistically, Olrik also describes the importance of what he calls tableaux scenes:

In these scenes, the actors draw near to each other: the hero and his horse; the hero and the monster; Thor pulls the World Serpent up to the edge of the boat; the valiant warriors die so near to their king that even in death they protect him; Siegmund carries his dead son himself.

These sculptured situations are based more on fantasy than on reality; the hero’s sword is scorched by the dragon’s breath; the maiden, standing on the back of a bull or snake, surveys the scene; from her own breasts the banished queen squeezes milk into the beaks of a swan and a crane. (quoted in Dundes, 94)

These tableaux scenes exist because, according to Olrik, they “possess the singular power of being able to etch themselves into one’s memory” (quoted in Dundes, 95).

And that’s what this is all about: discerning where the stylistic and structural qualities of folk narrative converge to make art so memorable that it persists in oral (and sometimes written) tradition. Some of the epic laws of folk narrative get weighted differently, or even discarded, in certain genres of folklore, but they provide an excellent starting point for comparative research.



Dundes, Alan, ed. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1999.

Olrik, Axel. Principles for Oral Narrative Research. Translated by Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992 [1921].

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