May 10, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, pt. 1

All right… today, we start the more in-depth look at Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions, starting with the Initial Situation and the first three stages, using Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Stardust for example material—film versions, since they’re easiest to analyze and are probably what people are more familiar with. It’s been so long since I’ve read the first Harry Potter book, I’d spend most of this blog post flipping through the pages to make sure my facts are straight, and as you well know, I haven’t read Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

First up, The Initial Situation: there’s a family or a hero living somewhere.

This is the part of the story that introduces the main character in his natural setting.

The initial situation for Aladdin, in the Disney film of the same name, is being a “street rat”, stealing bread and running from the palace guards to keep out of trouble. He’s living on his own in an abandoned house in the center of Agrabah, and his only friend is Abu.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, rooming in the cupboard under the stairs. He has no friends or anything of his own.

Tristan, in the film Stardust, lives with his father and works as a shop boy.

1.      Absentation: A member of the family is dead, kidnapped or lost. Something’s missing from the hero’s life.

This function is used to create sympathy for the hero. The hero may be orphaned, abandoned, lost, or sad to see a family member go. Stories seem to crave the completion of a family.

Aladdin doesn’t have a proper home or any family other than Abu, and he doesn’t have the life that he wants, not by a long shot.

Harry is an orphan, living with his terrible relatives, the Dursleys. On top of that, he has no friends. He is completely alone.

Tristan’s mother is not around, possibly dead as far as Tristan is concerned at the beginning of the story.

2.      Interdiction: Someone tells the hero “Whatever you do, don’t…” (open the door, go into the woods, etc.)

This function is pretty straightforward. If the hero is told not to do something, of course he’s going to do it. And the opposite is true: if he is told he must do something, he’ll fail.

Off the top of my head, it seems that the first time Aladdin is explicitly told not to do something is when he’s facing the giant sand tiger in the desert. The tiger tells him not to touch any treasure other than the lamp. Jafar-in-disguise, however, tells him that he must return with the lamp. Of course, another possible, earlier interdiction is the implied rule of “do not steal”.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Dursleys are taking a trip to the zoo, and Vernon, Harry’s uncle, warns him not to cause any funny business while they’re out.

Tristan, after promising to fetch a star for his beloved Victoria, ventures to the wall, where he is told by the guardian that he cannot pass through.

3.      Violation of interdiction: The hero does exactly what has been forbidden, or fails to do something he’s been told to do.

Sometimes the hero is compelled to violate the warning because of curiosity, or they may do it to resist against authority. Whatever the reason, Vogler suggests that this function, the violation of the interdiction, alerts the villain to the hero’s presence, or his importance.

Aladdin fails to keep Abu from touching the forbidden treasure. He fails to return the lamp to Jafar-in-disguise (sort of… he returns it, but then steals it back). And as for the possible, earlier interdiction, he steals some food, getting himself into trouble.

At the zoo, Harry talks to the boa constrictor and manages to release it using magic. That same magic causes Dudley to fall into the snake’s cage. Even though he didn’t mean to or know exactly what he was doing, he violated his uncle’s warning.

Tristan tries to cross the wall regardless of the guardian’s warning. He fails, of course, but he soon finds another way to cross the wall.

Next post, we’ll cover the next four functions.


Read the next post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 2

Read a summary of all Propp's functions in the Introduction to Propp's Fairy Tale Functions

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