May 21, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, pt. 3

Continuing with Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions, today, we’ll look at the next four stages: Villainy or Lack, Mediation, Beginning Counter-Action, Departure. We’ll continue using the films Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Stardust for example material, and as stated before, the examples are mine, but the comments on each stage are paraphrases of the material in Christopher Vogler and David McKenna’s book Memo from the Story Dept. Also noted before, Propp’s Functions are not a rigid structure. The functions can be in nearly any order, as you’ll find is the case with my examples.

Note: these four functions are a unit that Propp calls “Complication”, and it may occur in the body of the story or at the very beginning. So, for this particular post, I’ll present the four Functions, and then afterward, give the examples, showing how these four functions sort of meld together.

8. Villainy or Lack: The villain does harm to the hero or someone close to him or her; or something vital to the hero and the hero’s world is missing.

On Villainy: Propp notes that stories need either an evil deed or a harmful lack to drive them. The initial act of villainy may be the catalyst that upsets the hero’s world and triggers the adventure, or the villainy may be what finally propels the hero into adventure. This act of violence or evil can be performed at almost any point in a story structure, even before the birth of the hero, if it’s an action that negatively affects the hero’s life.

On Lack: Propp discovered that some tales had no detectable villain, and yet the hero had to struggle against something, a condition he calls Lack. The absence of something in the hero’s life or in his community motivates the hero and the tale to action, striving to find, win back, replace, rescue, or restore the missing element. In different fairy tales, a loved one is kidnapped enchanted, or lost, the hero needs a horse or a sword, or the people are starving in a famine. The Lack is an absence in the main character or a missing element in a family or society. Love stories and family dramas may be Lack-driven and have no real villains, though there may be someone who can temporarily play that role.

9. Mediation, the Connective Incident: A “dispacther” makes misfortune or lack known to the hero; the hero is approached with a request for help, sent on a mission by the “dispatcher,” or released from captivity.

Propp identifies two logical steps in the progression of a story: one, the hero must be made aware of the lack or villainy, and two, the hero must be called, sent, or released into the adventure to redress the lack or villainy.

10. Beginning Counter-Action: Usually a verbal declaration of the hero’s intent.

This is when the hero commits to the adventure or is thrown into it. There may be an announcement of this development, but it can be more effective to simply show heroes setting out or making preparations that make it clear they are beginning their “counter-action”.

11. Departure: The hero leaves home to undertake the adventure.

It’s not enough for the hero to simply declare an intention to go forth; he or she must be seen actually going.

So, for the examples:

In Aladdin, the villain Jafar first wrongs Aladdin when he sends the palace guards to arrest him, although Aladdin has no idea that Jafar is the villain until a bit later. By the time he is arrested, he has met Princess Jasmine and quite quickly fallen in love. When he is separated from her, he suffers from Lack, as well as Jafar’s Villainy. In prison, Aladdin meets the “dispatcher” who will send him on a mission. Jafar-in-disguise tells Aladdin of the Cave of Wonders and the treasure that he holds. He asks Aladdin to fetch a bit of the treasure—the genie’s lamp—for him, and he will be granted a great treasure in return. Aladdin agrees—his verbal declaration. And when Jafar-in-disguise and Aladdin reach the Cave of Wonders, Aladdin steps into the sand tiger’s mouth, effectively leaving the normal world he calls home.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the villain Voldemort commits his act of evil when Harry is just a baby: he kills Harry’s mother and father and then tries to kill baby Harry as well, which he learns from Hagrid, the “dispatcher”. Though Harry does not truly have to face Voldemort’s Villainy until the near end of the story, it negatively affects his life. He’s forced to live with his awful relatives the Dursleys until he is eleven, not ever knowing who he really is. Hagrid again acts as “dispatcher” by freeing Harry from the captivity of living with the Dursleys. But not only does Harry suffer from Villainy, he also suffers from Lack because his parents are absent. And his actions in the story are an effort to replace his parents with a new family.

Though the next function would be Beginning Counter-Action, Harry performs this function before he learns of Voldemort, when Hagrid arrives at the shanty on the sea to fetch Harry. When he learns that he is a wizard and that he doesn’t have to live with the Dursley’s any longer, he makes the choice to go with Hagrid, leaving home in order to undertake the adventure. This is an example of how the functions are not a rigid structure.

In Stardust, the villain that drives Tristan into action is not the witch, but Humphrey, Victoria’s boyfriend. Although he is merely a tiny antagonist in the grand scheme of things, he is the reason Tristan decides to cross the wall. When Victoria tells Tristan that Humphrey is travelling to Ipswich to get her an engagement ring, Tristan is prompted to prove to Victoria how much he loves her, claiming he would cross the wall to fetch the fallen star. Victoria then acts as the “dispatcher”, agreeing to marry Tristan if he fetches the fallen star by her birthday. Tristan agrees to the arrangement and then makes for the wall.

As you can see, these four functions are bundled together rather tightly, but not necessarily in order. Next post, we’ll continue with the next few stages.


Read the previous post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 2
Read the next post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 4

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

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