June 25, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, pt. 4

Today, we dive back into Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions. As always, to read any previous posts in the Back to Basics series, just click the “writing help” navigation tab. So, the next four stages are First Function of the Donor, Hero’s Reaction, Receipt of a Magical Agent, and Guidance. Again, we’ll use the films Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Stardust for example material. While the examples are mine, the comments on each stage are paraphrases—sometimes verbatim—of the material in Christopher Vogler and David McKenna’s book Memo from the Story Dept.

As noted before, Propp’s Functions are not a rigid structure. The “stages”, as I call them, can be swip-swapped around to your heart’s desire. These functions should serve the story, not the other way around.

12. First Function of the Donor: The hero meets a Donor who first tests or questions him, perhaps even attacks him.

The Donor (better known as the Mentor in the Hero’s Journey) is someone who aids the hero by giving something necessary to achieve the quest—weapons, magic, wisdom, training, or guidance. Some stories don’t have a character that fulfills this purpose, but the function is often performed anyway, sometimes by the hero’s own character. Donors are usually kind to the hero, but as Propp notes, they may sometimes appear fierce at first, attacking or challenging the hero as a test of readiness or worthiness.

In Aladdin, the first Donor the young hero encounters is the magical carpet, who guides him to the genie’s lamp.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first Donor in the story is Hagrid. He gives Harry information, guidance (which I’ll touch on below), and friendship.

In Stardust, I’d say that the very first Donor that gives aid to Tristan is his own father. Tristan’s father gives him the means to start his journey (evidenced below).

13. Hero’s Reaction: The hero passes the test, or else fails temporarily. It might take three tries, but he or she passes the test eventually.

This event seems to be needed in stories to prove that the adventure is difficult and consists of making a series of tough choices and mastering challenging skills. In those cases when the hero temporarily fails the test or refuses the call to adventure, the delay creates some moments of suspense. Will the hero accept the challenge or pass the test, thereby winning magical aid? Is the hero ready and worth, and if not, what is needed to make him or her ready.

Aladdin enters the lamp’s chamber, and were it not for Abu, he would have successfully taken the lamp without any hitch. But ultimately, he fails to heed the warning that the sand tiger gave him: “Touch nothing but the lamp.”

I think that the first real test Harry faces is when he meets Draco Malfoy outside the Great Hall. He boldly rejects Draco’s friendship in favor of Ron’s, showing his inherently good judge of character. But he quickly faces a second test, one that is much more important. When the Sorting Hat is placed upon his head, the hat argues that he would do well in Slytherin, but knowing that the house has a knack for producing bad witches and wizards, evidenced by Draco’s being sorted there, he asks the hat to put him anywhere but Slytherin.

Tristan finally manages to cross the wall using the Babylon candle his mother left him.

14. Receipt of a Magical Agent: The hero receives weapons, equipment, magical powers, or transportation from the Donor, or wins the support of an ally or helper.

Propp’s use of the term “Donor” clarifies the real function of mentors. The essence of their job, the verb that most accurately expresses it, is “to give.” They give the hero whatever is needed, be it money, advice, information, reassurance, or love. This could be a passing phase, a fleeting gesture for a character who wears some other archetypal hat in the rest of the story. Even an adversary could temporarily act as a Donor, although there is usually something nasty concealed in the gift. What the hero wins from the Donor is sometimes an introduction to potential allies.

When Abu touches the ginormous gem and the Cave of Wonders begins to collapse and melt and such, Carpet saves Aladdin’s life, first by taking him to the mouth of the cave and then again when Jafar-in-disguise throws him to his death.

Long before the Sorting Hat makes its decision, Harry receives magical agents upon visiting Diagon Alley with Hagrid—a wand, spellbooks, and even an owl. Though, when he is sorted into Gryffindor by the Sorting Hat, he cements his relationships with his most loyal allies.

From his father, Tristan receives first a letter and a Babylon candle left by his mother, and a silver chain from his father.

15. Guidance: The hero is transported or guided to a new land where lies the object of his search.
 A hero might receive this kind of guidance at many possible junctions—upon leaving home for the first time, after meeting a Donor and winning a magical gift, or at any point the the story when the hero needs to be transported to a faraway place. The Donor, directly or indirectly, may guide the hero.

Once the Cave of Wonders has sealed itself, Abu reveals that he stole the lamp back from Jafar-in-disguise, and the lamp’s inhabitant reveals himself, becoming the true Donor of the story, while Carpet was merely playing the role before. Genie then transports Aladdin to safety.

Harry receives his guidance from the Donor when Hagrid gives him the ticket to the Hogwarts Express, the means that will take him to Hogwarts.

Using the Babylon candle, Tristan is transported across the wall, well on his way to adventure.


Read the previous post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 3
Read the next post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 5

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

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