June 28, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, pt. 5

Next up in Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions: Struggle, Branding, Victory, and Liquidation, using Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Stardust for examples. Commentary on the stages belongs to Christopher Vogler and David McKenna, authors of Memo from the Story Dept. Examples are mine.

Because Propp’s functions follow traditional Russian fairy tales, there may be some future stages that don’t correlate with my previous examples. In that case, I’ll use a new example that does.

16. Struggle: The hero and villain do battle, match wits, play cards, etc. or the hero struggles to replace what is lacking.

A struggle, a game, a contest, a wrestling match, or a tug of war between two well-matched opponents is the essence of entertainment, and can hold our attention like nothing else. Our instinctive sense is that if a narrative doesn’t have something of this nature in its center, it’s not a very good story. Though Propp doesn’t specify what kind of struggle, we know it should be for high stakes, usually life and death. If there is no actual villain to struggle with, then the heroes will contend with the Lack or the forces that resist them, and that struggle will bring the heroes to the edge of death.

When Aladdin enters the Sultan’s palace disguised as Prince Ali, he argues with Jafar about who Princess Jasmine should marry. While this isn’t a life or death situation, this is a love story, and so Aladdin’s success or failure in stating his case could change the result of his romantic pursuit.

Harry faces several minor struggles over the course of the story, but the first real struggle against the villain occurs when Harry is serving detention with Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest. Tracking a unicorn, Harry discovers a robed specter of sorts drinking the unicorn’s blood, which then attacks him.

Tristan Thorne faces the witch Lamia, trying to protect Yvaine. While it’s not so much a battle as him fleeing, the stakes are extraordinarily high. If he does not succeed in getting away, both he and Yvaine will die.

17. Branding: The hero is visibly wounded in the battle, or is branded or marked somehow after the battle, or receives a token like a ring or a scarf, which will later prove his victory.

This is a most interesting feature of fairy tales, echoing the mythic motif of the wounded hero. These visible signs of injury underscore the seriousness of the adventure, and may be symbolic of the hero’s inner transformation or transfiguration. They serve a practical function in the plot, helping to identify the hero as the true victor in the battle when doubt is cast on his claims later in the story. Physical tokens like rings and scarves serve the same purpose, though they are less dramatic than a physical wound.

In Aladdin’s case, he’s branded by Jasmine’s scorn upon hearing the men argue about her fate as if she is a thing, not a person. This ‘brand’ is reflective of the struggle he faced.

Harry receives his brand long before the struggle in the Forbidden Forest—his lightning bolt scar. But upon facing this shade of Voldemort, his scar hurts to the point that Harry loses focus and almost falls prey to the villain. But the centaur Firenze comes to the rescue.

While fleeing from Lamia, Tristan sticks his arm in wicked green flames to light the remainder of the Babylon candle. While he doesn’t seem to suffer any burns as a result, he endured the pain and his own fear in order to save their lives.

18. Victory: The villain is defeated. In some of Propp’s fairy tale samples, the original villain is killed or neutralized but is replaced by a second villain.

In modern stories our primary villains may have a life-threatening confrontation with the hero at the midpoint Ordeal, but they usually survive to face the hero again at the climax, where they will finally be defeated. However, the hero might enjoy are partial Victory over the villain or his agent at the halfway point. We might think the villain is dead, only to discover later he has survived by some trick.

In Propp’s sample of Russian fairy tales were a number of examples in which there were two villains—the original adversary and a second villain or rival, a false claimant who appears rather late in the story to dispute the hero’s claim of having defeated the first villain. This creates suspence and complication, and sets the stage for the popular fairy tale motif of the three impossible tasks, which are imposed by the princess or her father to prove who is worthy.

We don’t use the second villain ploy very often in modern stories, unless in romantic ones where an old flame may flare up just before the wedding to test the bond between the bride and groom. Most stories set up a single strong antagonist and let him or her harass the hero from start to finish.

In Aladdin, Jafar attempts to have Aladdin killed, but thanks to Genie, he survives. Immediately, he goes to the palace and reveals Jafar as he really is—an evil, manipulating dude. The Sultan then orders Jafar’s imprisonment.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this stage is at the end of the story, when Harry faces Voldemort in front of the Mirror of Erised. He successfully takes the Sorcerer’s Stone and destroys Professor Quirrell, Voldemort’s host.

In Stardust, Tristan somewhat successfully uses the Babylon candle, effectively escaping the witch. Lamia is temporarily defeated.

19. Liquidation: The harm done by the villain is healed or whatever was lacking is restored.

This is where the hero takes his prize for defeating the villain. Propp’s highly flexible model allows for stories to end at this point, with the initial problem solved. However, he notes that many stories gather themselves for another burst of narrative, continuing the tale to describe the hero’s difficulties in claiming his reward and winning love. If this is the end of the story, the Liquidation should completely heal the damage caused by the villain or fill the void caused by the Lack. There should be a satisfying feeling of poetic justice, the sense that the punishments fit the crimes and the rewards and compensations are appropriate to the injuries. Any deviation from these equations will feel wrong and unsatisfying to the audience.

Aladdin wins Jasmine’s heart and her hand in marriage.

Harry helps Gryffindor win the House Cup because of his actions, and for the time being, Voldemort is no longer a threat.

Tristan, as a result of escaping the witch, now has Yvaine again.

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


Read the previous post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 4
Read the next post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 6

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

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