July 2, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, pt. 6

Next up in Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions: Return, Pursuit, Rescue, and Unrecognized Arrival, 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.

20. Return: The hero heads for home, or for the court of a king.

Stories need to articulate the moment when the hero turns away from his victory against the villain and commits to going back home or completing the quest he originally started (if of course, that quest is something other than defeating the villain). This can be a verbal statement of intent to finish, or simply the realization that it’s time to pack up and head for home. There should be a sense of acceleration, rushing toward an inevitable climax.

In Aladdin, the Sultan is more than pleased to announce that his daughter will marry Prince Ali. Aladdin is already at his end destination, believing his journey to be over. He’s won what he was after, hasn’t he? But—but!—he is still battling with whether or not to tell Jasmine and the Sultan the truth about his princedom. When he finally makes the decision, he marches off to tell them, attempting to return to a state of honesty.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this is best expressed when Harry gets ready to board the Hogwarts Express, which will take him back to Privet Drive and a normal, unmagical life.

In Stardust, now that Tristan and Yvaine have escaped the witch, they have to get back to Wall. They accomplish the return half of their journey aboard the airship of Captain Shakespeare.

21. Pursuit: The hero is pursued by the villain’s relative or associate.

Chase scenes create suspense and excitement, adding the entertainment of a race to the dramatic experience. The hero and his or her companions may be pursued by the villain, or as Propp notes, by a relative or ally of the vanquished villain. But a hero may also chase a villain who is escaping or who has kidnapped someone or stolen something dear to him. A hero might also pursue a lover who has run away. In some stories, Pursuit is a quick way to get back through territory that took a long time to traverse on the outward journey. We’ve already seen this terrain, so we can condense the return journey with a chase.

Note from me: a second villain could pursue the hero, or perhaps the Pursuit could manifest in a race against time to get back to where the journey started. There are many ways this function could play out. The key is a quickening of the pace, increasing the suspense and perhaps even the stakes of the story. \

Unfortunately for Aladdin, he did not truly defeat Jafar, for he still has the cunning Iago to do his bidding. Iago does not pursue Aladdin directly, but he does go after the genie’s lamp.

Harry, believing Snape to be after the Sorcerer’s Stone, follows the villain into the hidden places of the school to stop him.

Now that Tristan has the star, he’s pursued not by one villain but two: the witch Lamia and Prince Septimus. While safely aboard Captain Shakespeare’s ship, the two villains are preparing to strike.

22. Rescue: The hero is rescued or rescues someone.

This element can release a lot of emotional energy as anxiety about a loved one or the hero being imprisoned or endangered is suddenly relieved. It’s equivalent to a resurrection or a return from the dead. The rescue could be the climax of some stories, but more often it’s an episode on the way to the final showdown.

With the genie’s lamp in hand, Jafar reveals Aladdin’s true identity and sends him into oblivion. Determined to save Princess Jasmine and the Sultan, Aladdin and Abu make their way back to Agrabah, but not before discovering that Carpet followed them to their snowy exile. He and Abu attempt to rescue the carpet, but in doing so, the broken tower threatens to end their heroic journey with a squishy finish. Aladdin rescues Abu and Carpet and then zooms off to Agrabah to rescue his princess.

Just to show how topsy-turvy these functions can be, Harry best serves this function when he and Ron rescue Hermione from the troll in the girls’ bathroom, long before he ever faces the three-headed dog and enters the trap door on his way to stop Snape from stealing the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Aboard the airship, the infamous Captain Shakespeare threatens Tristan and Yvaine, but when Tristan tells him that he comes from Wall, the Captain drops his ruthless charade and saves both Tristan and Yvaine from the crudeness of his pirates.

23. Unrecognized Arrival: The hero is not recognized on arrival at the destination.

In some stories, the hero is not recognized because the harrowing adventure has thoroughly transformed him or her. They may have grown, their clothes may be tattered or exchanged for new garb, or they may be scarred in some way. A variation is that the hero is recognized, but his or her achievement is not. People who have been through a transformative experience in a special world may have trouble convincing the folks at home that anything has happened. The world shrugs off their life-changing, death-defying feats until they produce some proof.

Unrecognized Arrival creates suspense and sympathy for the heroes. After all they’ve been through, will they be ignored? In another approach, heroes may desire to go unrecognized and therefore put on a disguise, because they would be killed if they came forward at this point, or because they need to secretly gather information before identifying themselves and confronting the villain.

When Jafar reveals the truth about Aladdin’s humble origins, Princess Jasmine and the Sultan refuse to believe it at first.

It isn’t Harry who is unrecognized when he reaches the Mirror of Erised, but Professor Quirrell. Having thought Snape was the one who wanted the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry doesn’t believe that Professor Quirrell is the real villain. All Quirrell’s efforts and accomplishments are pitted against Harry’s disbelief.

When Captain Shakespeare and his pirates return to their ship after selling lightning at the market, Tristan is unrecognized by the pirates who believe him to be dead. New clothes and new hair, and he’s a new man.

As you can see, these functions can serve their part in almost any part of the story. It isn’t a linear structure. These aren’t bullet points or an outline. They’re observations about story elements, not structure (even though I shoehorned this in with other structures in my Back to Basics outline). Change things up, just as J.K. Rowling had the villain go unrecognized instead of the hero. Play with it.

There are eight functions to go—two more posts—and then I’ll do a full story analysis (or two) using a different example just to show how the functions can be arranged.


Read the previous post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 5
Read the next post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 7

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

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