July 9, 2012

back to basics: propp's functions, pt. 7

Next up in Propp’s Fairy Tale Functions: Unfounded Claims, Difficult Task, Solution, and Recognition. I’ll continue using Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Stardust as example material, except in cases where these stories don’t have the function. Commentary on stages belongs to Christopher Vogler and David McKenna, authors of Memo from the Story Dept. Examples and story analysis are mine.

24. Unfounded Claims: A new villain claims credit for defeating the first villain or claims the right to marry the princess/inherit the kingdom.

Among the many possible final tests for the hero is the appearance of a rival claimant or some circumstance that casts doubt on the hero’s victory. Suspense and tension are increased by this last-minute obstacle. A spot for this development is embedded in the traditional wedding ceremony, where the celebrant says to the congregation if there is anyone who has grounds to object to the wedding. If the hero can stand up to this final test of false claims, he or she is truly qualified for the prize.

I touched on this in the last post… In Aladdin, when Jafar steals the lamp and reveals Aladdin’s true identity, he claims the right to the kingdom and the princess, forcibly taking Aladdin’s prize.

This one is a bit tricky to pinpoint in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. While no one takes credit for Harry’s victory over Voldemort, Gryffindor is still in last place for the competition for the House Cup. Instead, Slytherin is in the lead at the end of the year feast. By all appearances, Harry’s victory will go unrewarded. (There may be another, better example, but having been a long time since I’ve seen the film—or read the book for that matter—I can’t recall a more fitting instance of this function).

This is also a bit tricky to find in Stardust. Since Tristan did not defeat Lamia at the inn, she’s still very much alive. However, after Tristan and Yvaine escape the inn, Prince Septimus discovers the existence of the star. He already wants the kingdom, as evidenced by his search for the ruby, but, with the star’s heart, he could rule forever. He then pursues that objective.

25. Difficult Task: The princess (or her father) sets a difficult task for the hero, or the hero must compete with the false claimant to do the task. A series of three tasks is not uncommon.

The climax of a story may be a complex passage in which the hero is tested on many levels. “Trebling” or repeating things three times is a fairy tale divide that says something is important or difficult. Three represents completeness, signifying that the hero must master life on all its levels. The repetition also serves to create rhythm and suspense.

A set of three tasks is a good technique for fattening up a plot, but in modern narrative, we are usually trying to accelerate at this point and introducing three obstacles at the last minute may be ill-advised. Threefold tasks are common in fairy tales and myths around the world and can be inserted at many points in the narrative, not just the final moment.

When Aladdin returns to the palace, he has to face off with Jafar in an attempt to save Jasmine and retrieve the lamp.

Compared to the last function, this one is easy to spot. Harry, Ron, and Hermione enter the third floor corridor in order to stop Snape from taking the Sorcerer’s Stone. They face the three-headed dog, the Devil’s Snare plant, the room of keys, the giant wizard’s chess board, and finally, the Mirror of Erised.

This function is best served when Victoria, at the beginning of the story, demands that Tristan find the star and bring it back to her. Though he finds the star, the difficulty is bringing her back to Wall, since Lamia also wants the star, and the star wears the Royal Ruby of Stormhold, which two princes are pursuing.

26. Solution: The hero manages to perform the difficult task, often with the aid of a magical helper or agent.

The hero could fail at this point, which would turn the story into a tragedy. However, this outcome is rare in fairy tales and the hero usually prevails. Sometimes, the victory is the result of calling on all the experiences of the journey. The hero shows that he or she has internalized useful qualities picked up from all the other characters encountered on the journey, proving that he or she has learned something and changed.

The hero can call on the aid of a magical helper or object at the critical moment. (Note from me: if you use this device, be sure that the hero earned the help, that it isn’t a deus ex machina)

Using his cleverness, Aladdin tricks Jafar into becoming a genie. Jafar is then trapped inside his own lamp, which Genie quickly sends to the Cave of Wonders.

Harry, with the help of Ron and Hermione, makes it past all of the challenges that lie beyond the trap door. And then, because of Dumbledore’s clever design, Harry manages to take the Sorcerer’s Stone before Voldemort can get his hands on it. Then, Harry defeats Voldemort because of the pure magic of love versus the corrupted magic of evil.

Tristan manages to find the star using the Babylon candle his mother left him.

27. Recognition: The hero is recognized because he or she was able to perform the task or because someone sees the brand or token (see Branding in part 5 of this subseries) proving that he or she defeated the villain.

Story tellers have known for thousands of years that recognition scenes can trigger powerful emotions in the characters and the audience. They were a standard feature of Greek and Roman novels and plays, as childhood sweethearts would be separated for many years, kidnapped by pirates, enslaved, etc. only to recognize one another and be united at the climax.

There is something primal in the recognition scene, as the hero casts off a disguise and stands revealed in his or her true identity. On a psychological level, old masks of identity, illusions, and defenses are discarded so the real self can shine through.

Upon defeating Jafar, Jasmine is more than thrilled to have Aladdin back, and neither her or her father care that he’s not a prince. He’s won their trust and their love despite the fact he is not who he claimed to be.

Even though Slytherin is in the lead for the House Cup, Dumbledore recognizes the efforts of Harry and his friends, giving them points for their cleverness and bravery.

When Tristan finally returns to Wall for Victoria’s birthday, he plans to give her a lock of Yvaine’s hair, proof that he found the star. She recognizes his achievement and promises to marry him, even though that’s no longer what he wants.

One more post before we’re done! Then I think I’ll do a post each, looking at Aladdin, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Stardust, so you can see how all the different functions fit together. And then I’ll do at least one other post, using The Princess Bride as an example.


Read the previous post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 6
Read the next post in the series: Propp's Functions, Part 8

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

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