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The Aarne Thompson Classification of Folk Tales

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The Aarne-Thompson classification of folktales is a system devised by Antti Aarne and elaborated on by Stith Thompson to provide for the indexing of folktales by type and motif. The purpose of the classification system is to allow the collection and comparison of folktale materials to determine the cross-cultural influences exhibited by the tales.  Currently, the Aarne-Thompson classification system consists of some 2500 basic plots from around the world.

The Aarne Thompson Classification of Folk Tales

Aarne, a Finnish folklorist, originally proposed a numerical index of folktale plots in order to eliminate the need for scholars to refer to folktales by their titles and subcategories, which were cumbersome due to the large quantity of sub-categories.  In his 1910 book The Types of Folktales revised in 1928, Arne assigned type numbers to the major Indo-European folktales.  In this early classification scheme, a type was a group of similar stories that bore a historical and cultural connection to each other.  In effect, the type index enabled scholars to trace the historical dispersion of folktales within a cultural area and examine the way in which local cultural norms affected the folktale.  The type index, however, was based only on the actual narrative of events in the folktale and did not categorize ideas or themes.  Thus, all stories with animals as actors were grouped together without any attempt to sort the stories by the intended moral or thematic objective.

Aarne’s work appears to be somewhat supported by that of Vladimir Propp, who published Morphology of the Folktale in 1928.  Propp believed that the attempt to classify folktales according to themes was inadequate due to the subjective nature of the thematic content. At the same time, he was dissatisfied with Aarne’s classification scheme that depended solely on narrative. He proposed that it was possible to classify the morphology or structure of folktales much in the same way that the plant morphology could be classified.  While this appears similar to Aarne’s type classification, it resulted in a far more complex classification scheme in which all of the structural and narrative elements of the folktale were decomposed.  Like the title index system, this method proved too cumbersome for practical use.

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