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The Types of International Folktales

From the Introduction to the Latest Folktale Catalogue

HANS-JÖRG UTHER (1944-) is Professor of German Literature at the University of Duisburg-Essen, a senior member of the editorial staff of the Enzyklopädie des Märchens, Göttingen, and the former editor of the series "Die Märchen der Weltliteratur". He is a prominent scholar in the area of traditions and folk literature with special interest in historical and comparative studies. He has edited over fifty books on folktales and legends, among them critical editions of the Brothers Grimm (1996, 2004), Wilhelm Hauff (1999), and Ludwig Bechstein (1998), and published numerous articles in German, English, and other languages.

Uther has edited The Types of International Folktales (ATU) based on the system of Aarne/Thompson. In ATU, the types of folktales have been reorganised and expanded considerably.

Let us have a look into how Uther's work is organised. He writes in the introduction to the set of three volumes that his catalog of international tale types (ATU, for Aarne / Thompson / Uther) constitutes a fundamentally new edition with extensive additions and innovations. It attempts to meet the objections of previous critics of the Aarne/Thompson catalog on several points, including these (7):

  • There was no distinct genre in the AT numbering Novellas (Romantic Tales) (AT 850-99).
  • The AT system encompassed only European narrative tradition, with relevant material from western Asia and European settlements in other regions. Even in Europe, the traditions were documented unevenly. Documentation varied considerably from place to place, and for such as Denmark and Russia no information was provided at all. Also, evidence from Portugal, and from eastern and southeastern Europe, was often missing. The narrative traditions of small ethnic groups (Basques, Ladini, Frisians, Sorbs, etc.) were not, or not enough, documented.
  • Often only few variants were presented. What is more, references to variants were usually taken from older collections, not from new ones.
  • References to relevant scholarly literature were often missing.
  • The descriptions of the tale types were in many cases too brief, too often imprecise, and too often centered unjustly only on the male characters.
  • The inclusion of so-called irregular types was dubious.
  • Too much of the documentation for the existence ot many ot the types lay in archive texts that were difficult to access. (7-8)

The ATU has eliminated or mitigated these faults, says the editor. It permits international tale types to be located quickly, thus providing a historical-comparative orientation toward folktale research for scholars in all disciplines that touch on popular traditions.

What is more, the descriptions of the tale types have been completely rewritten and made more precise based on all the results of research available up to approximately 2003, and sources are amplified.

More than two hundred and fifty new types have been added throughout the different sections.

Each "tale type" presented by ATU consists of a number, title, and a description of its contents, and must be understood to be flexible, adaptable, and part of a greater dynamic, where it can be integrated into new thematic compositions and media. (Ti 8)

Further, history has shown that folk narratives from outside Europe fit the older AT numbering of thematically-oriented sections only in part and often with difficulty. This is particularly true of myths, epics, legends, and etiological accounts, and also of lesser genres such as anecdotes, jokes, rumors, and genres such as life history, family history and refugee experiences. Some of them have been partly documented in the Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1955-58).

Up until the 1960's, folktale scholars generally believed that oral traditions had existed unchanged for centuries. This romantic valuation had a long-lasting influence and caused too little reference to and also undervaluing of important literary texts by such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, to name a few of them. Old written texts, particularly of animal tales, were often dismissed as a subtype or an "irregular" form. But as we now know, many so-called oral narratives have a rich literary history. Some can be traced back to works of literature, in which the fantasy of homo narrans can be seen in new adaptations. (10)

This is so for fables associated with the name Aesop and similar narratives from oriental traditions. Other examples of literary genres important for oral tradition include medieval Arabic jests, European exempla and farce, and the fabliaux and novelle of the late Middle Ages. All these genres entered early modern literature.

Yet, although the definitions of a tale type as a self-sufficient narrative, and of a motif as the smallest unit within such a narrative, have often been criticized for their imprecision, "these are nevertheless useful terms to describe the relationships among a large number of narratives with different functional and formal attributes from a variety of ethnic groups, time periods, and genres," says Uther further.

Uther explains that now a motif can be a combination of statements about an actor, an object, or an incident - all three of these elements. He says,

"Motif" thus has a broad definition that enables it to be used as a basis for literary and ethnological research. It is a narrative unit, and as such is subject to a dynamic that determines with which other motifs it can be combined. Thus motifs constitute the basic building blocks of narratives. On pragmatic grounds, a clear distinction between motif and type is not possible because the boundaries are not distinct. (10)
Narratives must be analyzed not arbitrarily but according to structural considerations. A precise analysis guarantees that variations in narrative tradition will not be reduced to a simple multicultural homogeneity. The ATU type catalog is a bibliographic tool. It has a description of each type followed by references to catalogs, texts, and published research. (10)

In the past, European tradition unjustly dominated the international tale type catalog. Where this imbalance continues into the ATU, it is due not to any ethnocentric ideology, but merely reflects the present state of knowledge. For many countries and regions, the systematic classification of narrative tradition has only recently begun.

The Construction of the ATU Type Catalog

Because of the need for compatibility with the many old and new regional and international folktale catalogs, the type numbers that have been in use for nearly one hundred years remain unchanged. However, in the Aarne/Thompson catalog, some types were noted in more than one place, creating unnecessary duplication. Only in a few places was it necessary to move a type number from its original place to an entirely new one (for example, AaTh 1587 has become ATU 927D).

Every type important enough to be listed in ATU is considered a "regular" type. Nevertheless, for some of the existing type numbers, their continued presence is a result of compromises. (11)

To document narratives that were especially difficult to classify, the designation "miscellaneous type" has been used. Such miscellaneous or heterogeneous types can be described only by their theme, which is expressed through a common structure. Sometimes the best solution has been to provide a summary of a single text as an example. (11-122)

In ATU the letters or asterisks following many numbers are not necessarily intended to represent either a separate type or a dependent subtype. Each description represents an independent tale type that has been documented among at least three ethnic groups or over a long time period. By this grasp it was possible to incorporate new tale types with a significant traditional basis, without destroying the old numbering system.

In ATU the titles of the tale types have been partly revised, and the descriptions of the plots have been wholly rewritten and expanded. For reference, the former titles are also listed. There were many reasons for enlarging the summaries. Most importantly, it was necessary to correct gender biases in the characterization of the main actors, and to be explicit about sexual elements and themes (in contrast to the general AaTh description, "obscene"). In many cases, small mistakes or serious errors had to be corrected.

The new type descriptions have been written with the following principles in mind:

The main characters, both active and passive, and their opponents, must be named, and the tale's actions and objects and especially its situation must be recognizable.

The description of each tale type is based on monographic studies and on the texts that have been classified for the archive of the office of the Enzyklopädie des Märchens (EM) in Göttingen. In addition, the extensive concordance which this office has developed, and which includes most of the national tale type and motif catalogs, has been utilized: The EM archive contains numerous international collections and also translations of tales from hard-to-read languages.

The description of each type offers a basic summary, a minimal framework that includes the tale's central structure and contents along with its most important characters. Evidence of the tale's significant variation is also noted. Some AT terms have been standardized, while others have been changed because of a shift of meaning (eg. ass has become donkey), and unclear language has been made more precise.

Motif numbers, which provide additional orientation, have been listed in the appropriate places. For reasons of space they have not been repeated in a separate section. Only the most important motifs from Thompson's Motif-Index have been noted, although many more motif numbers with few references might be pertinent, Uther says. (13)

Under the rubric Combinations are listed tales that belong to narrative cycles, or form combinations and so on.

Uther has used the rubric Remarks to indicate important literary sources, and to convey information about the tale's age, place of origin, the extent of its tradition, or other distinctive features such as its occurrence in a cycle. When they have been published in many different editions which have had a continuous effect on the tale's history and development, the tale's well-known sources are cited only in general terms here and in the bibliography.

Under the rubric Literature/Variants come the most important bibliographical sources in chronological order and international surveys of variants. However, not every such reference is provided.

Then Uther brings the evidence for the geographic spread of the tale type: published type and motif catalogs for the various regions and ethnic and language groups. References to additional texts are to be found in the cited literature. One criterion for listing catalogs is that only the most recent one for a given region is listed when it refers to earlier ones. (14)

The numbers of variants in each of the regions have not been reported because the compilers of different catalogs have used different criteria for inclusion.

Uther's index attempts to document only a limited range of the tales' contents: their most important subjects, plots, and motifs, including their actors and settings.

NOTE: This abstract leaves out some interesting topics that may be too difficult to conceive at first or second meeting.

- Tormod Kinnes


Types of folktales, LITERATURE  

Ti: Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

Ttf: Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd rev. ed. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia / FF Communications, 1961.

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