Creepy Donkey Skin Fairy Tales Analysis

“Donkey Skin” is an old tale which appealed to Charlies Perrault. Perrault included his own version (called “Peau-d’ Ane, Conte”) in Old-time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault (1921), ensuring the tale’s enduring popularity, and cementing Perrault’s particular spin on it in popular imagination. There are many similar takes on this story, known collectively as Aarne-Thompson type 510B.

This category includes three main strains. One is the “Donkey Skin” strain (a.k.a. “Catskin”, “Cap o’ Rushes”). These stories all include beautiful dresses, parties, and a ‘recognition token’. (In “Cinderella” the ‘recognition token’ is the slipper — how true lovers recognise each other.) Oh yes, and incest. Creepy.

In another strain (from Italy, Sudan, India, New Guinea, and Japan) the girl wears a human skin. Creepy. She is discovered while bathing. Also creepy. Cf. Silence of the Lambs.

In the third strain, the girl hides inside an item of furniture. Less creepy.

Perrault’s is a blend of the first two strains. There are dresses but no party. The girl is discovered bathing.


In fairytales, when a female character on the cusp of adulthood wears a coat like this — shaggy, dishevelled — it is part of a larger symbol web (commonly also involving wells, towers, dragons, werewolves and flowers) in which she is about to shed blood. In this case, the blood of deflowering. While the girl wears this coat, she is under the spell of enchantment. This state can be broken by doing various things; one of them is getting married to a man.

Adrienne Segur (23 November 1901 – 11 August 1981); French children's book illustrator. From The Fairy Tales of Perrault cat
Adrienne Segur (23 November 1901 – 11 August 1981); French children’s book illustrator. From The Fairy Tales of Perrault
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The History And Influence Of Cinderella Fairy Tale Analysis

“Cinderella” is a classic rags-to-riches tale and can be found, written straight or subverted, throughout the history of literature. It’s worth pointing out that Cinderella wasn’t truly from ‘rags’. She was related to middle class people, so was at least middle class herself. No one wants to hear about actual starvation, rickets and whatnot at bedtime. This is a middle-class-to-rags-to-aristocrat tale.


Cinderella Is From China

Although we think of Cinderella as a quintessential European fairytale, it originates from China. If you’ve ever read the novel Chinese Cinderella, this renders the title a little moot!

Chinese Cinderella
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Ma is a memoir, but uses the term ‘Cinderella’ because the English speaking audience would be familiar. The reader knows the archetype. We immediately presume her step-mother is wicked. (Of course we’re only getting one side of the story.)

The Chinese title is Ye Xian (English speakers can approximate the sound by saying ‘Ye Shen’). The plot originated in the 5th century, which makes it about 1500 years old. This is a tale from the end of the ancient world, and marks the very beginning of when stories began to be written down. (Known also as the early modern era.)

What happens in Ye Xian?

  • Cinderella has a golden fish in a pond.
  • She likes to go to the pond and talk to this fish, imagining it’s her dead mother.
  • Her tears mingle with the water in the pond.
  • She lives with a wicked stepmother who hates her, and as an act of cruelty the mother kills the beloved fish/spirit mother, cooks it and serves it up to Cinderella who is made to eat it.
  • An old travelling man happens by and says, “Do not fear, the bones of the fish have great power.” He tells her to take them and use them at a time of great need.
  • The rest of the story is as we know it today in the West: Cinderella ends up asking for help from the bones (rather than from a fairy godmother). The dress she wears to the ball is golden like fish scales.

It’s no real surprise to learn that Cinderella comes from China when you consider the degree to which (small) feet have traditionally been fetishised on the Chinese continent. The Chinese story does continue past Cinderella’s marriage to the handsome prince. Unlike European stories, Chinese fairytales have tended to continue past the happily ever after = marriage. In the Chinese Cinderella, there are problems in the marriage because the king is jealous of those magical fish bones. He ends up throwing the bones away so he can have his wife to himself. He is coercively controlling, in other words. Not a happy ending at all. (At least, not for women.)

How did Ye Xian make it to Europe?

The story which later became Cinderella makes its way from China across to Europe along the silk roads, together with the silks, spices and diseases. Marco Polo was famously one of the first Europeans to penetrate China. He returned to Venice in 1290. We can see the beginnings of the earliest Cinderella stories in Europe from the early 1300s.

The Neapolitan Cinderella

The tale was written down by Giambatissa Basile in Italy in the 1500s. There is now no mention of the golden slipper. Italians didn’t share the small-foot fetish with China so that part of the tale didn’t resonate and wasn’t retained. That’s not to say that footwear wasn’t associated with women’s sexuality. Basile’s heroine does wear very high heels to keep her skirts from being muddied. Basile wrote down his tales in Neapolitan, a very rare dialect. This is why his versions weren’t translated into other languages until the 19th century.

Perrault’s Cinderella

Because of the dialect thing, Charles Perrault’s French version of Cinderella is the more famous. No one knows exactly how French storytellers were able to get their hands on the Neapolitan tale. There must have been someone who could both read Neapolitan and speak French, but that storyteller has been lost in history. (Perhaps because she was a woman.)

Perrault’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes it clear that he himself was sophisticated enough to find the story of Cinderella a little silly, but many popular versions of the story simply disregard Perrault’s tone and focus on the cheerful optimism of the events themselves.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

To read Perrault’s version online, see Project Gutenberg.

Romanian Cinderella

In Romania there’s a version called Fairy White. The mistreated main character has only a cow. (The cow is called Fairy White). The stepmother serves the cow meat to the Cinderella character. Remembering the older Chinese tale, Romanians kept the part of the story in which the girl must cannibalise her fairy spirit.

Italian Cinderella

In Italy the story becomes eroticised. Oftentimes the violence and cruelty in Cinderella tales was more akin to horror comedy such as we see coming mainly out of America today, notably in TV series like Dexter and Santa Clarita Diet.

Grimm Brothers’ Cinderella

The Grimm Brothers’ version was transcribed from an oral retelling delivered by a very old, very poor woman. It was written down October 1810. Theirs is a far more vivid, dark and wicked tale than the version by Perrault — is this because the woman who told it was herself living in dire circumstances?  The Grimm title translates to “Ash Fool” (Aschenputtel). In this version the girl has golden slippers. The Grimms’ oral source was not the French tale but came from China, bypassing Europe altogether. This shows that there are different streams and tracks for the migration of fairytales — following the various silk roads.

The Shoes

Richard Redgrave (English artist) 1804 - 1888, Cinderella About To Try On The Glass Slipper c1842
Richard Redgrave (English artist) 1804 – 1888, Cinderella About To Try On The Glass Slipper c1842

This tale is also sometimes known as The Little Glass Slipper.

The glass slipper in the French retelling makes the story so memorable. Glass was always extremely rare, fragile and expensive. It really came from Venice, just as the story did. Venice was the hub of the world’s trade and also of storytelling. Stories came from places like Persia via Venice and disseminated elsewhere. The glass makes the girl perfect and rare.

Glass slippers would break easily, so anyone wearing them is clearly of a class who cannot labour. For Cinderella, who labours all day, to wear such things is the ultimate makeover.

The shoes are status symbols but also have an element of cruelty/fetishism to them. This is especially true in the Grimm version, with emphasis on how tiny the shoe is. When the prince arrives at Cinderella’s house and tries to put the step sisters’ feet into it the feet won’t fit. The mother tells the first step sister to chop off her toes. Gruesomely, she does. The other follows suit. The doves that had helped Cinderella say at this crucial point, ‘Too wit too woo, there’s blood in the shoe!” thereby ruining the step-sisters’ attempts to pass as more naturally dainty and good.

Why glass? It’s an especially resonant image. Like the milk finger in a The Electric Grandmother, we remember this detail. As a storytelling hook it works beautifully, but it was probably accidental. Glass is widely thought to have been a mistranslation of ‘fur’ from French.

See also: The Symbolism of Shoes.

Gustave Doré, Cinderella, 1862
Gustave Doré, Cinderella, 1862. This scene from Cinderella reminds me more broadly of other scenes in which villages examine young women’s bodies. I’m put in mind of the Witch Burning times, in which young women’s bodies were examined for ‘evidence’ of witch marks. Any blemish might be seen as a nipple for feeding demons or familiars.

Why Does The Tale Of Cinderella Survive?

This is a story of justice being served. We have a large appetite for revenge plots. We also like underdog stories. Cinderella’s journey towards being loved and having a happy home of her own tunes into a universal longing, hitting on the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Cinderella paints some of the worst passions that can enter into the human breast, and of which little children should if possible be totally ignorant; such as envy, jealousy, a dislike to mothers-in-law and half-sisters, vanity, a love of dress, etc., etc. — a lady who wrote to Mrs Trimmer’s Guardian of Education in the 18th century

In the real world, underdogs don’t often win, for the simple reason that those who are powerful use their power to control things. But the magical elements in fairy tales allow events to take place that couldn’t easily happen in real life. […] the magic in fairy tales isn’t capricious. In fact, the laws of physics or logic are suspended only to get the ‘good’ characters into trouble or to help them get out of trouble, or both. Pumpkins become coaches only when underdogs like Cinderella are in enough trouble to need a suspension of reality; the magic allows her to triumph, and then it stops.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Eric Winter’s illustration of Cinderella running to be home before midnight.


There is something immensely attractive in living through a character who does obtain revenge, who is proved to have value or — like the Danish detective — is finally proved right. The attraction of wish-fulfilment, benevolent or masochistic, can’t be underestimated — what else can explain the ubiquity of Cinderella or the current global dominance of the Marvel franchise? Isn’t there a Peter Parker in most of us longing to turn into Spider-Man? Our favourite characters are the ones who, at some silent level, embody what we all want for ourselves: the good, the bad and the ugly too.

John Yorke, Into The Woods
Disney's Cinderella Big Golden Book, illustrated by Retta Scott, 1950
Disney’s Cinderella Big Golden Book, illustrated by Retta Scott, 1950


The passivity and stupidity of fairytale heroes and heroines may be a wise ability to accept that which transcends the limitations of ordinary reason and logic. Cinderella is passive and stupid enough—or wise enough?—to accept the help of her fairy godmother without question. Following this reading, it would appear that European fairy tales express the paradoxes central to the Christian culture they emerged from; the fool in his folly is wise, and the meek do inherit the earth. This, indeed, is the conclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien, who understands the ‘joy’ of the happy ending in fairy tales, what he called the ‘eucatastrophe’, as permitting readers a taste of the ultimate joy of resurrection that Christians hope for.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Is Cinderella really that good?

We might speculate that, if there were a sequel to ‘Cinderella’ that fulfilled the expectations of fairy tales, Cinderella herself would probably have to be the villain. Her marriage has given her the sort of status and power audiences knowledgeable about the world of the fairy tale expect to be a source of evil. Her marriage has given her the sort of status and power audiences knowledgeable about the world of the fairy tale expect to  be a source of evil.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Cinderella and her fairy godmother can also be coded as models for modern consumerism, exhibiting ideals which are rapidly losing tract as we head further into a climate crisis:

Now that Cinderella is dressed for the part, she can be the part. The recent film version of Cinderella, Ever After, made this even clearer by showing that court dress was actually a kind of disguise. And this modern Cinders isn’t ‘really an upstart; she deserves to get on because she is kind and good. The fairy godmother is a means of obtaining all this largesse without evil consumption; indeed, from Perrault onwards, Cinderella’s prudent housewifery is routinely contrasted with the doomed and fashion-conscious consumption of her stepmother and stepsisters. If the fairy godmother is simply replaced with an American Express Platinum Card, the fear that anyone might simply buy status is aroused. The story gets around this by delegating the bills to someone for whom they have no meaning.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories

The Screenprism video below depicts Cinderella as a trauma victim, focusing on the Disney version.


Some stories are overt retellings and re-visionings of the Cinderella fairy-tale; these are easy to spot because they often have Cinderella in their title or in their marketing blurb. There are many other stories which make use not of the Cinderella plot per so, but of the typical ‘Cinderella story structure’. Many other stories use a basic Cinderella story structure. They’re also known as ‘rags-to-riches’ stories. A few examples:

  • Pretty Woman — one of the only rom-coms which has gained wide popularity and attention outside rom-com circles
  • Arthur
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is a blend of the Bluebeard/Cinderella traditional tales
  • Suspicion
  • Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl — A genuinely poor boy finds wealth after proving his goodness, not with the aristocratic class but with the wealthy industrial class, of which Roald Dahl was himself a member.
  • Maid In Manhattan has a fairytale title when you think about it
  • Slumdog Millionaire – a film set in India about a destitute man who wins a lot of money in a game show
  • Notting Hill — the Cinderella character is actually a man with floppy hair, or is it the Julia Roberts character, in a sort of inverse riches-to-rags settlement?
  • Piper by Emma Chichester Clark is a rags-to-riches tale starring a mistreated dog
  • Jane Eyre The most classic nineteenth-century Cinderella story is probably Jane Eyre. The beginning of the book especially conforms to the pattern: Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her three cousins are as awful as any stepmother and stepsisters. The theme is repeated when Jane goes away to school and is persecuted by teachers and students alike. The fairy godmother who helps her is also a teacher, Miss Temple, and her further adventures have fairytale parallels.” (Alison Lurie)
  •  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen also has a mad mother and some ditzy sisters. She is also disadvantaged, and finds her way out by finding Mr Darcy. So this makes use of the same basic template as Cinderella.
  • Boston Adventure by Jean Stafford — Alison Lurie marks this book the last true Cinderella story by a first rate modern writer. Published in 1944, this basically coincides with the end of the war. Interestingly, we haven’t seen a straight-up Western since the end of the second world war, either. The second world war marked a new era of genre subversions. Everything everyone thought they knew about the world must have been marked out as wrong. Stafford’s story contains an impressive fairy godmother character who turns out to be a kind of witch. Boston Adventure is a fairy tale because the heroine gets her wish. However, Sonia never gets to marry the prince. As you can see, this is the beginning of the subversion.


Cinderella has a typical initial situation in a fairy tale: the hero loses his/her identity and becomes a ‘nobody’. The motif is found in fairy tales all over the world, and also in the Bible story of Moses. The Cinderella-structure is a linear story in which the boy becomes a man/girl becomes a woman. There’s no going back to where the hero started from.

  • The hero is subject to a series of trials: The first trial is loss of home. Maybe the hero is sold or the parents die or the family doesn’t have enough money to survive. The hero may come back, but the home, as it was, is lost forever.
  • The hero often finds affinity with animals or similar.
  • The trials that follow are as a result of losing the home — sleeping rough, being tired/cold and otherwise physically uncomfortable. Eating basic food and not enough of it. The hero is thrown into utmost misery but each time ascends. (This is also the basic pattern of an initiation rite.)
  • Each temporary ascension anticipates the hero’s final reward, but each descent must remind the hero that they’re not yet a fully accepted member of the community. Each descent is a symbolic death. Each recovery is a resurrection.
  • The hero will probably be left alone, and feels lonely.
  • But help comes exactly when it is needed. In Cinderella it’s the fairy godmother. It might equally be a rich/kind benefactor or finding something magical within the setting.
  • The characters in a fairy tale are fairy tale archetypes. (Heroes, Helpers, Villains, Prizes, Antogonists/Failures)
  • There is often a false happy ending — at this point the plot won’t have been satisfactorily resolved.
  • A dramatic but quick complication will follow.
  • The hero will be re-established in his/her ‘true identity’ — in fairy tales this is with the help of some sort of token (a lock of hair, a ring, a dragon’s tongue… a shoe that fits or pretty much anything)
  • The true happy ending comes about when everyone knows how wonderful and special the hero really is (from circumstance of birth) and they are returned to their privileged position in society. ‘And they all lived happily ever after’.


The hero is Marjery Two-Shoes. May have been written by Newbery himself, or perhaps one of the others who worked with him.
The hero is Marjery Two-Shoes. May have been written by Newbery himself, or perhaps one of the others who worked with him.

The plot of Goody Two-Shoes seems to quite closely follow the bullet-points above. Though most of us know the term ‘Goody Two-Shoes’, the plot of the story is less well-known. As outlined by John Rowe Townsend in Written For Children:

  • Goody Two-Shoes’ parents are turned off their farm by a grasping landlord and soon afterward die: her father from a fever untreated by the vital powder and her mother from a broken heart.
  • She and her brother Tommy wander the hedgerows living on berries. Tommy goes to sea; Goody Two-Shoes (so nicknamed because of her delight on becoming the owner of a pair of shoes) manages to learn the alphabet from children who go to school, then sets up as a tutor, and eventually becomes principal of a dame-school.
  • There is a good deal about her work as a teacher and her efforts to stop cruelty to animals.
  • Eventually she marries a squire, and at the wedding a mysterious gentleman turns up. “This Gentleman, so richly dressed and bedizened with Lace, was that identical little Boy whom you before saw in the Sailor’s Habit.” In other words it is brother Tommy, who has of course made his fortune at sea.
  • And so Goody Two-Shoes, now rich, becomes a benefactor to the poor, helps those who have oppressed her, and at last dies, universally mourned.



Little Lord Fauntleroy has been called “the best version of the Cinderella story in the modern idiom that exists.” (Laski.) It has also been discussed in the general terms of a fairy tale and as a Cinderella tale in particular. Much as the idea of the three sons, the first tow being good-for-nothing, and the youngest the most handsome, kind and worthy, is a fairy-tale pattern, Little Lord Fauntleroy […] is definitely not a Cinderella plot. Cedric has in fact not done anything to deserve his sudden happiness; he has not gone through any trials nor endured any hardships, he has not had any quest nor gained any experience. His tremendous goodness alone does not qualify him to be a Cinderella. The Cinderella (or Ugly Duckling) plot moves from ashes to diamonds, from nothing to everything, from humiliation to highest reward; Cedric at most exchanges spiritual wealth for material.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature


When I began to look for a modern Cinderella, I had more difficulty. The story is still being written, but not for an intellectual audience. The women’s magazines and the contemporary gothic novel are full of it, and (if we are to judge from the newspapers) it occurs frequently in real life. But serious women writers apparently no longer believe in upwardly mobile marriage as a happy ending. Even Edith Wharton, seventy or eighty years ago, didn’t believe in it: The House of Mirth is a devastating account of a Cinderella who doesn’t catch the prince and finally can’t even marry a toad; and in The Custom of the Country the prince goes off with the ugly sister.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature, writing in the 1990s


He’s not nearly as attractive as he seemed the other night. / So I think I’ll just pretend that this glass slipper feels too tight.

by Judith Viorst, who also wrote Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The Paper Bag Princess By Robert Munsch, Illustrated by Michael Martchenko
published 1980, just as the second-wave feminist movement was winding down. This is the year Judy Blume books started getting challenged big time.
published 1980, just as the second-wave feminist movement was winding down. This is the year Judy Blume books started getting challenged big time.

In a discussion of feminist retellings of popular fairytales, Nodelman and Reimer point out that although adults like these tales for modern children, unless children have been exposed to the earlier tales as written down by Grimm and Perrault, feminist retellings fall flat:

Such stories often strike adult readers as both enjoyable and useful. They are funny, and they present worthwhile role models. What adults often forget to consider is the degree to which their pleasure in these stories depends on their knowledge of all those other stories in which the princes rescue the princesses. Without the outmoded, sexist schema of those stories to compare it with, The Paperbag Princess loses much of its humor and almost all of its point. If adults assume that such stories are good for children, then they must believe one of the following:

  • Children should first be taught the outmoded, traditional role models so that they can then be untaught them.
  • Children already know these role models:
    • It is natural for children to assume that women are weak and men strong; or
    • They learn the notion so early in life that it’s firmly established by the time they’re old enough to hear simple stories like The Paperbag Princess.

In fact, this last possibility seems the most likely one. In interviews with children about The Paperbag Princess, Bronwyn Davies discovered that they interpreted—we adults might say, misinterpreted—the story to make it fit into their already established ideas about appropriate behaviour for males and females. When Ronald thanks Elizabeth for rescuing him from the dragon by telling her she looks awful and that she should go away and come back only when she looks more like a princess, these children were convinced that he’s only doing what needs to be done. Elizabeth needs to be warned about the danger of behaving in such an unfeminine manner because her actions are a threat both to her and to Ronald. According to Davies, these children understood Ronald’s cruel words as what she calls ‘category maintenance work’: behaviour ‘aimed at maintaining the category as a meaningful category in the face of individual deviation which is threatening the category’. In this case, the category is gender roles, and the children Davies interviewed knew and believed traditional ideas about them thoroughly enough to reinvent the meaning of Munsch’s story. Not surprisingly, they had serious trouble making sense of Elizabeth’s apparent happiness at the end of it. Davies concludes, ‘Certainly the idea that children learn through stories what the world is about or that they use the characters in stories as ‘role models’ is not only too simplistic but it entirely misses the interactive dimension between the real and the imaginary’.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
published 1974, now a hard-to-source out-of-print book

In any case, all stories reflect the ideologies of their tellers. If those tellers aren’t yet as liberated as we might wish they were, then the stories they tell, despite their good intentions, won’t be any more liberated. In ‘Cinderelma’ from Dr. Gardner’s Fairy Tales for Today’s Children by Richard A. Gardner, MD, and in Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a liberated woman still achieves happiness by marrying the man of her dreams. Indeed, marriage is the happy ending.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature
first published 1998, later turned into a movie and therefore still widely ‘read’
Cinderella and the Hot Air Balloon by Ann Jungman and Russell Ayto

In this 2004 retelling, Cinderella is a ‘tomboy’ (my quote marks mean I really don’t like implied established gender roles) who insists that Prince Charming changes his name to something sensible like Bill. Instead of the whole slipper saga, they both take off in a hot air balloon. In other words, you still get the Happy Ever After. I don’t think this story is sufficiently different to warrant a retelling. (I thought the same after watching Tim Burton’s Alice.) There are so many fairytales out there — even if we just stick to those collected by the Grimm Brothers — that I doubt it’s possible to tire of them before the Fairytale Phase has been outgrown. If we’re going to rewrite any, I think that one, they need to be significantly different and two, they need to have an original spin (e.g. a modern setting which affects the characterisation).


Jerry Lewis starred in a movie called Cinderfella, about a male character in the same situation. He needs to be rescued.

Cinderella Dressed In Yella

See also: Cinderella Dressed In Yella by Ian Turner (Australian — Monash University). Turner taught Australian History and talked about football all the time. This second year lecture was so popular that people needed to be booked in advance. He gave a sexual interpretation to the egg shaped ball being passed around a field, passed around pies etc. He also talked about the tradition of folklore.


Clearly this picture book would be called Crab Cinderella.

Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Jack & The Beanstalk Nursery Stories chosen and edited by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones (Oxford UP, 1960)
Eric Winter (1905 - 1981) 1964 illustration for the Ladybird edition of Cinderella
Eric Winter (1905 – 1981) 1964 illustration for the Ladybird edition of Cinderella
Ilse Wende-Lungershausen, Cinderella (German, 1900-1991)
Ilse Wende-Lungershausen, Cinderella (German, 1900-1991)
Annie French, 1872-1965, Woman in a Garden, Possibly Cinderella
Lemon girl young adult novella


The Plot Points Of Every Single Fairytale

Vladimir Propp counted 31 functions of a fairytale. Propp defines ‘function’ as an act of a character, understood from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.

He used the word ‘narrateme’ to describe these plot points. We started ending words in ’eme’ in the late 1800s, starting with ‘phoneme’ (the smallest unit of sound). Linguistics also gives us ‘morpheme’ (the smallest unit of meaning). Fast forward to the 1950s and there are so many abstract concepts ending in ’eme’ that a guy called Kenneth Lee Pike starts us talking about ’emic units’. Anyway, the ‘narrateme’ is part of that whole family of concepts. A narrateme meaning, basically, in my own words: A small unit of story which has been broken down from a larger unit of story. People familiar with story intuitively understand these bits of story in the same way a native speaker has an intuitive understanding of the morphemes and phonemes of their own language.

Propp’s way of describing how humans break story down into smaller bits of story and putthem back together like jigsaw puzzles certainly has its critics but is currently the most widely known way of conceptualising the constituent elements of fairy tales.

Is it useful in your own writing? I suggest it could very well be useful in the revision process if you’ve created a story and it doesn’t quite work. It’s possibly more useful in the analysis of popular story, as one explanation as to why some stories really ‘stick’ in our culture, and others simply fade way, forgotten.

See: Propp, Vladimir . (1928) 1968. Morphology of the Folktale, translated by Laurence Scott . Austin: U Texas P.

Morphology will in all probability be regarded by future generations as one of the major theoretical breakthroughs in the field of folklore in the twentieth century.

— Alan Dundes.

Propp’s work is seminal…[and], now that it is available in a new edition, should be even more valuable to folklorists who are directing their attention to the form of the folktale, especially to those structural characteristics which are common to many entries coming from even different cultures.

Importantly, Propp clarified that not every fairytale includes every single plot point as listed below, but when they do, they tend to appear in the following order.

1. Absentation

A family member leaves home.

In modern children’s literature, you’ve got the home-away-home structure which is still really common.

In the fairy tales as recorded by Grimm, there’s a fairytale culture in which young men go wandering in the world. They leave home for no other reason than to go wandering. The Three Little Pigs leave home because they’ve come of age and they need to (turfed out by their mother).

Commonly, young chararcters in fairytales leave to ride or walk to visit someone as a guest (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood, who visits her grandmother), to go fishing, to gather berries, or maybe they’re simply going out for a stroll.

The person who leaves home might be a parent. In Beauty and the Beast, the father is a merchant and goes away on business.

In fairy and folk tales, parents commonly take off to work, to the forest, depart in order to trade (see above), leave for war, or for some other unspecified business.

The very absence of parents prepares the audience for inevitable misfortune.

In contemporary children’s literature, storytellers face the task of getting adults out of the way so children can have their own adventures and solves problems on their own. They use an increasingly varied toolbag of tricks to do this. (In the 20th century, especially in American children’s stories, child main characters were very often orphans.) In fairytale, too, many child characters are orphans.

2. Interdiction

The main character is given an ‘interdiction’ or warning.

  • You dare not look in this pantry.
  • Do not pick the apples. (Related to the Garden of Eden relgious stories.)
  • Do not pick up the golden feather.
  • Do not open the drawer.
  • Do not open the box. (Pandora tales)
  • Take care of your brother.
  • Do not kiss the sisters.
  • Do not venture forth from the courtyard.
  • If Baba Yaga comes, say nothing and be silent.

The interdiction may be presented as direct dialogue, or it may be described in the narrative summary:

  • Often did the prince try to persuade her and order her not to leave the high tower.

Speaking of towers, these structures are often used in fairytale in place of an interdiction. (If you lock your kid in a tower, you don’t really need to give them warnings; it’s not like you expect them to go anywhere.)

Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to talk to strangers. This part of the fairytale contributes to the ideology that as long as we do as we’re told we’ll be fine. This is a conservative, reassuring message (though wrong).

But an interdiction isn’t always quite so forceful and obvious. It may simply be a request, or even just a bit of advice.

  • You’re still a youngster.
  • Take your brother with you to the woods.

There may even be a bit of trickery involved.

  • Children, go out into the forest.
  • Bring breakfast out into the field.

In storytelling terms, this (wrong advice) serves the same function of the interdiction, only it has been served by a trickster false-ally. (If you’re stuck inside a fairytale and someone tells you go to into the woods, DON’T GO.)

3. Violation

The interdiction is violated. Little Red Riding Hood speaks to the wolf.

Rule of fairytale: Interdictions are always broken.

Goldilocks was never explicitly told to avoid breaking and entering, but she knows and we know that this is a violation. Likewise, if someone is late in returning home, the interdiction “Don’t be late home” has simply been omitted.

In a fairytale, this plot point corresponds to the emergence of the opponent. This villain will disturb the peace and will cause misfortune or harm. Typical fairytale villains:

Well, umm… umm… Just before I left the house this afternoon I said to myself that the last thing you must do is forget your speech. And so sure enough, when…when I left the house… [Rowan idly pulls something from his pocket. It’s a pair of ladies’ knickers. He quickly replaces it. He says Woo in relief, thinking nobody noticed the incriminating evidence.] Um.. ah…. the last thing I did, yes you guessed it, was to forget my speech. So it’s all ad-libbed I’m afraid. Umm.. Umm.. ah….

Rowan Atkinson Live, With Friends Like These (aka Wedding from Hell), 1992
4. Reconnaissance

The villain attempts to contact the main character and obtains information about them.

  • Where do the children live?
  • The location of precious objects
  • “Who will tell me what has become of the king’s children?” (A bear)
  • “Where do you get these precious stones?” (An employee )
  • “How were you able to make such a quick recovery?” (A priest)
  • “Tell me, Ivan, the merchant’s son, wherein does your wisdom lie?” (A princess)

The opponent has a plan even if the main character does not. (In melodramas, main characters don’t have plans. They react to extreme circumstance.)

In some versions of Rumpelstiltskin, the Queen who sends out her messenger to find the dwarf in the woods, giving the female character more agency by turning her into a trickster who is a worthy opponent for the villain.

Sometimes the villain asks the intended victim a question which has a menacing vibe to it:

  • “What a swift steed you have! Might you not get another somewhere that could outrun yours?”

Occasionally the reconnaisance part of a fairytale doesn’t involve the villain.

5. Delivery

This is the part where the villain receives information about the intended victim. This information may come from an unexpected source, e.g. from a normally inanimate object that busts out talking.

  • “Take me out into the courtyard and throw me down upon the ground; there where I stick into the ground will you also find the hive.” (A chisel to a bear)

In Snow White, the Evil Stepmother has a dialogue with a mirror. The stepmother doesn’t question Snow White directly but doesn’t need to; she has a magic mirror which will give her the information she needs. (The mirror tells her that Snow White is living in the forest and more beautiful than she is.)

There’s often carelessness involved at this part of a fairytale.

  • A mother calls her won home in a loud voice and betrays his presence to a witch.
  • An old man receives a marvellous bag and gives the godmother a treat from it. This gives away the secret of his talisman to her.
6. Trickery

The victim fools the victim. This deception allows the villain to take possession of the victim and their belongings.

Typically, the villain assumes a disguise. This might involve transmogrification.

  • A dragon turns into a golden goat.
  • A priest dresses in a goat’s hide. (Goat skins are a good one — goats are associated with Satan.)
  • A witch pretends to be a sweet old lady and imitates the voice of the victim’s mother.
  • A bad man might appear to be a handsome youth.
  • A thief pretends to be a beggar.

In fairytales, villains might try charm and persuasion, or they might go straight for magical means of deception.

  • A stepmother gives a sleeping potion to her stepchild, or poisons an apple.
  • A villain sticks a magic pin into the victim’s clothing.

Villains might use other means of coercion and deception.

  • Place knives and spikes around a window so no one can fly through it
  • Rearrange wood shavings which are supposed to show a girl the way to her brothers.
7. Complicity

The victim is successfully deceived and unwittingly helps the villain.

They might simply agree to go along with whatever the villain suggests.

  • They take the ring.
  • They go for a nice steam bath.

Rule of fairytale: Deceitful proposals are always accepted and fulfilled.

Main characters might become mechanical at this point, succumbing to the magic, e.g. falling asleep via the magic potion.

Bear in mind that the mechanical behaviour of the main character may not even require a villain e.g. a character might fall asleep of their own accord.

On the other hand, there’s often a good reason why a victim succumbs to villainy, to do with life circumstances. A victim might give in to money because their family is very poor.

There may be no way out of acquiescing because they’ve been given a contradictory or impossible task.

  • “Give away that which you do not know you have in your house.”
8. Villainy

At this point the villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family. Everything that has happened previously has been building up to this moment. The first seven functions of a fairytale lead to this eighth one.

There is much variation in how villains cause harm to their victims including:

  • abduction and kidnapping (a step-mother lulls her stepson to sleep and his bride disappears forever, a wife flies away from her husband on a magical carpet)
  • incarceration (a princess imprisons Ivan in a dungeon etc.)
  • theft of a magical item (the fire bird steals the golden apples
  • maiming (a servant girl cuts out the eyes of her mistress, a princess chops off someone’s legs, someone steals the heart out of another person’s breast)
  • murder (a stepmother orders a killing, an employee orders the slaying of a magic duck or chicken)
  • the plundering or spoiling of crops (a mare eats up a haystack, a bear steals oats, a crane steals peas)
  • cannibalism (or the threat of it) is common (for many reasons).

Though the crimes are varied and numerous, most of them relate to some kind of theft.

In a few categories of fairytale, the hero effects the disappearace themself. Or a king might demand a son leave his house. A stepmother might drive her daughter out. A priest might expel his grandson.

Turning the victim into an animal first is pretty common e.g. a stepmother turns her stepdaughter into a lynx before casting her out of the home. In fact, substitution is another common form of fairytale villainy. For instance, a nursemaid might change a bride into a duckling and replaces the bride with her own daughter. Or a maid might blind the king’s bride and then pretend to be the bride herself.

Ordering someone is thrown into the sea is also a pretty common one.

An intensified form of explusion: the villain orders the murder of their victim e.g. a stepmother orders a servant to kill her stepdaughter while she’s out walking. It is common that the heart or liver be requested as evidence that the victim is dead.

Villains often cause multiple harms at once. (Two or three.) So for example, a princess might steal her husband’s magic shirt (theft) and then murders him. Older brothers might kill a younger brother (murder) and then steal his bride (theft).

9. Lack

One family member of a family lacks something or desires something. In this way, lack and need are inextricably linked.

Modern storytellers use various terms to describe ‘lack’. You’ll hear ‘psychic wound’ and ‘ghost‘.

However, in fairytales, the lack or insufficiency is an external thing. For example, the main character lacks/needs a magical sabre or steed or something like that. In any case, this lack will provoke the quest.

In fairytales as in any good contemporary story, a lack is created externally but realised internally. The lack of an object in the outside world maps onto the internal need/deficiency in the character’s psychology.

In fairytales as in contemporary stories more generally, the lack/shortcoming/need isn’t necessarily on the page, but left for the audience to understand via empathy.

Typical lacks in fairytales:

  • a bride (romantic love and companionship)
  • a friend (loneliness)

This part of the fairytale may happen right at the start, and in contemporary stories, that’s where you’ll typically find it. Over the years, this part of a plot has shifted up.

In fairytales, the main character is either approached with a request and is now aware of the lack, or goes out to remedy the lack of their own accord.

10. Mediation

Misfortune or lack is made known to the main character (who is either a Seeker or a Victim-hero).

This is the first stage of storytelling unmasking. The main character is approached with a request or command; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched. Joseph Campbell would call this the Call To Adventure. Something beckons to the main character and off they go on an escapade. In fairytale, a call often comes from the King and comes with promises. (You can marry my beautiful youngest daughter etc.) There might be threats as well as (or instead of) promises.

These guys (mostly masculo-coded) are called Seekers. Parents give their blessing to sons who go out into the world. Sometimes the story doesn’t explain to its audience why this guy has left the house. Or sometimes he says he’s going out for a walk and ends up in this life-changing fight (meaning to find a fight all along).

Sometimes the son sets out because he feels the need to set something right in the world. Contemporary middle grade books showcase a number of similar children, who know something’s wrong with their family (perhaps a family member is ill) so they set out on a journey in the hope of making everything better. (Two Weeks With The Queen is a good middle grade Australian example.)

The folktale hero may be one of two types. I’ve been talking about Seekers; the other type of character who leaves the house is the Victim-hero.

Whereas a Seeker goes off to rescue someone else who is passive within the story (e.g. a damsel in distress), a Victim-hero is the star of their own fairytale.

There is no seeker in a story which centers the Victim-hero. (The two types of hero are mutually exclusive, though modern fairytales may subvert this expectation, possibly because they’re subverting gender roles.)

The main character might be banished from home for some reason. An interesting group of fairytales are those in which a parent leads their child into the forest e.g. in Hansel and Gretel. Why don’t these children take themselves into the forest? (There are many ways of sending children out into the world; this one seems unreasonably callous.) These parents who take their children into the wilderness and leave them there are known as Parent-senders.

Sometimes a main (Victim-hero) character has been condemned to death and is secretly freed, perhaps by a low-status character such as a cook, or by the person (archer, huntsman) whose job it was to do the actual killing.

In any case, the main character has to leave home for some reason, whether the reason is on-the-page or not.

At this part of the fairytale there may be a lament sung for the departed main character. A lament is sung if the family thinks the main character has been murdered, bewitched or banished, or replaced by a different person.

11. Counteraction

In a fairytale starring a Seeker, this Seeker-hero decides upon counteraction. In other words, villainous plans require counterplans in order for there to be story-worthy conflict.

You see this all the time in pretty much every Hollywood movie. The main character makes a plan, their opponent makes a counterplan. This happens three or however many times until one of them triumphs.

12. Donor Tests The Main Character

Who is the ‘donor’? Vladamir Propp means the ‘provider’.

The main character has been tested, and now receives a magical helper. Joseph Campbell talks about mentors. The difference is, donors can be fake allies as well as genuine helpers.

This person is often a fairy godmother, or a talking animal/object who the main character has helped.

If you’re after a donor, you’re most likely to find them wandering through the forest, but you won’t actually find one by looking: You’ll happen upon your donor by accident. The donor might teach you some magic or give you a magical item or teach you some magic words. Notice this doesn’t happen too early in the story. The hero has to have been tested first, without the aid of magic.

But now the main character is tested again. Donors don’t just give out tips and tricks to any old character they meet in the forest! First the hero has to prove they are worthy of such benefits.

  • A witch gives a girl a whole lot of household tasks
  • Forest knights tell a hero to serve them for three years as a merchant or ferryman, without pay
  • The hero must listen to the playing of the gusla (a stringed musical instrument of the Balkans) without nodding off to sleep
  • A witch asks the hero to guard a herd of mares

Heroes are rewarded for answering politely and punished for answering rudely.

Sometimes the donor is in their death throes and wants one last wish carried out.

Or the donor might be a prisoner requesting freedom and asks the hero to set them free.

Or a jug fished out of the water begs to be broken. (In old tales, containers should be opened with caution — they inevitably contain magic or evils or an imprisoned spirit.)

A donor may be begging the hero for mercy e.g. they’re an animal with their paw caught in a trap. Perhaps the hero has caught the animal themself and now the animal starts talking and begs to be let go in return for a big favour.

Sometimes the donor hasn’t so much as asked; the hero suggests some sort of deal themself. Or perhaps the hero simply sees an opportunity to offer assistance to someone in need. This can be considered a test.

The test may not actually involve a donor. In Hansel and Gretel the witch has fattened the children up, sure, and saved their lives in time of famine, but she can hardly be said to be a donor as such. She only meant to eat the children herself. She does function as a (twisted) donor in the story, however.

Sometimes the ‘donor’ is an out-and-out baddie and no exchange has been attempted.

  • A host tries to feed his guests rats at night
  • A magician tries to exhaust the hero by leaving him alone on a mountain

In some stories this hostile creature (not a donor, per se) joins in combat with the hero. In a sense they’re acting for the hero’s benefit. There are many fairytales involving combat (mostly brawls) in a forest hut involving various members of the forest.

The donor might be a villain who offers a tool of the trade in exchange for something else. A robber might try to trade his cudgel. An old man might try to trade his sword.

13. Main Character reacts

The main character either passes or fails the test.

The main character is mostly very black and white in their response: They’re either very clearly not okay with the turn of events or very clearly fine with it. This section of fairytales features binaries:

  • The main character either sustains or does not sustain an order.
  • The main character either answers or does not answer a greeting.
  • The main character either performs a favour or does not perform a favour for a dead person.
  • The hero vanquishes or does not vanquish the opponent.

Rules of fairytale: Heroes free captives, show mercy to supplicants and settle disputes.

14. Provision of Magical Aid

The hero has a magical agent, typically such as the following:

  • animals (horses, eagles etc.)
  • objects which can contain helpers (containers but also rings or anything, really)
  • weapons such as cudgels and swords
  • musical instruments such as gusla and horns
  • balls
  • In Cinderella, a pumpkin is turned into a carriage and horses.

And what are the various ways the hero gets their hands on these magical agents? We’ve already seen that a donor may have given it to them.

  • An old man might present a horse as a gift.
  • Animals of the forest offer up their offspring.

Another common way to get yourself a magical animal: Obtain the power of an animal by turning yourself into that animal.

But some folktales end with a reward of innate value and is not magical.

Does the main character of the folktale want the magical aid? If they don’t, they’d better watch out — they will generally be heavily punished for failing to accept help when help is given. Types of punishment include:

  • Being easten
  • Getting frozen
  • Getting injured
  • Thrown under a stone

At this point the magical agent may become known to the main character.

  • An old woman shows the main character an oak tree which has a flying ship lying under it.
  • An old man directs the main character’s attention to a peasant who will sell a magical steed.

Next, the magical agent is prepared. This will be a paragraph such as:

The magician went out on the shore, drew a boat in the sand and said, “Well, brohters, do you see this boat?”
“We do see it.”
“Then get into it.”

There mjght be a transaction (buying/selling) in which the main character gets their hands on the magic hen/dog/cat etc. Or the main character might order something in advance e.g. orders a blacksmith to make a chain.

Or else the main character happens upon the magical agent by chance. They might come across a tree bearing magical apples, for instance, or see a magic steed and happen to mount it.

Sometimes the main character doesn’t even have to be observant. The magical aid simply shows up and cannot be ignored e.g. a magical staircase appears before them. Magical bushes, branches, dogs and horses regularly seem to sprout out of the ground. Dwarves also tend to appear out of nowhere to make themselves available.

Sometimes the main character steals the item, often from a witch.

15. Transference to another kingdom

The transference might be from one real-life setting to another, for instance from a poor house to a ball in a lavish castle. It might be to a vault underground or perhaps they are spirited away into the forest, which is basically a symbol for the unconscious, where all your deepest fears are realised.

16. Battle

Main character and villain join in direct combat. In modern stories there is always a battle but it this battle takes all forms, including metaphorical. (I call it the big struggle.) The main character will come close to death, either actually or spiritually (possibly both).

17. Branding

Main character is marked. In a fairy tale, this is a visible marker that the main character has changed. (Or, the mark is made in lieu of real change.)

18. Victory

Main character defeats villain. In a fairytale, heroes are not defeated. Fairytales are not tragedies. Even when fairytales seem to end in tragedies, this is probably us putting our modern spin on it. For instance, The Little Match Girl dies but in Hans Christian Andersen’s day, the passage into Heaven to be reunited with a beloved grandmother was considered a genuinely happy outcome.

19. Initial Misfortune Remedied
20. Return of Main Character

This is home-away-home structure

21. Pursuit of main character

Known as the chase sequence.

22. Rescue of main character

When the main character is female, the patriarchal Grimm brothers — and the equally patriarchal Charles Perrault — insert a big, strong man to save her. In “Bluebeard” — originally a tale told for women by women, the young bride’s army brothers come to her aid. The Grimm brothers preferred the version of Little Red Riding Hood in which Riding Hood is saved by the woodcutter, though other versions exist in which she saves herself.

23. Unrecognized return of main character 

(either to original home or to another kingdom). In the medieval period people were commonly required totake refuge by going into exile. Documentation tells us this was known as ‘Abjuring the realm‘.

24. Unfounded claims are presented by a false hero

The false hero is a stock character in fairy tales, and sometimes also in ballads. The character appears near the end of a story in order to claim to be the hero or heroine and is, therefore, usually of the same sex as the hero or heroine. The false hero presents some claim to the position. By testing, it is revealed that the claims are false, and the hero’s true. The false hero is usually punished, and the true hero put in his place. The false heroes in Cinderella are the ugly stepsisters. In modern romantic comedies there is often a guy who seems like he might be a good match for the heroine but it is later revealed he doesn’t match up. In Pride and Prejudice he is Wickham.

25. Difficult task is proposed to the main character
26. Solution

task is resolved.

27. Recognition of main character

It was Aristotle who noticed all stories feature first a ‘reversal’ in the main character’s fortune, and that this will be followed by a moment in which that character realises what has happened. (The character might be horrified or delighted at this change.)

It is on this function that the theories of Aristotle and Propp line up.

Modern storytellers use a number of different words to describe this part of a story. See: Anagnorisis.

In many fairytales, the ‘reversal of fortune’ is a rags to riches tale. Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty all get to marry princes. The Frog Princess acquiesces to patriarchal demands to sleep with a frog and is awarded likewise with a handsome man to look after her. Puss In Boots gets to keep the ogre’s castle.

In many modern stories, for both adults and for children, there is a fairytale scene near the end where the main character receives recognition. Not just the personal validation that a job was well done, but public recognition.

When writers do this for their main character that’s because they are part of a specific ideology prevailing at the moment — that if it doesn’t happen in public it doesn’t happen.

In ancient times, work in the home, largely carried out by women and slaves, was devalued not because it didn’t attract a salary but because it happened in the private sphere. It was considered worthless because it lacked the recognition and permanence that was afforded to practices that happened in public. The whole point of the built world of public spaces and public institutions is that it creates a place where actions can outlast the mere lifetime of the individuals who enact them. Worth — a kind of immortality — is only able to be realised in full view of one’s peers, which is in public, not in private. This creation of worth is precisely why some try and define what they do as valuable in ways outside any remuneration offered. Shelley’s description of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ or Ezra Pound’s suggestion that they are the ‘antennae of the nation’ – the whole evolution of the Romantic idea of genius – arises from such non-market, public understands of worth. Now, to some large extent, of course, there values still pertain, but the point is, labour, as it has moved out of the private sphere and into the public, has become the measure of the ‘man’ and prestige has flowed as much to the high salary as to any other value inherent in the world done. Donald Trump’s success as a candidate in the 2016 US presidential race, for instance, was predicated on the fact that he was rich, very rich, and this wealth was seen in and of itself as a qualification for office, beyond any particular formal qualification or experience he had.

Why The Future Is Workless by Tim Dunlop (2016)

The public recognition is especially popular in TV, where it is harder to show that a character feels good about their own achievements.

28. Exposure of false hero/villain

The villain is unmasked. This is a part of the anagnorisis phase of story, and ties up the plot. Stories often include a Self-revelation on the part of the main character and then another part which tidies up the plot (which was the vehicle leading the main character to their Self-revelation.) For more on that distinction see Short Story Endings.

29. Transfiguration

The main character is given a new appearance. This is one option for the new situation phase of the plot.

In contemporary stories this can take a variety of forms e.g. a makeover scene. The outward transformation is a visual cue that the interiority of a character has also changed.

30. Punishment of villain

Contemporary stories for children are moving away from the entire concept of punishment as it’s outdated.

31. Wedding
Stanhope Alexander Forbes - The Health of the Bride 1889
Stanhope Alexander Forbes – The Health of the Bride 1889

The main character marries and ascends the horse. This is one traditional option for the new situation, and pretty much the only reward for a female main character. The male main character gets back on his horse (literally and psychologically).

Victor Ambrus horse
Victor Ambrus

The above is Propp’s fairy-tale “ur-plot” with my own notes added.

For many examples of these functions in pop culture, see Propp’s Functions In Fairy-tales at TV Tropes.

Lemon girl young adult novella