Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp

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Vladimir Propp, photographed in 1928

Vladimir Propp ( Russian Владимир Яковлевич Пропп ., Scientific transliteration Vladimir Propp Jakovlevic ; born April 17 . Jul / 29. April  1895 greg. In St. Petersburg ; † 22. August 1970 in Leningrad ) was a Russian folklorist German descent. He is considered one of the greatest philologists of the 20th century.


Propp is considered to be the founder of morphological or structuralist folklore . Between 1914 and 1918 he studied Russian and German philology . He then taught the German language at various universities in Leningrad. From 1938 to 1969 he was professor of German , Russian literature and folklore at the Leningrad State University .

In 1928 his groundbreaking work Morphologie des Märchen was published . The book was published in English in the USA in 1958, which brought Propp worldwide recognition. In 1946 the book The historical roots of the magic fairy tale was published .

Morphology of the fairy tale

The investigation is based on a corpus of a hundred Russian magical fairy tales , which are compared with one another in terms of their sequence of events. Propp notes that behind the fairy tales, which vary in content, an unchangeable deep structure of the plot emerges. For all examined texts, basic narrative units ( narratems ) can be abstracted, which Propp calls functions . He comes to the conclusion that all of the fairy tales he has analyzed have a fixed plot structure in common.

Propp distinguishes 31 invariant functions that do not have to be fully implemented in every fairy tale, but are always the same in their sequence. On a further level of abstraction, the 31 functions of the Russian magical fairy tale are combined into seven action areas , each of which is assigned to a specific actor (e.g. opponent, helper, etc.).

Details on Propps theses and their further development are also explained under Magic Tales.

The historical roots of the magical fairy tale

In this second essay, Propp continued his analysis of the magical tales. He came to the insight that the plot is based on a chain of motifs that come from two cycles: from the process of initiation (ie the archaic youth consecration) and from the complex of ideas of what the dead encounter during their journey to the hereafter (Pp. 451–452 in the edition of the Carl Hanser Verlag 1987). "The combination of these two cycles provides almost all (but not all) of the main elements of the fairy tale." (P. 452.) Propp concluded that the cycle of initiation is the oldest foundation of the magic tale. He was able to deduce the meaning of numerous motifs from specific motifs in the customs of the so-called indigenous peoples.

According to Propp's conviction, the result of his analysis refutes other fairy tale theories: "But what have we found? We have found that the compositional unity of the fairy tale does not lie in any peculiarities of the human psyche, not in a peculiarity of artistic creation, but rather in the historical Reality of the past. What is now being told was once done and represented, and what was not done was imagined. " (P. 452.)

With this treatise, the Russian researcher revealed that there are types of fairy tales that were not invented but formed from memories of dead customs. Here the archaic youth consecration is in the foreground, but Propp also deals with other customs: the life of the sacred kings (pp. 41–51) and the sacrifice of a virgin so that the river god may grant a rich harvest (pp. 325–332). Other such customs are mentioned: the killing of the elderly (p. 23) and - in the case of the Algonquians and Hurons - the sacrifice of a virgin so that the river god would allow a good fishing trip (p. 327–328). In connection with this, it must be remembered that the structure determined for initiation tales does not apply to other tales that relate to former customs (although these are habitually referred to as magic tales). This difference was not made clear by Propp.

The treatise on the historical roots of the magic fairy tale was unsuccessful in Germany because the field had long been occupied by other, contrary theories. According to a message from Margarete Möckel, formerly deputy chairwoman of the European Fairy Tale Society, the publisher has crushed the unsalable remaining circulation.


  • Морфология сказки . Leningrad 1928.
  • Исторические корни волшебной сказки . Leningrad 1946.
    • German edition: The historical roots of the magic fairy tale . Hanser, Munich 1987. ISBN 3-446-14363-7 .
  • Фольклор и действительность . Moscow 1976
  • Проблемы комизма и смеха . Moscow 1976


  • Vilmos Voigt: Propp, Vladimir Jakovlevič . In: Enzyklopädie des Märchen Vol. 10 (2002), Col. 1435-1442.
  • Serena Grazzini: The Structuralist Circle. Theories about myth and fairy tales in Propp, Lévi-Strauss, Meletinskij. Wiesbaden 1999 (DUV: Literary Studies).
  • Reinhard Breymayer : Vladimir Jakovlevič Propp (1895-1970) - Life, Work and Significance . In: Linguistica Biblica 15/16 (1972), pp. 36-77 (pp. 67-77 Bibliography).
  • Christiane Hauschild: Vladimir Propp. In: Matías Martínez , Michael Scheffel (ed.): Classics of modern literary theory. From Sigmund Freud to Judith Butler (= Beck'sche series. 1822). Beck, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-406-60829-2 , pp. 80-104.

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