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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif Z0-Z99


Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

3. Formula tales

A. Tales with Formulistic Framework

In considering the tales current in the oral tradition of Europe and Western Asia, it has been convenient to bring together three categories of narratives: complex tales, (2) simple tales with human actors, and (3) simple tales with animal actors. Such a classification is simpler than the facts of the case actually warrant. It is not always possible to tell where to draw the line between simple and complex, or, indeed, between human and animal. Some tales refuse to stay within a classification, even one in which they clearly belong in their usual form.

A very special group of stories illustrates the difficulty of classifying on the basis either of complexity of plot or of the humanness of the actors. In this group of stories the form is all-important. The central situation is simple, but the formal handling of it assumes a certain complexity: and the actors are almost indifferently animals or persons. Such stories we call formula tales. [358]

Formula tales contain a minimum of actual narrative. The simple central situation serves as a basis for the working out of a narrative pattern. But the pattern so developed is interesting, not on account of what happens in the story, but on account of the exact form in which the story is narrated. Sometimes this formalism consists in a sort of framework which encloses the story and sometimes in that peculiar piling up of words which makes the cumulative tale. In any case, the effect of a formulistic story is always essentially playful, and the proper narrating of one of these tales takes on all the aspects of a game.

Certain of the countries of eastern Europe are especially fond of telling endless tales. These are usually quite simple in pattern. A situation is afforded in which a particular task must be repeated an indefinite number of times. Thousands of sheep, for example, must be put over a stream one at a time, and the narrator proceeds inexorably with his literal repetitions of the performance until his listeners can stand it no longer (Z11; Type 2300). Another kind of endless tale is the "round." Here a story proceeds to a certain point and then, in one way or another, usually by having some character tell a story, the whole tale begins over again and keeps repeating itself (Z17; Taylor, Type 2350). The round is much more common as a folksong than as a folktale. In any case, the narrative material in a prose round is likely to be of little interest or importance.

The ending of a narrative offers an opportunity for special formulistic [p. 230] treatment. Sometimes a story-teller teases his audience by stopping just as the interest has been aroused. The ending of the tale may be similar to that of The Three Wise Men of Gotham: "If the bowl had been stronger, my tale had been longer" (Z12; Type 2250). Or the tale may be essentially a game: the teller frames his story so that a hearer is almost compelled to ask a certain question to which the story-teller returns a ridiculous answer (Z13; Type 2200). Folktale collectors have not always interested themselves in these unfinished tales and catch tales, and we cannot be sure that our knowledge of them is adequate. It would seem that the unfinished tales are well known all over Europe with an especial popularity in Hungary. Catch tales have been reported only from Flanders, but it is inconceivable that they should actually be limited to that country. [359]

[358] For formula tales, see: Motif-Index Z0-Z99; Archer Taylor, "A Classification of Formula Tales," Journal of American Folklore, XLV1, 71 ff.; Taylor, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Märchens, II, 164ft.

[359] With tales of the kind we are discussing the spirit of play is so important that they are of primary interest to the student of children's games.


2250, 2200, 2300, 2350


Z0-Z99, Z11, Z12, Z13, Z17