Illustration for the story of Jahangir-and-Anarkal, a Mughal Folktale. Used here as a featured header image for a [post about The Aarne–Thompson tale type index

The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index for Fairy Tales and Folklore

[Title Image: Illustration for the story of Jahangir-and-Anarkal, a Mughal Folktale.]

While researching things about fairy tales and folklore, I came across this information about how these stories are categorized by serious researchers. I decided it was something that should be included in my fairy tales and folklore section for background information. The following information was taken directly from the the article on the Wikipedia, and is intended to present just a general overview. Much more information can be found there for readers who are interested.


What is The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index?

The Aarne–Thompson tale type index is a multivolume listing designed to help folklorists identify recurring plot patterns in the narrative structures of traditional folktales, so that folklorists can organize, classify, and analyze the folktales they research. First developed by Antti Aarne (1867–1925) and published as Verzeichnis der Märchentypen in 1910, the tale type index was later translated, revised, and enlarged by Stith Thompson (1885–1976) in 1928 and again in 1961.

The Aarne–Thompson tale type index is an essential tool for folklorists because, as Alan Dundes explains, “the identification of folk narratives through motif and/or tale type numbers has become an international sine qua non among bona fide folklorists”.[1] Since the tale type index concerns the motif structures of folktales, it focuses more on the morphology of folktales than on the details of their characters’ actions.

The Aarne–Thompson tale type index organizes folktales into broad categories like Animal Tales, Fairy Tales, Religious Tales, etc. Within each category, folktale types are further subdivided by motif patterns until individual types are listed.

The tale-type index is not to be confused with the motifs which are the building of these tales. Aarne and Thompson indexed folktale motifs separately in their Motif-Index of Folk-Literature


How Does The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index Help Folklore Researchers?

In the essay, “The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index; A Critique,” Alan Dundes explains that the Aarne–Thompson tale type index is one of the “most valuable tools in the professional folklorist’s arsenal of aids for analysis”.[1] Antti Aarne was a student of Julius Krohn and his son Kaarle Krohn. Aarne further developed their historic-geographic method of comparative folkloristics, and developed the initial version of what became the Aarne–Thompson tale type index for classifying folktales, first published in 1910.

The American folklorist Stith Thompson translated Aarne’s motif-based classification system in 1928, enlarging its scope. With Thompson’s second revisions to Aarne’s catalogue in 1961, he created the AT-number system (also referred to as AaTh system), which is often used today.

According to D. L. Ashliman, “The Aarne–Thompson system catalogues some 2500 basic plots from which, for countless generations, European and Near Eastern storytellers have built their tales”


How Is The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index Organized?

The Aarne–Thompson tale type index divides tales into sections with an “AT” number for each entry. The names given are typical, but usage varies; the same tale type number may be referred to by its central motif or by one of the variant folktales of that type, which can also vary, especially when used in different countries and cultures. The tale type does not have to be accurate for every folktale. For example, The Cat as Helper (545B) also includes tales where a fox helps the hero.

Closely related folktales are often grouped within a type. For example, Tale Types 400-424 all feature Brides/Wives as the primary protagonist. For instance, The Quest for a Lost Bride (400) or the Animal Bride (402). Subtypes within a Tale Type are designated by the addition of a letter to the AT #, for instance: the Persecuted Heroine (510) has subtypes 510A, Cinderella, and 510B, Catskin.


Hans-Jörg Uther Expands the System

The AT-number system was updated and expanded in 2004 with the publication of The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography by Hans-Jörg Uther. Uther noted that many of the earlier descriptions were cursory and that the existing system did not allow for expansion. To remedy these shortcomings Uther developed the Aarne–Thompson–Uther classification (ATU number) system and included international folktales in this expanded listing.


Responses and Criticisms of the System

The tale type index was criticized by Vladimir Propp of the Formalist school of the 1920s for ignoring the functions of the motifs by which they are classified. Furthermore, Propp contended that using a “macro-level” analysis means that the stories that share motifs might not be classified together, while stories with wide divergences may be grouped under one tale type because the index must select some features as salient. He also observed that while the distinction between animal tales and tales of the fantastic was basically correct—no one would classify Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf an animal tale because of the wolf—it did raise questions because animal tales often contained fantastic elements, and tales of the fantastic often contained animals; indeed a tale could shift categories if a peasant deceived a bear rather than a devil.

In describing the motivation for his work, Uther presents several criticisms of the original index. He points out that Thompson’s focus on oral tradition sometimes neglects older versions of stories, even when written records exist, that the distribution of stories is uneven (with Eastern and Southern European as well as many other regions’ folktale types being under-represented), and that some included folktale types have dubious importance.

Similarly, Thompson noted that it might well be called The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples.[4] However, Alan Dundes notes that in spite of the flaws of tale type indexes (e.g., typos, redundancies, censorship, etc.), “they represent the keystones for the comparative method in folkloristics, a method which despite postmodern naysayers and other prophets of gloom continues to be the hallmark of international folkloristics”.