Fairy Tale Plots and Fractured Folktales

“The Three Heads in the Well” is a fairy tale in which a girl and her stepsister each set out in succession to seek their fortune. Both end up by the same well in the middle of a forest where three heads bob to the surface like apples and ask to be washed and combed.

Naturally, the stepsister is insensitive to the coiffuring needs of floating heads and is, in fact, quite rude about it. It is the younger girl, so modest and fair, who lifts the dripping cabezas from the water, sits them on her lap and painstakingly grooms them while the things natter on like they’re in a spa.

It will come as no surprise that all good things come to the young girl for her kindness, while the stepsister is stricken with leprosy and the stepmother hangs herself. The clear moral of the story is Be Sweet and Solicitous to Severed Heads No Matter How Improbable the Location In Which You Find Them.

If only the stepsister had had a fairy tale playbook of sorts, she would have known how dangerous it is to be a “step” anything in storybook land—on a par with wearing a red shirt to the set of a Star Trek movie.

But great news for the fairy tale world! There’s an ap for that: the Aarne-Thompson Classification System.

Fairy Tale Plots Declassified

Fairy tale plots are strange, indeed.The Aarne-Thompson Classification System, which helps folklorists identify recurring plot patterns, was designed by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in 1910 and modified by American Stith Thompson in 1928 and 1961.

Analyzing endless folk tales (including many fairy tale plots), they developed a system that breaks them into 2,400 plot types, each assigned a number, with an occasional subtype denoted by letter. Grim, harsh, dreamlike, and funny; they’re all on the list.

The 2,400 are also bundled into dozens of categories such as “Supernatural Helpers,” “Tales of Fate,” “Robbers and Murderers,” “The Stupid Man,” “The Clever Fox or Other Animal,” and “Man Outwits the Devil” (which includes the humorously titled plot type, “The Gun as Tobacco Pipe.”)

FairyTale 2

Many of the plot motifs have intriguing names, such as: Godfather Death (332), The Black Madonna (710), Numskull Strikes all the Matches in Order to Try Them (1260B), The Princess in the Shroud (307), A Child Returns from the Dead (769), Born of a Fish (705), The Girl Without Hands (706), Unnatural Love (510B) and the oddly separate motif, The Brother Married the Sister (722).

Here is the short version of one plot as decanted by Wikipedia:

The Snow Child

A merchant returns home after an absence of two years to find his wife with a newborn son. She explains one snowy day she swallowed a snowflake while thinking about her husband, which caused her to conceive. Pretending to believe, he raises the boy with her until he takes the boy on [a long journey] and sells him into slavery. On his return, he explains to his wife that the boy melted in the heat.


What’s your favorite folk or fairy tale? Use the comments feature at the top of this post to chime in.

  • Those are some interesting tales. My favorite is Vasalisa and the Doll, which tells of her encounter with the Baba Yaga. The Silver Hands is also wonderful. Both stories can be found in Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s book “Women Who Run With the Wolves”.

    • Those are great stories. The Silver Hands, BTW, is the “girl with no hands” plot that I mentioned in the post. And, of course, no story of Baba Yaga ever fails to deliver. Love her!

  • That’s a new one for me!

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