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In Search of the Folktale

by Doug Lipman

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Yarnspinner.
You may also want to consult the article, New Tales From Old, which describes how to use multiple variants of folktales in a creative writing exercise.

Table of Contents:

How did type-indexes develop?
What's a type?
What do I need in order to use this process?
A step-by-step guide to your folktale "safari"
What to do with what you've found
Summary of Bibliographic Aids See also: A Storytelling Bibliography.
Doug offers a workshop in using the processes and research tools described in this article. He also offers a folktale research service to give you the results of this kind of research without requiring you to have the expertise or the research library.

Good news for fairy-tale lovers: folklorists have published at least forty authentic versions of Snow White in English.

The bad news: of the forty, only one has been used as the basis for a children's book.

Here are some questions raised by this "news":

  • How can storytellers consult some of these forty other versions before deciding how to tell the tale themselves?
  • How can we find variants of any fairy tale from multiple cultures?
  • How can we know in which countries a tale is told?
The answer to each of these questions is to consult a type index.

To make sense out of a type index, however, you'll need to know what a "folktale type" is. And to know that, it helps to know something about the history of the field of folklore.


How did type-indexes develop?

The idea of "folklore" is no older than the industrial revolution. Until then, people in Europe lived in communities where oral tradition remained alive and unbroken.

As a result, Europeans were as unaware of the remarkable nature of folk tales as fish are unaware of being wet.

Once an urban middle class emerged, however, some fish had flopped their way onto the land; sooner or later, they were bound to look back and notice the ocean.

Imagine this scene in an eighteenth-century scholar's home:

Tired after a long day in the library studying Sanskrit literature, the professor makes his way to the nursery to kiss his children goodnight. Pausing in the doorway, he is startled to hear the nanny telling his children the very story he had that day translated from a centuries-old Indian manuscript!

"I can't believe this," he exclaims. "How can this unschooled peasant woman know the same story I just unearthed from antiquity?"

In an attempt to answer his question, the field of folklore was born.

Tracing Folktales

Once scholars realized that similar stories were known from Ireland to India, they began to develop hypotheses to explain the origin and diffusion of folktales, such as:

  • All folktales had been created millennia earlier in India, and had spread with the dispersion of Indo-European cultures.
  • Others said, "No, all these tales are really remnants of pre-Christian myths of the Sun God."
While some of these theories still sound plausible today, almost all have been discredited.

At the end of the nineteenth century, some scholars began to argue for more rigor in explaining where folktales came from and how they spread. After all, no one had been able to prove conclusively that even one tale had come from ancient India.

In 1893, in the first book-length attempt to provide solid data for such a proof or disproof, Marion Cox published 345 versions of "Cinderella." Modern folktale scholarship had begun.

Cataloging folktales

The attempt to assemble large numbers of folktale variants, however, created its own problems. How were scholars to cross-reference 500 versions of a folktale?

Title-indexes were attempted, and soon proved cumbersome for most research.

At last, scholars in Finland (which has energetically collected, preserved and studied its unique national folklore) proposed a numerical index of folk-tale plots. Now, it was no longer necessary to say, "a Cinderella story, of the Cap-o'-Rushes sub-category," but only to note, "type 510B."

Cataloging all the thousands of tales collected in the various national folklore archives was now a feasible, if gargantuan, undertaking.


What's a type?

Type numbers were assigned to the major Indo-European tales by Finnish scholar Antii Aarne in his 1910 book (revised in 1928), The Types of the Folktale.

For Aarne, a type was a collection of similar stories that bear a historical relationship to each other. (See The Folktale, page 416.)

Therefore, to say that a story is an example of type 510A means, strictly speaking, that the story is historically derived from some of the others in the type. In other words, the type index was not begun as a purely descriptive tool, but as an instrument of the theory of folk-tale dispersion within the Indo-European culture areas.

The great U.S. folklorist Stith Thompson added a second, more detailed type of numerical index, the motif index, which catalogs smaller elements of a story and implies no historical connection between stories listed together. Thompson then revised Aarne's Types of the Folktale to include the motifs most commonly associated with each type.

After Thompson's work, a type has become less a statement of historical connection and more a simple description of narrative content.

For our purposes, a type may be seen as a "bundle of motifs" that commonly appear together as an independent story. Some scholars have created type indexes for African and Asian oral tales. Most type indexes, however, continue to emphasize the story plots that are widely distributed in Indo-European cultures.

What do type indexes actually index?

Type indexes catalog folk stories by their overall plots. They do not index motifs, which are smaller elements of plot.

For example, "Apple causes magic sleep" and "Compassionate executioner: substituted heart" are motifs, while "Snow White" is a type containing those motifs. Therefore, a type index is only useful when we seek variants of an entire plot.

Further, type indexes refer only to the actual narrative events, not to ideas or themes.

For example, although "stories with animal actors" are grouped together (Types 1-299), there is no way to use a type index to find all the stories about kindness to animals, or - even more broadly - to find stories about the roles of animals in our lives.

Conversely, a type index will refer us to other stories whose events are similar to Snow White, but that may, in fact, emphasize entirely different ideas or emotional themes.

With rare exceptions, type indexes refer only to tales collected from oral tradition. Thus, you will not find references in a type index to literary "fairy tales" from known authors, such as Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde, or Jane Yolen - even when these authors have rewritten traditional tales.


What do I need in order to use this process?

Minimally, you'll need a book collection containing at least one type index and some of the story collections to which it refers. Ideally, you'll have access to a major library of folktale collections and indexes.

In addition, you'll need a way to keep track of your discoveries. At the least, you'll need pencil and paper, although file cards or a computer can make it easier to keep track of cross-references.

When I began doing this kind of research, I didn't have a photocopier handy, but now I can't imagine its absence. By photocopying each page of an index that I find relevant, I can document my "trail" without tedious writing or typing.

Above all, you'll need a sense of adventure. Most type indexes were created by folklorists for other folklorists doing scholarly research into the nature of folk-tale creation and transmission. As a result, they are not usually optimized for easy use by non-scholars:

  • Their bibliographical references are given in inconsistent and sometimes incomplete form.
  • They refer frequently to the published collections of folktales that were well-known in the early twentieth century and that are now likely to be out of print.
  • They contain listings of many unpublished archival documents, and of variants in a daunting assortment of languages.
  • Not infrequently, they refer the reader to still other type indexes, each of which starts a sub-search in several simultaneous directions.
All in all, using type indexes is more like tracing a missing person than like looking up a phone number.

At the same time, the unmined gems at the end of the search can be located in no other way. Fortunately, some new entries into the field are much more "storyteller-friendly."

The next sections of this article will help you make maximum progress with a minimum of confusion and dead ends.


A step-by-step guide to your folktale "safari"

Are you ready?

  1. Choose a tale whose variants you want to explore.
  2. Get out your file cards (or word processor) and one of the type-indexes listed below. If you can only get one index, I'd recommend either Ashliman's Guide to Folktales in the English Language, or MacDonald's Storyteller's Sourcebook.
  3. Repeat to yourself, "I am starting an adventure!"

What tale are you looking for?

It's possible to use folktale indexes to hunt for little-known tales, or for a story whose plot you are familiar with, but whose title you don't know. It's even possible - but more difficult - to use these indexes to find stories about certain subjects, or stories from a particular ethnic group.

Let's assume for now, however, that you're looking for variants of a widely-distributed tale whose name you know. In the sections that follow, let's use "Snow White" as our example.

Step one: find your type number

With a little-known tale, this can be the most difficult step. In the case of "Snow White," however, it's easy. We just pick up D. L. Ashliman's Guide to Folktales in the English Language, and turn to the index (pp. 345-368). There, next to the title "Snow White and the seven dwarfs," we find the number "709." Or, in Aarne and Thompson's Types of the Folktale, "Snow White" is listed in the index on page 580. From either source, we find the same type number: 709.

Step two: look it up in indexes

In the main body of Ashliman's Guide, we look for Type 709 (it's on page 144). There, we find the title of the type ("Snow White"), a one-paragraph summary of the story, and the source of the particular variant summarized (in this case, "Grimm"). Below the summary is a list of 17 references, starting with the line:

"Bella Venezia. Calvino, Italian Folktales, no. 109."
What does this mean?
  • "Bella Venezia" is the title of the story.
  • "Calvino, Italian Folktales" is the author and short title of the book where the story may be found.
  • "no. 109" is the tale number in Calvino's book.
To learn exactly what book "Calvino, Italian Folktales" refers to, you need to turn to the bibliography of "Folktale Collections" (pp. 335-344), where you'll find a complete listing that includes publisher and date.

Next, of course, you'll want to find a copy of Calvino's book. When you do, you'll have your first variant of "Snow White." Congratulations!

You'll find tale number 109 on page 395 of Calvino, but don't forget the tale number once you've found the story, because it also enables you also to look up the end-notes for this story (you'll find them on page 738). In this case, the end-notes tell you where in Italy this particular version was collected, and how it differs from other Italian versions.

Now return to Ashliman and look up one of the other listed variants.

For research purposes, I photocopy each variant I find, without even reading it at this point. But I always read the end-notes now, because they often give references to other versions of the story.

For example, Ashliman's Guide lists tale number 37 in Megas's Folktales of Greece. The end-notes in Megas, however, list two other books that contain Greek versions in English. The seventeen variants listed in Ashliman, therefore, can lead us indirectly to even more variants.

If you have another type index, you can continue to look up Type 709. The index by Flowers, for example, A Classification of the Folktale of the West Indies by Types and Motifs, refers us to 18 variants, none of which are in Ashliman! Looking more closely, though, we see that most of these are in Spanish or French, although Flowers gives English summaries. And one of them (Klipple, African Folktales with Foreign Analogues) turns out to be another type index, this one in the form of a doctoral dissertation!

Now you know why I suggested file cards or a photocopier. If you don't write down or copy the citations given in each index, you might find yourself five steps down the chain of reference and unable to remember how you got there. If you end up reading a tale that doesn't seem at all related to "Snow White," you won't know if the indexes made a mistake or if you did.

Step three: look it up in type-indexed collections

Once you've looked up "Type 709" in all the type indexes available to you, you can still make further use of that type number.

Many individual books of tales have their contents indexed by tale type. Thus, on page 267 of Megas's Folktales of Greece, you'll see an "Index of Tale Types." Next to "709" you'll find the reference to tale number 37. Thus, if you hadn't had Ashliman's Guide available, you could still have found the "Snow White" variant in Folktales of Greece without having to read each story in it!

Over one hundred books have been published in English with a list of their contents by tale type; most are indexed in Ashliman.

Step four: look your type number up in The Folktale

Stith Thompson's 1946 landmark summary of folktale research, The Folktale, remains an invaluable reference.

Looking up "709" in the "Index of Tale Types" (page 484), we find five page references:

  • The main reference is in italics.
  • Another reference refers us to a discussion of resuscitation from the dead.
  • The other three refer us to discussions of stories with helpful dwarves.
The main (italicized) reference (page 123) leads us to a one-page discussion of "Snow White's" plot and distribution, with mention of the major studies of the tale (as of 1946). Here we learn, too, that:
  • Oral versions of "Snow White" have most likely been influenced by two Italian literary versions.
  • Walt Disney's famous film version was based directly on the Grimm text.
In general, Thompson's discussion of a tale will help you identify:
  • its principal plot variations
  • the countries where the tale is known
  • the major studies that have been made of it and their conclusions
  • any famous literary versions.

Step five: look it up in non-indexed collections from selected countries

The information you learned in the type indexes can steer you toward the cultures in which your tale has been widely reported:

  • Once you know that there are sixty-six Greek versions of "Snow White," you may decide to strike out alone through Greek folktale collections.
  • Knowing that so many Spanish-language variants exist in the West Indies, you may decide to browse through collections from Spain, in the hope that the West Indian versions turn out to have originated in Spain..


What to do with what you've found

With the exception of MacDonald's Storyteller's Sourcebook, all of these indexes will lead you to "adult" variants of your tale - that is, versions that have not been rewritten for children.

As a result, you may not want to read any of them aloud at this afternoon's Preschool Read-aloud Hour. At the least, you will want to retell in your own words any stories you find.

If the story is from a culture unfamiliar to you, you may need to do some cultural research before trying to retell it.

For example, before telling an Egyptian version of "Rapunzel," I referred to several books of Arab folktales, as well as articles about Egyptian society, and pictures representing goulas and djinns. I wanted to know more of what the tale would evoke in the mind of a member of Egyptian traditional culture.

Learning more than one variant.

Once you have assembled several variants, though, you'll find yourself in a position to do even more with your hard-won knowledge.

You may, for example, choose to tell two or three variants of the same tale. In this case, you'll need to select variants carefully. You'll want to find versions that are different enough to make an interesting program, but similar enough to reveal their underlying structure or narrative theme.

For example, I was once hired to tell stories that would demonstrate the European influences on U.S. culture. In response, I used type indexes to create a family storytelling program consisting of three "Snow White's":

  • One version was Appalachian and colloquial, emphasizing the narrator's view of the universal themes of human nature
  • Another version was African and dramatic, emphasizing the bravery and resourcefulness of the young girl. (This tale, "The One With the Star on Her Forehead," can be heard on an audiotape, Folktales of Strong Women.)
  • To begin the program, I told an excerpt from the familiar Grimm's version, and commented on the changes Walt Disney had made when adapting the story for animation.

Taking the concept even further, Storytellers in Concert (the author/perfomers were Jay O'Callahan, Lee Ellen Marvin, Elzabeth Dunham, Judith Black and me), in its first season, created a five-person show for adults devoted exclusively to "Snow White."

Creating a collated version

With a sheaf of variants in hand, you are in a position to do something uniquely creative: you can create you own version of the folktale, based on elements from multiple versions.

To complete this process successfully, you must walk a fine line between two principles of folk storytelling:

  • honoring the tradition
  • giving the story personal meaning to you and your listeners
. My "method" for creating a collated version of a traditional tale involves two phases:
  1. I educate myself in some of the forms a traditional tale has taken.
  2. I trust my "educated" self to create an version that balances the constraints of the tradition with the constraints of my and my audiences needs and tastes.
Whenever I undertake this process with a widely distributed story, type indexes are my first and principle resource.


Summary of Bibliographic Aids


Ashliman, D. L. A Guide to Folktales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne-Thompson Classification System. New York. Greenwood Press. 1987.

Gives reference to:
  • English-language published collections of authentic folktales.
  • Does not include periodicals.
  • by type.
  • Has brief title index.
Comments: The most useful type index for English-speaking storytellers who are willing to retell in their own words the tales they find.Back to "Folktale Safari"
MacDonald, Margaret Read. The Storyteller's Sourcebook: A Subject, Title, and Motif Index to Folklore Collections for Children. First Edition. Detroit. Gale Research Company. 1982.
Gives reference to:
  • Juvenile editions of fairy tale collections and picture books, published in the U.S.A., 1960-1981.
  • by motif, title, subject.
  • Has cross-index for Types 300-1199.
Comments: The only numerical index that gives reference to easily-available juvenile editions. Adapts the motif-index system to become a hybrid type/motif index. The most useful numerical index for most English-speaking storytellers who are not willing to retell in their own words the tales they find.Back to "Folktale Safari"
Aarne, Antii, and Stith Thompson. The Types of the Folktale. Second revision. (Folklore Fellows Communications No. 184.) Helsinki. Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 1973.
Gives reference to:
  • Scholarly editions of folktales
  • unpublished manuscripts
  • archival collections in a variety of European languages
  • cross-references to other type indexes.
  • by type
  • has brief title index.
Comments: The "grandparent" of numerical indexes. All indexes using the type system refer back to this one. Back to "What's a type?"
Flowers, Helen L. A Classification of the Folktale of the West Indies by Types and Motifs. New York. Arno Press. 1980.
Gives reference to:
  • Scholarly publications
    • monographs
    • tale collections
    • periodicals
    in several languages
    • English
    • French
    • Spanish
    (often transcribed in dialects; high-school French or Spanish may not suffice!).
  • Gives helpful one-paragraph summaries in English of each variant referenced.
  • by type
  • smaller section of stories not fitting any type, arranged by motif.
Comments: A doctoral dissertation, photocopied & library-bound. Contains numerous classification errors. Summary paragraphs make it useful as a self-contained reference.Back to "If you have another index..."

Folklore Fellows Communications Indexes

Publishers of numerous other type indexes - of value to the hard-core researcher or one using a major university library - such as the following indexes:

  • FFC #90. Boggs, Ralph S. Index of Spanish Folktales. 1930.
  • FFC #175. Reidar Th. Christiansen. The Migratory Legends. 1958. (An extension of the type index to include an additional genre.)
  • FFC #188. Sean ´O Súilleabháin and Reidar Th. Christiansen, The Types of the Irish Folktale. 1967.
  • FFC # 209. Ikeda, Hiroko. A Type and Motif Index of Japanese Folk-Literature. 1971.
  • FFC #223. Ting, Nai-Tung. A Type Index of Chinese Folktales. 1978.

Related Resources

Clarkson, Atelia, and Gilbert B. Cross. World Folktales: A Scribner Resource Collection. New York. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1980.

  • Texts of sixty-six folktales suitable for telling to children, mostly from authentic sources.
  • With each text:
    • a discussion of its world-wide distribution
    • a list of scholarly book and periodical sources for other variants.
  • Indexes by type and motif, as well as useful chapters on research tools.
  • Appendices give folktale-variant assignments
    • for fourth graders
    • for college students.
Briggs, Katherine. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language. Four volumes. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1970.
  • Summaries and sometimes the complete texts of thousands of British folktale variants.
  • For each tale, gives:
    • original source (often an unpublished manuscript)
    • type or motif numbers.
  • Index by types.
Comments: Not an index per se, but useful as a major reference work. Variants listed in the "Tale-Type Index" require several awkward steps to locate in the main body of the work.
Baer, Florence E. Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales. Folklore Fellows Communications No. 228. Helsinki. Academia Scientiarum Fennica.4 1980.
Gives reference to:
  • Richard Chase's Complete Tales of Uncle Remus
  • scholarly books and periodicals.
  • summaries of the tales
  • brief discussions of their distribution in world folklore.
  • By Chase number (Harris volume & story number)
  • Has a cross-reference by types and motifs.
Comments: The only source for type and motif numbers of all the Uncle Remus stories.
Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. New York. Dryden Press. 1951.
  • Discussions of North American native tales
  • The major Indo-European tale types
  • The history of folktale scholarship.
  • By type number
  • Has indexes by type and motif.
Comments: A basic reference. If a type is discussed here, it's almost foolish not to know what Thompson says about it. Has appeared in paperback, too. Back to "What's a type?"


To the best of my knowledge, the only illustrated "Snow White" books are based on the Grimms' version. Three other versions, however, have been used within juvenile folktale anthologies. Back to text

Folklore Fellows Communications publications are available from: Academic Bookstore, Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, PL 128, 00101 Helsinki 10, Finland. These helpful folks correspond in English and accept major U.S. credit cards, which saves buyers in the U.S. the trouble of computing currency conversions into Finnish marks. Back to Baer FFC indexes Tupes of the Folktale

Copyright © Doug Lipman



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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman