A simple folktale analysis

Wait! Before we start analyzing any stories!

What will all this information about the oral tradition and story analysis going to do for you, the story-crafter? We already know what we really want out of our creative efforts – people who will listen to/read our stories. And yes, we probably want to make some money.

I can’t promise to make that happen. I couldn’t even do that for myself. My long-ago flirtation with Columcille brought me nothing but a truly epic stack of “good-but” rejections, the kind that say “This is really good, but …” The experience turned me to oral storytelling, although I must admit that the producers of major (or even minor) storytelling festivals haven’t been exactly appearing on my doorstep with any kind of offers.

Here’s what I can promise. If you are a story-crafter you are going to craft stories no matter what. And if these stories are folktales rooted in the oral tradition or fiction rooted in history, I can help you make them the best stories they can be. This is something that can give you a great deal of satisfaction. And excellence can’t hurt your chances of getting more than applause!

The story is in your hand

In my previous post, you had the opportunity to watch a video of one of my favorite folktales — one that will appear in my upcoming book, Fifteen Pounds of Muscle and Bounce.

In this post you will learn to use a simple analysis technique that will help you better understand the structure of a folktale.

Folktale analysis probably did/does not exist in worlds where stories like this were/are part of a living oral tradition. One simply learned what one heard, probably in a wide variety of contexts – in formal storytelling sessions, around work tables, while underfoot in the kitchen. Since most of us do not have storytelling relatives, we usually need to find a written version of the story we want to tell. Learning a story from a written text does not mean memorizing the words on the page. Instead, we need to make the story our own so we can use our own words. That requires some analysis and crafting.

The Hand

I first “met” the physical mnemonic affectionately known as The Hand while I was a student at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute. Later, as an instructor, I introduced a large number of beginning students to that same Hand. (The original idea behind The Hand belongs to that splendid storyteller, and teacher of storytelling, Donald Davis.)

This is how the hand works:

The Hand is useful both in analyzing and in learning stories – especially folktales. If you can identify the 5P’s of a story, you will better understand the story. And if you can understand the story you can learn and tell it. The Hand can also help you create stories, oral and written. If you have the 5P’s, you have a story. Now let’s look at Up The Dovrefjell. Here it is again.

Remember, the thumb represents the “people” in the story – and in folktales, people do not have to be human. So, who are the people in this story? When you are using the 5P’s to learn a folktale, you don’t just list the “people,” you think about what each “person” looks like. For instance, when you heard the story, what color was the hen? Was the duck a plain white barnyard duck, or something more interesting?

The index finger represents the “place”– some stories have only one place, some move from one place to another. What were the places in this story?

The middle finger represents the “problem” in the story – that should be relatively easy to remember. (All stories have problems, if there isn’t a problem there isn’t a story.) What is the main problem in “Up the Dovrefjell”?

The ring finger represents the “progress” made in the story. Was there progress in the story? Right, the hen got up the mountain. And, if you enjoy a more twisted approach to storytelling, well the fox got himself a nice breakfast!

The little finger represents the point. The most obvious of these points can be expressed as something like “persistence pays off.” There’s always “watch out for foxes.” These are what can be called universal points. They make as much sense in our contemporary lives as they made in pre-industrial Norway. But are we missing anything? Was there anything special about the hen saving the world or was it all a big joke? We can’t answer those question unless we learn more about the world in which the story was told.

In this post you have learned how to use the story analysis technique called the Hand to identify the 5P;s of story: People, Place Problem, Progress, Point. Now you are ready to compare two versions of the same story. We’ll do that in the next post.

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