Two folklorists, Anti Aarne in 1910 and Stith Thompson in 1928 (later revised and expanded in 1961), identified the elements of folktales. Their system of classification is a goldmine, but it sometimes confuses new researchers.
Back in 1999 storyteller, Wendy Welch, wrote an introduction to it that does a great job of walking you through the AT classification. With her kind permission, it is reprinted here. Because there is sometimes a bit more I want to add, all my own comments are in blue to clarify when it is me talking or Wendy. Because it also can be long and detailed, this first section, which sets out the basic principles, is the longest of three posts.
The AT Numbers Unattached or Researching Your Story's Print Versions
by Wendy Welch
(originally appeared in the TAPPS Newsletter, Spring 1999)
It's a common dilemma. You have found The Story. You love it; you feel it; you want to tell it. But something is not right. The story is copyrighted; it is from a culture outside your realm of experience; it was told by another storyteller and you don't want to copycat. What do you do?
You head for your nearest university library. Therein will you find The Types of the Folktale by Anti Aarne and Stith Thompson. You will also find Thompson's Motif Index of Folk Literature. At about $800 per set, these volumes are beyond the range of most public libraries, but any good university will have them in the Reference Section. (You can now find the Motif Index online. Be sure to click a copy with "full view." Next click "Go to the beginning of the book" and use arrows or page numbers to browse. Unfortunately the sixth volume, the Index, is omitted, but you can see a few other books there with a Motif Index for specific peoples if you just search for Motif Index.)
Don't let "Reference Section" rustle up images of dry paper chases. With the proper tools--the indexes, a working knowledge of geography and culture, and time--tracking down stories can be as simple as an afternoon's work and more fun than a Halloween scavenger hunt. For it is a scavenger hunt of a kind. You work your way along information trails, picking up clues, diverting to follow false leads, backtracking to the main purpose, and ultimately arriving at --if not the goal you set for yourself--at least some very nice places.
Consider the trials and tribulations of "Jane Storyteller";
1) Jane falls in love with a story set in a culture she doesn't feel comfortable telling about. She wants to find out if a version of the African-American folktale about Bear fishing with his tail through ice exists in another culture. Jane gets out the Thompson motif index. A "motif" is an element of a story in the same way that a syllable is an element of a word; they can be incredibly small (a lantern will not blow out) or very large (a princess sets three impossible tasks). Like syllables, they are natural divisions along the rhythm of the language and seem obvious until you start to think too hard about them. The best rule of thumb is, if you think it is a motif, it probably is. Knowing which motif you want to follow is essential to keep yourself on task. It is far too easy to get diverted in the thrill of the chase.
Jane looks up "bear" in the alphabetical index found in the last book of the six-volume set. Bingo: She finds "b. fishes through ice with tail A2216.1" listed. All motifs have a letter and several numbers attached to them, corresponding to Thompson's division of motif types. The motif index lists 23 types of folktales, assigning each a letter. A is for creation stories; J is for wisdom and foolishness; U contains homilies.
Jane picks up volume one, and quickly locates A2216.1. She beholds the bewildering entering; "*Type 2; DhIII 49. Finnish - Aarne FFC VIII 14 No. 78; Estonian - Aarne FFC XXV 146 No. 42; Flemish - XXXVII 86 No. 78. K 1021. The tail fisher."
Jane has lucked out on two counts. First, that enigmatic little "*Type 2" means Jane need look no further in the motif index. The story she is after is such a well-known tale type, it is catalogued in The Types of the Folktale. Second, Bear is not the only fisheranimal using his tail for a hook; K1021 reveals a cache of tales about animals doing the same thing. She can now either look up K1021 (K is from the section for trickery and action) or she can turn to the AT index, as The Types of the Folktale is often called. If Jane were a real stickler for detail, she might also be excited by the FFC numbers; those show that Anti Aarne wrote articles about the Finnish, Estonian, and Flemish versions of this story, which were published in Fellows of Folklore Communications monographs. You can find these easily by the reference numbers that follow. The DhIII refers to a book in which the story appears; Jane can find it by looking up Dh in the front of the Motif index to see which collection/collector it stands for.
However, most storytellers will find little to gain from a perusal of academic dealings with the story. They want versions for performance. Thus Jane turns to The Types of the Folktale. (Online at this writing only in Limited Search, as opposed to Full View.)
This single volume is a list of numbered story types followed by books in which they are found. Since it was published in 1940, collections cited by The Types of the Folktale must obviously be from before then--another reason to use a university library. The list is organized by numbers: 1-299 lists animal tales; 300-749 are the wonder tales; and so on. AT numbers, as these are called, differ from motif index numbers in size. A typical tale type number looks like this: AT333 (Little Red Riding Hood). Cinderella is 510, although it is possible to have a 510b or c for the subdivisions of whether it is the dress or the shoes which are magic. (The AT stands for the authors' names, and is dropped when both parties involved know they are discussing tale types.) (A good example of this can be found at the back of each volume of Margaret Read MacDonald's Storyteller's Sourcebook.)
Jane is looking for tale type 2 which appears readily enough on the first page. Here she finds a bewildering display of abbreviations listed next to countries or ethnocities: "Italian: Alex. Lat Am. XI, 270" for example. No less than 45 geographic or cultural sources are given.
Like DhIII in the motif index, the abbreviations in this display all refer to collections of tales; to find the full title and author's name, Jane turns to the front and discovers that "Alex. Lat Am. XI, 270" stands for Alexander's Mythology of All Races of Latin America, Volume XI, Boston, 1920, page 270."
There is where Jane can do a little fancy footwork; she can either find Mr. Alexander's book and read that version, or she can gamble.
Jane now knows that this story is found in, among other countries, Italy.
She can leave the reference section and head for the 398.2 section of her library's circulating collection. There she find two collections of Italian folktales. Scanning the tables of contents, she finds these titles: "How the Fox Outwitted Bear", "Bear's Fishing Trip,"and "Why Fox Has a Long Tail." Jane is a smart cookie. She remembers from the K1021 clue that more animals than Bear have been caught with their tails in the water. Even though that last story sounds a bit different, it involves a key word. She looks up the long-tailed fox. The wily trickster is the butt of the joke this time, as the story details how his tail, caught in the ice was stretched by his attempts to free himself. Jane has a variant to play with.
Next Jane looks up "Bear's Fishing Trip." Nope; this is about Fox tricking Bear out of his fish catch. The third story, "How Fox Outwitted Bear" proves a double find. Bear fishes with his tail in this tale, but at the end of the story are annotation notes! Jane's heart beats faster.
Annotations happen when folklorists doing just what I have been describing here write their paper trails down for others to follow. Finding annotation notes for a story means your work is almost done.
Jane sees her old friend K1021, and several references to A2200, A quick walk back to the reference stacks would reveal that A2200 begins the motif index section for folktales explaining how different animals became the way they are--what tellers often call porquois stories. Jane now has a whole playground of story ideas open to her. She can stick with Bear on the ice, or she can slide off to new possibilities by tracking down references within the motif index's A2200-2599 section. Jane could read through the various subheadings in a matter of minutes; it covers less than three pages. The common misconception that "research takes too long" is just that.
Jane could also skip A2200-2599 altogether and pursue Bear through Norwegian, Scottish, Southern American, and Native American tales collections (all of which Thompson cites) but perhaps she has now had enough of Bear and Thompson.
For about half an hour of research, she has netted not only the story for which she came, but also several new possibilities. Jane can go home happy.
That lets us reach a happy end to the problem of what to do if "it is from a culture outside your realm of experience", but the benefits from Aarne and Thompson don't end there. The next post here will look at what to do if the story is not very common and is under copyright.