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Folktales—and their subset, fairytales or magic tales—have inspired countless writers of the fantastic. Many people are eager to read and write fairytale retellings. In the last few years, I have seen calls for submissions focusing on diverse fairytales, which I personally find exciting, since there are so many rich and wonderful traditions of folklore around the world, all too often overlooked in favor of Brothers Grimm.

While it's definitely not necessary for anthology editors to know anything about the academic study of folklore, two calls for submissions (that I've seen; there might have been more) have asked for retellings based on a specific tool used by academic folklorists: the Aarne-Thompson (AT) classification system, which has recently been revised by Hans-Jörg Uther (hence, ATU). This system was developed in the early twentieth century, and it classifies folktales around the world into "Tale Types" with specific numbers assigned to each tale type (for example, AT2: How the Bear Lost His Tail; AT300: Dragon Slayer; etc.). The AT/ATU system can be quite attractive to editors: it can serve as a way to define and delimit "fairytale" for submitters, and/or help writers come up with ideas for work, and give a project a cohesive feel. Plus, using a scholarly tool may also help a project feel more legitimate, more serious, more formal—this is not an objective feeling. However, using the AT without a lot of reflection can lead to conflict and disappointment. In one example, editors asked for "diverse" retellings based on the AT/ATU system, ignoring that many fairytales around the world are not covered in AT/ATU; when writers wanted to submit retellings of fairytales from their own traditions, editors made negative decisions based on whether the particular fairytale type was in the index. This was problematic and resulted in conflict and disappointment for many of the project's diverse supporters and submitters who felt that they were being asked, in essence, to rewrite Brothers Grimm with characters of color rather than engage with their own vibrant folklore traditions.

The goal of this essay is not to weigh in on any past or ongoing controversies. Instead, I am going to talk about the merits and pitfalls of the Aarne-Thompson classification system in general and for submission calls in particular, especially as they pertain to diversity. I will then give specific advice to editors who wish to use the AT/ATU system, and other tools developed by folklorists, in submission calls.

Important note: This is not a peer-reviewed article. It does not provide all the answers, nor is it error-proof. Please read accordingly!

The History of the Index

As writers, we may admire and sometimes over-rely on neat-looking academic tools (of which the Aarne-Thompson index is one), but it's always important to question the biases inherent in such tools. The Aarne-Thompson classification system has been in use for over one hundred years, since 1910. From its inception, the index was supposed to be international. However, due to the history of its composition, it is heavily biased towards European material; even when expanded and revised, the structure of the index remains based on European material, and specifically rooted in the interests of its original creator, the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne. This bias has been well-recognized and critiqued by folklorists pretty much from the get-go. Nevertheless, the idea of a classificatory system based on tale type is considered useful by many in the folkloristics community, which is why the system is still in use. Over the last hundred years, scholars have done enormous work to mitigate the European bias, with variable success. The AT/ATU index and other folkloristics tools can be used productively and creatively to showcase diverse folkloric traditions, but they require sensitivity and forethought.

To talk about the merits and biases of the system, I will begin by explaining in brief some of the historical background for the development of the AT index and of folkloristics as a discipline.

The discipline of folkloristics as we know it began in the nineteenth century, and along with with other social science disciplines that gained traction at that time, it was heavily rooted in ideals of nationalism and romanticism. European nationalist thinkers were keenly interested in origins. Specifically, they focused on European and Eurasian antiquities as a means to legitimize and add venerability to their own European traditions. They were fascinated by Indo-European—then called Indo-Aryan—languages and mythologies. The discovery of common vocabulary in languages as geographically disparate as Sanskrit, Greek, Lithuanian, and Old Norse fueled imaginations and provided ample material for both brilliant scholarship and all too often harmful and bigoted politics. The discovery of commonalities in folklore and mythology of disparate Indo-European peoples had a similar effect. (The Brothers Grimm and the Mythological School were a part of this movement.)

According to nineteenth century nationalist theories, both language and customs/folklore were important prerequisites for defining a nation. Smaller and/or more peripheral European countries vying for independence and recognition invested heavily in folklore scholarship for political purposes—showing an existence of a rich and comparatively significant folkloric tradition helped prove a nation's uniqueness, antiquity, and respectability; and, in some cases, bid for political independence. Folklore scholarship at its inception is thus largely focused on Europe, and is inseparable from nationalist politics. The inception of folklore scholarship still affects how we study and conceptualize folklore in the West, and—unfortunately—in the world.

Finland, then a Swedish colony, played an important role in the development of folkloristics as a discipline. The Historic-Geographic method, developed by the father-and-son team of Julius and Kaarle Krohn, was developed in Finland and proved instrumental in developing the AT tale type index as a tool we now use. The idea behind the Historic-Geographic method was that by collecting multiple variations of the same item of verbal folklore (fairytale, legend, ballad, etc.) from different geographical locations, scholars would be able to find out the original form of that item. So in theory, the Historic-Geographic method was still about the search for origins, but in practice the search for origins did not feature prominently in the work of Finnish folklorists. Instead of theorizing, these folklorists focused on fieldwork—collecting as many tales as possible, from as many people as possible. Overwhelmed by the amount of material, Finnish scholars needed a system to help classify and archive what they've collected; and it is for this reason that Antti Aarne developed the Tale Type index. While creating his index, Aarne consulted only European material, and that in a limited fashion: he relied mostly on Finnish texts (about 25,000 of them!) some Norwegian ones (about 850), and the Brothers Grimm collection (about 210 tales).

Almost immediately after the Index's appearance, scholars began both to praise its utility, and call for its revision. The aim of the index was to be an international tool for systematizing verbal folklore, but the first, 1910 edition, had a clear bias towards Aarne's knowledge and needs (for example, the first Tale Type numbers are dedicated to small animal folktales that Aarne encountered in North European/Scandinavian diffusion).

Here's a very telling quote from Thompson's second revision of the index (bolding mine):

At the Congress for the Study of the Folktale at Lund in 1935, the question of the revision of The Types of the Folktale was discussed at some length. The usefulness of the index for bringing the great mass of folktales of various countries into a single classification was clear enough, as was the desirability of its eventual improvement. It was shown that Aarne in his original classification had proceeded primarily from the practical necessity of arranging the great Finnish collections of tales, and that his classification had also covered the countries of northern Europe reasonably well. Although some attempt was later made . . . to extend the coverage of the index to southern Europe, it was still true that most of the countries of southern and southeast Europe and of Asia over to India were left practically unnoticed.
—Stith Thompson, Preface to the Second Edition.

(No mention is made of, for example, the African continent as a lack, but this should not surprise you if you've been paying attention to how European bias usually works.)

Thompson remedies this by expanding the repertoire of folktales upon which the index relies for classification, but he does not essentially change the organization of the index: it still begins with Animal Tales (which Aarne researched), and continues with Magic Tales or Fairytales, etc. Though Thompson is doing extensive work to internationalize what essentially began as "A Select Index of tales from Few Northern/Western European Countries," he still remarks that the second edition, which remained in use until 2004, is essentially "The Types of the Folk-Tales of Europe, West Asia, and the Lands Settled by these Peoples" (quoted in Uther 2004).

Note that though Slavic, some Asian, and some other material was added in Thompson's revision, it still used Aarne's organization and much of his numbering.

The conceptualization of Tale Types that Aarne has proposed in his index is basically a list of idealized constructs which scholars consult while examining real-life variants of collected fairytales (cf. János Honti for a contemporary critique, 1939). Since their inception, Tale Types have been continuously criticized as a usable construct. Some Tale Type features certainly do recur—for example, AT300-749 (fairytales) often, though not always, end in marriage—however, Tale Type division is often not very clear, Tale Types can combine, etc. In addition, the gendered divisions in the original Tale Type index are often arbitrary and exhibit a certain bias, which Uther's third edition (2004) of the Tale Type index attempts to remedy.

Lack of international comparative breadth, however, remains the most widely criticized feature of the index. Attempts to further internationalize the AT Tale Type index include the development of local tale type indices, many of which overrely on the AT for their structure, often introduce the same biases [1], and have to work hard to find folktales that match the AT classification types, not having perfect solutions to when common-to-culture folktales have no number in the AT index, etc. (The latter is often solved by introducing local tale-type numbers.)

Thompson himself was keenly aware of the shortcomings of the Tale Type system, even as he recognized its utility and worked hard to revise (twice!) and expand the index.

Heeding the criticism of Russian folklorists, especially Propp, Thompson developed an additional tool—the Motif-index—classifying and compiling a list of "the smallest element[s] in a tale that have power to persist in tradition" (Thompson 1946). This tool is detailed, insightful, and easy to use, and addresses a gap in the Tale Type system. It duplicates the Tale Type index to a degree, but from a different angle. After all, Tale Types can be conceptualized as basically culture-specific combinations of international motifs (cf. Dundes 1994). In addition, there is quite a bit of overlap between the Tale Type index and the Motif-Index, as some of the Tale Types consist of a single motif. International folklorists often use both Tale Type index and Motif-Index to describe the material they are working with; in my experience, the Motif-Index is often more useful as a tool, though it too is not without issues.

In 2004, a third edition of the index was published by the German Folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther. One of Uther's stated goals is to further diversify the Index, drawing on traditions undocumented or partially documented in previous indices. While Uther made progress towards mitigating the European bias in the AT, and has reorganized many of the tale-type numbers, the index is still a revision of a previous structure and not bias-free. As the index is still new, the degree of its success and its full impact on the scholarly community is still unclear. (You can read more on Uther's revision here.

In sum, the AT/ATU has long been considered a useful and fundamental tool for the study of folktales—but it is still useful today in part because it has been in use continuously for over a hundred years, scholars worked to improve it (always imperfectly), it is a part of the disciplinary tradition, and a massive secondary literature on folktales has been using it. Though many attempts to diversify the Tale Type index have been undertaken, it still, to this day, preserves a European bias. For many diverse international traditions, the AT index is not useful for classifying common tales found within these traditions. Many local tale type indices have been developed, with their own tale type numbers. Here are two examples out of very many: Types of The Folktale in the Arab World by Hasan M. El-Shamy; and "A tale type index of Australian Aboriginal oral narratives" by Patricia Panyity Waterman. Those additionally developed indices might in turn exhibit biases: for example, there's a good discussion on the various attempts to develop tale type indices for traditions in the African continent in Isidore Okpewho's excellent African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. The nifty online tool "Tale type and motif indices: maps" catalogs some of the localized tale type indices and displays their distribution on the map (note: only a limited number of these localized tale type indices made it into this tool).

When working with biased tools, scholars have quite a bit of freedom: they likely know these specific tools are biased; they can use a variety of tools, they can criticize the existing tools, and they can develop new tools. Writers retelling fairytales for a call for submissions usually have no deep knowledge of the tools and their biases. In addition, and importantly, writers relying on their own folkloric traditions should not be criticized for using their own traditions, nor should they be required to use schematic scholarly tools. Approached uncritically, these tools, especially the AT/ATU index, are more likely to hinder than to help.

Suggestions for Editors

How can editors diversify a call for fairytale retellings?

  • Think hard about how you define diversity. Is the goal to create more diverse versions of European fairytales and/or fairytales familiar from Western popular culture? Or is the goal to explore the incredible diversity that has always existed in folklore, and to broaden our engagement with these real diverse traditions, to encourage marginalized writers to explore their different cultural traditions? I hope it’s all of the above.
  • I personally hope to see less focus on Brothers Grimm; Grimm's fairytales should not be considered the default fairytales of the world. The dominance of Grimm narratives in modern Western thought is a product of German Romanticism. There's no inherent advantage to German folklore over other traditions.
  • Ideally, writers should be inspired by actual folklore, hopefully by their own traditions—not by indices.
  • Therefore, it'd be great if editors can ask writers to rely on their own traditions, then read what they submit, looking for variety and clue.
  • If the idea of the Tale Type index is appealing, please open the call to not just AT/ATU, but the spectrum of indices developed for traditions around the world. If you're an editor who, for some reason, would like to use a single tool, it's best to use the Motif-Index instead of the Tale Type index.


One last thought: an editor most emphatically does not need to be a folklorist in order to edit an anthology of folklore retellings. The problem is in potential overreliance on flawed academic tools. These tools can be used to a great effect—for example, I think that Nin Harris produces lovely projects while playing with the AT/ATU system, such as Truancy—but it is done thoughtfully and with an eye to avoid European bias as much as possible.

Disclosure: this essay has been written as a non-fiction reward for An Alphabet of Embers, for Arachne Jericho. I made all the choices about the topic and content of this essay.


[1] For example, the gender bias inherent in the AT, which I cannot discuss here in detail due to length, but which involves gendered and gender-essentialist classifications in the original index. Thus, AT402 The Animal Bride might be applicable to tales featuring all genders of shape-shifter spouses around the world (cf. discussion in Lundell 1986). [return]

Works Cited

Aarne-Thompson Classification systems (Wikipedia)

Dundes, Alan (1997). "The Motif-Index and the Tale Type Index: A Critique." Journal of Folklore Research 34(3):195–202.

El-Shamy, Hasan (2004). Types of the Folktale in the Arab World: A Demographically Oriented Tale-Type Index. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nin Harris, ed., Truancy (website)

Honti, János (1939). "Marchenmorphologie und Marchen typologie." Folk-Liv 3:307-318.

Kaarle Krohn (Wikipedia)

Kozmin, Artem. Tale Type and Motif Indices: Maps.

Lundell, Torborg (1986). "Gender-Related Biases in the Type and Motif Indexes of Aarne and Thompson." In Bottigheimer, Ruth B, Röhrich, Lutz (eds.), Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, 149-163. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press.

Okpewho, Isidore (1992). African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Propp, Vladimir (1968). Morphology of the Folktale. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Thompson, Stith (1946). Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, medieval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends.

Thompson, Stith. Preface to the Second Edition (1961). In Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson. 2nd rev. ed. FF Communications.

Uther, Hans-Jörg (2004). The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications.

Waterman, Patricia Panyity (1987). A Tale-Type Index of Australian Aboriginal Oral Narratives. Helsinki: FF Communications.

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Rose's work has appeared in Lightspeed: Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues. Their Birdverse novelette "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds" has been nominated for the Nebula Award, and longlisted for the Hugo Award and the Tiptree Award. Rose's poems have won the Rannu competition, placed in the Rhysling award, and won and placed in the Strange Horizons Readers' Poll. Rose's debut poetry collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird, is available from Aqueduct Press (2016). Rose can be found on Twitter as @roselemberg, on Patreon as Rose Lemberg Creating Birdverse, and online at their website.
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