Folklore

The ATU Folklore Index: A Resource For Traditional Story Structure

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Disney commercialized fairy tales that, as a result, they became the dominant frame of reference for these ancient, odd, and fascinating stories. However, some may not know that these tales are far-reaching, where they are derived and classified to where an index was created. Also, it offers knowledge and can strengthen a storyteller’s understanding of a traditional story’s framework.

An illustration of the original tale 'Beauty and the Beast' by Madame de Villeneuve.

Known officially as the ATU index, it is an essential guide for those looking to discover different versions of the fairy tales we already know and do not know. Moreover, since there are thousands of tales discovered globally, this is one big awesome source. Officially as a categorization system, it catalogs fairy tales, folk tales, and fables around the world and files them efficiently in smaller categories according to their plot.

Aarne-Thompson-Uther

A 19th century advertisement based on ATU tale type 64, “Tailless Fox Tries in Vain to Get Foxes to Cut off Tails.” Boston Public Library/CC BY 2.0

So, the ATU, which stands for Aarne-Thompson-Uther, are the names of the men who created the system: Antti Aarne, Stith Thompson, and Hans-Jörg Uther. It was initially created and started by Aarne to categorize Scandinavian tales and published in his findings in 1910. Thompson translated it into English in 1928 and then updated and added tales in 1961, officially creating the Aarne-Thompson system for cataloging folk stories. Uther then further revised and updated poorly titled categories in 2004. It boils down to an informative guide for fans and scholars of fairy tales, a resource for research and finding new stories through its broad categories.

Storytelling Framework

Examples of how the tales are classified in the ATU index.

And when we look closer into the classification system, we notice that some of our most famous and loved stories in film and television are inspired or based on motifs and plots from folklore. Therefore, understanding these systems amplifies a working knowledge of the traditional story framework, specifically about motif and “tale type” from a folkloristic perspective. A motif, therefore, is a recognizable feature or pattern that typically appears throughout the work. These literary devices are favored and used repeatedly by storytellers because they and audiences find it satisfying and worth seeking out. In folklore, motifs can be unique; a carpet will be a magic carpet, a mother will be a wicked stepmother or an animal will be a talking animal.

Why Use The ATU Index

A “tale type” is a concept created by folklore scholars to categorize folk narrative story plots. Included in it are broad categories such as Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Animal Tales. Inside those categories are sub-categories like Supernatural Power of Knowledge or numbered tale types as 510A: Persecuted Heroine and 510B: Unnatural Love. Under each of these numbered tale types is a summary of the plot and a list of folk tale collections where stories containing the plot can be found. Nonetheless, since this index is built on a European understanding of folk narrative, it has some limits, mainly because not all cultures understand or convey folk narratives the same way.

Another folklore illustration and interpretation of 'Beauty and the Beast.'

With that said, there are universal motifs found in the indexes, allowing it to remain an excellent resource for story structures we have come to enjoy and find comfort in as creators and viewers. The motifs found in the index are so prevalent in blockbusters and indie stories in film and television globally, it is hard to name one that does not use it. These include Mythological, Tabu, Magic, Religion, The Nature of Life, The Dead, Marvels, Tests, Deceptions, The Wise and the Foolish, Chance and Fate, Society motifs, and more. Whether you are a folklore scholar, a fan, or a writer, the ATU index is an informative guide into the tales we as a collective society love to revisit and tell ourselves.

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