Apr 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1895) of Vladimir Propp (17 April Old Style), Russian folklorist and philologist. Propp was born in St. Petersburg to a German family. He attended St. Petersburg University (1913–1918) studying Russian and German philology. Upon graduation he taught Russian and German at a secondary school and then became a college teacher of German. His most well-known work, Morphology of the Folktale was published in Russian in 1928,  but, even though it represented a breakthrough in both folklore theory and narrative morphology, it went generally unnoticed in the West until it was translated in 1958. By the time it came to the attention of Western scholars it was already a bit outdated, but had an impact in some quarters.

In 1932, Propp became a member of Leningrad University (formerly St. Petersburg University) faculty. After 1938, he chaired the Department of Folklore until it became part of the Department of Russian Literature. Propp remained a faculty member until his death in 1970.

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Propp’s analysis has two components. Perhaps of greatest note is his idea of breaking up folktales into sequences of archetypical units, usually paired into opposites. By so doing he was able to show that, despite surface variations, Russian folktales had certain basic underlying narrative structures. One such pairing is the classic Interdiction/Interdiction Violated. That is, the main character is instructed NOT to do something. We all know what happens next. “Under no circumstances press the red button.” Such an interdiction does not occur in a plot unless the hero is going to violate the command at some point, normally at a critical juncture in the narrative. In many Russian folktales An interdiction followed by a violation of the interdiction is what sets the story in motion.

Propp also broke down the characters in folktales into 7 archetypes as follows:

The villain — an evil character who creates problems for the hero.

The dispatcher — any character who creates the need for the hero’s quest.

The helper — a typically magical entity who comes to the aid of the hero.

The princess or prize — the hero’s reward for completing the quest. Typically the hero  is unable to marry her at the outset as a consequence of some evil or injustice, perpetrated the villain.

The donor — a character who prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object, sometimes after a test.

The hero — the character who reacts to the dispatcher and donor characters, thwarts the villain, resolves any lacking or wronghoods and weds the princess.

The false hero — a figure who takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.

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Propp comes under a lot of criticism nowadays, but 40 years ago when I was a graduate student in folklore he was popular and I wrote a few papers using his methods. I still teach his principles on occasion, but critically. Sure, archetypes and basic plot structures can be helpful, but only to a point. I’m not a reductionist at all these days. Knowing that two different stories have the same underlying structure does reveal something about the culture from which they originated, and the basic values that are important.  But . . . they are DIFFERENT, and differences matter. I’m much more interested in an analysis that elaborates on the complexities of a tale in the style of Max Weber http://www.bookofdaystales.com/max-weber/, rather than one that reduces it to simple, basic elements. Furthermore, Propp’s analysis is not all encompassing. Here’s a classic Russian folktale. Where are his archetypes and essential plot devices?

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Once upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman who were very poor and had nothing at all to their name. And they kept getting poorer and poorer until there was nothing left to eat in the house, not even bread. The old man said:

“Do bake us a bun, old woman! If you scrape out the flour-box and sweep out the bin, you’ll have enough flour.”

So the old woman scraped out the flour-box and swept out the bin, she made some dough and she shaped a little round bun out of it. She then lit the oven, baked the bun and put it on the window sill to cool. But the bun jumped out of the window and on to the bench outside, and from the bench on to the ground, and away it rolled along the road!

On and on it rolled, and it met a Rabbit coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Rabbit.

“Don’t do that, Fleet-Feet, let me sing you a song instead,” said Little Round Bun.

“All right, let’s hear it!”

“Here it is!

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

And off it rolled and away. By and by it met a Wolf coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Wolf.

“Don’t do that, Brother Wolf, let me sing you a song instead.”

“All right, let’s hear it!”

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

And away it rolled.

By and by it met a Bear coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Bear.

“Don’t do that, Brother Bear, I’ll sing you a song instead!”
“All right, let’s hear it!”

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

And away it rolled and away!

By and by it met a Fox coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Fox.

“Don’t do that, Sister fox, I’ll sing you a song instead.”

“All right, let’s hear it!”

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

“Sing some more, please, don’t stop!” the Fox said. “Hop on to my tongue, I can hear you better.”

Little Round Bun jumped on to the Fox’s tongue and began to sing:

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin-”

But before it could go on, the Fox opened her mouth and – snap! -she gobbled it up.

One could object that Propp was concerning himself only with hero tales. Fair enough, but that’s something of a limitation of his formalism – my analysis works on the tales it works on.

Let’s bake Russian buns instead. These are not as simple as the bun in the story, but are undoubtedly more delicious. This recipe is for a simple peasant dish, as befits the tale. You can vary the fillings as you wish — meat, mushrooms, onions etc. are all traditional.

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Pirozhki

Ingredients

2 cups milk, warmed
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tbsp active dry yeast
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp salt
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp butter
½ medium head cabbage, finely chopped
6 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
salt and pepper

Instructions

Put ½ cup of the warmed milk in a small bowl. Stir in the sugar and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Pour the remaining milk into a large bowl.

Add the melted butter (2 tbsp), egg, salt and 1 cup of flour to the large bowl with the milk. Stir in the yeast mixture. Mix in the flour 1 cup at a time until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and doesn’t stick to your hands. Cover the bowl loosely with a kitchen towel and set it in a warm place to rise for about 1 hour. The dough should almost triple in size. The typical test that it has risen sufficiently, which you can start after about 40 minutes, is to press your thumb in and release. The dough should spring back in 2 or 3 seconds. If it is too slow, let it rise a little longer. Rising times vary considerably.

While you are waiting for the dough to rise, melt the remaining butter (1 tbsp) in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cabbage and sauté, stirring frequently, until cabbage has wilted. Mix in the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the cabbage is tender. Set this aside for the filling.

Place the risen dough on a floured surface and gently form into a long snake about 2 inches wide. Cut into 1 inch pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten the balls by hand until they are 4 to 5 inches across. Place a spoonful of the cabbage filling in the center and fold in half to enclose. Pinch the edges together to seal in the filling.

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200 °C. Line one or two baking sheets with aluminum foil or baking parchment. Place the pirozhki on the baking sheet, leaving room between them to expand. If you like you can brush the tops with melted butter.

Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

Serve warm from the oven.

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