Monday, February 27, 2012

Fairy Tales and #TwitterTypes

How do people categorize fairy tales? How do YOU categorize tales you're familiar with? How would you break it down into its essential elements?

I recently learned about the #TwitterType experiment and am intrigued. Not many people have posted and gotten involved yet but if a larger group of people have a go I think we (and fairy tale scholars) might glean a lot of useful information from how we view and distill fairy tales. It will also make you take a bit of a closer look at the tales you love and are familiar with (or think you are familiar with ;).

This post explaining the experiment is re-published here by kind permission of PhD candidate in folklore Jeana Jorgenson (thank you Jeana!):
Header from Jeana Jorgenson's site. Photo by Chris Chambers
For the non-folklorists out there, we use the term “tale type” to refer to a folktale or fairy tale plot that has shown stability throughout time and space. “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are great examples of tale plots that are transmitted in different languages, countries, and time periods. But here you run into the problem of tale title; “Cinderella” doesn’t bear that name in every telling, so how are we scholars supposed to keep track of them all? 
The tale type system, pioneered by Finn Antti Aarne in the early 1900s and revised by American Stith Thompson in the mid-20th century and updated by German Hans-Jorg Uther in 2004, assigns numbers to tale plots. So “Cinderella” is Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) 510A, “Little Red Riding Hood” is ATU 333, and so on. 
However, there are problems with the system. As fairy-tale scholar Donald Haase writes on his Facebook: 
I am happy to announce a new project for folk-narrative and fairy-tale scholars. For decades we have relied on the Aarne-Thompson tale-type index to understand the essence of a tale, but its skeletal description of each type’s essential plot prevents us from seeing other possibilities. The recent revision of the AaTh index was an important first step in rethinking and revising those descriptions. The Internet, however, now makes possible a new way of thinking. Devoted to breaking the magic spell of Aarne-Thompson, I propose a communal catalog of #TwitterTypes. What are #TwitterTypes? Posted on Twitter, #TwitterTypes are new summaries of traditional tales in 140 characters or less (including some version of the tale’s title). Why Twitter? Because the discipline of 140 characters composed on a computer or smartphone forces creative choices about a tale’s “essence,” and those choices reveal, to the Tweeter, the alternatives — the “Tweets-not-taken.” 
by Alan Lee (corrected, thanks to Anonymous)

The cool thing is that Haase basically wants to crowd-source this, a technique noted by digital humanities scholars and which I’m really curious about for fairy-tale studies: 
Why a communal catalog? Imagine not a SINGLE effort to capture the SINGLE essence a tale but MANY efforts to express its MANY possibilities. Besides, I don’t want to do this all myself. So this is a CFT — a Call for #TwitterTypes. A call for contributions to the omnipresent, cloud-based #TwitterType Catalog, an endless project that exists everywhere and nowhere, a catalog that grows every time a fairy-tale scholar tweets. The first two #TwitterTypes–for “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Frog King or Iron Henry”–follow soon on Twitter, with simultaneous postings on my Facebook page. (Thanks, Gary, for having inspired this project.)
 Examples of Haase’s include Blue Beard: (he-said-she-said) I do.–DON’T!–I won’t.–YOU DID!–I didn’t.–YOU’RE DONE FOR!–DON’T THINK SO!! (He didn’t; done in.) 
I’m going to start posting some of my own, and I encourage fairy-tale enthusiasts to do the same, and please share this link! In an update, Haase announced that we’ll go with the hashtag #TwTy since it’s shorter, allowing for more creativity within Twitter’s character limits (though I think starting with the #TwitterTypes hashtag to let searchers know that you’re participating might be helpful). Looking for inspiration? Folklorist D. L. Ashliman runs a great site of electronic folklore & mythology texts, many of which include tale type numbers. His Grimms’ tale listing is here. Another great fairy-tale site online is Sur La Lune. If you can’t find the tale type numbers, that’s fine, I think using the title will work too. 
So, have at, and pass it on!

Thank you again Jeana for your clear explanation. I hope people are inspired to try this!
You can read more of Jeana's posts on her blog HERE and follow her on Twitter HERE.
To give you a few more examples and get you thinking, here are a few of the ones tweeted so far:
Frog King Iron Henry: Little ball lost. Froggie goes a courtin’. Deal’s a deal. Gets to first. Rounding third. Off the wall! OMG! Oh Henry! (Donald Haase) 
Snow Child (ATU1362): Child conceived by eating snow should not be left in the sun. Cuckolds make the worst babysitters. #TwTy (Adam Zolkover) 
Sleeping Beauty (ATU410): Fairies are poor sports. Spindles cause 100 year dreams. Wake up to big surprises. #TwTy (Brittany Waram) 
Rapunzel: Little girls named for food can't be preserved and stored forever. Princes also have cravings. #TwTy (Donald Haase) 
#TwTy Bluebeard: Curiosity killed the wives. Her key to survival? Angry brothers killed the cad. (Gypsy Thornton) 
C&P (ATU425B): Beauty given to monster who beds her as a man. She peeks; he flees. His mom’s a real witch who demands the impossible. #TwTy (Linda Lee)
You can see more of the #TwitterTypes on Professor Haase's Facebook page HERE. (You'll need to scroll down to see all the ones posted so far - they're not in a group or on a dedicated page as yet.)
I'm curious to see how this goes since, for example, I can think of at least four valid approaches to Rapunzel, depending on what aspects I was highlighting (eg consuming/eating of food and passions, parenting both good and bad, growth internal & external and how we deal with it, rescue of many kinds or any combination of the above). How would you distill a fairy tale into 140 characters? What motifs would you include?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. The painting is by Alan Lee from the book The Hobbit, this is the part where Gandalf is saying farewell to the company of dwarves and hobbit before they enter Mirkwood forest, it's not by Isley Unruh

  3. Thank you Anonymous - I thought it looked familiar. :) The credit has been corrected.