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Vladimir Propp’s Analysis of Functions in Folktales: The Donor and the Magical Agent

The ‘power-boosting devices’ we have just surveyed have a clear function in each story: they give the hero a means to fight with enemies, to cope with the stronger opponents, to struggle in a hostile world.

Propp’s ‘Functions’

As is too plain in the case of ninjutsu, the function of the devices can be described as ‘magical’ in a sense. To understand their function more deeply, it would be helpful to see what Vladimir Propp (1895-1970), a Russian scholar of folktale, said about the functions of the donor and the magical agents in ‘fairy tales’. By examining 100 Russian folktales, Propp arrived at a conclusion that, functionally, only seven personages are needed in a fairy tale (the signs in parentheses are given by Propp to each function):

Although functions, as such, are the subjects of the present study (and not their performers nor the objects dependent upon them), we nevertheless should examine the question of how functions are distributed among the dramatis personae. Before answering this question in detail, one might note that many functions logically join together into certain spheres. These spheres in turn correspond to their respective performers. They are spheres of action. The following spheres of action are present in the tale:

  1. The sphere of action of the villain. Constituents: villainy (A); a fight or other forms of struggle with the hero (H); pursuit (Pr).
  2. The sphere of action of the donor (provider). Constituents: the preparation for the transmission of a magical agent (D); provision of the hero with a magical agent (F).
  3. The sphere of action of the helper. Constituents: the spatial transference of the hero (G); liquidation of misfortune or lack (K); rescue from pursuit (Rs); the solution of difficult tasks (N); transfiguration of the hero (T).
  4. The sphere of action of a princess (a sought-for person) and of her father. Constituents: the assignment of difficult tasks (M); branding (J); exposure (Ex); recognition (Q); punishment of a second villain (U); marriage (W). The princess and her father cannot be exactly delineated from each other according to functions. Most often it is the father who assigns difficult tasks due to hostile feelings toward the suitor. He also frequently punishes (or orders punishment upon) the false hero.
  5. The sphere of action of the dispatcher. Constituent: dispatch (connective incident, B).
  6. The sphere of action of the hero. Constituents: departure on a search (C↑); reaction to the demands of the donor (E); wedding (W*). The first function (C) is characteristic of the seeker-hero; the victim-hero performs only the remaining functions.
  7. The sphere of action of the false hero also includes C↑, followed by E and, as a specific function L [a false hero presents unfounded claims]. Consequently, the tale evidences seven dramatis personae. [. . .] (Propp, pp.79-81)

One of the ‘spheres of action’ does not necessarily correspond to one dramatis persona, Propp argues: one character can be involved in several spheres, or a single sphere is distributed among several characters.

The Donor and the Magical Agent

As a function, or a sphere of action, we have to pay special attention to that of the donor, who gives the hero something useful in his quest:

Now a new character enters the tale: this personage might be termed the donor, or more precisely, the provider. Usually he is encountered accidentally — in the forest, along the roadway, etc. [. . .] It is from him that the hero (both the seeker hero and the victim hero) obtains some agent (usually magical) which permits the eventual liquidation of misfortune. But before receipt of the magical agent takes place, the hero is subjected to a number of quite diverse actions which, however, all lead to the result that a magical agent comes into his hands. (Propp, p.39)

And the ‘magical agent’ mentioned here corresponds to what we have called the ‘power-boosting devices’ in battle narratives. Propp goes on to say:

The following things are capable of serving as magical agents: (1) animals (a horse, an eagle, etc.); (2) objects out of which magical helpers appear (a flintstone containing a steed, a ring containing young men); (3) objects possessing a magical property, such as cudgels, swords, guslas, balls, and many others; (4) qualities or capacities which are directly given, such as the power of transformation into animals, etc. All of these objects of transmission we shall conditionally term “magical agents.” (Propp, pp.43-44)

Propp further categorizes the forms by which the agents are transmitted into nine classes: (1) The agent is directly transferred; (2) The agent is pointed out; (3) The agent is prepared; (4) The agent is sold and purchased; (5) The agent falls into the hands of the hero by chance; (6) The agent suddenly appears of its own accord; (7) The agent is eaten or drunk; (8) The agent is seized; (9) Various characters place themselves at the disposal of the hero. (Propp, pp.44-46)

The Magical Agents and the Role of the Hero

The protagonists in Japanese battle narratives are, structurally speaking, given their devices or powers exactly according to Propp’s formulation. In Dragon Ball, for example, Goku’s first ‘killer attack’, Kamehame-ha wave, is learnt through his rigorous training under the martial arts master Kame-sen’nin. In this case, Kame-sen’nin functions as the donor who imposes a task and eventually provides the hero with a means to fight (the dragon balls themselves and Goku’s power pole are also magical agents, of course).

Propp’s analysis of the hero’s acquisition of magical agents gives us another insight into the function of the hero himself, quite relevant in our context.

The employment of a magical agent follows its receipt by the hero; or, if the agent received is a living creature, its help is directly put to use on the command of the hero. With this the hero outwardly loses all significance; he himself does nothing, while his helper accomplishes everything. The morphological significance of the hero is nevertheless very great, since his intentions create the axis of the narrative. These intentions appear in the form of various commands which the hero gives to his helpers. At this point a more exact definition of the hero can be given than was done before. The hero of a fairy tale is that character who either directly suffers from the action of the villain in the complication (the one who senses some kind of lack), or who agrees to liquidate the misfortune or lack of another person. In the course of the action the hero is the person who is supplied with a magical agent (a magical helper), and who makes use of it or is served by it. (Propp, p50)

It is his intention, the power of will, that makes the hero a hero. This may explain why so often in battle narratives the hero’s bravery, determination, and/or serious efforts are crucial in his adventure: the true strength of the hero is in his will/heart/soul, while the external, physical strength is provided by the power-boosting devices, or magical agents.

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures

Keio University