Binary opposition in myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss debate in retrospect

Western Folklore, Winter 1997 by Alan Dundes

In 1928, Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp published his pathbreaking Morphology of the Folktale in a limited printing of only 1600 copies (Bravo 1972:45). In his Morphology, Propp delineated a syntagmatic sequence of thirty-one functions which he claimed defined the Russian fairy tale (Aarne-Thompson tale types 300-749). Unfortunately, few Western scholars read Russian and Propp’s important monograph had little impact upon the direction of folk narrative study. Only famed linguist Roman Jakobson in his 1945 folkloristic commentary for the Pantheon edition of Afanas’ev’s Russian Fairy Tales referred to Propp’s research in a brief summary of his findings (1945:640-641) . It was not until Professor Thomas A. Sebeok of Indiana University arranged for an English translation of Propp’s Morphology in 1958 that Propp’s remarkable analysis became accessible to Western folklorists (cf. Breymayer 1972; Bremond and Verrier 1982; and Cardigos 1996:33-36, but see Chistov 1986:9).

Three years earlier, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss had responded favorably to an invitation issued by the same Professor Sebeok who was then the editor of the Journal of American Folklore to participate in a symposium on myth. (Among others in that symposium were David Bidney, Richard M. Dorson, Reidar Th. Christiansen, Lord Raglan, and Stith Thompson.) Levi-Strauss’s paper, entitled “The Structural Study of Myth” which initiated a veritable flood of ‘structural’ enterprises, was written without any knowledge of Propp’s Morphology. The 1955 JAF issue was published as a separate book under the title Myth: A Symposium in 1958, the same year Propp’s Morphology appeared in English.

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