English 531: Seminar on Folklore in Culture: Studies of Narrative

The Shape of Stories


Stories feature prominently in our lives and in discourses about our lives. Children ask parents to tell them a story; we swap stories as adults in order to get to know each other; and, increasingly, doctors and lawyers describe the work they do in terms of stories. This seminar is designed to familiarize participants with the wide range of scholarship and science that treats stories. Our goal will be to refine our own working definition of narrative both to understand its nature but also, for those interested in creative projects, to refine our practice. It should be clear from this description that this seminar is open to a wide range of interests: creative, literary, folkloristic, rhetorical, and linguistic.


Pr. John Laudun. Office: HLG 356, 482-5493, laudun@louisiana.edu. Hours: Tuesdays 9-12 and by appointment.


Herman, David. 2009. Basic Elements of Narrative. Wiley-Blackwell. (Please do not purchase until we decide to use this text.)

Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. Tr. Laurence Scott. University of Texas Press.

In addition to these texts, there will also be a collection of readings — that once would have been available in a course reader at a local copy shop but are now going to be available via our seminar’s Moodle site as, hopefully searchable, PDFs. Some of these PDFs will be home-made and others will be available through the library’s subscription to databases like JSTOR. The usual caveats to using Moodle apply: connections can be flaky; don’t wait to download an essay until the last minute.

I would like to read at least one novel, Under consideration are: Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies, though it seems too much like a one-trick pony and Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnificent (Solibo magnifique in its original French), wherein oral tradition meets police procedural. I am also open to suggestions from seminar participants.


Seminar participants are expected to comport themselves as, well, as if they were in a seminar:

A seminar is, generally, a form of academic instruction, either at an academic institution or offered by a commercial or professional organization. It has the function of bringing together small groups for recurring meetings, focusing each time on some particular subject, in which everyone present is requested to actively participate. This is often accomplished through an ongoing Socratic dialogue with a seminar leader or instructor, or through a more formal presentation of research. The idea behind the seminar system is to familiarize students more extensively with the methodology of their chosen subject and also to allow them to interact with examples of the practical problems that always occur during research work. It is essentially a place where assigned readings are discussed, questions can be raised and debates can be conducted. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

In addition to the assumed active participation, which includes active listening as well as talking, this seminar also requires the preparation and presentation of a conference paper (8-12 pages) and a seminar paper (15-25 pages). The idea behind this particular arrangements is that the conference paper will be due before the seminar paper, giving participants an advanced deadline that makes it possible to test the viability of an idea and to have time to expand the paper into something of consequence that we call the seminar paper and we often imagine as leading to an article. That is, both the written assignments in this seminar are designed to match conventional scholarly outputs. (We will have more to discuss — e.g., how sometimes expanding a conference presentation is harder than shrinking a research paper or what to do when a project implodes at the presentation stage — during the course of the seminar.)

The weighting of grades will be as follows: participation in the seminar, which includes short in-seminar presentations and activities, makes up one half of a participant’s evaluation. The conference paper and the seminar paper make up the other half. I hold out any weighting of the two for the following reason: it is entirely possible that the conference paper goes nowhere. If that is the case, first, good. Failure is one way to learn, and it is better to have a project blow up in the smaller form of the conference paper than to fall apart halfway through the seminar paper. Hence, should the conference paper go awry, it should matter less in any final evaluation. The same goes for the seminar paper. This is an educational setting: failure must be an option. (Not trying is not.)

Participation includes a wide variety of forms: active listening, thoughtful speaking, short presentations, involvement in in-class and out-of-class individual and group assignments. Some of these will include, seems fitting for a seminar led by a folklorist, the occasional exploration of the world beyond campus in the form of observations you make in places like book stores, coffee shops, and other places where people gather to talk or read/write. There is no set list of assignments in this regard: this is something that must arise out of a sense of the seminar as a particular historical group of individuals. (Again, you would expect no less an assertion from a folklorist.)


Our own interests, expertise, and discoveries will determine more clearly how we will actually spend our time. For those reasons, I prefer to establish an agenda for a course, with the proviso that how much we dwell on a topic or gloss it will effect the timing of matters but the sequencing should remain fairly stable. The agenda for this course will be determined in the first few meetings and then published.

Initial Steps in the Dance

The first task in any course with some dimension of intellectual history as its focus is to try to understand the overall history of the domain. Narrative, however, is a relatively recent locus for organizing scholarly and scientific investigation. Prior to its development as a subject of study in the twentieth century, narrative was largely viewed through a lens of other objects – tragic plays, novels, myths. While a seminar of this nature could spend a considerable amount of time in the period prior to the formalist-structuralist articulation of narrative as an object in its own right, we are going to bounce around a bit, hoping, in some shadow of Bayes, to locate ourselves through apparent random pings in the great depths of intellectual history.

Introduction to the Basics of Folklore Theory. In these introductory lectures, accompanied by the essay by Burke below, participants are introduced to the current core ideas in folklore studies: competence, performance, text, context, genre, tradition.

Burke, Kenneth. 1973/1941. Literature as Equipment for Living. In The Philosophy of Literary Form, 293-304. University of California Press.

While we will return to the idea that narratives are a distinct form of discourse, or a particular mode of discursive production, if you prefer, Barthes’ “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” captures some of the spirit of one of the pivotal moments in the shaping of narrative as a subject of study and will, for many participants, give some hint of what the formalist-structuralist paradigm looks like.

Barthes, Roland. Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives. In Image Music Text, #-#. Publisher.

Barthes’ “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” first appeared in Communications 8 in 1966. We are reading the reprint published in Image Music Text in 1977. Communications was a pathbreaking French journal, and this issue featured essays by Greimas, Bremond, Metz, Todorov, and Genette, all of whom were well on their way to becoming some of the more important figures in structuralism and/or narrative studies. They are typically grouped together for their combined debts to a variety of sources which are easily confused for readers otherwise unfamiliar with the broader intellectual history of the twentieth century. In the work, Greimas et al. drew upon structural linguistics (as articulated by Saussure and Benveniste), the Prague School (most notably the work of Roman Jakobson), Russian formalism (particularly Propp but also Bakhtin, Medvedev, among others), structural anthropology (as advanced by Claude Levi-Strauss but also found in the work of Mauss). Of these diverse sources, two are most prominent: Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) and Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology (1958).

As noted above, prior to the twentieth century, interested commentators were more focused on narrative’s manifestations in various forms of discourse, as is the case with Aristotle’s concern with the nature of tragedy in the plays of his day.

Aristotle’s Poetics are available in a number of locations:

Returning to the 2oth century, Jan Christian Mesiter’s survey of narratological theory is a useful place for us to begin our explorations for the rest of the semester:

Meister, Jan Christoph. 2011. Narratology. The Living Handbook of Narratology.

The Formalist Project

Before we examine Propp’s work, it’s important to understand the larger dialogue in which he is engaging. Specifically, early in Morphology, Propp notes that “the study of the tale has been pursued for the most part only genetically, and, to a great extent, without attempts at preliminary, systematic description” (5). Genetic references the great philological collection projects of the nineteenth century that were, for the most part, focused on origins and originals. In the twentieth century, that focus would become what is now known as the historic-geographic method, and its most noted accomplishment are the great indices of folklore studies: the tale-type index and the motif index. The best way to understand them is to use them. (More on genetic matters later, if there is time.)

The Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system is available on-line as part of the Multilingual Folk Tale Database. A concise explanation of the ATU system is offered here.

Two of the tales are available entirely in plain text for your use: Grimms 91, sometimes titled as “The Gnome” and sometimes as “The Elves” and “Jack and the Fire Dragon” as told by Ray Hicks. Formatted versions are: Grimms 91 and Hicks 2.

Propp, Vladimir. 1968. Morphology of the Folktale. Tr. Laurence Scott. University of Texas Press.

While Propp’s work, and that of other Russian formalists and structuralists, seems largely something from our philological past, his efforts and those of others have seen a recent resurgence in interest, and citation, in the work of scholars and scientists interested in seeing if narrative can be discovered and/or modeled computationally. The awkward combinatory phrasing of “scholars and scientists” reflects the broad range of disciplines involved: literary studies, folklore studies, linguistics, information science, computer science, and, even physics and biology (both of which possess statistical branches). For some sense of the larger field of activity, there are the following:

Finlayson, M. A. 2009. Deriving Narrative Morphologies via Analogical Story Merging. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Analogy (published as New Frontiers in Analogy Research, 127–136. New Bulgarian University Press. Link to PDF on Finlayson’s site.

Gervás, P. (2016). Computational Drafting of Plot Structures for Russian Folk Tales. Cognitive Computation, 8(2), 187–203. DOI. Link.

There are more links than these: a search for computational model of narrative should turn up the annual workshop that meets under that name.

Jakobson, R., Ju. Tynjanov, & Eagle, H. 1980. Problems in the Study of Language and Literature. Poetics Today, 2(1a), 29-31. doi:10.2307/1772349. JSTOR.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1971. Discourse Typology in Prose. In Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, 176-196. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Cambridge, Mass.

Outside the Tower

One of the reasons for this course is the immense amount of discourse focused on stories and storytelling that takes places outside the academy. Some of it, as we have seen, is just that story is the current buzzword, much like paradigm and/or box were in a previous moment.

There is, however, a lot of very smart thinking about the shapes of stories taking place. TVTropes is one venue, but writers, readers, and critics of genre fiction also have some very interesting, and often quite compelling things to note about the nature of narrative.

One place to start is this analysis of the final battle in the middle movie of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, aka Helms Deep. The Nerdwriter’s analysis includes the notion of beats, something you will find used elsewhere.



Please note that the hyperlinks for JSTOR and Project Muse take you directly to the journal’s main page and not the home page of those two services.

The Journal of Narrative Theory appears to be the oldest journal focused specifically on narrative. Founded in 1971 as the Journal of Narrative Technique, JNT “has provided a forum for the theoretical exploration of narrative in all its forms. Building on this foundation, JNT publishes essays addressing the epistemological, global, historical, formal, and political dimensions of narrative from a variety of methodological and theoretical perspectives.” JNT is available on-line through Project Muse.

Narrative is “the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative. Narrative’s broad range of scholarship includes the English, American, and European novel, nonfiction narrative, film, and narrative as used in performance art.” The Society’s website is: http://narrative.georgetown.edu/. Online access to articles is available through Project Muse (2002-present). Issues prior to 2002 are available through JSTOR.

Storyworlds is a new, interdisciplinary journal of narrative theory. It features research on storytelling practices across a variety of media, including face-to-face interaction, literary writing, film and television, virtual environments, historiography, journalism, and graphic narratives, studied from perspectives developed in such fields as narratology, discourse analysis, jurisprudence, philosophy, cognitive and social psychology, Artificial Intelligence, medicine, and the study of organizations.” Current journal contents and contact information are available at http://storyworlds.osu.edu. The journal is available on-line on Project Muse.

In addition to these journals focused narrowly on narrative, there are journals that address narrative specifically but from a particular perspective. Obviously most, if not all, of the journals with which you are familiar in the fields of composition, folklore, or literary studies will include narrative as part of their purview, but you may also want to take a look at a few other journals that you, perhaps, would not normally encounter, such as Discourse Processes or Genre.

Special Issues

In Autumn 1980, Critical Inquiry 7(1) released a special issue entitled simply: On Narrative. (URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/i257724.) The table of contents reads like a who’s who of scholars from the era:

Front Matter: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343172

W. J. T. Mitchell, Editor’s Note: On Narrative (1-4): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343173

Hayden White , The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality (5-27): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343174.

Roy Schafer, Narration in the Psychoanalytic Dialogue (29-53): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343175.

Jacques Derrida and Avital Ronell , The Law of Genre (55-81): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343176.

Frank Kermode, Secrets and Narrative Sequence (83-101): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343177.

Nelson Goodman, Twisted Tales; Or, Story, Study, and Symphony (103-119): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343178.

Seymour Chatman, What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa) (121-140): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343179.

Victor Turner, Social Dramas and Stories about Them (141-168): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343180.

Paul Ricoeur, Narrative Time (169-190): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343181

Ursula K. Le Guin, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night; Or, Why Are We Huddling about the Campfire? (191-199): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343182

Afterthoughts on Narrative

Paul Hernadi, On the How, What, and Why of Narrative (201-203): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343183

Robert Scholes, Language, Narrative, and Anti-Narrative (204-212): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343184

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories (213-236): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343185.

In addition to the special issue of Critical Inquiry, there was also a special issue of Poetics published in 1986 (Volume 15, Numbers 1-2). (URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/0304422X/15/1-2):

Elisabeth Gülich, UtaM. Quasthoff, An interdisciplinary dialogue, 1-3. F.-J. Brüggemeier, Sounds of silents: History, narrative and life-recollections, 5-24.

Rainer Münz and Monika Pelz, Narration in social research, 25-41.

Peter M. Wiedemann, Don’t tell any stories: Theories and discoveries concerning story-telling in the therapeutic setting, 43-55.

D. Baacke, Narration and narrative analysis in education and educational science, 57-72.

P. Bange, Towards a pragmatic analysis of narratives in literature, 73-87. Christof Hardmeier, Old testament exegesis and linguistic narrative research, 89-109.

Christopher Habel, Stories — An artificial intelligence perspective (?), 111-125. Harvey Sacks, Some considerations of a story told in ordinary conversations, 127-138.

Wallace Chafe, Beyond bartlett: Narratives and remembering, 139-151.

Ruth Wodak, Tales from the Vienna woods: Sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic considerations of narrative analysis, 153-182.

Charlotte Linde, Private stories in public discourse: Narrative analysis in the social sciences, 183-202.

Wolf-Dieter Stempel, Everyday narrative as a prototype, 203-216. Elisabeth Gülich, Uta M. Quasthoff, Story-telling in conversation: Cognitive and interactive aspects, 217-241.


Some of these texts are more central to the scholarly study of narrative; some are not. Make of the two categories what you will:


Onega, Susana and José Ángel García Landa. 1996. Narratology: An Introduction. Longman.

Prince, Gerald. 1987. A Dictionary of Narratology. University of Nebraska Press. More Central

Bal, Mieke. 1985. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Tr. Christine van Boheemen. University of Toronto Press.

Benveniste, Emile. 1971. Problems in General Linguistics. Tr. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press.

Booth, Wayne. 1961. The Rhetoric of Fiction. University of Chicago Press. Chatman, Seymour. 1978. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Cornell University Press.

Sternberg, Meir. 1978. Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Less Central

Bauman, Richard. 1986. Story, Performance, and Event. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1962. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions. “The Garden of Forking Paths” (19-29). Tr. Donald A. Yates.

Coles, Robert. 1989. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. Houghton Mifflin.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Articles & Essays

Briggs, Charles and Richard Bauman. 1992. Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2(2): 131-172.

Clifford, James. 1986. On Ethnographic Allegory. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, 98-121. Ed. James Clifford and George Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kramer, Mark and Wendy Call (ed). 2007. Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. New York: Plume. Roemer, Michael. 1995. Telling Stories: Postmodernism and the Invalidation of Traditional Narrative. Rowan and Littlefield.

Always Mentioned

Aristotle’s Poetics at Project Perseus: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0056.


While I know the official position of many scholars is that Wikipedia is not worth the paper on which it is not printed, I sometimes find it a useful place to begin. The entry on narratology, for example, is very short, but in its short span it raises a number of topics that you will find echoed in your more thorough exploration of the scholarly, scientific, and professional domains that address narrative.

Narrative Media

Nevins, Jake. 2018. In the golden age of television, can narrative podcasts compete? The Guardian (May 2018). Link.