28 March 2014

Folktale Phylogeny

Welcome back. Last month, in my Caffeine and Bees Addendum, I slipped in the word phylogeny in reference to orders of plants. Raise your hand if you didn’t know the word. Come on, be honest.

Here’s part of Britannica’s definition: the history of the evolution of a species or group, especially in reference to lines of descent. The proposition is that there are common ancestors. While phylogeny or phylogenetics is normally associated with biology (plants or animals), it can be applied in other fields to study relationships and ancestral descent.

Why bring this up now rather than four weeks ago? Because I saw a research publication that used phylogenetic methods to do something I thought was pretty cool: analyze the phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood.

Gustave Doré illustration from 1867 Les
Contes de Perrault
after Charles Perrault’s
“Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.”
 (multiple websites)

Though versions of the folktale can be traced to different European populations, very similar stories turn up in other cultures, including African and East Asian. It’s been argued that...Wait! Back up. Are you aware that there’s an international classification system for folktales? I’m sorry; I’ll start there.

Folktale Classification

The Aarne-Thompson classification system, begun in 1910 and referred to as the ATU Taxonomy, is an index of every type of folktale, classified under categories such as Animal Tales, Fairy Tales and Religious Tales.

Do you remember the Three Little Pigs? That’s ATU number 124 under Wild Animals and Domestic Animals (100-149), which in turn is listed under Animal Tales (1-299). Or how about The Three Bears, that family victimized by the breaking and entering specialist Goldilocks? That’s ATU 171 under Wild Animals and Humans (150-199), which is also under Animal Tales.

The ATU Taxonomy is designed to assist folklorists studying the traditions of a culture or subculture and how they may have been shared through its folktales. Classification is based on storyline, the folktales’ structure, rather than characters’ actions.

Phylogeny of ATU 333

Critics of the ATU Taxonomy--yes, it has its detractors--have argued that folktale traditions are too fluid to categorize and that most ATU classifications are artificial constructs. To address the question with rigor, a researcher from the UK’s Durham University applied phylogenetic methods, focusing on Little Red Riding Hood, otherwise known as ATU 333.

As I started to write earlier, versions of ATU 333 have been recorded in different European oral traditions. In addition, in many cases, it’s difficult to separate ATU 333 from another common international folktale, ATU 123, The Wolf and the Kids.

Edna Hart illustration from “The Wolf and the Seven
Young Kids” in The Beacon Second Reader by
James H. Fassett, 1914, from Project Gutenberg.
The Durham University investigator examined a data set of 72 plot variables (e.g., whether the villain was a wolf, ogre, tiger, etc.) drawn from English translations of 58 versions of ATU 333 and ATU 123, from 33 populations (e.g., French, German, Italian, Iranian, Ibo), using three mathematical approaches commonly applied in phylogenetic analysis (cladistic, Bayesian inference and Neighbor-Net).

The three approaches gave similar results: the 58 folktales clustered largely into three groups. Two were distinctly ATU 333 and ATU 123, with most African tales being ATU 123. The third group encompassed most of the East Asian tales, which likely evolved by blending elements of both ATU 333 and ATU 123.

Wrap Up

You and I and the babysitter may care only about having some version of these folktales available when they’re needed. Still, we should appreciate any work that demonstrates the value of an untested methodology and thus opens the door for continued research toward increased understanding, in this case, of the transmission and evolution of oral narratives. Thanks for stopping by.


Research publication in PLOS ONE:
Articles on study on Science Daily and Phys.org websites
Phylogeny defined:
Folktale classification system:
Wikipedia articles on ATU 333 and ATU 123:
Example European versions of Little Red Riding Hood:
Brothers Grimm version of The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids:

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