Would you know it: there’s an “opposite number” to the Dewey Decimal System (introduction to the system [PDF]) – which for the most part of a centurey has been used to categorise books according to their topic and content – for categorising folk tales: the Aarne-Thompson Classification System.
It’s horrendously difficult to find information on it online – most of the resources are in German (Germany, apparently, being big fans of both fairy tales and classifying things) – particularly information about the system itself (rather than about given tales classified by it), but here’s what I’ve managed to glean – it consists of about 2500 categories, subcategories, and themes, broadly broken down in a pretty random way. An entire story can be defined by it’s key themes as a series of numbers, for example:
Little Red Riding Hood is a “The Glutton”-class tale in which an animal disguises itself as a human with the intention of killing a child (I. K2011) . It carries a “what makes your ears so big” theme (Z18.1), and a non-fatal swallowing by a person by an animal (F911.3) which leads to their eventual rescue from the animal’s belly (F913). In some variations of the story, the wolf is then sewn up again – having been filled with stones – such that he eventually drowns (Q426).
Here’s another you might be familiar with:
Rapunzel (“the Maiden in the Tower”) is a tale of type 310 (“Magic Tales”), with four key themes: (a) a man promises his unborn daughter to a witch in order to save himself from death (S222), leading to a girl in the service of a witch (G204), (b) the girl is imprisoned in a tower (R41.2) [also, potentially – T381 (“Imprisoned virgin to prevent knowledge of men (marriage, impregnation)”)], and “lets down her hair” to allow the captor to climb (F848.1); a desirable suitor (prince or king) follows this technique and becomes her lover (L162), (c) the witch discovers what the girl has done, cuts off her hair, and abandons her in the desert (S144 – abandonment in desert); the prince comes, saves himself from the witch, but in doing so is blinded (S165), (d) finally, the couple are reunited, and the woman’s tears restore sight to the blinded man (F952.1).
I find this system a little bit scary and overwhelming. As Andy R said to me, “Perhaps Aarne and Thompson should have spent their time… I don’t know… finding a cure for cancer or something.” They’ve certainly spent a lot of time developing this very deep, very complex system for classifying fairy tales.
There’s a good-looking – but expensive – book, “A Guide to Folk Tales in the English Language: Based on the Aarne-Thompson Classification System” by D. L. Ashliman, which, according to Voyager, can be found in the academic library at UWA. I’ve asked Paul to pick up a copy (Paul: it’s published by Greenwood Press in 1987 and can be found on the Arts and Humanities floor (Level F) of the Hugh Owen library – classmark Z5983.F17.A8). Could be interesting.
Anyway; sorry if that bored you. Here’s more information: