Motifs are recurring themes or ideas in fairy tales. Even though the Standard Dictionary of Folklore says: “A mother as such is not a motif. A cruel mother becomes one because she is at least thought to be unusual,” that is actually what made me curious about recurrences in fairy tales.
Since I try to leave the heart of the fairy tales in my stories when I use them as inspiration, I started recognizing that some recurrences—especially the family unit: Grandmothers, single parents who remarry, stepsisters, siblings—were very important in the foundation of my story. If I changed the family structure, my story structure crumbled. My curiosity led me to research motifs in fairy tales. Seems to be more research on fairy tale motif than there are fairy tales, but the main work I found interesting and wanted to share is the Aarne-Thompson – Types of the Folk Tale.
In 1910, Antti Aarne, compiled and published, Index of Types of Folktale, in German. In 1928 (and again in 1961) it was revised and expanded by the American folklorist Stith Thompson. The 6 volume Aarne-Thompson Types of the Folk Tale uses a system to group fairy and folk tales according to motifs – giving them AT numbers. According to The Department of Scandinavian Studies the “AT-number may cover a whole folktale, or a sequence (an episode) of a folktale.”
There are 5 main categories; however, about half the folk tales and fairy tales are classified under #2 – Ordinary Folktales.
1. Animal Tales (Types 1-299),
2. Ordinary Folktales (Types 300-1199),
3. Jokes and Anecdotes (Types 1200-1999),
4. Formula Tales (Types 2000-2399),
5. Unclassified Tales (Types 2400-2499)
Cinderella, my favorite fairy tale, is AT510.
The Department of Scandinavian Studies also has a great pdf with further motif explanations and an extensive AT list. (Note: I went and looked this up today and couldn’t find the pdf – it has been 8 years lol)