Folktale Structure as the Key to the Success of the Harry Potter Series

This is an html-friendly version of my research project on the Proppian folktale structure of the Harry Potter series. The pdf may be downloaded here. This was first presented at “A Brand of Fictional Magic” conference at St Andrews University, Scotland, in May 2012 (pdf of the program here), and updated for the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association meeting in February 2013. A final version will appear in print ca. Fall 2015.

The Question

“Why has the Harry Potter series of books been so popular?”


The popularity of the Harry Potter series is due to the books’ narrative structure, in particular, its concordance with a linear sequence of elements typical of folktales1 as outlined by Vladimir Propp. The aesthetic satisfaction with any particular book in the series positively correlates to that book’s fairy tale structure as enumerated in Propp’s
system of 31 functions of a folktale’s dramatis personae.2 In other words, readers will report less aesthetic satisfaction the less concordance obtains between the tale’s actual morphology and Propp’s scheme; readers will report more aesthetic satisfaction the more concordance obtains between the tale’s actual morphology and Propp’s scheme.


I. Propp and Potter

Vladimir Propp was one of the leading figures of the Russian formalist school of literary theory. His seminal work, the Morphology, was published in 1928, but not translated into English until 1958. By that time the winds of theory had shifted in other directions in both Russia and the West. Nevertheless, since the 1960s, this work inspired a number of studies in multiple disciplines among English-speaking scholars. Its applicability to the folktales of other cultures, to other kinds of folk narrative and performance, to non-
folklore literature and other cultural materials, and to the learning and transmission of fairy tale structure in children has been examined.3 One such study brought to my attention by a colleague examined the narrative schema in accounts of human evolution.4

The possibility of applying Propp’s schema to the Harry Potter series has been noted before. The first instance found in the literature is Joan Acocella’s review of the series up to the then-released Goblet of Fire.5 Acocello claims that Rowling was successful because of
her “utter traditionalism,” and Acocello proceeds to tick off a string of literary genres that many other readers have identified. She then connects this literary borrowing to Propp, whose schema of functions she deems a list of “just about every convention ever used in fairy tales.” She then lists six of the functions and fills them in with plausible story elements from Philosopher’s Stone. However, Acocello plays fast and loose with Propp’s work and especially the four morphological laws (see below), treating the functions precisely as conventions and without respect to the formal organization that is central to Propp’s scheme. A couple of sentences later Acocello equates Propp’s functions to archetypes, which is an unhelpful confusion of literary approaches.

In “Of Magicals and Muggles: Reversals and Revulsions at Hogwarts,”6 Jann Lacoss applies Propp’s schema to The Philosopher’s Stone and The Goblet of Fire. After a brief paragraph of introduction to Propp, Lacoss claims that “[t]he Harry Potter series seems to employ these same functions, although not always in the proper order (in the Harry Potter series, they are actually quite often in the same order as in magic tales).”7 She is quite correct here, as our own analyses confirmed (albeit with significant variation from Lacoss’ tables, which we will discuss below in “Evaluation”). She also correctly claims that “each book follows the sequence, and the overall plot of the series also appears to do so.” This is quite prescient given that Lacoss was working only with the series through Goblet of Fire. Furthermore, she speculates as we do that the language of tales “may be learned and
sublimated from childhood. Thus when the books were written, Rowling had an instinctive ‘road map,’ so to speak, for creating an engaging tale to which children (and adults) could easily relate.”8 Like Lacoss, we are not arguing that Rowling followed this structure intentionally. It is more likely that, like the Potter readers enthralled for reasons they know not, Rowling followed unconsciously the “cultural script” of folktales in writing the Hogwarts saga.

II. Morphology of the Folktale

Vladimir Propp finds that the magical folktales of his native Russia conform to a schema of thirty-one functions. He derived this schema from a systematic analysis done on a set of 100 stories in the collection of fairy tales compiled by Alexander Afanasyev. Propp produced symbolized representations for about 50 of those to demonstrate in abstract description the repetitive and uniform structure of these tales. These morphologies enable the folklorist to do comparative analysis within individual tales and among multiple tales.

Vladimir Propp finds that the magical folktales of his native Russia conform to a schema of thirty-one functions. He derived this schema from a systematic analysis done on a set of 100 stories in the collection of fairy tales compiled by Alexander Afanasyev. Propp produced symbolized representations for about 50 of those to demonstrate in abstract description the repetitive and uniform structure of these tales. These morphologies enable the folklorist to do comparative analysis within individual tales and among multiple tales. and their “amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color”12 (thanks to the settings, characters, objects, and other variables of infinite variety).

Propp argues that two further structural laws follow from his morphological study of tales: (3) that the sequence of functions is always identical and (4) that all fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure.13 Since the sequential progression of functions is always the same, there develops a single narrative axis in all fairy tales. The position for a given function is always the same in every tale, though a particular function need not be present at all. These two morphological laws are central to our study and assessment of the Harry Potter series of books.

III. The Big Idea

[Commentary on (a) sequential structural analysis vs. Levi-Strauss’ paradigmatic structural analysis which organizes stories according to a matrix of paradigmatic thematic units, typically expressed in a set of oppositions; (b) Propp’s approach is isolated from the tale’s social and cultural contexts; (c) the approach is a way to begin to answer the question of HP’s popularity; (d) this approach is helpful because its methods are empirical and inductive, and the results here are reproducible by a similarly trained analyst; (e) archetypal analysis, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, reader-response criticism, and other semantic-focused theories leap too quickly into genre analysis, authorial intent, and the social construction of the text without giving due consideration to the historical and sociological facts of the common cultural patterns that obtain in the narrative structure of folklore materials of all kinds in both Indo-European and non-Indo-European societies. Children all over the world hear many fairy tales; most like to hear them repeatedly. By the time they become readers the narrative sequence of familiar stories has been mapped onto their minds. Tales “go” a certain way. Specific actions should be present for it to “work” for the listener or reader. Irrespective of whether we determine the Harry Potter series of books as a fairy tale according to non-structuralist criteria and methods of analysis, we should not be surprised that they are structured like other popular stories in bestseller
fiction, comics, graphic novels, movies, and so on. If the Harry Potter series of books does not harmonize with Propp’s schema, then we would have to look for others reasons that readers are so easily and effectively drawn into the story (…)]


I. Aesthetic Satisfaction of Harry Potter Readers

An online survey was prepared and administered.14 We distributed the survey to students who had completed our Harry Potter course and to colleagues hosting Harry Potter-related academic and fan sites. Respondents first answered whether or not they had read all of the books in the series. Those responding “No” were discarded from the data set.
Next, respondents were asked the number of times they had read through the entire series. This indicates the probable familiarity the reader has with the story details of the series. These levels of familiarity are denoted as follows:

  • A Novice has read the series only once.
  • An Amateur has read the series more than once but fewer than five times.
  • An Aficionado has read the series more than five times but fewer than ten.
  • A Savant has read the series more than ten times.

Respondents then selected the rank order of the books in the series from least aesthetically satisfying (1) to most aesthetically satisfying (7).

II. Morphological Analysis of the Harry Potter Books and Series

According to Propp, “a tale may be termed any development proceeding from Villainy [A] or lack [a], through intermediary functions to marriage [W], or to other functions employed as a dénouement.”15 The analyst tabulates all of the functions in the tale and then summarizes the results in a symbolic string using Propp’s notation for the individual functions.

The 31 functions of the dramatis personae are organized in family units. Propp suggests his taxonomy of group-to-function can be likened to the biological relation of genus-to-species. Extending the biological metaphor, most functions have varieties which Propp denotes with numeric superscripts. The function with the largest number of varieties is Villainy [A] with 19. For the purposes of this study varieties of functions were not identified. The six genera of the functions are shown below with the corresponding species of functions that belong to each genus:


There is an Initial Situation [α] that is not counted as a function; it enumerates the family members or introduces the hero by name or status. The lower case ‘a’ in the Complication group denotes a “Lack,” which is an alternative form of Villainy [A] wherein a family member either lacks something or desires something important. The movement of the tale depends on the presence and type(s) of [A] or [a] function, but this pair is exclusive; a single narrative axis cannot have both an [A] and [a]. It is possible to have both an [A] and [a] if a tale has multiple moves. A move is created by a new Villainy (or Lack). These may be woven into the primary narrative axis either consecutively or concurrently.


I. Aesthetic Satisfaction of Harry Potter Readers

Table 1 shows the response by mean score (on a scale of 1, representing least aesthetic satisfaction, to 7, representing greatest aesthetic satisfaction):


Table 1: Summary of survey results showing the mean scores for aesthetic satisfaction


Table 2 shows the response by mode, which shows the score most frequently assigned by respondents to the given text. That is, a mode of ‘1’ indicates that ‘1’ was the most frequently assigned value out of all possible values ‘1’ through ‘7’.


Table 2: Summary of survey results showing the mode for aesthetic satisfaction

The findings in Table 2 bear some further comment. We are interested in the extremities of the data. At the upper end of the range, the value indicating highest aesthetic satisfaction, both Prisoner of Azkaban and Deathly Hallows were chosen more frequently and consistently by readers as the most aesthetically satisfying tales in the series. At the low end of the range, the value indicating least aesthetic satisfaction, both Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix were chosen more frequently—though not consistently—as the least aesthetically satisfying tales in the series. For Novice readers, none of the books in the series achieved a mode of ‘1’; ‘2’ was the lowest mode and it was assigned to Chamber of Secrets. Aesthetic judgment hardens in the Amateur and Aficionado readers; two books indicate a mode of ‘1’ and two books indicate a mode of ‘7’. Two modes do not appear in their rankings (‘3’ and ‘4’ for the Amateur; ‘2’ and ‘4’ for the Aficionado). For the Savant, aesthetic judgment softens for Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Only Order of the Phoenix retains a mode of ‘1’ for the Savant whilst Prisoner of Azkaban and Deathly Hallows retain their modes of ‘7’. Lastly, it should be pointed out that all readers consistently ranked Half- Blood Prince as ‘6’ more frequently than other scores.

II. Morphological Analysis of the Harry Potter Books and Series

We analyzed each book in the Harry Potter series to determine its concordance with Propp’s folktale structure. The narratives in each book were decomposed into their basic elements and these functions of the dramatis personae were identified and tabulated. After these tables were completed, the entire Harry Potter series was treated as one story to determine its folktale structure. All of the moves internal to the series were reduced so that the essential narrative axis could be determined and evaluated. The complete tabulated results of these analyses with narrative descriptions for each function are given in the Appendix. The symbolized representation of each book in the series and the series as a whole are given below. The basic components are arranged sequentially from left to right in their respective symbolized schemes. An asterisk denotes an out-of-sequence function or group of functions. The dénouement for all but Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows ends with Harry’s return to 4 Privet Drive. We designate this with the italicized W.

1. Philosopher’s Stone (double-move tale)


The Reconnaissance–Complicity sequence in the upper move is Dumbledore as victim-hero and an independent axis is maintained throughout the tale. The Dumbledore axis terminates at a Solution [N]. The lower axis is Harry as seeker-hero. The original villainy done to Harry and his parents is out-of-sequence in this narrative and so is omitted in this scheme. Because the liquidation of this villainy is the primary movement driving not only Stone but the entire Harry Potter series, and because it is not resolved until Deathly Hallows, it will be the main villainy of the series of books taken as a single tale.

2. Chamber of Secrets (double-move tale)


The multiple Reconnaissance-Delivery moves include the ordinary type by the villain (top sequence) followed by two reverse types (Professor Binns is the middle sequence; Polyjuice Potion to get information from Draco is the bottom sequence).

3. Prisoner of Azkaban (no moves, but two heroes whose axes converge briefly)


The top narrative axis has Sirius as the victim- and seeker-hero. The bracketed Preparation and Complication groups for Sirius are disclosed near the end of Harry’s narrative. The bracketed Transference group < D E F G > denotes Sirius-Padfoot’s collusion with Crookshanks out of Harry’s sight. Harry’s Preparation group is demoted below the main axis because Sirius is the hero in Prisoner as borne out by the Q—W dénouement. The Victory [ I ] occurs in the Shrieking Shack after Sirius is vindicated and Harry shows mercy to Peter Pettigrew. The I—Rs sequence represents Sirius and Harry as temporary joint heroes. The Difficult Task [M] of rescuing both Sirius and Buckbeak (and as it turns out, Harry himself) is given to Harry and Hermione by Dumbledore. The Solution [N] includes an endless feedback loop to the earlier [Rs] because of the use of the time-turner.

4. Goblet of Fire (4-move tale)


Goblet has the purest folktale structure. Its narrative scheme is the simplest representation of the seven books in the series. Harry is both the victim- and seeker-hero and he endures multiple villainies in four moves: three moves represent the three Tri- Wizard tasks and the final move is the direct conflict with Voldemort in Little Hangleton graveyard.

5. Order of the Phoenix (double-move tale with a spliced Transference sequence)


The main axis concerns the villainy done to Harry and Sirius by Voldemort. The move below the main axis concerns the villainy of Umbridge and the Ministry. The out-of- order sequence in the main axis concerns the events from the founding of Dumbledore’s Army through Harry’s peering into Snape’s “worst memory” (Chs 16-28). The double-move is neither consecutive nor concurrent; such an incongruity in the linear sequence of the tale is a notable structural anomaly.

6. Half-Blood Prince (no moves, but two heroes whose axes converge)


The main axis is Dumbledore as the victim-hero; he was mortally wounded by the villainy of the Gaunt-Slytherin ring horcrux prior to the narrative’s beginning. Harry’s secondary hero status in this tale is indicated by his action halting at the second Difficult Task [M] where it joins with the Solution [N] now governed by Dumbledore’s actions. In the context of the entire Harry Potter series, this tale is further complicated by a third victim- and seeker-hero: Severus Snape. However, within the confines of Half-Blood Prince, his status as such is not recognized and is therefore omitted from this scheme. An interesting corollary study to the present one could examine Snape as the main hero in the Harry Potter series.

7. Deathly Hallows (7-move tale)


Although Deathly Hallows is arguably the most complicated tale in the series, none of its functions is out of sequence. Classifying its multiple moves is complicated by the carryover of the discovery of Voldemort’s horcrux creations and Dumbledore’s dispatch of the trio from Half-Blood Prince. Moves considered on the basis of Villainy [A] or Lack [a] internal to the Hallows narrative alone, there are four; considering the sequence of multiple Mediations [B] as moves, there are seven. Since these Mediation-moves lead to additional receipts of magical agents [DEF] for the purpose of completing the liquidation of all the preceding villainies, it is appropriate to consider these as moves in Deathly Hallows.

There are several notable sequences in Hallows. The first Complication includes the efforts to retrieve the real locket horcrux from Umbridge. Dumbledore’s bequest includes the donation of three magical agents to aid each member of the trio of heroes which are put to use at later points in the narrative. The next notable sequence is the combination of three interwoven sequences representing the efforts to acquire the means to destroy the retrieved locket horcrux, the sword of Gryffindor. The remaining horcrux-artifacts are retrieved and destroyed with less complication as exhibited by the consecutive single axes for each. The final sequence in the story, [D – W], occurs in the Forbidden Forest and the Battle of Hogwarts. The Epilogue ends with Albus Severus Potter absenting himself from home and the next chapter in the Hogwarts saga begins.

Scheme for the Series Treated as a Single Tale


The Preparation group is the backstory developed and revealed in Prisoner of Azkaban, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows. The Mediation [B], the misfortune made known to Harry, is gradually unfolded in the first six books of the series, and Dumbledore gradually dispatches Harry to defeat Voldemort. The Counteraction [C] occurs in Deathly Hallows: it is initiated at the beginning of the school year and it is confirmed conclusively by Harry at Dobby’s grave. Harry’s final test is in the Forbidden Forest with the Snitch, the magical agent donated to him by Dumbledore. Harry is revealed to have survived the killing curse in a reverse Exposure (Exrev). The return to the main axis is to complete the struggle with Voldemort and defeat him.


We now desire to assess the results of our analyses and come to some conclusions regarding our leading question.

Comparison to the Lacoss Schemes (2004)

First, we return to the tables for Philosopher’s Stone and Goblet of Fire prepared by Jann Lacoss.16 If we translate her table for Philosopher’s Stone into its symbolic notation, we get:
lacoss-philosophers-stoneA couple of critical notes are in order. First, Lacoss has the D and ↑ functions out of order in her table. Second, she identifies both a Villainy [A] and a Lack [a], but these are alternative types of one function and cannot appear in the same narrative axis. Third, an initial
Villainy [A] or Lack [a] is always liquidated [K], but Lacoss omits this essential function. Lastly, some of the assignations are dubious. For example, she has Branding [J] as “People notice [Harry’s] scar,” but the Branding function should be a consequence of the preceding combat between the hero and the villain [H]. Harry receives his scar in the prequel to the narrative and, at least in Stone, cannot be located at this point in the narrative. Lacoss’ complete list of descriptions is shown in an adjacent column to ours in the tabulated results in the Appendix. We believe the double-villainy directed at Harry within the narrative sequence of Stone is essential to describe correctly this story’s formal organization.

If we translate Lacoss’ table for Goblet of Fire into its symbolic notation, we get the following scheme:


Structurally, this is very similar to our reconstruction of this story (II.4). It is noteworthy that Lacoss’ moves occur on the Beginning Counteraction [C] move rather than on a Villainy [A] or a Lack [a]. However, if her assignment of the Villainy on the main axis were corrected (it should be an ‘A’ rather than a Lack [a]), picking up the axis at the struggle with Voldemort in the Little Hangleton graveyard completes that pairing at the Liquidation [K] function. The sequence (I K ↓) is misassigned to elements preceding the Struggle [H] in the graveyard. Lastly, the Unfounded Claims [L] function is misapplied; Lacoss simply names the false hero dramatis persona, but this does not fulfill the requirement for the narrative constant. Again, her complete list of descriptions is shown in an adjacent column to ours in the tabulated results in the Appendix. We conclude that Lacoss has correctly identified the general structure of Goblet, but has incorrectly analyzed some of the key sequences of functions in the primary axis of the story.

Assessment of Concordance Between Propp’s Scheme and the Harry Potter Series

We now turn to a comparison of our findings of the aesthetic satisfaction with the individual tales in the Harry Potter series and the results of our own complete narrative analyses. Propp’s approach is a data-driven investigation and description of folktale morphology; therefore, it is difficult to answer normative questions about whether a given story represents a “good” instance of the folktale structure or not. What are the criteria for making a meaningful judgment with the data a Proppian analysis yield? We can exclude some measures. It would not be meaningful to count the number of functions present in a Harry Potter story and use the full slate of 31 functions as a benchmark. For example, if Philosopher’s Stone (say) had 23 functions, it would not make any sense to infer that its concordance with folktale structure was therefore 75%. This is because tales often do not involve all of the functions (in fact almost none do), nor are they required to. Concordance with folktale structure does not depend on the maximal use of all the available functions in
Propp’s schema.

One possible basis for a measurement of concordance is out-of-sequence functions. Recall that Propp’s third and fourth morphological laws require that the sequence of functions is always identical and that all fairy tales are of one type in regard to their structure. A possible means of determining concordance with folktale structure, then, is to examine the number of out-of-sequence functions and the extent of their displacement from their “correct” position. We thus define a measure of incongruity by multiplying the two quantities. That is, Incongruity = No. of nonsequential functions × Displacement of nonsequential functions

If we tally the nonsequential functions and compute the Incongruity for each of the Harry Potter stories, we get the following results:


Table 3: Summary of Incongruities in the Harry Potter Stories

Obviously, the value of Incongruity is relative; there is no scale or units of measure against which to interpret this quantity. So we must limit our interpretation to the most basic kinds of comparison. We see that Order of the Phoenix has the greatest Incongruity measured against the linear sequence of folktale structure. Philosopher’s Stone has the next greatest Incongruity. We recall that Order is also one of the Harry Potter stories that readers reported had the lowest aesthetic satisfaction, returning a mode of ‘1’ from all but Novice readers. We also recall that Stone was the second least aesthetically satisfying story according to its mean score. If we examine the other end of the spectrum, we see that Prisoner, Goblet, and Hallows had no Incongruity from folktale structure. We recall that Prisoner and Hallows both returned a mode of ‘7’ from all readers, and that they were the top two aesthetically satisfying books in the Harry Potter series according to their rank by mean score. We arrive at a general—and provisional—deduction: If a folktale has a high degree of Incongruity, the aesthetic satisfaction of the reader will be low. We cannot, however, deduce the contrary, for Chamber has a low Incongruity yet it is viewed as the least aesthetically satisfying story in the series. These are interesting results, but there are other measures for assessing the Harry Potter stories.

In the discussion which follows the presentation of the 31 functions of the dramatis personae in the Morphology,17 Propp makes several general “deductions” about the observed patterns which emerge from an examination of individual folktales “at close range.” He asks, “What does the given scheme represent in relation to the tales?” and answers thusly: “The scheme is a measuring unit for individual tales. Just as cloth can be measured with a yardstick to determine its length, tales may be measured by the scheme and thereby defined.”18 If Propp is correct, then we have confidence that in the current study we may therefore “define” the tales in the Harry Potter series and the series as a whole. We extract the following five propositions about folktale schemes that Propp identifies and discusses in the remainder of the Morphology. We will present them in the order they appear in his text.

Common Pair Arrangements

Proposition 1: “we observe that [the following functions] are arranged in pairs:”19

  • Prohibition—Violation [γ δ]
  • Reconnaissance—Delivery [ε ζ]
  • Struggle—Victory [H I]
  • Pursuit—Rescue [Pr Rs]

When we examine the schemes for the Harry Potter books, we find these notable results concerning their common pair arrangements:

  • Only Chamber has a Reconnaissance—Delivery [ε ζ] pair on its main axis that does not target Harry (it targets Ginny Weasley)
  • Only Goblet and Hallows have all of the pairs

There are notable results for other books in the series, especially Half-Blood Prince, but we will limit our assessment to the books identified earlier at the extremities of readers’ aesthetic satisfaction.

Proposition 2 concerns what tasks the hero is given or undertakes. Propp claims that “(…) it is always possible to be governed by the principle of defining a function according to its consequences. (…) all tasks giving rise to a search must be considered in terms of B; all tasks giving rise to the receipt of a magical agent are considered in terms of D. All other tasks are considered as M, with two varieties: tasks connected with match-making and marriage, and tasks not linked with matchmaking.”20 When we examine the schemes for the Harry Potter books, we find these notable results concerning their task differentiation:

  • Only Order has no M task whatsoever
  • The M task in Chamber is less urgent than the M tasks in the other books
  • Prisoner and Hallows have an M task that ends in a “match” or wedding
  • Only Prisoner has a B task with a victim- and seeker-hero other than Harry (Sirius)
  • Hallows has more than three D tasks (there are a whopping nine)

There are notable results for other books in the series, especially Stone, but we will limit our assessment to the books identified earlier at the extremities of readers’ aesthetic satisfaction.

Spheres of Action of the Dramatis Personae

Proposition 3: “(…) many functions join logically together into certain spheres. These spheres in toto correspond to their respective performers. They are spheres of action.”21 The following spheres of action are present in folktales:

  • Villain [A, H, Pr]
  • Donor [D, F]
  • Helper [G, K, Rs, N, T]
  • Princess (or sought-for person) [M, J, Ex, Q, U, W]
  • Dispatcher [B]
  • Hero [C, ↑, E, W]
  • False Hero [C, ↑, E, L]

When we examine the schemes for the Harry Potter books, we find these notable results concerning their spheres of action:

Only Prisoner has a villain other than Voldemort22

  • Hallows has a whopping seven Donors
  • In Hallows, the seeker-hero includes the whole trio and the victim-hero includes Snape
  • Snape is the false villain in Prisoner and Hallows
  • Draco is the false villain (by narrative misdirection) in Chamber
  • Only Order has a villain Donor (Umbridge)
  • Only Prisoner has unique Helpers in each Helper function (Fred & George Weasley, Dumbledore, Sirius, Harry, Hermione)
  • Order and Hallows have a clearly identified Sought-for person
  • Harry serves as a Dispatcher in Order and Hallows

Multiple Villainies, Interwoven and Sequential

Proposition 4: “A tale may be termed any development proceeding from villainy (A) or a Lack (a) through intermediary functions to marriage (W), or to other functions deployed as a denouement. Terminal functions are at times a reward (F), a gain or in general the liquidation of misfortune (K), and escape from pursuit (Rs), etc. (…) This type of development is termed by us a move. Each new act of villainy, each new lack, creates a new move. (…) One move may directly follow another; but they may also interweave (…).”23 We find these notable results concerning multiple villainies:

  • There are no multiple villainies in Prisoner or Hallows
  • The villainies in Chamber only indirectly affect Harry
  • Only Order has an interwoven villainy

Exclusive Pairs of Functions

Proposition 5: “(…) we observe that there are two such pairs of functions which are encountered within a single move so rarely that their exclusiveness may be considered regular, while their combination may be considered a violation of this rule (…). The two pairs are the Struggle with the villain and the Victory over him [H – I] and the Difficult Task and its Solution [M – N]. In 100 tales, the first pair is encountered 41 times, the second pair is encountered 33 times, and the two combined into one move three times [Some moves exist which develop without either of these pairs.].”24 We find these notable results concerning exclusive:

  • Only Order lacks an M—N pair
  • Chamber, Goblet, and Hallows break the exclusionary rule and have both pairs
  • Prisoner has a hybrid pair: the H-I pair involves Sirius on the primary narrative axis whilst the M-N pair involves Harry on the secondary axis

If we examine these results, we can deduce two outstanding patterns, one positive and one negative. First, we find several unusual features that become apparent when its structure and dramatis personae are related to the other books in the series and the series as a whole. We regard these unusual features as creative exploitations of the structural phenomena described by the Propositions.25 Second, we can identify clear violations of the Propositions. In the two books in the Harry Potter series that were identified as the least aesthetically satisfying, Chamber and Order, we find that there are fewer Creative Exploitations and more Violations than in the stories viewed as more aesthetically satisfying.

Chamber violates Propositions 1, 2, 3, and 5:

  • it has a Donor who is also a Villain
  • it has a Hero who is also a Dispatcher
  • it has an anomalous villainy move.

If we examine the two books in the Harry Potter series that were identified as the most aesthetically satisfying, Prisoner and Hallows, we find that there are fewer Violations and more Creative Exploitations than in the stories viewed as less aesthetically satisfying. Prisoner has no Violations of the Propositions. On the other hand, it has three Creative


  • a B-task with a hero other than Harry
  • an M-task that results in a customary [W] function.26
  • a villain other than Voldemort.

Hallows has one Violation: it contains the exclusive pairs H-I and M-N. On the other hand, it has six Creative Exploitations:

  • it has all of the common pair arrangements (Goblet is the only other story in the series that has them all, too)
  • it has nine D-tasks, more than twice as many as any of the other stories (Stone is closest with four)
  • an M-task that results in a customary [W] function.
  • it has seven Donors (the tale with the second largest number of Donors is Prisoner with five)
  • Snape is revealed to be a false villain
  • Snape is revealed to be a victim-hero (and also a seeker-hero outside the explicit narrative of Hallows.


Let us summarize our assessment and conclude this study of the Harry Potter series. We recall that Propp regards the schema of 31 functions as a “measuring unit” for folktales. Our provisional conjecture was that one “measuring unit” for the discordance of any given tale to the schema is the quantity we have defined as Incongruity. We then arranged in five Propositions the “deductions” Propp derived from the formal organization of the schema. From our analysis and interpretation of these Propositions, we derived two additional qualitative measuring units: Violation and Creative Exploitation. We therefore have three independent measuring units with which to assess the concordance of the Harry Potter series of books to the fairy tale structure of the 31 functions of the dramatis personae: Incongruity, Violation, and Creative Exploitation. The properties of Incongruity and Violation are disconcordant; the property of Creative Exploitation is concordant. If we gather together our assessments of these properties determined in the previous section, and correlate them to the results we determined concerning the aesthetic satisfaction of readers, we get the following results:


Table 4: Measure of Concordances in the Harry Potter Stories

Recall that to interpret these findings correctly, the negative measures, Incongruity and Violation, correspond to relative disconcordance with the schema, whilst the positive measure, Creative Exploitation, corresponds to relative concordance with the schema. Therefore, Chamber and Order have relatively disconcordant fairy tale structures whilst Prisoner and Hallows have relatively concordant fairy tale structures. This correlates with the respective aesthetic satisfaction reported by readers. We therefore conclude that our hypothesis is confirmed: the aesthetic satisfaction with any particular book in the Harry Potter series positively correlates to that book’s fairy tale structure as enumerated in Propp’s system of 31 functions of a folktale’s dramatis personae.

The folktale structure is at least one of the keys to the success of the Harry Potter series. We believe that critics who dismiss the artistic value and meaning of the series by pointing out its alleged formulaic motifs, conventional mores and normative identities, arrive at this judgment erroneously and often with limited familiarity with the story. However, they are correct insofar as the Harry Potter series of books follows the schema of fairy tale as outlined by Vladimir Propp. This uniform and repetitive structure congruent to that found in the larger family of such tales accounts for its apparent formulaic character. Moreover, we find that readers’ aesthetic satisfaction with specific tales within the series correlates to those tales’ conformity to the fairy tale structure. If we want to answer the question “How did Harry Potter cast his spell over so many reader?” we need to account for the diversity of aesthetic responses to the individual tales in the series. The Harry Potter series of books cast its spell over readers by closely adhering to the formal organization of folktale structure. J. K. Rowling crafted an expansive fairy tale that has proven to be aesthetically satisfying to readers of all ages around the world. She successfully traced an ancient and enduring “cultural script” found in folk narratives we learn from childhood and articulated this structure with “amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color” in her settings, characters, magical objects, themes, and artistic virtues.


This investigation was undertaken with the invaluable assistance of my undergraduate research team at Barrett Honors College, Rita McGlynn, Tracie Smith, and Saswati Soumya, without whom this study would not have been possible. The author gratefully acknowledges their contributions to this study through their painstaking critical analysis of the Proppian functions in each book of the Harry Potter series and their review, corrections, and suggestions to this report.


    1. In this paper we will use the terms ‘folktale’ and ‘fairy tale’ interchangeably to describe the same type of literary unit, following the ambiguity inherent to the Russian skázka, the word used in Propp’s Morphology.
    2. Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1928), 2nd ed., trans. Laurence Scott, ed. Louis A. Wagner (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1968).
    3. Alan Dundes, Introduction to the 2nd ed of the Morphology (1968), xiv-xv
    4. Pace John M. Lynch, the work is Narratives of Human Evolution by Misia Landau (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), x-xi; 3-16.
    5. Joan Acocella, “Under the Spell; Harry Potter explained,” The New Yorker (31 July 2000): 74-5. John Granger also noted Acocello’s article in How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books (Tyndale House, 2008), 21.
    6. In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, Ed. Lana A. Whited (Univ of Missouri Press, 2004): 67-88.
    7. Ibid, 85.
    8. 85.
    9. Propp, 20.
    10.  He refers to four “theses” (pp 20-3) of which this is the first. It is clear within the pages of the Morphology that these “theses” function as invariant laws of structure. We therefore refer to them as Propp’s four morphological laws.
    11. Ibid, 21.
    12. 21.
    13. 22-3
    14. Appendix
    15. Propp, 92.
    16. Lacoss,86.
    17. Propp, 64ff.
    18. 65.
    19. 64-5.
    20. 67-8.
    21. 79-80.
    22. Although it should be noted that “Fear itself” is a reification of Voldemort’s persona.
    23. 92.
    24. 101-2
    25. As we noted above, Order has one such artistic exploitation, but three violations.
    26. Harry’s family is somewhat restored by his finding and uniting with his godfather Sirius. Only Hallows has the other customary [W] function in the series—Harry’s marriage to Ginny, and Hermione’s marriage to Ron.

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