The Aarne-Thompson tale type index is a one stop cornucopia of amazing ideas for GMs and players. Character archetypes, plot beats, background ideas. But to use the vast powers of the Aarne-Thompson means understanding what it is, the information it holds, and the limitations of the index.
What Is It
The Aarne–Thompson isn’t a collection of full-text folk tales, but instead an index of tale types. The recurring plot types we see in folklore (talking animals, wise old women, supernatural opponents) are grouped into categories, and specific tales have an assigned number. For example:
333-Little Red Riding Hood
So you get a class of story (fairy tale), the subclass (supernatural opponents), and then down to an individual entity. In this case, the Big Bad Wolf contained in the LRRH story is what puts that classic tale into its type/subclass categories. It doesn’t matter that the story title doesn’t contain the name of the opponent, because the title doesn’t matter in this regard, only the content. If you pop open the Index, entire classes of stories can have a dizzying array of subtypes (like the animal stories.) For GMs looking for hooks, a trip down the Index could give a rough idea or two about bringing in mysterious spouses and talking foxes to spice up the game plot.
History of the Index
Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne’s tale types classifications were first published in 1910. His Index drew on Finish, Danish, and German folk tales.
In 1928, Stith Thompson began his work on a revised Aarne system. The Aarne-Thompson Index included stories from other countries, including Ireland and India, which widened the scope of the index to being an Indo-European resource. 1
The revisions to the index didn’t end with Thompson. Hans-Jorg Uther updated the index as well (the Aarne-Thompson-Uther) in 2004, by adding new research, new tale types (250) and he tagged the tale types’ global distribution (making it easier to see where tales have been occurring.) But Aarne and Thompson were concerned with tales that originated in oral traditions, while Uther has been focused on tales that were written. Recently, some tale types are being updated in academic literature by their Aarne-Thompson-Uther index location (ATU number.)
The Aarne-Thompson didn’t cover folktales globally. 2 While it does provide an (albeit constrained) look at many Indo-European stories, it was written from an explicitly Eurocentric view, which makes slotting stories outside that cultural context into the index at best a challenging task. You’re also looking at different cultural values and cultural contexts, which makes shoving every folktale in the world into the index a lss than stellar option. Though the 1961 update performed by Thompson tried to include some Arabic stories as well, it still fell short by only offering a sliver of Arabic tale types that exist.
There are a number of similar indexes that have arisen over the years that address tale typing in very specific cultures, like Wolfram Eberhard and P.N. Boratav’s Typen türkischer Volksmärchen. But their index is focused almost exclusively on Turkish tale types, and that’s basically the limitation tale typing has over and over again. The ATI wasn’t able to capture a global look, and many other indexes are focused razor-sharp on specific communities. There’s this sense of a closed system, all indexes to date have only been able to do so much.
The AT classifications can get a little weird, especially when trying to place stories that aren’t already in it into the AT index.Stories that reflect multiple AT classifiers can really make inserting them into the index problematic, and that’s before you even address how many cultures still aren’t represented in the index. For example: Native American story traditions. Neither Aarne nor Thompson ever addressed those stories, of which there are numerous. The changes between Aarne and the Thompson update would also change some stories original entry numbers, which also contributes to the overall sense of the incomprehensible the index can bestow on people trying to use it.
So, AT tale type index is good for assisting educators and folklorists notice thematic elements of tales across cultures. When someone says “This is ____ culture’s LRRH/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty” those comparisons have often been assisted by drawing upon the AT to find the root commanalities of those tales. It also helps act as a folklore geneology; in those parellels of tales, you can see how stories can travel into new regions and become part of the new host culture as people have migrated over time across the globe. So, even though the AT comes from a Eurocentric origin, it has helped folklorists and cultural studies professionals push for intercultural study.
Where It Dwells Now
Uther’s The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography 2011 edition goes for nearly $300.00 USD. You can sometimes find Uther’s index update at used book sellers. Even D.L.Ashliman’s adaption of the Index goes for over $100.00 USD. The most likely library near you to find any of the editions at is likely your nearest four year college/university.
As for the place of the Index in the study of folklore? Academic criticisms across the decades have been leveled at the Index for everything from its original bias towards oral histories to how it classifies the different tale types. But it’s been a potent tool for academics and educators to explore the many parallel tales across countries and cultures, and could be a great seed for plots and adventures at your tables.
1. The AT could feasibly have devoted some of the Index to tagging country of origin, or other region-specific details, but the AT had never addressed this kind of tale type indexing (though Uther’s revision would change this.)
2. Even with Uther’s revisions, which are instead a step in the right direction, not a complete 180 from its Eurocentric origin.
Have a folktale or folktale adaptation you love and want to recommend to others? Leave reading suggestions in the comments! If you want to see an intriguing spin on the AT in fiction, you can check out the Seanan McGuire Kindle Series Indexing.