MuggleNet Academia: Folktale Structure and Potter Mania

MuggleNet’s Keith Hawk, host of their MuggleNet Academia podcast, has written me to say the latest show, a discussion with independent scholar Joel Hunter about the folktale elements in Harry Potter that he believes is part of an explanation of Potter Mania, is available for downloading. From the MuggleNet news bulletin:

The latest episode of MuggleNet Academia is now released for your listening and academic pleasure. Lesson 7: ‘Folktale Structure as the Key to the Success of the Harry Potter Series’ discusses an in-depth look at the research behind the relationship of Folktale structures as described by Vladimir Propp and if this is the reason that the Harry Potter series is so a successful in today’s world.

Join the Host of the show, Keith Hawk, and Co-Host John Granger, The Hogwarts Professor and author of The Deathly Hallows Lectures, as we are joined by  Joel B. Hunter, independent scholar and Potter Pundit, and Arizona State University student Rita McGlynn.

Lesson 7:

  • Researching Harry Potter success through Folktale
  • Vladimir Propp 31 Basic Elements of a Folktale
  • Is Dumbledore considered the real hero of this story?
  • Can we apply this theory to other series’ like Hunger Games, or Twilight?
  • And much more!

To listen to the show and discover more insight into the fabulous literature of author J.K. Rowling, download the lesson right here, or head on over to iTunes. You can also listen directly from Facebook.

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For information on the lessons, professors, news in the academic world, or some of the great Harry Potter reference books, head on over to the MuggleNet Academia Section. Enjoy the show!


  1. Propp’s theory seems to fit HP very well. And I think it could explain part of HP’s popularity, at least within western culture. But it can’t explain all of the popularity, as Hunter seemed to agree. Otherwise, folk tales that more perfectly follow Propp’s functions should be more popular than HP. It would be interesting if someone identified functions of non-western folk tales. I wonder how similar they would be to the Propp’s functions.

    I was reminded during this podcast on the Inklings’ views of myth: that all myths contain bits of the truth. I think this view could explain more about the universality of HP’s popularity.

    I also wonder how some of the “rules” of genre-writing would align themselves with these functions. How would the plot points of mysteries, school-boy novels, or romances fit with Propp’s functions? And how do some of the Inklings’ thoughts (like all stories are stories of the fall) fit with Propp’s functions? All we all coming to the same conclusions by different avenues — do all roads lead to Rome?

  2. joel hunter says

    Hello miles365,

    Thanks for listening to the show and picking up these points. I’m happy to follow up with a couple of addenda.

    First, I was less careful in my spoken remarks than I am in my written essay about the issue of popularity. I actually want to distance my claims from that term since it has the common connotation of “fad,” which invites speculation and analysis of non-literary factors. I’m more interested in what I prefer to call “aesthetic satisfaction.” And what particularly interests me about the Potter saga is not only why the vast majority of readers of the series report enjoying the complete story, but what might account for the varying particular aesthetic satisfaction readers report for the individual books within the series. My hypothesis was that these different levels of aesthetic satisfaction would correlate with the “fitness” of the individual tale to the narrative structure of folktales as defined by Propp.

    The whole enterprise, however, depends on how you understand what “fitness” means and how you determine it. Or as you put it, “more perfectly follow.” Exactly right. Propp claims in the Morphology that the schema of functions is to the folktale as a yardstick is to cloth, but he gives no specific suggestions about what “quantity” the schema measures, nor what the units of measurement might be. That is the heart of my research findings–to identify and justify what the schema actually measures and how to interpret the meaning of those measurements.

    Also, I believe theorists have applied Propp’s schema to non-western literature and cultural materials–mid- to late-60s I think–but I do not know specific references.

    And with respect to the Inklings, one follow-up paper I’m considering is a comparative analysis of Tolkien’s and Propp’s definitions and analyses of fairy tales. I think the really interesting question that is beyond the ken of a Proppian analysis (and Propp himself is well aware of this) is what accounts for the sameness of narrative structure across the extraordinary diversity of cultural contexts in human societies throughout history.

  3. Hello Joel,

    Thanks for being on the show and giving all of us something great to listen to!

    I can see that fitness is probably tricky to judge. I hadn’t heard of Propp before, but it sounds as if he didn’t give any indication as to whether he thought certain functions or combinations of functions carried more weight than others. Did you develop any theories about this while researching, or were you mainly looking at how many functions each story contained?

    Your idea of comparing Tolkien’s and Propp’s definitions/analyses of fairy tales sounds as though it would be interesting work.

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