Max Lüthi

I can’t believe I didn’t find this guy before now. I thought I was pretty much done with my theory readings, but then I ran across this, one of the granddaddies of Folklore Theory: Max Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982). Or, as it were, Das europäische Volksmärchen: Form und Wesen (Bern: A. Francke Verlag, 1960). As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the definitive works on fairy tales, as important as Propp, Zipes and Warner, and a good deal more so than Bettelheim. And it’s nearly as old as Propp; the German version was first published in 1947 – not translated into English until 1982, but even that is pretty much contemporary with Zipes’ first work and Bettelheim. As I said, I’m really surprised I didn’t stumble across his theory before.

What’s so amazing about Lüthi’s work is that he looks at the form of the fairy tale – okay, the folktale, I guess – and precisely describes its elements, just what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale, and it really makes sense. (I’m going to use the word fairy tale for his original Märchen, because I think it’s a better fit, even though the English translator, John D. Niles, uses folktale.) Lüthi names five different elements or element groupings. I’ll give the English names Niles uses, because he’s the definitive translator, but I’ll tell you in a moment what I think of a couple of them. Here they are:

1.) One-dimensionality. By that, Lüthi means the fairy tales’ relationship to the supernatural. Otherworldly matters just exist, they are a matter of course. The fairy tale hero doesn’t blink when animals start talking to him, in fact, he’d much rather a wolf started talking than not, because then it isn’t a scary man-eating animal but “just” something supernatural. The fairy tale doesn’t move from “reality” to “the magic realm”, it only exists in Wonderland – in one dimension.

2.) Depthlessness. Representation of things, bodies, qualities, the internal world, relationships – none of them have any depth. Fairy tale people are the original flat characters. And that’s in fact the German word Lüthi uses (here’s one instance where I don’t entirely agree with Niles’ translation): Flächenhaftigkeit, the quality of a plain or of a flat wide surface. “Depthlessness” is a negative word, implying the lack of something; “Flächenhaftigkeit” is positive, the quality of flatness and expanse. Yes, the lack of depth or shape is part of it, but more important is this surface-ness, plain-ness. It’s the difference between a painted picture and a sculpture. Like abstract painting, which deals with the surface as a surface without trying to simulate depth through shading etc, the fairy tale is a flat, plain surface. Which leads us to:

3.) Abstract Style. The fairy tale paints the picture on its flat surface in sharply delineated contours and bright colours – literally, Lüthi points out, the fairy tale likes gold, silver, black, white, red (Snow White!) and the occasional blue, and not much else, no blended or muted colours. When he talks about this, I get an image of a fauve painting, a Matisse, for example. Bright, sharp, flat. Everything in the fairy tale is like that, formulaic, extreme, plain. The plot is simple, the characters are sharply outlined.

4.) Isolation and Universal Interconnection. This, according to Lüthi, is the “decisive identifying trait of the folktale. Isolation of characters, of plot, of episodes,” and following out of this, the “[c]apacity for universal interconnection” (that’s from the chapter’s subtitle in the table of contents). The characters are isolated beings, they have no strong connection to their families or home, which allows them to go out and connect or bond with the characters they meet in their adventure. The episodes in the plot are isolated from each other – often the hero learns nothing from one episode to the next, each scene takes place individually without following logically from the previous one. Things just happen, they generally are given no explanation.

5.) Sublimation and All-Inclusiveness. With this second word there is another translation that misses the mark just a bit. Lüthi’s word is Welthaltigkeit – “world containment”. “All-inclusiveness” is a pale term compared to this. The fairy tale contains the whole world in its little frame, and for this, it acquires and makes use of any motif it sees fit – the “magical, the mythic, the numinous” (I had to look up that word. It means “to do with the spiritual”.), “rites, erotic and worldly materials” – and it sublimates all those motifs, meaning it empties them of their predetermined purpose and makes them fit whatever it needs. The fairy tale “represent[s] … the contents of the world” (to quote from the Table of Contents again).

And out of this form of the folktale, that form of one-dimensionality, depthlessness, abstract style, isolation, universal connectedness and world containment, Lüthi says, we can see the function and meaning of the Märchen. The folk fairy tale (maybe that’s the best term to translate Märchen) is far more than mere entertainment. Unlike other forms of folk tales whose function can be wish fulfilment or normative, the folk fairy tale is Seinsdichtung, the literature or poetics of being. The folk fairy tale does not tell us how we wish the world was, nor how it ought to be, but how it is:

The folktale … is bound neither to reality nor to a dogma. Nor does it cling to individual events or experiences, for these are no more than its raw material. Not only does the folktale not need the support of the Church [unlike Saint’s Legends, with which Lüthi contrasts the folk fairy tale]; it continues to exist even in the face of clerical opposition. And yet, in its own way, it does give an answer to the burning questions of human existence, and this answer provides deep satisfaction. (The European Folktale, 84)

That’s sort of a nutshell summary of how I understand Lüthi’s theory. It’s a key piece in folklore research.

If you want to read an essay of a fairly extensive application of Lüthi to a particular piece of fantasy literature, which also includes a summary and explanation of the theory (a better explanation than mine, I think), check out folklore scholar Marie Brennan’s “That Fairy-Tale Feel: A Folkloric Approach to Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel. In fact, I’m very grateful to Brennan, as her essay served to steer me very definitely towards picking up a copy of Lüthi’s book.

I have another book of Lüthi’s sitting here, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, but I don’t think I’ll get to reading it before I write my paper. I’m still waiting for the German copy; I hope it gets here before I’m starting my next round of research. For now, Lüthi’s theory in The European Folktale is going to be a core part of my paper.


6 thoughts on “Max Lüthi

  1. Excellent overview of Luthi’s theory. And I was intrigued by your explication of the element of one-dimensionality. That everything exists in fairy-tales in the fairy-tale “wonderland” and so to find magic hiding behind every bush or in the form of a talking wolf is, well, ordinary. It is nothing unusual for the actual characters. Little Red Riding Hood has a conversation with the wolf, but that conversation does not include addressing the fact that he is a wolf who talks. Very interesting.


    • Lüthi is also extremely relevant to your last paper. “Depthlessness” and “abstract style” include the fact that characters in fairy tales feel no pain or never bleed other than symbolically – they can have their leg chopped off, and just keep walking, cut off their own finger to use for a key (as in “The Seven Ravens”), or, yes, dance in red-hot shoes without a whimper of pain (that’s almost a verbatim quote from Lüthi).


    • Incidentally, the one-dimensionality aspect be one of the points of my paper. In the Oz and Narnia books, the kids don’t blink at finding themselves in a magical world with magical happenings – it says so specifically, in Dorothy’s case. But in the movies, they’re expressing some serious astonishment at what’s going on – notably Susan’s line in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, when Peter says “The beaver said we could trust him,” Susan retorts, quite upset: “He’s a beaver! He shouldn’t be SAYING anything!” The movies take the fairy tale stories and inject “reality” into it.


      • Oh right. I remember Susan saying that! I thought when I saw it that it was quite humorous, even though not Lewisian. CS Lewis actually asked the child reader to embrace the magic without flinching. Then along come the rough hands of Hollywood.

        Excellent point! Thanks for that.


  2. Pingback: Max Lüthi | Baba Yaga's Handbag

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