Epic Laws of Folk Narrative

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The epic laws of folk narrative were a series of principles identified by Axel Olrik for understanding the structure and form of folktales, and have a foundational significance in European folklore studies.[1]

Olrik's formulation of his 'epic laws' was inspired by an idea of Moltke Moe, but whereas Moe sought to derive rules for the historical development of narratives, Olrik's approach focuses on the structure of oral narrative.[2] The principles were articulated in various publications, the first prominent one appearing in Danish in 1908.[3] In the same year, Olrik presented the principles in German at an interdisciplinary congress in Berlin.[4]

Olrik's thought on 'epic laws' was part of a wider project, developed with Kristian Erslev, for understanding oral narrative (which Olrik called sagn in Danish), also including principles for the study of sources and a theory of transmission.[5] Although Olrik drew on non-European material, his focus was explicitly on European folk narrative.

Summary of the laws

This summary is based on the numbering of the 1908 Danish article, and the English terminology is as far as possible from the 1965 English translation of the 1909 German article.

# Key Danish term Usual English term
1 overskuelighed simplicity The story has few characters or other agents.
2 sceniske totalslov the law of two to a scene Only two characters act at a time.
3 sagnet skematiserer sit stof schematic storytelling Dialogue is, for example, repeated verbatim as far as possible.
4 sagnets plastik the use of tableaux scenes Images are clear; outer behaviour is consistent with inner motivation.
5 sagnets logik logic The story generally incorporates only elements necessary for the action: plausibility is determined more by the internal logic of the plot than by external reality.
6 enkelt begivenhed unity of plot The action coalesces around a single event; only that which is necessary to it is included in the story.
7 episke handlingsenhed epic unity Each development of the story builds clearly towards an event which the listener can foresee right from the beginning.
8 handlingens ligeløb the law of the single strand Events occur sequentially and in order of causation. Synchronous events are avoided.
9 midtpunktsloven concentration on a leading character The story is organised around a single central character.
10 to hovedpersoner two main characters The central character can manifest as a duo (often a man and a woman, often with the woman subservient to the man).
11 modsætningsloven the law of opposition When two characters are on stage, they are often opposite in character and are in opposition in the story: bad/good, poor/rich. big/small, stupid/wise, young/old.
12 modsat karakter the law of contrast Secondary characters have characteristics which contrast with the main character.
13 tvillingeloven the law of twins When two people perform an action jointly, they prove weaker than the character who performs the action alone.
14 tretalsloven og gentagelsesloven the law of 3 and the law of repetition There is frequent repetition, usually in threes.
15 bagvægt the law of final position When several similar situations are presented in sequence, the main emphasis is on the final one.
16 reglen om forvægt the law of initial position The first person listed in a sequence is of the highest status, but we will sympathise most with the person listed last.
17 indledningsloven the law of opening The story moves from the mundane to the exciting.
18 hvileloven the law of closing The story does not end abruptly with the climax, but always with some epilogue or closing formula.

Key publications

  • 'Episke love i folkedigtningen', Danske Studier, 5 (1908): 69-89.
  • ‘Epische Gesetze der Volksdichtung’, Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und Deutsche Literatur, 51 (1909), 1–12, translated into English by Jeanne P. Steager as ‘Epic Laws of Folk Narrative’, in The Study of Folklore, ed. by Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 129–41, OCLC 523555.
  • Nogle grundsætninger for sagnforskning. Efter forfatterens død udgivet af Dansk folkemindesamling, ed. by Hans Ellekilde (Copenhagen: Det Schønbergske forlag, 1921), translated into English as Principles for Oral Narrative Research, trans. by Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), ISBN 0253341752.


  1. ^ ‘Epic Laws of Folk Narrative’, in The Study of Folklore, ed. by Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 129–41 (p. 129).
  2. ^ Alan Dundes, International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999, ISBN 9780847695140, p. 85.
  3. ^ Axel Olrik, 'Episke love i folkedigtningen', Danske Studier, 5 (1908): 69-89 (http://danskestudier.dk/materiale/1908.pdf).
  4. ^ Axel Olrik, ‘Epic Laws of Folk Narrative’, trans. by Jeanne P. Steager in The Study of Folklore, ed. by Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 129–41 (p. 129).
  5. ^ Bengt Holbek, "Axel Olrik", Dansk Biografisk Leksikon, retrieved 1 January 2013 (in Danish)
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