Formalism and the Folk Narative: A Case of an Ohafia Trickster Tale

Rosetta Ifeoma Nnsi

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Ohafia folktales are oral functional means through which the sacred taboos and other vital norms of the Ohafia culture are directly handed down from one generation to the next. The tales are usually set in the land of the living, the animal kingdom or in the abode of the Spirits. They are often didactic as well as dramatic; and form an important part of entertainment, illumination and guidance for the audience usually composed of children and adolescents. Folktales come in different form, focusing on a wide range of culturally connected themes. The trickster tale is one of the folktale types in Ohafia and usually follow a clear structural pattern. This paper is an examination of the basic sequential structure and progression of the units out of which the Ohafia trickster tale is built. It is hinged on Vladimir Propp’s formalist structural study that revealed the structure of the tale as formed by the invariants of the tale, and their correlations within the compositions of the tale, alongside Alan Dundes application of Propp’s morphological structure to the study of North American Indian folktales. Dundes’ approach which essentially reduced sequential structures of the folktale to their most basic level is applied to this study. The study therefore adopts Propp’s concepts of functions and Dundes’ Motifemes for analysis to show that through the Ohafia trickster tale, typological statements can be made; which can be used for the cultural determination of content within transcultural forms, as well as for the purpose of cross-generic comparison. The study of the tale also demonstrates that in Ohafia trickster tales, there is a visible pattern of movement from friendship to a lack of friendship or enmity. The units are in the following order of sequential progression: friendship, contract, violation (breach of contract), discovery, end of friendship.

Keywords: trickster, tale, functions, motifemes, structure.


The folktale is perhaps the commonest and most popular form of oral literary expression in the Ohafia culture. They are traditional narratives that emanate from ancient antiquity and have endured to modern times predominantly as a means of entertainment and education. Ohafia folktales are not meant to be believed and are handed down in oral form, embracing a range of narratives that are sometimes explanatory, etiological, humanistic and outright fairy tales. These stories are usually set in the land of the living, the land of the spirits, and the land of the animals. In the Ohafia culture, folk narratives are usually didactic as well as dramatic. They are intended to illuminate the moral nature of man, exposing virtues such as truthfulness, respect for the sacred taboos of the Ohafia culture, obedience, temperance, humility and other important character traits. Explanations to certain complex phenomena can be gleaned also from the folktale such as how death came into the world, or why women do not grow beard etc. Ohafia folktales are organized creatively and are suffused with imaginative literary devices. Both the dramatic and didactic qualities of the tales are achieved through formal and stylistic elements such as; the story, the human situation, character portrayal and the plot development of the tale.

Themes in the Ohafia folktale range from animal issues set in the animal kingdom, human situation in the land of the living to supernatural beings or spirits activities in the world of the dead, focusing on the relationship between the living and the dead.

The Ohafia are Igbo people found in Abia state of Nigeria, spread over twenty-five villages that are divided into nine autonomous communities (Chukwuma Azuonye 4). The cultural homogeneity of the Ohafia is evident in the uniformity of their system of values manifested in the practices of various rites, age grade organization and system of succession common to Ohafia. Also, the Ohafia outlook to life which essentially borders on stoicism, devoid of unnecessary revelry can be traced to their past warrior-like tendencies. Even though there is a high level of communality within Ohafia culture, there are also individualistic traits; this may be attributed to the intense competition that exists within individuals of the same age grade, and between one age grade and another. Ohafia folktales represent a variety of interests, and, as such, can be classified in various ways such as: in terms of their themes, character types, tragic, humorous or comic qualities, and supernatural nature or in terms of moral ethics and other social values inherent in them.

Major interest of scholars in the field of Igbo oral literature has been predominantly with the collection, transcription, and classification of Igbo traditional orature, than with the analysis. It is also obvious that there is a scarcity of published texts on Igbo traditional narratives, songs, chants and recitations. This may be as a result of the fact that collecting them is not an easy venture, since most of them exist as verbal components of different traditional rites, and as such cannot be collected without the actual enactment of such traditional rites. This is because as traditional enactments, it is distinct from modem narratives, since the mode of composition is public, not private, or reserved by people who have acquired formal education. This distinction is aptly explained by Egudu and Nwoga concerning traditional poetry in the following terms:

Traditional verses are composed according to the social (cultural or ceremonial) needs of the communities… and according to the traditional form deriving from and indigenous to the communities. They have not been influenced in any vital sense by literary forms and techniques which have been introduced through formal education. (1)

What this means is that the traditional Igbo literature is not patterned after the orthodox literary genres of the novel, poetry, drama etc. They are performances which embody or enact all the modern genres fused together. The tales are usually narrated in simple every day diction devoid of excessive flowery language, such that it is easily understood. This is probably in consideration of the didactic qualities and the target audience chiefly made up of young people and adolescents. This didactic function is clearly stated by F. B.O Akporobaro in the following terms:

 Unlike what generally happens in life, the wicked characters in folktales never goes scot free. At the end, they are often victims of their excessive cunning, selfishness and malice. Thus, the tortoise, the fox and the hare are often victims of their evil schemes. They become a laughing stock for the audience. By being presented in this form, the folktale becomes a moral force that aesthetically directs the consciousness of the community (audience) towards the lore and cultivation of what is good and desirable (101).

Formalist analysis is a structuralist method of determining the components of phenomena and the noticeable relations between such components. As a structural approach to the oral narrative, formalism arose as a reaction against diffusionism. According to Chinyere Nwahunanya:

               ‘‘Whereas Stith Thompson of the diffusionist school attempted a comparism of tales in order to achieve a generic classification into tale types, the proponent of formalism, Vladimir Propp, believed that the only way of identifying the morphological structure of any tale is to examine the progression of the units out of which the tale is built’’ (125). 

Following in the footsteps of Propp, formalist analysis usually adopts a synchronic approach to the study of the tale, intended to reveal the basic elements in their structure, and the relations between them, and the whole. These components, the basic elements in the tale, are the invariants of a tale, and Propp called these units of the tale ‘‘functions’’ (125).  Along this line, this paper is a reading of a tale from the Ohafia folklore in order to determine if Alan Dunde’s application of Vladimir Propp’s approach to North American Indian folktales is valid within the structure of the Ohafia trickster tale.


The taxonomist tradition in the study of myth consists of diffusionists, represented by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, and formalists, represented by Vladimir Propp, Alan Dundes and Eleazar Meletinsky. Although diffusionism and formalism belongs to the taxonomic tradition, formalism is a reaction against diffusionism. Vladimir Propp proposed that a better way to identify any tale is to examine the progression of the units out of which the tale is built. In Meletinsky’s words, “Propp started from the premise that an exact synchronic description has to precede any diachronic, i.e. historical genetic analysis” (9). Propp’s study revealed that the structure of the tale was formed by the invariants (basic elements) of the tale, and their correlations within the compositions of the tale (Nwahunanya 106). After defining and isolating the “morphological units” which he termed “functions,” Propp proceeded to morphologically analyse one hundred tales, from which he discovered that there were “in folktales a limited number of functions, namely thirty-one, and that the sequence of these functions were fixed” (Nwahunanya 106). Furthermore, he established that all the functions do not necessarily occur in every tale, but whichever occurred did so in a predictable manner, since “together they constitute a system of composition, and this system (is) extremely stable and widespread”(11).

The units Propp called “functions” since each of the motifs has a specific role to play in the plot development at the point where it occurs in the tale. And although not every one of the thirty-one functions will be representedin every tale, “the absence of some of them does not affect the sequence of others” (11). This is so according to Nwahunanya, because “the progression from the beginning to the end is almost the same in every tale” (106).

Propp’s foremost student in the formalist structural school is Alan Dundes who applied the former’s morphological structure to the study of North American Indian folktales. In Dundes’ work “Propp’s function becomes…a motifeme…, which permits the associated notions of motifs and allomotifs” (208). Dundes in this stance redefines folkltales “as sequences of motifeme, the motifemic slots may be filled with various motifs and the specific alternative motifs for any given motifemic slot may then be labelled allomotifs” (175).

Arewa and Shrieve opine that Dundes’ motifeme means “emic motif” and is borrowed from Kenneth Pike’s definition of the nature of an emic unit (25). Motifemes are therefore basic nuclear units of syntagmatic structure, emic units of structure arrived at through emic considerations of folktales (25). According to Nwahunanya, Dundes’ by this means, aimed at reducing the number of symbols required to represent the tales to a more manageable number (107).

Dundes’ approach therefore essentially reduced the study of sequential structures to their most basic level. Such that what he regards as the most significance of the analysis of folktales is the fact that “through it, typological statements can be made; and that it can be used for the cultural determination of content within trans-cultural forms. It can also be used for prediction in an acculturation situation, as well as for the purpose of cross-generic comparison (107).

His application of the conclusions he arrived at from the analysis of North American Indian folktales to African trickster tales demonstrate that in African trickster tales, “the especially prominent pattern features a movement from friendship to a lack of friendship or enmity” (175). The units Dundes’ isolates in the pattern fall into what Propp identifies as functions, and he motifemes, are, in the following order of sequential progression: friendship, contract, violation (breach of contract), discovery, end of friendship. In this way, Dundes is able to reduce Propp’s thirty-one functions to a more manageable number.

A reading of several trickster tales in Ohafia affirms that Dundes’ framework is valid and could be applied successfully to a formalist analysis of these tales. This paper therefore attempts a formalist analysis of an Ohafia trickster tale, titled “Mbe Yara nduru” (The Tortoise and the Dove).

The Tortoise and the Dove

Once upon a time, the Tortoise and the Dove were close friends; and the Tortoise would take the trouble of slowly walking for several days to the foot of the ahawa tree where the Dove nested. On such occasion the Dove would joyfully fly down from her nest to be with the Tortoise and the two friends would spend the entire day in exchange of all manner of gossip from each one’s end of the forest. During the course of one such visit the Tortoise said to the Dove “My dearest friend, you remember how I lost my only piece of farmland to that tyrant king Lion, now the planting season is here and I have no portion to cultivate, could you please accept that both of us should combine effort to cultivate your piece of land, and share the harvest so that I will not starve.” “No, thank you” said the Dove, “I am not sure that is a good idea.” “But why not,” asked the Tortoise, looking distraught, “You are known throughout the land for your cunning and penchant for treachery; I am afraid that such a venture may ruin our friendship,” replied the Dove. “That’s true”, The Tortoise capitulated, “But I sincerely assure you that I have changed for the better. Besides, I value our friendship so much that I wouldn’t dream of doing anything that would jeopardize it. Remember our ancestors said that a good friend is more valuable than a bad relative”. Kindly reconsider my proposition.”

The Dove was moved and allowed the Tortoise to convince her, against her better judgement of the shared cultivation venture. A few days later, the two friends were seen clearing Dove’s farmland. They set the cleared foliage on fire and waited for the first rains to arrive. When the rains came, they tilled the land in preparation for the seeds. Soon the Ikpetumetu (black beans) stalks were growing speedily in the farm, and the Dove who always arrived at dawn daily because she could fly did most of the weeding and tending of the plants; while the Tortoise would take about a week to walk to the farm, where he will do very little work, and take another week to get to his home. When it was time to harvest the crop, the Dove also did more work than the Tortoise. Finally, all the produce was gathered and divided into two equal parts. The Tortoise suggested to the Dove that to show the other animals how closely knitted their friendship is; there is no need for each person to carry home their share of the harvest, but that they should rather cook each portion and eat together as good friends. The Dove agreed, and the first portion of the harvest was cooked in a large pot right there at the farm. As they were about to settle down to eat, the Tortoise casually asked the Dove to mention the name of the meal. He did this because he knew that the Dove stammered, and may not find it easy to say the name of the food. “Whoever does not say the name of the food shall not eat” declared the Tortoise. And he promptly said “ikpetumetu,” and began to quickly stuff the food into his mouth. But the Dove, being that shestammered, tried to say the name of the meal “kpekpetutu, kpetukpetu, tutukpekpe, kpekpetukpetukpe” each time she tried the Tortoise would shake his head in the negative, while continuing to eat as fast as he could. This continued until all the food in the pot was eaten by the Tortoise. The dove was left very hungry and angrily flew home. The following day, the remaining portion of the harvest was prepared and just before they settled down to eat the Dove declared “whoever does not wash his hands shall not eat.” Then she flew to the stream nearby washed her hands and flew back to the pot, where she promptly began to eat. The Tortoise was initially unperturbed, since the stream was very close to the farm. He walked as fast as he couldto the stream and washed his hands then he ran quickly back to the pot, but his hands were covered with dust and sand; because he has to walk on all four limbs. The Dove insisted that he has to go back and wash his hands again since they were so dirty. In this way the Dove finished the entire pot of food while the Tortoise continued on an endless furtive mission of hand wash to and from the stream, without eating a morsel. Finally, he went home dejected, vowing never to speak to the Dove again.

Like is usually found in every trickster tale, the tale above features two main characters: the trickster (the Tortoise) and another character that is tricked (the Dove). In this tale emerges a sequential structure that can successfully be divided into Dundes’ five motifemes:

Friendship: Mr. Tortoise becomes great friends with Mrs. Dove and they spent quality time together.

Contract: Following the Tortoise’s proposal, to which the Dove was sceptical initially, and reminded the Tortoise of his cunning and treachery, the Tortoise convinces the Dove, that he (Tortoise) has changed. Therefore, both agree to enter into a contract of mutual help and cooperation, based on this understanding, the Dove agreed to ashared farming venture on her farmland with the Tortoise.

Violation: Because this is a trickster tale, however, the friendship and cooperation into which the Tortoise enters with Mrs. Dove is in reality a false one. This is because essentially his aims are purely selfish. Furthermore, the fact that the land belongs to Mrs. Dove, and that she did the major work in the cultivation, planting and tending of the crops, while the Tortoise slowly walked for weeks to and from the farm contributed to the violation. Finally, the declaration “whoever does not mention the name of the food shall not eat”made by the Tortoisewhen the food was prepared, knowing that the Dove’s stammering would make it difficult for her to say the name of the food, mark the stage of the violation of the contract, which both of them had mutually entered into. This violation becomes an impediment to the contract of friendship between the Tortoise and the Dove.

Discovery: Predictably the Tortoise ends up eating the entire food in the pot while Mrs. Dove desperately tries in vain to say the name of the meal because she stammered; also her situation is worsened by her hungry and angry state. Thus, even though the farmland belongs to her, and in spite of the fact that she did more work than the Tortoise, she lost out on the first part of the harvest. This realization makes it obvious for Mrs. Dove to discover Tortoise’s violation of their contract.

End of Friendship: The silent mutual basis of the friendship, maintained by the contract is that the friendship endures only as long as the contract, which is a product of the friendship (which supports it), is not violated. Therefore, as soon as the Tortoise violates it, by depriving the Dove of her fair share of the meal, the tortoise sets the stage for the dissolution of the friendship. Hence the Dove’s angry response to this discovery (her clever use of the samecriteria) to deprive the Tortoise of his share of the second meal ends the friendship, thus the completion of the five-motifeme structure.

It is interesting to note that this tale features what Propp termed the “initial situation”, which is a set of circumstances or events that necessitate a friendship. It could be a general state of disorder, a problem of global significance which affects everyone, or a more private circumstance such as the Tortoise losing his farmland to“tyrant King Lion”.

There is a sense in which one can see certain units in this tale as allomotifs within the motifemes of friendship. Such include the existence of the fact that the Tortoise lost his farmland to the tyrant King Lion.  In the tale, we discover that the Tortoise is in a dilemma; it is the beginning of a new planting season and He (the Tortoise) having lost his farm land to the tyrant King Lion, has no place to cultivate his crops. Like in other trickster tales of this type,the trickster employs his power of persuasion to convince the Dove to jointly farm Mrs. Dove’s farmland with her; and her initial unwillingness to go into a shared cropping venture with the Tortoise (which the Tortoise easily swept aside with his persuasive ingenuity) is also a predominant feature of this type of trickster tale.

 The tale above also validates Propp and Dundes’ opinion that the pattern of occurrence of these units (functions or mortifemes) is fixed. There is a problem (Tortoise losing his farmland to the tyrant King Lion) before a solution to it is sought (Tortoise going into a shared farming venture on Dove’s farmland with her). Furthermore, the morphological importance of the friendshipthat existed between two unlikely characters such as the Tortoise and the Dove is its preparation for the contract. Also, a contract of friendship has to be entered into, before it is breached. Consequently, since a basis for the friendship no longer exists, (because of the breach)it has to be dissolved. This therefore validates Lee Haring’s observation that “in any sequence of mortifemes, each motifeme creates a probability for the later ones” (173).The King taking away Tortoise farm land created the probability for he (Tortoise) and the Dove mutually cultivating Doves’ farmland, the mutual cropping venture created the probability of the Tortoise cheating the Dove of her own fair share of the harvest which led to the breach and ultimately the end of the friendship.

The tale also highlights some of Propp’s functions, for instance the loss and the procurement. The loss of Tortoise’s farmland, and the procurement (of an alternative farmland). The loss is brought about by the tyranny of King Lion, which the Tortoise procured hereafter he tricks the Dove into friendship and convinces her to allow him share in the cultivation and harvesting of crops on her farmland. Dundes’ has stated that “if the first half of the twin functions pair (as is shown in this case) occurs, the second half is almost inevitable” (177).The loss of farmland is the first half of the twin function; while the procurement of land is the second half of the twin function.  Therefore, the necessary co-occurrence of the two functions is confirmed by this tale.

Also clearly obvious in the story above is Propp’s Interdiction, Violation (of interdiction), and Reconnaissance(Discovery and exposure of the Villain). Mrs. Dove’s declaration that whoever does not wash his hand will not eat, would appropriately fit into Propp’s “punishment”, since the Tortoise actually paid the price for his treachery by forfeiting his portion of the second meal. It is however important to note that these various functions or mortifemes applied from the theory all occur in a fixed order in the tale which is irreversible. This is so because “once the order is reversed the tale loses its identity as a trickster tale” (Nwahunanya 130).


This paper details a formalistic analysis of the sequential structure of an Ohafia trickster tale revealing the under lying linear pattern of the tale, and at the same time showing the basic units that make up the tale. It has also reinforced Dundes’ opinion that formal analysis of structure is useful in helping the analyst to make proper typological statements about a particular tale; determine its cultural content where possible; make predictions about the tale in accultural situations and engage in cross-generic comparison of tales.


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