The Woman, the Wabbit, and Captain Howdy: A Proppian Consideration of “The Story of the Three Bears”

The-Exorcist-2
The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin

It is often in the first phrase of the typical folktale—“Once upon a time”—that a reader is afforded immediate access to a story which transcends time and space. Such stories endure, it could be argued, because of this very quality of disassociation with one’s own immediate situation. Stories from far-gone eras are still readily enjoyed by a great deal of people who hear and read them. And yet, even in light of this, it still remains true that such stories are constantly being refashioned and reimagined in ways that introduce fresh insights into new contexts. This is certainly true of “The Story of the Three Bears,” a nineteenth-century English tale which cobbles together several preceding oral traditions into an essentially original narrative. First published in 1837, this version by Robert Southey would provide the framework for a number of versions, whether overt in their borrowings or more subdued because of unintentional mirroring. This tendency toward retaining the essential functions of Southey’s story are demonstrable in both the animated short “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears” and, rather surprisingly, the 1973 supernatural horror film The Exorcist. This should not be so unexpected if we are to listen to Vladimir Propp, who used formalist theory to prove that “the recurrence of functions” in different stories over time “is astounding” and ought to be recognized (20). These three texts’ similarities and differences in narrative functions are most evident when one employs Propp’s system of folktale classification.

The original “Story of the Three Bears” can be seen to have a relatively simple progression of functions under the Proppian system. In this tale, the Three Bears are clearly the protagonists, while the character of the old Woman acts as the antagonist through various acts like entering a household which is not her own, eating food that belongs to others, and unsettling as well as destroying pieces of furniture.

This story’s initial situation is explained in the opening sentence, that “[o]nce upon a time there were Three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own, in a wood” (Southey 327). By the end of the next paragraph, there is no doubt as to the role of the bears as protagonists, especially since they are described in the clearest terms as “very good-natured and hospitable” (328). This is in stark contrast with the old Woman, who is called “impudent” and selfish among other things. Her bad nature is the factor which underlies her desire for villainies, the central acts on her part which occur throughout the entire story in a trebling form. Propp describes trebling as a triple succession where actions “twice produce negative results before the third, successful outcome” (Propp 74). This is expressed by Southey, for instance, when the “too hot” and “too cold” porridges that the Woman tastes are resolved by a “just right” porridge that she devours (Southey 328). The uninvited eating of porridge is followed by more uninvited usage of chairs and beds on the old Woman’s part.

Following these three distinct acts of villainy, the Three Bears return from their absence and it is Wee Bear who first articulates a realization of lack. His porridge, a tangible thing that is a source of sustenance, is now missing. He also notices how his chair’s bottom has been broken and his bed slept in, actually discovering the intruder herself lying there on his mattress and pillow. Such a discovery is what Propp classifies as exposure of a villain. Because the Woman was so careless as to fall asleep in the house she invaded, she left herself vulnerable to being uncovered by the Three Bears. Upon hearing their voices, she immediately rolls herself off of the bed and races to an open window. She then proceeds to leap out of the room, carrying out the final function of a villain being defeated by expulsion. In this case, the expulsion is her own doing.

Using Propp’s system of classification, which focuses on each of these individual functions, one can understand the story’s sequence of events in the following manner:

I (ABSENTATION: BEARS LEAVE HOUSE); [VIII (VILLAINY: PLUNDERING IN VARIOUS FORMS)] TREBLING; XX (RETURN: BEARS COME BACK FROM WALK); IX (LACK IS MADE KNOWN: WEE BEAR DISCOVERS MISSING PORRIDGE); XXVIII (EXPOSURE: PRESENCE OF INTRUDER IS REALIZED); XVIII (THE VILLAIN IS DEFEATED: EXPULSION – WOMAN LEAPS OUT OF WINDOW)

a β1β3 (A5 )  ↓ B Ex I6

It may seem surprising that a later, animated version of Southey’s tale could in fact be more intricate in terms of Proppian functions than the original. This is certainly the case with the Merrie Melodies short “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears,” which was first released in February of 1944. The initial situation in this version is made apparent in a more humorous way than the original, with Papa Bear actually counting the number of members in his family and remarking about how they ought to do the same thing as the original Three Bears. He adds one caveat, however, by explaining that “when Goldilocks [the old Woman] goes upstairs to sleep… WHAM!” Like the original story, absentation on the bear family’s part is the first function appearing in the cartoon, but it is markedly different because it is carried out in a deceptive manner; the family actually hides behind a curtain in the house. The new version also introduces a significant variation in its reversal of protagonist and antagonist roles. In this short, it is instead the Bears who act as villains because of their desire to purposely lure someone into their household and then cause harm to the victim. The initial action carried out in the Three Bears’ scheme is to cook up some carrot soup. Bugs Bunny quickly becomes an unknowing participant because of his voracious appetite for carrots, a factor in the story which results in a departure from his home. Bugs passively hands himself over to his stomach, something which is shown by his flying through the air and being guided along by a vapor trail left there by the food’s aroma. These two functions fit just as well under Propp’s classification system if understood as variants of guidance.

It is at this point that Bugs Bunny encounters and begins to consume the carrot soup, an element which appears in the story as the first function of the donor. The soup is present as something which is secretly intended to lead to the destruction of the protagonist. In a matter of seconds, the bears attempt to seize Bugs, but stop immediately when they realize he is aware of them. This is the first instance of rescue from harm. Two more rescues follow, with Bugs avoiding capture by way of speed and clever trickery. His distraction of Mother Bear by feigning attraction to her “beautiful” eyes and lips ends up being the best tactic for escape. He is pursued but rescued again because of Mama Bear’s intervention. The escape of the main character, then, differs between the original story and this version. But both give us a sense that the Three Bears are a terrifying bunch from which anyone would rightly want to escape. It is obvious that there is intention behind the functional changes in this cartoon version. The overall structure of Southey’s morality tale on breaking-and-entering is morphed by “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears” into a comedy short about avoiding being lured by predators.

Relying on Propp, the cartoon version of this story is understood in the following way:

I (ABSENTATION: BEARS LEAVE HOUSE); VI.1 (TRICKERY); VII.1 (COMPLICITY: BUGS BECOMES A PAWN); XI (DEPARTURE: BUGS LEAVES FOR FOOD); XV.1 (GUIDANCE; FLIGHT THROUGH AIR); XV.3 (GUIDANCE; LED BY FOOD AROMA); XII.8 (FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: CARROT SOUP PROVIDED ON TABLE); [XXI.5 (THE HERO IS PURSUED; PURSUER TRIES TO DEVOUR THE HERO); XXII.8 (RESCUE OF THE HERO FROM PURSUIT; HE DOES NOT ALLOW HIMSELF TO BE DEVOURED); XXI.5 (THE HERO IS PURSUED; PURSUER TRIES TO DEVOUR THE HERO); XXII.8 (RESCUE OF THE HERO FROM PURSUIT; HE DOES NOT ALLOW HIMSELF TO BE DEVOURED); XXI.5 (THE HERO IS PURSUED; PURSUER TRIES TO DEVOUR THE HERO); XXII.8 (RESCUE OF THE HERO FROM PURSUIT; HE DOES NOT ALLOW HIMSELF TO BE DEVOURED)] TREBLING; XXI.6 (THE HERO IS PURSUED; PURSUER ATTEMPTS TO KILL THE HERO); XXII.9 (RESCUE OF THE HERO FROM PURSUIT; HE IS SAVED FROM AN ATTEMPT ON HIS LIFE)

a β1β3 η1 θ1 ↑ G1G3 D8 (Pr5 Rs8)  (Pr6 Rs9)

Going beyond an obvious revision like “Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears,” it is worth considering a much more subtle presence of the original tale’s structural elements in an unexpected context, that of the 1973 film The Exorcist. Although the functions of The Exorcist mentioned herein do not include everything that happens in the film, they are still representative of those functions undergirding the central plot. Its opening scenes act as a prelude, something which depicts the precise origin of the demon who later plays a prominent role as the film’s infamous protagonist. Like Southey’s story, however, the main narrative of The Exorcist essentially begins with an act of absentation on the part of an elder. Chris McNeil, the mother of the main character Regan, is removed from the house while she takes a drive downtown to Washington, D.C. This is arguably an absence which allows the demon to fully assert its presence. Earlier on, the viewer gets some insight into how this presence was even initiated. Regan mentions having played with a Ouija board and communicating with a personage that identified itself as Captain Howdy. This ought to be classified as the initial situation, since it is precisely this connection with the supernatural realm that opened the door to a demonic entrance in the first place. Chris’ absentation from the house, then, is what allows the demon’s entrance to occur in the most uninhibited manner.

A little further into the film, we see an open window in Regan’s now ice-cold room, a feature marking the transition from a normal existence to the onset of demonic possession. The demon has effectively entered the girl’s house and taken possession of something that did not belong to it, namely Regan’s body and personage. The first act of villainy that occurs in conjunction with this is the murder of Burke Dennings, a director who has worked with Regan’s mother.

Following this incident, the demon’s presence in Regan’s body progressively moves toward total possession. The viewer witnesses this when Father Karras calls Regan by her name, but the demon replies instead by affirming, “I’m not Regan.” This complete loss of personality arguably mirrors the loss of porridge in “The Story of the Three Bears” because it signifies an identification of lack on the part of a main character. Karras, like Wee Bear, is the one who carries out this function. In essence, Regan’s mind is something which originally existed in the McNeil household. The villainy of the demon’s possession, however, has depleted her consciousness just as the old Woman depletes porridge from the Wee Bear’s bowl. Two main acts of villainy follow this, including an attempted attack on the girl’s mother and the inducing of a heart attack in the floundering Father Merrin while he struggles to perform exorcism rites. Like the original “Three Bears” ordering of functions, then, The Exorcist features trebling when it comes to the sequence of villainous acts that are carried out.

In one of the final scenes, the demon enters Father Karras’ body and then Karras proceeds to leap out the window, taking the demon along with him. This marks the point in the story wherein the villain is defeated. There is, of course, a remarkable similarity with the original “Story of the Three Bears” because of the manner in which the villain is expelled. In both cases, it occurs by way of a window, with the bed playing a role in each story as the furniture used by the villain just before the expulsion. There is also an element of mystery in each story as to where the villain might have eventually ended up. Just as “the Three Bears never saw anything more of her” (Southey 329) in the original folktale, the implication of The Exorcist is that the demonic presence has been resolved and will never be something encountered again.

Again relying Propp’s numeric and symbolic system, The Exorcist can remarkably be shown to mirror Southey’s “Story of the Three Bears” in the following way:

I (ABSENTATION: ELDER <CHRIS> LEAVES FOR D.C.); [VIII (VILLAINY: MURDER OF BURKE); VIII (VILLAINY: MASTURBATION, ASSAULT); VIII (VILLAINY: MURDER OF FATHER MERRIN)] TREBLING; VIIIa (LACK: REGAN’S PERSONALITY COMPLETELY LOST); XVI (STRUGGLE: KARRAS PUNCHES REGAN/DEMON ON THE FLOOR); XVIII (THE VILLAIN IS DEFEATED: DEMON/KARRAS LEAPS OUT OF WINDOW)

a β1 (A5 )  B H I6

In observing these curious repetitions and alterations of functions in three different stories, the question inevitably arises as to why these functions are so altered in the version of a tale that bears its name but more retained in one which does not. It might be supposed that the creators of a more modern work like The Exorcist have unconsciously drawn inspiration from childhood fairy tales, perhaps in a Freudian manner. It is vital to remember that these functions fit into what Propp calls “ready-made formulae capable of becoming animated with a new mood, giving rise to new formations” (116). These functions are present in even unexpected contexts because they have been time-tested for effectiveness. For creators and their audiences, both of whom were undoubtedly subjected to folktales at some point in childhood, the largely subliminal presence of those tales’ narratives in something like a horror film can offer a great deal of comfort. We know there are villains to be expelled and that, before getting to this conclusion, the protagonists of any story will face multiple difficulties. The continuation and alteration of folktale traditions in such unexpected manners is one of the best ways of defamiliarizing ourselves with the original stories, much in the same way that Shklovsky speaks of art as a means for revealing “things out of their normal context” (17).

 

Works Cited

“Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears.” Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume One. Writ. Tedd Pierce. Dir. Charles M. Jones. 1944. Warner Brothers, 2004. DVD.

Exorcist. By William Peter Blatty. Dir. William Friedkin. 1973. Warner Home Video, 2000. DVD.

Propp, V. I. Morphology of the Folktale. 2d ed. Austin: U of Texas, 1968. Print.

Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” Trans. Lee T. Lemon. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Second ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2012. 3-25. Print.

Southey, Robert. “The Story of the Three Bears.” The Doctor. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1848. 327-29. Google Book Search. Web. 6 October 2014.

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