Saturday, March 17, 2018

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Darby O'Gill and the Good People.

So, it’s March once again and we’re looking at another St. Patrick’s Day coming our way (or already here, depending on when I post this).  And as both Ireland and the USA prepare to observe St. Patrick’s Day in their own ways, we are once again faced with that perennial question posed by the Irish:

“What is it with you Americans and all the bloody leprechauns?”

What started as a day to venerate a Catholic saint has since been embraced as a general “Irish Appreciation Day”, celebrated with a veritable mish-mash of Ireland adjacent things like Celtic music, beer, soda bread, more beer, corned beef and cabbage (note: corned beef is much more Irish-American than Irish) and that ubiquitous mascot for the holiday here in the U.S.: the leprechaun.

Now, don’t get me wrong, leprechauns are a part of old Irish fairy lore and all.  However, they’re just one little part alongside clurichauns, pookas, changelings, banshees, etc.  Yet, they've come to represent all of Irish lore for Americans.  So, how did this particular bit of lore get latched onto so firmly by the Americans?  Well, I have a theory.

One of the easiest ways to get Americans to warm up to the new groups that are coming onto their shores is to tell them the right story.  With the Italians it was the whole Christopher Columbus thing (which is a whole subject unto itself).  Now, the Irish faced a lot of trouble when they emigrated to America.  So, which story may have won over the preexisting Americans?  

I think it may have been Darby O’Gill and the Good People by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh.  

 Kavanagh was an early 20th Century writer.  Her father was Irish, but she was born in the UK and was married to a couple of different men in her lifetime, one of whom was a judge from Chicago.  So, she seemed to spend a fair bit of time split between the British Isles and the American continent.  Her stories based on Irish lore were first published as a series in McClure’s magazine and were collected into a book in 1903.

This is a book you may have heard of or you may not have.  It was made into a Disney movie under a slightly different name, albeit one of their live action ones.
This book is comprised of basically three stories.  The first is aptly titled “Darby O’Gill and the Good People”.  The second is “How the Fairies Came to Ireland”.  The third is “Darby O’Gill and the Leprechaun”.

The first story introduces us to our hero, an average man by the name of Darby O’Gill from Tipperary, Ireland.  When he discovers that one of his cows is missing, presumably taken by the fairies, he sets out to get it back.  This leads him into the realm of the fairies where he makes friends with the fairy king.  This eventually leads to an escape in which he tricks the fairies into giving up not just his cow but also a number of human beings they had taken over the years.

The second story features the local priest who’s travelling when his horse loses a shoe on the fairies’ hill.  The king of the fairies shows up with some of his blacksmiths to help shoe the horse.  While they’re working, the fairy king tells the story of where the fairies came from and how they came to Ireland.

The last story features the return of Mr. Darby O’Gill.  This time, he catches sight of a leprechaun and uses the three wishes he gets to try and one-up his wife (who he seems to squabble with a fair bit) by creating a family castle and all the associated finery.  Things don’t go quite to plan, though.

All three stories were pretty good.  I could have done without them being written in dialect (First Uncle Remus and now this one.  Why do I seem to keep finding these books lately).  “Broguing” aside, they were perfectly enjoyable stories that played pretty faithfully with Irish fairy lore.  There is one notable exception and it’s a story that seems to purposely rewrite the lore.  That would be the second story “How the Fairies Came to Ireland”.  You see, one of the older bits of lore about where fairies came from is that they’re actually fallen angels.  The idea being that unlike the devil fell all the way to Hell, the fairies only fell to Earth.  The result of this is that the fairies can’t pray and they can’t stand a pious word being said in their presence.  So, if you say something like “Lord be with you” they cringe and snarl and act like they’ve been personally insulted.    So, the story starts with Father Cassidy wondering what great sin they must have committed to get kicked out of Heaven.  So, when he talks to Brain Connors the king of the fairies, he’s given a different story.  Connors tells him that the fairies were actually a different race that was created and lived in Heaven.  However, when the war between Lucifer and God happened, the fairies refused to choose a side.  So, in punishment for sitting out the war and not helping their creator, they were cast out of Heaven and sent to Earth.  Honestly, I personally like this take on the fairies’ origin.  It was always hard to believe they were fallen angels because they didn’t seem quite evil enough.  Yet, they also weren’t quite good.  Granted it does make the “Powers That Be” seem a bit petty.

The other stories are good too.  The first one plays on the lore of animals and people disappearing into the fairy realm.  It doesn’t go quite as far as to do the whole changeling thing but it does do the other parts and provides a hero clever enough to figure a way out of it.  The third story really focuses on the lore I mentioned at the beginning: the leprechaun.  It stays pretty faithful to it.  The shoemaking is there.  The bit about keeping your eyes on them or else they disappear is there.  The story goes with a “three wishes” prize rather than a “pot of gold” prize but I’m pretty sure both versions exist in folklore.  Here though, our hero takes on a different character.  If our hero mister Darby O’Gill was clever in the last story, here he’s stubborn, quarrelsome and kind of foolish.
Honestly, while I enjoyed the stories, I was a little disappointed I didn’t find more of what I was looking for.  I was expecting to find more of the roots of the “Hollywood” Irish lore you see in cartoons and stuff.  You know, all that cliché American Saint Patrick’s Day stuff.  For example, there weren’t any banshees in the book.  TV takes on Irish lore love setting up banshees as villains and leprechauns as the good guys (this is a gross oversimplification of any sort of fairy creature).  Oh well, there are other Darby O’Gill books.  One is The Ashes of Old Wishes and Other Darby O’Gill Tales (an out-of-print book which I can’t seem to find for less than $100) and another is Darby O’Gill and the Crocks of Gold.  Maybe that stuff shows up in there.

Anyway, at least the book was pretty good.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Tayzanne.

I had wanted to get this post up in February for Black History Month, but it didn’t happen.  Of course, we should also consider that I shouldn’t be ignoring stories from black cultures for 11 months out of the year either, so hopefully this will all be a wash in the long run.

Now, when it comes to folk tales from the African Diaspora, it’s easy to remember the various African countries and it’s easy to remember the United States, at least for us white folks who are on the outside of it.  But when I started getting into folk tales and storytelling more seriously in college, some of the first tales I learned about were from another very important place predominantly populated by black folks that might slip the minds of us pasty people: the Caribbean.  I especially encountered a lot from Haiti.

Haiti is an interesting country even beyond its folk tales.  It is located on the island of Hispaniola, to the west of the Dominican Republic.  Like many countries in the Caribbean, it was created by colonial powers because of the desire for sugar plantations.  The country of Haiti, for various reasons, is regarded as a developing nation (what we used to call “third world”).  However, beyond its economic status, Haiti is rich in culture.  Including an often misunderstood spiritual heritage (Haiti is home to the religion called Vodou, or as Hollywood likes to say it “Voodoo”).

Haitian culture is something that could take up a whole post (or book) on its own.  This story is entitled “Tayzanne” and is taken from the book The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales collected by Diane Wolkstein.  According to Wolkstein, it is in fact one of the more popular tales in Haiti.
But first, another thing.  Haitian storytelling starts with a signature call and response.  The storyteller asks “Cric?”, which basically means “Do you want to hear a story?”.  Then the audience responds “Crac!”, which roughly translates to “Yes, please!”


Every day, either Velina or her younger brother would be sent to get water.  One day, as Velina is getting the water, her ring slips off.  Now, what should surface but a big silver-golden fish.
Velina asks if the fish has seen her ring?  The fish dives under the surface and returns with the ring on his nose.

Now, my readers who are fans of European tales will probably notice some similarity to the Grimms’ “The Frog King”.  Not to get all Joseph Campbell-y (Campbell being a scholar who sometimes overemphasizes the commonality between old stories) but there are some story elements that do exist between cultures.

Anyway, Velina introduces herself and the fish introduces himself as Tayzanne (note: in Creole, this name is actually a pun on the word for “hooked”).  Tayzanne then tells Velina that he lives in the deepest part of the spring where the water is clear and sweet and offers to dive down and get her some.  Velina obliges and Tayzanne is given the bucket and swims down to retrieve the clear, sweet water and brings it back.

Now, Velina and Tayzanne become friends and it becomes a regular thing that Velina would bring back the clear, sweet water from deep in the spring.  But Velina’s mother starts to notice that the water Velina’s brother brings back is not as clear or sweet and she gets mad.  She orders her son to do better.  So, Velina’s brother decides to follow Velina and see where she gets her water.

Now, before going forward any further, a quick “time out”.  You may be wondering what the big deal is with finding the best water.  Well, in many cases with folk tales I make a note about how certain commonplace things now weren’t so easy to get in times past.  Stuff like getting fruit out of season or finding clean water.  Here’s the thing, though.  In some parts of the world, finding clean water is still hard to do.  In many third world countries (and I’d bet Haiti is among them) access to clean, drinkable water is still challenging, as is using that water for things like proper sanitation.  There are foundations that are entirely devoted to that cause.  So, keep that in mind as we continue.

So, Velina’s brother follows Velina and sees her walk up to the spring.  When she gets there, she sings

“Tayzanne, fish of the clear spring,Tayzanne, fish of the deep.  Tayzanne, my friend, My friend, Tayzanne, Tayzanne, Tayzanne, my friend, O come to me”

Velina’s brother then goes home and tells his mother that he can now bring home water as clear as Velina’s.  And he tells her all about Velina and Tayzanne and how he will just sing the “Tayzanne” song.  His mother does not like this one bit.  She is now convinced that Tayzanne is an evil spirit that lives in the water.

Now, that’s where I’m going to stop.  I’ve given you a little taste of this story, but you’ll have to find the rest yourself.  I will tell you that the end of this story is a bit . . . bittersweet.

One thing that I hope is not going to stop though, is my attempt at branching out the tales on Fairy Tale Fandom beyond the usual cultures I spotlight.  Will I be able to keep it going or fall back into old habits?  Only time will tell.  And if anyone’s still thinking about that whole clean water thing, you might want to check out THESE ORGANIZATIONS.

Until next time.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Fantasy Literature Rewind- Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings

If there has ever been a collection of folk tales that has ever been as much of a cultural minefield, I don’t know it.

The Uncle Remus books are a series of books written and published by journalist and writer Joel Chandler Harris in the years following the American Civil War.  They all focus on an old black man named Uncle Remus who works as a handyman/odd jobs man on a southern plantation as he tells African-American folk tales to an unnamed little white boy.  They’re also all written in a dialect that’s presumably accurate to southern African-Americans of the time period (I have some issues with writing in dialect, but I’ll get to those later).
Before getting into the book, I should make some notes about Harris himself.  Mainly that he seems like a bit of an odd duck.  Joel Chandler Harris was the son of an Irish immigrant woman and never knew his father.  He seemed to suffer from an intense, debilitating shyness as well as a sort of impostor syndrome when it came to his literary success (he preferred to be acknowledged as a journalist than as a book writer and typically referred to the person who wrote his books as “the other fellow”).  His road to literary fame started when he went to work for the only newspaper in the south that was actually published on a plantation and managed to make friends with a runaway slave.  Eventually, he had managed to gain the confidence of the slaves on the plantation and had managed to sit with them as they sang songs and told stories.  You see, for whatever reason, all records suggest that he lost his famous shyness around black people (go figure).  There’s certainly a lot to unpack there, but the end result would be that he would adapt the stories and songs he heard by giving them to a character he created for an Atlanta newspaper named Uncle Remus.  Harris himself freely admits in his writings to simply being a collector of tales, never taking credit for the stories himself.  He was also a rather vocal advocate for both racial and regional reconciliation during the Reconstruction years.  And yet, despite all Harris’s good points, there’s just something not quite right about this collection and how it came to be.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am glad the collection exists.  At least in the sense that I like the stories that were collected.  I greatly enjoyed reading the misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Terrapin as well as alternate takes on how the famous Biblical deluge happened and plantation superstitions about witchcraft.  The book I read is far more of a complete book of folklore than the framing structure would have you believe.  There are even collections of songs and proverbs.  The stories, especially the Brer Rabbit stories, all emphasize the triumph of the quick and the cunning over the powerful.  It’s easy to see why these stories would resonate so well with an oppressed, enslaved people.
No, the real problem is Uncle Remus himself and the milieu he’s placed in.

It’s more obvious from the Uncle Remus stories from the Atlanta Constitution that were published as back matter in my copy of the book.  The picture Harris paints is something straight out of an old plantation romance.  The plantation is the genteel home of the old southern gentry.  The black folks who work there are kind and loyal.  Even to the extent that a singular old black man would befriend a certain little white boy and tell him stories about that tricky ol’ Brer Rabbit.  There’s just one rather significant problem with this and we’re going to say it loud for the people who might not get it:


Yeah.  It’s an alluring illusion.  So alluring that I even found myself thinking “Gee, this isn’t so bad” as I read only to stop and remind myself that it really kind of is.  The truth is that plantations weren’t some kind of southern Camelot.  They were farms that often made money off some kind of grueling monoculture.  Essentially the 19th Century equivalent of a “factory farm”.  And the slaves and sharecroppers who worked on them weren’t some kind of loyal family retainers, they were forced labor or tenant farmers who could just barely make ends meet.  And if it ever was any different than that, it was likely only .001% of the time.

Humans are a myth-making species.  And while some of those myths contain truths, some of them just contain what we wish was true.  When we can no longer support those illusions anymore, we have to move past them.  Possibly the best example might be the Western.  As a genre, there was a time when the Western ruled the cinemas.  But the popularity of the genre was severely affected once people started to realize that the Old West wasn’t really all that much like the myths we had built around it.  The same can be said about the myth of the southern plantation, but that myth has been shelved for so long that it’s easy to forget why we had such a problem with it.  As for Harris’s part in the myth, while he may have enjoyed the company of black folks and some suggest that he may have been cagier and more subversive in his writings than most think, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest he wasn’t just kind of clueless.

There are a couple other things to touch on.  The book does use a few racial slurs that were common at the time.  Also, I should comment on the practice of writing in dialect.  The problem with writing in dialect is that you’ve pretty much decided who your audience is and what accent they have.  People don’t hear their accents the way others do.  To borrow an example from the X-Men comics of my youth.  Southerners who use the word “sugar” as a term of endearment don’t hear it as “sugah”.  There’s also always the chance you’ll still lose people, no matter what dialect they speak.  It took me a while into reading this book to realize “bimeby” was supposed to be a form of “by-and-by”.

Over all, as a collection of tales, songs and proverbs Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings isn’t terrible but the framing of it is just such a product of the views and prejudices of the time.  About two centuries removed from those times, there have got to be better choices for collections of African-American folklore.

Like maybe this one:

Or this one:

Or hey, this one just came out!

Really, there are options out there.  And you’ll probably find ol’ Brer Rabbit in there along the way even if he didn’t bring Uncle Remus with him.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Girl Who Married a Lion.

I was looking at the great majority of the folk tales I focus on and noticed that they seemed unusually weighted toward Europe and Asia.  And I felt the universe call out to me and say “Hey, Dummy, widen your scope!” (gee, the universe is a lot ruder than you’d think).  I especially noticed that I specifically seem to have left out tales from places like Africa and the Caribbean as well as African-American communities in the Americas.  In other words, I had inadvertently avoided the tales of Black folks (boy am I embarrassed).  Well, since it’s Black History Month here in the U.S. and we’re not long from the premiere of the movie Black Panther (can you imagine what Wakanda’s folk tales must be like.  I bet they’d be awesome) it seemed like a good time to start.

But, diving into a brand new culture can be daunting.  So, let’s start with something that I think we’re all a bit familiar with: animal bridegrooms.  This story does it a little bit differently, though.
This tale comes from a book that is conveniently titled The Girl Who Married a Lion.  It’s edited by the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Alexander McCall Smith.  Now, one of the frequent problems that exists with books of African folk tales published in Europe or North America is that they’re frequently just billed as “African folk tales”, as if Africa isn’t a giant continent filled with numerous different languages, nations and ethnic groups.  Luckily, this book actually does provide us with a narrower scope than that.  The introduction informs us that these tales were collected from the countries of Zimbabwe and Botswana.
The story starts off with a young woman getting married.  She is happy because she has a fine, strong husband.  However, one person is not so happy.  That would be her brother, who is our main character.

Now, I know some of you may find this a bit odd.  The story is called “The Girl Who Married a Lion”, so why is the main character her brother?  Well, let’s remember that titles for folk tales are impermanent at best, often changing from place to place and teller to teller.  But one other thing I’d like to point out is that this is reflective of something I’ve noticed in the African tales I’ve read (though, mind that I’m no expert).  These tales do have a greater focus on family and community than tales from other parts of the world.  So, what the brother-in-law thinks is important.  He’s part of the bride’s family.  Heck, of all the characters in this story, the only one that’s named is the bride’s father, Kumalo.  I’ve read other stories where the actions and opinions of an entire village are important.
Anyway, the brother doesn’t trust the new bridegroom because he’s convinced that he’s a lion disguised as a man.

If this were anything but a folk tale, it would sound ridiculous.  And if this were a folk tale from most other parts of the world, it wouldn’t go down the way it’s going to go down.  In European folk tales, maidens marry beasts that appear to be beasts under duress and then discover they’re cursed humans.  In some Asian folk tales I’ve read (notably from Japan), a person would rescue an animal that would turn into a bride/groom for that person on the sly.  Then they’d be happy until the human would get suspicious or commit some act that would cause the animal bride or groom to take off never to be seen again.  Here, the groom being a lion is treated as a dangerous secret.

The man won’t talk to his brother-in-law, which the rest of his family and village find strange and unreasonable.  He just says “I can’t talk to a lion”.  However, it soon seems he might be right because his sister comes to him with an unusual problem: her husband smells strange.

A little info for those who don’t know much about wildlife.  Predatory animals are known for having a distinct smell and on the African savannah, few animals have quite a distinct smell as a lion.
The brother smells some of the husbands effects and he confirms that it is lion-scent.  Then they go to their father for advice.  He suggests tying up a goat outside the husband’s house and seeing what happens to it.  The next morning, they see the goat has been torn apart and eaten and they have their first clue.
I’m not going to give away too much more.  I don’t like giving away endings.  I will say there’s another clue that the husband is a lion.  They also deal with the question of “If the woman’s husband is a lion, what about her two sons?”.  A question that’s frequently glossed over in these kinds of tales.  The book this is in should be relatively easy to find in libraries or for purchase.
I like this tale.  It plays with some familiar territory but does it in a distinctly unfamiliar way.  There's a webcomic version of this story somewhere out there, but I can't quite locate it at the moment.

But now, oh great Universe, tell me what the next thing I should tackle is .

It is . . .
Dammit.  You know, Universe, you’re a real piece of work.

Sorry to any of my non-American readers who might not get it.  But it looks like next time I’m going to attempt to tackle the minefield that is Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books and their complicated legacy.

See you then.