Saturday, October 15, 2016

Scary Tale TV, part 2.

Somewhere in Hollywood, there is probably a big building called The Hall of Television Law.  And in this building there is a book and in this book is a law that reads “All horror/urban fantasy television shows must have one episode in which fairy tales come to life”.  Okay, maybe not.  But still, it is a fairly consistent plot idea that gets reused often.  Fantasy television shows are hardly a rarity these days, but their can probably be traced back to the late 1990s where it began with certain shows aimed at teen audiences.  How well they handled their respective fairy tale episodes varies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)- Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the show that likely started the ball on the rise of fantasy shows on television.  The brainchild of writer Joss Whedon, the show is about a teenage girl who is the one chosen by prophecy to fight vampires and demons and keep the balance between good and evil.  The concept first saw light as a 1992 movie.  Whedon, however, was highly disappointed that his creation was interpreted as a straight-up comedy rather than a drama with comedic moments and fought to bring the concept to TV.  (To Mr. Whedon: Have you ever considered that it was that ridiculous title that made people misjudge this idea of yours?).  Anyway, he succeeded and the rest is history.  The show was a huge hit in no small part to its clever writing and the chemistry of the cast.  In fact, the way the show handles its fairy tale episodes may be a big indicator of why the show was as good as it was.  The themes and plot of the Buffy episodes come together in an almost perfect way.  With the other shows, it’s a bit more hit-or-miss.

“Gingerbread” (S3, E11)- In this episode Buffy is out on patrol when her mother Joyce, who just found out she was the Slayer, brings her some food.  While Buffy fights off a vampire, her mother stumbles on the bodies of two children that seem to have been killed in some ritualistic way.  Seeing it shakes her up and by the next day Buffy’s mother is making a call to action from most of the adults in the town of Sunnydale.  Pretty soon, the group of concerned citizens has transformed into a fully blown witch-hunting mob.  While it is a demon behind Joyce’s new furor, the episode also hinges very much on the story of “Hansel and Gretel” as is evident in the episode’s title.  The show doesn’t dwell on it, though.  Instead, the main thrust of the show is in the relationships between parents and children, paranoia and how concern can change into something far more active and dangerous.

“Hush” (S4, E10)-  The other place where the Buffy writers drop the term “fairy tale” is a rather popular season 4 episode entitled “Hush”.  As far as plot goes, a group of fairy tale monsters called The Gentlemen come to Sunnydale.  They steal the voices of everyone in town and then go around collecting hearts from victims.  The Gentlemen, from everything I’ve been able to find out, were made up for the show.  They don’t appear in any actual fairy tale that I know of.  The intention of the show’s writers in making them “fairy tale monsters” seems to be to capitalize on the combination of scary and whimsical the Gentlemen seem to possess.  The Gentlemen, as a group, all dress in rather dapper looking suits, hover slightly above the ground to move around and in general seem to go about looking very well-mannered and pleased with themselves.  On the other side of the coin, they’re also ugly demons that will cut your heart out with a scalpel and keep it in a jar.  I have to give the writers credit for trying to make it feel very folkloric.  They even make up a little rhyme that a creepy girl in one of Buffy’s prophetic dreams recites.  But, as in the other episode, the monster serves the theme.  In this case, the theme is communication.  Every character is having some kind of communication issue and the loss of voices forces them to deal with it when their own words can no longer stand in their way.  Faux fairy tales aside, this episode also kind of reflects something touched on in this blog in the way that music and actions communicate everything: the ballet.  Also, seeing as Joss Whedon is a comic book fan, I’d probably be remiss not to mention that some inspiration for this episode probably came from a wordless comic book like the famous G.I.Joe #21.

Supernatural (2005-present)- Supernatural is a television show that follows two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester as they hunt monsters, ghosts and demons.  I can’t say much about this show as I never really got into it.  It is wildly popular, though.  It’s about to start its twelfth season this year.  Some of this show’s appeal seems to come from its unique feel.  Between the muscle car they drive around in and the classic rock soundtrack the show sports, the show has a much more working class USA vibe than Buffy or any of the other horror dramas out there.  Despite not being a fan, I did check out a couple of episodes.  One in which fairy tales seem to come to life acted out by regular people and another that references the marvelous land of Oz.

“Bedtime Stories” (S3, E5)- Sam and Dean roll into a town because they hear of a brutal killing in which two brothers who are construction foremen are slayed by an unknown assailant leaving the third brother alive.  The brothers are stumped until another killing happens when two lost hikers are attacked by an old woman in the woods.  Sam soon comes up with the idea that the crimes resemble the plots to “The Three Little Pigs” and “Hansel and Gretel”.  Soon, more crimes that resemble “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood” come to light.  The whole thing is traced back to a comatose woman with hair as black as ebony and skin as white as snow and her doctor father who’s been keeping her alive and reading her fairy tales as she lies in her unconscious state.  The ultimate theme is that of letting someone go and it connects back to a running plot for the season in which Dean made a deal with a demon in order to bring Sam back to life.  It’s an okay theme and it works well enough but it doesn’t gel quite so perfectly as the themes in the Buffy episodes did.

“Slumber Party” (S9, E4)- By this point, the Winchester brothers have moved into some sort of bunker that was used by the government to hunt demons back in the 1920s.  In order to figure out how to use one of the computers there, they call on their friend Charlie Bradbury played by geek icon Felicia Day.  While in the bunker, they discover a big green web.  When they cut it down, they discover it contains Dorothy who has been prisoner there along with the Wicked Witch for over 70 years.  And now, both of them are free.  The bulk of the episode focuses on the Winchesters, Dorothy and Charlie hunting the witch through the bunker.  Supernatural’s take on the Oz mythology is a bit strange.  Here, Oz is part of the faerie realm of Avalon.  Dorothy, who here looks like a female Indiana Jones, is the daughter of L. Frank Baum who investigated Oz ages ago and wrote the books as coded guide books for his daughter with hints in them as to how to survive Oz.  The episode provides a decent character arc for Felicia Day’s character of Charlie.  However, much of the Oz stuff is kind of meh.  There is really only the monster hunter version of Dorothy and the witch who can’t talk because Dorothy cut out her tongue.  You only get one brief glimpse of the real Oz through a doorway.  It’s really kind of Oz without Oz, which is honestly kind of boring.

Charmed (1998-2006)- What is there to say about Charmed?  It was a TV show produced by Aaron Spelling that starred three sisters who were witches called The Charmed Ones who used their magic to fight off evil witches and demons in San Francisco.  Unlike the other shows listed here, this one was much less horror and much more urban fantasy with a dash of modern paganism to make it interesting.  The show originally focused on the sisters Prue, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell but when actress Shannen Doherty who played Prue left the show the remaining sisters discovered they secretly had a half-sister named Paige that they never knew about (played by Rose McGowan who would later play the younger version of Regina’s mother on Once Upon a Time).  The show was popular and it lasted for a few seasons and even had spinoffs in the form of novels and comic books.  I remember liking the show when it first came out but I didn’t see it through to the end.  And naturally, they had a fairy tale episode.

“Happily Ever After” (S5, E3)- This episode is five seasons in, so a lot has happened to get to this point.  Prue is dead.  Paige is part of the group.  Phoebe is in the process of divorcing a demon husband.  And Piper has married her guardian angel Leo and is expecting their first child.  Anyway, Piper is staying up reading fairy tales to her unborn child when Paige comes in asking her why she’s reading those outdated old tales.  Piper responds that it’s because of their values.  We then cut to a mysterious castle where the Keeper of Fairy Tales is attacked and killed by the Evil Witch who was trapped in the magic mirror.  She then asks the mirror who the most powerful witches of all are, and it responds “The Charmed Ones”.  I’m not going to go into much further detail because it would require a lot of backstory, but a lot of it hinges on Piper essentially bringing her dead grandmother back to life to help her prepare for the baby.  The witch attacks the Charmed ones, essentially trapping them in situations from the stories.  For Phoebe, it’s Cinderella.  For Piper, it’s Little Red Riding Hood.  For Paige, it’s Snow White.  There are some fun/funny scenes, like when the Dwarfs show up to take care of Paige after she bites into a poisoned apple.  But what it really comes down to are the following character beats 1) Phoebe learning to trust again, seeing as her demon husband has messed with her head, 2) Paige accepting their Grams even though she already had a grandmother that she knew and loved in her adopted family, and 3) Piper taking back control of the situation after their grandmother’s arrival has her essentially falling back into a supporting role.  It was okay, not as good as the Supernatural one and nowhere near as good as the Buffy episodes.

So that’s it for the two-part look at “Scary Tale TV”.  I promise I’ll post about something different next week (even I’m getting a bit tired of this topic).  Though, I must say that while the Buffy episodes may be the best fairy tale episodes of a fantasy drama, they’re not necessarily my favorite.  However, I think I’ll save that for another time.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Scary Tale TV, part 1

It’s that time of year again.   There’s a distinctive chill in the air.  The witches gather ‘round their cauldrons.  Every shadow seems to hold some long forgotten ghost.  And the pumpkins just can’t seem to stop grinning.  Halloween will be on us once again before long.  
  Horror and fairy tales have often been associated with different demographics but they draw from common roots.  Both draw on folklore and both frequently tell stories of the strange and fantastic.  So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that almost every horror/supernatural/urban fantasy TV show would have at least one episode that touches on fairy tale concepts and themes.  I’ve been wanting to post something spotlighting those odd episodes for a while now and here’s my chance!  And since I am who I am and this blog is often more retro than not, I thought I would start by focusing on kids’ horror properties from the 1990s!  Let’s begin:

Tales from the Cryptkeeper (1993-2000)- Tales from the Cryptkeeper was a CBS Saturday morning anthology horror show based on the very much adult-oriented HBO horror show Tales from the Crypt.  That show was in turn based on the chilling and gory EC Comics magazine from the ‘50s of the same name that probably shouldn’t have been made for kids, but they read it anyway.  Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you about what demographic this show was ostensibly aimed at, I’ll let you know a bit more about the show.  Every episode has one or two tales of terror in it.  All the episodes are introduced by the grotesque, pun-spouting Cryptkeeper with occasional interference from the Vault Keeper (originally the host of the comic The Vault of Horror) or the Old Witch (host of The Haunt of Fear).  There are three episodes of this show that have some degree of fairy tale theming.  Two of them use the same characters while the other is a stand alone.

“The Sleeping Beauty” (S1, E6)- This episode focuses on Prince Charming (real name: Chuck) and his horse Splendor (real name: Steve) as they venture through the dark, deadly forest to awaken Sleeping Beauty.  Along with them is Chuck’s nebbish, put-upon fraternal twin brother Melvin.  While Chuck seemed to have gotten the good looks in the family, Melvin got all the brains.  Most of the show deals with Charming/Chuck coasting through the adventure while making Melvin deal with all the hard stuff like facing the various monsters in their path.  This episode seems to revel in all the various gags made about fairy tale princes.  Chuck is vain, shallow, cowardly, self-absorbed and only seems to care about the princess’s looks.  And Melvin is the poor sap who has to put up with it all.  Needless to say, they do make it to Sleeping Beauty’s castle but there’s a bit of a twist in the works there.  A twist with a bit of a . . . bite (yeah, if you know some of the usual horror twists on “Sleeping Beauty” then you probably know what it is).

“The Brothers Gruff” (S2, E9)- This episode concerns a boy named Eddie Gruff who’s tired of being the lowest man on the totem pole in his family.  He always seems to get in trouble and it’s usually his big brother’s fault.  It doesn’t help that Eddie’s brother picks on him for believing in trolls, ogres and goblins.  The real trouble starts when Eddie is forced to cross a bridge he doesn’t want to cross because he’s convinced a troll is underneath it.  Just as he feared, the troll does follow him home but it’s not Eddie the troll wants.  This episode is not memorable so much for drawing on folklore but for ignoring a lot of folklore and just inventing a whole lot of its own monster lore.  This lore is communicated to Eddie through his friend Sheldon who “saw the movies, read the books, heard the stories”.  According to Sheldon, the only way to keep a troll from following you home is bathing in vinegar, wearing a tin foil hat and wearing your mother’s housecoat with the pockets stuffed with chalk.  And if you forget the chalk, then the troll can “smell your shadow”.  Then, when something smears strawberry jam on the ceiling and mashes all the food in the refrigerator, Sheldon claims it’s a text book case of a troll infestation.  It’s funny, with all that silliness you’d think something as simple and iconic as “turns to stone in daylight” might also make the cut.

“Chuck (and Melvin) and the Beanstalker” (S2, E12)- Chuck and Melvin are back at it.  Strangely, this episode acknowledges that they had gone into the deadly forest before but nothing else from the story, especially the ending.  This time, Chuck and Melvin are travelling but are running low on food.  So, they’re forced to make a deal with the mysterious Trader for some food.  Alas, they have to trade the horse Splendor for a bag of beans.  As can naturally be expected, a giant beanstalk is the result.  At the top of the beanstalk, Chuck quickly puts Melvin to work trying to steal a golden harp so he can trade it for some food.  The creepiest part of the story is how every creature in the giant’s castle is cyclopean.  The giant himself, his cat, the mouse that infests the walls.  They all have one big yellow eye.  However, the big twist is that the giant isn’t the real monster of the story.  The real monster is another giant creature called a Beanstalker.  Honestly though, it’s just kind of a different giant so the surprise is “meh”.  Technically speaking, this episode also has some perspective issues while in the giant’s castle.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-2000)- Are You Afraid of the Dark? was another horror anthology show for kids.  This time one originally from Canada but imported to air on Nickelodeon.  The set-up this time is that a group of kids calling themselves The Midnight Society meet in the woods at night to tell scary stories around a campfire.  Honestly, I like this premise because it calls back to the oral tradition, in a way.  It’s kind of strange how the last kind of story we still associate with the oral tradition is the ghost story.

“The Tale of the Final Wish” (S2, E1)- This episode starts off with the storyteller setting her fellow members of the  Midnight Society straight about how fairy tales were really darker and scarier than most people think.  They even reference some tales like “Faithful Johannes” and “Twelve Brothers”.  The tale itself concerns a girl named Jill who loves fairy tales even though her friends have long outgrown them.  After dealing with some grief from her brother, she clutches the book The Sandman and other Tales to her chest and wishes she could live in a fairy tale forever.  She goes to sleep and wakes up in the Land of Nod, where the Sandman rules and she’s told by the Sandman that she (and her sleeping friends and family) are trapped there forever so that she can live out her fairy tale forever.  As Jill tries to escape she does stumble on some other tales like Alice in Wonderland and “Hansel and Gretel”.  While an okay episode it has one specific problem.  Everything that the Midnight Society is talking about at the beginning sounds scarier and more interesting than what’s in the actual story.  And anyone who’s read E.T.A. Hoffmann knows there are scarier takes on the Sandman.  It’s understandable why this is, though.  There are some things you can’t show on children’s television.  But it really didn’t help that the Sandman was played by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait (think of the voice of Pain from Disney's Hercules).

“The Tale of the Pinball Wizard” (S1, E13)- I’m going to include this one even though it isn’t really fairy tale based.  There is a princess, witch and evil lord, though.  However, the true root of this episode’s fantasy themes is classic video games like The Legend of Zelda.  The story is about a kid who shirks his responsibilities to play pinball and when he finishes the game discovers that the whole mall has turned into a fantasy game like the one he was playing.  It’s a fun episode and a reminder that many of the elements in fairy tales cross over into other types of fantasy.  The episode does suffer from the unfortunate fact that it doesn’t seem to understand how pinball works, though.  The main character keeps talking about getting to the third level.  In pinball there are no levels, you just keep racking up points until you run out of balls to play with.

Monster in my Pocket (1989)- Monster in my Pocket was a popular toyline back in the ‘90s that featured figures of characters from folklore, myth and literary fantasy.  There were also trading cards, comic books and a TV pilot that was never picked up.  While the line had all sorts of witches, goblins and other assorted creatures in it, I thought you folks would be most interested in this one:
That’s right, it’s the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast”, looking very lion-ish and Cocteau-ian for a little purple toy.

Well, that’s it for now.  The TV shows I listed can be found on DVD in some countries and can be downloaded through some online sources (I know I got Are You Afraid of the Dark? off itunes).  But this isn’t the end.  We’re going to scale the age demographic up a little bit next week to look at episodes from a couple more shows.  Stay tuned.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre.

Faerie Tale Theatre!  Faerie Tale Theatre!  Whenever I ask people about fairy tale TV shows, someone inevitably brings up ShelleyDuvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre!  I had only ever watched a few episodes of it when I was young.  Probably because it aired on Showtime which was a premium cable channel and my family didn’t pay for premium cable channels (Faerie Tale Theatre aired on Showtime, both Jim Henson’s The Storyteller and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child both aired on HBO.  What is it with fairy tale anthology shows and premium cable?).  Anyway, I only saw a few episodes of it when the show came to PBS for a short period of time.

For those who don’t know, back in the early ‘80s Shelley Duvall decided she wanted to create a better class of children’s television.  So, she shined the Shelley Duvall Signal into the sky and a bunch of her actor and director friends came running to help out (okay, so maybe I’m confusing Duvall with Batman a little bit and for reasons you’ll get as you read more, but you get the gist of what I’m saying).  The end result is a collection of 26 hour-long adaptations of famous fairy tales with one or two more obscure ones thrown in.  The show is supposedly inspired by the show Shirley Temple’s Storybook, which I just found out about recently.
I finally took this series out from one of the local libraries and gave it a watch.  So, what did I think?  Well, I honestly thought it was kind of a mixed bag.

I mean, it’s interesting to see fairy tales depicted in a way kind of reminiscent of the 1966 Batman show with famous guest stars in abundance (I told you the Batman analogy would make sense soon).  Some of the actors do great jobs in their roles.  Both Matthew Broderick and Christopher Reeves make excellent Prince Charmings in “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” respectively.  James Earl Jones does an admirable job as both genies from “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and Peter Macnicol does a surprisingly good job as the title character in “The Boy Who Went to Learn About the Shivers” among others (note: I’m just listing the first ones that come to mind.  There are so many ‘80s stars in this show it’s hard to keep up).  However, there are others that I’m just not keen on.  For example, I could have certainly done without Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) as Pinocchio and I could have really done without Father Guido Sarducci’s (real name Don Novello) narration of the tale.  I’m also not sure that someone of Mick Jagger’s considerable Whiteness should have played an Asian emperor in “The Nightingale”.  Also, it may be a personal preference, but I couldn’t stand Ben Vereen as Puss in Boots.  It’s probably because of the annoying “cat voice” he gave him.

The camera and editing tricks they use to create the magic in the series look cheap now but was probably the best they could manage with both a TV budget and the technology of the time.  The backgrounds and scenery are all inspired by the works of certain artists and storybook illustrators.  While that’s an interesting idea, it often makes all the scenery look like something set up for a school play.  Script-wise, you can tell when they’ve overextended themselves.  Usually when they’re given the task of stretching one of the shorter tales into an hour (Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs) or shortening a long tale (Pinocchio, The Snow Queen).  In the case of the shorter tales, sometimes they go off on weird new directions like how their version of Goldilocks seems to straddle the line between compulsive liar and con artist.  In some other cases I just wondered how many adults they thought were watching.  The early episodes have their share of adult jokes and innuendos slipped in (In Rapunzel, when Rapunzel’s mother tells her husband about her craving for vegetables, he asks if she’d like a cucumber, *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*).  It’s nothing that would necessarily be too much for kids, but it would still be lost on a very young audience.

And yet, sometimes they knock it out of the park.

Some episodes are really, really good.  They had an episode based on Robert Browning’s poetic version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” starring Eric Idle and it was fantastic.  It was very faithful to the text and was able to stir up a whole lot of emotion.  Another fantastic effort is the “Beauty and the Beast” episode starring Susan Sarandon which is a straight-up homage both in story and design to the movie version by Jean Cocteau.  I also thought they did a pretty good job adapting the more obscure “The Youth Who Went to Learn about the Shivers”, which is kind of a hard one to adapt.  I also thought their take on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was really good, relying very much on the chemistry between Art Carney and Alan Arkin who play the two swindlers who trick the Emperor.  Also, even when they don’t do the greatest adaptation, sometimes they can provide ideas that are kind of interesting.  In one fairly prophetic turn, they’re one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of a production depicting the Snow Queen as good or misunderstood.  Before Disney’s Frozen made the idea an in vogue depiction of the Snow Queen, Faerie Tale Theatre gave us the twist of claiming that the Snow Queen had abducted Kai in order to try and cure him of the shard of the evil mirror he was afflicted by.  They didn’t even really change her role in the story as Kai’s abductor, just asked you to look at it differently and placed the bulk of the blame on the goblin who made the mirror.
Overall, I don’t think it’s bad.  I admire the effort that was put in.  This was clearly a passion project for Duvall and it shows with how much well-known talent she got to sign on for it.  I wouldn’t necessarily tell you to run out and buy the DVD set, but it’s probably worth a watch if you can get it from the local library like I did.  What it really did was get me thinking about fairy tale anthology shows and what the next one might be like.  There hasn’t been a fairy tale anthology show on US television for a while and it’s kind of surprising.  We’re arguably at the end of a trend in which fairy tales were getting some serious play on television, but in every case it was fairy tale plots and ideas being folded into ongoing dramas rather than shows anthologizing the tales directly.  In the past, every anthology had its own style and hook.  Faerie Tale Theatre had the hook of having lots of well-known acting talent.  Jim Henson’s the Storyteller had cutting-edge practical effects and an acknowledgement of the oral tradition.  Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child took popular tales and adapted them to different cultures.  Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics is remembered best probably for being the first anime a lot of Americans who grew up in the ‘90s ever saw as well as focusing exclusively on tales from Grimm.  If there’s another one, where will it come from and what will make it stand out?  I sure hope I have the chance to find out (though, knowing my luck with premium channels, it will probably be on Netflix.  I’m not subscribed to Netflix).

Friday, September 23, 2016

Once Upon a Pixel: Video Game Round-Up, Level 2.

You know, writing about folklore, fairy tales and related subjects in relation to video games can be a bit tough.  The truth is that, back in the day, there was kind of an unspoken stigma about basing video games on or around fairy tales.  In the back of most gamers’ minds, unless the game was part of a Disney movie license, a game based around a fairy tale was a sign that the game was either aimed at very little kids, was a cheap badly made game or both.  Part of that was because the “fairy tales are for little kids” stigma was still in full swing then.  Part of it was because fairy tales and their accompanying lore are just so unabashedly public domain.  So, you didn’t see a lot of games inspired by the old stories.  You might occasionally get something like Puss in Boots: Pero’s Great Adventure (which, truth be told, was more based on the Toei Animation logo than the fairy tale) but that was about it.

Well, thank goodness for indie and mobile gaming.

With indie game designers’ desire to think outside the box and a growing interest in the idea of “global games” we’re seeing more folklore making it into games.  And with the populist nature of mobile games, we’re seeing more games that draw from popular stories (though, I would suggest they draw from some of the less popular ones too).  It’s still not particularly common, but it is something.  So, I created a title card to celebrate.  Here’s hoping I get to use it once in a blue moon.
So, let’s move on to a new round up of what I’ve been playing!

Yo-Kai Watch (Nintendo, Level-5)- Okay, so I know Yo-Kai Watch is an odd one to start with considering I just said how it’s mainly indie and mobile games that are drawing on this stuff.  Yo-Kai Watch is a major handheld console release, but it does draw on Japanese folklore.  The basic premise is that a young boy or girl (you choose the character) is hunting for bugs when they comes across a capsule machine and releases a ghost named Whisper that gives them a watch that lets them see and hunt down Yokai (Japanese supernatural creatures) that are causing problems.  It’s a fighting monsters game like Pokemon but with some different mechanics.  If you know your Japanese creatures, there are some familiar creatures like Baku and a very frightening oni that appears during something called “Terror Time” (which is based on a common warning that Japanese parents give their kids about bad behavior).  It’s not bad.  I played it a lot when I bought it on vacation, but I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit now.

Fading Fairy Tales (Crescent Moon Games)- I downloaded this one onto my phone months ago.  The idea is that some dark force has descended on a world of fairy tale characters and that you play as characters that are trying to defeat that force.  For some reason, the characters you start out as are a bear, an anteater and a platypus though.  I guess talking animals are a fairy tale standard, but other than the bear, they don’t seem much like fairy tale creatures.  There’s a certain adventure/RPG quality to it.  But a lot of time is spent using turns to move the characters during fights and the difficulty spikes considerably after the first level.  I’ve kind of lost interest in it.

Song of the Deep (Insomniac Games)- This one is an interesting one.  It’s an underwater submarine exploration game that focuses on a young girl who has to set out to find her father when he's lost at sea.  However, instead of using the typical Atlantis stuff for the underwater world the developers drew on folklore and myth from Ireland.  So, there’s a lot of stuff about merrows and Fomorians.  I haven’t seen any selkies in the game yet, but I wouldn’t count it out.  The version I played is for the PC, downloaded through Steam.  I’m not crazy about the controls because it requires using the mouse to determine direction and the keyboard to move.  However, I’ve used far worse control schemes before.  I would say it’s a good game, but I can’t say much about it beyond the first level.  Why?  Because I can’t seem to get past the first boss!  It’s this big, frustrating underwater spider thing that always seems to kick my ass!  But other than that, it’s a nice little indie game.  (Note: despite similar subject matter, this game is not to be confused with the movie Song of the Sea).

Oz: Broken Kingdom (Nexon)- My newest gaming obsession.  This is a mobile RPG that’s set in the land of Oz.  The story goes that a dark force tried to steal Oz’s magic so Ozma split it all up and put it in gems rather than keeping it isolated in the Emerald City.  Seeing this, the dark forces start splitting up and searching for as many gems as they can and they kidnap the Wizard and Dorothy Gale for good measure.  Meanwhile, in our world a great war is going on and a girl named Ophelia Shen is on the run with her cat.  While on a ship, a storm comes and sweeps her away to Oz.  Ophelia soon joins up with the Scarecrow (a magic user), Tin Man (an armored tank) and Lion (a melee fighter) to beat back Oz’s enemies and save the kingdom.  Now, clearly this game doesn’t exactly conform to the spirit of L. Frank Baum’s books.  Baum was trying to create children’s fantasy that was less violent than the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen.  So, the constant presence of combat would probably have not sat well with Baum.  However, it’s hardly the first time an Oz adaptation strayed from that spirit.  Disney’s dark adaptation of the second and third books Return to Oz immediately comes to mind (say what you will about the Wheelers, Mombi or the Nome King, I am absolutely certain Baum would have never had Dorothy Gale almost receive electroshock therapy in a mental hospital).  Still, the game is a lot of fun.  It also embraces a whole lot of Baum’s text.  The game keeps reminding me of things I forgot were in the books.  The new character of Ophelia Shen is also a nice addition.  She fills the spot of the agile “rogue” in the party and her personality has a feisty, jaded edge that would not be there by using Dorothy in the same slot.  The biggest issue some might have is what gamers call “pay to win”.  The game is free to download, but there are numerous parts where it asks you if you want to make an in-app purchase.  Sometimes, you will get to points where your characters will simply not be strong enough to go any further, however you can’t enhance your characters without paying for resources.  There are ways around it.  The game gives you a bronze coin to use in the Pool of Wonders and emeralds to spend on resources once a day but it takes time for them to materialize.  So, if you want to proceed while spending as little real money in the game as possible, it will take patience (honestly, game developers have to eat too so I get the notion but I think I would have preferred to just pay for the game itself up front).
The closest the Oz books usually get to having combat.
So, those are the folk/fairy tale games I’ve played since last time.  I'd recommend Song of the Deep and Oz: Broken Kingdom while I wouldn't necessarily urge you to try Fading Fairy Tales.  As for Yo-Kai Watch, it's been out so long and is so mainstream that I figure that if you wanted to play it you probably have already (though, to be clear, it's a pretty good game).  I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to do this column again but if the need arises you know I’ll do it.  This post has also reminded me that I’ve never done a proper post about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, just my post-surgery reflections.  Oh well, I’ll get to it eventually.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Stuff of Legends: Robin Hood.

This is it, folks.  The final name on my list of twelve legendary figures and thus my last “The Stuff of Legends”.  I wanted to start strong and end strong which is why my first entry in the series was King Arthur and why this one is Robin Hood (going for the crowd pleasers).  But if you liked “The Stuff of Legends”, don’t be too sad.  It might appear again in the future.  Just not necessarily in the same form.

Anyway, Robin Hood is probably the most popular folk hero to ever rise out of English legend.  The legend as we know it now concerns a dispossessed English nobleman who takes to Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaws including but not limited to: Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck, Arthur-a-Bland, Maid Marian and Much the Miller’s Son.  From there they act out in protest of King John’s laws by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.  This puts them in conflict with such agents of the law as The Sherriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne. 
It’s one of the most famous tales in all the world, having been adapted a million times.  But where did it come from and was there actually a real Robin Hood?

Well, it seems that whether there was a real Robin Hood or not is a 10 million pound question (we’re using English currency here for consistency), because historians have been looking for that answer for years.

Near as anyone can tell, the earliest record of an outlaw being referred to as Robin Hood was actually the case of a man named Robert Hode listed as an outlaw in judicial documents from the years 1225 and 1226.  Not much is known about this man other than the fact that he was a debtor who escaped into the greenwood and how much money it took to hunt him down and execute him. 

Still, there are other candidates for the man who inspired the legend.  One is the knight Robert Fitz Odo of Loxley in Warwickshire.  Again, there is little evidence to suggest they are one and the same man except the fact that a drawing of Robin Hood’s grave closely resembles a grave in Warwickshire.

Another possible inspiration is a young Earl of Huntingdon who was known to rebel against his own father.  This is also unsupported by any serious evidence.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that the name “Robin Hood” in various forms appears in numerous medieval document as a nickname for any number of outlaws.
Whether he was real or not, it’s safe to say his legend has taken a few different forms.  His first literary appearance is in the poem “Piers Plowman” by William Langland circa 1377.  The most common surviving ballads of Robin Hood’s exploits date from about a century later.  Many of Robin Hood’s more common aspects such as his archery skill, his partisanship of the lower classes his animosity toward the Sherriff of Nottingham and his associations with Little John and Will Scarlet are all in evidence.  However, other elements like the characters of Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are absent.

Beyond the ballads, Robin Hood’s legend was furthered by the performance of “Robin Hood games” or plays about Robin Hood that were part of traditional May Day celebrations.  It’s here that we see the first appearance of a Maid Marian figure though as a matronly woman who is played by a man in drag and has a romantic association with the “jolly friar”.  Later, the character would get conflated with a character from the French pastourelle “Robin and Marian” and become the character we know now.
Through much of Robin Hood’s existence he was identified as a yeoman, or a member of the middle class.  However, this changed with the plays of Anthony Munday in 1598 who identified his Robin Hood as the Earl of Huntingdon (referenced above) and solidifies his historical position by making him the enemy of King John.

And all this is well and good as far as raw information goes.  But it does very little to get to the essence and appeal of the legend of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood is probably one of the most retold legends of all time.  It was transformed into a children’s book by Howard Pyle.  It has been made into movies starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner  and Russell Crowe.  It was one of the few stories that Disney, before 1990 at least, chose to adapt twice.  They did it first in 1952 as The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men and again in 1973 with the animated Robin Hood.  There have been TV shows like The Adventures of Robin Hood and the more recent BBC Robin Hood series as well as the occasional single episode like this one of Doctor Who.  There have also been animated shows like Young Robin Hood and the anime Robin Hood no Daibouken (strangely, both of these shows depict Robin as a teenager).  Heck, there’s even been the occasional tabletop game.
And I’m just scratching the surface.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the Wikipedia list.

So, why does this specific legend resonate with so many people?  Well, I think it has a great deal to do with Robin Hood’s outlaw hero status.  The legend speaks to everyone who has felt the need to rebel and also to everyone who’s ever felt downcast, oppressed or downtrodden at any point in their life.  It’s a legend that (at least the way it’s told today) suggests that justice will still exist outside the law when the law becomes unjust.

And to tell you the truth, neither Robin himself nor England have a monopoly on legendary outlaws.  Heck, they don’t even have a monopoly on “stealing from the rich to give to the poor”.
In Poland and neighboring regions, there’s a legend of a very Robin Hood-esque character named Juraj Janosik.  In Japan, there are legends and many kabuki theater productions about a thief named Ishikawa Goemon who also gave his loot to the poor.  Heck, the American West is filled with notorious criminals who have somehow been raised up to legendary hero status.  If you believed the early settlers of New Mexico, then you’d think Billy the Kid was some kind of champion of the oppressed rather than the violent, buck-toothed delinquent he was (interesting pop culture note: in the Japanese superhero show Kamen Rider Ghost, the spirits of Robin Hood, Goemon and Billy the Kid all appear as power-ups for the hero).  Even in England, Robin’s in good company.  From the same time period in English history come two other outlaw heroes Fulk FitzWarin and Eustace the Monk.  Of course, we also can’t forget Adam Bell, another outlaw archer from English legend.

Outlaws are often admired for the sheer gall they have in taking on the established order.  But in many cases, the stories of outlaws are embroidered to make them seem more virtuous than they likely were.  This is even true with Robin Hood.  As late as the 18th Century, there were still works that depicted Robin as more of a notorious criminal than a hero.

But despite all the other legendary outlaws out there, something made Robin Hood rise to the top in popularity.  I’m not sure I could say what it is.  On some level, I imagine the fact that he robs from the rich and gives to the poor really struck a chord with English audiences.  Class differences and class struggle have long been undercurrents in English life, politics and literature.  At the same time, it might have been the appeal of the colorful cast of characters that rose around him like Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet.  It could have also been something about the time period he’s placed in, a fractious time when the true king was away on a Crusade and the throne was held by another.  The legend even managed to travel.  In his book Grandfather Tales, Richard Chase includes an Appalachian tale entitled "The Outlaw Boy".  The difference in this tale other than location is that Robin learned to shoot a bow and arrow from the local Native Americans.

Whichever it is, the legend of Robin Hood doesn’t seem like it’s going away anytime soon.

Whatever his secret, Robin Hood is a bad man who makes for a very good story.  And he most certainly is The STUFF OF LEGEND!