Saturday, April 21, 2018

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Water Babies.

Okay, so this one is going to be a bit hard to write about.  Why?  Because I didn’t really like this book, but I didn’t really hate it either.

The Water Babies is a children’s novel by priest, professor, social reformer, historian and author Charles Kingsley.  This Water Babies is not to be confused with the sunscreen or toy doll with similar names.  The book was published in 1863 and won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award 100 years later (this is an award given to children’s books that “deserve to be on the same shelf as Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
The story concerns a young boy named Tom who is in the employ of a villainous chimney-sweep named Grimes.  Tom’s job was to essentially climb into chimney and clear all the soot out (note: this is an actual, awful thing that orphaned children were made to do in the 19th Century).  One day, he’s brought to a big manor house and gets lost in what is apparently a maze of chimneys and ends up in the bedroom of a little girl named Ellie.  Shortly after that, he gets mistaken for a thief and gets chased from the house.  Then, after a long trek and a feverish night he ends up plunging into a stream and being transformed into a water baby.

What is a water baby?  Near as I can tell, it’s a baby that lives and breathes under the water.

Tom goes on to meet all sorts of creatures under the water, especially as he moves from the stream to a lake to the open ocean.  Once there, he meets the fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and Mother Carey.  He also gains the companionship of Ellie who dies from a fever and becomes a water baby of sorts too.
Yeah.  Dies.  The transformation into a water baby seems to essentially be a sort of post-death transformation.  In fact, there’s a lot in this book that suggests or hints at a sort of spiritualism.  However, I suppose that’s to be expected when the author is a priest.

The book really doesn’t pick up until Tom goes on a quest to the Other-End-of-Nowhere to try and help Grimes, who had also died and was now paying for his sins.  Basically, a “journey into the afterlife” type of motif, but more seagoing in nature.

I really don’t have much more to say.

I don’t want to say the book is bad because it’s not.  A little odd at times.  Sometimes the author would just put long lists of things right into the text.  Other times, he would digress for long periods.  However, it would usually be a digression with a point.  For example, Kingsley who was a supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection would in this book poke fun at how closed-minded scientists could be.  He also commented a lot on how society mistreats the poor.  Also, there are a few creative ideas in this book.
I could say it was because the book was very didactic.  But there are didactic stories I don’t care much for (the various works of H.C. Andersen) and ones that I love to pieces (Pinocchio).

Really, the sum of this book’s  parts just don’t add up to something that works for me.  And I think here we get to the limit of criticism and commentary.  As someone who reviews, critiques and comments on things in this big, crazy place called the world wide web, I like to think I’ve gotten better at it.  Where once I would simply have an opinion, now I’ve figured out how to express why I have that opinion.  But sometimes I really don’t have much to offer on that front.  Sometimes a book, movie, TV show or comic just doesn’t work for you and that’s all there is to it.  At least I’m willing to admit that.

I guess I’ll just chalk this book up as a loss and donate it to my local library.  Maybe the next one will be more my thing.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Beatrix Potter the Complete Tales.

It’s funny how we make certain associations and they become tradition.  Certain days and certain stories just seem to come together even though they may have originally had little do with each other.

For example, I always associated Easter with the works of Beatrix Potter.  Why?  Well, part of it probably has to do with how popular her rabbit stories are.  And rabbits are a major symbol of Easter.  Another, more on-the-nose reason might be because of this:
In my family, these chocolate Peter Rabbits were our chocolate Easter bunnies.  Each of them came with a little paper booklet that reprinted The Tale of Peter Rabbit, albeit without the lovely watercolor illustrations usually associated with the story.

Of course, I also associate Potter’s work with McDonald’s because of this:
Strangest Happy Meal of my childhood.  Pretty much the only time I ever remember them giving out books, though a little research shows they’d done it a couple of other times too.

But anyway, to prepare this special post for Easter I decided to read the entire collected tales of Beatrix Potter.  That’s right, all twenty-three of them.  Every single animal story she had in her repertoire.

First, a little bit about the author.  As was the case with many upper class Victorian girls who were educated at home, Beatrix Potter had something of a lonely childhood.  However, she had two interests that brought her joy: nature and art.  Her parents encouraged her by bringing her to art galleries and providing her with tutors.  She and her brother would also keep any number of pets in their schoolroom.  These pets would often become the subjects of her artistic endeavors.  As she got older, she would continue to keep pets.  When she started writing picture stories for the children of friends and relatives, these pets would often find themselves turned into the characters in her stories.  These stories then led to her career as an author.  But writing children’s books was only a small part of what she did.  She was also a farmer, naturalist and conservationist.  Her watercolor paintings of mushrooms made her respected in the field of mycology.  She owned the farm of Hill Top in England’s Lake District and was a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep.  She also worked with the newly formed National Trust to conserve areas of natural beauty within the Lake District.  Despite living in a time period in which women had few opportunities, Beatrix Potter managed to accomplish an awful lot.
But it’s probably her stories that gained her the most fame.  And like I said, I just read all of them.

What did I think of them?  Well, they’re not bad.  I may have experienced some unexpected side effects from trying to read the whole thing in under a week and a half (I swear I started to hallucinate in watercolors).  But overall, they’re a pleasant collection of children’s books.

For the most part, Potter’s books are largely standalone picture books centered on one character or group of characters.  Most of them with the naming structure of “The Tale of [insert name here]”.

One of the more notable things that slips by people is the sense of fatalism they have.  Peter Rabbit’s father is referenced as having been baked into a pie by Mrs. McGregor.  Squirrel Nutkin’s tale gets bitten off by the owl Old Brown.  Pigling Bland get taken in by a farmer who plans to make hams and bacon out of him.  Jemima Puddleduck nearly gets eaten by a fox only for her eggs to get eaten by a couple of hungry dogs.  It’s not really surprising for anyone who knows children’s literature from the late 19th and early 20th century.  And Potter was a savvy enough naturalist to know how brutal the lives of animals would have been.  But I think a lot of people overlook it when they see the pretty drawings of cute animals in clothes.
And speaking of putting the animals in clothes, there’s a weird sort of internal logic to these stories.  The animals are simultaneously human and not human throughout.  At first it seems like human beings are unaware at how like people animals are.  In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Mr. McGregor just finds Peter’s jacket and shoes and hangs them on a scarecrow.  In The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, McGregor’s surprised to find that Benjamin left tiny clog-prints all over his garden.  By contrast, The Tale of Pigling Bland features pigs who humans openly talk to, but also openly eat.  There’s even a plot point about how pigs travelling alone have to have special licenses that they can show to the police if they ask.  Who knew England was practicing such strict pig control?  Possibly the most unusual example though, is The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.  The book centers on a young girl named Lucie who has misplaced her pinafore and pocket handkerchiefs.  She goes searching for them only to find the home of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.  The thing about Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is that she’s a hedgehog as well as a washerwoman.  Lucie doesn’t seem to register this at first, though.  It’s almost as if she has walked into Wonderland, seeing as she and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle are close to the same size when in her home.  It’s not until after the two of them had delivered clean laundry to some of the characters from Potter’s other books (I’ll get to that in a minute) and had received a bundle containing her pinny and pocket handkins (Potter’s words for them), does she turn around to see Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle heading home and then notices that her cap and shawl and petticoat are gone and that she’d turned suddenly very small and brown and was in fact nothing but a hedgehog.  The book ends with a note saying that people think Lucie fell asleep and dreamed all of it, but also notes that if she dreamed it she shouldn’t have come away from the dream with a bundle of clean laundry.  Though Potter’s Tales aren’t actually fairy tales (despite what the header on this blog might say), she seems to have harnessed some of that famously dream-like fairy tale logic.
Other things jump out to me about these books.  Like, did you know Beatrix Potter probably wrote one of the earliest interconnected fantasy universes?  A somewhat bucolic one, but one just the same.  Now, Potter's books can technically be considered a series.  They're marketed as the "Peter Rabbit series".  Even so, only four of them focus on the same stable of characters: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and The Tale of Mr. Tod.  Even then, you’ll notice the last one is more focused on the villain of the piece.  But still, what Potter manages to do is have her stories connect by having the characters from one book appear as supporting characters in others.  So, Jemima Puddleduck appears in The Tale of Tom Kitten, then Tom Kitten appears as the protagonist of The Tale of Samuel Whiskers and Tom’s sister Miss Moppet has her own book The Story of Miss Moppet.  Also, while the Fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck goes unnamed, he does look an awful lot like the fox who was the villain of the later book The Tale of Mr. Tod.  Some characters are more isolated than others while some stories like The Tale of Ginger and Pickles seem to revel in all the cameos they can bring in.  Sometimes, characters who don’t have their own book appear in multiple books themselves, like the chicken Sally Henny-Penny.  Honestly, I get a kick out of this because I grew up with American superhero comics and later discovered the interconnected worlds of authors like L. Frank Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  But it’s an interesting thing when you look at the current pop culture landscape and some of the interest and push back from using interconnected universes in movies.  Needless to say, creating them is an art and one that Potter managed just fine.  She seems to have realized (even if subconsciously) what a lot of big Hollywood types have not: that the universe is the icing, not the cake.  In other words, each of the stories can be read individually and doesn’t completely rely on knowing what happens in another story in order to work.  It’s only when you pan out and realize that a number of the characters are essentially “neighbors” that it comes into effect.  It’s that combination of simplicity and complexity that makes it work.
There’s other stuff to talk about, like the variety within Potter’s work.  She wrote some books for very small children like The Story of Miss Moppet and The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit, both of which were published in an unfolding “accordion” style book.  She wrote two books of nursery rhymes: Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes and Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes.  She dipped her toe into adapting legends and Aesop’s fables with The Tailor of Gloucester and The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse.  She even wrote a chapter book of sorts in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, which was itself inspired by the famous poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear.  There are also the media adaptations ranging from The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (really quite good), the CBBC Peter Rabbit cartoon (not bad) and that recent Peter Rabbit movie starring James Corden (haven’t seen it, but heard it was awful).

But I fear I may be going overlong.

Overall though, I’m glad to have made this strange association with Beatrix Potter and Easter, even if it’s through a tangent that connects them both with rabbits.  I might not have read them if not for that.  If you’re so interested, I suggest giving them a read.  Though, something to be aware of if you’re reading these to your children: in addition to the more fatalistic aspects there are also some outdated cultural bits there.  For example, Benjamin Bunny settles down and has a family with his cousin Flopsy.  While this is not uncommon with animals and wasn’t particularly uncommon with humans in the 19th century, it is a cultural taboo now.  So, deal with that accordingly.

Anyway, until next time and a Happy Easter to all who are celebrating it!

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.