Monday, February 20, 2017

Culture and Crudeness: A surprising plus for The Tale of Tales.



I’m going to say something and I’m pretty sure a lot of you folks will be able to relate to it: Sometimes, it’s easy to have more books than there is time to read them.

The act of buying a book takes just a moment, but the act of reading it takes far longer.  So, books that you bought long ago or books that may have been released to tie into certain other real world events may not get read until much later.

That’s the reason why, though this book was released to coincide with the movie release of The Tale of Tales, I didn’t read it until much later and I’m only getting around to writing about it now.
Okay, so The Tale of Tales is a collection of tales collected by writer Giambattista Basile and set within a frame story that was published in two volumes in 1634 and 1636 by his sister Adriana.  I’ve actually read two different versions of this book.  One is this one, which attempts to translate rather faithfully from the Neapolitan language.  The other was a simplified and highly bowdlerized version that I downloaded for free off of the internet and which was published under the title The Pentamerone (a name inspired by another popular anthology The Decameron).
Now, of the two, I will say that I like the version pictured better.  It’s just a much richer, if more challenging, text.  The stories are full of references to local customs, games, news of the time and other such things.  Footnotes abound to explain it all.  Though, none of it really gets in the way of understanding the plots of the stories.

But I must admit that it wasn’t the historical references that caught my attention.  It was the bathroom humor (warning: there might be some examples of coarse language following).

Hey, I’m not saying I’m the hugest fan of it all, but not only the presence of it but the level of use it receives definitely make this book stand out.  The crudeness is often delivered with such casualness that you wonder if it was just a regular pattern of speech in 17th Century Naples (and there’s a pretty good chance it was).  Birth is often described in this book as a child being “shat into the world”.  If that child is a girl, they may be referred to as “a little fart of a girl”.  And when they go all out with crude insults, it’s a thing to behold.  In the framing story, there’s an argument between an old woman and a young boy.  During this fight, the boy lets loose calling the old woman “bogeyman’s grandmother, blood-sucking witch, baby drowner, rag shitter, fart gatherer.” (which begs the question: how does one gather farts?).  There’s also one tale entitled “The Cockroach, the Mouse and the Cricket” which involves those three animals doing some rather crude things to a human being while they’re sleeping.

Beyond that, this collection actually hosts variants of a number of popular tales.  Some are darker than the ones that have become popular.  “The Cinderella Cat” and “Sun, Moon and Talia” are darker versions of “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” respectively.  Yet, the book also includes “Petrosinella”, which is a decidedly more liberated version of “Rapunzel”.  There’s also “Cagliuso”, which is a version of “Puss in Boots” that’s mostly the same as Perrault’s version when it comes to story beats.
So, it’s a collection of largely popular tales told in a way that utilizes some of the crudest humor around.

And you know what?  That’s fine.  It’s not just fine.  It’s actually kind of awesome in its way.
Truthfully, I can’t help thinking that this sort of telling might be closer to the traditional peasant stories than folks like the Grimms would lead us to believe.  I mean, the European peasant probably had a cruder sensibility than your average nobleman or scholar.  And the Grimms, despite being German, were essentially Victorians.  Victorians were not known for engaging in such base humor.

But what’s really great about Basile’s approach is that it gives us another avenue to approach the fairy tale.  The truth is that we tend to get kind of hung up on what those previously mentioned Victorians wrote.  And we also get hung up on what animation studios adapt fairy tales into (especially the internet.  Remember my post on clickbait lists?).

We get so hung up on what the fairy tale is or is not, but very few think about what it could also be or might have also been in the past.

Sure, fairy tales can be bright and kid-friendly.  They can also be dark and scary.  They can also be crude and kind of dirty.  On top of that, they can also be grand and opulent like the French salon writers wrote them.  And they can be a million other things if we choose to tell them  that way.  The fairy tales now belong to everyone and they can be told in a million different ways.

So, that’s my take on it.  One more book from the “to read” pile has been finished.  Now, if I’ll be able to get around to the Tale of Tales movie sometime this year is yet to be seen.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Oz Books.



Ah, Oz!  The great American fairy tale!  Well, the great American children’s fantasy series at the very least.  But fairy tales did have a part in Oz’s creation.

With NBC showing their decidedly darker take on Oz with Emerald City, I thought it would be a good time to go back to the Oz well and give these books a proper post all their own.  You may recall that I touched on Oz before, notably for one of my more poignant posts.  Also, I’d like to note that this post was nearly about just the first book, but I found it hard not to think of it in terms of the series as a whole (or at least all the parts of it I’ve read).
Anyway, the Oz books are the works of an American writer and actor named Lyman Frank Baum (L. Frank Baum for short).  After having some success with his first book aimed at younger audiences, Father Goose, Baum hit on the idea of writing his own “wonder tale”.  His feeling was that the old fairy tales of Europe were rapidly becoming outdated for modern, American children.  He particularly didn’t see the point for the more gruesome endings to the Grimm Brothers stories, which were usually used to teach a lesson.  He felt that modern education of the time served well enough to teach morality (some even now would argue the opposite, but that’s how he felt).  So, from this impulse The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was born.  And it went on to be one of the longest children’s fantasy series ever published.  Though, it was not without some promotional help.  Baum adapted the book to the stage himself rather early on and would later make some silent Oz movies.  And also not without some trepidation, once he saw the juggernaut he had created.  Baum had wanted to end the series at numerous points but the demand kept him writing more sequels.  He did write some other children’s fantasy books, but none quite as popular as the Oz series.
But one notable thing about the Oz series is that it’s a uniquely American fantasy series.  What are some of the things that mark this series as very American?  Well, let’s take a look.

First of all, most of the books are “road trip” stories.  While travelling and quests are hardly new material for any sort of fantasy, travel holds a special place in the American psyche ranging from the family car trip to the movement of pioneers during westward expansion.  This is probably because of the fact that the American landscape is rather vast and perhaps a little bit too spread out.  The Land of Oz also directly reflects the way in which the United States has routinely been divided during its early history.  Prior to the American Civil War, everything seemed divided between North and South.  After the Civil War, when the drive became greater to expand the country to the Pacific, the split became between the East and the West.  So, when the first book has Dorothy first come to Oz, we have good witches in the North and South, a wicked witch of the East lying dead and a wicked witch in the West that is still in power.  So, the North and South have already been tamed, the East has been defeated and the West still needs to be won.  In fact, there is a sort of sense of the “frontier” throughout Oz that makes it different from most European fantasy.  European fantasy often draws on the pagan past as a source of its magic.  Oz’s magic and strangeness come from something else.  When Dorothy first meets the Good Witch of the North, Dorothy says that Aunt Em had told her that all the witches had died ages ago.  The Good Witch asks her if Kansas is a civilized country, which Dorothy responds to in the affirmative.  The Good Witch then explains that the reason why Oz still has witches is that it is an uncivilized country.  So, that’s the reason.  Despite the different peoples and the towns and cities, the reason Oz still has magic and witches is because it is in some way still wild and untamed.  Of course, human beings will either adapt to the wildness or subsume it, which is what Dorothy does in the later books.  In The Emerald City of Oz, Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry all move to Oz permanently.  This kind of reflects the changing attitude to what was once the American frontier.  In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum describes Kansas as being gray, hard and foreboding.  But now most people think of Kansas and the Midwest as a whole as being quaint and homey.
There’s more to touch on.  For example, there’s an entire school of thought that believes The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is reflective of the Populist Movement.  I’ll just provide a link HERE.

However, while there are some things that are evidence of America’s past, there are some places where it was ahead of its time.  One notable thing is that Oz is one of the popular fantasy realms where everyone who holds any power of consequence is female, whether it’s the four witches, Princess Ozma or even primary antagonists like Dorothy.  Most of the male characters either feel they’re lacking something or are a fraud like the Wizard.  This probably stems from the fact that L. Frank Baum was in fact married to Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was a suffragist and considered a radical feminist at the time.  Her political opinions probably filtered into some of Baum’s work.  Also, some of the magical devices he imagined for Oz, presaged future mechanical devices like television and wireless phones.
But really, though I’ve made all these observations, I think there’s something else that really defines Oz for me.  Just as a country should be defined by its people, Oz is defined by its characters (and yes, I know I’ve talked about this before).  Early American children’s literature is often marked by its sense of whimsy and Oz has whimsical characters to spare.  Everyone knows the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion from the MGM movie.  How about Jack Pumpkinhead, who helped Ozma escape from the witch Mombi?  How about the beautiful and ethereal Polychrome, the Rainbow’s Daughter?  Or maybe the Woozy?  There’s also Scraps Patchwork, in all her whimsical, playful, poetical glory.  Or the Shaggy Man, Button Bright, Ozma, Ojo the Unlucky, the Gump, the Glass Cat, the Woggle-Bug, Tik-Tok, the Very Hungry Tiger, General Jinjur or any number of others?  Heck, the Land of Oz even has its own immigrants.  Not just Dorothy and her family who moved there.  There are also the characters Tiny Trot and Captain Bill, who started off in another book The Sea Fairies and moved over to the Oz series later.  Oz has one of the most diverse, vibrant and inventive casts of characters in all of children’s fantasy and that’s one of the things that makes the Oz books worth loving if nothing else.

I’m sure there’s more that I can say about Oz, but I’ll leave those things for other posts.  Instead, to tip my hat to the classic movie that keeps Oz in the forefront of many people’s minds, I’ll have The Blanks play me out.  And I’ll see you all on the road to the Emerald City.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Four Color Fairy Tales: Lullaby.



Hey, look what I found while I was cleaning!
What is it?  Why, I’ll have you know this is Lullaby by Hector Sevilla, Mike S. Miller and Ben Avery!  It’s just the first fairy tale mash-up comic I ever read!

I know for most people, the modern age of reinterpreted fairy tale comic books started with Bill Willingham’s Fables, but I didn’t read that until later.  I wasn’t really into the whole Vertigo scene yet.  At the time it all started I had not yet ventured into the world of comics that were written expressly for grown-ups and was still really into superhero comics and shonen manga (well, I still am into those but I’ve branched out since then).

For someone who was more interested in splashy, action-oriented comics, Lullaby was a better bet than the slower, more nuanced Fables.

Lullaby is the story of five characters who join together for a journey through a fantastical world.  Their stated goal is to find their way to the land of Oz, but they all have different reasons for going.  The cast consists of classic characters from fairy tale, legend and children’s literature, but they’re all different than the way you remember them.  There’s Alice, who is the “Hand of the Queen of Hearts”, meaning she’s one of the Queen’s most trusted warriors.  There’s the Pied Piper, who is apparently a second-generation Piper and may have been one of the many children taken by the original.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood, who is now a little bit wolf and a little bit girl since her run-in with Big Bad.  Pinocchio is in this too, as a creepy little wooden creature who’s had his humanity taken but finds himself connected to the great Tree of Life through the course of the story.  Lastly, there’s Jim Hawkins, originally from Treasure Island.  This version of Jim is a full-fledged pirate himself who carries a magic sword named Sharky that seems to feast on other magic.

Everyone has their own reasons for being on this journey.  Alice is looking for a way back to the world she was originally from before she found herself in Wonderland.  The Piper is trying to help Red Riding Hood, but he also has a mysterious past in that he might be from the same world (the regular, non-magical world, actually) that Alice is from.  Red is searching for her grandmother who got abducted from her home.  Pinocchio is initially trying to get his humanity back, but shows some misgivings when he ends up connected to a bigger, more metaphysical world.  Jim is mainly trying to help Pinocchio, but he ultimately wants to get a ship and become a pirate captain in his own right.

The other thing that really sets this comic apart are the character designs.  Simply stated, everyone looks like they were redesigned by a Japanese video game designer (technically, it was actually a Mexican comic book artist).  I know these designs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I dig them.  It gets even crazier with some of the side characters.  For example, the Three Little Pigs show up in the second volume and the pigs themselves seem to be made of their respective building materials.  In addition to the pigs, there are a number of folk and literary guest stars both famous and obscure.  Among them are the Billy Goats Gruff, D’Artagnan and Milady from The Three Musketeers, the Tortoise and the Hare, Baba Yaga and Makoma.  I had too look Makoma up, but apparently he comes from this Rhodesian folk tale.

Unfortunately, the book didn’t last long.  Only two collected editions were made.  However, if you do want to check it out, it looks like the publisher Abacus Comics posted a whole bunch of it for free on their website.  You can check it out HERE.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for some young comic reader out there it may be a good starting point like it was for me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Iron Hans.


You know, I try to start these posts out with something clever or some set-up that leads to me explaining why I like a story.  But the truth can sometimes be that I like these stories for some of the simplest reasons.  I mean, it seems like a given for a fairy tale, but sometimes I just like them for the fantastical concepts and imagery in them.

For example, one of my favorite obscure Grimm tales is “Iron Hans” (sometimes called “Iron John”).
No scene like this actually appears in the story.
The story starts out with a forest that no one goes into anymore.  Those who do don’t come out.  Then one day a hunter from outside the kingdom is hunting in the forest and finds out that people are disappearing because they’re getting dragged into a pond by something from beneath the water.  He goes and gets men with buckets.  They drain the pond and find in the bottom a wild man covered in hair the color of rusted iron.

The hunter chains up the wild man and brings him back to the king who puts him in a cage on display in the courtyard and gives the keys to his wife for safe keeping.  It’s here that the wild man became known as Iron Hans.

And Iron Hans would have stayed in that cage if it weren’t for the actions of a young prince.
You see, this prince loses the ball he’s playing with when it goes into Iron Hans’s cage.  He tries to get the ball back unsuccessfully a couple of times.  The first two times, Iron Hans won’t give the ball back and says that the prince can only have it if he unlocks the cage and lets him out.  Finally, the prince steals the keys from under his mother’s pillow, unlocks the door (pinching his finger in the process) and Iron Hans just strides right out.  Knowing that he’ll be in trouble if his royal parents return and find Iron Hans gone, he tries to convince Iron Hans to go back into the cage.  Instead, Iron Hans picks up the boy, throws him over his shoulder and carries him off into the forest.

What follows is a journey for the prince, first as Iron Hans’s servant and then out in the world.  I’m not going to give anything else away (in my earlier “Secret Stash” posts I had a tendency of giving away 90% of the plot).  But I will give you a link to the story of “Iron Hans” right HERE.

Overall though, I just like a lot of the fantasy ideas here.  Just the idea of a “wild man” is great.  Iron Hans’s wildness as well as his actions summon up that old idea of the “noble savage”.  There’s also some serious archetypal mojo going both forward and backward in time.  Along the same lines you’ve also got Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh but following after “Iron Hans”, there’s also Mowgli from The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan.  Heck, I could even make an argument for Wolverine from the X-Men.  Also, while the story does describe Iron Hans as having long hair the color of rusty iron, it actually leaves a fair bit of wiggle room for the imagination.  Personally, I tend to imagine Iron Hans as looking like kind of an odd mix of Tarzan, Bigfoot and Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies.

There are some other good fantastical bits too.  For example, there’s a spring that turns things golden and horses and armies that Iron Hans can seemingly produce out of thin air.  But even the more mundane bits are interesting.  The prince having to find work is interesting.  There’s a princess (as usual in these stories) and the prince’s interactions with the princess are interesting.  A war happens in the story (which actually is a mundane thing by fairy tale standards) and the description of the battle is interesting.

So that’s really the basis for why I like the story.  But just because I don’t read so much into this story doesn’t mean that nobody does.

You see, back in the ‘90s a poet and storyteller named Robert Bly grew concerned for the mental and emotional well-being of men.  To this extent, he wrote a book about masculinity, initiation and mentorship all based around an allegorical reading of the story of “Iron Hans”/”Iron John”.  The book is simply titled Iron John.  It was rather popular too.  Popular enough that when NBC’s Grimm did an “Iron Hans” episode, they based it much more around Bly’s whole “masculine initiation” concept than they did around the actual story.

Now let’s have some points for commitment to a blog post.  I actually read Bly’s book in preparation for this post.  It’s the most research I’ve ever done for a Folk Tale Secret Stash.
I find this book a little hard to explain.  It’s not a bad book, really.  You can tell from his constant drawing on mythology and folklore that he’s partial to writers like Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell.  He also frequently illustrates his ideas through snippets of poetry.  He has some interesting ideas.

I don’t know if I agree with everything Bly writes.  A lot of his examples seem anecdotal at best.  Also, he seems to skip obvious bits of mythology that don’t really work with his allegory.  For example, he talks about what it means for the prince to find work in the garden, but doesn’t mention the Garden of Eden from Judeo-Christian myth.  Even if it didn’t fit, it would have been nice for him to acknowledge that it didn’t fit and say why.

I’ve never been much for allegory, anyway.  Before we can accept any kind of hidden meaning in fairy tales, we first have to accept them at the surface level.  There are still so many stories that the wider public has not accepted even on that basic level.

But I guess it just shows that everyone can see these stories and love them for different reasons.