Friday, July 15, 2016

Yokai-mon Go!

So, since this past Friday, Australia, New Zealand and the United States have been going crazy about a new mobile game called Pokemon Go which utilizes GPS and a smart phone’s pedometer to get folks walking around out in the world to catch Pokemon.  I personally have the app and find it rather addictive.  It’s also interesting how social it makes people.  Folks will just stop you if they see you playing the game and ask you if you’ve caught anything good.

Now, Pokemon has been a major pop culture player since roughly 1996.  However, Pokemon is not all that there is in the “strange creatures” genre from Japan.  There is also Digimon, which started its life as a virtual pet and Monster Rancher, a Playstation series.  We also can’t forget their giant cousins the Kaiju like Godzilla, Gamera and others of that ilk.  So, what is it about Japan that makes their pop culture so prone to creating bizarre, super-powered beasties?  Well, it turns out creatures like that were part of their culture going way back.  Their folklore is filled with weird monsters.

So, let’s go ahead and take a look at them .  Let’s talk about Yokai.

Now, I’ve heard this word translated about a million ways.  I’ve seen it as “Japanese fairies”, “Japanese ghosts”, “Japanese spirits”, “Japanese monsters” and “Japanese demons”.  The truth is that none of these are quite accurate and the best translation would likely be “supernatural creature”.  Also, like “anime” or “manga”, the word “yokai” is often used by Americans to describe the specific Japanese product.  However, the Japanese use it a bit wider even referring to Western creatures like vampires and werewolves as yokai.  I’ve already talked a bit about oni in my Momotaro post and tanuki in my Folktales from Japan post, so we’ll leave those ones out for now.  Otherwise, here are some of the more notable yokai I know of.

Kappa- Kappa are one of the more popularly known yokai in Japan.  Kappa are water creatures that are the size of a child.  They have scaly skin, webbed hands and feet and beaks and shells like turtles.  They can supposedly fart three times as potently as a human being (not kidding) and their arms are joined within their shell so that if you pulled on one it would get longer while the other got shorter.  Kappa live in rivers and ponds and have been known to drown people or bite them to death underwater.  You can get them to leave you alone by offering them cucumbers, which are their favorite food.  Also, while they’re tough to beat in water, they’re not hard to deal with on land.  Kappa have a depression on the top of their head that needs to stay filled with water.  If it spills out, then the kappa is rendered immobile and may even die.  So, the easiest way to get the best of a kappa on land is to get it to bow to you so that the water spills out of the depression on its head.
Kappa appear in some form in all sorts of Japanese pop culture.  In many video games like Animal Crossing, turtle-like creatures that appear are based on kappa.  I also can’t help but note the similarity between the word “kappa” and the name of Super Mario’s turtle-like enemies the “koopa”, but Nintendo has never admitted any connection.  The Pokemon Lombre and Golduck also seems to be inspired by kappa.

Baku- Baku is a yokai originally transplanted from China.  It is described as having the head of an elephant, body of a bear, tail of an ox and eyes of a rhinoceros.  Overall though, it’s usually identified with the tapir.  In fact, I’ve even heard of it referred to as the “dream-eating tapir”.  The baku is actually considered good luck and a guardian spirit.  It feeds on the dreams of sleeping humans, particularly nightmares.  Evil spirits actually flee from the baku.

The baku appears in a few different places in Japanese popular culture, including both Pokemon and Digimon.  The Pokemon Drowzee and Hypno are based on the baku.

Tengu- The tengu is another Japanese creature with Chinese roots.  Their name stems from the Chinese tiangou which refers to a doglike Chinese demon.  However, the Japanese tengu is often described as having birdlike features including a beak.  Often, the tengu is given a more humanized form and the tengu’s beak is replaced with an unusually long nose.  Buddhism originally regarded tengu as harbingers of war.  However, their image eventually changed to that of protective spirits of mountains and forests who were still dangerous when crossed.  Tengu appear in Japanese folk tales a fair bit.  Usually the ones they appear in are of a humorous nature.
Tengu are another yokai with a pop culture presence, though I don’t have an exhaustive list handy.  I do, however, remember that it was the one Japanese monster represented in the 1990s toy property Monster in my Pocket (I had about a million of those when I was a kid).

Yuki onna- Yuki onna literally means “snow woman” and is a spirit that haunts snowy mountain passes.  Yuki onna are known for having a haunting beauty including snow white skin and long, dark hair.  They are as cold as ice and a mere touch can give someone an icy chill.  They feed on the Ki or life force of human beings which they usually suck from the mouths of their victims.  The process usually leaves the victim frozen solid.  Sometimes there are stories in which a yuki onna falls in love with a human but it rarely ends well.
Yuki onna is one of the creatures focused on in World Weaver Press’s Frozen Fairy Tales.  A yuki onna also appears in both the manga Rosario+Vampire and the webcomic Eerie Cuties.  The snow witch from issue two of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches also appears to be yuki onna.

Kitsune- There is a whole class of supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore that are animals that gained supernatural power after they turned a hundred years old or more.  These include the raccoon dog (tanuki), cat (bakeneko) and badger (mujina).  However, among the most popular is the fox or kitsune.  There are two kinds of supernatural kitsune in Japanese lore.  There are good foxes that work for the Shinto god Inari.  There are also the wild kitsune that are prone to mischief, trickery and even evil.  Even this kind of kitsune have their good side though, seeing as they are known to repay their debts, keep their promises and remember friendships.  Kitsune are often adept shape-shifters and some that turn into humans have been known to live out their whole lives as humans.  A distinguishing trait of magical kitsune are that they have more than one tail and are often depicted with nine of them.
On the pop culture front, the kitsune figures heavily into the anime/manga Naruto.  It’s also represented in Digimon by Kyubimon and in Pokemon by Vulpix and Ninetails.

Futakuchi onna- I’m including this one largely because of how bizarre it is.  Futakuchi onna is the “two mouthed woman”.  The story goes that in households in which the food stores are shrinking but the lady of the house rarely takes a bite of food, the lady may be a futakuchi onna.  The futakuchi onna is a woman who has a second, ravenous mouth filled with teeth on that back of her head hidden by hair.  The mouth will use long, prehensile tendrils of hair to feed itself and eat up all the food in the house.  Some say the futakuchi onna is another yokai that has shape shifted while others say it’s the result of a curse being placed on a young lady.
I haven’t encountered too many futakuchi onna in popular culture but there is one that’s a teacher in the web comic Eerie Cuties.  Also, the Pokemon Mawile is inspired by it.

As more Japanese popular culture gets imported to the Western world, we’re going to come in contact more and more with their folklore and myth.  Just recently Nintendo released a game in the US that plays even more on Japanese folklore called Yo-Kai Watch.  Also, the superhero series Ninja Sentai Kakuranger, which is based entirely on the idea of ninja vs yokai, was released in the US with subtitles.  The ones I wrote up above are just a primer.  There’s even a whole class of yokai based on objects that come to life I haven’t even touched on.  To learn more, check out, a database of yokai.  I got much of my information there, barring the pop culture stuff.  The database goes into far more detail, though.  Also, if you want more information on the connections between Pokemon and yokai, click HERE. 

Now I’ve got to say goodbye while I get some more steps in and catch some more Pokemon.  Until next time, “sayonara”.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Five Children and It.

Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.

It’s an old saying, one that might be bordering on cliché.  Yet, it’s a message that is used constantly, especially in fantasy fiction.  It was the message of “The Three Wishes” from More English Fairy Tales.  It’s also the message of “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, the cartoon The Fairly Oddparents, the movie 16 Wishes and even Disney’s version of Into the Woods.  I’ll admit, I’m probably missing a few examples but we don’t really have all day to list them here.

What I’m really getting at is a couple things.  For one, this simple concept still has legs even though it has been used a million times.  Also, it’s the central concept behind another classic work of children’s fantasy: Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit.
This is another of those children’s books that may have escaped your notice if you haven’t either taken a class on children’s literature or grown up in Great Britain.  Regardless, Edith Nesbit (or E. Nesbit) is considered by many to be the creator of the modern children’s book.  Nesbit drew on her own experiences as a child and as the mother of five children to write a number of children’s books that were popular during the transition period as the Nineteenth Century gave way to the Twentieth Century.  She also wrote a number of books for adults.  Trying to describe Ms. Nesbit’s rather extraordinary life would take up the better part of a post by itself.  However, I should note that they include a cheating husband, membership in a Socialist think tank and possibly a fling with George Bernard Shaw.  You can find a biography for her HERE and HERE.

The story of Five Children and It concerns five children: Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and their baby brother who is simply known as “The Lamb”.  These five have recently moved to a country home after spending two years cooped up in London.  Despite just arriving their parents are called away, leaving the five children in the care of servants.  Though, with the servants busy with their own duties, they were mostly left to their own devices (a situation that reflects Nesbit’s own childhood on many occasions).  It’s on one of these days left by their lonesome that they decide to go digging in the gravel pit.  It’s in the gravel pit that they discover the genesis of the whole adventure: The Psammead.  The Psammead (pronounced “Sammyad”) is a sand fairy that has the ability to grant wishes and is obliged to grant them to the person who catches him.  The Psammead can generally only grant one wish a day and they only last until the sun goes down.  The basic premise flows from this.  Every day, the children make a wish.  Usually it’s something that seems like fun.  Other times it’s something that they wish off hand that they didn’t intend to become real.  While the majority of them are fun at first, they soon go awry and the children are soon waiting for sundown for all of it to be over.  Among the things they wish for are to be as “beautiful as the day”, a fortune in gold coins, wings to fly with, to live in a castle under siege and for their baby brother to grow up already among other things.  They keep trying, with the hope that the next wish will be a better wish without any downsides.  Eventually, they have their final wish which escalates their problems to the point where others are at risk of getting caught up in it and have to fervently wish it all away.

It sounds simple, seeing as it has the basic “be careful what you wish for” plot and the lack of any sort of true antagonist.  However, the truly noteworthy thing is in how Nesbit pulls it off.  She really seems to break a number of unwritten rules.  In its own way, Five Children and It is a work of urban fantasy.  Everything, even the magic, happens in what was then the modern world.  This is something rarely seen in works of Victorian and Edwardian children’s fantasy.  There’s also the Psammead himself to consider.  The traditional Victorian fairy was often seen as wispy, delicate and beautiful.  The Psammead, in contrast is bizarre-looking.  He is described as having a round body like a spider, the hands and feet of a monkey, a rat-like face, a bat’s ears and most notable of all, it had eyes on stalks like a snail.  If the traditional Victorian “flower fairy” was meant to represent the beauty of nature then the Psammead might be meant to reflect the more bizarre side of nature.  Personality-wise, the Psammead is grouchy and difficult to get along with too, always concerned with one whisker that once got wet and hasn’t been the same since.  The Psammead himself is ancient but the stories he tells of the distant past are less grounded in fairy tales and myths and more in paleontology.  He tells of days when the gravel pit was still near the seashore and when human beings would catch psammeads to wish for megatherium (prehistoric ground sloth) and pterodactyl (prehistoric winged reptile) steaks to eat.  Nesbit grounds the premise of the story in the familiar tale of “The Three Wishes” but grounds the rest in a modern world that knows about prehistoric man and giant ground sloths.  At the time it was published, this probably gave young readers a greater sense of the magic happening in the “here and now” (which is now the “there and then”) much like modern urban fantasy like the Harry Potter books do today.  There’s also just something about how Nesbit writes children and particularly siblings that rings true.  There’s a certain vitality to the way she wrote them.  They argue and make jokes and get on each others’ nerves and use slang and do plenty of other things that more “proper” children in other books wouldn’t do and yet they’re still good kids.  With the exception of maybe Jane who gets a bit lost in the shuffle, you feel that you know these kids and their personalities by the end of the book.  Heck, it’s one of the first classic children’s books I’ve read that shows how annoying it can be to have a baby brother, seeing as the Lamb can be a bit of a handful.  We even get a rather active little heroine in Anthea , who takes charge when one particular wish goes off the rails.
Not all of it is great.  There are some rather dated elements considering how the book is 115 years old.  There’s one chapter in which Cyril accidentally wishes to fight some “Red Indians” because he’s been reading The Last of the Mohicans.  There are some stereotypes thrown around in that chapter that are clearly taken from the adventure fiction of the time period.  The book also nearly stereotypes a group of Gypsies in one chapter but ends up stopping just short of doing it.  Also, the things that I find interesting about this book might be found boring by others.  For example, I find I tend to be kind of fascinated by fantasy stories that have enough conflict without having a primary antagonist.  It seems like it would be a trickier thing to do rather than just having a villain to pin everything on.  But I can see how some might find a book entirely built around wishes gone awry as a little dull.

But I still think this book is rather good.  So, why isn’t it more well-known?  Well, it never got particularly popular on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, which can impact media proliferation.  Now, I’m not going to say media adaptations are necessary for a book to become well-known, but it certainly helps a lot.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might not be quite as well known if they didn’t have movie tie-ins going back to the age of the silent movie.  There have been some adaptations, but they’ve been largely localized to the UK.  There was a BBC miniseries, for one.  There was also a movie which seemed to chuck the existing story and turn the whole thing into a silly comedy.  I can’t say that they look too appealing to me.  Partially because they both chickened out on making the Psammead look truly bizarre.  Both adaptations gave him regular eyes and then turned the eye-stalks into antennae. 

But hey, that’s part of what “Fantasy Literature Rewind” is for, shining a light on fantastical literature of the past beyond the Carrolls, Collodis, Baums and Barries (though, I love all of them too).

So, if you like children’s fantasy literature and you’ve never tried it, give Five Children and It a chance.  You may end up wishing for more.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Jungle Book revisited.

Hey, everybody!  I know it's strange for me to put up another post so soon after the last one, but I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this one because I could stand to give it a little bit of an update.  You see, me and Kristin from Tales of Faerie have been talking about the new Disney version of The Jungle Book in the comments section of my last post about these books.  You can read it HERE.

Anyway, the thing is that Kristin had mentioned that she at first thought it was strange that Mowgli didn't go to the man-village at the end of the movie but then she remembered that I said that Mowgli doesn't go back to the man-village in the book.  Well, here's the thing.  I hadn't quite finished both Jungle Books when I posted that.  I had finished The Jungle Book but I was still working through The Second Jungle Book when I posted that.  But I wanted the post to be up so it could coincide with the movie because I knew it would be on people's minds at the time.


Here's the thing.  Mowgli does end up back at the village at the end of The Second Jungle Book.  Not the same one that drove him out because he had the jungle take that one back, but definitely a man-village.  In a story called "The Spring Running", a grown-up Mowgli finds himself restless and annoyed that the animals that have sworn to aid him are impossible to get in touch with during the Spring (I think we can guess why).  Mowgli, restless as he is, decides to start running.  He runs practically the whole breadth of the jungle until he ends up at a man-village where he runs into the woman who had taken him in at the other village.  Things are of course different now.  Mowgli has grown into what the woman herself describes as a "Forest God".  The woman herself is old, her husband is dead, but she has another son now.  Mowgli, ultimately ends up deciding to "return to man".  Akela the Wolf, as he died in a previous story had said that eventually he would have to.  I'm assuming that Akela knew that Mowgli would someday need to seek human companionship for various reasons once he was an adult.  But he goes back to the jungle and says goodbye to his animal friends who are still around, his four wolf brothers, Kaa, Baloo and Bagheera.  Mowgli's trip back to mankind was more of a circuitous one.

So he does go back.  That's not necessarily the end of the story, though.

Years before Kipling had even wrote The Jungle Book for children, he had written a story for adults featuring Mowgli entitled "In the Rukh".  In this story, a man from the Indian Forest Service meets Mowgli and a series of events happens that includes Mowgli taking a bride and living with her in the wilderness.  This suggests that Mowgli does acclimate to people but ultimately never loses his wildness.  And the story, despite being for a different demographic, does seem to be canon with the other stories.  Kipling references it at the end of "Tiger!  Tiger!"  Give it a read.  It's not bad.
Oh?  The movie?

Well, I didn't review it because I try to keep Fairy Tale Media Fix oriented on movies and TV shows based on true fairy tales and folklore.  Besides, I don't want this blog to be nothing but Disney reviews.

But I did like it.  I liked how they kept the basic bones of the Disney animated film, but focused the story more on Mowgli and his growth.  While the original Disney movie was about what the animals were going to do about Mowgli, the live action film was about Mowgli himself.  There were also some really nice bits taken from the books that weren't in the animated film like the Water Truce and the creation story about how the elephants created the Jungle.  As for Mowgli returning to the man-village and dealing with all that stuff, I just don't think the Mowgli in the movie is to that point yet.  But you know, a sequel is supposed to be in the works.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Rapunzel's Revenge.

I had said before that I wanted to tackle reviewing more comics that were created for the book market than the comics market.  Despite that, I’ve been sitting on this one particular graphic novel for a while, not knowing in particular how to tackle it.  So, I’m just going to wing it here.

This is Rapunzel’s Revenge.

Rapunzel’s Revenge is a children’s graphic novel from 2008 written by award-winning novelist Shannon Hale and her husband Dean Hale, drawn by the talented and altogether unrelated artist Nathan Hale and published by Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books.

The story is set in a mythical version of the Old West (read “mythical” as “kind of weird and fantastical”).  A young girl named Rapunzel lives in a grand villa with Mother Gothel, the woman she believes is her mother.  Her “mother” is quite known for having magic that makes things grow.  The only problem with living in the villa is that there is a very high wall around it and Rapunzel wants to see what’s on the other side.  So, one day she uses a rope trick learned from one of the guards to swing to the top of the wall.  What she sees on the other side is disturbing.  The world beyond the wall is nothing like the world inside it.  Whereas the villa’s gardens are lush and green, the world outside is barren and bleak.  In the outside world, people toil as slaves.  Yet another shock for Rapunzel, one of those slaves turns out to be her real mother.  Faced with this grand reveal, Rapunzel faces Mother Gothel and ends up imprisoned in one singularly towering tree.  Rapunzel though, ends up using her hair that has grown incredibly long from all the growth magic surrounding her to escape.  She then ends up teaming with a roguish young man named Jack to make her way back to Gothel’s villa to free her mother and get revenge against Gothel, all the while using her hair as whips or lassos as needed.

There’s not much to complain about here.  The writing is solid.  The art tells the story well.  The setting is unique if a little weird (there are jackalopes.  Sometimes people ride bison.  You just go with it).  The characters are charming and likable.  There are a couple places where the story seems to meander, but I can forgive that.  It’s Rapunzel’s first time outside, so she’s owed some meandering.  Also, the folksy dialogue can sometimes seem a bit phony.  Though, I find I can forgive some of the negatives knowing that it’s a graphic novel for kids.  Not everything necessarily needs to hold up to adult scrutiny.  I know that not everything I loved as a child does (ever seen an old late ‘80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon now?  Yeesh).  I’m really most impressed by how well the Hales know their fairy tales and incorporate bits of Rapunzel that people don’t always remember into the narrative.  Sure, the story goes off the rails that the old tale set once Rapunzel escapes, but it’s supposed to.  They also skip the whole “let me climb your hair” bit because if Gothel has magic, why wouldn’t she be able to get up there herself.  No, what impressed me is how Rapunzel isn’t put in the tree/tower until she’s 12 years of age, just like it says in the Grimm tale.  No, really.  Go give it another read.  Before giving it a serious read, I always assumed that Rapunzel was always in that tower, since the moment Mother Gothel got a hold of her.  But the tale says she was placed in the tower at age 12, and that’s the approach the Hales take.  Granted, they sidestep all that adult subtext about the witch essentially locking Rapunzel away the minute she hit puberty, essentially trying to keep her from growing up and forestalling her sexual awakening.  But like I said, it’s a kids’ book.  It should come as no surprise that Shannon Hale and company know their tales seeing as Shannon Hale is the same woman who turned the obscure tale “The Goose Girl” into her first and often most fondly remembered novels.

Just as notable as any of that is Rapunzel’s relationship with Jack.  However, that’s something with wider and somewhat more frustrating connotations.  Basically, it says a whole lot about how and when people are receptive to “twists” on fairy tales.  Essentially, the crux of the idea is this: the idealistic and sheltered Rapunzel pairs up with a somewhat foolish, world-weary rogue.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Yes, that’s right.  It’s much the same dynamic as Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled and Cress and Carswell Thorne in The Lunar Chronicles novels.  It seems like such a no-brainer now, to pair such character types together.  They seem like the absolute best personalities to play off of each other.  There’s even a precedent for it when you consider how the prince in the original tale was essentially a glorified burglar.  He preys on Rapunzel’s naivete which allows him to essentially break into her home.  The difference is that he doesn’t really want to steal anything but Rapunzel, which he never even manages to do.  Rapunzel’s Revenge doesn’t have that bit.  She meets Jack when she’s on the road after having escaped her prison (I’m hesitant to use the phrase “rescued herself” despite its popularity in fairy tale feminism circles.  The reason being that if someone else does it, it’s a “rescue” but if the captured person does it it’s an “escape”.  I get why people say it, but semantically it’s a really odd phrase).  The thing is that near as I can tell, this is the first time such a pairing has happened.  I seem to even recall reading a snippet of something in which Hale says she felt a bit robbed when Disney’s Tangled came out (I don’t have the link, so don’t quote me).  Yet, I’m not sure how many people acknowledge this.  It really reminds me of just how much stock people put in movies and television in our culture.  The same issue can be observed with ABC’s show Once Upon a Time.  I’ve encountered any number of fans online who praise the show for its “twists”, while my reaction has usually been “What twists?  You mean that old thing they did again?”  The thing is that about 90% of the supposed twists on old fairy tales presented in that show have been done before in literature, comics or even Jay Ward Fractured Fairy Tale cartoons.  However, since the general populace hasn’t encountered them before they’re not viewed as cliché but novel.  This seems to be the case with most examples.  Most twists, changes and revisions have been done a number of times before in quieter media before someone stumbled on the idea and put them in a movie or on TV.  It’s a fact that most fairy tale fans are likely just going to have to grin and bear.  Now, which rogue do I like best?  Well, Flynn Rider makes me laugh and I really like Carswell Thorne’s character arc, however Jack receives major points for being the same Jack as the one from “Jack and the Beanstalk”.  What, did I forget to mention that part?

Overall, Rapunzel’s Revenge is a fun little graphic novel and probably a good way of introducing kids to the medium.  The heroes have a fun dynamic and the setting is unique.  While maybe not a “go out and read this now” book, I do recommend giving it a shot.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Post for Papa Polendina.

This post is coming about a week late.  Things have just been getting in the way.  However, I liked the sentiment enough to do it anyway.

This post is for Father's Day, and the various fathers out there.  It's not easy to find good fathers (or mothers) in fairy tales.  Usually, they're kind of awful.  In children's literature, they tend to be absent.  The parents take a back seat as the children go on some kind of adventure.  But there is one exception.

That's right, this one is all about Geppetto!
I've said before that the story of Pinocchio is one of the few children's stories that reflects the complicated nature of family, and I stand by that.

First of all, Geppetto is far from a perfect human being.  He's known as being quite a hothead and actually has a reputation for not liking children (generally because he gets angry when they make fun of him for his yellow wig, for which they call him Polendina).

However, even in this world in which puppets are alive and could easily be considered the children of their makers, he still sets out to carve one that can dance, fence, turn somersaults and earn him money.  Now, it seems a bit mercenary in 2016, but in 19th century Tuscany it hardly seems like a big deal that a child would serve as some kind of support for their aging parent.

But then, he has his hands full because he has to take care of Pinocchio.

Pinocchio runs away, and because Geppetto's reputation proceeds him, Geppetto ends up being sent to jail as a suspected abuser.

He brings pears for Pinocchio's breakfast and Pinocchio refuses to eat them unless they're peeled.  And despite this ungrateful turn, he still peels them.

He sells his winter coat to get Pinocchio a school primer, and Pinocchio sells it for tickets to see a puppet show.

Pinocchio disappears for long periods of time and Geppetto puts his all into finding him, even sailing off in a little boat and getting swallowed by a giant dogfish.

Raising Pinocchio is close to being a thankless job, but Geppetto keeps trying.  And trying.  And trying.  And trying.  Though, through Pinocchio's own effort, it does eventually get better.
It's here we have to stop and think about just how human our parents actually are.  About how much raising children probably comes down to sheer effort.  They don't necessarily know all the answers (though we think they do growing up).  They probably often have to make things up as they go along.  The job can be thankless because children simply expect it of them.  It's probably much worse when having to raise a naughty boy like Pinocchio.  But when they get older, we do have to admire how much they put into it all.

So, here's to Pinocchio's dad!  And here's to my dad!  And here's to all the other dads out there just trying to make the whole parenting thing work.  And to all of you, a Happy (belated) Father's Day!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Fairy Stories of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde.  The great Irish playwright, novelist, poet, journalist, raconteur and wit.  Author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Importance of Being Earnest”.  One of the most notable minds in Victorian literature.
Oscar Wilde
And also, he wrote some fairy tales.

Really, it’s not uncommon.  Victorian Britain had a big “fairy stories” craze for a while as everyone seemed eager to put their stamp on literature for a new generation of children at the time.  Some writers did it well and some did it not so well.

But anyway, on to Wilde’s stories.  While his fairy stories are not the first works that people usually list in a bibliography of Oscar Wilde’s work, they are notable.  Wilde’s fairy stories are crafted in much the same style as those of Hans Christian Andersen.  They rely on objects and animals to stand in for humans as their trials and tribulations are depicted.  They could often be highly moralistic.  Wilde, also like Andersen, was not afraid of letting his tales end tragically.

There are nine stories in my copy of The Fairy Stories of Oscar Wilde.  If there are any more besides these nine stories, I don’t know of them.  Their titles are as follows: “The Happy Prince”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Devoted Friend”, “The Remarkable Rocket”, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “The Young King”, “The Birthday of the Infanta”, “The Star-Child” and “The Fisherman and his Soul”.
"The Happy Prince"
Before I go on, I thought I’d offer a little disclaimer.  These types of fairy tales are not generally my thing.  Not to say they’re not good or well-written.  I just don’t particularly like them.  There’s a reason why I don’t usually write about Andersen stories.  These types of stories usually leave me feeling a little bummed out.  I also frequently feel preached to by these stories, which I’m not crazy about.  But still, though I don’t like it, that’s what these stories were kind of designed to do.  They were supposed to teach lessons to children in a way that made the messages unmistakable.  They were also supposed to show the tragic consequences of things and also maybe remind the reader that sometimes life just isn’t fair.

The messages of these various stories are pretty obvious and the outcomes are often a little disheartening.  Both “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant” have bittersweet endings on Earth but are rewarded for their good deeds in Heaven.  “The Remarkable Rocket” is boastful and proud but ultimately ends up as little more than garbage.  “The Young King” starts out decadent and selfish but changes his ways.  The Nightingale in “The Nightingale and the Rose” gives his all to help some young lovers but it ultimately amounts to nothing.  “The Birthday of the Infanta” is about a dwarf who sees great love in an action made toward him only for it to turn out to be nothing in the eyes of the person who made that action.

Honestly, add some fiddle and guitar and you could probably fuel an album of old fashioned country songs with the heartbreaks in this book.

Like I said though, that doesn’t necessarily make them bad.  All these stories are written well and none of the outcomes seem contrived so much as just depressing.  Some of them do have important messages in their time.  “The Young King” addresses the plights of miners, weavers and pearl-divers who provide finery for the very rich.  There are also rare bright moments, usually where Wilde’s famous wit shines through.  At one point toward the beginning of “The Star-Child”, a wolf comments on the cold weather and how the government should do something about it.

Though, one story I would like to talk about a bit more in terms of both story and subtext is “The Fisherman and his Soul”.
“The Fisherman and his Soul” is a story about a young man who falls in love with a mermaid.  This is notable as perhaps a companion piece or counterpoint to another story featuring love and mermaids: "The Little Mermaid" by the aforementioned Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is about a mermaid who falls in love with a human, sacrifices her own voice to be with that human, finds she is too late, is offered a chance to go back to the way things are by killing her love, but ultimately refuses and dies (or gets turned into an airy spirit, depending on which version you read).  The general message given to the mermaid is that she can’t love her prince because she does not have an immortal soul.  In essence, the two are just too fundamentally different and aren’t meant to be.

Many people read a certain subtext into this.  Many scholars and readers believe that the story was written in response to Hans Christian Andersen’s own love for someone he just was not meant to have: another man.
Oscar Wilde’s story, though ultimately tragic, takes a different path.

The Fisherman falls in love with a mermaid but is told that he cannot love her because he possesses an immortal soul and the mermaid does not.  So, he does the one thing that seems logical to him: he seeks a way to cast off his soul.

After an encounter with a witch, he finds out about a knife that can sever a person from his shadow, which is the body of the soul.  He uses the knife and sends his soul off into the world.  However, the soul asks the man to give him his heart before he goes.  The man refuses as his heart now belongs to the mermaid.
The soul/shadow comes back and eventually leads the Fisherman away on an adventure, but the Fisherman soon finds that without a heart to guide it the Soul had become corrupted and learned to do a number of awful things.  Also, the Soul’s proposed adventure was an excuse to lead the Fisherman away from the mermaid who died while they were gone.  It’s also through the Fisherman’s love and his breaking heart that the Soul was able to enter into the Fisherman again.

It’s an interesting thing to think about.  The Fisherman’s love for the mermaid is not depicted as the ultimate wrong in this tale.  The Fisherman himself is unrepentant of it even though it was ultimately tragic.  It was also the way in which the Soul and the Fisherman were ultimately united.  Also, while the Soul is important it isn’t the ultimate good of the story.  The soul itself is easily corrupted.  However, it’s the heart that is most important.  The heart guides the soul and steers it between right and wrong.

Now, I don’t think I’m surprising anyone when I say that Oscar Wilde was gay.  If I am, then you probably slept through English Literature 101.

If the subtext of this story is in any way reflective of his feelings about his homosexual lifestyle, then it says some interesting things.  It says that he was unrepentant of loving who he loved.  It also says at which level he valued the power of love and his own heart.  The heart is the ultimate arbiter of good and the soul is something which is easily led astray and corrupted.  Also, while the soul is cast off, it’s ultimately a thing which finds its way back to you through love.  Ultimately, if this subtext says what I think it’s saying, “The Fisherman and his Soul” conveys the message to not be ashamed of who you love and that matters of the soul can be sorted through matters of the heart.  It’s an interesting idea, in comparison to Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” in which it’s all just doomed from the start.

Or maybe I’m wrong.  Such is often the case with subtext.

Overall though, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales are tragic and moralistic with touches of wit and some progressive themes for their time.  They’re good stories if you like the type of stories they are.  And if you scratch the surface of some of them, you may find something to think about.