Sunday, May 6, 2018

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Grimms Manga Tales

Ladies and gentlemen, the most bishonen-y take on classic fairy tales you could possibly find!  Or, at  least, the most since Dictatorial Grimoire.

Grimm’s Manga Tales is a collection of fairy tale retellings by manga artist Kei Ishiyama.  Along the way, she gives all the tales in question a manga “twist”.  Sometimes it’s depictions of magic and the supernatural that more reflects how they’re depicted in Japanese popular culture, but mostly it seems to be attitudes towards romance, gender and sexuality as they’re depicted in shoujo manga (note: “shoujo” means “girl” basically.  Comics for girls).

The stories adapted are “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Rapunzel”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “The Two Brothers”, “Snow White”, “Puss in Boots”, “The Frog Prince” and “The Singing, Springing Lark”.
But let’s get back to that word I used before:“bishonen”.  Pronounced “bee-show-nen”, the word basically translates to “beautiful boy”.  The basic definition is “a young man whose beauty and sexual appeal transcends the boundary of gender and sexual orientation”.  In general, bishonen characters are drawn as slight of build with long, flowing hair and limbs, with delicate features and big, expressive eyes.  Basically, they are drawn with traits that would normally be drawn on women.  Bishonen characters tend to be very popular among girls and women in Japan.  Perhaps it’s because they serve to break down some otherwise rigid social barriers and gender stereotypes.

So, in the version of “Rapunzel” in this manga, the child that is traded away for vegetables and grows into a beautiful adult isn’t a girl, it’s a boy.  Yes, a male Rapunzel complete with absurdly long ponytail.  A lot of the other elements are the same, just gender-swapped.

And in “Hansel and Gretel”, Hansel is a beautiful boy and the witch is a rich lady who wants to support him as a kept man.

And when the princess in “The Twelve Huntsmen” disguises herself as a huntsman, the huntsman is . . . you guessed it . . . a bishonen.  One that her prince feels an undeniable connection to, thus making him question a few things.

There are other stories in there too.  There’s a “Frog Prince” which is more of a “Frog Princess”.  There are versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Puss in Boots” that cast both the wolf and Puss in ways that are more like manga depictions of the yokai of Japanese lore.  There’s also a bittersweet version of “Snow White” in which one of the dwarfs falls for her.

But in the modern world we’re in and the social climate we’re in, it’s probably the bishonen stories that stand out the most.  Society (or at least American society) is questioning just how solid or ingrained qualities like sexuality and gender identity really are.  That might be for the best, too.  It’s good to question things.  Especially things that seem like they’ve simply always been the way they are.
The fairy tale world is far from separate from all this.  One story that’s really caused a buzz lately is a graphic novel titled The Prince and the Dressmaker which is a fairy tale inspired story in which the titular prince doesn’t exactly conform to traditional gender roles.

And right now, there are probably some people reading this post who are feeling weirded out by the whole concept and the fact that things they thought were hard and fast rules of society aren’t anymore.  And that’s okay, actually.  Being weirded out is fine.  It’s just important to remember that just because something’s outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean it’s wrong, bad or fundamentally immoral.

As for Grimms Manga Tales, I think it’s a decent collection of fairy tale adaptations with twists.  I think it does what it sets out to do very well.  It may not be my favorite book of retellings, but it’s far from the worst one I’ve ever read.  I’d especially recommend it to people who like stories that question or subvert the usual gender dynamics in fairy tales.

Until next time.

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.