Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Into the Woods.

The holiday season is drawing to a close, but not without some interesting gifts.  On Christmas Day this year, the folks at Mouse-Ears Incorporated (aka Disney) gave us a movie adaptation of the fairy tale inspired musical Into the Woods.  This can be seen as a rather strange gift from Disney, seeing as they’re famous for their fairy tale adaptations being light, whimsical and sentimental as well as having indisputable happy endings.  Into the Woods doesn’t really do that kind of thing.  At least, it doesn’t do that for long.  Now, I’ve seen a taped production of the stage musical before.  I’ve also read all the stories utilized in the movie.  However, I also know some people will be going in cold.  So, I’m going to try and address this from all relevant angles.

First, some background on Into the Woods.  Into the Woods started as a musical with music by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine (note: “book” is the word used by theater people for the script in a musical).  It debuted at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 1986 and went to Broadway in 1987.  From that point, it went on to win numerous awards, including a number of Tony Awards.  The musical has been produced many, many times.  This latest cinematic adaptation is directed by Rob Marshall with a script by original book-writer James Lapine and with Stephen Sondheim working closely with them in regards to story and music.

The movie follows the story of a childless baker and his wife as they try to collect various items to concoct a potion for a witch that will lift a curse that keeps them from starting a family.  Like many fairy tale heroes, the baker isn’t given an actual name, so I will from here forward refer to him as the Baker with a capital “B”.  Along the way, their story intersects with those of “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” (notably, the Grimm version).  These characters all meet in the Woods as they try to pursue their various quests and attempt to make their wishes come true.  This all leads to a “Happily Ever After” . . . that lasts for just a few minutes.  You see, as the second half of the movie starts, all the loose ends from the various stories come together to create a new threat that presents all the various characters with morally ambiguous choices.  Suddenly, nothing seems so simple and every move they made seems to have unintended consequences.

The story, as it’s handled on screen is well done.  There are a lot of subplots.  Subplots can be difficult to juggle.  However, as this movie deals with the theme of unintended consequences, it makes sense that the characters would weave through each others’ lives having an impact in ways they don’t even know about.

The music is Sondheim.  I’m not really a music critic.  However, I’m sure anyone who knows about music will probably know if they will like it from that statement.

Composer Stephen Sondheim
The cast is good.  I’m no music critic, but it seems like all of them can sing.  This is a good sign.  Meryl Streep is fantastic as the witch.  James Corden plays the Baker as a rather lovable if somewhat befuddled everyman with father issues.  He plays very well off Emily Blunt, who plays his wife and plays the part well.  Anna Kendrick plays a suitably indecisive Cinderella, as the part demands.  The most concern among theatergoers was the casting of Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood respectively.  These parts are usually given to adults on the stage whereas the Huttlestone was only 15 and Crawford was 12 at the time of the filming.  Personally, I think they both did very well with material that might have been a little beyond their level.  Then there’s Johnny Depp as the Wolf.  Well, he was interesting for the few minutes he was actually on screen.  Personally, the ones I thought stole the show were Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince.  However, I’m going to get back to them when I talk about the tone of the production next. 

Now, about the tone.  For many people, the original musical Into the Woods was what brought “dark fairy tales” into the pop culture light.  However, the story is also not just dark.  The story is striped with dark and light.  It deals with heavy themes but also adds touches of wit and parody.  Many jokes are made about Jack being dimwitted or Little Red eating all the time.  Even dark elements from the original fairy tales are played for laughs.  I dare anyone to find a funnier take on the infamous “foot mutilation scene” from Grimm’s “Cinderella”.  Then there are the princes who I mentioned earlier.  Sondheim and Lapine practically invented the modern method of making fun of the “Prince Charming” type.  The princes are over-the-top dashing, daring, romantic figures.  However, they also seem to practically ooze arrogance and prove to be less than capable of following up romance with loyal love.  You can see bits and pieces of this take in everything from Fables and the Sisters Grimm books to Disney’s Enchanted and even to some extent in the Ever After High webtoons, depending on the targeted age of the audience.  In the movie, this particularly comes out as the two croon the song “Agony” atop a waterfall while seemingly trying too hard to top each other at being the sexiest man there.  Yet, while the movie can make you laugh with “Agony”, it can also do its best to draw out some tears with “No One isAlone”.  Then, the whole thing manages to end on a bittersweet note, as befits a movie with a variable tone. 

For those who are theater buffs, I will warn you that changes have been made.  Certain songs have been restaged to make them work better on film.  Rapunzel’s fate has also been changed.  Sadly, this means that the reprise for “Agony”, one of the funniest parts of the stage production is not in the movie (will I post a link to the reprise?  Of course I will!)  Also, the part of the Mysterious Man has kind of been cut while not being cut.  You’ll understand when you see it.  I have heard some say that it doesn’t quite have the same charm as the stage version.  However, with the use of the narrator as a physical character and the older actors playing Jack and Red, the stage musical could feel kind of like a children’s fairy tale play that took an odd left turn.  Like a Christmas pantomime gone horribly awry.  The movie, instead, feels like a movie.  As a fairy tale geek, I’m just excited to see another new fairy tale inspired film out there.  Also, it gives some exposure to the Grimm version of “Cinderella”, which could use some exposure beyond the gruesome bits.  I will warn you that the stage version is kind of the forerunner of all the re-spun fairy tale productions out there.  So, if you watch this and feel you’ve seen all this already, then you probably have.

I recommend seeing Into the Woods.  It’s a good, well-made movie adaptation of the stage musical.  It weaves the stories together well and deals with some really strong themes (I haven’t really touched on those much here, but I can’t give everything away).  If you have thoughts on the musical, the movie or just this review, feel free to post in the comments below.  However, since I have all of you still here . . .

In Other Disney News . . .
Disney released the first teaser trailer recently for its Disney Channel movie Descendants, which follows a group of the teenage offspring of Disney movie villains as they go to school with the children of Disney heroes.  You may recall that InkGypsy posted about this way back when on her blog.  Anyway, what can we take from this other than the fact that Disney wants some of that sweet, sweet Ever After High money?  Not much, seeing as it’s just a teaser.  I will just say that from what I’ve read that there will be little doubt that this will be a cheesy production at least from a grown-up viewpoint.  But hey, maybe it’ll be a fun kind of cheesy.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Nutcracker and the King of Mice.

As you all may know, we are all very sophisticated here at Fairy Tale Fandom [sips hot cocoa with pinky out].  After all, you remember our epic three-part ballet special “The Swan Lake Project”.  However, you may be asking yourself “What about the stories of other ballets?  Especially the most iconic ballet of this time of year: The Nutcracker.” 

Well, I will admit that it’s a classic.  In fact, I actually went and watched a production of this a week or two ago.  However, here’s the thing about it: unlike Swan Lake, the story for The Nutcracker was not born for the ballet.  It’s actually based on a children’s story by German fantasy writer E.T.A Hoffmann.

Caricature of E.T.A. Hoffmann
Ah yes, E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Another of those influential writers that most regular joes and janes of the world have never heard of.  Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann was born on January 24, 1776 in Konisberg, Prussia.  The product of a broken home, he was raised by his uncle.  Educated in law, he became an officer for the Prussian bureaucracy in the Polish provinces until the aforementioned bureaucracy was dissolved following Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon.  After this, Hoffmann took to pursuing a creative life, becoming a composer, critic and writer.  As a writer, most of Hoffmann’s stories focus on sinister or supernatural figures that pass into the lives of ordinary people.  The end result is usually the revelation of the dark or tragic sides of ordinary people.  One thing that actually concerned him was the idea of automata and what would happen if an automaton was actually mistaken for a real person.  He actually wrote a couple of stories on this subject and one of his darker automata stories entitled “The Sand-Man” would one day end up being the inspiration for the rather light and frothy ballet Coppelia.  I point these things out so that you know that “Nutcracker and the King of Mice” with its light tone and young audience is actually kind of a rarity among Hoffmann’s works.

So, shall we take a look at this ballet’s source material?  Of course we will!

The story opens on Christmas as little Fritz and Marie Stahlbaum await the coming of their Godpapa Drosselmeier and the chance to open the gifts left for them by the Christ Child.

Okay, here we have two things to talk about.  First of all, the tradition of the ChristChild bringing gifts.  Now, one of the things that I really like about this story is that it references German Christmas traditions that people in other countries might not know about.  Now, I talked about the roots of Santa Claus in the last post I wrote.  However, one thing I did not mention is that not everyone uses the Santa Claus tradition.  In many European countries, the tradition goes that the baby Jesus would come in the form of a little angel and give gifts to good boys and girls.  In some countries, he’s also accompanied by another figure who would carry the gifts and who was tasked with punishing the naughty children.  This may seem strange to Americans who only know the Santa tradition.  However, we have absorbed a bit of it as well.  The name Christ Kindle (or “Christ Child”) has transformed into another name for Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, here in the US.  The other thing worth talking about is the difference between the girl’s name in the story and in the ballet.  I’ll get to that later on, though.

Anyway, the children open their presents and Drosselmeier the clockmaker arrives with his gift for the children.  It’s a big, wind-up castle with little figures that move in and out of the doors.  Marie thinks it’s wonderful but Fritz is unimpressed seeing as it can only do what the machinery lets it do.  Shortly after the castle is put away so that Fritz doesn’t break it, Marie spots something else nearby.  It’s the ugly little figure of a man dressed like one of Fritz’s toy cavalrymen.  Marie’s father explains that it is a nutcracker and meant to be shared by herself, Fritz and Marie’s older sister (who barely shows up in the story).  Seeing this, Fritz goes to try out the nutcracker by putting the biggest, hardest nut in its mouth.  He succeeds in breaking off three of the nutcracker’s teeth.  Marie is very upset and wraps a ribbon around Nutcracker’s jaw and putting him to bed in her doll’s bed.

Now we start getting to part of the story that has been made famous by the ballet.  Marie hangs back to put Nutcracker to bed.  The clock starts to strike and she looks at it to see that instead of an owl sitting at the top, it looks more like her Godpapa Drosselmeier.  Now, this is when the mice start to invade.  This is followed by the nutcracker leading an army of toys, including dolls, figurines and Fritz’s toy soldiers against the army of invading mice.  One of Marie’s dolls, named Miss Clara, shows a great deal of concern for the nutcracker’s safety.

Here’s where we get to that interesting point I mentioned earlier.  In this original story, the little girl is named Marie and she has a doll named Clara.  In the ballet, the little girl is named Clara and there is no doll.  It seems like such a strange, random choice to make with an adaptation.  I can understand wanting to give a nod to Miss Clara considering how she seems so concerned for poor Nutcracker, but it’s ultimately a small part and one that shouldn’t usurp part of Marie’s.  This sort of thing has been done in other cases, though.  I’m reminded of Universal’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein in which Victor Frankenstein is renamed Henry Frankenstein and his best friend Henry Clerval is renamed Victor Moritz.

Anyway, the battle rages on until Marie decides to take a hand, throwing her slipper at one of the Mouse King’s seven heads.  She then passes out and wakes up to find that her parents had found her next to the toy cabinet having cut herself on a broken pane of glass.  As she convalesces, Mr. Drosselmeier returns and tells her the story of how Nutcracker came to be the way he is.  The basic gist is that he was Drosselmeier’s nephew who was called on to save the life of the Princess Pirlipat after she was cursed to look quite nutcracker-like by Dame Mouserink the queen of the mice.  Though he saves Pirlipat, he ends up cursed himself until he can defeat her son.  This is a part of the story where the prose version outpaces the ballet.  There is no back story for the nutcracker in the ballet because it would practically require them to stage another ballet in the middle of the first ballet.

Anyway, after Marie gets better, the Mouse King returns.  He goes to Marie and tells her that if she doesn’t offer up her sweets and toys, he’ll go and chew up Nutcracker.  Marie obliges until his demands get to be too much.  At that point, he tells her to help by getting him a sword.  She manages to do this with Fritz’s help.  This is about where I’m going to leave you.  We’re closing in on the climax and I don’t like giving away endings unless I really, really have to.  You may have some sense of what it’s like if you’ve seen the ballet, though.  You can read an English translation of the story right HERE, though.

Overall, if you like the Nutcracker ballet, I suggest giving E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story a read.  It’s a lot like the story of the ballet but longer and deeper with more background information and detail.  The story is a wonderful piece with a really interesting combination of reality and dream-like whimsy.  Is there any wonder this story has become a holiday classic in some form?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Santa Claus Phenomenon.

Hey, kids!  We grown-ups are just going to talk about boring things here using big, technical terms like “motif” and “archetype”.  You don’t want to hang around here.

They gone?

Good!  This is because we have to talk about the whole Santa Claus thing. 
Thomas Nast's Santa Claus
Why?  Well, because Santa Claus is a sort of folklore.  An unusual bit of folklore from a modern perspective, too.  At a basic level, Santa Claus could maybe be considered a legend.  I mean, there was a Saint Nicholas, right?  So, he is based on a real, historical figure of some sort.  However, over the years he’s picked up bits and pieces from other places as people have chosen to reinterpret this legend.  Not all these influences have been all that folk-y either.  The Saint Nicholas Center claims the first use of the saint as “Sante Claus” came in 1821 with the publication of the first lithographed book in America entitled The Children’s Friend.  This book depicts the saint as a man who visits children on Christmas Eve and leaves gentle toys like dolls, tops, balls and books to good children and left a “long, black birchen rod” for the parents of naughty children so that they may make them get back into line (and you thought a lump of coal was bad).  The History Channel actually fills in some other gaps crediting Clement Moore and his poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” with Santa’s method of entry (chimney), transportation (sleigh and “eight tiny reindeer”) and his depiction as “a right jolly old elf”.  They also credit illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast with giving Santa Claus his home at the North Pole, red suit, wife Mrs. Claus and lists of naughty and nice children. 
Thomas Nast himself.
Santa’s elves likely first appeared in a poem in Harper’s Weekly entitled “The Wonders of Santa Claus”.  Some credit Christmas elves as first appearing in an unfinished work by Louisa May Alcott entitled Christmas Elves while others say it was in engravings in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1873.  However, these are just a handful of the people who have interpreted the Santa Claus legend among many others including advertising artists with the Coca-Cola company.

But one thing I want to talk about is what the Santa Claus legend is.  For you see, I keep using the word “legend” even though it doesn’t fit with how we usually see the idea of a legend.  Usually, a “legend” suggests some kind of folk narrative.  However, there really is no story for Santa Claus except the ones that authors wrote for him.  I could call it a tradition, but it’s a unique tradition that has a sense of character to it and personality.  To many children, Santa is viewed as a real entity and not just something that people do during the holidays.  So, he’s not quite a folk story and more than a tradition.  The folklore tradition surrounding traditional gift givers and sometimes punishers of naughty children (and there are plenty of both) is a rather unique one in general.  I'm not even sure what I'd call it.

This brings me to my next question.  Is perpetuating the Santa Claus tradition/character/legend a good idea?  People are split on this one.  Lots and lots of people love the idea of Santa Claus and promoting belief in him to their children.  Others see it as a form of manipulation as well as lying to children.  One is reminded of Natalie Wood’s character from Miracle on 34th Street and her rather cynical mother.  I can see where they’re coming from to a certain extent.  There is some degree of lying and sneaking involved.  These are things that many parents would consider to be negative in any other circumstances.  So, there is probably some feeling by parents that they are being hypocritical.  Also, unlike most other forms of folklore, this is one of the few where some sort of results are expected to be delivered.  Sure, there are legends that people claim actually happened.  There are also ghosts stories in which people claim things are still happening.  However, it’s only in the legend of Santa Claus and other ceremonial gift givers that parents are expected to provide gifts and eat cookies as a sort of proof that the legend has some veracity all while leaving the children none the wiser.  There’s got to be some pressure there.  Maybe this is pressure that parents do not want.  I don’t know.  Personally, I’m pro-Santa.  It’s generally my belief that there is a difference between believing a lie and believing a legend.  While lies fool us and lead us astray, legends often tend to lift us up and point us toward being better.  More than a didactic means of teaching children good behavior, I see Santa Claus as a way to teach the rather Christmas-y values of hope, faith, kindness, goodwill and generosity.

So, where do you weigh in on the whole Santa Claus situation?  Pro-Santa?  Anti-Santa?  Somewhere in between?  Let me know with your reasons in the comments section below.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Folk Tale Secret Stash: A Baker's Dozen.

It’s the Holiday Season!  Yay!  How time flies!  It feels like just a couple months ago me and Jack O’Lantern were blogging through October.  Um, actually, I guess it was.  Anyway, you can expect a few holiday posts here before the new year starts.  I promise we won’t get co-opted by Santa Claus or anything, though.  The Halloween thing was enough.

Anyway, people often have different opinions on when the holiday season starts.  Thanksgiving?  Black Friday?  December 1st?  However, most people would agree that the season includes Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s.  However, one could argue that another holiday occupies the holiday season.  That would be Saint Nicholas Day which falls on December 6th, which was just two days ago.

Now, a little background on Saint Nicholas.  He was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor.  After he was canonized, he became recognized as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, schools and children.  A number of different European cultures observed Saint Nicholas Day.  It was believed that on that day, Saint Nicholas would travel around the world and leave gifts for children in their shoes.  Over time, this tradition would start getting worked in with other traditions having to do with Christmas or New Year’s.  Anyway, one of the cultures that observed this tradition was that of the Dutch, who called Saint Nicholas “Sinterklaas”.  They even brought the tradition with them to the New World when they settled what would become New York State.  That is where the story of “The Baker’s Dozen” begins.

Now, the story starts in the early days of Albany, New York back when it was still known as Beverwyck.  In this town, there lived a baker named Volckert Jan Pietersen Van Amsterdam (we’ll just call him Van Amsterdam for short).  It was around New Year’s (the tradition having started to shift already) and he was baking gingerbread cookies in the shape of Saint Nicholas for the New Year.  Now, this day, a witch walks in.  She comes to the counter and asks for a dozen Saint Nicholas cookies.  Van Amsterdam counts her out exactly twelve cookies. The witch notices this and complains that he stiffed her one cookie and that a proper dozen is thirteen (the English actually started the original baker’s dozen tradition because of laws saying a dozen loaves of bread had to be above a certain weight).  Van Amsterdam then gets into a heated argument with the woman and essentially shoves the box into her hands saying he would not give her the extra cookie.  Upon leaving, the witch cast a curse on the man and his bakery.

The next week, nothing went right in the bakery.  Nothing he baked turned out right.  Cakes were stolen from out of his shop window.  Some loaves of bread he baked were so light they floated out the chimney.  Others were so dense and heavy the broke through the floor.  His cookies lost their flavor and his cakes collapsed.

Eventually, the witch came back.  Still, Van Amsterdam would not give her a count of thirteen cookies.

After that, it got worse.  The poor luck got even worse and even extended to his family.  His children would get tears in their clothing for seemingly no reason.  Whenever his wife visited the shop, she would be struck by a sudden deafness.  It even seemed as if the bakery was haunted by spirits.  Customers started to be driven away.

At this point, Van Amsterdam decided to call on some assistance.  He prayed to Saint Nicholas.  That night he had a vision of the saint and . . . Wait a minute!  What am I doing?  I’ll give the ending away.  I don’t want to do that.  Anywaym, if you want to read the story, a good place to find it is on American Folklore’s website where it can be located right HERE.

This story might not be a real fairy tale or even as obscure as some of the others I’ve spotlighted.  However, it’s rare that I get to focus on a story that is so close to where I call home.  I live in Watervliet, which is just a hop, skip and jump from Albany.  So, I hope you enjoyed this special holiday Folk Tale Secret Stash.  More holiday goodness is yet to come.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Peter Pan.

Between last night’s Peter Pan Live on NBC, the release of the trailer for the upcoming movie Pan and TV shows like League of Pan and Wendy and Peter supposedly in the pipeline, it seems we’re flying headfirst into a storm front of Peter Pan related popular culture.  It’s no surprise, actually.  The story has captured people’s imagination since it first appeared in 1904.  Also, it’s only been in recent years that people have been able to reimagine Peter Pan with impunity as it has passed into the public domain.  For a long period of time, the rights to Peter Pan were owned by The Great Ormond Street Hospital, Britain’s premier hospital for sick children, granted to the institution as a gift by J.M. Barrie and a great support for their endeavors.  Yet, despite having rights that were a bit restricted (for a good cause), Peter Pan has continued to be put into play by various people.  It has been adapted and reimagined into movies, comic books, broadway musicals, ballets and cartoon shows (including my favorite Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates) as well as a beloved Disney animated film and has leant its name to everything from peanut butter to a bus line.  So, I think now is a good time to talk about Peter Pan here on Fairy Tale Fandom.  However, what can be said about a story that’s already been so well-used?

First, let’s take a look at some of the background of the author and the story.  James Matthew Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was born to a poor family in a remote Scottish village.  He was the ninth of ten children.  The great hope for his family was his older brother David, who was a good student and planned to go to Edinburgh University.  However, that all changed when David died in a skating accident.  James was then dead set on taking David’s place.  Barrie succeeded, writing a number of successful stories and plays.  However, in a strange way, his life mirrored his most famous characters.  J.M. Barrie never seemed to grow up.  Though he got older, he always seemed to be an unusually youthful looking man with a fondness for childhood games.  Also, his few failed romances with women were often reputedly more based on a sort of childlike fondness rather than physical attraction or any kind of deep, adult connection.  The relationship that would define Barrie’s life and career was actually with a whole family.  The story goes that he was walking his Saint Bernard in Kensington Gardens one day when he happened to make the acquaintance of the Davies family, notably little George and Jack Davies.  Over time, Barrie would become like a sort of adopted uncle to the boys and their influence would be one of the inspirations for Peter Pan.  There’s also been some speculation about Barrie’s relationship with the Davies family.  I won’t go into it much, but here’s a link to a post on Tales of Faerie that will send you in the right direction.

The story itself first emerged as an idea in Barrie’s book The Little White Bird.  A chapter of this book is often reprinted under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  The story as we know it now, though, was born for the stage.  The original “Peter Pan” was written as a traditional British pantomime.  Unlike its American connotations, the English usage of the term “pantomime” means a play for children.  Pantomimes are generally a tradition around the Christmas holidays.  They generally have certain stock characters.  There are the Principal Boy and Principal Girl, both of whom are played by young actresses.  There’s a Good Fairy and sometimes a Bad Fairy.  There’s the Demon King, or the main villain of the piece.  Then there is the Dame, which is usually played by a male comic in drag.  Here, Peter and Wendy are the Principal Boy and Principal Girl.  Tinkerbell is Good Fairy and Bad Fairy rolled into one.  Captain Hook is the Demon King.  The role of the Dame here evolves into the role of the Dog, or Nana who is usually played by an actor going about on all fours.  The play was so popular that Barrie adapted it into a novel entitled Peter and Wendy which is still published today, though usually under the title Peter Pan.

So, we all know the story.  Peter Pan shows up to whisk the Darling children away to Neverland, where they encounter Indians, Lost Boys, mermaids and it all eventually builds to a showdown with Captain Hook and his crew.  The story itself is cobbled together with traditional bits and pieces of adventure fiction and pantomime.  The desert island and the underground hideaway are classic settings.  Pirates and Indians are classic adventure fiction elements, though probably not often featured together.  Peter himself, on the surface, seems to be a preadolescent version of the forest god Pan.  However, it’s how Barrie works these and other elements that make the story work.  There’s added nuance that elevates the story.  I’ve actually had the chance to read the play for the first time and was surprised by a few things.  Strangely enough, it’s the Darling family that struck me this time.  The popular Disney version depicts the trip to Neverland as being like a dream for the children that leaves Mr. and Mrs. Darling none the wiser.  However, the original play shows them as being quite aware of their children’s disappearance.  In fact, it’s Mrs. Darling who captures Peter’s lost shadow.  Then there’s Mr. Darling.  Best remembered as a stern, stiff man who tolerates no tomfoolery and has a devil of a time getting his necktie tied.  He seems to be the consummate adult.  While this seems true on the surface, the play shows a little bit of something else coming out under the surface.  Though he lectures Michael to “be a man” and take his medicine, when presented with his own medicine he avoids taking it and actually slips it into Nana’s water dish under the pretense of a joke.  He also shows a bit of a playful side, teasing Mrs. Darling at one point and callsw her a “cowardly custard”.  It’s like there’s a little bit of the boy slipping out from the man, though he’s trying his hardest to hide it.  The rest of the nuance and subtext has been discussed by scholars a million times over, but I suppose I should mention it anyway.  There’s Wendy, Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell’s unspoken infatuations with Peter, that he is unreceptive to.  There’s the crocodile and his ticking clock representing the march of time as it hunts down Captain Hook unto his death.  There’s the conflict between youth and age represented by the conflict between Hook and Pan.  There’s even the fact that no one touches Peter through the entire play, as if to represent the fact that youth is fleeting and cannot be held onto.

The most notable thing, though, is the character of Pan himself.  It’s easy to write him off as this delightful little boy who gets to play and have fun forever.  However, in many ways, Peter is an antihero.  While he may be playful, adventurous and loyal to his friends, he’s also cocky, thoughtless and unable to really take anything seriously.  It’s these negative traits that make him most memorable.  We’d also be remiss not to mention Peter’s forgetfulness.  It’s as if he’s constantly trying to live in the present moment, ignoring the consequences of the past.  There’s a darkness to Peter Pan.  Many modern writers see it, but I don’t know if they quite recognize what they’re seeing.  For example, Once Upon a Time wrote Peter Pan as a conniving adult villain who willingly trapped himself in a child’s body.  While some people enjoyed the take, it didn’t feel quite right.  It’s easy to see the desire to stay young as Peter’s darkness or his way of leading children away as his darkness, but I see it lying in his childlike nature.  It’s Peter’s inability to accept and understand the adult world and the consequences in it that makes Peter dark.  He goes to war with pirates, killing a number of them and facing great danger, but treats it all like a game.  To him, none of it is really real.  It’s just playtime.  He even comments at one point “I forget about people after I kill them” (note: I’m paraphrasing).  However, I think one thing that many people don’t see in Peter Pan is the tragedy inherent in the character.  For a character that is so famously cocky and forgetful, he is very much ruled by fear and the memory of his past.  Peter states more than once that “To die would be a very big adventure”.  This shows that he’s not afraid of anything, up to and including death.  However, there is one thing he’s afraid of.  It’s the one thing that pretty much every child is somewhat excited about: growing up.  On top of this, Peter carries around bitterness from the one time he actually tried to return to his true family.  He flew back to his own window expecting it to be left open but found it locked and a new little boy sleeping in his bed.  Feeling rejected and betrayed, he harbors a dislike and distrust of real mothers.  So, Peter lives his life in a perpetual, forgetful childhood, making friends and ultimately having to say goodbye to them as they decide to grow up and move on.  He never really realizes what he misses by not growing up.  If he had, maybe his credo would be “To live would be a very big adventure”.  Interestingly, the movie Hook actually acknowledges this side of Peter Pan but also flips the script to change Peter from a boy afraid of growing up to an adult who’s afraid to remember what it’s like to be a child.

Okay, I went a little deep and dark with this one.  However, next time you see that Peter Pan peanut butter on the shelf or a Peter Pan bus go by or even watch the Disney movie, maybe you’ll remember that there’s a little bit more going on underneath that cheerful, adventurous fa├žade.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: The Nursery Crimes series.

It strikes me that in the handful of times on this blog that I’ve talked about fairy tale  fiction, I’ve talked about children’s literature and teen literature but I’ve never talked about any grown-up books.  Well, today is a good day to start.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that one of the easiest ways to my heart is simply to make me laugh.  However, in the world of adult fairy tale fiction, that often seems like a rare thing.  We always seem to see people reinterpreting the tales so as to show their dark underbellies and controversial subtexts.  There’s a place for that, sure.  However, sometimes when you’re reading books about pumpkin carriages, hens that lay gold eggs or cats that wear boots among other bizarre oddities, a little levity seems most appropriate.  In that situation, thank goodness for Jasper Fforde
and his Nursery Crimes novels.

The Nursery Crimes series is a spin-off of sorts of the Thursday Next series by the same author (which I have yet to read).  So far, the series consists of two books.  There’s The Big Over Easy, published in 2005 and The Fourth Bear published in 2006.  Word is that the third book entitled The Last Great Tortoise Race will be published in 2017.  The Nursery Crimes series focuses on DCI Jack Spratt of the woefully underfunded and rarely respected Nursery Crimes division of the police department in the town of Reading, Berkshire in England. 

The town of Reading is filled both with regular, ordinary people but also PDRs or Persons of Dubious Reality.  These, in essence are characters of fiction that have somehow settled in the town.  There are also aliens, who have seemingly come to Earth mainly to indulge in Earth’s popular culture.  When there is a case that has something to do with PDRs or specifically “nursery characters”, the case is given to the Nursery Crimes Division.  Besides Detective Chief Inspector Jack Spratt the department consists of the often contrary Detective Sergeant Mary Mary, Police Constable Ashley who is a blue-skinned alien who speaks in binary code and Gretel Kandlestyck-Maeker, a very tall forensic accountant.  The first book, The Big Over Easy, is focused on solving the mystery of who murdered Humpty Dumpty.  What seems like a simple case of a large egg falling off a wall turns out to be something much more complex involving the deaths of more nursery rhyme characters, a mad scientist and a giant beanstalk.

The second book, The Fourth Bear, tries to solve the mystery of the untimely death of a reporter nicknamed Goldilocks.  This evolves into a case that involves the return of the serial killer known as the Gingerbreadman, characters from the nonsense poem “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” and cucumbers.  If these plots sound ridiculous, then you’re right.  They are ridiculous.  They’re also very smart and well-crafted mystery plots.  There’s also a strong metafiction element.  Sometimes, the characters will just straight-up break the fourth wall and talk as if they know they are in a novel.  While the main premise of each book draws from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, the stories also draw from things like Shakespeare, Greek mythology and Oscar Wilde among others.  On top of all that, each chapter starts with a “news” excerpt worthy of The Grimm Report.  These are some of my favorite contemporary books!  They always have me laughing.  One of my favorite parts in The Fourth Bear is when Jack Spratt actually has to get marital advice from Mr. Punch of Punch and Judy fame.

If you like a good laugh with a touch of metafiction and more literary references than you can shake a stick at, give the Nursery Crimes series a try.  You’ll probably be able to catch up by the time that third book comes out.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Princess and the Goblin.

[digging through bookshelf] No!  Done it!  Done it!  No!  No way!  Overdone!

Gah!  There’s got to be some work of children’s fantasy literature out there that’s old enough to be classic, but isn’t a giant series and hasn’t been done to death!


[Runs and turns on kindle]

When it comes to classic children’s stories, there comes a time when you get tired of all the usual suspects.  Your Carrolls and Collodis, Baums and Barries.  However, I may have something that will add just a little variety into the mix.  Today, we’re going to look at The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.

Who is George MacDonald?  Well, that’s an interesting question.  MacDonald is an interesting case in that he’s one of those authors that is so influential to those who came after him and to the genre in which he wrote while at the same time being largely forgotten by the general public.  MacDonald’s work has been cited as a major influence on the work of writers like W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walter de la Mare, E. Nesbit, Madeline L’Engle and most notably C.S. Lewis who referred to MacDonald as his “master”.  He also served as a mentor of sorts to Lewis Carroll.  MacDonald was born in 1824 in Huntly, Aberdeenshire in Scotland.  He was raised in the Calvinist faith but had issues with many Calvinist beliefs.  This would have a great effect on his writing, as he would write many Christian apologetics as well as works of fantasy.  MacDonald was also apparently very well travelled in literary circles, there being pictures of him standing with the likes of Dickens, Tennyson and Wilkie Collins and was apparently friends with Longfellow and Walt Whitman during a time when he lived in America.  His literary legacy does not just extend to his admirers, either.  MacDonald’s son Greville MacDonald published a number of literary fairy tales in addition to being a medical specialist and his grandson Phillip MacDonald became a well-known Hollywood screenwriter.

MacDonald with his children Ronald and Mary
The Princess and the Goblin was published in 1872.  The story focuses on an eight year old princess named Irene who lives in a grand palace while her father is frequently absent attending to affairs of state. 
Irene does not know about the goblins who are her father’s enemies and live deep underground (compare these to the folkloric creatures known as knockers, kobolds or Tommy-Knockers).  The goblins were human once but were driven underground centuries ago and were malformed and distorted by their life there.  Goblins have certain weaknesses.  They are repulsed by sunlight, repelled by songs and poetry and the only soft, vulnerable part of their body is their toeless feet (which means it’s handy that they don’t wear shoes).  One day, Irene becomes bored and goes to explore the mansion.  Along the way she gets lost and then finds her way to a room where she meets  a beautiful, white-haired woman.  This woman tells Irene that she is her great-great-grandmother.  The grandmother has a certain magical quality that becomes important to the story later on. 

The next day, Irene and her nursemaid Lootie are out taking a walk and discover that they’ve been out too long and the sun is coming down.  Naturally, as they race to get back to the house, goblins come out to accost them.  Luckily, a twelve year old boy named Curdie shows up.  Using his knack for making up rhymes and verse on the spot, repels the goblins long enough for the two to get back to the mansion.  Now, Curdie is a miner boy and works the mines with his father.  The day following the daring rescue of the princess, Curdie stays longer in the mine to get some extra work done.  When he’s there he overhears the goblins talking and finds that they are planning something.  Curdie then resolves to find out what it is.

Okay, so the stage is set.  We’ve got Irene, the Great-great-grandmother, Curdie and the goblins are plotting away.  Now, as you know, I don’t like giving entire stories away on the blog.  This book does exist for free online, though.  Personally, I downloaded it for no charge onto my kindle.  I should note that there is also a sequel entitled The Princess and Curdie which I have not read yet.

Personally, I thought The Princess and the Goblin was a rather charming little children’s fantasy story.  I thought the way MacDonald incorporated poetry into the story by using Curdie’s verse as a weapon against the goblins was a rather nice little touch.  Also, the great-great-grandmother provides a wealth of positive fantasy concepts.  Among them are a light that can guide lost people home, a healing bath and a nearly invisible magical thread that figures rather heavily into the story. 

The Princess and the Goblin has been adapted into different forms, including an animated movie, a ballet and even a Fractured Fairy Tale from Jay Ward.  However, it never seems to have the impact on the modern public the way that other children’s stories by other writers like Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan do, among others.  MacDonald’s skill was greatly noticed by his contemporaries and by those who followed in his footsteps, and yet he remains forgotten by most of the general public.  I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I got as much out of this book as some of his admirers or even the children who read it at the time did.  However, it was nice to get a bit off the beaten path.  It’s with that thought that I’m going to end this blog post.  There’s a world of half-forgotten children’s fantasy literature out there that could stand being rediscovered.  So, for possible future installments of “Fantasy Literature Rewind”, I ask that you leave recommendations in the comments below and with aid of library and kindle I may seek them out.  Who knows what hidden gems we might find in that literary mine.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Four Color Fairy Tales: Dictatorial Grimoire.

So . . . Dictatorial Grimoire. 

Sitting at home, you’re probably thinking that is the oddest name for a fairy tale related comic ever.  You might be right.  Also, the strangeness doesn’t exactly stop there.  Dictatorial Grimoire is a manga (that’s the term for a Japanese comic book) by manga artist Ayumi Kanou and published here in the US by Seven Seas Entertainment, LLC.  I think I’ve mentioned a while back how European fairy tales are actually rather popular in Japan despite having a nice selection of the more domestic product (such as “Momotaro”, “Urashima-taro” and “Issun-Boshi”).  This is actually just one of many fairy tale related media products from the land of the rising sun.

The story revolves around a half-Japanese student named Otogi Grimm.  Otogi spent much of his life moving around with his mother until tragedy strikes and she dies.  Suddenly, Otogi gets a letter from the father he never knew telling him to move into a certain mansion that’s been left to him and enroll in a certain school.  After complying with this unusual request, things are set in motion.  Otogi finds out that he is the last surviving descendant of the Brothers Grimm.  It also turns out that the Brothers Grimm didn’t really go around collecting folk tales from servants and friends.  They actually used sorcerous power to summon the fairy tale characters who are actually beings called Marchen Demons and get the stories from them (if you’re keeping track, the Brothers Grimm have now been reimagined by popular culture as con-men, monster hunters, detectives and now sorcerers.  Wow).  Anyway, as part of the deal, the Marchen Demons are allowed to come after the Brothers’ descendants after a certain amount of time.  Naturally, time is up for Otogi Grimm.  On the upside, it turns out he can use his copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales as a grimoire (book of spells, and thus the name of the manga).  He can use the book to bind the power of the Marchen Demons and make them his own allies.  Also, he’s got help from a couple of classmates Hiyori Hatsushiba and Sorimachi Yuma (Yuma actually starts out as more of a rival) and the Marchen Demon Cinderella who serves him freely.

Here’s the thing: in this manga Cinderella is a man.

In fact, the series seems to be full of gender-bending and homoerotic overtones.  Cinderella is a dashing, long-haired man who has a masochistic streak.  Snow White is a man who’s an expert in poisons and calls himself a princess because he’s just so beautiful.  Red Riding Hood is a manly hunter type.  Also, Bluebeard is a woman who likes to capture pretty girls and keep them locked in cages.  Also, some of their costuming looks suspiciously like fetish gear.  I know I say “this comic isn’t for everyone” about a lot of fairy tale comics, but I think it really applies here.  I guess there’s a reason that this manga is rated “Older Teen (16+)”.  Now, it’s not that uncommon for modern fairy tale media to play with genders.  Zenescope’s comic series Grimm Fairy Tales does it all the time.  Once Upon a Time did it with Jack.  Ever After High invariably does it with the offspring of male characters.  However, in these cases, it’s usually to provide extra tittilation to male audience members, provide more feminist heroes and villains or to better connect with the target audience.  Also, it’s almost invariably changing male characters into female ones.  Here, it goes both ways.  The truth is that Japanese pop culture often just likes to play with gender expectations.  I know of a number of Japanese video game characters that do it as well.  I'm not sure why.  It just seems to be something built into their popular culture.

Overall, it’s not a terrible manga.  But it’s not spectacular either.  It’s kind of by-the-numbers for a manga of its type.  It’s a “wimpy loner kid gets a lot of power at risk of his life” manga.  It’s practically a genre all its own in Japan.  If you’re interested in seeing how the creator twists around and reinterprets the different fairy tale characters, you might want to give it a look.  However, I don’t really think it’s something worth rushing out of the house to find.  But, that’s just my view.
Anyway, a lot of interesting stuff has been coming out in regards to fairy/folk tale comics.  So, for this entry I also bring you Also in Comic Shops:
  • Archaia Entertainment, the current licensee of Jim Henson properties is currently putting out a miniseries inspired by Jim Henson's The Storyteller entitled Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Witches.  Of course, this is the second in a line of Storyteller projects following the Jim Henson's The Storyteller graphic novel from a year or two ago.
  • Boom! Studios is continuing to publish Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos's rebel Red Riding Hood series Fairy Quest with a new miniseries Fairy Quest: Outcasts.  In addition, they're also publishing another series set in the world of Fablewood entitled Fiction Squad which follows the exploits of a forgotten crime fiction detective as he tries to solve nursery rhyme crimes.
  • For those who prefer their folklore to be of the frontier variety, Image Comics has released a new weekly series American Legends which follows Davy Crockett, Mike Fink and Sally Ann Thunder as they try to save the Lewis and Clark expedition from the machinations of Jean Lafitte and Marie Laveau.  Other legend and tall tale characters are likely to also make appearances.

Interested in any of these?  Reading any already?  Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Twelve Months.

Okay, so I’ve got Jack O’Lantern locked away and things are starting to return to normal around here at the Enchanted Condo.  That is, provided Paul Bunyan doesn’t barge in and demand I post about tall tales or something [looks around for giant lumberjacks].  Phew.  Nothing.

Anyway, I thought I’d focus on another B-side from the world of European folklore.  This time, it’s from the Czech Republic.  Now, one of the interesting things about reading a lot of old folk tales is that you start to learn more about the flow of the seasons and what kind of foods and plants accompany them.  This stands to reason, seeing as they generally come from the days before hothouses and refrigerated boxcars.  As the colder months start to roll in, I start to think about it more and more.  Among the folk tales that focus on this sort of natural rhythm, this one entitled “The Twelve Months” earns a couple of creativity points.

Our story starts off with the typical “Cinderella” set-up.  A nice girl named Marusa lives with her cruel stepmother (no name given) and her lazy stepsister Holena.  Now, the stepmother hates Marusa for no reason except that Marusa is prettier than Holena.  So, she treats her like dirt.  She insults her, beats her and makes her do all the housework.  But still, Marusa takes it like a trooper.  Now, one day in the coldest part of January, Holena decides that she wants some violets to wear at her waist.  She tells Marusa to go get some.  Now, Marusa knows that violets don’t grow in the dead of winter.  However, since Holena threatens to kill her, she decides to go have a look.

Marusa searches everywhere through the snow, but there are no violets to be found anywhere.  Eventually, though, she comes to the top of a big mountain.  On the mountain, there was a big bonfire burning and twelve men sitting around it.  Three were quite old with white beards, three were not so old, three were younger and the last three were the youngest and handsomest yet.  These were the twelve months and old January with his snow white beard sat in the high seat.

Now, I’m going to stop right here for a moment to say this stuff is why I love folk tales.  These big, crazy, fantastic ideas.  It’s the same reason why so many people love science fiction.  They’re just full of mad ideas.  Only in folklore are abstract concepts personified in such a way.

Anyway, Marusa asks to warm herself by the fire and January asks why she has come.  Marusa explains her whole predicament about the violets and the death threats.  So, January, for a brief moment cedes the high seat to his brother March.  Soon, the snow disappears, the trees start to bud and flowers start to spread.  Marusa hurries and gathers together a bouquet of violets.

Marusa then hurries home where her stepmother and stepsister are perplexed by how she had managed to find violets in the dead of winter.

Now, I don’t want to give everything away.  I want you to read the story for yourself.  However, I will tell you that the same events repeat only this time for strawberries

And red apples.

But what happens when Holena tries to get these things for herself?  You can read the whole (less condensed) story HERE.

Happy reading, and remember to bundle up as the winter comes.