Saturday, August 30, 2014

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Ebony Horse.

Ah, The Arabian Nights!  The book that showed the people of Europe that dusky-skinned people had fairy tales too (this may sound unfair to Europeans, but let’s be honest.  We’ve all thought it). 
 However, what do most people know about The Arabian Nights aka 1001 Nights?  Well, they know there’s Aladdin and Ali Baba and genies and a guy named Sinbad who had seven voyages (some of which were made into movies by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen).  Also, something with a magic carpet.  Not sure which story it is, but there is definitely a magic carpet in there somewhere (no, seriously, I don’t know which story it is.  Someone leave me a link if you have it).  The truth is that 1001 Nights is an anonymous collection of stories that have existed in some form since at least some time in the tenth century, maybe earlier.  It has been translated by any number of scholars and authors, one of the most famous translations being by Richard F. Burton. The whole thing is tied together by the story of a woman named Scheherazade who tells these stories to her husband the king in order to forestall her own execution.  Along the way, characters in the stories would sometimes stop and make points by telling other stories to other characters (it’s sort of story-ception).  How long is 1001 Nights?  Well, my abridged version is two rather thick paperback volumes.  I thought that was pretty long.  Well, according to other sources, the full collection of 1001 Nights is sixteen volumes long!  Now, the question is: were the Arabian Nights folk tales?  Short answer: maybe.  I’ve been looking through Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion and find that since the book is so old and anonymous it’s really hard to pin down where these stories come from.  However, many scholars seem to think these stories have a folk root, so we’ll treat it as such.

Anyway, it seems to me that it’s a darn shame that a book 16 volumes long should best be remembered for three stories, so I’m here to shed a spotlight on another.  I give you “The Ebony Horse”.

The story starts with a king of Persia.  This king was good and kind and loved science and mathematics.  Also, he had three beautiful daughters.  One day, three inventors came to him and offered him gifts.  One offered him a golden statue of a little man that could strike enemies dead by blowing on a trumpet.  The second offered the king a basin with a golden statue of a peacock and 24 chicks that would peck the head of a different chick on every hour.  The last offered him a horse made of ebony wood that could carry a man anywhere he wanted through the air.   The king was so amazed by these gifts that he gave the inventors anything they wanted.  What they wanted was to marry the king’s three daughters.

The youngest daughter was less than pleased with this.

Apparently, the inventor of the ebony horse was something like a hundred years old and not much to look at.  So, the princess complains to her big brother who then goes off to have a few words with his father and her erstwhile suitor.  Now, the king tries to explain how a way cool flying horse is a worthwhile reason to marry his daughter off to an elderly man.  The prince actually does seem to like the horse and gets on it, but can’t make it fly.  So, the inventor is called for.  The inventor isn’t happy that the prince is opposed to him marrying a hot, young princess and then tells the prince to push a button so that soon the prince and the horse are flying through the stratosphere.  The king is now the one who is not pleased and has the inventor whipped and tossed in jail.

This isn’t the end of the prince, though.  He figures out the controls and has his own adventure.  He falls in love with a sleeping princess (shades of “Sleeping Beauty”), nearly gets killed by an entire army, essentially makes a royal kidnapping and once again runs afoul of the villainous old inventor.  It’s actually a pretty long tale and should be read so that you can get the full version.  I’ll put a link right HERE.

I like this story because I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the various magical gadgets and items in fairy tales.  For once, the gadget is the result of invention rather than sorcery.  Also, you must admit that a flying wooden carousel horse is pretty unique.  It’s no magic carpet, but not everything can be a flying carpet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Top Seven Cinderella Stories.

No matter where you go, no matter how far you try to run, there’s no escaping it.  The world just loves “Cinderella” stories. 

It’s been said that there are more than 500 variants of “Cinderella” the world over.  The most famous of which, of course, is “Cendrillon” published by Charles Perrault in Tales of Mother Goose in 1697.  It’s this version of the story that was made into a classic romantic ballet and a much-cherished Disney animated movie.  Now Disney is in the process of making a new live-action Cinderella movie.  If you want to read a little bit more about Cinderella in general and the Disney movie in particular, Kristin at Tales of Faerie has recently posted an insightful piece on it.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of “Cinderella”.  The characters in the story always felt a little too passive for me.  I tend to prefer my fairy tales with a little bit more adventure in them.  However, with hundreds of variants worldwide, I figured I had to give this story type another look.  Now, I’ve purposely left Perrault’s “Cendrillon” off this list.  Nonetheless, I present you with My Top Seven Cinderella Stories.

You may not recognize the name “Aschenputtel”, but you probably have heard of this tale.  It’s the Grimm version of “Cinderella”.  Yes, the one with the foot mutilations by the step-sisters and the birds pecking out eyes and all that.  However, it also has the rather interesting bit about the heroine getting her dress and shoes from a hazel tree planted over her mother’s grave.  It also features a pair of step-sisters that are called “beautiful, with fair faces, but evil and dark hearts”, thus breaking from the “ugly stepsister” stereotype that people think is so prevalent (I kind of imagine them being like the mean cheerleaders in pretty much every high school movie).  This was the one that first let me know that all Cinderellas were not created equal.  Yet, it’s still only number seven.

This is by far the oldest Cinderella story on the list.  The story of “Rhodopis” comes from ancient Egypt.  The story revolves around a Greek slave girl named Rhodopis who suffered at the hands of other servants in her adopted home of Egypt.  One day, her master admires her dancing so much that he orders her a special pair of red shoes.  One day while doing her chores, her slippers get wet and she puts them aside to dry.  Just then, the god Horus in the form of a falcon swoops down and picks one up and ends up dropping it in the lap of the pharaoh.  The pharaoh then begins a search for whosoever should fit the dainty little slipper.  You can probably guess what happens.  It’s a pretty good ending for a Greek slave in ancient Egypt.  There’s nothing like a Cinderella that breaks down racial boundaries.  It’s a very important story, but it’s not one of my favorites, so it’s only number six.  Still, it had to make the cut.

5) Cinderella (Armenia)-
I wish I had a better title for this one, but a lot of Cinderella stories are just called “Cinderella”.  This one makes the list just based on pure creepy insanity.  It starts with three sisters living alone with their old mother.  They’re very poor and have no money for food.  The eldest sister suggests they go out and find a way to make money no matter how.  The mother then says “No, don’t do that.  I would prefer you kill me and eat me rather than bring dishonor to this home.”  The youngest sister, of course, protests.  But the older sisters go ahead and do it anyway.  That’s right, these older sisters are cannibals!  And people think the Grimm version is dark!  Truth be told, from the various versions of Cinderella I’ve read, this isn’t uncommon.  The difference is that the mother is usually turned into an animal like a cow or goat before getting killed and eaten.  It’s also a consistent part of the story, mentioned every time Cinderella is asked to attend the king’s feast.  Anyway, the youngest sister abstains from this ghastly feast and gathers her mother’s bones and buries them.  In many stories, this leads to a hazel tree situation like the one from Grimm.  Instead, whenever the Armenian Cinderella needs something, she goes to her mother’s grave and asks, then the objects come up through the ground.  She then has to bury them again when she’s done.  In this version, a wedding feast takes the place of the ball and instead of trying a shoe on people, the king just has the heroine tailed.  I can’t give you a link for this one because it’s not online, but it can be found in 100 Armenian Tales and their folkloristic relevance collected and edited by Susie Hoogasian-Villa.

I don’t know how many of my fellow fairy tale geeks know this (probably a few), but when immigrants from the British Isles came to the US and settled in the Appalachian region of the American South, they brought a number of Old World folk tales and legends with them.  Isolated in the mountains, these tales took on a distinctly regional flavor.  What I love about these tales is that while they’ve been localized, they haven’t been localized completely.  So, they turn the Appalachian region into a magical place where rural American farm boys rub elbows with kings and princesses.  In this version, an old witch-woman takes the place of the fairy godmother and Sunday church takes the place of the ball.  I haven’t been able to find a full version online anywhere.  However, I think the best place to find it is in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase.

Honestly, I could have put all sorts of European Cinderella stories on this list.  This one just struck me because of all the little differences, though.  For one, the wicked stepmother was our heroine Hearth-Cat’s schoolmistress and she actually wanted her father to marry her before he found out how awful she was.  This one also includes the cow as fairy godmother (no mention of the cow really being Hearth-Cat’s mother) and also incorporates the “kind and unkind girls” archetype.  I think one of the things that struck me though was what takes place of the ball.  Usually, it’s either a ball or a festival or church.  However, in this variant, our heroine is off to the races.  I’m assuming they’re horse races, but it doesn’t say.  As someone who lives about a half hour from Saratoga, I’ve often heard about how rich folks would get themselves dressed up and head out to enjoy themselves at the track.  So, this little detail really caught my attention.  In all “The Hearth-Cat” is a European Cinderella story that has enough little differences to build up into something notable.

This is another one where I wish I had a better title.  Every version I see calls it “Indian Cinderella” though.  I believe there may have been a picture book adaptation titled Sootface, though (I just can’t find it).  I picked this one to show how different some of these stories can be while still keeping some of the same themes across cultures.  It doesn’t hurt that this is one that seems to predate encounters with the Europeans.  This one has the usual set-up at the beginning.  There’s a girl who’s treated like a slave by her sisters.  The work her to death, beat her and even burn her face with coals from the fire.  Naturally, there has to be some way for our heroine to escape this predicament, but it’s not the usual way.  There’s no fairy godmother.  There’s no ball.  There’s no leaving a shoe behind.  Instead, there’s a warrior named Strong Wind who is looking for just the right bride.  You see, Strong Wind can turn invisible and only wants a woman who can see him in that state.  To this effect, he asks all prospective suitors three questions.  I won’t give any more away.  The link is in the title.

Okay, so maybe with the popularity of this tale among fairy tale fans, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Also, it’s probably becoming clear that I have a bit of a weakness for tales from East Asia (I think it could be the next great untapped source of popular fairy tales).  There’s just something special about this tale, though.  In this version, the fairy godmother is the bones of a fish with lots of spirit power.  The ball is a festival.  Also, this is one of the older Cinderella stories (I sometimes wonder if that’s what prompted Marissa Meyer to set her book Cinder in a future version of China).  These things aren’t what catapult this story to number one, though.  Mainly it’s just that the setting of pre-industrial China makes a lot of the pieces of a Cinderella story fit together in much more interesting ways.  In this version, the mother and step-mother were once co-wives (there was some degree of polygyny allowed for kings and lords in old, old China).  So, her hatred for her step-daughter is like an old rivalry being carried on from mother to daughter.  Also, the thing about the slipper makes a different kind of sense when you remember how important it once was in China for women to have tiny, dainty feet.  The cultural context adds a whole new element to the story.

So, there you have it: my top seven Cinderella stories.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, though.  The world is just filled with Cinderella stories.  If you have a favorite I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments.  Before I go, I should thank the Folktexts site by D.L. Ashliman for providing me with a lot of my source material.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for a ball.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pertinent Fairy Tale Questions.

A week or two ago I was watching PBS Idea Channel.  What’s Idea Channel?  Well, it’s a YouTube show where the host, Mike Rugnetta, analyzes popular culture from all sorts of different intellectual angles.  Anyway, Rugnetta suggested an interesting concept: the reason that people went so absolutely ga-ga over Disney's Frozen was because it was a critique of fairy tales.  The idea is that Frozen deconstructs the fairy tale by having all the parts of a fairy tale (princess, animal sidekicks, handsome prince, witch/magically-empowered queen, act of true love, etc.) and presents them in ways that would be traditionally perceived as “out-of-place”.

Now, I find this argument a bit flawed.  If it’s true, then it means that fairy tales have been critiquing themselves for a couple of centuries now.  Take my favorite fairy tale from Grimm, “How Six Men Got On in the World”, for example.  The heroes are essentially a group of conmen.  The king and princess are both evil.  Also, magic stems not from some fairy or witch but five men who each have one specific magic power.  That’s not all, though.  Throughout my reading, I’ve encountered more than my share of princesses who were petty and spiteful and princes who were neither good nor charming.  The truth is that what Frozen seems to critique is our popular conception of the fairy tale.  Essentially, it overturns all the stereotypes we expect to see in Disney movies (actually, one of my own criticisms of Frozen is that it simply tries too hard to do this to the extent that the story doesn’t feel organic but instead feels like a story strung onto a series of deconstructed elements).  The truth is that many of the things that people think are in the “fairy tale rule book” aren’t necessarily there.  If my high school teachers and college  professors are to be believed, the only hard and fast rule is that the good guys win despite having to endure a number of difficult trials and that bad guys get punished for having put the hero or heroine through said trials.  Even these “rules” are suspect.  Some fairy tales don’t have villains, just difficult situations (“Beauty and the Beast”, for example).  Anyway, this is why I can’t really call Frozen or Shrek anything counter to a regular fairy tale.  No one ever said an ogre can’t be a hero or that a handsome prince can’t be a villain.

Now, I’m going to try to do like Idea Channel and ask a lot of questions for this post.  This is in contrast to too many of my opinion pieces which, unfortunately sometimes just change into angry rants (sometimes, it’s hard for a fairy tale geek to avoid the perilous claws of “nerd rage”).

So, here’s the question: Why, as a culture, do we grab hold of these popular tropes?

Why do we see these specific popular conceptions as quintessentially “fairy tale”?  Why are princes and princesses good and witches and monsters bad?  Why does love save the day? 

It would be easy to blame this on Disney and other media types, but maybe there’s more to it.  After all, big businesses like Disney often just give the public what it wants.

The reverence for princes and princesses is an interesting one.  It seems to stem back to the days of old systems of rule when there were not only royals but also nobility and landed gentry.  Royalty is about as high as you can go.  Now, naturally, no one’s going to believe that royalty are always good people.  There have been enough rebellions and uprisings in history to refute that.  However, fairy tales often carry the notion of attaining royalty.  Cinderella, for example, becomes a princess by marrying a prince.  For the peasant class, the idea of becoming as well-off as royalty has a certain appeal compared to the hardscrabble life they’re used to.  From there, it all seems to fall into place like dominoes.  If becoming royalty is good, then royals themselves must be good.  It all seems rather pro-authority, as compared to something like “How Six Men Got On in the World”.  However, you should also wonder “Why not kings and queens?”  I’ve read stories where full-fledged kings were the protagonists, but they rarely seem to make it into the world of well-known fairy tales.  Princes and princesses are royalty, but they’re not the people in charge yet.  The titles do suggest youth, to an extent.  However, they also suggest status without added responsibility.  They’re rich and powerful and should be respected, but they are not yet “chained to the throne” in terms of responsibility.  They’ll become kings and queens someday, but that’s after the story ends.

So maybe, in our common conception of fairy tales, regard for princes and princesses stems from some kind of desire for youth, wealth and status but without the added burden of responsibility.

As for witches and monsters, they are “the other”.  Traditionally, the unfamiliar is something to be cautious of.  They also rarely fit into Judeo-Christian belief except as some kind of demon or evil creature.  These creatures and people are probably depicted as ugly because it’s a way of making their badness obvious, like they wear their evil on their face.  And yet, fairies are generally depicted as “good”.  Also, I should note that I know of at least one story wear the protagonist learns sorcery, which is pretty close to being a witch.

It’s that “true love’s kiss” bit that really stumps me.  I really want to blame this one on Disney.  However, then there’s “The Frog Prince”.  Most people think there’s a spell-breaking kiss in “The Frog Prince” but there isn’t.  Disney didn’t make The Princess and the Frog until well after that misconception took root.

Anyway, I’m just spit-balling these ideas.  I really don’t know the answers.  If anyone else has any ideas about why people have latched onto certain fairy tale tropes or stereotypes, please post in the comments.  And if you’d like to watch more of PBS’s Idea Channel, check out their YouTube channel right HERE.

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Robin Williams.

Okay, so this one might be tough to write.
I know I've done my fair share of poking fun at Disney and how they influence our view of fairy tales.  However, for everyone out there, even old-school written page fairy tale geeks like me, there is that one Disney animated movie.  The one that you ate up like candy when your were a kid.  The one you remember going to see in theaters no matter how long ago it was.  The one where your parents thought you might end up wearing out the VHS tape.  For some folks I know, it was Beauty and the Beast.  For my sister, it was The Little Mermaid.  For me, it will always be Aladdin.  I loved that movie.  I loved the songs.  I loved the animation.  I loved how clever Aladdin was.  I loved how feisty Jasmine was.  And I really, really loved that hilarious Genie.  Looking back now, I know that the Disney movie wasn't that much like the original tale from the Arabian Nights.  But I still loved that movie.
Now I go into my Twitter feed and find out that the man who voiced that big, blue, lovable, hilarious Genie has died.  Not only that but from suicide that may have been brought on by depression.
Dammit.  Just dammit.
Sorry, I usually don't get so upset when celebrities die, but this is kind of a big one for me.  It's up there with when I was a kid and Jim Henson died.  (I seem to be drawn to celebrities who do lots of funny voices.  It may explain why I do so many voices in my storytelling).
Aladdin wasn't Williams's only foray into the world of fairy tale and children's literature characters, either.  He played the Frog Prince on an episode of Shelly Duvall's Fairy Tale Theatre and was a grown-up Peter Pan in Hook.
It is such an awful shame that the world has lost such a terrific actor and comedian to suicide.  Depression is a very serious mental disorder, but there is help for those who seek it out.  It may not have been able to help Robin Williams, but there are many that it can help.
To echo one of Aladdin's last lines in the movie, "Bye Genie, we're gonna miss you."

Friday, August 1, 2014

Four Color Fairy Tales: Brick Fairy Tales.

Oh, hey!  You might not hear from me for a little while.  But I thought I’d try to give you one of my soon-to-be-classic review columns before I go (classic-ness based on personal tastes.  Not my fault if someone disagrees).  So, I’m going to give you my review of this:

Now, before I go any further, who knows what a fumetti book is?  I see one, maybe two hands in the back.  Well, in Italian it means “little puffs of smoke” as a reference to the way thought bubbles look.  It’s an Italian word for comic books.  Here in the United States though, we use the word to describe a comic book that uses photos instead of drawings.  Brick Fairy Tales is essentially a fumetti book.

What the creators of this book (John McCann, Monica Sweeney and Becky Thomas) have essentially done is recreated and retold thirteen fairy tales by our old pals the Brothers Grimm

Completely out of Lego bricks.

You have to admire all the work they put into this.  The introduction makes this abundantly clear.  I quote: “Each tale is told in its original form and remains unabridged, and each of the photographs has been crafted with special dedication to the humor, gore and peculiarities of the folklore itself.”

Whew.  I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

Now, while the work and attention to detail are admirable, I find it hard to reward their choice of stories.  At least, I find it hard until the end of the book.  The first eight stories are ones I’ve heard over and over.  I won’t list them. You could probably guess which ones they are.  Anyway, other than being portrayed in Lego form, they’re not really that different from what you’d expect.  It’s once you get to story number nine, “Clever Hans” that things got interesting for me.  I thought they did a very funny “Clever Hans” and “Sweet Porridge” and admirable takes on “Godfather Death” and “King Thrushbeard”.  Their “Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” was so-so.

Looking through the book, I find it amusing to see what great lengths they went to in order to get pieces and figures to build these stories.  You can tell they had to raid a number of different Lego sets to get what they wanted, including Lord of the Rings and Star Wars sets.  Priests are often clearly wearing Jedi robes and their Devil from “Godfather Death” is obviously Darth Maul with a bigger set of horns.

Lego is a brand that is respected by both kids and geeks everywhere, much like the Brothers Grimm are.  It’s nice to see someone put so much work to bring the two together.  Especially since Lego proper has gotten into the fairy tale business but with a license you could probably expect.  Am I going to say this is a must-read.  Not really.  If you know the stories of “Cinderella”, “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, etc by Grimm, then the stories won’t offer you too much.  However, it’s still an altogether admirable piece of work and if it’s the kind of thing you like (fumetti or Lego or popular fairy tales) then go ahead and give it a read.

Now if only I could get this song out of my head . . . [singing] Everything is awesome when we’re living our dream . . .