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.