Saturday, September 26, 2015

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Kite's Daughter.

This post might be getting to you a little late and I apologize for that.  I try to publish one post during each calendar week.  Things got a little crazy this week, though.

Speaking of being busy and things falling through the cracks, lately I’ve been thinking of the stories and books that get past even me.  The truth is that I’ve read so many folk tale books that sometimes good stories from interesting cultures end up forgotten.  Take this book here, for instance:

Folktales from India edited by A.K. Ramanujan.  This book boasts tales from twenty-two different languages.  However, I haven’t spotlighted a single one.  In fact, I barely remember any of them.  Though, one does come back to mind.  The story of a girl raised by a bird . . .

The tale starts out with a rich potter who has all daughters and no sons.  Fed up with this situation and experiencing the unusual rage characteristic of fairy tale fathers swears that if his then-pregnant wife gives birth to another daughter then he would sell his wife to the Gypsies.  Unfortunately, as expected she gave birth to another daughter.  Fearing what will happen to her if she brings home another girl, she wraps the child in a sari, put her in a pot and set her floating down the river.   
The pot is then spotted by a washerman who takes the child back to his own family.  However, he doesn’t even have time to present the child to his wife when a great bird of prey spots the child and develops a fondness for it.  The bird swoops down and snatches the baby away.

This great bird is a kite.

[sigh] No, not that kind of kite!
Okay, that’s better.  In fact, I should note that the picture is of a black kite, which is a species that is indeed native to India.

The kite then builds a great nest and raises the baby in it.  Any time she sees something the humans have that she thinks the baby would like, she swoops down and grabs it.  The kite even managed to snatch the clothes and jewelry from the realm’s princess when she laid them on the bank while she bathed.  The girl grew up into a young woman, and the kite started to worry about her staying there alone.  So, she tells her to sing a special song whenever she wants to call on her mother the kite.

Now one day a merchant sat down under the kite’s tree when suddenly a very long hair floated down to him (it was about seven cubits long.  I suppose she hadn’t the means to cut it while living in a tree).  He looks up and sees a beautiful girl sitting comfortably on a branch brushing her hair.  He calls up to her, asking if she’s human, a goddess or an evil spirit.  The girl is frightened because she has never seen a human man before.  So, she sings the song that calls her mother the kite.  Now, the kite sees the merchant and like many mothers in India likely have before, sizes him up and decides that he may be a good husband for her daughter.

Now, I’m not going to summarize too much more.  This isn’t meant to be a transcription, it’s meant to be a teaser.  Anyway, the merchant has seven other wives.  Needless to say, the kite’s daughter has  her hands dealing with them seeing as they are very jealous and very crafty.

Why does this one particular story stick out to me among the others?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s because of how it echoes other stories I know in places while putting its own regional spin on it.  The girl being raised by an animal echoes the life of another famous resident of India, Mowgli from The Jungle Book.  Her isolation from people and her long hair echo “Rapunzel” in a way.  Also, her mistreatment by her co-wives reminds me of Cinderella’s mistreatment at the hands of her stepsisters.  Also, I’m just tickled by the idea of her adoptive bird mother sizing up men for good matches.

Now the rest of this story might be a little hard for people to find.  It’s another one of those  ones that’s not on the internet.  There’s a brief description of it in this article.  I can point you to the book through WorldCat, though.  In the meantime, I’ll consider putting a “To Reread” pile next to my “To be Read” pile.  I also suggest everyone else out there stop every once in a while and consider the stories you may have let slip through the cracks of your consciousness.  And until next time, this is Adam the Fairy Tale Geek signing off.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: The Ugly Stepsister.

One of the interesting things about starting this blog is that sometimes people will contact me asking me to read things that they have written.  Such was the case with a woman named Aya Ling and the book she wrote The Ugly Stepsister.
I had never heard of her before and at first thought she was a first time author.  However, it looks like she’s written a few different books.  That’s one of the issues of being a self-published author, though.  They don’t have the marketing power of a major publishing house behind them.

The Ugly Stepsister is a YA “Cinderella” retelling.  The story focuses on a girl named Kat who’s not short on book smarts but is short on confidence.  Just at the beginning of the book she gets so flustered she gives the cute new transfer student directions to class that are in the completely wrong direction.  When she gets home her mother tells her to sort out some books that she wants to get rid of.  As she’s doing this she damages an old storybook of “Cinderella” which sends her into the world of the book.  She finds herself in a highly Victorian country called Athelia where she’s thrust into the role of Katriona Bradshaw, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.  Only Cinderella isn’t her stepsister, or at least doesn’t think she is.  The other “ugly stepsister”, Bianca Bradshaw, isn’t ugly at all but a ravishing knockout.  And Athelia’s prince, Prince Edward, doesn’t care for meeting the other gentry or fancy social functions like royal balls.  She’s told by a goblin named Krev that she has to guide the story to a happy ending, but she has her work cut out for her.

As far as novels go, The Ugly Stepsister isn’t bad.  It’s pretty good but not quite great.  It moves at a nice steady clip and there are no glaring plot holes to fall into.  However, the issue really becomes more a matter of how much you want this story to be what it bills itself as.  For you see, as a Cinderella story there isn’t much of a Cinderella story.  Oh, it’s in there but it’s diffused throughout the book and certain elements are highly changed.  The story of Cinderella or Elle as she’s called in the book actually has less to do with getting out from under her stepmother and to the royal ball and more to do with the crippling poverty of her adoptive family.  There are still the magical elements like the Fairy Godmother, but they’re used very sparingly.  So, as a Cinderella story it’s really not great.  The real focus of the book is on Kat, a modern day girl, dropped into a very upper crust Victorian society.  This is a good thing, seeing as that’s where the book seems to shine most and where the book seems to have the most to say.  Ling seems to have quite a lot of fun showing Kat’s modern sensibilities clashing with the world of Victorian propriety (one sometimes wonders if it would have made more sense for Kat to have been transported into the world of a Jane Austen novel than into “Cinderella”).  My only other major issue is with the character of Krev.  Krev is a goblin.  The goblins are the ones who created the Cinderella book that Kat damaged.  Though Krev is useful at times, his main purpose seems to be to show up and mock Kat’s failure to move the story along and to give Kat a boatload of exposition about where she is and what she needs to do.  It’s the exposition I have the most trouble with.  While I understand that some of it was useful, it would have been nice if Kat had figured out some of this stuff for herself.  Perhaps recognizing the world of the book before having Krev pop up to tell her what she has to do. 
Now, if you don’t want to encounter some serious spoilers, you may want to skip the next paragraph.

I suppose I should also say something about the romance between the Prince and Kat, because there is one.  It seems a bit cliché that Kat would naturally fall for the handsome prince in this situation.  However, I’m not sure of others’ reaction.  Would this be seen as cliché or archetype, especially for Ms. Ling’s target audience which I’m sure consists mostly of young girls?

So, The Ugly Stepsister may not exactly be the kind of “Cinderella” retelling you’re looking for.  However, if you’re interested in a decent sort of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court kind of story about a modern girl in Victorian times, then it might be the book for you.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Fractured Fairy Tales.

For any of the young’uns out there, today we get a lesson in history.  Today, we’re going to look at a cartoon that likely launched a million comical fairy tale adaptations: Jay Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales.
One of the best $5 bin DVDs I ever bought.
For those who don’t know, Fractured Fairy Tales is one of the recurring features on the classic cartoon series The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Rocky and Bullwinkle aired under various titles from 1959 to 1964.  The show was known for its quality writing and wry humor (also puns.  Many, many puns).  Among the many things lampooned on the show were the Cold War, movie serials (the main Rocky and Bullwinkle segments), old-time melodrama (Dudley Do-Right), history (Peabody’s Improbable History), how-tos (Mister Know-It-All), poetry (Bullwinkle’s Poetry Corner), Aesop’s Fables (Aesop and Son) and of course, fairy tales.  The show itself was the brainchild of Jay Ward and Alex Anderson.  Though, much of the writing credit goes to head writer Bill Scott and a talented team of writers.

However, that’s enough about Rocky and Bullwinkle in general.  We are now on to Fractured Fairy Tales in specific.  Fractured Fairy Tales was a segment that would air on the Rocky and Bullwinkle showing in practically every episode.  The segment featured fairy tales retold comically, featuring the voice narration of character actor Edward Everett Horton.
Edward Everett Horton
I’m going to throw caution to the wind and use multiple YouTube links as examples.  It may not be the best way regarding intellectual property, but they’ve been on YouTube forever and no one seems interested in them being taken down.

The Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons had a tendency of using both obscure and famous fairy tales as their basis.  Though, the more famous ones seemed to get used more often.  Sometimes, the plots would be played mostly straight and the comedy would come from the dialogue.  Other times, the plot would be significantly altered for comedic effect.  In still others, they would simply take the story’s title, transform it into a pun and use it as the jumping off point to create a story.  The ones that come immediately to mind for the latter are “Leaping Beauty” and “The Pied Piper”.  Most interesting is how much mileage they manage to get out of a single story.  Take “Little Red Riding Hood” for example.  Out of that story they managed to get “Red Riding Hood”, “Little Fred Riding Hood” (which borrows elements of “Diamonds and Toads”) and my favorite of the three “Riding Hoods Anonymous”.  So, it seems obvious that someone would reuse a tale as popular as “Little Red Riding Hood”.  Well, what would you say if I told you they also reused an obscure tale like “The Magic Fish” multiple times?  I can find one entitled “The Magic Fish”, one entitled “The Fisherman and the Mermaid” and one called “The Fisherman and his Wife”.  Though, as is often the case with this show, they didn’t just make fun of fairy tales alone.  For example, I found that most of the tales in season one poked fun at show business and the desire for fame and fortune.  Some examples are their takes on “Pinocchio”, “Rumpelstiltskin” and another favorite of mine “Sleeping Beauty”.  That wasn’t the limit to the show’s humor, though.  It was elements like this that won over audiences that included both children and adults.   

I’ve already gone on for quite some time here and you probably already get the gist of it.  However, with how many comedic takes on the old stories seem to pop up lately, it’s good to remember that it’s not a new development.  Heck, Fractured Fairy Tales is probably hardly the first of its kind (though maybe the best remembered).  Some elements from newer fairy tale parodies even seem to draw on the old Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons (like this one “Cutie and the Beast” that seems to presage Shrek).   But it’s good to know that with these stories a little bit of humor can go and has gone a long way.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

I don’t get it.  I just don’t get it . . .

Oh, sorry.  Much like the protagonist of the story I’m going to talk about, I was thinking out loud.

Seeing as this is the year 2015 and the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, I thought it would be wrong not to talk about the book at some point this year.  As you may recall, I’ve already talked about Through the Looking Glass because I thought that story needed some individual attention.   Now it’s Wonderland’s turn.

We all know the famous tale of how Wonderland was created.  Lewis Carroll and his friends the Liddell family were on a picnic near the river Isis when bored Alice Liddell asked for a story.  Seemingly off the top of his head, Carroll concocted a story in which young Alice goes headfirst down a rabbit hole into an underground world full of bizarre characters.  This literary legend may or may not be completely true.  However, the legacy of that day has led to one of the most enduring children’s fantasy stories in all of English literature.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Carroll’s work.  The plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may be more than a little thin.  It basically consists of Alice trying to find the “beautiful garden” that she saw through a tiny door after she fell down the rabbit hole.  The simple nature of the plot seems to reinforce the almost dreamlike un-logic that seems to abound in Wonderland, though.  It also provides just enough of a framework for all of Alice’s encounters with the other characters, as well as Alice’s many transformations and Carroll’s wordplay.  The wordplay is probably my favorite.  The book is actually littered with puns, clever turns of phrase and parodies of popular songs and poems from the time.  For example, the Mock Turtle’s song “The Lobster Quadrille” is a parody of the poem“The Spider and the Fly” by Mary Howitt.

Okay, so we’ve established that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a classic of children’s literature.  However, I’d like to focus on how the story gets reinterpreted for a while.  Because when it comes to reinterpretations, it seems like no story is a patch on Alice.

Specifically, it brings me to the thing I was thinking out loud about when I started this.  I just don’t get why so many people see darkness in Alice in Wonderland  (note: I may be shortening the title more from here forward).

It’s one of the recurring things that seems to get a lot of play when Alice is reinterpreted.  The dark, disturbing side of the story.  However, when reading the actual story, it seems like the furthest thing from the truth.

I suppose the concept starts with the notion that, according to the Cheshire Cat, everyone in Wonderland is mad.  Of course, the Cheshire Cat then follows it up with some flawed logic as to why he himself is mad.  It basically amounts to the fact that he growls (purrs) when he’s happy and wags his tail when he’s mad unlike dogs who are not mad who do the opposite.   Though, even if everyone in Wonderland is mad, there are different ways to depict madness.  Heck, I even know of one group of characters besides the Wonderland crew where every character is accepted to be crazy, but it’s all played for laughs.

Oh, that scwewy White Wabbit!
No one seems to be clamoring for a dark reinterpretation of the Looney Tunes, though.  Come to think of it, Elmer Fudd was probably more likely to use a weapon on someone than the Queen of Hearts was.  Yeah, that’s right.  It’s the other thing that seems to make people want to claim how dark Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is.  The Queen of Hearts constantly shouting “Off with their heads!”  However, there’s never any proof that she carries out her threats.  In fact, as Alice leaves the croquet party, she hears the King of Hearts pardoning everyone the Queen sentenced to death.  Later on the Gryphon calls the Queen “fun” and says that they never actually execute anyone.  So, they’re not really dark so much as just wacky.  Sure, all the characters can be a bit cranky with Alice, but that’s because everything they’re doing and saying seems logical to them, but strange to Alice who doesn’t understand.

The issue is subtext.  For those who’ve forgotten English 101, subtext is an undertone that can be interpreted from a book but is not explicitly stated.  The dark side of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is pure subtext.  However, when subtext gets too popular people start treating it like it’s actual text.

The one subtext in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that I don’t mind and picked up on a bit myself is that of Alice growing up.  It’s not so much a straight coming-of-age story and it’s not some sort of sexual awakening (which is something that gets read into a great number of fairy tales and classic children’s stories).  It’s more the confusion of trying to figure out the adult world that children are bound to get thrust into at some point as well as making sense of all the various changes a person goes through as they move toward adulthood.  It really comes out in the scene where she meets the caterpillar.  He asks who she is and she says she doesn’t know because of all the changes she’s been through lately.  The caterpillar scoffs but Alice tells him that he’ll likely understand after he’s been turned into a chrysalis.  Is there any more apt metaphor for growing up than a caterpillar turning into a butterfly?

Anyway, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a true classic and one that doesn’t show any signs of losing popularity even at 150 years old.  Are we likely to see any versions of Wonderland in the future that do not look like Tim Burton’s dream come true?  Well, there are some possibilities.  A ballet version was made a few years ago that I still haven’t had the chance to see.  Also, the girls from Ever After High took a trip there this year.  They usually keep things pretty light.  There was a comic book adaptation a few years ago by Dynamite Entertainment that essentially plays the whole thing straight.

Also, dark isn’t necessarily bad.  I’ve heard good things about Splintered by A.G. Howard and Alys by Kiri Callaghan (who has a very informative and entertaining YouTube show called Kiriosity, by the way).  It’s just that dark takes shouldn’t be all there is.  And of course, there’s always the option of returning to Lewis Carroll’s original book, which I have no doubts will continue to be published for at least another 150 years.