Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Thunder Boy.

I don’t post much on Native American stories.  I have some good reasons for that.  The tradition of Native American oral stories grew out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the pre-Colonial Americas.  This tends to be something very distinct from the tradition of European and Asian folk tales that grew out of agrarian feudal societies.  Also, while some of the Native American stories are merely folk tales, others are sacred.  It’s best not to tell these tales without permission from someone in that culture.  If told out of context or with important details altered, you could risk a major cultural snafu.

However, this is the week of Thanksgiving here in the US.  Despite the questionable aspects of Thanksgiving’s history, the overall legend that preaches brotherhood and cooperation between Native peoples and us pasty White folks endures.  So, I will try my best to promote this story and if someone from the First Nations out there notices any big problems with it, please let me know.

This story comes from the Haudenosaunee.  Haudenosaunee is basically what most Americans these days call the Iroquois.  The Iroquois, it should be noted, is not a tribe exactly as much as a collection of tribes who would meet in confederacy frequently.  The tribes that made up the Haudenosaunee were the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga with the Tuscarora joining later.  Some say the Iroquois Confederacy was the inspiration for modern organizations like the United Nations.  The reason I’m choosing a story from this specific confederation is because they were native to the same place I am: Upstate New York.  I should also note that despite this being my Thanksgiving post, this group didn’t really have anything to do with the first Thanksgiving.  That was the Wampanoag tribe who I don’t really know any stories from.  Also, this story may qualify more as legend than folk tale and if it is a folk tale it’s more pourquoi than fairy tale.  But what the heck!
The basic territories of the Haudenosaunee peoples circa 1720

The story of “Thunder Boy” starts out with a man and wife who live alone with their daughter.  The family raised the staple crops of the Haudenosaunee: corn, beans and squash.  One day, they were working in the fields as the sky started to grow dark.  The father shouted to his family to get inside before the rain came.  The parents made it back to the longhouse as the rain started to fall and lightning split the sky.  But where was the daughter?  No one knew.  She had disappeared.

The truth is that the daughter had heard her parents yelling for her.  As she tried to return home, a misty had gathered around her and she started to feel dizzy.  Suddenly she felt herself being lifted up and soon found herself in a new land high above the Earth.  There she found herself with a little man who led her to a council house.  In the council house, there were numerous other little men and the chief of them was not pleased.  You see, it was his son who had brought her here.  The son explained that he had fallen in love with the young woman when he saw her working in the fields.  The chief scolded his son and told her that he shouldn’t have done it because the Earth people could not eat the same food as the Thunder People.  However, the chief said that if he insisted on having her with him, he would have to go to Earth and gather food for her.
A longhouse, traditional home for Haudanosaunee people.
The woman stayed for a year with her new husband among the Thunder People.  Then one day the chief came to her and told her that she would soon give birth to a son.  He then said that she must return home because her son should not be born in that land.  He also warned her that after the boy was born, no one should ever strike him for fear that she would lose him forever.  Soon a heavy mist gathered around her and she found herself once again in her homeland.
The flag of the "Iroquois Confederacy".
Now, as you have no doubt learned, this is where the story really starts to get interesting so it is also where I’m going to leave you hanging.  I do quite like this story.  It has fantastical aspects that we recognize from a wide range of traditions including a race of little people and a world up above the clouds.  You can read the rest of the story on the homepage of the Oneida Nation, right HERE.  I should also note that the Seneca Nation have a different story about a different Thunder Boy right HERE.  Also, while you’re at it look up some more Native American tales because these stories are terrific and deserve to be known even if those of us from outside those cultures need to be careful how they’re told.  You can find some at FirstPeople.us and at American Folklore, as well as at Native-Languages.org.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg too.  There are Native American stories on various sites and numerous books out in the world, so get reading!  So, to my fellow Americans, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and I’ll see you next time!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Grimm Fairy Tales.

I’ve been putting it off and putting it off.  But I knew I’d eventually have to review some of this series.

The series in question is Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales.  Fairy tales have been in vogue with comic book publishers for a while now and sometimes it seems like every comic book company has one fairy tale derived series that it has to try out (DC=Fables, Marvel=X-Men Fairy Tales, Boom Studios=Fairy Quest, etc).  However, for Zenescope, Grimm Fairy Tales seems to be the end all and be all.  There will be weeks when it seems like Grimm Fairy Tales and Grimm Fairy Tales spinoffs are the only things being published by that company.

So, if Grimm Fairy Tales is such a success for Zenescope, why would I be reluctant to review it?  Well, let’s look at the cover of the collection I purchased for this review:

That’s right, we’ve got Little Red Bikini Hood here.

Most of the covers of Grimm Fairy Tales comics have those sorts of cheesecake covers with women showing off significant amounts of leg and cleavage.  As I understand it, many are drawn by Brazilian artist Al Rio who has become famous for that sort of thing.

Now I enjoy sexy pictures as much as the next heterosexual adult male, but these covers just make the series come across as crass.  However, I gritted my teeth and decided to give the first volume a try.

The premise of the book seems to basically be that a series of largely unconnected individuals are having problems in their lives and need guidance.  When they’re at their lowest point they either encounter a mysterious storyteller or a mysterious book and either hear or read a fairy tale.  The person is then seemingly transported into the tale where they become the main character.  However, the tales are not like the versions most people know or even like the darker versions that have been written down.  They’re all turned into dark, horrific cautionary tales of terror.  The person then reawakens in the real world having learned a lesson, believing the whole thing to have some kind of dream.  Though, it’s quite possible that it’s not.

There are six stories in this volume.  They are “Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Hansel & Gretel”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Robber Bridegroom”.  I will say that the art on the interior isn’t as salacious as the cover art, though it’s not quite as good.  There are times when the art just feels kind of sloppy.  The writing is decent, if a bit heavy-handed.  Certain stories fall flat for me.  “Cinderella” is a good example.  The whole thing feels like a mash-up of the Perrault (or Disney) version and the Grimm version with a revenge plot twist and a more sinister fairy godmother.  If it’s Grimm they’re going for, they remembered the part about birds coming down to peck the eyes out for the stepsisters but not that she got the dress and shoes from a tree rather than a fairy godmother.  Most likely they’re trying to evoke what people remember best about the story, right down to having ghostly voices calling her “Cinderelly” like the mice in the Disney movie.  The story that probably works best is “The Robber Bridegroom” and that story was always dark and creepy.
Overall, between the sex appeal of the covers and the violent horror that lurks between them, the basic idea behind Grimm Fairy Tales seems to be depicting fairy tales as something akin to a grindhouse horror film but with an extra helping of fable and cautionary tale.  It’s not a bad approach and it certainly has its fans.  However, personally, it’s not something I’d go out of my way for.  Just as I’ve long been resistant to the idea that all fairy tales are simple fluff for children, I’m just as resistant to the idea that they’re all horror stories at their heart.

Fairy tales are simple stories with a complex identity.  I see many people trying to pin down what they are whether it’s as children’s stories, remnants of old mythology, horrific cautionary tales or just simple entertainment, but I don’t think any of them are right.  At the same time, I think that all of them are right.  I’m of the opinion that the generations that created many of the fairy tales we know didn’t play the genre game or the demographic game like modern media does.  I think a fairy tale can be any of these things or more depending on what tale is being told and who the audience is.

So, personally, I think I’ll skip volume two of Grimm Fairy Tales.  It’s just not my thing.  But, if you prefer the horrific and cautionary side of fairy tales, give it a try.  It might be up your alley.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"The Golden Apple" trailer

Hey, check out this new project based on Bulgarian folklore.  Share it across social media if you like it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix Special Edition!: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland the ballet.

Y’know, I wasn’t going to review this DVD.  When it comes to Fairy Tale Media Fix, I tend to stick to movies and TV shows that are based on a fairy tale that arose out of folk culture or at least found their way into it (Cinderella, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc).  So, when it comes to the classic works of children’s literature, I usually leave those for Fantasy Literature Rewind.  Why?  Well, because I was always afraid that I was stretching the definition of “fairy tale” a little too thin.  However, after a friend on Twitter saw my plans to watch this, she responded so enthusiastically about reading a review of it that I thought “What the heck!”.  After all, it might be time for a change of pace anyway.  Besides, with the trailer for the sequel to the (ugh) Tim Burton Alice movie hitting the internet, it might be a good idea to look at some of the alternatives out there.

So, this version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a ballet in two acts created for Britain’s Royal Ballet.  The music is composed by Joby Talbot and the ballet is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.
Now, the notion of creating an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ballet may seem a little odd.  After all, so much of the charm of the Alice books came from reading Lewis Carroll’s clever wordplay.  Ballet is traditionally an art form in which everything is conveyed through music, motion and dance.  So that means no Alice reciting “How Doth the Little Crocodile” or Mad Hatter asking how a raven is like a writing desk or the Mouse trying to dry Alice off by giving a dry lecture.

So, how well does it do, despite that?  Pretty well, actually.

Let’s talk about the story, first of all.  For the most part, the bulk of the story is taken directly from Lewis Carroll’s first Alice book.  There are episodes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that are not present in the ballet, assumedly cut for time and to facilitate the flow of the story.  For example, this version of Alice never meets the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle (which is a shame, because I would have liked to see the Lobster Quadrille performed on stage).  But, unlike other versions of the story, there are no bits from Through the Looking Glass shoehorned in.  The primary differences are at the beginning and the end.  The beginning of the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is well-known.  Alice is lazing about on a summer day with her sister when she spots a White Rabbit with a waistcoat and chases after it until she falls down a rabbit hole.  The beginning of this version combines in bits of the history behind the story as well as adding another bit that gets used as a through-line.  In this case, it starts out with Alice (Lauren Cuthbertson) and her two sisters at a Deanery in Oxford being entertained by the one and only Lewis Carroll (Edward Watson).  At the same time, Alice’s mother and father are planning a party.  Here enters the gardener’s boy named Jack (Sergei Polunin), a friend of Alice’s.  Jack gives Alice’s mother a basket of roses but finds a red one in among the white roses and rejects it as being out of place.  Jack offers the red rose to Alice who in return takes a jam tart off of a passing tray and gives it to Jack.  However, Alice’s mother spots Jack with the tart, accuses him of stealing and has him sacked.  Alice’s friend leaves the house in disgrace.  Guests arrive for the party, but Alice is upset about Jack.  Carroll offers to cheer Alice up by taking her picture.  However, he reappears from behind the camera cloth as the White Rabbit.  He then leads her down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.  Now, Carroll being the White Rabbit is an important bit because it reflects the nature of the cast as a whole.  All the characters in Alice’s waking life have counterparts in Wonderland.  Alice’s mother is also the Queen of Hearts, a magician who shows up for the party is also the Mad Hatter, a visiting Rajah is the caterpillar and of course young Jack is the Knave of Hearts.  This is where the new through-line comes from.  Alice’s connection to Jack as the Knave.  It’s the Knave that Alice dances her pas de deux with later in the ballet.  As for the end . . . I’m not going to give that one away.

So, while the wordplay may be lost from this version of Alice, the wonder is not.  A lot of that is thanks to the many interesting ways that this production uses to convey it.  Much is made of lighting and projection to convey scenes like the one where Alice has to swim through a sea of her own tears or when she is falling down the rabbit hole.  This production embraces elements from all over the theatrical tradition.  The Cheshire Cat, which looks like it stepped right out of John Tenniel’s illustration, is created through a variation of Bunraku puppetry.  Black-cloaked puppeteers control different pieces of the cat and his appearances and disappearances are created by the puppeteers appearing or dispersing with different parts of the cat.   

The Duchess brings an element of Christmas Pantomime to the proceedings in that she’s played by actor Simon Russell Beale in drag.  Heck, the Mad Hatter even shows himself as being a little bit nuttier than the rest by dancing in a completely different style than everyone else.  While everyone else dances ballet, the Hatter tap dances.  The music by Joby Talbot moves at a quick tempo and reflects the madcap nature of Wonderland well.  The dancing . . . is good.  Okay, I’ll admit this.  I don’t know much about dancing.  I tend to watch ballet more from a story point of view.  Though, I found nothing problematic about this dancing in general.  I was actually pretty impressed with how Lauren Cuthbertson was able to portray Alice shrinking or growing in size just through dance.

The ballet of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is just quite a spectacle, it’s worth watching just for that alone.  I’d definitely recommend it if you’ve got the chance to see it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Stuff of Legends!: Tam Lin.

First of all, I’d like to apologize for missing a couple of weeks.  I always try to post something during every calendar week, but I was so busy with work and other unrelated projects that it just got away from me.  This would have been my Halloween post.

That said, this story is one that I’ve been wanting to post about for a long time.  It’s been a favorite of mine since I heard Willy Claflin sing a variant of it at a local storytelling festival.  However, I was quite surprised to find that it would end up falling under the banner it did.  Yet, when I looked up a list of legendary characters, there was the name Tam Lin.  That’s right, apparently the Ballad of Tam Lin is in fact considered to be a legend.
I have noticed that ballads do tend to tell legends more than any other kind of story.  Also, more like a legend than a folk tale, this story is more explicit about names and places.  The names Janet and Tam Lin are rather clear, though there are some variants.  Also, Carterhaugh is apparently a real place (though, so is Bremen and no one ever considered “The Bremen Town Musicians” to be a legend).

The lovely woods at Carterhaugh
However, there’s just something about this story that seems to extend past the historical or pseudo-historical nature of the legend and go straight into the misty realms of the fairy tale.

First, some background.

The ballad of Tam Lin is native to the country of Scotland.  Though there are various variations, the basic story is about the same.  The ballad starts with a warning that any maiden who goes into the woods of Carterhaugh will lose either her possessions or her virginity.  A young woman named Janet goes into the woods to pick a double rose.  She encounters Tam Lin who asks her why she takes what is his (shades of “Beauty and the Beast”).  She states that she owns Carterhaugh because her father has given it to her.  She then goes home and soon finds that she is pregnant (whether she actually does the deed with Tam Lin or whether it’s some magical conception tends to change from version to version).  Her father then inquires about the child’s father.  Janet says that he is a fairy that she will not forsake.  She’s then told of a certain herb that she could take that will induce a miscarriage.  She returns to Carterhaugh to pick this herb and Tam Lin appears again.  He questions her actions and she questions whether he was ever human.  He reveals that he was a human knight who was caught by the Queen of Fairies when he fell from his horse.  He then gives her instructions.  He tells her that the Queen of the Fairies will ride out on Halloween night in order to deliver a tithe of souls to Hell.  Tam tells her that among the potential tributes riding with the Queen, he’ll be there recognizable by his white horse.  He tells her to pull him off his horse and grab hold of him.  Only the Queen will try to make her drop him by turning him into all manner of beasts but that she must keep hold of him (this part is reminiscent of various folk tales as well as the myth of Proteus).  It’s only when he turns into a burning coal she must throw him into a well at which point he will turn human again and be free.  On Halloween night, Janet rides out and catches up to the Fairy Queen’s procession at midnight.  She does as Tam Lin says and succeeds in winning her knightly beau.  The Fairy Queen is beaten and utters a curse as she disappears (usually something along the lines of “Tam Lin, if I had known I would have given you eyes of wood”).

The Fairy Queen
The story had numerous variants.  The name Tam Lin has various different names.  He’s been called Tamblin, Tom Line, Tomlin, Tom-a-line and Tamlane.  Janet’s name is sometimes given as Margaret.  Also, Tam Lin’s true lineage changes from ballad to ballad.  He’s been called the grandson of the Lauird of Roxburgh, the Laird of Foulis, the Earl of Murray and the Earl of Forbes.  This ballad is so widespread that Francis James Child collected fourteen different versions of it for his book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  The ballad also appears in our old friend Joseph Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales.

Yet, Tam Lin’s status as a legend is still rather puzzling. 

The story holds elements of folk tale and myth throughout.  The rose is reminiscent of “Beauty and the Beast” and Tam Lin himself is if not a beastly bridegroom, at least an unearthly one.  Janet’s struggle to hold him as he’s changed not only brings to mind various folk tales (for example, “Jamie Freel and the Lady of Dublin”) as well as the story of Proteus.

Yet, a legend is a story that’s supposedly based in historical happenings, right?  Well, actually . . .

The thing is that I may have been oversimplifying things when I said legends had a root in history.  It’s more like they have a root in being believed.  While many legends do focus on people who actually lived, there are also legends about characters who might have lived.  The defining trait of a legend is sometimes not so much being based on real events as the fact that the audience for the story is supposed to believe that it’s based on real events.  Ghost stories are a good example.  While we know that ghost stories are likely fiction, it’s often traditional or at least expected to tell them as if they’re real.

Nowadays it’s hard to believe that anyone would think a fantastical story like Tam Lin was real.  Any record of there being a real Tam or a real Janet have been lost in the sands of time.  However, we do know that people did believe in fairies for a good long time.  They would also be careful not to offend them so as to ward off their mischief.  Perhaps the ballad of Tam Lin served a purpose to those who believed in the fairy superstitions and showed that even a human being can defeat them if need be. 

Anyway, it’s still one of my favorites and I know it’s a favorite of others out there.  I’ll link to a few different musical versions HERE, HERE and HERE.  I love the sense of scary wild magic it has in it.  I love the fantastical transformations.  I really, really love that it’s also the story of a fair Lady rescuing a knight instead of the other way around.  And whatever its roots, I have no problem thinking of Janet and Tam Lin as The Stuff of Legends!