Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Stuff of Legends!: William Tell.

If there’s one thing I’ve started to notice during my study of legends it’s how, based on one’s proximity to the legend in question, a story and character can be reduced down to a single event or feat.

Don’t believe me?  Well, let’s take William Tell for an example.  We’ve all heard the name, but what do we know about him?  Well, in my experience, I know that he shot an apple off of his son’s head.  However, it wasn’t until I started researching this legend that I realized that I never really knew why he shot an apple off of his son’s head.  I suppose I just thought he did it to show off or something.  The actual story as told by the people who hold it dear tells a different tale.
The legend states that William Tell was a man from Uri in what would now be the country of Switzerland.  He was famed for being a strong man, a mountain climber and an ace shot with a crossbow.  During this time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were trying to dominate the area.  The duly appointed governor by the Habsburgs at that time was a man named Gessler.  Gessler, in order to show his dominance over the would-be Swiss state came up with the idea to erect a pole in the middle of the city of Altdorf, hang his hat on it and make people bow to his hat.  One day, William Tell and his son Walter visited Altdorf.  Seeing the ludicrous display of people bowing to a hat on a pole, William Tell publicly refuses.  He is then arrested.  Angered by Tell’s defiance but intrigued by the reputation of his marksmanship, Gessler comes up with an idea.  Tell and his son would be executed, however he would spare their lives if Tell could shoot an apple off his sons head with a crossbow bolt in a single attempt.  Tell manages to make the shot and splits the apple in two.  However, Gessler had noticed that Tell had removed two bolts from his quiver and asked him what the second one was for.  William Tell tells Gessler that if he had missed the shot and killed his son, then he would have used the second bolt to kill Gessler.  Gessler then accuses Tell of plotting to assassinate him and orders him imprisoned in the dungeon of his castle.  He’s loaded onto Gessler’s boat and they start to bring him to the castle across Lake Lucerne.  However, a storm kicks up and Gessler’s soldiers get Gessler to release Tell to help steer the boat because they’re afraid it will founder during the storm.  Gessler agrees, but once the boat is near shore, Tell uses the opportunity to escape.  Tell runs cross country and Gessler and his soldiers make chase.  Eventually, Tell does use the second crossbow bolt to kill Gessler in a place now called Hohle Gasse.  Tell’s actions are said to have sparked a revolution against the Austrian empire which he would supposedly play a big part in.  This would eventually lead to the formation of the Swiss Confederacy.
Given some context, this story is actually quite impressive.  What once seemed like a stunt to my American mind far from the Swiss Alps and their history now seems like a courageous act of defiance.  It’s no wonder that William Tell is considered a national hero of the Swiss and a key figure in Swiss patriotism.
So what could rain on the parade of this great historical figure?  Maybe the fact that William Tell and his famed apple shot probably didn’t exist at all.

Legends are a double-edged sword.  They’re the place where history and folk story come together to intertwine.  However, they also can prove to be the bane of historians in that the farther you get from the historical period the harder it gets to sort fact from fiction (as a storyteller, I find that I personally don’t care as long as the end result is a cracking good tale).  We know there really was a John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) and a Davey Crockett, yet we’re not sure if there was a real King Arthur, John Henry, Robin Hood or Hua Mulan.  Either it was too long ago or the evidence just isn’t there.
The factuality of William Tell’s existence has been debated since 1607 when statesman and historian Francois Guillimann reexamined his own work Swiss Antiquities and found that mush of the popular belief he published turned out to be pure fable (I’m paraphrasing).
Other writers have rejected the Tell legend and received rather impassioned backlash from the Swiss people.  In 1760, Simeon Uriel Freudenburger anonymously published a book saying that his story was likely based on the Danish saga of Palnatoki.  A French translation of his book by Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller was burnt in Altdorf.  Historian Joseph Eutych Kopp questioned the legend in the 1830s and his effigy was burnt in a meadow above Lake Lucerne (the Swiss sure seem to like burning things when they’re angry.  No offense to any Swiss readers I might have).

It makes sense if you dig back into the past.  The story of the famous “apple shot” seems to repeat itself through various older works published in Germanic languages.  The earliest example does come from the Danish story of Palnatoki published by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th Century.  Palnatoki is ordered to shoot an apple from his son’s head by the king Harald Bluetooth.  In the 13th Century, there is the Finnish saga of Egil who is ordered to shoot an apple from the head of his 3 year-old son.  There’s even an English version in which a man named William of Cloudeslee, a compatriot of outlaw Adam Bell, is tasked with shooting an apple from the head of his seven-year-old son.  It’s been theorized that the story was picked up from travelers from either Denmark or Finland that were travelling through Switzerland and it was worked into a preexisting folk legend about a man named Tell or Thaell or Thall or Tellen (the first name was added later).
However, for all the good this has done in casting doubt over the veracity of the legend among historians, it has done little to affect the admiration of the Swiss people.  In a 2004 survey, 60% of the Swiss said that they believed that William Tell really existed.  Also, while Tell’s famous feat may have appeared in other works, it’s through media that Tell’s legend grew and became the one we know by name today.  One of the most popular was a play by Friedrich von Schiller that was first performed in 1804 and drew heavily on then-recent events like the American and French revolutions.  Gioachino Rossini would write an opera based on Schiller’s play that would first get performed in 1829.  The finale of the opera’s overture would more than a century later go on to be the theme song for The Lone Ranger in radio, television and a couple of rather regrettable movies (“HI HO SILVER!”).  That’s just the beginning, though.  The Legend of William Tell was also lampooned in a Popeye cartoon from 1940.  There was also a British TV series TheAdventures of William Tell that aired in 1958 and another series about Tell in the 1980s entitled Crossbow (the latter show having an oddly ‘80s rock sort of theme song).  I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Tell or his feat with the apple referenced on either Grimm or Once Upon a Time within a year or two.

William Tell may not have really existed.  His legend also tends to lose just a bit of context when transmitted outside of Switzerland.  However, this legend continues to inspire an entire nation.  And it’s that ability to inspire that really make William Tell The Stuff of Legends!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The 10th Kingdom.

Okay, so another week is here and another new post.  The thing is, I really don’t have anything planned.  I haven’t finished any books to review and I don’t have any topics weighing on my mind right now.  So, I’m a bit at loose ends.  I know!  Let’s check the slush pile!

Okay, so it’s not a slush pile in the traditional journalistic sense.  Usually, those are full of unsolicited submissions and manuscripts.  This is sort of different.  Basically, it’s a pile of fairy tale related DVDs I’ve accumulated from thrift stores and cheap DVD bins at various shops just in case I encounter a slow news day.  What does it hold in store for us?  A hidden gem?  Utter dreck?  Or possibly the best of both worlds: an okay film with such fascinating flaws that we can’t really look away?  The anticipation is palpable.

Okay, so after looking at our choices, I’ve decided to view and review the 2000 epic NBC miniseries The 10th Kingdom.  Now, I’ve actually been warned about this miniseries.  Apparently, people don’t think it’s particularly good.  It’s also a little over 7 hours long.  But how bad can it be?  It’s got John Larroquette in it and I think he’s great in The Librarians.  Once more into the breach!

(a few days and over seven hours of TV later)

Okay, so where to start?  Well, first of all there’s the story.  In a faraway magical land, an evil queen escapes from Snow White Memorial Prison.  Upon escaping, she turns her stepson Prince Wendell White (grandson of Snow White and prince of the 4th Kingdom) into a dog while turning her own dog into the image of Wendell.  Wendell escapes and finds his way through a “travelling mirror” to New York City.  The queen then sends three trolls and a fellow inmate named Wolf through the mirror to catch the prince (note: the regular world is apparently a fabled “10th Kingdom” where they’re from).  The story is largely about two characters from New York City that these other-worlders encounter, a waitress named Virginia Lewis and her bitter janitor father Tony Lewis.  After a series of mishaps, including a modern day restaging of “Little Red Riding Hood” and a change of heart from Wolf, a quartet of heroes comprised of Virginia, Tony, Wolf and Prince (this is what Wendell is called in his dog form) arrive in the fantasy world to stop the queen, return Prince to his true form and find another travelling mirror to get them home and not necessarily in that order. 

Along the way, a whole lot of things happen.  There’s a trip into an enchanted forest, Tony spends some time in prison, people get turned into gold, someone gets struck with a hair-growing curse, there’s a stay in a sort of “Little Bo Peep” town among many other things.  This miniseries seems to move from one strange set piece to another with surprising rapidity.  In some ways it feels less like an epic miniseries and more like 10 hours of a TV series that was somehow strung into a makeshift miniseries.  The series is filled with bizarre, goofy moments.  For example, at one point Wolf’s reaction to the full moon is used very clearly as a parallel to PMS.  As far as the concepts being played with in this miniseries, if you’ve partaken in any of the fairy tale mash up projects from the past few years you’ll probably recognize them.  In this miniseries, I’ve seen ideas that have been played with in Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Ever After High, The Land of Stories, Sisters Grimm, Fables, and possibly a dozen others.  In fact, I could probably make a checklist of the big ones:

An alternate fairy tale world.  Check!
Magical characters interacting with the modern world.  Check!
Using descendants of famous fairy tale characters.  Check!
A romance between the “Big Bad Wolf” character and a Red Riding Hood analogue.  Check!
The idea that magic is either costly or addictive.  Check!
A heavy focus on characters and situations from the story of “Snow White”.  Check and double check!

The interesting thing is that this miniseries probably predated most of the modern examples you could think of.  I mean, the earliest is probably Fables which began in 2002.  Does that mean that this miniseries started all that?  Well, not really.  It just means I don’t know of any earlier examples.  It’s like how fans of Once Upon a Time (the TV show, not the tabletop game) rave about the twists added to the classic stories while I often feel like I’ve seen those twists somewhere before.  There’s always a chance that there’s something earlier.  The real question is in how well The 10th Kingdom executes these ideas.  So, does it do it well?  Well, not really.  I’ve found that most modern fairy tale mash-up projects do it better.  Maybe because they’re not trying to do all of it at once.  Also, the tone of this miniseries is all over the place.  One minute they’re talking about how a mother tried to drown her seven-year-old daughter and the next they have singing engagement rings with cartoony faces on them.  It’s like one minute they’re trying to be Grimm, the next they’re trying to be . . . well, I don't have an example, but something light and whimsical (it feels wrong to throw shade at Disney again here).  In a way, it kind of reflects the way that our modern culture views the fairy tale, unable to decide whether they’re grim and gruesome or cute kiddie fare.  This is good for commentary, but not necessarily good for an actual television production.  Never mind just how long it is.  Long even for one of the “epic miniseries” that NBC was running at the time.  The one thing that did impress me is that they did manage to include the very fairy tale concept of kindness and repayment.  At one point, Virginia gives an old woman some food and the woman repays her with advice.  Another time, Virginia frees some talking birds from their cages and they repay her by telling her how to break a curse.  You don't see this often in media adaptations of fairy tales.  Sure, movie princesses have animal helpers, but they usually function as comical sidekicks rather than examples of repaying a favor.

This miniseries is hardly good in any objective way that I can see.  The concepts and story are just so clunky and the tone is inconsistent.  And yet, I found it hard to stop watching.  I kept wondering what absurd situation these characters were going to find themselves in next.  I think it’s because the actors for the main characters really sold it with their performances.  There are times when Scott Cohen’s character of Wolf is a little too goofy and lovable when it would make more sense for him to come across as threatening.  Otherwise, they make it work.  I wouldn’t exactly suggest this miniseries unless you suddenly find yourself with seven hours of free time you just don’t know how to fill (and even then, there are better options).  But still, it was an interesting oddity to finally watch after hearing so much negativity about it.

So, that’s it for this week.  If you’ve seen this miniseries, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  And if you’d like to encounter more tales from the $5 DVD bin, let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll be able to engineer another slow news day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Princess Ugg.

Y’know, comic books based on fairy tales aren’t quite as common as you might think.  I know, it seems like a ridiculous notion.  However, with that being the case, I thought I’d take the chance with this column to sometimes focus on comics that use concepts and stereotypes of concepts that have been drawn from fairy tales. 

That’s what brings us to this specific comic: Princess Ugg from Oni Press, written and illustrated by Ted Naifeh and with colors and lettering by Warren Wuchinich.
This comic deals with the particular concept of the princess and stereotypes of what a princess in a fantasy setting is supposed to be. 

Princess Ugg is the story of Princess Ulga of Grimmeria, the daughter of King Thorgrim and Queen Fridrika.  The Grimmerians are a rough, warrior people that live in the icy mountains beset by frost giants (think of them as kind of being like Vikings).  The narration does a lot to establish these rough-hewn mountain people, even saying that they have no word for “luxury”.  According to the narrator, the closest equivalent is “burden”.  One day, Ulga descends from the mountains astride a wooly mammoth (yes, you read that right.  It’s one of the coolest touches to the story).  She is headed toward Atraesca, an opulent city-state in the lowlands.  There she plans to attend a school for princesses with no clear purpose in mind except to find “a new way of living”.  Naturally, she doesn’t quite fit in among the more dainty princesses of the school, in particular making an enemy of her roommate Princess Julifer.  She has trouble in all her classes except history.  She even has trouble with archery, Grimmerians preferring to throw axes than shoot arrows.  Things don’t seem promising for Ulga, but with a little help from one of the professors, she may learn what she needs to learn yet.

Though perhaps not as “fairy tale-ish” as most of the stuff I review in this column, I still quite like this comic.  When most comics, TV shows or movies try to turn the princess stereotype on its ear, it’s usually by taking a stereotypical fairy tale princess type and making her feisty after the fact.  Ulga is a as far from that as possible right from the beginning, but being the daughter of a king and queen still has every right to be called a princess.  The setting is far more epic fantasy than it is fairy tale fantasy, focusing more on royalty, city-states and warriors than the more domestic affairs that pop up in fairy tales.  However, it is not to the extent that you’re force-fed heaps of mythology and fictional history.  Any history is conveyed through narration or the lectures in history class and even then it’s almost incidental.  The art is expressive and tells the story well.  If I were to make one criticism of this comic, it’s that the dialogue of the Grimmerians is all written in dialect.  For those who aren’t familiar with this practice, it’s the act of writing the dialogue in a way that’s supposed to evoke the accent of a people.  It can be off-putting to some and it can seem a bit closed-minded to others as it often assumes the accents and pronunciation of words for the Northeastern and Mid-Western United States is the default.  Personally, I’m used to it as I spent my youth reading Marvel’s X-Men comics which feature many characters who are written in dialect.  For reference, it seems that the Grimmerian accent is more or less a Scottish one (Viking-like characters speaking in a Scottish accent.  I’m suddenly reminded of Dreamworks’s How to Train Your Dragon movies).

Princess Ugg is a fun read and an all ages appropriate one to boot.  This book came out a while back.  However, you may still be able to find it on Amazon or through online comic book vendors like Lone Star Comics or Midtown Comics.  Happy reading!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: The Northlore Series vol. 1: Folklore.

Okay, this is another one I’ve been meaning to get to.  The publishers of this book contacted me a long time ago asking me to read this book and give it a review.  They even gave me a digital copy for my kindle.  However, it took me forever to fit reading the book into my schedule and then even more time to figure out when to post a review.

How long?  Well, the book came out back in May.  The digital copy they sent me was likely an advance copy and now it’s January of the next year.  Yeah . . . Now you know why one of my conditions to those seeking reviews is that I can’t promise I’ll have it done by a certain time.
Now that I have taken the time to sit down to write this review, I find myself with a different problem.  I just don’t have all that much to say about it.
First, a little general information.  The Northlore Series Vol. 1: Folklore is an anthology of poems and short stories published by Nordland Publishing.  Nordland Publishing is a publisher that specializes in Scandinavian-centric material.  The book features 21 different pieces by 19 different authors and is edited by M.J. Kobernus and Katie Metcalfe.  All the stories and poems focus on different creatures from the bountiful folklore of the Scandinavian countries.  The stories are filled with trolls, elves, huldra, draugen, mara, and more.
However, like I said, I don’t know what to say.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book.  I’d probably have a lot more to say if it was a bad book.  I enjoyed it greatly.  I found all the entries to be well written and entertaining.  I found it engaging and easy to read with few parts if any that felt like a slog to get through.  Sometimes I was even surprised by the endings of the stories.   
I was a little perplexed to see two selkie stories in the book because I always associated selkies with Irish folklore rather than Scandinavian folklore.  However, a quick search lets me know that a similar creature exists in Swedish folklore.  I would have preferred they use whatever the Swedish name of the creature was rather than calling them selkies.  But still, the stories are good!  Usually, I have some kind of angle to pursue or point I could make during a review.  But not this time.  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe it’s writer’s block or some kind of folklore-related burnout, but I just don’t have anything to say but “this is a good book”.

So, basically, it’s just a good book!  Read it if you are so inclined!