Saturday, December 24, 2016

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: He Sees You When He's Creepin'.

Today we have a special Christmas Eve review.  Granted, it might be a little late for this particular book, but there were circumstances.

Anyway, the good folks at World Weaver Press, who seem to like me very much despite the fact that I tend to turn in late reviews like this, sent me a digital copy of their newest anthology.  That anthology is He Sees You When He’s Creepin’: Tales of Krampus edited by Kate Walford who some of you might know from Enchanted Conversation.

Ah, Krampus.  He’s gone from a relatively obscure traditional figure from alpine regions of Europe to a bit of an alternative yuletide star via the internet.  Sort of Santa Claus for the heavy metal crowd.  For those who don’t know, Krampus is a punitive holiday figure from parts of Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and some other countries.  He’s a demon that travels with Saint Nicholas and punishes naughty children either by beating them with birch switches or just stuffs them in a bag or basket to drown them, burn them or take them to Hell.  He's become rather popular lately.  Grimm even did an episode about him.
Seems like a nice guy, huh?

Anyway, there are twelve stories in the anthology by a variety of authors.  Though they’re all based around the same traditional figure, almost all of the authors do something different.  For example, despite the demonic main character, only two of the stories seem to be straight-up horror stories.  These would be “Family Tradition” by S.E. Foley and “The Outfit” by Ross Baxter.  In addition to those, we get a subverted fairy tale “Villainess Ascending” by Steven Grimm, an origin story “Krampus: The Summoning” by Brad P. Christy, an police action piece “A Winter Scourge” by Tasmin Showbrook and even a tale of corporate machinations with Anya J. Davis’s “The Business of Christmas”.  One of the tales that really stood out to me was “Family Night” by Nancy Brewka-Clark which is a comedy piece that depicts Krampus as a beleaguered family man.

One thing that the authors in this anthology seem to have embraced is the ability to subvert certain conventions.  I’m not always one for subversion, being a great admirer of certain traditions.  And we can all admit that subversion done badly can be a bit irritating.  However, a lot of what’s done here works.  “Villainess Ascending” subverts the tales of both “Cinderella” and “Mother Holle”.  “Santa’s Little Helper” by Beth Mann subverts the relationship between St. Nicholas and Krampus by making St. Nick a very less-than-likable guy.  “A Winter Scourge” subverts St. Nick again by making the Saint female and even something of a mother figure (I’m not explaining how, you’ll just have to read it).  Both “Bad Parents” by E.M. Eastick and “Family Night” by Nancy Brewka-Clark subvert Krampus himself, making him less cruel or evil and more annoyed.
I actually really like this anthology.

I’ve read one anthology by World Weaver Press before and it was Frozen Fairy Tales, which was also edited by Kate Walford.  In comparing the two, despite the many authors’ different takes, I feel this anthology was a lot more focused.  That’s probably due to the subject matter.  In this case, the authors were focusing on a character.  In Frozen Fairy Tales, the idea was to focus more on a season or weather condition.

I’d give this anthology a recommendation.  It’s a fun little alternative yuletide treat.  If it’s too late to add it to your library for this year, then definitely consider picking it up in advance for next year.

This is Adam the Fairy Tale Geek signing off and wishing all those celebrating a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fantastic Beasts, Medeival Style!

I was going to write a post about fairy tales and folklore in connection to Harry Potter because of that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie.  That movie came out weeks ago, though.  So, the bloom is kind of off the rose.

I know, let’s take a look at the original book of fantastic beasts: the medieval bestiary.  That’s kind of connected.  I know that it’s not quite fairy tale related, but bestiaries hail from times when people still seemed to believe in dragons, unicorns and mermaids.  So, it’s kind of close.
A leopard.
For those that don’t know, bestiaries were books that described animals as the world at the time knew them but also attributed to them philosophical teachings.  This is largely stemming from the way the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believed that the natural world was laid out by God as a way to teach human beings how to act.  Now, it would be difficult to seek out reprintings of all these various sources by different authors ranging from such various authors as Isidore of Seville, Pliny the Elder and even Aesop (who is pre-medeival) among others.  Luckily, the website has done most of the work for us.

Now, as I’ve said before, these are old books.  They’re from a time when scientific observation wasn’t so precise and sometimes wasn’t even a priority (heck, some of them are from a time when alchemy was still considered a legitimate science).  So, these books aren’t really as interesting for what they got right as what they got wrong.

Let’s look at some choice selections:

Let’s see.  Pliny the Elder had this to say about bears: “Newborn cubs are a shapeless lump of white flesh with no eyes or hair, though the claws are visible.  The mother bear gradually licks her cubs into proper shape, and keeps them warm by hugging them to her breast and lying on them, just as birds do with their eggs.”

And about the Boa, Isidore of Seville says “The boa is an emense snake from Italy.  It pursues heards of cattle and oxen, and attaching to their udders kills them by sucking the milk; it is thus called boas from the killing of oxen (boa).”

Apes (meaning all non-human primates in this sense), according to Aesop always give birth to twins.  One the mother loves and holds in her arms, the other she hates and must cling to her back.  Though, according to Aesop, the mother has a tendency of smothering the baby it carries in its arms while the hated child survives.

There is a whole lot said about lions.  According to Herodotus, the lioness can only give birth once because the claws of the lion cub are so sharp even in utero that it damages the womb even before it’s born.  Pliny the Elder refutes this but also says that lion cubs are born as lumps of flesh the size of weasels (much like he said about bears).  He also says that their breath is a severe poison.  A number of the scholars claimed the lion used its tail as a sort of brush to erase its tracks.

There's a lot more.  If you're interested, click over to
A bear, licking her cub into shape.
Even the entries about mythical beasts seem a little off.  Pliny the Elder again said “India produces the largest elephants as well as the largest dragons, which are perpetually at war with the elephants.”  Did I miss a whole bunch of legends about elephants fighting dragons because that sounds awesome!

The interesting thing about all this is how a lack of knowledge combined with hearsay and creative license resulted in descriptions of real animals that made them sound like mythical beasts.  Snakes that drink milk!  Apes that hate their children!  Hedgehogs carrying away grapes on their quills!  Bears that have cubs made of play-doh!

Now you may think this sounds strange and preposterous.  Imagine treating real, live animals as if they were mythical creatures.  But, um . . . have you seen the way our modern culture treats dinosaurs?

No one living has ever seen a dinosaur.  Yet, ever since humanity discovered that they had once existed we’ve been fascinated with them and we’ve built stories around them.

We’ve created worlds where they still live.  We’ve made them into monsters that chase humans.  We’ve had heroes ride on them as mounts.  We’ve made them soft and kid-friendly (I may have to apologize for linking to that song).  We’ve even turned them into aliens before.  But we’ve always taken liberties with them because we’ve always known less than we’ve imagined.  The dinosaur has become the dragon of the post-industrial age.  That’s probably why science encountered such a push back when they asked the world to consider dinosaurs in a new way. 

In the not too distant past, scientists suggested the possibility that dinosaurs were a step in between the evolution of reptiles and the evolution of birds.  This meant that in all possibility, dinosaurs could have been covered in feathers.  New discoveries have shown that these scientists have been on the ball.  But our modern culture still has trouble imagining feathered dinosaurs.  The idea that our modern mythical beasts resemble dragons less than they resemble Foghorn Leghorn still throws people.  Granted, it doesn’t help that our culture doesn’t respect birds much except as poultry dinners and creatures gifted with the power of flight (dinosaurs are neither edible nor could fly.  Thus, they have an uphill battle ahead of them).
A rather feathery dinosaur.
Now, as I said before, this whole post may seem a bit off topic (though, I suppose a lot of this could be seen as “lore”).  But I think it could also serve as a reminder to keep our perspective as we chase old stories.  The longer ago these stories were written down, the more we’ll have to deal with the misconceptions of those writers from long ago.  Not just social misconceptions about race, religion and sex but even misconceptions about the natural world around them.  Heck, I just finished reading Basile’s The Tale of Tales and one story involved a dolphin giving someone a scale off his back (dolphins are not fish and do not have scales) and another alluded to people who were bitten by tarantulas being driven to dance to music until the poison was sweated out (pretty sure that isn’t true).  But the old stories are still worth a look, even if we aren’t willing to accept everything they tell us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Moana

Okay, so I’m kind of behind on this one.  With a posting schedule of once each calendar week, sometimes things fall behind.

Anyway, as everybody knows, Disney recently released its new animated movie Moana.  The story follows a young girl and future chief from the Pacific Island of Matanui as she defies her father to sail off in search of the demigod Maui to make him return an item he stole from the mother island of Tafiti.

This is the one I’ve been waiting for.  Say what you will about Disney, but they’re often the most interesting when they’re introducing the wider world to lore and literature that they might not have known about before.  At least, to those of us who are folklore buffs.  They did it before with movies like Mulan and now Moana is introducing people beyond the Pacific to the legends and myths about Maui.

What did I think?

Honestly, I loved it.  The film is beautiful.  The cast does amazing work voicing the various characters.  Dwayne Johnson brings his usual charisma to the character of Maui.  The real stand out is newcomer Auli’I Cravalho who voices Moana herself.  Expect big things from her.  The music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina is great.  My favorite is probably “You’re Welcome”, Maui’s song which actually references about five or six different stories about Maui (Zalka Csenge outlines that on her blog HERE).  And yes, the movie has gotten praised for centering on a strong heroine and showcasing non-White, non-European cultures.  The movie’s a great time.  Go see it if you haven’t yet.

Honestly, the biggest criticism I’ve seen of it from the critics is that it feels too traditionally “Disney”.  Pretty much every online critic I watch (Black Nerd, Doug Walker, MovieBob, etc) has pretty much echoed the idea that the story follows almost every traditional Disney trope about the strong, young princess defying her strict parent to follow her heart, etc.

But I ask, is that really a bad thing?  Or at least, might it be a good thing to some audiences?

Maybe I’m not a particularly good reviewer (and I will cop to this since I kind of fell into this whole thing).  However, while watching the film I didn’t notice how familiar the story was at all.  Perhaps it’s because for a kid who grew up with the “Disney Renaissance”, the formula was kind of comforting.  Heck, in his review Doug Walker talks about the “Disney Checklist” and how you can check off all the tropes as you go along.  But the only time that’s ever happened to me while watching a Disney film was when I watched Frozen, which made a point of subverting a whole lot of the tropes.  By subverting the tropes all they did was call attention to them which ended up pulling me out of the film and made it difficult for me to enjoy it.  Moana doesn’t subvert anything.  It plays it straight and I’m fine with that.  There are a couple of little things I noticed.  I give the movie props for actually making Moana good at things.  Remember in Mulan how Mulan wasn’t very good at meeting with the matchmaker before she left and wasn’t very good at being a soldier until she went through a music montage’s worth of training?  Moana doesn’t do that.  She’s actually a very good leader-in-training.   Making her incompetent would have been a really easy way of showing how she “doesn’t fit in”.  Instead, it’s just her wanderlust that sets her apart.  The one place where I could criticize this movie with sticking to formula is the inclusion of Moana’s animal sidekick Hei-Hei, who is pretty much useless.  They could have done without him (I’m still amazed that they hired Alan Tudyk from Firefly to voice him.  Who hires such a good actor to just make clucking noises?).

My biggest letdown regarding this movie isn’t about this movie itself.  It’s about how no one else jumped on the bandwagon.  I was hoping once word came out that Disney was basing a movie around myths and folklore from the Pacific Islands that publishers would rush to put out books of Polynesian folklore and legends.  But I’ve been to the bookstores and there’s nothing.  It’s not to say you can’t find anything, but it takes some digging.  Before the movie came out, I tried reading Hawaiian Folk Tales by Thomas J. Thrum and found it a bit hard to get through as an outsider.  The combination of names I couldn’t pronounce and unfamiliar mythology made the learning curve a bit too steep for me.   Of far greater help was YouTube, which hosts a number of animations based on Maori legends adapted by Peter Gossage.  Here you can find stories like “Maui and the Sun” and “The Fish of Maui”.  Also, apparently a story entitled The Magic Jawbone collected by Hartwell James is accessible on  I haven’t read it yet but it could be good.

Yes, the best image I could find was a cereal box.  Thanks for asking.
Anyway, it’s been suggested to me by a colleague that those of us who are folklore savvy look into some indigenous reviews to find out what they did well.  I tried to find some but came up a bit short.  Maybe my readers can offer some help (post any links you have in the comments below).  The main thing I did find was that many people have criticized Maui’s design as looking too overweight.  Near as I can tell, that’s probably more because of the visual shortcuts taken in animation than any ignorance or intended insult.  Animation tends to depict strength through sheer size and they tend to use rounder shapes and softer textures to communicate that someone is “nice” or “lovable”.  So, Disney’s attempt at making Maui look like a lovable strong-man rather than a big, scary antagonist ended up making him look kind of chubby.    

But anyway, if you still haven’t seen it, go see Moana.  Heck, I may go see it a second time.