Saturday, December 16, 2017

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Pinocchio's Christmas.

You know, I almost didn’t have a holiday post this year.  Sure, there’s a whole lot of folklore associated with the December holidays, but I just wasn’t feeling the draw for any of that stuff.  What I really needed was something that drew on the other side of the “Fairy Tale Fandom” equation: popular culture.

So, let’s talk about one of the most unique aspects of Christmas-time popular culture: the Rankin/Bass Christmas special.

Rankin/Bass Productions was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass on September 14, 1960 as Videocraft International.  Rankin/Bass Productions is known for its animated productions, some of which were made using traditional cel animation but many of which were made using a stop-motion animation process called Animagic.  Interestingly, a great number of Rankin/Bass animated productions were actually animated at studios in Japan (that’s right, when you’re watching Rankin/Bass specials you’re watching anime).  And while they’ve been responsible for a number of different things ranging from the animated Hobbit movie to the ‘80s cartoons Thundercats, Silverhawks and Tigersharks, what Rankin/Bass are best known for is their Christmas specials.
It’s kind of strange, because of this fact, stop-motion animation is probably more associated with Christmas than anything in the world.

Anyway, while Rankin/Bass has done its fair share of work with mythic figures like Santa Claus and Jack Frost, what got my attention is this special that I just happened to get as a gift on a DVD set last year: Pinocchio’s Christmas from 1980.
 I know I post about Pinocchio a fair bit already, but I’ve got a soft spot for that story.  This story is familiar territory for Rankin/Bass too.  One of their first productions was a TV series titled The New Adventures of Pinocchio.

The story focuses on Pinocchio as he prepares to get ready to experience his first Christmas.  Geppetto, as is usually the case, is flat broke (or maybe a better description is “dirt poor”).  So, he decides to sell his boots to buy Pinocchio a present: an arithmetic book.  Pinocchio, less than enthusiastic about the book, sells it and then decides to use the money to buy Gepetto a present.  At least, he does until the Fox and Cat show up and convince him to bury the money so it will grow into a Christmas tree covered in money.  The Fox and Cat having stolen his money, he decides to sign up with Fire-Eater’s puppet show.  While performing in the show, he develops a little crush on another non-living puppet named Julietta.  Discovering that Fire-Eater plans on changing her into a Wise-Man for a Nativity production, Pinocchio takes Julietta and runs.  Meanwhile, the Fox and Cat are making a deal with a rather brutish man to secure Pinocchio as a gift for the children of his boss the Duke.  Pinocchio finds his way into a magic forest (one where he was once part of one of the trees).  The Fox and Cat find him and try to convince him to be taken to the Duke (in song, mind you) by lying that he’ll be taken to a medicine that will bring Julietta to life.  But they get scared off and Pinocchio finds his way into the presence of the Blue Fairy.  And . . . you know, I’ve told you enough probably.  He gets a lesson/task from the Blue-Haired Fairy.  He gets tricked again.  He meets the Duke.  Santa Claus shows up (as he often does in these specials).

If it seems like it’s just one ordeal or misadventure after another in pursuit of some kind of pie-in-the-sky goal, you’re not wrong.  That’s pretty much how Pinocchio stories work, though.  Carlo Collodi’s original story was serialized so that it would be one story after another.  Even the Disney movie followed roughly the same format.

Going beyond that though, I’m pretty impressed by what a nice middle ground the special finds between the sometimes controversial book and popular but saccharine Disney movie (yeah, I said it.  Come at me, bro).  There are numerous examples in the special that show that the creators of it have read the book.  They acknowledge that Pinocchio is kind of a naughty little puppet at first.  They show the Blue Fairy’s servants: the monkey and the poodle.  They include her coach pulled by white mice.  The names are consistent with the book.  The Cat from the shifty Fox and Cat duo is female like in the book.  Geppetto even wears his yellow wig.  But other things are softened or made more consistent with the Disney film.  For example, Pinocchio doesn’t kill the talking cricket, he just drives it away.  Also, when they show scenes from his future adventures, it’s definitely a whale he’s escaping from, not a dogfish.  But possibly the most notable difference between the special and the book is that they make extra sure to note that Pinocchio is the world’s only living puppet.  It’s even a major plot point.  This was very much not the case in the book, as Fire-Eater’s puppet theatre was full of living puppets.  But this all just shows that there is a middle ground to be found between the two extremes.
The special is not perfect, though.  The songs are nothing to write home about.  There are no bonafide Christmas classics in it like “Silver and Gold” from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  They can even be a little dated.  One scene where Pinocchio imagines himself teaching Santa’s toys how to dance, the music has a bit of a disco vibe.  Not really an “ironic” disco vibe, too.  Also, one troubling thing is that the Fox and the Cat (two characters known for being thieves, liars and swindlers) are dressed kind of like Romani stereotypes.

I would recommend the special, though.  It would be a good way to inject some variety into the roster of Christmas specials that are shown every year.  Give it a watch if you can.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Stuff of Legends: Washington Irving and the Legend of New York State.

Hey, everybody.  It’s time for this year’s Scary Tale Fandom post.  I held a poll on Twitter to decide which subject I was going to post about this year.  Granted, I probably should have alerted people to the fact that the poll was going up, considering almost no one voted on it.  But still, I got one vote and that was for the stories of Washington Irving.  Now, I bet you didn’t expect the title card for “The Stuff of Legends” to come back for this, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I’m actually pretty excited about this one.  The reason is because both Washington Irving and his two most famous stories I’m going to talk about are from my home state of New York.  “What’s the big deal?”, you ask.  “Lots of stories happen in New York”.  Well, while it’s true that a whole lot of media in our modern world takes place in New York City, not many take place in the rest of New York State.  The city tends to overshadow the rest of the state to a great degree these days.  But “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are from the Catskills and Tarrytown respectively.  Heck, Washington Irving’s writing comes from a time before New York City was even all that big and important to begin with.
But first, some background.  Washington Irving was born in New York City in 1783.  He was the youngest of 11 children of Scottish-English immigrant parents.  Irving was trained as a lawyer and worked numerous jobs, but usually preferred to indulge his creative impulses.  In the years 1819 and 1820, a series of short stories and essays were published that would eventually be published as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.  Two of these stories are the ones I’m going to talk about here.

Washington Irving clearly had an interest in folklore like many other writers did.  However, rather than being a folklore collector like some other literary sorts, he instead used lore to embellish and enrich his own literary works.  Or, at least, he seemed to.  It gets a bit complicated as I’ll tell you in a moment.

The stories he used here are ghost stories, which are a type of legend.  They have a sense of time and place that is very specific.  Some have real, historical figures in them.  But they might, and often are, more fiction than history.  That's why I've chosen to make this post "The Stuff of Legends".
Let’s take a look at the story of “Rip Van Winkle” for instance.  The story concerns a man named Rip Van Winkle who prefers hunting and fishing and helping other people with their problems than dealing with his own.  One day, he goes out squirrel hunting to avoid his shrewish wife and comes upon a little man carrying a keg of alcohol.  He helps him and gets to place where the little man’s friends are drinking and playing ninepins.  Rip starts to drink himself, falls asleep and awakens to find the world changed.  It turns out that he was asleep for twenty years.  All his friends are gone and the British colonies in North America have had a revolution and gained their independence.  The story itself is solid.  It serves as a good exhibition of just how much has changed in the Americas over the course of one man’s lifetime (even if he slept through most of it).  The fantastical elements that facilitate this, the “magical machinery” if you will, stem from an old Catskill legend.  The legend states that while searching for the Northwest Passage, the explorer Henry Hudson sailed upriver for miles until he got to the Catskill Mountains.  Taking some men, he went into the mountains until he stumbled on some little men playing ninepins and drinking.  Hudson and his crew joined in but felt some side effects from the booze they were drinking.  For one, it transformed the men for a short time into creatures a lot like the gnomish people they were drinking with.  For another, it put them to sleep.  Not for as long as Rip Van Winkle was asleep, but for a while.  Hudson and his men left, but it’s said that whenever the “Catskill Gnomes” go bowling, they’re joined by the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men.

This legend appears to be the real deal.  The story of “Henry Hudson and the Catskill Gnomes” is recorded in all sorts of places separate from Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle.  The version I know best is on the American Folklore website right HERE.  

The other New York story Irving’s famous for, might be a different situation.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is by this time a seasonal favorite.  Every Halloween there are numerous movies, books and TV specials that invoke the story.  The story is about a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who comes to the small Southern New York town of Sleepy Hollow outside of Tarrytown.  Crane is an unusual fellow.  Thin as a rail, but a big eater.  Very learned but also very superstitious.  Crane’s head is turned by the wealthy and beautiful Katrina Van Tassel.  Katrina, though, has another suitor in the form of the strong, jovial, boisterous town hero Abraham Van Brunt aka “Brom Bones”.  One night, Crane attends a party at which tales are traded of the “Headless Horseman” or “Galloping Hessian”.  The Horseman was a Hessian soldier working for the British during the American Revolutionary War.  He lost his head to a cannonball and ever since then his ghost rides at night searching for his head.  One story states though, that he cannot cross a certain bridge.  On the way home, Crane loses his way and runs into the Headless Horseman.  Crane does all he can to get away from the spectral rider, but before he can cross the fateful bridge something happens and Crane disappears.  Brom goes on to marry Katrina and it’s heavily suggested that he actually dressed as the Headless Horseman and scared Crane away, though it’s never stated outright.
Now, my impression was always that the story of the Headless Horseman was a genuine piece of folklore from Sleepy Hollow, New York.  The other parts regarding Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel may have been invented by Irving, but the Headless Horseman strikes me as a real ghost story probably adapted from events during the Revolutionary War combined with lore carried over to the colonies by Dutch settlers.  But I’m not sure it is.

I went looking for instances of the “Headless Horseman” story separate from Washington Irving’s story of the Crane-Van Tassel-Bones love triangle and they were decidedly scarce.  Almost every source I find name drops either Washington Irving or his three characters.  The one exception is American Folklore, which has a version of the story HERE.  Now, it’s not to say that the Headless Horseman isn’t a figure in folklore.  But it’s just as likely that Irving borrowed such a figure from somewhere else and transplanted them to Upstate New York.  There are plenty of such figures.  There’s the dullahan from Ireland.  There’s the Wild Huntsman in Germany.  There’s even something similar in the story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.

Now, I could be entirely wrong about this.  The Horseman could be an entirely real part of New York State folklore and the problem is just that Irving’s story has outpaced the original legend in terms of popularity.  But it’s not something I can confirm.  At least, not without a whole weekend freed up, access to the archives for the greater Tarrytown-Sleepy Hollow area and a few phone calls to the New York State Folklore Society.  I’m certainly not going to do it in connection to this blog post that I’ve just been kind of poking at for a few days in between work and the rest of my life.

There’s still a lot to love about the story, though.

The descriptions of the Hudson River Valley area in Autumn are fantastic.  While the story may not have been expressly devised as a “Halloween story”, the fact that it has become associated with the holiday isn’t a surprise.  The supernatural aspect of the story certainly fits and the descriptions place it in the most lovely part of Autumn you could imagine.  The whole combination automatically evokes late October.

Another thing I like is how Irving is capable of writing characters who kind of shift with your perceptions.  This is connected to what I refer to as the “Brom Bones Conundrum”.  Allow me to explain.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” hinges on the conflict between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones over Katrina Van Tassel.  The story expressly follows Crane as its “hero”.  Crane is a smart, bookish schoolmaster who likes to eat.  He also strikes quite the humorous figure with the way he’s described, lank with big ears, nose and feet.  He seems like the kind of character that readers like myself, seeing as I’m rather bookish as well, would like to get behind.  Or at least, the kind of hero that people would think is goofy and harmless.  But then, there are the things that attract him to Katrina Van Tassel.  Almost all of Crane’s interests in the young Miss Van Tassel are material.  He liked how much land her family has, how much wealth they have and how much food is in her family’s storehouses.  Truth be told, Ichabod Crane’s kind of a gold digger.  And while marrying for wealth may have been common in ages past, it certainly isn’t the kind of thing that would make someone the romantic hero of a short story.  Brom Bones on the other hand, is brawny, boisterous and loves playing practical jokes on people.  Again, for someone like myself who doesn’t quite understand the appeal of athletics and dislikes being the butt of pranks, he’s easy to cast as the villain.  Yet, he’s also considered to be the town hero.  Brom Bones is probably one of the people that the good folk of Sleepy Hollow would turn to if there was ever an emergency.  And he supposedly means no harm with his jokes.  We don’t know what attracts him to Katrina but the truth is he probably is a much better match for her than Ichabod is, if for no other reason than he’s a local boy who knows the land and people better and would be much better at managing the estate that she’s bound to inherit.  When I first read this story in high school I was so sure that Ichabod was the hero and Brom was the villain.  Now that I’ve encountered it again, I’m hesitant to put those labels on either of them.  Ichabod doesn’t seem so much like a hero as a silly, foolish character prone to superstition and greed.  Also, while I’m still hesitant to brand Brom Bones a hero, I certainly wouldn’t consider him to be the villain of the piece.  And all it took was a reread.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  It’s back to hiatus for me after this.  You can still find me posting over on Universes Beckon, though.

Until next time I see you, take care.  And Happy Halloween!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Going on hiatus.

So, yeah.

I'm going to be taking a little bit of a break from Fairy Tale Fandom.  Not sure how long.  A few months maybe.

Lately, I've been getting a bit burned out on fairy tale related material.  The thing is that I had been immersing myself in it for so long and seeing the same stuff depicted for so long that it started to feel like a bit too much of a chore.  In the process both my goal of posting something every calendar week as well as my storytelling hobby ended up being harder to keep up with.

While that was going on, I found myself having much more to say about other things I'm a fan of.  In the past few months I've had thoughts about comics, movies, TV and gaming that I've wanted to express and really no place to express them except my personal Facebook page.  So, I launched a second blog entitled Universes Beckon.  I mean, I suppose I could have written about that stuff on Fairy Tale Fandom but I would have had to tie it all back in to fairy tales and folklore, which wouldn't have been hard but also wouldn't necessarily have lined up with the points I wanted to make.

So, that's the deal.  No more Fairy Tale Fandom for a little while but I will continue to be posting on Universes Beckon.  I may pop in again to post a special Halloween post or something, but that's it.  I'm hoping to come back with a fresh perspective and maybe a new approach.  Right now, I'm having a lot of fun reading things that are not fairy tale retellings or folk tale collections for the first time in a couple of years.

So I'll see you again soon, just not too soon.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Okay, so this one might be more confession than review, but stick with me.

First, there are some things you should know about me and if you’ve been following me on this blog or on Twitter, you’ve probably had some inkling of for a while.  First of all, I am not a professional critic.  Second, I’m also not really a “fairy tale scholar”.  When people have called me such online, I’ve generally rejected it and replied that I’m “just a fan”.  This is for a variety of reasons.  Lastly, I’m not particularly fond of reading the works of people who are considered fairy tale scholars.  I’m really more of a fiction reader.  Also, when I have tried to read the works of scholars, I felt like they were trying to tell me what to think about a story when I’d rather read the story myself and come to my own conclusions.  I’ve tried, but I’ve never really enjoyed reading them.  Really, I’m just a guy with a library school degree, a pastime telling stories, a lot of opinions and a platform on which to express them.  Just thought you should keep these things in mind as you read forward.

So, a few months ago, I get contacted by a PR person at Princeton University Press asking me if I want to read and review the new book by Jack Zipes: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Now, at first glance this book doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that I would go for.  For one, it’s by Jack Zipes.  I’ve already said I don’t care much for reading scholarly works.  But also because Zipes has become the face of the scholarly, anti-Hollywood view of fairy tales.  If you have “OMG!  Disney!” on one side, then you have Zipes on the other.  And though I haven’t brought it up much, I have just as much of an issue with the anti-Disney contingent as I do with the Mouse itself.  Mainly in the sense that Hollywood is what’s been keeping many of these tales alive and that whether we like it or not, a Hollywood movie getting adapted from a story is often a mark of a story or property gaining legitimacy in our current culture.  The other issue is that it was a collection based around stories of a certain tale type, and I usually don’t read those.  Most of the collections I read are regional (Japanese Tales, Folk Tales of the British Isles, Latin American Folktales, etc).

But still, this was Princeton University Press!   Most of the people who actually ask me to review books for them are either small publishers or people who self-publish.  Some stuff, like the stuff made by World Weaver Press, isn’t bad.  But so much other stuff is.  I’ve read so many stories where people think “fairy tale” just means throwing any fantasy concept in there or that it’s an excuse to write stories about cotillions and petticoats.  But Princeton University Press felt like something major and serious.  It felt like I had hit the big time.  So, I agreed to it.  Should I have?  I’m not sure.
The book starts off with a piece by Zipes.  He lays out that the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” concept is split into two different concepts.  There’s the “Humiliated Apprentice” as immortalized in Goethe’s poem, Paul Dukas’s music and a certain Fantasia short.  The other is the “Rebellious Apprentice” in which a boy goes to learn from a sorcerer and rebels against him leading to a situation in which the sorcerer and his apprentice chase each other while changing forms (note: I have encountered this type of story before in the form of a Yiddish folk tale and have even told it.  Though, I can’t say I love the tale).  The overarching idea that Zipes brings up is that the stories represent a “master/slave dialectic”.  The idea being that apprentice work was pretty much equivalent to slavery centuries ago.  To Zipes, the “Humiliated Apprentice” story represents a type of story meant to keep slaves down and depict rebelling against slavery as bad.  The “Rebellious Apprentice” stories represent stories of a clever slave rebelling against his master and gaining a higher position.  To be honest though, I’m not sure how much I buy all that.  For one thing, it just seems much more likely and reasonable to me that the “Humiliated Apprentice” is more likely a story warning against hubris.  The apprentice isn’t a slave rebelling against his master.  He’s a little kid who thinks he can drive a car because he saw his dad do it and proceeds to get into a car wreck.  As for the “Rebellious Apprentice” stories, while it makes a little more sense for it to be a master/slave thing, I just kind of wonder why so many of these stories bother with the apprenticeship stuff at all.  A good number of these stories involve the character studying the sorcerer’s books while he’s not around.  Why not just make it a slave who studies the books and then rebels using magic?  This makes me think that maybe the tutelage aspect is a lot more important than Zipes is giving it credit for.  Zipes talks about some other things.  He touches on the subject of childism, which is prejudice against children.  He gets in a couple digs at Disney, as he usually does.  He even talks about the Harry Potter franchise and I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether he likes it or not.  He seems impressed at some points, but calls it banal at another.  If anyone else has read this book and gets what he was going for, more power to you.  But now this brings us to the tales themselves.

The book is separated into two parts, “Humiliated Apprentice Tales” and “Rebellious Apprentice Tales”.  From there, each part is separated into sections by time period: “Early Tales”, “19th Century Tales”, “20th Century Tales” and the like.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect.  All the tales fit the archetype the book is focused on.  I’m going to be honest with you, though.  I started to lose interest in the stories after a while.  Though there were differences between them, I started to feel like I was still just reading the same story over and over and over again.  Some did deviate a fair bit and those were a pleasant surprise.  For example, there’s an E. Nesbit story in there that I really like (I should really read more of her stuff).  Such tales are few and far between, though.  I should note that I was also getting burnt out on fairy tales at the time too, so that could be it.

I didn’t even finish the book yet.  If you look at the picture below, you’ll see I got very close to the end but didn’t quite finish and it took me a good long while too.  I’m posting this now because I was afraid it would take me a whole year to get through that last little bit.
But here’s the thing with this book and I want everyone to pay extra attention to this next paragraph before getting angry at me in the comments.

From as objective a standpoint as I can manage, there is nothing wrong with this book.  It is not a bad book.  It does not have any serious problems or red flags.  All the chosen stories are appropriate to the topic of the book.  Jack Zipes’s analysis is pretty much what you’d expect from Jack Zipes.  It’s organized well.  The thing is that it’s just not the kind of book I like.  That doesn’t make it bad.  We all have tastes and we all have opinions.  If you like Jack Zipes and you like anthologies that focus on one specific tale type, you will probably like this book. 

And now that that’s out there, I’m not sure when I’ll post again.  I’m thinking about taking a hiatus from Fairy Tale Fandom (though, I’ll still post occasionally on my other blog Universes Beckon).  I’m still a bit burned out on fairy tales.  Also, I think I’ve hit a bit of a wall in terms of what to do with this blog.  So, I've got some things to think about.