Saturday, February 17, 2018

Fantasy Literature Rewind- Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings

If there has ever been a collection of folk tales that has ever been as much of a cultural minefield, I don’t know it.

The Uncle Remus books are a series of books written and published by journalist and writer Joel Chandler Harris in the years following the American Civil War.  They all focus on an old black man named Uncle Remus who works as a handyman/odd jobs man on a southern plantation as he tells African-American folk tales to an unnamed little white boy.  They’re also all written in a dialect that’s presumably accurate to southern African-Americans of the time period (I have some issues with writing in dialect, but I’ll get to those later).
Before getting into the book, I should make some notes about Harris himself.  Mainly that he seems like a bit of an odd duck.  Joel Chandler Harris was the son of an Irish immigrant woman and never knew his father.  He seemed to suffer from an intense, debilitating shyness as well as a sort of impostor syndrome when it came to his literary success (he preferred to be acknowledged as a journalist than as a book writer and typically referred to the person who wrote his books as “the other fellow”).  His road to literary fame started when he went to work for the only newspaper in the south that was actually published on a plantation and managed to make friends with a runaway slave.  Eventually, he had managed to gain the confidence of the slaves on the plantation and had managed to sit with them as they sang songs and told stories.  You see, for whatever reason, all records suggest that he lost his famous shyness around black people (go figure).  There’s certainly a lot to unpack there, but the end result would be that he would adapt the stories and songs he heard by giving them to a character he created for an Atlanta newspaper named Uncle Remus.  Harris himself freely admits in his writings to simply being a collector of tales, never taking credit for the stories himself.  He was also a rather vocal advocate for both racial and regional reconciliation during the Reconstruction years.  And yet, despite all Harris’s good points, there’s just something not quite right about this collection and how it came to be.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am glad the collection exists.  At least in the sense that I like the stories that were collected.  I greatly enjoyed reading the misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Terrapin as well as alternate takes on how the famous Biblical deluge happened and plantation superstitions about witchcraft.  The book I read is far more of a complete book of folklore than the framing structure would have you believe.  There are even collections of songs and proverbs.  The stories, especially the Brer Rabbit stories, all emphasize the triumph of the quick and the cunning over the powerful.  It’s easy to see why these stories would resonate so well with an oppressed, enslaved people.
No, the real problem is Uncle Remus himself and the milieu he’s placed in.

It’s more obvious from the Uncle Remus stories from the Atlanta Constitution that were published as back matter in my copy of the book.  The picture Harris paints is something straight out of an old plantation romance.  The plantation is the genteel home of the old southern gentry.  The black folks who work there are kind and loyal.  Even to the extent that a singular old black man would befriend a certain little white boy and tell him stories about that tricky ol’ Brer Rabbit.  There’s just one rather significant problem with this and we’re going to say it loud for the people who might not get it:


Yeah.  It’s an alluring illusion.  So alluring that I even found myself thinking “Gee, this isn’t so bad” as I read only to stop and remind myself that it really kind of is.  The truth is that plantations weren’t some kind of southern Camelot.  They were farms that often made money off some kind of grueling monoculture.  Essentially the 19th Century equivalent of a “factory farm”.  And the slaves and sharecroppers who worked on them weren’t some kind of loyal family retainers, they were forced labor or tenant farmers who could just barely make ends meet.  And if it ever was any different than that, it was likely only .001% of the time.

Humans are a myth-making species.  And while some of those myths contain truths, some of them just contain what we wish was true.  When we can no longer support those illusions anymore, we have to move past them.  Possibly the best example might be the Western.  As a genre, there was a time when the Western ruled the cinemas.  But the popularity of the genre was severely affected once people started to realize that the Old West wasn’t really all that much like the myths we had built around it.  The same can be said about the myth of the southern plantation, but that myth has been shelved for so long that it’s easy to forget why we had such a problem with it.  As for Harris’s part in the myth, while he may have enjoyed the company of black folks and some suggest that he may have been cagier and more subversive in his writings than most think, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest he wasn’t just kind of clueless.

There are a couple other things to touch on.  The book does use a few racial slurs that were common at the time.  Also, I should comment on the practice of writing in dialect.  The problem with writing in dialect is that you’ve pretty much decided who your audience is and what accent they have.  People don’t hear their accents the way others do.  To borrow an example from the X-Men comics of my youth.  Southerners who use the word “sugar” as a term of endearment don’t hear it as “sugah”.  There’s also always the chance you’ll still lose people, no matter what dialect they speak.  It took me a while into reading this book to realize “bimeby” was supposed to be a form of “by-and-by”.

Over all, as a collection of tales, songs and proverbs Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings isn’t terrible but the framing of it is just such a product of the views and prejudices of the time.  About two centuries removed from those times, there have got to be better choices for collections of African-American folklore.

Like maybe this one:

Or this one:

Or hey, this one just came out!

Really, there are options out there.  And you’ll probably find ol’ Brer Rabbit in there along the way even if he didn’t bring Uncle Remus with him.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Girl Who Married a Lion.

I was looking at the great majority of the folk tales I focus on and noticed that they seemed unusually weighted toward Europe and Asia.  And I felt the universe call out to me and say “Hey, Dummy, widen your scope!” (gee, the universe is a lot ruder than you’d think).  I especially noticed that I specifically seem to have left out tales from places like Africa and the Caribbean as well as African-American communities in the Americas.  In other words, I had inadvertently avoided the tales of Black folks (boy am I embarrassed).  Well, since it’s Black History Month here in the U.S. and we’re not long from the premiere of the movie Black Panther (can you imagine what Wakanda’s folk tales must be like.  I bet they’d be awesome) it seemed like a good time to start.

But, diving into a brand new culture can be daunting.  So, let’s start with something that I think we’re all a bit familiar with: animal bridegrooms.  This story does it a little bit differently, though.
This tale comes from a book that is conveniently titled The Girl Who Married a Lion.  It’s edited by the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Alexander McCall Smith.  Now, one of the frequent problems that exists with books of African folk tales published in Europe or North America is that they’re frequently just billed as “African folk tales”, as if Africa isn’t a giant continent filled with numerous different languages, nations and ethnic groups.  Luckily, this book actually does provide us with a narrower scope than that.  The introduction informs us that these tales were collected from the countries of Zimbabwe and Botswana.
The story starts off with a young woman getting married.  She is happy because she has a fine, strong husband.  However, one person is not so happy.  That would be her brother, who is our main character.

Now, I know some of you may find this a bit odd.  The story is called “The Girl Who Married a Lion”, so why is the main character her brother?  Well, let’s remember that titles for folk tales are impermanent at best, often changing from place to place and teller to teller.  But one other thing I’d like to point out is that this is reflective of something I’ve noticed in the African tales I’ve read (though, mind that I’m no expert).  These tales do have a greater focus on family and community than tales from other parts of the world.  So, what the brother-in-law thinks is important.  He’s part of the bride’s family.  Heck, of all the characters in this story, the only one that’s named is the bride’s father, Kumalo.  I’ve read other stories where the actions and opinions of an entire village are important.
Anyway, the brother doesn’t trust the new bridegroom because he’s convinced that he’s a lion disguised as a man.

If this were anything but a folk tale, it would sound ridiculous.  And if this were a folk tale from most other parts of the world, it wouldn’t go down the way it’s going to go down.  In European folk tales, maidens marry beasts that appear to be beasts under duress and then discover they’re cursed humans.  In some Asian folk tales I’ve read (notably from Japan), a person would rescue an animal that would turn into a bride/groom for that person on the sly.  Then they’d be happy until the human would get suspicious or commit some act that would cause the animal bride or groom to take off never to be seen again.  Here, the groom being a lion is treated as a dangerous secret.

The man won’t talk to his brother-in-law, which the rest of his family and village find strange and unreasonable.  He just says “I can’t talk to a lion”.  However, it soon seems he might be right because his sister comes to him with an unusual problem: her husband smells strange.

A little info for those who don’t know much about wildlife.  Predatory animals are known for having a distinct smell and on the African savannah, few animals have quite a distinct smell as a lion.
The brother smells some of the husbands effects and he confirms that it is lion-scent.  Then they go to their father for advice.  He suggests tying up a goat outside the husband’s house and seeing what happens to it.  The next morning, they see the goat has been torn apart and eaten and they have their first clue.
I’m not going to give away too much more.  I don’t like giving away endings.  I will say there’s another clue that the husband is a lion.  They also deal with the question of “If the woman’s husband is a lion, what about her two sons?”.  A question that’s frequently glossed over in these kinds of tales.  The book this is in should be relatively easy to find in libraries or for purchase.
I like this tale.  It plays with some familiar territory but does it in a distinctly unfamiliar way.  There's a webcomic version of this story somewhere out there, but I can't quite locate it at the moment.

But now, oh great Universe, tell me what the next thing I should tackle is .

It is . . .
Dammit.  You know, Universe, you’re a real piece of work.

Sorry to any of my non-American readers who might not get it.  But it looks like next time I’m going to attempt to tackle the minefield that is Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books and their complicated legacy.

See you then.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Puss in Boots (1988)

We have a winner for our first Fairy Tale Fandom poll.  And it is (drum roll please) . . . Puss in Boots!

You know, the reason I wanted to review the various Cannon Movie Tales is because of the strange way we approach fairy tale productions.  For those who don’t know, Cannon Films was one of the most infamous low budget movie studios of the ‘80s.  They’re the studio that created such famously cheap, flawed pieces of work as Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, the straight-to-video Captain America movie and the Masters of the Universe movie.  They excelled at creating cheap action movies.  Heck, they’re pretty much the reason Jean Claude Van Damme became a star.  When you see the logo “Cannon Films” or the credit “A Golan-Globus Production”, you should know exactly what you’re getting.  Yet, the funny thing about fairy tales is that they’re the one kind of fantasy story we should expect to get adapted on the cheap.  Maybe it’s their ubiquity.  Maybe it’s the fact that they’re often aimed at children.  But how many low-rent animated adaptations have there been?  How many Christmas pantomimes?  How many school plays or puppet shows?  Sometimes I think Disney only became as famous at adapting fairy tales as they are because they throw a whole lot of money into their productions.

Anyway, let us go on to our main subject here.  Puss in Boots was a live action family musical starring Christopher Walken and Jason Connery (son of actor Sean Connery and star of the show Robin of Sherwood).  Trailer video?  Sure, have a trailer video!

The story basically follows the story as it was written down by Charles Perrault.  The one major difference is that instead of a cat walking around in a pair of boots, when the cat puts on the boots he becomes Christopher Walken.  Though the trailer suggests that this is a magic power embodied by the boots themselves, it seems to actually be a power that Puss possesses.  He appears for brief moments toward the beginning of the film to tell Coran the miller’s son (Connery) to get him some boots but appears to be unable to keep that form.  It’s like he can’t do this specific trick for long unless he has a nice pair of footwear.  They make pretty good use of this "trick", though.

Beyond that, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation.  Basically, it’s the story of a cat who undertakes a complex confidence scheme in order to get his poor master, a miller’s son, married into royalty.  There’s some gift giving, some lying and a little ogre slaying.  Some parts of the story are tweaked.  Other parts expanded upon.  One thing they expand on is the part of the ogre.  In Perrault’s tale, the ogre just kind of appears at the end.  In this film, he’s introduced early and Puss and Coran have a run-in with him early on.  However, the ogre isn’t really given more character development as much as just more screen time.  Another aspect that expands the tale is the role of the princess.  The princess in Perrault’s tale didn’t have much going on besides being conned into marriage below her station.  In this film, we’re presented with a princess who is clever and a bit feisty (remember, this is the late ‘80s.  Princess Leia had already debuted in Star Wars.  Feisty princesses were starting to be in).  She’s clearly fed up with all the “genteel” ways she has to act and tired of the governess who is making her learn them for the purpose of betrothal.  It’s to the point where she’s absolutely thrilled with the idea of marrying a miller’s son when Coran confesses who he really is (you know, if this movie were made today, I bet the princess would have sleuthed it out herself to show how clever she is.  But I give the film points for making Coran an honest fellow).

The other way the movie expanded things out is with musical numbers.  Now, I’m not an expert on music by any means.  I’ll try my best, though.  The songs in this movie are fun in the moment you’re listening to them, but I don’t think there are any great examples of songwriting here.  The performances are pretty good, but then there’s Walken.  Christopher Walken is not a terrific singer (as we may all remember from that Peter Pan Live thing).  So, despite having a fair chunk of the songs, he does verge a bit on talk-singing a lot of them.  He conveys the message of the song and the place it has in the story, but it’s not great.  However, he’s a surprisingly good dancer (as you may remember from the music video for Fatboy Slim’s song “Weapon of Choice”).  When given the chance to cut loose dancing, like in the “country dance” sequence of this film, he’s actually pretty good.

The place where the low budget really becomes obvious is in sets, costumes and special effects.  For special effects, this movie has a tendency to overlay stock footage onto background from scenes from the movie.  When the ogre transforms into a tiger, bear or elephant, you can tell that the tiger, bear or elephant was not actually in the scene.  They do a similar thing with Puss in an earlier scene.  In terms of costumes and sets, a lot of them have this vibe of being something made for a theme park or particularly high-end renaissance faire.  I think it’s probably most evident with the king’s carriage.  Also, the ogre is clearly just a large man wearing padded clothes to make him look even larger and a face painted green.

And yet, despite the flaws, I can’t say that this film is a bad watch.  Why?  Because it plays to the strengths it does have.  Walken himself is an entertaining, charismatic presence.  The movie also likes to play around with the social situations in the plot.  It’s clear from the beginning that Coran, while being a bit of a wet blanket, is not really any worse or more unfit than the king or any of the nobility.  In fact, the first time we see the king, he’s playing with toy soldiers.  Meanwhile, Coran is unfailingly practical.  After Puss tells Coran that the king wants to meet him, he muses on what kind of work the king is going to give him, fully expecting to end up as a stable hand or a scullion only for puss to let him know later that  the king thinks he’s a marquis.  There’s a whole song about how acting “genteel” is essentially acting like a hypocrite.  And in another scene, Puss manages to convince the band at a ball to play a country dance to cover up Coran’s lack of skill at courtly dancing by telling them that the Marquis had just been travelling and that country dancing is “all the rage abroad”.  There are a few other scenes like that, but I don’t want to give them all away.  But it’s really watching Walken’s Puss play the role of social engineer that makes the movie fun.
It’s certainly entertaining for what it is.  When watching it though, you just have to expect it to fall in a strange budgetary middle ground between Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre and a Walt Disney production.

So, that’s it for our first Cannon Movie Tale.  There’ll be a new poll going up soon, but I won’t get to the review for a little while after that.  You see, February is Black History Month here in the United States and I thought I’d spend the rest of the month spotlighting some tales from Black communities in the U.S., Africa and the Caribbean.  So, stay tuned.