Sunday, December 22, 2019

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Rescuers

Y’know, a while back I didn’t know what to do with Fantasy Literature Rewind.  I had done spotlights on all the major children’s classics I could think of at the time (Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, the Oz books, I even did “The Snow Queen” even though I don’t particularly like H.C. Andersen’s work) and I thought the well had run dry.  Granted, I was probably thinking too narrowly about what mistakenly gets called a “fairy tale” and would fit the blog.  But then Disney released a remake of The Jungle Book and I remembered “Oh yeah, there are more children’s classics out there”.  Now, I’ve been using Disney’s production slate as a semi-guide for a little while now and here I am trying to get ahead of it and spotlight the stories that aren’t likely to get the remake treatment.

Case in point: The Rescuers.

The Rescuers is a book written by Margery Sharp and illustrated by Garth Williams and published in 1959 (we are wandering far, far from our comfortable public domain here, dear readers.  So, brace yourselves).  The book was not expressly written for children but ended up finding that audience anyway.  The story concerns a group of mice called the Prisoners’ Aid Society.  The Prisoners’ Aid Society is a society of mice who fill a civic need by befriending prisoners during their long incarcerations.  As the story starts though, the Prisoners’ Aid Society has decided to step outside their usual bounds and actually rescue one of the prisoners in question.  The prisoner in question is a Norwegian poet who is being held in the infamously foreboding prison called The Black Castle.  For this, they need a mouse who can speak Norwegian.  So, a stalwart mouse from the Pantry named Bernard goes to recruit Miss Bianca, who is an ambassador’s pet and has the privilege of travelling via “diplomatic bag”, who then makes her way to Norway and recruits a seafaring mouse named Nils.  All three of them end up on the daring rescue mission where they run the risk of not just failing to rescue the poet but also getting caught by human guards but also by the cat Mamelouk.
If none of this sounds anything like the 1977 animated Disney film you grew up with, there’s good reason for that.  All sources consulted suggest that Disney didn’t take much from the first book when making their film adaptation of The Rescuers.  Instead, most of it came from the sequel titled Miss Bianca.  Even then, they changed large amounts of it.
The book as it actually is, is an interesting piece of work.  Friendly talking mice are a staple of children’s literature and fairy tales and have been for a long time.  This is one of the few times I’ve ever seen them moved into the position of being political players.  I mean, in this day and age our day-to-day view of politics is “What law did they not pass today?” and “Did the President really say something that stupid?”, but don’t doubt that what the Prisoners’ Aid Society is doing is political.  Right off the bat, they have to deal with travel issues (why they need Miss Bianca) and language barriers (why they need Nils).  It’s also never really stated why the Norwegian poet was imprisoned, but the fact that he was a poet suggests that he was jailed as a political prisoner for writing something that a political figure did not like.  You know, in this case the Disney movie may have been better about getting across the political aspect because of how they modeled their “Rescue Aid Society” deliberately on the United Nations (though, I guess we could fault them with a lack of subtlety).  Basically, we watch as three mice try to deal with a very big, yet still delicate situation.  There’s no promise of success and for a good chunk of time it seems practically impossible anyway.  The book goes into detail describing how for a period of months they spent their time living in the walls of the Black Castle watching events and trying to figure out how they’re even going to pull off their rescue in the first place.  Then when they do figure it out, there’s only one day of the year when it’s even possible.  The characters deserve some praise.  Nils is a bit of an over-the-top figure with his sailor talk and love for his big rubber boots, but he’s still a likable character.  Bernard is humble and plain-spoken, but it’s established early on that he’s brave and true.  After all, he had been decorated with the Tybalt Star for Gallantry in the Face of Cats.  Special attention should be paid to Miss Bianca, though.  For, you see, every one of the qualities she has that seem like they’d be weaknesses on a rescue mission turn out to be strengths when applied correctly.  The mission at one point calls for her to talk to the dangerous cat Mamelouk.  Not a great mission for a spoiled pet mouse who doesn’t know enough to be afraid of cats, right?  Well, it’s because she’s unafraid and because of her more genteel, sophisticated nature that allows her to talk to Mamelouk in such a way that she gets the information they need out of him.  Not bad for someone who lives in a porcelain pagoda.
The Rescuers book series has nine books in it, but very few of them seem to be in print.  So, the best bet is probably to check your local library for most of them.  As for this first one, I thought it was a solid, entertaining little book.  A quick read, too.  I suggest giving it a read if you get the chance.  In the meantime, I’m going to try and figure out what I’ll do if I run out of books that were turned into movies.

Until next time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Mulan Trailer Breakdown

Okay, folks.  Another trailer has dropped for the live action reimagining of Disney’s Mulan.   Now, there are a lot of trailer reaction videos out there and probably some trailer reaction blog posts too.  But I thought maybe I’d do a trailer breakdown video with an eye towards folklore, culture and the original source material.  Sort of pointing out the things that I notice.  But first, the trailer itself:

1)      The importance of the Phoenix.  So, what they’re calling a phoenix here isn’t really a phoenix, nor is it a cosmically powered mutant (sorry, X-Men fans).  The bird they’re talking about here is a mythical creature called a Fenghuang.  The Fenghuang (called Ho-oh in Japanese.  Pokemon fans may recognize that name) was originally two different birds with the males being called Feng and the females being called huang.  Since then, they’ve been combined into one singular feminine entity, which has come to be representative of the Empress of China.  It is often paired with the Long (Chinese dragon) which represents the Emperor of China.  The Fenghuang today is described as having the head of a golden pheasant, body of a mandarin duck, tail of a peacock, legs of a crane, mouth of a parrot and wings of a swallow.  The fenghuang’s body is said to represent the celestial bodies and that its body also contains the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, yellow and green.  The Fenghuang is often associated with political prosperity and harmony and seeing one is said to be a sign that a new emperor has ascended the throne.  There are some suggestions that the Fenghaung in this movie is a new take on the dragon Mushu from the animated film.

2)      We see Mulan weaving.  You might think this isn’t that important, but it is if we’re going back to the ballad.  The earliest recorded version starts with Mulan sitting at her weaving.  One source gives the translation of the first two lines as: “The sound of one sigh after another/As Mulan weaves at the doorway”.

3)      We are introduced to our villains.  They are referred to in the trailer as “Northern invaders”.  So, for this iteration of Mulan, we have a threat from outside of China rather than an insurrection from within.  Neither seems to be uncommon in past iterations of Mulan.  We also have a new name: Bori Khan, taking the role Shen Yu had in the animated film.  Not sure why the name is changed.  There might be a reason.

4)      Next we are introduced to a new villainess in the form of a witch.  Compared to the animated film, this version is not dispensing of fantastical elements as some thought they would, but using them differently.  In the animated film, all the supernatural elements seemed to be allied on Mulan’s side even if they were somewhat inept (like Mushu) or trying to make her give up her plan (like the ancestor spirits).  Here, the first major magical character is actually an antagonist.  The Fenghuang referenced earlier might be on Mulan’s side and it may play a more neutral role.  We don’t know yet.  In regards to the witch herself, it’s not so unusual.  China, like many countries, has its own superstitions and folklore about witchcraft.  I am having a little trouble finding any definitive sources, but there is some interesting stuff to be found online regarding a form of black magic known as gu.  Also, neither this movie nor its animated predecessor are the first retellings of the legend to add supernatural elements, though they’re hardly necessary for the main part of the story.

5)      “I am blessed with two daughters”.  Aww.  Sweetness of that aside, this is something different from the animated film.  Mulan is an only child in that.  From what I’ve read, it is not all that unusual for Mulan to have a sister.  Heck, in a lot of versions she actually does have a brother.  However, he can’t take their fathers place because he’s always way too young to go join the military.  This does remind me of Disney Animation’s tendency of whittling families down to the barest necessary.  Belle’s nasty sisters disappear from Beauty and the Beast once Gaston becomes the new villain.  Cinderella’s father is killed off rather than being present but useless like in many of the fairy tales.  The one exception I can think of is Ariel from The Little Mermaid and her many, many sisters.

6)      “Hua Jun, son of Hua Zhou”.  Here we hear that they’re going with the more standard surname used in China for Mulan.  In the animated film, her surname was Fa rather than Hua.  We also hear that her male alter ego will be named Jun rather than Ping.

7)      Not really a folklore/cultural thing, but we hear a little dialogue and see Mulan speaking to the new witch character.  This suggests that the villainess will learn Mulan’s secret and try to tempt her to the other side.  It’s an interesting addition to the story if that’s the case.

This movie is set to come out in March after having been delayed for a while.  However, now it is fraught (yes, fraught!) with controversy.  There was controversy enough with the Disney fans being angry about the changes made from the animated film, presumably to make the movie more culturally accurate.  The real controversy started when the movie’s star Liu Yifei took to social media to express support for the Hong Kong police who’ve come under fire for dealing violently with protesters.  Now there’s talk of boycotts for this movie (if you need more information about what’s happening in Hong Kong, this article might help).

For all the trouble, I’m probably still going to buy a ticket.  Why?  Because through it all, my goal and desire remains the development of a more cosmopolitan canon of fairy tales and legends here in the United States.  Disney taking a mulligan on Mulan and trying to create a more culturally appropriate product (one that doesn’t turn the majestic Chinese dragon into a jokey sidekick or have a gag about Chinese-American takeout food) may not be much, but it’s a start.  I don’t know.  It just always strikes me about how unfair and unbalanced cultural exchange is in our world.  Like, why does Japanese popular culture show that they know all the major Western fairy tales, but Westerners very rarely know any Japanese ones?  Why are there Disneylands in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai while no Asian media company has nearly that huge a presence over here (the closest would be, what, Nintendo?)?  Heck, China has codified its “Four Great Folk Tales” and Westerners wouldn’t know what they were unless they study this stuff (for the record, they are “The Butterfly Lovers”, “The Tale of the White Snake”, “Lady Meng Jiang” and “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl”).  And this doesn’t even cover what impact our cultural colonization has had on Latin America and Africa.

I do have to say, I did at least swing by the Amnesty International website to see what other ways I could help.

[SIGH] Until next time.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Fantastical Feasts: Cinderella Stew.

Fairy Tale Geek: [Collapses onto sofa, sponge and cleaning solution still in hand]
“Why do I leave cleaning to the last minute?  And why don’t I break it up into smaller tasks so I don’t have to do it all at once.  I mean, I’ve been cleaning the Enchanted Condo since this morning and it’s, well, it’s well past five PM now.  I suppose it could be worse.  I could be doing it for an abusive step-family like our old friend Cinderella had to.  Also, I could be doing it without dinner ready.   Luckily I had a little time last night and a little time this morning, so I set up the slow cooker to make some Cinderella Stew.

What’s Cinderella Stew?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  This recipe I came across almost by accident in the cookbook Easy Everyday Slow Cooker Recipes by Donna-Marie Pye.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s the actual page:
I’ll give you a paraphrase of the recipe, but you might want to look for the book itself (technically this could be considered copyright infringement.  Luckily, my blog has a small audience and makes no money.  So, It’d be a waste of a lawsuit).”

2 onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
3 lbs boneless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1 inch cubes
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter
1 19 oz (or close approximate) can of tomatoes, with juice
1 sweet potato, chopped
1 tart apple (like Granny Smith), chopped
3 tbsp dried currants
½ tsp pumpkin pie spice
¼ tsp ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1 ½ cup plain yogurt
½ cup chopped green onions

1)      Layer onions and garlic in slow cooker stoneware.

2)      In a gallon zip-top bag, combine flour, salt and pepper.  In batches, add cubed pork and toss to coat.  Discard extra flour mixture.

3)      In a large skillet, heat half the oil and the butter over medium-high heat.  Cook the pork in batches, adding more oil as it’s needed.  Once the pork is all browned, add it to the stoneware.

4)      Stir in sweet potato, apple, currants, tomatoes with juice, pumpkin pie spice, cumin and bay leaf.

5)      Cover and cook in slow cooker on Low for 8 to 10 hours.  Discard bay leaf
6)      Serve with yogurt and green onions as garnish (or not, if you'd rather).

“Now, this dish can be assembled twelve hours in advance.  So, I usually do all the prep the night before and then stash it in the refrigerator until the next morning when I start cooking it.  As for why it’s called Cinderella Stew, I’m not sure.  I kind of think it’s because the combination of the sweet potato and the pumpkin pie spice might give it a vaguely pumpkin pie-esque flavor.  But that flavor doesn’t stand out that strongly against everything else.  Besides, Cinderella’s coach was made from a pumpkin, not a pumpkin pie.  And there’s certainly a difference.  Hold on a second.

[Gets up, walks to kitchen and serves self some stew.  Walks back to sofa and sits down with bowl of stew]

I know that the requisite reward at the end of a Cinderella story is a charming prince and a life of ease away from toxic family members.  But a decent bowl of stew isn’t a bad reward either.
[eats a spoonful]
See you next time.”

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Origin of Strawberries.

You know, we probably don’t think enough about how colonialism affects our diet.  Especially here in the United States.  The truth is that as people move around and take over other places, they bring the food animals and plants they like with them.  Even dishes as supposedly American as apple pie aren’t all that American in terms of the soil they started in (note: pies were common throughout Europe and apples originated in Central Asia).

Long before Europeans came to the Americas, native people ate too.  And they had their own game, their own livestock, their own crops and their own recipes.  Also, the stereotype that it was all simple survival fare is just that, a stereotype.

On Thanksgiving here at Fairy Tale Fandom, I like to spotlight something having to do with Native Americans.  Either some issue that’s impacting them or something accomplished by them, along with one of their stories (granted, I’m not as well versed in this stuff as my storytelling associate Gil Payette, but I try).  I’m lucky enough today to have found one of the accomplishments.

A Lakota man named Sean Sherman has founded a company called The Sioux Chef which is part catering company and part culinary history educator.  The intention is to create modern recipes using native ingredients inspired by the traditions of the 573 recognized tribal groups native to the United States.  This seems to include NATIFS, the  North American Traditional Indigenous Food System, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting native communities by reestablishing traditional foodways.  There’s also a cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, which won the James Beard award for the Best American Cookbook in 2018.

It really is an interesting project.  If you are interested, you can check out their website or you can do like I did and check out this New York Times article that includes ten essential Native American recipes.
It’s nice to acknowledge the roots of the food we eat sometimes.  After all, familiar foods like turkey, corn, beans, avocados, chili peppers, all squashes both winter and summer (including pumpkins), blueberries and strawberries are all native to the Americas.

Mmm . . . strawberries. 

You know, one of my favorite food stories is about the origin of strawberries.

An old Cherokee story tells of the first man and woman in all of creation.  They were happy at first as husband and wife, but soon they began to quarrel.

One day, the woman became fed up and started heading toward Nundagunyi, the Sun Land.  Her husband, grieving, followed after her.  The Sun, Unelanunhi, felt bad for him and asked if he would like her back.  The man said that he would.

So, Unelanunhi first made a patch of ripe huckleberries grow along her path.  She passed by it, though.

The Sun then made a patch of blackberries grow beside her path.  She passed by that too.

Unelanuhani made different fruit after fruit grow along the woman’s path, but she passed by them all.

That is, until she came upon a patch of strawberries.  The first strawberries in the entire world.

She stooped down to pick some and as she did she turned her face toward the west where she had come from and thought of her husband.  She sat down to eat some but the longer she sat the more she thought of her husband.  So, she gathered up some more berries and went home to share them with him.  The two reunited and went back home together.
So, whether strawberries, roast turkey or pumpkin pie, maybe give the origins of your food and where they’re evolving to a thought on this (sometimes problematic) day of feasting.  Because folklore is always evolving, food always is too and maybe this holiday could too.