Monday, January 30, 2012

Once Upon a Time and Grimm: mid-season review

I initially posted my reactions to the two major fairy tale tv shows (Once Upon a Time and Grimm) after watching a few episodes. I have to admit that, though I clearly have a bias for things with a fairy tale influence, I really haven't been drawn to either show this year. I follow them more out of a sense of obligation because I have this blog than anything else, although once I start watching either show I don't dislike it.

People who don't like Grimm tend to say it's because they don't like crime dramas. In general, I do, which is why I was initially most excited about this show. But as crime dramas go, it's not really that exceptional. I would have really loved if the clues to solving the crimes were somehow to be found in the plots of the fairy tales themselves, but instead the criminals happen to morph into animals which can be found in fairy tales but otherwise have little to do with fairy tales at all. The thing I like about crime dramas is being given enough clues so that you can try to guess who the criminal is, and at the end when it's revealed, it all makes sense. In this show, the viewer isn't really that involved.

I like Once Upon a Time better now than the first few episodes-it seems less cheesy and the fairy tale plots figure in to the story more than in Grimm. One of my initial biggest reservations about the show was it seemed like the huge curse was to take away their extravagant riches and make them live normal lives, which seemed hardly heart wrenching. But as the episodes progress it's clear that what the witch took away isn't necessarily their perfect "happily ever after" endings, but the memories of their past lives and relationships. Memories and relationships are probably the most important things in life so that's a legitimate curse.

Still, it's not like I look forward to either of these shows airing each week, they're kind of a "what to watch when I'm bored" option. I think I just haven't really connected with any of the characters. In Grimm especially they're all pretty devoid of personality, except for Monroe. What do you think, readers?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty

My roommate just shared this with me. It's not the first modern Sleeping Beauty to interpret the sleep as sexual-in fact, going back in the tale's history, Basile's 1636 Sleeping Beauty figure Talia was raped in her sleep. I also remember liking Francesca Lia Block's short story in The Rose and The Beast. This film looks like it could be very interesting but often there's a fine line between a thoughtful, frank look into the horrors of sexual exploitation, and just pure sensual gratification. Or at least, people tend to see something dark and twisted and sexual and assume it must be deep (like the film Black Swan...)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Marina Warner on Hair

I read another tale, the Romanian "How the Waterfall Came to the Thirsting Mountain," that also celebrated and almost deified a long head of female hair. In this tale the Old Man of the Mountain begs a Fairy to bring him a waterfall for a mountain. The fairy travels the world and finds a Princess who was about to give her long, beautiful hair to a Wizard in return for her father. The Fairy told the Princess not to surrender her hair to the evil Wizard, but helps her to free her father (the Wizard is powerless when he sees the Tear-maiden that was born of the Princess' weeping, for none who saw the tear maiden could be anything but melted with compassion). In thanks, the Princess offered the fairy a token of thanks, and the Fairy requested her hair, for the Fairy had seen "how the Princess' beautiful hair waved and sparkled in the sunlight, and when the wind blew a single thread away, it...turned into a strand of glistening dew drops." With the whole head of hair, then, the Fairy was able to give a waterfall to the Mountain.

This reminded of the Swedish story I posted not too long ago in which a single strand of the heroine's blonde hair shines so brightly that it stops the evil magician from keeping young women as captives. I remembered Marina Warner in From the Beast to the Blond: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. She has two chapters on the language of hair, and traces examples from mythology, church tradition, medeival literature, and beyond in which long blonde hair is coveted as the sign of pure beauty. Blondeness has associations not only with light and goodness and purity, as seen in "The Magician's Cape," but also of wealth because of its similarity to gold.

Not only that, but hair is also very symbolic of the duality between human and animal. Hair is a similarity between ourselves and animal fur, but can also be an expression of human individuality. In Warner's words, "It is hair's imperviousness as a natural substance that yields the deeper symbolic meanings and warrants the high place hair plays in the motif repertory of fairy tales and other can be cut and curled, sizzled with hot tongs, steeped in chemicals and dyes without apparant suffering, and will go on growing, and is not even stopped by death...such quasi-magical properties make is a symbol of invulnerability."

If someone mentions the subject of hair and fairy tales, the most obvious association is Rapunzel, but hair factors into other fairy tales as well. Snow White is the only traditionally dark-haired princess because of a specific wish of her mother's; in this case the dark hair serves as a contrast to her white skin and therefore keeps in the tradition of fair/light representing that which is desirable. Allerlieurah from the Grimms covers herself with fur, or animal hair, to hide herself after her father attempted to violate her, and it is while brushing her hair in her natural state that she is discovered by the prince. Then there's Goldilocks, and Warner reminds us that in the history of the story, the main character's transformation from old meddling woman to adorable, sympathetic child was simultaneous with her hair's progression to blonde-Goldilocks has to be good, Warner claims, to live up to her blonde hair.

Illustrators have assumed that fairy tale princesses with no given hair color are blonde throughout history as well. Cinderella especially is blonde except for a few very rare exceptions. Though some modern interpreters are starting to challenge the blonde stereotype, such as Disney's Belle, "their attempts lever feebly against the long weight of the tradition."

Rapunzel-Arthur Rackham; Goldilocks-Jessie Wilcox Smith; Furball-Margaret Evans Price; Disney's Cinderella

Saturday, January 21, 2012

C.S. Lewis on Fairy Tales

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
― C.S. Lewis

I remember feeling a sense of embarrassment reading fantasy in grade school...I also remember hoping people would notice that I frequented the adult section of the library, and not the children's or young adult. And now I feel no shame in checking out children's books. Did anyone else have a similar experience?

Also C.S. Lewis:
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
“I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say.
Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. As obligation to feel can freeze feelings." (from the essay Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swan Lake and gender perceptions

I saw Swan Lake this weekend and it was enchanting. Got me thinking once again about the story. Though the plot pulled very loosely from a few existing tales, it was basically created for the ballet itself. Given that it reflected the values of a few men in 1895, the gender roles in the ballet are very cliche. In fact, I found myself bored with Odette and Siegfried's characters-Siegfried spends the vast majority of his time looking perplexed, or trying to find Odette, who looks scared and woeful the whole time. My favorite part was Odile, who has not only the flashiest moves but at least looks like she enjoys dancing.

From this site, by Aaron Green:

"We do know that Tchaikovsky had much control over the stories content. He and his colleagues both agreed that the swan represented womanhood in its purest form. The stories and legends of swan-maidens date as far back as ancient Greece; when the Greek god Apollos was born, flying swans circled above their heads. Legends of swan maidens can also be found in The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover and The Legend of the Children of Lir. "

So I guess according to Tchaikovsky and his colleagues, "womanhood in its purest form" is a fragile and powerless creature, with no real personality or depth, defined by being a victim (Ironically, Tchaikovsky was a pretty fragile creature himself-more on that here.)
This view of women is frowned upon by most people in Western culture today. The ballet has been reinterpreted by Matthew Bourne with a corps of male swans, challenging preconceived notions (this is the production Billy Elliot stars in, if you saw the movie). Bourne said, "The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me. The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu." It's true that the power of the male dancer is extremely impressive-while the female can acheive the affect of defying gravity by dancing en pointe, the male can do so simply by the strength of his jumps, seeming to linger in the air for longer than humanly possible.

Then of course there's the Mercedes Lackey novel, Black Swan, which I've mentioned multiple times before, but I kept thinking of Lackey's compelling characters as I watched the ballet. Though the prisoners of Von Rothbart are still victims, Lackey's females have depth and dimension and her unique take on Odile's character is just wonderful.

The original ballet ended with a tragic ending, and each production comes up with its own. I think happy endings are the most prevalent these days. Although, listening to the music-the famous minor theme is major at the end, it seems hard to believe it could accompany the death of any of the main characters.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The White Dove: A French Bluebeard

"A Prince and his lady lived in their palace with two children, a son and a daughter. When the young prince was twenty he got married and lived in the family castle, as is proper. The girl, on the other hand, had extravagant ideas. She systematically refused all marriage proposals, having sworn that she would marry no one save a prince who had a blue beard.

"Now, one day the trumpet of the guard announced the arrival of a magnificent carriage. It was a giant, who was reputed to be a great hunter, and this giant had a blue beard. He accepted hospitality, as was the custom. The girl was presented to him, and he pleased the capricious child. The marriage was celebrated the following day and the ather gave a hunting party in which the son-in-law distinguished himself.

"Then came the day for departure; the giant was taking his wife away to his distant castle.

"The mother, who loved her daughter a great deal, conided in her: 'What dowry can I give you, my child? Gold? But where you're going you'll have a castle and treasures. Horses? The giant has marvelous horses. I'm going to give you these three birds, the pride of my aviary, the black dove, the white dove, and the red dove. Thus we shall have news from you, for you will be far away. Listen carefully: when you are in good health and living compatibly with your husband, you will send the red one; when you are ill, you will send the white one; but if discord or misfortune should befall, send at once the black dove.'

"Of course the father and mother accompanied the young wife to her new domain, but they returned as is customary at the end of a few days. Bluebeard had but one occupation and but one passion: hunting, to which he devoted himself all day long.

"One day, taking leave of his wife, he gave her a bunch of keys. 'Wife, here are nine keys. Each of them opens one chamber. But I forbid you to use the ninth and go into the room at the end of the hall.'
'Good, my lord.'
He assembled his dogs and left on horseback. Meanwhile his wife made an inventory of the castle. All women are curious; the lady of the manor went into the eight chambers, but that didn't suffice her. Her fingers wanted to turn the ninth key in the lock. 'Anyhow, I'm going to visit the last chamber.'"

The wife discovered a large basin filled with blood, and raised her eyes. The key slipped from her hand as she saw eight corpses of women hanging by chains from hooks in the ceiling.

She took the key and left the chamber, but no matter how she scrubbed the key, she could not get rid of the bloodstain. When her husband came home, he demanded the keys. When he saw the bloodstain, he knew she had counted the corpses and demanded that she go upstairs to put on her loveliest robes, and in half an hour she would be hung on a hook with the others.

The woman went to her chamber and sent the black dove home. Downstairs her husband lit a fire and was boiling oil in an enormous cauldron. He kept calling for his wife to come down, and the wife kept stalling, saying she needed to put on yet another article of clothing-each time she asked the white dove what he saw out the window. For a while the dove saw nothing but the Sun and wind, but finally noticed dust on the road. The next time Bluebeard called, the dove saw two knights on the way.

Bluebeard was getting angry that his wife had not come down yet. The knights arrived and broke down the barricade in the door.

" 'You arrived in the nick of time,' replied the giant, without being discourntenanced. 'It's perfect. My wife is all dressed for dinner. Let's have a feast.'

"They enjoyed a hearty meal where meat and wine were not lacking. Finally Bluebeard fell into a deep sleep. Had he drunk too much? Or else had someone poured a sleeping powder into his wine? In any case, he fell to snoring with his mouth wide open. With the aid of a funnel his guests poured a big dipper of boiling oil into his throat. He choked to death. Then they washed the key with that oil, and the bloodstain disappeared.

"This done, all three took leave without delay. They inherited rightfully the domains of the deceased, so they had two castles. It's a very sad truth that in this world some have too much wealth whereas others, of which I am one, haven't enough.

"I've gone as far as my fields extend,
So my tale is at the end

-Tale from The Borzoi Book of French Folk Tales, selected and edited by Paul Delarue
-Images by Arthur Rackham

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What happened to the children of Hamelin?

G.J. Pinwell

The story of the Pied Piper may actually have roots in historical fact. While the Pied Piper himself may be symbolic, a Death figure, town records in the town of Hamelin, Germany from the year 1384 say, "It is 100 years since our children left." Many have speculated on what it was that took the children away-a plague, the children being sold, a children's crusade, etc. The theories can be read about on wikipedia.

The brothers Grimm drew from eleven sources to create their tale, but I searched through my copy of complete Grimm fairy tales and couldn't find it. The Grimms published many works other than their Children and Household Tales, and again according to Wikipedia, this one was published in their "Deutsche Sagen"-which makes sense if this was believed not to be a fairy tale but based on actual events. Their version includes two children which were left behind because one was blind and one was lame.

Also, I realized that I had no idea what the word "pied" means, and it means "multi-colored," referring to the clothes he wore.

Elizabeth Greenaway

I also found this interesting: "Reportedly, there is a long-established law forbidding singing and music in one particular street of Hamelin, out of respect for the victims: the Bungelosenstrasse adjacent to the Pied Piper's House. During public parades which include music, including wedding processions, the band will stop playing upon reaching this street and resume upon reaching the other side."

No, the Pied Piper didn't live here, but there's an inscription on the side of the house about the event, which supposedly happened on June 26, 1284.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Face off: Fairy tales

The latest episode of Face Off, a reality competition for makeup artists, featured fairy tales in "Twisted Tales," which can be seen on hulu.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Little Red Riding Hood throughout history

After mentioning my latest reading to a friend, he asked me to give the nutshell version of the history of Little Red Riding Hood, which is really quite difficult to do. But in church ministry I've been told you don't really understand theology until you can explain it clearly to a five year old, and I think the same goes for pretty much any academic subject-if you can't explain it in layman's terms, you don't have a full understanding. So here's my very extremely nutshell version, which really applies to the history of any fairy tale:

Orally told tales: were humorous and often racy, meant purely for entertainment's sake
Literary tales: Oral tales written in literary form by Perrault and the Grimms-made didactic and given morals which often don't even make sense within the tale. Made more condescending towards women and children.
Modern interpretations: Reaction against Victorian era. Traditional morals and suppositions challenged; female characters empowered.

Real fairy tale critics and academics may find fault with this, but that's how I understand it at least.

Now for the slightly less condensed version:
There's a version of LRRH called "The Story of Grandmother" which was published in 1951 but believed to have been originally recorded in 1885 and orally cirulated before then. In this version there is no prohibition against straying from the path or talking to strangers, and no judgement given the protagonist (who does not actually have a red hood yet, she is merely "the little girl"). This girl ends up unknowingly (or knowingly? there is a cat who calls her a slut for doing this) eating and drinking the flesh and blood of her grandmother, which the wolf has already killed. Then the wolf tells her to undress, and for each item of clothing, she asks where she should put it, to which he replies, "throw it into the fire, my child. You won't be needing it any longer." After the usual "what big ____ you have," with the "the better to _____ you with" response, the girl escapes by claiming to need to relieve herself, and untying the rope the wolf put on her when she got outside.

Perrault's version of the tale from 1697 features a girl, "the prettiest you can imagine," who did not know it was dangerous to talk to wolves, who instead of escaping was gobbled up by the wolf. The tale ends there, with a moral comparing predatory gentlemen to wolves, and advising women to be cautious.

The Grimms (1812) give the heroine a prohibition against straying from the path, but the given reason is so that the bottle of wine for grandmother doesn't shatter. But shattering wine bottles have nothing to do with which path to take, and neither does telling a wolf where your grandmother lives, so the intended moral about obeying parents doesn't really make sense. But this Little Red fares better than Perrault's, for she and her grandmother are rescued from the belly of the wolf by a hunter.

Modern critics are very upset by the helplessness and stupidity of the females in the above two versions and love the heroine of the first one, who Jack Zipes calls "forthright, brave, and shrewd" and Maria Tatar says is "an expert at using her wits to escape danger." But let's be honest here: this version has nothing to do with women's empowerment. This heroine also drinks her grandmother's blood and eats her flesh (as if you wouldn't taste the difference), doesn't appear to notice that her grandmother is a wolf until he says his teeth are for eating her, and burns each of her articles of clothing before getting into her grandmother's bed. Yes, she does escape on her own, but this tale wasn't meant to prove a point or be consistent with the capabilities of any gender or tell a moral -it was just meant to be amusing, and I think it succeeds at that. I should point out that Tatar includes* an Italian and an Asian version where the heroine also uses her wits to escape, but both are dated after Grimms, so I don't know how authentic they are.

But as far as Perrault and the Grimms are concerned, I think Little Red Riding Hood's downgrading to foolish, helpless character has as much to do with age as gender. It was totally in keeping with Victorian children's literature to feature a child (of either gender) who is severely punished for disobeying their parents. The Victorian attitude towards children is really quite condescending-there was no consideration that a child could make the right choice on their own, but has to be terrified into obeying. In this tale it's the foolish child and the old woman who have to be rescued by the adult, not just the women who need to be rescued by the man. Feminism is a bigger deal right now than ageism so we tend to miss that aspect of it.

Many critics have read messages into Little Red Riding Hood, yet each reading seems to be completely different from, if not contraditing, each other. Eric Fromm finds the tale "the expression of a deep antagonism against men and sex," Susan Brownmiller finds it perpetuates "the notion that women are at once victims or male violence even as they must position themselves as beneficiaries of male protection." Yet Alan Dundes thinks it's mainly about children's anxieties about being devoured. While Angela Carter delighted in her grandmother's tickling and pretending to eat her as she told the story, Luciano Pavarotti recalls dreading Little Red's death and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the hunter (note that, even as a male, he "identified with Little Red Riding Hood" and had the same fears). Part of your interpretation of a tale depends a lot on which version you're going off of, and who knows which, if any, are "authentic" (how would we even define that? I won't get into that right now). It's almost as if the only thing anyone can know about fairy tales for sure is that we can't really know anything about fairy tales.

*Information from The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar. I used Surlalune's Library Essentials posts from last October to create my Christmas wishlist and this book was one of my presents. Thanks for doing that, Heidi!

Images by Walter Crane

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Magician's Cape

This would be a good story to use if doing a study of the significance of blonde hair in fairy tales-also note the cleverness and self-sufficiency of the heroine. This is a Swedish tale by Anna Wahlenberg.

Once there was an evil magician who filled his palace with frightened young girls that he had taken from their families. He forced the girls to dance and sing for him, and as soon as one of them displeased him, he would shove her into the forest outside, which was full of bears and wolves, and many of the girls never found their way home again.

Once the magician had gotten rid of one girl, he would don his black flying cape and search the world for a pretty new victim. Once he found a maiden who pleased him, he would spread his cape at her feet, and one she stepped on it, he would have power over her and whisk her away to his palace. During one of his flights, he came across a smith's daughter, Alvida, sitting at a window and combing her yellow hair.

The magician spread his cape before her, claiming that she was too beautiful for her feet to touch the ground. She laughed, although a little frightened at first, and suggested the magician take better care of his cape. The magician followed, and blew a magic whistle to cause a ram to run for Alvida, hoping to force her to step into his cape that way-but Alvida ran behind a pine tree. Alvida tripped over a root, running from the ram, and the magician spread his cape, hoping to trap her, but she fell to the side, and the ram's horns caused a tear in the cape.

Alvida felt sorry that she should be the cause of a tear in such a lovely cape, so she made a needle from two thorns and took one of her golden hairs as a thread and mended the tear. The magician held the cape up to the light, as if to inspect the mend, and as Alvida stood, he lowered the cape to the ground and she stepped in it. The cape turned into a pair of wings and Alvida found herself being carried through the air as the magician's face changed-his eyes into balls of fire, his mouth in a grin full of fangs.

Alvida cried out for help, and as if in answer, the strand of yellow hair caught in the branch of a tree, and wouldn't break, no matter how hard the magician pulled. To free it, he had to let Alvida go, and she slipped down to the ground and ran home as fast as she had ever run in her life.

The magician flew back to the castle full of rage and shut himself up in his room. He lay in bed but could not sleep-he thought at first the moon was shining, but it was the yellow hair Alvida had sewn into his cape, "which shone out as brightly against the black cloth as a good deed shines against an evil one." The magician rolled up the cape so the seam was on the inside, but the radiance filled the room again. Angry, the magician took a knife, cut the seam out, and threw it out the window-but as soon as he closed his eyes, the seam was still in the cape, shining brightly. He tried bringing the cape to his deepest, darkest cellar, but no matter what he did, brightness filled the room.

As he could not sleep for several nights, the magician flew back to Alvida's village. He demanded that she undo the seam, but Alvida remembered that trolls and magicians never dare force their way into Christian homes, so Alvida was still and did not answer the magician. He offered her many wonderful things, to which she did not respond.

The magician thought that giving her a gift would make her grateful, so he picked the most luscious fruits from his garden and planted them all around Alvida's window. When the magician returned to bed, the golden thread only shone faintly, and he could sleep.

Alvida realized the magician was trying to persuade her to rip out her thread. She did not touch any of the fruit herself, but allowed travellers to take the fruit. Every evening the vines were bare, and in the morning they were full again.

The magician still could not sleep in peace, but Alvida would not take out the thread. He was forced to bring gifts to the tired and unhappy to dim the light of the thread. If he dared carry off another maiden, the golden seam shone so blindingly he did not get a moment's peace until he had brought her home where she belonged.

Images by John Bauer