Friday, October 26, 2012

About a Man a Span Long

In Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz compares the Grimms' story Snow White and Rose Red to a related German tale, "About a Man a Span Long". The tale is as follows:

"There once was a poor girl who had lost her father and mother and had no home. She did not know where to live, so she set out to find a place as a servant. While walking in the woods she lost her way. Night came on, and to her great joy, just when darkness fell, she saw a tiny little house in the woods, and she thought she might go there to find shelter. The whole house was in an awful mess and disorder, so she started to tidy things up, washing the pans and putting up the towels, and so forth. Suddenly the door opened and a tiny little man came in, a dwarf with an immense beard. He looked around and cleared this throat, and when he saw the girl sitting in the corner he said,

I am the little man who is a span long.
I have a beard three ells long!
Girl, what do  you want?

The girl asked if she could stay the night, and the man answered her again in verse and told her to make his bed. She did that, and then he told her to get a bath ready for him. She did that, too, and gave him a good bath, and he became quite nice-looking. She cut off some of his beard, and the little man thanked her very much, saying she had redeemed him and he would reward her. He gave her his beard and disappeared.

The next day the girl took the beard with her and started spinning with it. While she was spinning, it turned into pure gold. Naturally everybody wanted to have this golden yarn. So she became very rich and married, and if she hasn't died, she is still alive."

Franz sees this story as a direct contrast to Snow White and Rose Red. In this story, a girl is kind to a dwarf and is rewarded with gold-a very simple and direct moralistic story. Snow White and Rose Red, however, attempt to be kind to a dwarf several times, but the dwarf is never grateful, he only increases in his spite. Franz goes so far as to say the girls are "wrongly and sentimentally charitable to this dwarf."

Franz discusses the importance of maintaining a balance in morals-having integrity, yet avoiding naivety. She refers to the Christian principle of becoming like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven-which does not mean being childish and ignorant, but being innocent, "coupled with a certain amount of wisdom." I love the verse from Matthew 10 that tells us to be "shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves."

But Franz is almost coming from the perspective that we can expect fairy tales to be some sort of guide to life and morals-which is not always the case. Various authors have tried to insert morals into a tale, especially in the Victorian period, but we can't look to fairy tales to be a code of ethics-they are more primarily a reflection of the culture that created them.

Although, this is an issue to consider, for many fairy tales do tend to have a straightforward "moral" in them, as in the tale shared here-the Diamonds and Toads tales are probably the most obvious example of this, but many tales feature a kind and innocent protagonist who remains pure through many trials and are rewarded in the end. How do we defend this kind of simplistic view of the world? Even in Snow White and Rose Red, although the dwarf is rude to them, in the end they are rewarded anway.

In a way I think it's entirely appropriate to have a genre of stories where the world is viewed in black and white-I think there are times when our own lives may be so chaotic and situations may be so complicated that it's a comfort to read a story where things are predictable and the good is rewarded and the evil punished. I find that the messier my own life is, I crave simpler and happier entertainment. Also, I think the message "be kind to others and you will be rewarded" is true in a way-it obviously can't be applied to every single situation, but in general, the kinder you are, the more people will like you, and that's usually not a bad thing.

Discussion welcome in the comments!

Illustrations of "Snow White and Rose Red" by Jennie Harbour

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Today's Dilbert, with a fairy tale reference...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fairy Tale Retellings and Subgenres: Part II

No discussion of Fairy Tale subgenres would be complete without the twisted fairy tale. (Once again, a category I made up and not an actual term to my knowledge).

This is probably the most commonly used by modern authors: the idea is to take advantage of a plot that everyone is already familiar with and to surprise the reader by twisting one of the assumed elements of the plot. This can be done on several different levels.

In a traditional folk tale, things are pretty black and white. There's good and there's evil-that which is good is all good, from every action to their flawless appearance, and likewise that which is bad is evil through and through. Some stories take these ideas of black and white and totally turn them on their heads, such as Tanith Lee's short stories in her collection Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. In this book, Rapunzel and Snow White are evil and their stepmothers innocent victims of their Satanic activities. This kind of twisted fairy tale can be the most shocking, but can become predictable if overdone (Tanith Lee, in my opinion, does a very good job of twisting tales into very dark retellings but maintaining quality stories. This is very hard to do). But these worlds are still largely seen in black and white.
Other versions of fairy tales will abandon the traditional good vs. evil and set the stories in a more relatable world, where things are revelaed to be more shades of gray. I think Gregory Maguire's Wicked is a good example of this, which is ironic because the musical version turns it into the above category, where Elphaba is the unsung heroine, as opposed to the book where she is a complex character who isn't entirely good or evil. (And yes, technically Wizard of Oz is not a fairy tale. But I like it and so do most people who like fairy tales.)

Some versions will take be faithful in most elements of the tale but take one and twist it. In The Fairies Return, Robert Speaight's Prince Charming turns out to be less than honorable and Cinderella learns that a happy ending does not necessarily need a marriage in it (can I hear an 'Amen'?). Many modern versions of Beauty and the Beast end with Beauty embracing her animal side more so than the Beast conforming to the cultural terms of a gentleman; many modern versions of Sleeping Beauty interpret the pricking of the spindle as having sex or injecting herself with drugs (the latter also found in The Fairies Return-G.B. Sterns' idea predates Francesca Lia Block's by about 70 years).
The ironic thing is that many readers-and perhaps many authors as well-consider this approach to fairy tales to be very daring and to challenge the idea of what fairy tales are. When really, all they are challenging is the Victorian ideal for fairy tales and returning them to their more original state, which were often sexual and dark, and not all ended happily.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cinderella's pumpkins: Part 3

From here

From here

From here

From here

From here

It's become a little tradition now to post beautiful pumpkin carvings of Cinderella's coach in honor of Halloween-here's last year and the year before

Monday, October 15, 2012

Jerry Griswold on Frog Prince

In his book The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast:  A Handbook, Jerry Griswold analyzes not only the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, but other Animal Bridegroom tales for comparison. One of the more commonly known ones is The Frog Prince, more specifically the version found in the brothers Grimm.

 One of the most common questions that arises with this version is the fact that the prince is NOT transformed by a kiss, a motif that has mysteriously become associated with this fairy tale, but when the princess hurls the frog against a wall. It was very uncharacteristic of the Grimms to publish tales in which such behavior, from a princess who otherwise tends to come across as being selfish and spoiled anyway, is rewarded.

The most common interpretation of this is that the frog, in its slimy and disgusting self, represents the idea of sex to someone who isn't ready yet-Griswold mentions children learning the facts of life and reacting with revulsion, but other scholars (I think Marina Warner, and others) have pointed out that during a time when young girls were given away in marriage to older men, not only were they not given a choice, but they may not have been emotionally and pysically ready for marriage. And really, a frog wanting to share your plate and your bed would not be especially pleasant, promise or no promise.

In comparing this story to Beauty and the Beast, Griswold points out that BATB (in his mind) is a story of transferring Beauty's affections from her father to the Beast, and Frog Prince could be seen in the same light. Again we have a daughter with a father but no mother figure in the story, and it is the father who reminds his daughter to keep her promise. When the princess resists allowing the frog to stay in her bed, it is his threatening to tell her father that prompts her to throw him against the wall. Thus, Griswold suggests, the act of violence could be seen as an act of independance. I had never considered this interpretation but it's a very interesting one. But once again I am uncomfortable with the notion of transferring one kind of love to gain another-since when can one love grow dependant on another love dying? Like I've said before, your relationship with your parents should change as you grow older, but not diminish. So it's not just the idea of growing independant from your parents that bothers me but also Griswold's wording-referrring to the princess, "having broken with her father, she is ready for a partner, and the frog changes into a prince" (emphasis mine). She disobeyed her father, she didn't break all ties with him.

Griswold also includes this interpretation, but it bothers me that this is only a footnote, because I personally like it a lot better: given that the title refers to the Frog and not the princess, maybe it's more about his maturation than hers. "From this perspective, the Grimm tale is an account of a bad date. He acts like an animal with her. He is too forward and pushy...Finally, when she forcibly throws him across the room, he is given the 'no' that means 'no' and learns that his animal and aggressive manner is not the way to be with a woman. So, he changes into a gentleman."

Once again Griswold mentions the idea that the Animal Bridegroom tales represent the Otherness in a heterosexual relationship, but in an exaggerated way.

I agree with that concept but have one more bone to pick with Griswold: he mentions at the end of this chapter the story "The Pig King" by Straparola, saying "the enchanted Prince is otherwise human iscept for a porcine snout and the pleasure he takes in wallowing in the mud." I double checked the text on the Surlalune site, and this is simply untrue. The child is cursed: "the son whom she shall conceive shall be born in the skin of a pig, with a pig's ways and manners." The baby prince would "put his little snout and his little paws in his mother's lap, and she, moved by natural affection, would caress him by stroking his bristly back with her hand, and embracing and kissing him as if he had been of human form. Then he would wag his tail and give other signs to show that he was conscious of his mother's affection."

Clearly the child was fully in the form of a pig. This is the second major error I've caught in this book, but the first is a very widespread misconception dealing with the translations of the Villeneuve version of BATB. In Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale, Betsey Hearne quotes from an Ernest Dowson translation which is significantly different than Jack Zipes', and most academic sources on the internet, and many books as well, quote from Hearne. I've brought up this issue before but I'll mention it again now that my readership has grown: does anyone know anything about the Dowson translation? Or the actual French version? Or why else there is such a disparity between versions of the Villeneuve version, mainly how sexual the Beast's advances were to Beauty?

Frog Prince illustrations by Walter Crane

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fairy tale retellings and subgenres

I shared once a story in which a friend of mine was baffled at the existence of multiple versions of the same fairy tale, saying, "how can they tell the same story over and over?"

I was reminded of this as I've been perusing The Fairies Return, because the book has so many examples of the different ways the same story can be told "over and over", yet with completely new life each time. If fairy tale retellings is itself a subgenre of fantasy, even within this category are many other sub-subgenres. All examples are found in The Fairies Return unless otherwise noted. These are just classifications I made up:

Expanded fairy tale: True folk tales have a very distinct style, they include the bare essentials of plot, and characters are never developed. Some authors will take those same essential plot points but build a fuller context. A good example of this would be Robin McKinley's Beauty, a novel version of Beaumont's classic "Beauty and the Beast" (and for new readers, my absolute favorite version of my favorite fairy tale). Though the short story limits the development we can get in a novel, I really enjoyed Clemence Dane's "Godfather Death." It's not a fairy tale we often see authors playing around with, but it becomes more real when characters have names and motivations, and we see extra details in setting and passage of time that make it more believable, yet still the same essential story found in the Brothers Grimm.

John B. Gruelle

Alternate explanations: In fairy tales, a character will do something and rarely are we told why; often their actions seem strange, especially when we're separated by culture and time differences. For example, when we think of Snow White being put in a glass coffin this is generally interpreted as creepy and fetish-y, but in Lord Dunsay's "Little Snow White" we find that the miners simply happened to know someone in the glass business who was able to cut glass to the right lengths-they were avoiding going to the police. It is creative details like these that help us see familiar plot details in a new light, and realize that there could be dozens of other explanations for the same actions.
Kay Nielsen

Removal of magic: Lady Eleanor Smith is able to retell The Little Mermaid in such a way that the supernatural is not present, but the parallels are still clear. This heroine was dubbed "little mermaid" by the prince figure because of her excellence in swimming and diving, which years later lands her a role as a bathing beauty in one of his motion pictures, for this Prince is not royalty but a film star.

Expanding on a single element: Anna Gordon Keown's "Aladdin" has virtually nothing in common with its predecessor from Arabian Nights, but this Aladdin manages to accidentally summon a demon who must do his bidding. Only this wish fulfillment is very different-the awkward undertaker finds himself enjoying not the direct benefits of wishes, but increased social status due to his new friend, which he passes off as his brother visiting from an exotic island. This type of fairy tale retelling focuses not on aligning plot points, but on exploring the "what ifs" of a familiar motif

Errol Le Cain

Sequel: Sometimes writers wonder what really happened after the "happily ever after," a personal favorite of mine is the children's story The Frog Prince, Continued, by John Scieszka. Eric Linklater's "Sindbad the Sailor" describes Sindbad's untold, eighth and final voyage, which is quite different from his previous seven. If I understand it correctly, the story contrasts the differences in culture between the heroes of the Arabian Nights, and the then-modern culture, as Sindbad accompanies a modern cruise to some of his previously visited locations. He finds that the modern people are not as easily impressed, and that what was such danger to him before is mere entertainment to other people. He is a little insulted at his lack of respect and (SPOILER ALERT) ends up basically letting the other passengers die at one of the islands, telling the authorities they were devoured by snakes. This may have nothing to do with it, but when I'm not reading up on fairy tales I'm something of a Titaniac, and I was struck by the parallels of a cruise ship designed to entertain the wealthy, who are not scared of any dangers, even when those dangers are quite real-and the trip ends in disaster. I would pass this off as coincidence except for the fact that the book was originally published in 1934, 20 years after the disaster, so all of the authors would have been alive during the shocking sinking which disillusioned the world against overconfidence in technology.

I'm really enjoying the book as I manage to find time during a very busy month at work, I may have a Part II to this post once I've read them all. There are so many other ways to categorize fairy tale retellings, even among the stories I've described here, and again these are NOT official literary terms at all, just me trying to make sense of things.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Roald Dahl's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Ask it something day or night
It always got the answer right
For instance, if you were to say
“Oh Mirror, what’s for lunch today?”
The thing would answer in a trice
“Today it’s scrambled eggs and rice.”
Now every day, week in week out
The spoiled and stupid Queen would shout
“Oh Mirror Mirror on the wall
Who is the fairest of them all?”
The Mirror answered every time
“Oh Madam, you’re the Queen sublime
You are the only one to charm us
Queen, you are the cat’s pyjamas.”"

-exerpt from Roald Dahl's poem, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Though Roald Dahl notoriously makes versions of fairy tales that are more shocking than the well known versions, even he couldn't make Snow White more violent than it already is.

However, he of course adds his own clever spin on the story, including a very creative use for a mirror that always tells the truth, which Snow White steals from the Queen. This seems so obvious, why have I never wondered why she didn't do this before? Of course this assumes that Snow White is aware of the existence of the Mirror and its magical properties, which is not necessarily a given.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Juniper Tree Variants

The Juniper Tree seems to have a deep appeal to many fairy tale lovers, despite its darker elements. The traditional version is found in the brothers Grimm.

Kay Nielsen
The Rose Tree is an English variant, by Joseph Jacobs, in which the children are gender-reversed -which struck me as odd when the bird gives the brother a present of red shoes. Having the mother hate her daughter seems so predictable in fairy tales, but in Rose Tree some of the elements are especially reminiscent of Snow White.

In Juniper Tree, the mother has no reason to hate her son other than the fact that he came from her husband's first wife. In Rose Tree, the hatred comes from jealousy. As the wife combs out the hair of the daughter, she "hated her more for the beauty of her hair." She sends the girl to fetch a comb, then a billet of wood, then " 'I cannot part our hair with a comb, fetch me an, lay your head down on the billet whilst I part your hair.' Well! She laid down her golden head without fear; and whist! Down came the axe, and it was off. So the mother wiped the axe and laughed."

Later, the mother cooks the heart and liver of the girl, which is reminiscent of Snow White's stepmother's attempted cannibalism-only this evil mother is successful.

As monstrous as this mother is, the mother in the Scottish tale Pippety Pew has no reason at all to murder her son-who is her full blooded son, not a stepson-other than to hide the fact that she tasted the stew she made for dinner "till she had tasted it all away, and she didn't know what to do for her husband's dinner. So she called Johnnie, her son, to come and have his hair combed. When she was combing his head, she slew him, and put him into the pot."

Warwick Goble
Then as the father unknowingly eats his son, the scene is more disgusting than the other variants. The father comes across the different body parts, saying, "surely that's Johnnie's foot" and "That's surely my Johnnie's hand" and yet still eats, implying this father is either incredibly stupid to confuse a human foot with a hare's, the explanation given by his wife, or knowingly feasts on his son.

In the Grimms' version, the bird is transformed back into a boy at the end. In neither the Scottish nor English counterparts does the bird ever regain human form. But I personally like the idea that there can be redemption and hope, despite the fact that things will never be the same again-it's more comforting in its realism. We all suffer loss and disappointment, and in life not everything is restored just the way it was, but it can be transformed into something new and beautiful.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Alice in Wonderland by Syrup

 I got these pictures from the lovely inspirational blog, The Drifter and the Gypsy. Enjoy some Alice in Wonderland-inspired collection from the Japanese label Syrup. Sometimes you hear of fashion being fairy-tale inspired, but that's most often in the vague, general sense that the clothing is a bit whimsical or maybe vintage-inspired. I like the more obvious references to Disney's Alice in Wonderland, without it being costumey.