Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beauty and the Beast in Greece: Part I

Sometimes reading through a collection of versions of the same fairy tale may seem daunting, because many times versions are so similar it feels like reading the same story over and over again. Yet I find my Surlalune Fairy Tale Series books invaluable-not only for comparing and contrasting similar tales, but because there are so many unexpected and surprising versions of the tales. These samples from Greece are just a few examples of the different versions of "Beauty and the Beast" that will provide interest to even those who are familiar with most standard European versions. (Many of these are closer to "Cupid and Psyche" than BATB: there may not be a rose, and the husband may not be beastly at all, but supernatural-the classification is technically "Search for the Lost Husband" and not "Animal Bridegroom").

In "Donkeyskin," (which is not the Donkeyskin tale as we usually know it, an incestuous Cinderella variant,) two mothers are childless. The noble mother claims that if she had a daughter, she would not mind marrying her to a donkey; the poor mother wishes for a son, even if he were a donkey.  The two children were born, a girl and a donkey, and promised to each other. The girl was very upset and cried at the thought, but after the wedding he was revealed to be a handsome man.

The girl's parents had conspired to kill the donkey after the wedding, to keep their daughter from such a husband, but when they found she was happy, they let him live.

The enchanted donkey warned his wife not to let anyone know who he was. However, when his wife was attending a wedding, he came to her in human form and danced with her. Everyone thought it was a pity she was married to a donkey and not this man; but when her mother questioned her she revealed the truth. As a result he was carried off by three fairies, his sisters, and his bride had to find the fairies and her husband. However, a false bride claimed her husband, and shut the true bride in a donkey's stall. However, a friend heard the girl telling her story to herself, and told the husband, who found his wife and punished the false bride.

This version is interesting because of the involvement of the mothers-it is incredibly hard to find a version of BATB in which the mother is present at all; usually it is the father who controls his daughter's fate and mothers are absent. As in other fairy tales, such as Snow White or Rapunzel, the wishes the parent makes about their child end up determining the child's fate. In almost every version of BATB the bride is cautioned against either looking at her husband, revealing who he is, or not returning to him in time; yet the husband never really makes this easy for her to fulfill.

In "The Lord of the Underearth," the father of three daughters comes across the servant of the Lord of the Underearth. He demands that the father bring him his eldest daughter, and serves her a rotting human foot, which he wishes her to eat. She cannot. The second daughter cannot eat the rotting human hand, but when presented with a stinking human stomach, the third daughter asks for cloves and cinnamon to season it. When the stomach is found in her own, she pleases the servant, who brings her to the Lord of the Underearth, where she is given drugs in her coffee so she doesn't remember her husband coming to her at night.
(this image is of a prop, not an actual human hand)

Her sisters come to visit, and tell her not to drink the coffee, and to turn the key in his navel, which will enable her to see the world. She does so, but because of this she is forced to leave. She trades her clothes with a shepherd, and disguised as a man, becomes a servant for the King and Queen of another country. However, the Queen falls in love with the servant and tries to seduce him/her. When the bride/servant doesn't comply, the Queen accuses the servant of trying to rape her, and he/she is sentenced to be hung. Only then does the Lord of the Underearth come to rescue her. He asks the Queen the reason she is hanging the servant, and upon being told, asks, "And if this man is a woman, what shall we do to you?" to which the Queen replied that they should hang her instead. When the servant is revealed to be a woman, the Queen is hung, and the Lord of the Underearth took his bride away. The story ends with "I was not there, and neither were you, so you need not believe it!"

The episode of the daughters being given rotted human flesh to eat is so unusual and disturbing. Is there some historical precedent for a wife's value being found in eating disgusting food? The cross-dressing feature is rare, but presents a wife who is resourceful in disguising herself (although you wonder why she can't tell the King the truth herself).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Schonwerth tales: Dwarves

I had mentioned that the first half of Franz Schonwerth's Folktales didn't really fit into the category of "fairy tales": they were more like legends and ghost stories. But towards the back there are definitely fairy tales; stories that echo the structure of fairy tales we know, and many that could be considered versions of well-known fairy tales.
For those who need a refresher, Schonwerth collected tales from Bavaria around the same time as the brothers Grimm, but the stories in this book are actually from people native to the region, and remained unaltered throughout the years, unlike the popular Grimm's tales. From my archives, you can read about the mermaid tales and witch tales in the collection.
Arthur Rackham

When we think of fairy tale dwarves, we are sure to remember "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", and some people may be familiar with "Snow White and Rose Red". From these two tales we see the dual nature of dwarfs in folklore; they can be helpful and kind, as they were to Snow White, yet rude and ungrateful in the latter story.

Rie Cramer

Dwarves in Bavaria could be secretive and helpful; much like the elves in The Elves and the Shoemaker. Many dwarves would inhabit farms and living spaces of humans, and come out at night to do hard work; yet they were so quick and nimble they would accomplish much more than humans could, and produce superior work. Yet the dwarves were incredibly sensitive-if their privacy was broken or any oaths humans made to them broken, they would leave and never come back. They also wouldn't accept gifts of money or clothing-they would interpret anything more than food as a final payment.

Like the dwarves in "Lord of the Rings", dwarves often lived in mountains, creating a system of tunnels, and were known for their work with precious metals. In one story they made a necklace that would make anyone who saw it love the wearer-this was for a wife who was afraid she would lose her husband's love. Yet in payment for this treasure, she had to give herself to the Dwarves. When the woman's husband found out what she had done, he left her-ironically bringing about the fate the wife had tried to avoid. The husband did eventually reconcile himself to his wife, but it's a reminder that powerful magic often comes at a price...
Brian Froud

Some dwarves could be very helpful to kind humans-they helped Little Rose gain money to marry her true love in one tale, and assisted a maid named Eve with her chores, and even helped disguise her pregnancy from those around her with magic to avoid her being shamed. They took care of her baby when it was born, gave them gifts, and in both cases the dwarves remained lifelong friends with the women they helped in their time of need.

Yet not all dwarves were as friendly-one castle was known as haunted; the dwarves there would scatter the sheep at night, causing them to fall off the mountain, so the castle was avoided.

John Batten

Two stories in particular reminded me of traditional fairy tales. "Beautiful Bertha, the Red Shoe, and the Golden Needle" is essentially a Cinderella tale. A beautiful nobleman's daughter, Bertha, and a shepherd's daughter, Hylde, were switched at birth. Bertha became a maid for Hylde, and being jealous of Bertha's beauty, Hylde gave her the hardest chores, and humiliated her as often as possible. A prince came through looking for a bride, but passed by their castle. But Dwarves came, bringing with them a red shoe and golden needle, saying that the one who owned both things would be the prince's bride. When the shepherdess, Hylde's true mother, revealed the truth, Hylde threw herself from the tower, and Bertha became the prince's wife. So in this story we have the elements of persecuted heroine, aid from magical helpers, and recognition by a shoe. (I had recently done a post on red shoes in fairy tales, so we can add this to the list of significant red shoes!)
Anne Anderson

"Tale of the Forest Dwarf" is very similar to Rumpelstiltskin, yet the dwarf in this version seems kinder overall. A very poor man with many children to feed came across a dwarf clad in green, who led him to a cave of treasures. The treasure could all belong to the poor man, if he could guess the dwarf's name in three days. The dwarf was under a spell and had to guard the treasures until someone could guess his name and say it out loud. The man went home and told his wife.

She prayed and went to find the dwarf herself. She overheard him lamenting about how easy it would be for them to guess his name because of his little pointed beard. So she came in her husband's place and guessed, "Little Pointed Beard!", and the dwarf turned into a dove and flew away; the poor family was able to enjoy all the treasures.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What's With the Princess Hate/Can Passivity Ever be Good?

On my recent post on how little girls often identify with specific Disney Princesses, reader Cou shared this youtube video of Nostalgia Critic discussing Princess culture, the backlash it's gotten (see the new book The Princess Problem as just one example), and his analysis of the situation. (Be warned, he says the f-word, but only once.)
It's really relevant to many of the things I've been discussing here and thinking about lately, and he rightly points out that while all the Princesses get criticized for being passive and wanting nothing more than a man, that stereotype is only really true for the original three, and even then those Princesses, as well as others, have admirable qualities that really aren't bad for little girls to emulate (kindness, cheerfulness, etc.). He points out examples from Disney as well as other popular entertainment (Disney is so often the convenient scapegoat for culture-wide problems) and comes to an interesting, yet I think true, conclusion-the reason people are rubbed the wrong way by Princess culture is because, while boys may desire to be King, girls want to be Princesses and NOT Queens. Queens are virtually all evil, whereas Princesses are good. The image of a Princess indicates more youth and lack of responsibility than Queen, so it's more a wording choice that reflects the fact that culture values youth and women who don't hold all the power.
New Yorker Magazine-Feb 2014

Also, I've been thinking lately about this whole idea that passivity=BAD, especially when it comes to females. And obviously passivity and complacency can be negative, and people should be empowered to act and take a stand against evil; no one should be treated unfairly or taken advantage of. At the same time, we all have to accept and expect some level of unfairness and frustrations in life. But often, actually, if you're stuck in a horrible situation and being mistreated, although you may fantasize about telling off the Powers that Be and stalking off righteously victorious, most times that would not actually accomplish what you want it to.

I've been reading/watching two examples lately that reminded me that sometimes, passivity is actually a wise choice for the time being. I was reading a biography of Jackie Robinson this summer (I had quoted him a little while ago when he mentioned fairy tales in regards to his career); part of the reason his story is so inspirational is that, in addition to the rigorous activities of being a professional baseball player, he had to face racism throughout his whole life, yet he did so with great integrity. When he got accepted into the Dodgers organization, he was warned that no matter how awful the insults were, he couldn't lash out in anger. Really, the whole Civil Rights movement depended on blacks swallowing their unjust treatment and peacefully protesting-violence would have just made it worse (although no one can blame them for being angry and wanting to act out).

Yet no one is criticizing Jackie Robinson for being passive-he's a hero in the athletic world, and the Civil Rights movement.

Not quite as deep, but this summer I've also been rewatching through the show The Office (the American version). And one thing that impressed me about the characters (notably Jim and Pam) is how often their coworkers or bosses treat them unfairly, yet they don't argue the point or talk back, they just take it on most occasions. Sometimes they do stand up for themselves, but in most cases, arguing or insisting they were right wouldn't have done any good. And again, they're seen as the heroes of the show-pretty much the only normal people in the crazy world of the Office, and with them we can appreciate the humor or all the ridiculous situations around them, and hopefully find humor in our own ridiculous worlds.

Anyway, it just struck me that we can even be sexist in how we interpret passivity. If a woman is doing household chores under a domineering boss, she's a horrible example for children, yet when other people swallow their pride we recognize their inner strength and self control. Not that feminists have no reason for concern; many women today still are treated unfairly, and there are still many harmful gender stereotypes out there. But when we start to see passivity as only negative, or only negative if it's displayed in females, we can get into dangerous territory too. Wisdom is sometimes just knowing how to pick and choose your battles, yet our current brand of feminism that is a backlash against years of suppression would lead us to believe that wisdom is taking an aggressive, fighting stance. The goal is to find balance and not get too far into either extreme-passivity or aggression.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Benjamin Konig Fairy Tale Illustrations

Though simple, I find these illustrations by Benjamin K├Ânig, or Sperber, to be very poignant. He zeroes in on details and leaves you with the anticipation of what is going to happen

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Asylum for Fairy Tale Creatures

I  heard about this book on SurlaluneThe Asylum for Fairy Tale Creatures by Sebastian Gregory, and because it was so cheap and had gotten such good reviews overall, I ordered the Kindle version for myself (Currently only $2.30!).
There was a time when I would have looked forward to reading any dark, creepy collection of fairy tales, but because they've become so trendy, we've seen lots of dark fairy tale retellings and not all of them are the best of quality, so I was wary of this book that was just published but already so cheap. But I was pleasantly surprised-it reminded me a bit of Tanith Lee or Angela Carter-very dark, violent, and gory, but it gave you different ways to think about fairy tales or the certain elements of the stories (This book has no sexual content, though, although still definitely not for children, despite the cartoonish cover).

The book description:
 "Once upon a nightmare…

Long ago, in a land where imagination meets the darkest nightmares, they built the asylum. Surrounded by a forest of thorns, it holds the most twisted minds in the fairy tale kingdom: a terrible collection of evil creatures and forgotten souls. Imprisoned within its walls, they are doomed to spend forever after telling their tales… and serving as a warning to others.

Now, you are invited to accompany Blood Red Riding Hood into the depths of this strange place – where you will meet its even stranger inhabitants. But be warned: walls this thick were built to withstand the darkest magic… so once you’re inside, you might just find yourself living horribly ever after… and wishing you were indeed in a land far, far away."
Image from here

The premise deals with the fact that the plots of fairy tales really, truly, are dark and disturbing. If we really take the tales at face value we realize each of the characters has gone through something extremely traumatic-a wolf attack that also killed your grandmother, your stepmother and sisters making you a slave, being isolated from the world in a tower.  (See my recent post on the effects of verbal abuse that Cinderella might have dealt with). If you really think about the effect these situations would have on a person, many of those characters really might lose their sanity just from the trauma-not to mention that some people wouldn't believe your incredible story and assume you lost your mind.

I liked the writing style; it hooked me in. It's decidedly creepy. This book gives you all the chilling aspects of a creepy ghost story-considering the fact that October's not far away now and we tend to be more inclined to like spooky stories this time of year, it would definitely be worth checking out if you tend to like the more chilling aspects of fairy tales. Plus it's a pretty short read.

I was kind of surprised to find many obvious punctuation errors, they must have been cheap on editing? It was a little distracting but not too much so.

The beginning of the Introduction, "Once Upon a Time":
"Once upon a forever more, a long time ago in the dark place where imagination and nightmare met, they built the asylum. Surrounded by a forest of dense thorns and crumbling on a precipice falling to an infested monster sea, the asylum held the most insane in the entire fairy tale kingdom.

To be poor abandon children in the forest, left to the whims of the nearby witch in her gingerbread house-imagine how frail your mind would become. Imagine the trauma of finding a house inhabited by bears who think they are people. How about being a boy made of wood who can think and talk yet is ridiculed and shunned. Or a girl given to a reclusive beast by her own father. It would be enough to drive a person to madness. And so many of the fairy tale creatures went skipping into the comfort of insanity."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Frog Prince and Marriagable Age

Many critics interpret the frog in "Frog Prince", or the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast", to represent a young girl's anxieties about marriage. Frogs are seen as phallic, and their sliminess could be representative of genitals.
Margaret Evans Price

It's an interesting theory but I hadn't thought too much about it before, because I'm wary of the psychoanalytic tendency to see everything in fairy tales as phallic. But a recent rereading of the tale of the Frog Prince left me feeling that the Princess is disturbingly young to be getting married at the end. 

The only thing we know about her at the beginning is that her favorite plaything is a golden ball-so she's still young enough to have toys and enjoy playing catch more than anything else. Her actions seem to indicate the immaturity of a child-when confronted with the unwanted frog, she slams the door in his face and goes back to eating, or throws the frog against a wall. Critics have called her selfish, but really she's acting like any child would when basically tricked into making an unwanted promise-she offered the frog her dresses, jewels, and crown for her ball, but he didn't want them. Clearly she values her toy more than beautifying herself, which would be more associated with a maturing woman.
Margaret Evans Price

Throughout the whole tale, everything about her is little. The frog wants to eat from her "little plate" and drink from her "little cup," and after he knocks on the door he calls for the "Princess, little princess" to let him in. If she's small enough to be eating off of a differently sized  plate she would be way too young to marry. It seems reminiscent of Snow White, who, according to the Grimm version, is only seven years old at the beginning of the story; but in that story it's ambiguous as to how much time passes while she's with the dwarves (in some versions she ages as she sleeps).

Why do these fairy tales feature princesses getting married at such young ages? Was there actually any society in which children really would marry?
Margaret Evans Price

According to wikipedia, although some cultures would marry off children as soon as they went through puberty, even then it seems that they were all at least 12 (although that still seems disturbingly young). But in many cultures, even in Medieval times, it was common for couples to marry around the age of 20-slightly younger if diseases like the Plague made life expectancy much shorter.

Still, there are always exceptions: "In the 12th century the jurist Gratian, an influential founder of Canon law in medieval Europe, accepted age of puberty for marriage to be between 12 and 14 but acknowledged consent to be meaningful if the children were older than 7. There were authorities with a claim that consent could take place earlier. Marriage would then be valid as long as neither of the two parties annulled the marital agreement before reaching puberty, or if they had already consummated the marriage. It should be noted that Judges honored marriages based on mutual consent at ages younger than 7, in spite of what Gratian had said; there are recorded marriages of 2 and 3 year olds.[2]"
Millicent Sowerby

Even in these cases it seems like the term "marriage" was more or less a betrothal. Yet Heidi Anne Heiner, in her annotations for Snow White, tells us that in past centuries, the age of seven was actually considered the transition from child to adult.

Given that many young girls would be married off at ages that we today would consider them to be children, was Frog Prince meant to disturb the listeners by showing them how wrong a practice that was? Or would it have been so commonplace in some cultures that they wouldn't even think anything of it? Do other versions of these tales have similarly childlike heroines? It makes perfect sense that, to a young girl, the idea of sex with an older man would seem as disgusting as sharing a plate and bed with a frog-practices that, Maria Tatar reminds us, indicate the intimacies of marriage more so than mere companionship.

Do any of you know more about the history of marrying ages? And what the young ages in fairy tales might mean?
Walter Crane
(I love all the hidden details in Crane's illustrations-on the bench on which the Princess is seated is a picture of a man handing a woman a ball, indicating the true nature of what is happening)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Wanda Gag on Grimm's Fairy Tales

"Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say 'Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I'll read you a Marchen.' Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-might-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a juicy big pear."
-Wanda Gag, American illustrator

Illustrations by Wanda Gag

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Disney Princesses as a form of Identity

It's a phenomenon I've noticed over the years of babysitting in families that happened to be mostly female, but for many young girls, including myself, your "favorite Disney Princess" often becomes a part of your identity.

I've noticed this mostly in families with multiple sisters. For myself growing up, my favorite Princess was always Belle, and my sister's two favorites were Cinderella and Jasmine. It makes it easier for adults who bought us Christmas presents-they could buy us the same thing, like a hairbrush or toy, but make it unique for each of us by buying us each the version with the face of our favorite Princess plastered over the front.

I've mentioned these girls before, but in one family, in games of pretend we each assumed the roles of our token favorite Princesses-Cinderella, Ariel, and myself as Belle. But rather than waiting around to be rescued by our Princesses, most days we went on various adventures rescuing our Princes from our movie's villains.

For years now, my friend Christy has referred to my sister and her husband as Cinderella and Prince Charming, ever since seeing my sister in her wedding dress. Poor Tony now has the unfortunate title of "Beast" (I try to add that he's the transformed Prince, but the Beast is the enduring image of Belle's other half. Sorry, Tony :) ).

Children with siblings will often find other forms of differentiating themselves-favorite animal, superhero, etc., but with the availability of Disney products it's an easy way to distinguish ourselves. Although I'd rather be known now for my love of fairy tales in general, I can't say I mind too much when a sweet student gifts me with a Belle pen or sheet of stickers, just because they know I'm a fan.

Of course, many people think this phenomenon is potentially dangerous for young girls, and all I'll say in this post is that it's a complex issue.

Have you found, in your experience, that children do the same thing? How do you think it affects their play and sense of identity?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fairy Tales in World War II

During a war, when another country is perceived as your enemy, often their culture becomes the enemy too. In World War II this was the case, and it even affected the fairy tales people consumed.

On both sides of the war, fairy tales from the opposing countries were viewed with suspicion. Hitler banned Perrault's French "Tales of My Mother Goose" in Germany during his regime in favor of the Grimms' German tales; while the violence and anti-Semitism of the Grimm tales were viewed as dangerous by Allied countries. (This is all more ironic when you realize how much influence the French fairy tales had on the Grimms' collection).

Fairy tales were also used as propoganda. Peggy Riley writes "With the rise of the Nazi party, both this romanticism and this pessimism would be crushed and the “innocent” folktale become an ideological weapon.  As one party official declared, “The German folktale shall become a most valuable means for us in the racial and political education of the young.” 

German fairy tales around the time of World War II shifted to a different focus: Cinderella's Prince rejected the stepmother for racial impurity, Red Riding Hood was covered in swastikas and her savior was a Nazi officer. Puss in Boots was a Hitler-like figure who was heiled by throngs, and of course any of the already anti-Semetic tales were exploited for their racist messages.

Dawn Heerspink says "fairy tales held a central place in wartime society as a means of socializing children through the use of familiar tales with a new context, as an area of hybridization of childhood and adulthood to confront wartime reality, and as both a way to deal with trauma and a critical discourse on war."

This collection of Allied Fairy Tales from World War I (1916) indicates a way of unifying the Allied Forces through celebrating the fairy tales of the group of nations. In his introduction to the book, Edmund Gosse says it is "folklore of the fighting friends of humanity." The English identified with their hero Jack, while the enemy the giant. Even Disney joined in, representing the Big Bad Wolf with a swastika, and using Donald Duck to show that "taxes defeat the Axis."

Even with all the flippant comments you hear about the childishness or insignificance of fairy tales, it's kind of chilling to realize how much power they have wielded in the past. They have been used as tools to promote war and death and have a way of reaching the public through subconscious levels. If anything, the perception of fairy tales as unimportant is what makes them a secret weapon-people tend to associate them with the idyllic past and link us to our ancestors. Fairy tales can be used to communicate messages secretly, just as in the time of Perrault, the other French writers used them for satire, and the seemingly simple stories escaped censorship. 

Never underestimate the power of fairy tales...

-Leslie Fiedler's Introduction to "Beyond the Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale and Fantasy", Edited by Jonathan Cott
-Nazi Fairy Tales, Peggy Riley
-Nazi Fairy Tales Paint Hitler as Red Riding Hood's Savior, Allan Hall
-"Reading the Grimms' Children's Stories and Household Tales," from Maria Tatar's Annotated Brothers Grimm
-Found it in the Archives: War and Fairy Tales, Jessica Short
-No Man's Land: Fairy Tales, Gender, Socialization, Satire, and Trauma during the First and Second World Wars, Dawn Heerspink

Friday, August 29, 2014

Alice Anderson's Hair Sculptures

Artist Alice Anderson creates works of art using red doll's hair that mimics her own.  Although she does not always credit Rapunzel as her primary inspiration (she likes to confront some of Freud's psychoanalitic notions and remind the viewer of childhood), it's clearly an association many people have when they see rooms full of hair, or a house being overtaken by ropes made of hair.

"In the Studio With Alice Anderson," by Helen Sumpter

Q: Are there specific fairytale references in your use of hair, as in Rapunzel? 
AA: 'There are, but only in the role of the witch, who has imprisoned Rapunzel in the tower and climbs up her long hair to feed her. Her hair functions like an umbilical cord, with the witch in this dual role as both jailer and mother figure. I'm not interested in the fairytale need for a charming prince to come to her rescue.' 

"Alice Anderson: Tressed for success"

 "I'm kind of against fairy tales. The story of a prince and a princess? Ridiculous," says Anderson. "For me, it's nonsense. On the other hand, anything to do with childhood, I use. I use a lot of toys."

I'm sad that present assumptions about fairy tales have made Anderson say she is against them, especially since we know that it's simply not true that all fairy tales are about a princess in need of rescue by a prince. However, Anderson has still contributed to the world of modern fairy tale interpretations, by confronting the viewer with their associations with vast volumes of hair. These videos in which she discusses her inspiration and methods are really kind of creepy...