Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Magic Mirror: A Romanian Snow White

The more I learn about Snow White tales, the more I'm convinced it is the most violent tale group. Even when compared to the obvious ones like Bluebeard, in which the husband murders multiple wives-that one shocking plotline is the premise of all Bluebeard tales. Yet with Snow White, there seems to be no end to the ways storytellers have come up with to torture the beautiful young girl. Take the Romanian tale, "The Magic Mirror":
W C Drupsteen

Once there was a beautiful woman who possessed a magic mirror, who always told her that she was the fairest woman in the land. When her daughter grew older, the mirror told her that her daughter's beauty had surpassed her, and she hated her daughter and was determined to kill her.

The woman baked a salted cake. She took the cake and a jug of water, and took her daughter into the forest. After they had gone a ways, the girl began to get hungry, and begged her mother for something to eat. "If you want something to eat, take this cake, but you must cut out your eye first," said her mother.

The mother gauged out her daughter's eye and kept walking. After a while, the salted cake made the daughter extremely thirsty. She begged for water, which her mother would only give if she gauged out her other eye, so the girl was now blind. She pushed her daughter over a slope that ended in a savage river and hurried home. The mirror conceded that the mother was now fairer than her blind daughter.

The daughter, after giving thanks to God for her safety, was instructed by the Virgin Mary to wash her eyes in a fountain, and her sight was restored. She fell asleep and was found by twelve robbers. They each wanted her for themselves, but decided to let her decide. When she woke up, they told her they were each willing to take her as a wife, but if she did not desire any of them, they would take her home and treat her as a sister. She chose the latter and went home with them.

The next day when they went out, they warned her not to answer the door for anyone. Yet by this time the girl's mother had discovered that her daughter was alive and well, and now more fair than her again. So she instructed an old hag to take a poisoned ring to her daughter in the woods.

The girl did not let the old hag in, but as she hadn't been instructed not to accept anything through the door, she took the ring. The ring made her faint and she fell down in a deathlike sleep. When the robbers returned they discovered the ring and removed it.
Jennie Harbour

The mother sent the hag again, with enchanted earrings, which also were poisoned. When the robbers discovered the earrings, the mother decided to enchant a flower, for the robbers wouldn't notice such a natural thing. And as the daughter often wore a flower, they could not undo the magic the third time, and set her body in a bier made of firs, evergreens, and flowers, and put her in the open air of the forest.

Soon the prince of the land found the beautiful girl's body, and, unable to restrain himself, kissed the dead girl fervently. He ordered them to bring her down carefully, lest anything happen to the precious statue. One of the king's men had decided to take the flower as a gift for his own beloved, and when it was removed, the girl woke up. The prince was delighted and took the girl home to marry her.

Yet her mother discovered she was alive once again. After her daughter had delivered her first baby, the mother came to be the new midwife. When the prince had gone to sleep, she put a knife in the baby's heart, and was about to kill her daughter as well, when the prince woke up and said, "don't you dare, you witch!"

"But I must murder anyone more beautiful than me!" the woman cried. The emperor jumped in between his wife and her mother and saved his wife; the story of her mother was found and she was put to death, and the couple was able to live undisturbed for many, many years.


I find several aspects of this story, from a 1845 collection, to be fascinating. First of all, the heartless violence of the natural mother who does not initially hire anyone to get rid of her daughter (no huntsman here), but determines right away to personally get rid of her daughter. But though she could have killed her right away (she clearly had no qualms about that), she prolongs the episode, causing her daughter to hunger and thirst, gauging out her eyes one by one, and THEN sending her to her supposed death.

Possibly more shocking is that a band of twelve male thieves-exactly who you would expect to present the most danger to a young, beautiful girl, end up protecting her. In this version they provide a fascinating contrast to the prince, who cannot control himself. The twelve men, who could easily have overpowered one young girl, restrain their desires even though they each want to marry her. You don't get that sense of sexual desire from the versions with dwarves! They love her and treat her as a sister, whereas the prince blatantly objectifies her, calling her lifeless body a "precious statue" (yes, that was a direct quote!!). I found myself disappointed she ended up with that creepy guy and wishing she had fallen in love with one of the robbers.

And then, after the wedding when many other versions end, the mother gets one more chance to be cruel. She kills a helpless baby, her own granddaughter-a piece of evil which is never undone, as many spells often are at the end of a fairy tale.

Tale found in Surlalune's Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World.

On a totally different note: who else is psyched about the new French Beauty and the Beast movie?? Once Upon a Blog has great coverage (as always)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mermaid hoaxes

In the study of mermaids, sometimes the most surprising thing is not that people have believed in other species that are now believed to never have existed, but the lengths to which some people have gone to convince others of the truth of the elusive sea creatures. Think of Santa Claus and all that some parents do to keep alive the tradition and convince younger children that he is the one who leaves presents and eats the cookies and milk.
Mermaid mummy from 1682, Zuiryugi Temple in Osaka, Japan

Throughout history, and in virtually all cultures, there has been widespread belief in mermaids/mermen, sirens, nixies, or other creatures that haunt the waters. Yet we should avoid the oversimplified belief that people in the past were all gullible and believed anything they were told. There were early doubters, such as the ancient Pliny, who stated "I do not believe in sirens." Yet stories still persisted throughout the centuries-and not just in folklore and legends, but history holds numerous accounts of eyewitnesses who claim to have seen such creatures. Many of the claims even had "great scientific merit." Many highly respected people were among those who reported mermaid sightings, including Christopher Columbus, who met with three sirens "dancing on the water." A fisherman in India joined the body of an ape with that of a fish in the early 1800s, and attracted many "experienced men" who dedicated much time to research what they thought was newly discovered scientific evidence, and it was sold for a high price.

The agreed upon scientific explanation for these scores of accounts now attribute the sightings to sea creatures such as manatees and seals, and it's likely that many of the witnesses were drunk at the time. There is a story of a drunk sailor who was grabbed by a seal in the port of Constantinople and dragged into the water-it's easy to see how, in an inebriated state, the soldier might have attributed the strange circumstance to a siren who had fallen madly in love with him.

The t.v. show "How I Met Your Mother" has an episode entitled "Mermaid Theory" in which the character Barney explains the existence of mermaids as the result of sailors, who, after months and months at sea and with women in sight, eventually began to go a little crazy and see manatees as beautiful women. Unlike many of Barney's theories on the show, this one isn't entirely wrong. I'm sure strange things can happen to men trapped on a boat with no land in sight for months at a time.

Maximilian Schele de Vere describes the many humanlike characteristics of several sea creatures, who might cry when mistreated, have big emotive eyes, and some can even be taught to say "Papa." Yet I still think you'd have to be extremely drunk to mistake a seal or manatee for a beautiful woman combing her long golden locks...many descriptions of mermaids are quite detailed, down to eye color. I think in addition to drunkenness and the loneliness of sailors at sea, there must have been some other explanations, either intentional deception or simply seeing what you want to see/have always believed.

Creating mermaid remains was at a peak during Victorian times, when live mermaids or "mermaid mummies" were common carnival attractions. According to Timothy Schaffert, such mermaids were created from a variety of sources, from the remains of other animals to papier-mache, and some would even rob human graves in an attempt to make their mermaids more realistic. Not all live mermaids were willing-De Vere cites an instance when some Quakers started an investigation and rescued a woman who had been forced to wear a fish tail and comb her hair in front of spectators. Some mermaid hoaxes became quite famous, such as P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid.
Replica of P.T. Barnum's Feejee Mermaid

Schaffert claims that many in the audience who flocked to see such exhibits were not themselves believers (although some staunchly believed), but were almost more interested in discovering for themselves how the mermaid had been created-there is a certain appeal to being the one to figure out how it was done, much like watching a magic show and trying to see the strings, or the appeal of mystery and detective stories.

Victorian mermaid mummy
The desire to delude people with hoaxes exists today in tabloids and internet claims. Some people delight in attempting to pull one over on the masses; and we masses tend to eat up sensational stories, if for nothing else to prove that we are too sophisticated to believe what the gullible do. Yet I strongly agree with this quote by De Vere: "There is, however, quite enough that is truly marvelous in some of the greater denizens of the deep, to engage our interest, and to find in them the originals of the fabled beings of whom we have spoken, without resorting to such gross and cruel deception." As with the search for fairies, if we were to discover that such things existed as diminuitive flying creatures that resemble humans, or some creature has evolved that is a combination of fish and mammal, what would that prove? Does the world need these specific combinations of beauty and wonder to be considered marvelous? I hope that the excitement that fairies and mermaids brings us can help us not to be disappointed if they don't exist, but to realize how incredible each part of creation already is.
Maximilian Schele de Vere, Wonders of the Deep: A Companion to Stray Leaves from the Book of Nature, 1869. Found in Surlalune's Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World
Timothy Schaffert, Mermaid Hoaxes, from the Mermaids issue of Faerie Magazine: Number 25
Mermaid mummy images from

Monday, January 20, 2014

Family Guy's Grimm Job

If Family Guy is up your alley, you should check out the episode that just became available on regular hulu, Grimm Job. It's a fairy tale mashup that, while humorous, is also irreverent and inappropriate at times. Definitely not child appropriate.
They interpret Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella, with some other fairy tale characters thrown in for good measure. The characters sometimes speak with the irony of those who are aware that they're in a fairy tale and what's going to happen, which adds some funny lines. And while mainly just being goofy, they do sort of touch on some issues such as violence (at the end of LRRH) or how certain famous scenes are less than believable, if you were to take the story seriously (Stewie/Little Red refuses to act out the "my what big ___ you have, Grandmother" because, as he says, it's obvious the wolf is not a human woman and it's insulting.) That's one big question people have about fairy tales, is what attitude are we supposed to read them with? Suspension of disbelief/the innocence of a child? Or just accepting that it's unrealistic? Can we read into subtle things if there also appear to be glaring plot errors? Were people "back then" really that gullible?

So it's not groundbreaking in the realm of fairy tale interpretations, many of the jokes have been make before, but still pretty funny, in my opinion. For example, Cinderella ends: "And so, two people who danced together one time, entered together into an ill-advised, long term relationship. And they lived happily ever after for seven months..."

Friday, January 17, 2014

Scottish Ballet: Hansel and Gretel

Once Upon a Blog covered this back in July, but I just found a review for the Scottish Ballet's Hansel and Gretel via Kingdom of Style. Seems like a great opportunity if you live in that region of the world, there are performances through early February. Click through to read the full review, but from the images below it seems like total eye candy. I love how they used giant sets and props to make the adult dancers seem like children.

They made a rather significant plot change, that instead of being abandoned by their parents, Hansel and Gretel sneak off by themselves to rescue their friends, for children in their village have been disappearing. The children are thus courageous heroes, and they avoid making the parents evil. I feel like I've noticed this being a pattern in several retellings of Hansel and Gretel, taking the blame away from the parents. Is it just another example of altering fairy tales to make them more and more child-friendly, or is it a positive way to avoid negative stereotypes of mothers/stepmothers in particular in fairy tales?

Return of the newlywed blogger

I'm back!

Still trying to settle into our new home, legally change my name, etc. But the wedding and honeymoon were wonderful. While I'm still catching up on other fairy tale news since I've been gone and haven't had time to research yet, I thought I'd share a few pictures.

I wasn't originally going to have any sort of fairy tale theme to the wedding, but we found these great (and affordable!) invitations via Bed Bath & Beyond:
And from there other people started catching on too. We started getting fairy tale-themed cards and gifts, and it gave me an idea for reception tables. Each table, instead of a just a number, was also a fairy tale:
Of course I put myself at Beauty and the Beast :)

I also decorated the escort card table with vintage fairy tale books. The best part was I already owned all of them so it didn't cost me anything!

Okay, that's the last of the wedding-themed posts, I promise :) I hope to be posting more regularly soon!