Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tales from the Igloo

I love fairy tales not only for the story, but for the way they give you a glimpse into a totally different way of living. The book "Tales from the Igloo" appealed to me recently because of a heat wave we were having at the time in Chicago-and this is my first summer living in an apartment with no air conditioning.

The tale "Taligvak" is about a man with magical powers who is shunned by his community, until a harsh winter brings scarcity and they realize they need his help to get food. The following paragraph not only sheds light into what it might have been like to live as an Inuit, but provides the imagination with a pleasant break from the heat:

"...He was very poor, lacking nearly all necessities. No one wanted to give him a daughter for a wife and so Taligvak had no one to sew warm clothing for him. He did own a knife and with that he was able to build a snow house. But it was so small that he could not lie down inside it and instead had to remain in a sitting position even when trying to sleep. Moreover, as there was no stone lamp in his igloo, Taligvak suffered from the cold. When his mittens became frozen with frost he had to put them under his clothes, next to his skin, and as he slept the heat from his body would dry them."
Photo: Canadian Geological Survey-1929

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Singing, Soaring Lark

The Grimms collection has no "Beauty and the Beast" tale per se, but "The Singing, Soaring Lark" is an animal bridegroom tale with clear parallels. It's got a little Cupid and Psyche, a lot of East of the Sun West of the Moon, a little of the Jephtha theme, and replaces the rose with a bird. The whole element of romance and the surprise of learning that the animal bridegroom is really a human is nearly eliminated, which is interesting because those are the elements that most appeal to me. Also, the sisters are not evil, but neither especially good, a rarity in fairy tales of any type.

"There once was a man who set out on a long journey, and before he left he asked his three daughters what he should bring them. The two eldest wished for pearls and diamonds, but the youngest wished for a singing, soaring lark. The father had no trouble finding the diamonds and pearls, but was distressed when he could not find the bird for his favorite daughter. But on his way through the forest, he saw a splendid castle, and on top of a nearby tree was a singing, soaring lark. The man was delighted and called for his servant to climb up thre tree and catch it.

Kay Nielsen (this is actually an illustration for Juniper Tree-pretend it's a lark.)

But as he does, a lion leaps from beneath the tree and roared, threatening to devour anyone who tried to steal his singing, soaring lark. The man apologized and asked for an opportunity to right his wrong, but to be spared his life. The lion allowed him to promise the first thing that greeted him on the way home. The man protested that it might be his favorite daughter who came to greet him, but the lion persuaded him to take the chance and make the bargain.
To the man's dismay, it was his youngest daughter who ran to greet him upon his return, and was overjoyed at the sight of the bird. The father told her the story, and begged her not to return to the lion, but the daughter insisted that she would go an soften the lion.
Now, the lion was enchanted and was only a lion by day, but resumed his true human form at night. The daughter was kindly received and led into the castle on her arrival, and married the man in a magnificent wedding. The couple stayed awake through the night and slept during the day.
One day, the lion-man told his wife that her eldest sister was to be married, and she could go join the festivities. She went, and her family was overjoyed to hear that she was alive.
Some time afterwards, the other sister was to be married. The lion's bride insisted he come along, but he did not wish to, for if a ray from a burning candle were to fall on him, he would become a dove for seven years. But the wife promised to protect him, and they went with their child to her sister's wedding. She had a chamber built strong and thick to keep out rays of light, but there was a small crack that no one noticed. After the wedding, there was a procession with candles that went right past the man's chamber, and he was transformed into a dove. He told his wife, "For seven years I must fly about the world, but at every seventh step that thou takest I will let fall a drop of red blood and a white feather, and these will show thee the way, and if thou followest the trace thou canst release me." His wife followed him, and found the drop of blood and white feather as he had said.

She travelled further and further, never looking about her or resting. Finally the seven years were almost over, and she rejoiced at the thought of being united again, but suddenly the drops of blood and feathers stopped appearing. She looked up, but the dove had disappeared. She climbed up to the sun, and asked him if he had seen a white dove. He had not, but gave her a casket to open in her greatest need. She went to the moon, who gave her an egg to be opened in her greatest need.
The east and west winds had seen nothing, but the south wind saw him at the Red Sea, transformed once again into a lion, and fighting with a dragon, which was really an enchanted Princess.

By DuneChampion

The night wind gave her instructions to break off the eleventh reed she found and strike the dragon with it, and the two animals would turn into their human forms. Then she was to swing her lover and herself onto the back of a griffin she would find. The night wind gave her a nut to drop into the sea, which would grow a tree for the griffin to rest on.
The wife found everything as the winds had told her, but the disenchanted dragon took the prince with her on the back of the griffin. The wife sat down and cried, but stood up and took courage and continued her search. She travelled a long way and came to the castle where the Princess was living with her husband, and she heard they were to be married the next day. The wife opened the casket from the sun, and found in it a dress as brilliant as the sun itself. She put it on, went into the castle, and everyone looked at her with astonishment. The Princess wanted the dress for her wedding gown, but the wife would only give it to her on the condition that she sleep in the chamber where the bridegroom slept. The Princess consented, but instructed the page to give the bridegroom a sleeping drought. So the wife pleaded with her husband all night long, but to no avail.

The poor wife went out to the meadow and wept, but remembered the egg the moon had given her. She opened it, and out came a clucking hen with twelve chickens all of gold, which all ran about chirping and then huddled under the chicken's wings. The Princess made the same bargain with the wife, but on this night, the Prince asked the page what the murmurings had been during the night, and the page told him the truth; the Prince instructed him to pour out the sleeping draught.
As the wife told him their story, he recognized her and the spell that the Princess had put on him was ended. They left the castle in secret and boarded the griffin, using the nut to allow the griffin to rest during the night. The came home and found their child, grown tall and beautiful, and "they lived thenceforth happily until their death."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sadako and the Thousand Cranes

It is an ancient Japanese belief that making one thousand paper cranes will grant the maker one wish, such as recovery from an illness or injury.

When I was in sixth grade, we read the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. It's about a girl who is sick and attempts to make the required thousand cranes. She was only able to complete 644 before she died, but friends and family finished them for her afterwards.

After I heard this story I was determined that I, too, would make one thousand paper cranes. I got a book on origami from the library and my mother and I pored over the diagrams, until we finally figured out how to create them. I would get sets of origami paper for each birthday and Christmas.

I never did finish a thousand, but it's a fun skill to have. This story always stuck in my memory, and I assumed it was a Japanese fairy tale-doesn't it seem like a story you might find in a fairy tale book? But Sadako really did live, make paper cranes, and die-she had liekemia due to radiation after the bombing of Hiroshima. It's a tragic story, and a reminder that sometimes real life can be just as touching as folklore.

Image from here

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Max Luthi on Cinderella

If they ever come out with another edition of "Cinderella: A Casebook," I think they should include Max Luthi's section on the tale-he has a lot of interesting insights.

George Cruikshank

Cinderella is rejected by the people around her and helped by animals and/or (depending on the version) the spirit of her dead mother. Luthi writes, "Human society, even the family, appears as an enemy, nature as a friend. The child who hears this story feels: 'No matter how much I may be slighted by others, I can strust in stronger and kinder forces."

Luthi's words are very inspiring-he talks about the hardships people are inevitably to face, yet the possibility of hope coming from a variety of sources-our own qualities as well as outside help. "Man is cast into suffering and want, evidently destined to endure privation, misunderstanding, and malice, and yet summoned to a regal existence."
Cinderella, much like Beauty and the Beast, reveals the rift between appearances and reality-the girl who first appears in rags and dirt is revealed to be the most noble of all. And as is common in fairy tales, Cinderella also focuses on the separation of good and evil-from the episode where Cinderella is told to separate the good from the bad lentils, to the judgement of the evil stepmother and sisters at the end in contrast to Cinderella's reward.

Anne Anderson

The ending of this tale, and the punishment of those evil characters, varies widely between versions. In the Grimms, doves-ironically a very gentle bird-peck out the sisters' eyes, "without the slightest protest on the part of Cinderella." Luthi points out that "the mutilation of the two stepsisters is in a way the answer to their self-mutilation: they cut off their toe and heel, and then their eyes are taken from them by the forces of retribution." Symbolically, this does make sense.
So what about versions like Perrault, where everyone is forgiven without the slightest hint of remorse? Both endings have upset readers-the first for being too violent, the latter for being unrealistic and not as satisfying. Luthi sees no problem with different tellers altering the ending, for it doesn't disrupt the point of the story. "The various needs of the times and of individual people are reflected in the styles of the storytellers and in the reactions of the hearers." Certainly, Cinderella has undergone many changes in the last couple thousand years since we have written records of the tale, yet it still charms and fascinates readers of all ages.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Midsummer!

Different cultures celebrate Midsummer on different days, as the actual summer solstice changes each year (this year it's on June 21.) From this article by Kala Kumar:
"Traditionally, Midsummer is the point when the veil between the fairy world and the mortal world lifts, and fairies and human are believed to mingle more during this period than at any other time of the year.
"Flowers, ferns, and herbs gathered on the solstice and blessed by the fairies, were believed to have special magical properties, including the ability to predict the future."
If you live in a place believed to be haunted by the faerie folk, keep your eyes peeled!

And since I'm a flutist, I have to share this too:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Max Luthi on Fairy Tales

I find the book Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales by Max Luthi to be really helpful. He analyzes fairy tales from a literary standpoint, and explains fairy tales as a separate literary genre. Modern people are often familiar with fairy tales, but more modernized versions, like books and movies, which are meant to be more realistic. When the modern reader approaches the classic versions of fairy tales, if he or she didn't grow up with those versions, they can seem surprisingly stark, odd, and morbid. So it helps to approach them with different expectations than other literature, and to understand more about fairy tales as a whole.

Luthi lists several characteristics of fairy tales:

1) Concenctation on action-fairy tales are not big on descriptions, leaving characters and settings vague, but in such a way that the reader can fashion his own ideas into the story. Luthi notes that if we read descriptions such as a witch with a "long, crooked nose," it's most likely an addition of their own and not in their original notes.

2) Emphasis on extremes and contrasts-fairy tales are known for being black and white. Not only are the characters opposite in terms of complete good or complete evil, but fairy tales concern themselves with "dreadful punishments and splendid rewards, giants and dwarfs, mangy skull and golden hair, good and evil, handsome and ugly, black and white."

3)Preference for solid, unchangeable objects-gold, silver, glass, and crystal-in a way that forms an imperishable world. Yet significant fairy tale objects are also often those that have been fashioned by man-rings, swords, knives, and not just things found in nature.

4) The tendancy to show inner journeys through outwardly visible signs. Fairy tale characters do not wax poetic about their feelings at any time-their grief is represented by tears. Their love is represented by a symbol between two people, etc.

5) Delight in repetition. Events often occur in groups of threes, with the wording repeated exactly (in their original form) for each event. Other significant numbers in folklore include multiples of three (especially twelve), seven, and one hundred.

6) Danger is averted only at the last possible moment. This heightens the tension, but also "fulfills the fairy tale's great need for precision."

The effect of all these characteristics together is that of an imperishable world beyond that of our own, "a timeless world. In so doing, we by no means place a negative evaluation on the fairy tale." It is important to remember that differences in genre do not mean that the fairy tale is necessarily inferior to a novel-their purposes are different. The patterns in the fairy tale can be reassuring and even theraputic, and Luthi concludes that "every fairy tale is, in its own way, something of a dragon slayer."

Luthi also helps to show what a fairy tale is by comparing it to what it isn't: he uses the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty as a contrast to local legends and saint's legends that also deal with supernaturally long periods of sleep. The saints and local legends are centrally focused on the miracle that occurs in the long sleep, which is meant to fascinate/frighten. These versions are intended, on some level, to be believed in, and refer to specific dates and places to aid in their authenticity. Also, in these versions, once the sleepers wake and learn how much time is passed, they perish-time is still the unconquerable foe.

Yet in contrast, the miracles that occur in fairy tales, such as the hundred years' sleep, aren't regarded with extra attention at all-characters show no fear or suprise when encountered with talking beasts or any number of supernatural phenomenon. Sleeping Beauty isn't meant to be regarded as historical, although some tellers of the tale throughout history may have meant for it to be regarded as true. And the hundred year's sleep has no negative affects on the Princess-authors such as Perrault used the situation as a source of humor, but folktale versions display no problems with waking up after a century.

But again, these things are not problems with the genre-just a different way of telling stories. With more readings, one can grow to appreciate more authentic versions for what they are.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok

I thoroughly enjoyed Surlalune's series of Bluebeard-themed posts last month. I don't remember the first time I read that fairy tale, but I do remember feeling a thrill in reading such morbid material-like I'd discovered a secret that adults wouldn't have wanted me to know about.
I'm certainly not as knowledgeable as Heidi, but as a musician, here's my contribution to versions of this tale: The opera "Bluebeard's Castle" by Bela Bartok, composed in 1911.
From wikipedia:
"The basic plot is loosely based on the folk tale "Bluebeard", but is given a heavily psychological reworking—some would say psychoanalytic or psychosexual, (see Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment).

Place: A huge, dark hall in a castle, with seven locked doors.
Time: Not defined.
Judith and Bluebeard arrive at his castle, which is all dark. Bluebeard asks Judith if she wants to stay and even offers her an opportunity to leave, but she decides to stay. Judith insists that all the doors be opened, to allow light to enter into the forbidding interior, insisting further that her demands are based on her love for Bluebeard. Bluebeard refuses, saying that they are private places not to be explored by others, and asking Judith to love him but ask no questions. Judith persists, and eventually prevails over his resistance.

The first door opens to reveal a torture chamber, stained with blood. Repelled, but then intrigued, Judith pushes on. Behind the second door is a storehouse of weapons, and behind the third a storehouse of riches. Bluebeard urges her on. Behind the fourth door is a secret garden of great beauty; behind the fifth, a window onto Bluebeard's vast kingdom. All is now sunlit, but blood has stained the riches, watered the garden, and grim clouds throw blood-red shadows over Bluebeard's kingdom.

Bluebeard pleads with her to stop: the castle is as bright as it can get, and will not get any brighter, but Judith refuses to be stopped after coming this far, and opens the penultimate sixth door, as a shadow passes over the castle. This is the first room that has not been somehow stained with blood; a silent silvery lake is all that lies within, "a lake of tears". Bluebeard begs Judith to simply love him, and ask no more questions. The last door must be shut forever. But she persists, asking him about his former wives, and then accusing him of having murdered them, suggesting that their blood was the blood everywhere, that their tears were those that filled the lake, and that their bodies lie behind the last door. At this, Bluebeard hands over the last key.

Behind the door are Bluebeard's three former wives, but still alive, dressed in crowns and jewellery. They emerge silently, and Bluebeard, overcome with emotion, prostrates himself before them and praises each in turn, finally turning to Judith and beginning to praise her as his fourth wife. She is horrified, begs him to stop, but it is too late. He dresses her in the jewellery they wear, which she finds exceedingly heavy. Her head drooping under the weight, she follows the other wives along a beam of moonlight through the seventh door. It closes behind her, and Bluebeard is left alone as all fades to total darkness."

Wikipedia has more information on it than just the synopsis, but I figured that was most applicable to this audience. I found this interesting as well: "The stage directions call also for occasional ghostly sighs that seemingly emanate from the castle itself when some of the doors are opened. These have been implemented differently by different productions, sometimes clearly instrumentally, sometimes vocally and sometimes not easily identifiable."

I'll be honest, I don't understand the significance of the changes to the story. A brief skim of online articles seems rather unhelpful-it's all very existential and tends to ignore the actual plot. Does anyone have any insights?

More helpful online links:
An English translation of the libretto
A blog with a few posts devoted to this opera-interesting information showing how the music and language represent the characters

Also-I've really enjoyed reading other interpretations for The Magic Drum in my last post. Please comment and share your thoughts, I'm really interested in seeing how different people read one fairy tale!

Saturday, June 11, 2011


I like getting familiar with how different scholars interpret fairy tales, but after a while you start to hear other voices in your head when you read and lose your own. Different branches of thought can help aid our understanding, but Francis Lee Utley reminds us, "and yet the human being who tells the story is quite as important to any ultimate hypothesis of archetype as a single folktale history is to the history of the genre. More so, indeed, if depth psychology is really interested in its proper subject matter, the living person."

I invite you to read this summary of a fairy tale, and think about what it means to you before you read any more:

The Magic Drum (an Eskimo tale)
Once there was a girl who did not want to marry. She had many suitors, but refused them all. One day two brothers came along, and the girl became attracted to them. She followed them outside, but the brothers put on the skins they had waiting-they were white bears. They forced her into the water through a hole in the ice, where she was dragged along for a while and then abandoned.
As she walked, tiny animals bit into her skin, tearing away her flesh until she was nothing but a skeleton. She finally found land, and discovered that through wishing, she had the power to provide herself food and shelter. One day she noticed other people hunting, and wished to go meet them, but as she approached, they fled in fear. The girl despaired, but the hunters went home an told their old father about the skeleton woman. He was not afraid, and went to meet her.
The girl asked the old man to make her a drum. He did so immediately, and when it was finished, the woman began to beat it and dance, reciting a magic incantation as she did so. Her dance restored herself to her former body, and the old man to his youth. The girl and the man decided to marry.

Before you go on, stop and reflect on your personal reactions to this tale.

According to Father Metayer (an Eskimo elder? a priest? the introduction to the book this story is in, by Al Purdy, doesn't clarify), "the girl of the story did not want to be loved by any of the young men of her group. Because she rejected love, her beauty, her very flesh, was destroyed. Only when somebody loved her...when she accepted him, was she 'born again' as a beautiful girl. And in turn her love gave back to the old man his lost youth. You see now the very impoartant message of this story: a woman is not fully a woman without the love of a man. And a man will never grow old as long as he has the love of a woman."

Al Purdy himself reminds the readers that "the myth itself is not didactice before interpretation." This is certainly true, because I didn't read the tale at all like Father Metayer!

To me, this tale was about empowerment. In a world of fairy tales where it seems that women automatically accept marriage from any man the moment it's offered, here we have someone with standards. I would see the mistreatment from the bears as a lesson against trusting strangers, not as a punishment for not accepting earlier marriage proposals. The female character learns to take care of herself. I find the ending beautiful-two people, both rejected by their cultures, who find frienship and eventually love with each other.

Now it's your turn. What were your thoughts as you read the tale? Please comment! Everyone's thoughts are valid. Everyone's unique experiences can help open other people's eyes to possible ways to see this tale (for example, I'm single and loving it, and I get extremely irritated by implications that there's something wrong with a single woman who isn't actively pursuing a husband. This clearly influences my reading of the tale).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Take on Beastly

I saw most of Beastly in piecemeal on my flight back from France. I had heard that this movie wasn't really quality, but sort of a fun guilty pleasure-watching flick. For me, any movie with a tortured disabled man in love with a woman is usually guaranteed to be a guilty pleasure, but I have to say this movie left me pretty unmoved.

In general, though, I dislike chick flicks, but there are a few that give me warm gushy feelings inside, especially any version ever of Beauty and the Beast. But to me this movie had nothing special to it-yes it's modern, the characters have dramatic backstories to keep it more realistic, but that's been done before. It had a lot of similarities to the Disney version, to the point where I wondered if the creators knew any other version of Beauty and the Beast (even down to specific lines-"You have to go to him/you must go to him" when Beauty's father is in trouble, and "It IS you!" after he transforms.)

The script is cheesy, the kind that tries to make the characters deep and witty, yet ends up feeling random. And like I've said before, I just really don't like Vanessa Hudgens. The movie might have been a completely different experience for me with someone else in the lead.

And like I've heard someone comment before, after all the talk about the Beast character being so gruesome, he really isn't. He looks like he really likes tattoos all over.

I should note that I haven't read the book, so I have no idea how faithful the movie was. I wasn't going to see it until I had read the book, but it was on the plane, I was bored, and there you go.

My take on Tangled

Finally saw Tangled! I had only heard positive things about this movie, from the kids I babysit to adults who are way into fairy tales. I was still a little skeptical-I tend to be purist and don't like major changes to fairy tale plots. But, there's a difference between abusing a plot, and playing around with it, and I ended up really enjoying the movie. I liked the addition of the magic flower-I thought it gave an interesting and more plausible reason for why a witch would want to steal and raise someone else's baby and keep it confined to a tower.

It's silly, it's unrealistic (even aside from the whole magic hair thing), but it's lots of fun. It somehow manages to have all the stereotypical Disney Princess film elements which are sincere and yet at the same time gently poking fun at themselves.

If I were to get really picky, I would be suspicious about whether or not we can actually trust Flynn by the end of the movie. He's really a nasty person at the beginning-not only is he a theif but he abandons his partners-and the only redeeming thing he does is fall for the hot chick. But, I don't think we're supposed to take it that seriously.

One issue it made me think of-which is not only an issue in this version, but any Rapunzel story or story with evil parents-is, that children seeing this movie where Rapunzel is rightly rewarded for disobeying and escaping her manipulative false mother might think they're justified for refusing to listen to their parents as well (I'm a teacher-I can't help thinking of what's being communicated to and perceived by young people). I liked that this villain was more realistic than the traditional witch, and we've probably all met that type of person who insults you and is "just joking." That element of realism makes the story more applicable to more people, but most children at some point think that their parents are too controlling and "they won't let me do ANYthing," and seeing this movie would make it seem like any parent who denies their child anything is wrong.

But I'm not bashing this version, if there's any Disney movie that enforces horrible morals about disobeying your parents it's Little Mermaid. There's a difference between kidnapping/lying, and being strict-although that's harder for some people to discern. It's just human nature that we like to identify ourselves with the victim. Whenever I was a kid and had to do chores-perfectly fair chores-I would usually get all upset and then get secret satisfaction from comparing myself to Cinderella, although our situations were not at all the same. Likewise, it would be easy for a person to take a rule given by an authority figure and see themselves as the victim of a tyrant. In a way, that's part of the fun of fairy tales-turning minor real-life situations into games of pretend. You don't have to have been imprisoned all your life to feel understanding to Rapunzel's longing to be free.

Any thoughts/comments on the possibility of taking story applications too far? There's a story in "Cinderella: A Casebook" about a little girl in a perfectly healthy home life who accused her mother of treating her like Cinderella, I can look it up if anyone's interested.

Faerie Snippets

I'm back! My trip was absolutely fantastic!

I love Europe. I always feel a little bit like I've stepped back in time when I go there. After our music trip was over, I stayed a few nights in a tiny, quaint German town that literally felt like a scene from a children's story book.

My friend and I hiked up a mountain to an old castle ruins, from the top of which you could look simultaneously into France and Switzerland.

And I did end up going to Disneyland Paris! Don't worry, I also saw the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and walked along the Seine and all that too. Overall, I do like the American Disneylands better, but I'm glad I went. There were some things in Paris I liked better. And, it's different enough from America that it's worth it for Disney Park fans to go just to see what's different.

Between Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida, though each park has its own unique rides, the rides that they share are pretty much identical on the inside. In general, the Parisian fantasyland dark rides were all pretty much the same. Other rides were altered slightly, and some were very different. I was so excited that they had the Indiana Jones ride-my friend had never been to Disneyland and I kept trying to explain how unbelievable this ride is. And then we got there, and it was just a roller coaster. (Really, you have to experience the California Indiana Jones ride to understand why a roller coaster is a disappointment).

Storybook Land!

Beauty and the Beast!

Back to Germany. These little garden gnomes are all over. Do you spot Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and a fairy in this window?

And...Little Red Riding Hood Camembert cheese!