Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Godfather Death

There once lived a very poor man with twelve children who had to work all day and night to feed them. When a thirteenth child was born, he desperately went out into the road to find a godfather. First he came across the Lord, who promised to take care of the child, but the man refused, because of the way the Lord gave to the rich and let the poor go hungry. The man came across the devil, but the man refused him as well because he deceives people and leads them astray. Lastly he came to Death, and the man accepted his offer because Death made no distinction between the rich and the poor.

Death followed through on his promise and gave his godson a gift-he would become a famous physician with the ability to tell if a patient would survive or not. If Death was standing by the head of the bed of the patient, the physician would be able to cure him with an herb that Death gave him-if Death stood by the foot of the bed, the patient would die. With this advantage, the physician became famous and rich.

But one day the physician was called to look in on the King, who was sick, and when he got there, he saw Death at the foot of the bed. Though he knew he would be risking Death's displeasure, the physician turned the bed so that Death was at the head and administered the healing herb. Death was upset and warned his godson he wouldn't be able to get away with any trickery again.

Ludwig Richter

Not long afterwards, the King's daughter fell ill, and the King proclaimed that if anyone could save her, he should marry her and inherit the crown. The physician was so dazzled by her beauty and the prospect of being a King that he ignored his godfather and turned the bed again, giving her the herb. But this time Death was so furious that he took the physician by the hand and down to a cavern filled with flickering candles of all sizes. Death explained that each human life had a candle, and as soon as the candle flickered out, their life was over. Death showed the physician his candle, which was just about to go out. The physician begged to be allowed to live and marry the princess, but Death could not light a new candle without snuffing out another one. Death pretended he was getting a new candle for his godson, but deliberately put the candle out because he wanted his revenge, and the physician fell down and his life was ended.

This morbid tale taps into two things that all people struggle with at some point, no matter what your faith-the unfairness and cruelty of the world, and the inevitability of death. Naturally it would have been completely controversial in Victorian times to accuse God of being unfair, so the Grimms threw in a little narration to save themselves: "The man said that because he did not know how wisely God distributes wealth and poverty." Even though I'm a Christian, I don't like this little addendum of theirs-it sounds like the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. And poverty for this man wasn't just that he had to wait a while before getting the newest version of the Iphone-it meant real hunger and deprivation, and watching his children suffer as well.

But I don't see Death as being all that much fairer. Yes, death comes to all, but death comes to some who are young and some who are old, and some suffer in death and some go peacefully. In this tale, even though Death supposedly makes no distinction between wealth and poverty, he gives his godson a gift that allows him to be rich and successful, and has mercy on him after his first offense.

I find it interesting that so many cultures personified Death as a character. Sometimes this is done more humorously, as in Family Guy where Death is just a regular guy doing his job and trying to get a girl. But aside from parodies, stories that feature Death generally all point to the same conclusion-no one can escape or cheat death. The trickery that the physician tries probably would have been rewarded in some fairy tales, but here it proves to be his downfall. And the cavern full of flickering candles is so haunting-it reminds me of one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, "The Scythe," where a man is unwillingly made to be, essentially, Death, cutting down stalks of wheat which are each people's lives-and he, like the physician in this tale, discovers that he can't cheat the system or save the lives of people he loves.
Sorry to end on such a downer-hope you all have a magically wicked Halloween weekend!

Monday, October 24, 2011

In the Hall of the Mountain King

The Woman in Green: Besides those rags you have other clothing?
Peer Gynt: Ah, you should see my Sunday garments!
WIG: My week-day garments are gold and silver.
PG: It looks to me more like tow and grasses.
WIM: Yes. There's just one thing to remember:
We mountain folk have an ancient custom;
All that we have has a double shape.
So when you come to my father's palace
It would not be in the least surprising
If you were inclined to think it merely
A heap of ugly stones and rubbish.
PG: That's just the same as it is with us!
You may think our gold all rust and mildew,
And mistake each glittering window-pane
For a bundle of worn-out clouts and stockings.
WIG: Black looks like white, and ugly like fair.
PG: Big looks like little, and filthy like clean.
WIG: Oh, Peer, I see we are splendidly suited!

This passage is from Ibsen's play "Peer Gynt," which is (loosely) based on Norwegian folklore. It strikes me for multiple reasons-the characters here are lying but it's a common aspect of Faerie lore that the enchanted person may see a beautiful palace full of riches, which in reality is a shack full of rags and broken utensils, or something to that affect. Yet, if there are two possible ways of perceiving, who's to say which version of the Faerie world is real? Even when the literal facts don't change, sometimes all it takes is a little imagination and contentment to make a situation enchanting for one person but miserable for another. The aspect of not judging by initial appearances of course brings to mind Beauty and the Beast, but the element of deception also has similarities to the Emperor's New Clothes.

After this part of the play, Peer goes to the Hall of the Mountain King to marry his new bride (the Woman in Green is really the Troll King's daughter), but is turned upon by the Trolls when he isn't willing to have his eyes gauged out so that she will seem beautiful to him. Don't feel too sorry for Peer though-he only wanted to marry her because he heard she was rich. Hence this very famous classical piece, which I bet you've heard even if you're not into classical music. Below is a metal version by Apocalyptica.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My favorite dark retellings of fairy tales

...All happen to be collections of short stories. When I first discovered these, in my ignorance, I called this subgenre "dark, twisted fairy tales," which I guess are really "antitales," but my term gets the point across anyway.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How children played butcher with each other

The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Maria Tatar has an Adult Tales section in the back, which is intruiguing, especially considering that morbid tales such as The Robber Bridegroom, Fitcher's Bird, and the Juniper Tree are in the regular section. The tales in the adult section aren't necessarily more violent than the above tales, but either racist ("The Jew in the Brambles") or violent in such a way that is condoned because it's a cautionary tale, but such that goes to extremes.

This was actually quite typical for Victorian children's stories, as can be evidenced by Struwwelpeter-a collection of German tales featuring children who suffer drastically for their mistakes, including: a girl who plays with matches and is burned to death, a boy whose thumb sucking results in his thumbs being cut off by giant scissors, a boy who goes outside during the storm and is carried off by the wind, "presumably to his doom" get the idea. Struwwelpeter himself is the cautionary tale about the importance of good grooming, the consequences of which are pretty severe, according to this picture on the left.

So maybe it's not just the violence that makes this tale disturbing, but the matter of fact way it's told:

"A man once slaughtered a pig while his children were looking on. When they started playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other: "You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher," whereupon he took an open blade and thrust it into his brother's neck. Their mother, who was upstairs in a room bathing the youngest child in a tub, heard the cries of her other child, quickly ran downstairs, and when she saw what had happened, drew the knife out of the child's neck, and in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the child who had been the butcher. She then rushed back to the house to see what her other child was doing in the tub, but in the meantime it had drowned in the bath. The woman was so horrified that she fell into a state of utter despair, refused to be consoled by the servants, and hanged herself. When her husband returned home from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that he died shortly thereafter."

According to Tatar's notes, the Grimms got complaints that this tale was violent and defended it because of its valuable lesson, Wilhelm saying, "My mother used to tell the story about the butchering when I was young, and it made me careful and apprehensive about child's play." Despite this reasoning, the tale didn't make it to later editions of Children and Household Tales.

I have lots of experience watching children play, and I think they have a pretty good sense that their play is not real, and they use imagination and not literal imitations even when copying adult behavior. Yet the concept of the potential for children to be cruel to each other mixed with their ignorance does make this a chilling tale that could possibly be made into a horror film...I'd watch that, if it was made well.

There is another version of this tale also found in Grimms that reads more like a news story-more specific, including the town name and ages of the children, and at the end the child in question is asked to choose between an apple and a coin, and as he chooses an apple, he is deemed innocent. It seems almost more upsetting to let the child get off scot free for murder simply because he didn't know any better. This article by Donald Haase has an interesting interpretation I hadn't considered-some fairy tales were not meant for children but may express adults' fears about parenting and raising children. The choice of apple verses coin represents the division between concrete and abstract thinking-something I understand as a teacher of students with developtmental disabilities who, in general, never go on to abstract thinking. The article discusses other aspects of this tale and is very interesting reading, so I recommend clicking through.

Monday, October 17, 2011

More Pumpkin Coaches





Last year I also featured a few images of DIY Cinderella coaches using actual pumpkins. I rarely decorate pumpkins any more, but when I do, Cinderella's coach is the only thing I want to create!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Haunted Disneyland

In this age of technology I'm very skeptical of video "proofs" of ghosts...however I think it's still fun to read/watch and entertain the notion enough to get a thrill.

The above two videos seem the most convincing to me out of the several supposed ghost sightings in Disneyland on Youtube. Others are floating around out there and I either don't see anything or it's obviously a special effect. Disneyland is, after all, a place of illusion...
This ideo below is one man's explanation for the most common ghost "sightings," although from the comments left on youtube this isn't a very popular explanation for the supposed ghosts. You can decide for yourself which explanation seems most likely.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Real Wicked Queens

Everyone likes a really evil villain who gets punished at the end of the story, but I personally never found the wicked queens and stepmothers to be very convincing.

But as I learn more about royalty, I understand better why some of the wicked Queens in fairy tales behaved rather psychotic. A little jealousy is one thing, but to go to such extremes as Snow White's queen did, all the disguises and poisons, seems like too much just to hold a number one title that no one is even aware of except the mirror. But as royal people were raised, in general, they were told that they were inherently better than everyone else; that they deserved their royal position-it's a little hard for an American to understand when a presidency is fought for and held for only a relatively small amount of time. We (hopefully) respect our president but don't idolize him. But in an inherited monarchy, the Royal Family was basically one step under being God.

So their egos were totally inflated and royals were used to getting everything they wanted. Add to that the fact that royals were only allowed to marry other royals. That's really a small pool of people to choose from, and over time, royal families or local aristocratic families would intermarry several times and later generations would get a bit...unhinged.

The Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) was quite a colorful character-she was responsible for the torture and deaths of possibly over 600 young women. I mentioned her before after reading about her in a book. The wikipedia article makes it sound like many of the things in the book stated as fact are now more exaggerated legend, but according to The Truth About Dracula by Gabriel Ronay, she believed that bathing in the blood of young virgins would make her beautiful and had girls brought to her castle claiming to give them work, where she instead found pleasure in seeing them bleed under all kinds of torture, sometimes sucking their blood or sexually abusing them. Her desire for youth and beauty drove her far beyond the extremes of Snow White's mother/stepmother, and she was only caught once she decided to move from peasants' blood to more upper class blood, because again the law was so catered to the upper class Elizabeth could get away with nearly anything-and did for quite a while.

(EDIT: Read more about the likely true story on Multicolored Diary. It's probably just as horrifying as the truth)

I learned recently of Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) when reading Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire. He sets his novel retelling of Snow White in Italy and has her as the role of the Wicked Queen. He used some of the scandalous rumors about her-a possible incestuous relationship with her father, the Pope, and a fondness for poisons and murders make her a perfect candidate for the character. The facts about her life are not known for sure, but it makes you realize that even the exaggerated evil of the villains in fairy tales may not be all that far from the truth after all. (Technically my post title is a bit of a misnomer-it should have been "potentially real wicked queens" or something like that, but doesn't quite have the same ring to it...)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Panna a Netvor

Not to repost from Surlalune, because I think you all follow Surlalune anyway (and if you don't, you should), but I just wanted to throw in my two cents about a movie that was discussed last month- a 1978 Czech version of Beauty and the Beast, Panna a Netvor. (On Surlalune, you can read a very thorough and tantalizing review by guest writer Megan Kearney). I've gotten to the point where, if there's a version of Beauty and the Beast I haven't even heard of yet, it's probably not that good...but this one really is good and I was ecstatic to watch it! Now it is a little bizarre, sort of in the tradition of the Cocteau, but it's richly symbolic and has good exploration of the characters, especially the Beast.

And it is pretty dark-people get murdered (not typical for BATB,) it's kind of like an old haunted house movie meets a vampire romance. Seriusly-if you like the concept of Twilight but are appalled by its lack of quality, this movie is for you. The plot is basically: a supernatural creature feared by man is tortured by his love for a woman verses his animalistic bloodlust for her as well. Sound familiar?? Only this version has good acting and scriptwriting! Possibly the only intelligent review I've ever found of Twilight has to be this one from The Oatmeal...seriously, you should click through and read it because it's so funny but so true...

The Juniper Tree

Below is a summary of The Juniper Tree, a tale from the collection of the Brothers Grimm, full text can be read here. Look for the significance of food/eating, and the similarities between this tale and Snow White.

A long time ago, a man and his wife loved each other greatly but were sorrowful that they had no children and prayed fervently for one. One day when the woman was peeling an apple under the juniper tree in the garden, she cut her finger and blood dripped on the snow. She wished for a child as red as blood and as white as snow, and felt happy.

Spring came, and as the berries grew on the Juniper Tree, a child grew in her womb. The woman gorged herself on the berries from the Juniper Tree until she felt sick, and asked that if she die, she be buried under the Tree. The woman finally bore a son, as white as snow and as red as blood, and died of joy. The man was heartbroken and wept for days. After a time he felt better and was eventually ready to take a second wife.

The second wife gave birth to a daughter, and was concerned that her daughter receive the entire inheritance, and was harsh and cruel to the son.
One day her daughter asked her for an apple, and she gave her an apple from a chest with a big heavy lid. The girl asked if her brother could have an apple as well, and the woman, annoyed, said that the boy could have one when he got home from school. When he did, the wife acted as if possessed by the devil-she gave him a look of hate but asked sweetly if he would like an apple. He did, and as the little boy bent down into the chest, she slammed the lid down and his head flew off into the apples.

The wife realized with fear what she had done, and quickly fetched a scarf, propped the boy's body up, and tied the head on with the scarf. When his sister Marlene asked him a question and he did not answer, she became frightened of his stillness and pale face, and asked her mother about it. Her mother suggested that, if her brother did not answer her again, she slap his face. Marlene did this, and his head flew right off. Marlene ran crying to her mother, who said, "What a dreadful thing you've done! But don't breathe a word to a soul, for there's nothing we can do. We'll cook him up into a stew."

The mother chopped the little boy into pieces and cooked them into a stew which needed no salt because Marlene sat there and wept into it. When her father returned home, he asked where his son was, and his wife told him he had gone to stay with his uncle. The father was upset that his son had left so suddenly without saying goodbye, but he began eating the stew and thought it was delicious. He kept eating more and more, saying, "No one else can have any of it. Somehow I feel as if it's all for me."

Marlene sat crying through the meal. As her father threw the bones under the table, she collected them, tied them up in a silk handkerchief, and buried them under the Juniper Tree-only then did she feel better and stop crying. Just then a mist arose fom the tree, in which a flame was burning, and from the flame emerged a beautiful bird that began to sing. Marlene felt happy and returned home.

Kay Neilsen

The bird began to sing:
"My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!"

The neighbors who heard the bird all came out and begged him to repeat his song for them, but the bird said he would not repeat his song for nothing. He received a gold chain from the goldsmith, red shoes from the shoemaker, and a millstone from the mill workers, in payment for singing his song to them. Then the bird returned to the house with the Juniper Tree and began to sing his song again. His father felt happier the more the bird sang, the mother more frightened, and Marlene continued to weep. But the bird dropped the gold chain around the father's neck, and the red shoes at Marlene's feet, and she was happy again. The mother went outside to see if she would feel better too, but the bird dropped the millstone on her head and she died. The bird vanished in a cloud of flames, and when they left, their brother and son was standing there, and they all went in to a meal together.

Warwick Goble

This macabre tale adds cannibalism to the list of unsavory events that happen in the fairy tale world. In this tale, I don't find the murder scene nearly as chilling as the dinner scene, with the father obsessed with the stew made of his son's meat-though he is portrayed as a good character, his emotions in this tale are dramatically different than Marlene, the real compassionate hero, who was told that her brother's death was her fault.

This tale is not a true folk tale, but from a text given to the Grimms by Philipp Otto Runge, which is why it is a bit more realistic than some fairy tales. The mother has many emotions, from annoyance with her stepson, and when she kills her stepson it isn't necessarily the natural result of her hate but the result of a moment of temporary insanity; afterwards she is plagued by fear and guilt and tries to cover up what she's done, unusual for evil stepmother characters.

Maria Tatar says that both P.L. Travers and J.R.R. Tolkein thought this was a beautiful tale, despite its gruesome aspects, and I agree. Though the Grimms' version ends with the boy returning, some versions keep him as a bird. Though I'm happy for the family reunion ending (which represents the ideal family as motherless, which is a whole other issue...) I might like the other ending better. Again, it's more realistic. The son has been deeply traumatized and will never be the same, but there is still hope when he is transformed into a different, beautiful creature who recounts his story through song.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Swan Lake Images

I was looking for an image for my last post of Von Rothbart from Swan Lake, and found these images of Yolanda Sonnabend's designs for the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake, and they were all so spectacular I wanted to share them in a separate post.

A tale about the tale of Bluebeard

Once upon a time...

Hermann Vogel

I was babysitting three girls and the oldest was going through a phase where she HATED Disney Princesses, she only liked villains. She only liked scary things and her favorite color was black. So when it came to story time, I tried telling Beauty and the Beast, my go-to, but it wasn't scary enough because there was no villain. I told them Swan Lake, and she liked that better because of Von Rothbart, but still wanted scarier. So finally I said, "Okay, you really want scary? Then I'll tell you the story of Bluebeard."

In retrospect this was pretty dumb. She was only 5 or 6 at the time and had two younger sisters there. Her parents had asked me a while before this to kind of ignore the subject of death if it came up-these parents also later made us mute the volume of Katy Perry's "Hot n' Cold" every time we played it on Wii dance when she sang "PMS" because they told them it was a swear word, so they're pretty protective-which is something I should have respected at the time. But anyway, I told it, and Caroline (the oldest) seemed to like it and I hope the younger two weren't traumatized.

It was later that night when her parents came home that I really regretted it. Caroline was very excited to tell her father the stories that I told them, including, "And THEN she told us about BLUEBEARD!" and I was like, oh no, oh no-what was I thinking telling the story of a serial killer to three innocent little girls? The parents are going to fire me and this is my favorite family to babysit!

In this instance, the relative obscurity of the fairy tale in America was my salvation. Her dad laughed and said, "Oh, you mean Redbeard the Pirate?" and thought no more about it.
None of the girls ever mentioned Bluebeard again, and they turned out fine, but I still shouldn't have told it with the younger two there, and not when the parents clearly wouldn't have wanted me to. Raising your own children is COMPLETELY different than taking care of someone else's, and as I've said before, as a teacher and a babysitter, what you say to kids really can come back to haunt you so you have to be really careful. But at times, children can surprise you with what they're ready for...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Skeleton Fairies of Tessa Farmer

In theory, I plan on October being a sort of morbid/creepy fairy tale month, in honor of Halloween. I may run out of creepy things and find lots of cutesy things instead so we'll see, but to start off, these images of fairies by Tessa Farmer that are definitely not the fairies we're used to seeing.

From her website:
"Tessa's miniscule sculptures reinvigorate a belief in fairies: not the sweet Tinkerbell image in popular conscience, but a biological, entomological, macabre species translating pastoral fable into nightmarish lore. Constructed from bits of organic material, such as roots, leaves, and dead insects, each of Tessa's figures stand barely 1 cm tall, their painstakingly intricate detail visible only through a magnifying glass.

Hovering with rarefied, jewel-like beauty, Tessa's tiny spectacles resound with a theurgist exotica: their specimen forms borrow from Victorian occultism to evolve as something alien and futuristic. Playing out apocalyptic narratives of a microscopic underworld, Tessa's manikin wonders rule with baneful fervour: harnessing mayflies, battling honey bees, attacking spindly spiders. Presented as wee preternatural discoveries, Tessa's sculptures conjure a superstitious premise, dismantling the mythos of fantasia with evidence of something much more gothic, sinister, and bewitching."

More images can be viewed here.