Sunday, July 29, 2012

Was the Little Mermaid after the Prince or a Soul?

I was asked in the comments after I shared the poem "The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight" whether I agreed that Andersen's Little Mermaid was really as desperate for a man as Debra Cash made her out to be.

I had to reread the Andersen version, because the Disney is so prevalent it can be easy to fill in the blanks of what I've forgotten with the details found in Disney.

In Andersen's tale, the youngest mermaid sister is not the only one with a fascination with the world on land-all of her sisters eagerly await their turn (at age 15) to finally visit the surface. They all enjoy collecting items from shipwrecks, and the littlest sea maid is actually unusual in that the only human relic she has in her garden is a statue of a handsome boy. The sisters are not given any prohibition not to show themselves to the humans-in fact, one sister swims over to a group of children, who all ran away from her in fear. In general I think the reader of fairy tales can identify with a fascination with Otherness, and it can be entertaining to think of our own culture through the eyes of a different species.

The elder sisters took on characteristics of sirens as well-"many an evening hour the five sisters took one another by the arm and rose up in a row over the water. They had splendid voices, more charming than any  mortal could have; and when a storm was approaching, so that they could apprehend that ships would go down, they swam before the ships and sang lovely songs, which told how beautiful it was at the bottom of the sea, and exhorted the sailors not to be afraid to come down. But these could not understand the words, and thought it was the storm sighing; and they did not see the splendours below, for if the ships sank they were drowned, and came as corpses to the Sea King's palace." Already we see mermaids in quite a different light than Disney's Ariel-there is a darker and dangerous side to them, as they don't have particular regard for human lives.

This is what makes the youngest mermaid stand out from her sisters-her concern for the Prince, when she saves his life. From then on, she does sort of stalk him...she finds out where he lives and watches his palace from the sea. In her defense, it's not totally love at first sight-she overhears fisherman speaking good of the Prince, and began to care about people in general.

Also, the mortal/immortal issue in Little Mermaid is kind of confusing: according to Andersen, mermaids can live to three hundred years, but once they die, they simply cease to exist; whereas humans, although they live shorter lives, has an immortal soul. It when she learns this that the mermaid desires an immortal soul herself, and asks if there were any way she could win one herself, and learns that "only if a man were to love you so that you should be more to him than father or mother; if he should cling to you with his every thought and with all his love, and let the priest lay his right hand in yours with a promise of faithfulness here and in all eternity, then his soul would be imparted to your body, and you would receive a share of the happiness of mankind."

From then on it seems her desire for the Prince and for the soul are equally her two passions, although she never sought such drastic measures until after she learned about the soul, so you could argue she never would have risked so much just for the prince. (Recap of what she gave up: not only her voice, but her tongue was cut out; the pain of her fins becoming legs would feel as if a sword cut through them and each step would be as if walking on sharp knives. To top it all off, if she didn't win the prince's love she would not only lose her chance at an immortal soul but never have a chance to become a mermaid again.)

The Prince, may I add, is a total player. He tells the mermaid that though he must see the Princess for his parents' sake, he does not wish to marry her and would rather have the former mermaid for his bride, and "kissed her red lips and played with her long hair, so that she dreamed of happiness an of an immortal soul." He marries the other Princess pretty much immediately though, because she was beautiful and he thought she was the one who saved him from the shipwreck.

The Mermaid knew she would die at sunrise. She was given a chance to kill the prince and return to her mermaid form and live out her three hundred years, but declined. It was because of this that she became a spirit, who would gain an immortal soul in three hundred years.

So: Do I agree with Debra Cash? I don't think so-I think she definitely missed the emphasis put on the soul, although the Prince was definitely more than a means to obtaining her immortality. Maybe Cash's poem should have read, "Disney lied." It's kind of sad that the Andersen version should be so tainted by our perceptions of the Disney version, which is my least favorite of all the fairy tale Disney movies...
I have to say-this is one of the fairy tales I've changed my mind about over time. I used to look down on the mermaid for her obsession with a man she hardly knew, but that was before I had been in any relationships of my own. I'm definitely guilty of having watched other people and saying, "I would NEVER lose my head over a guy like that," only to do the exact same thing I'd sworn I would never do. So I have more sympathy for the little mermaid now...although it's still a good reminder to guard your heart, as much as possible, for not every romance turns out the way we'd like it to.

Illustrations: Edward Matthew Hale, Jennie Harbour, Howard Pyle, W. Heath Robinson

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jack Zipes on Rapunzel

The tale of Rapunzel features two story elements which were very common in fairy tales and midieval literature. The first is the maiden imprisoned in a tower, the purpose of this being to protect the maiden's chastity. Ironically, since these stories all seem to involve the maiden being discovered and wooed by a man anyway, you could take the meaning of the tales to imply that, no matter how hard you try to hide a woman from the world, or perhaps prevent a girl from becoming a woman, it's going to happen whether you like it or not (remember, in early versions, Rapunzel became pregnant before the prince was discovered). And often, if a child is sheltered to the extreme, they may go to the opposite extreme out of spite.

The other motif is that of the pregnant woman craving a certain food and going to extreme lengths to procure it. Zipes sheds some light on this in historical context: it was believed that if a pregnant woman's cravings were not met, bad luck would befall the pregnancy, so "it was incumbent on the husband and other friends and relatives to use spells or charms or other means to fulfill the cravings."

Madame D'Aulnoy's "The White Cat" (1697) uses both of these motifs, with one major twist from the versions we're used to: the prince dies (eaten by a dragon), and the Rapunzel character becomes a white cat, until she can find a prince who resembles her dead lover.  Kind of a disturbing twist, but Zipes explains that D'Aulnoy was critiquing forced marriages, a popular topic for female French fairy tale authors at the time.

Illustration by Anne Anderson. Information taken from The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight

Excerpt from a poem by Debra Cash:

"Hans lied. He simply couldn't imagine
I would want to shed the blubbery tail
dragging behind me like a torn bridal gown,
that I would prefer to stand on my own two feet
and walk on my own, love or no love.

Hans lied. He didn't know the prince was just an excuse
for me to change my life, to stop being a sister, a daughter."

Warwick Goble

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Children Living in a Time of Famine

Two sources I was reading recently referenced this tale, so I thought I would feature it here. Turns out, it's not as easy as it seems-this sad, short little tale was excluded from later editions of the Grimms' Children and Household Tales, apparently including my own copy (which is supposedly the "complete fairy tales"...) and the text is not as easily found on the internet as most Grimm tales. I did end up finding it here.

I was going to include comments at the end but found I was at a loss for I'll let the tale speak for itself, but just mention that this tale reflects, like many others, the very real problem of hunger many hearers and tellers of fairy tales faced.

"There once lived a woman who fell into such deep poverty with her two daughters that they didn't even have a crust of bread to put in their mouths. Finally they were so famished that the mother was beside herself with despair and said to the older child: "I will have to kill you so that I'll have something to eat."

The daughter replied, "Oh no, dearest mother, spare me. I'll go out and see to it that I can get something to eat without having to beg for it."

And so she went out, returned, and brought with her a small piece of bread that they all ate, but it did little to ease the pangs of hunger.

And so the mother said to her other daughter, "Now it's your turn."

But she replied, "Oh no, dearest mother, spare me. I'll go out and get something to eat without anyone noticing it."

And so she went out, returned, and brought with her two small pieces of bread. They all ate them, but it was too little to ease their pangs of hunger. After a few hours, the mother said to them once again: "You will have to die, otherwise we'll all perish."

The girls replied, "Dearest mother, we'll lie down and go to sleep, and we won't rise again until the day of judgement." And so they lay down and slept so soundly that no one could awaken them. The mother left, and not a soul knows where she is."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Disneyland then and now

Happy birthday, Disneyland!!

Came across this site with some very old Disneyland pictures, and I was reminded of how different it is now than when it opened in the 1955! (These pictures were taken sometime in the 50s or 60s)

The lagoon in Fantasyland used to host actual mermaids! Due to sunstroke/sunburn they are no longer there...The old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride has been replaced by the Finding Nemo subarine.
 The entrance to Tomorrowland has changed quite a bit-

As has the park entrance. This sign was taken down:
 And now we have this-

This one's my favorite. Would you allow your child to take her picture with this rabbit?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Beauty and the Beast as a Socio-Historical Tale

One of Jerry Griswold's purposes in The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast: A Handbook is to outline the major interpretations critics have assigned to the tale. He divides them into the following categories: psychological, socio-historical, and feminist (which, ironically, includes two very opposite interpretations: those who see the story as victimizing women, and those who find it to be very empowering to women). I've posted before on the psychological as well as the various feministic interpretations, and if you do any type of digging into Beauty and the Beast you're bound to come across them, but I don't think I've ever read about this particular aspect of the tale before, so I was intrigued:

According to Jack Zipes, if we look at the story in its historical context, we will see that it is a story of class struggle. The very presence of a merchant is unusual in the history of fairy tales, which usually feature the poorest of peasants and the most elite royals, but in this story we see the emergence of a middle class.

At the time that de Villeneuve and Beaumont were penning what would become the most famous version of one of the most classic and popular tales (18th century France), the middle class was gaining the upper hand. The members of nobility were increasingly getting poorer, but at least had their status; while the middle class were becoming richer through their businesses. It was a common thing to see a merchant's daughter entering into an arranged marriage with a destitute nobleman, allowing one family to contain both a title and wealth at the same time.

The story of Beauty and the Beast certainly explores the rise and fall of Beauty's family in society-her father starts out as a wealthy merchant, her sisters as materialistic and greedy and always wanting to improve their situation. When Beauty's father loses his money, we are reminded that status based on wealth is not always secure, and the family becomes poor farmers, where it is Beauty's contentedly cheerful, hard-working nature that keeps the family afloat.

Then we meet the Beast-although Beauty has the upper hand in looks, he certainly has the upper hand in wealth, status, and material goods. We of course later find out that he is a prince.

This is actually the opposite kind of situation that was really happening all over France-for in this story we have a nobleman whose wealth is supplied by magic and therefore cannot run out, who is generous to the poor family of Beauty-a family who you could argue has been chided for being social climbers and encouraged to become simple, hard-working farmers. According to Griswold, "In other words, in the midst of changing times, Beaumont seems to offer a kind of backwards-looking endorsement of the nobility, a flattering and conservative portrait of the ancien regime." In Zipes' words, the aim of Beaumont is to "put the bourgeoisie in their place."

This is where I don't understand why scholars refer only to Beaumont's version. Beaumont did not add anything essential to the tale, she only simplified de Villeneuve's. The negative portrayal of the sisters, the fall in status of the family, were all originally de Villeneuve's-yet with one major difference when talking about class struggle: de Villeneuve includes a backstory for Beauty in which she is actually the daughter of a king and a fairy, therefore hers is not a rise in status at all, but a restoration of her rightful place. So in one way it is very much an affirmation of the goodness of the nobility, yet all throughout, Beauty is still praised for her uncomplaining, hardworking attitude, yet all the while she is truly a princess. So ultimately, de Villeneuve probably wasn't pushing for the merchant class to go "back to the farm and become once again hardworking and uncomplaining peasants" as Griswold indicates was Beaumont's goal. Beauty was the only one happy in that life, and she was the one who was the key to her family's escaping it-yet fairy tales are certainly full of rewards that seem to contradict the intended moral anyway. But I think that in order to get the full historical context you would need to look at the full tale on which Beaumont's version was based.

Illustrations by Eleanor Vere Boyle

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Barrel Bung: A Swedish Fairy Tale

The people of the Bolinge parish were suffering from famine. All the cows had seemed to run dry, but for the rich, elderly Lady Skinflint and her ugly daughter. Though the old lady and her daughter only had four cows, they had hundreds of cheeses and tubs of butter to sell. The people didn't understand how theirs could be the only house which produced milk, but there was nothing they could do.

Finally, when Star, the wife Jonson's cow stopped giving milk, her eldest son Jerker decided to do something about it. As he went to bed, he left his candle burning, knowing that the tomte, or goblin, would come by to blow it out. When the tomte came, Jerker jumped up and bowed to him, and asked the tomte if he had moved out, since the blessings seemed to have left their house and gone to Lady Skinflint in the manor. The tomte would only tell him that, if he could look into Lady Skinflint's storeroom, there he would find the answers.

So the next morning, Jerker awoke at dawn, and traded his nice Sunday clothes for some rye cakes with butter, and sausages. He went on to the manor and offered his services as a farmhand, giving some of his food to the current farmhand in order to convince him to pretend to be sick, so they would hire him.

Jerker tried to get a glimpse into the storeroom, but it was kept locked. The ugly daughter would hand him cheeses from the storeroom to bring to the larder, but he could not see inside the storeroom. He managed to pretend to hurt himself and steady himself on the door, but secretly stuck a stick inside the lock and broke it off. With the lock broken, the lady and her daughter stood guard in front of the door.

In the evening, Jerker pretended to fall asleep, but then snuck down and waited outside the storeroom until the lady and her daughter came. He watched as the old woman fished in her pocket and brought out a big barrel stopper, or bung, and wedged it in a hole in the wall. The old woman sat down on a milking stool, placing a pail just under the bung, and patted the bung, saying, "Come, Boss. Come, Brindle Bell. Come, all you cows."
"Which one will you milk first today?" asked her daughter.
"I think I'll have the parish clerk's Bean. Come Bean, come Bean," she called.

As Jerker watched a large cow's udder appeared under the bung on the wall. The woman gripped it and sang:
"Cow of gold,
cow of gold,
give as much milk
as the pail will hold."

Milk came from the cow's udder and filled the pail. The old woman did the same to the sheriff's cow, but when she suggested Mother Johnson's cow Star, Jerker decided to put a stop to it.He called,
"Cow of gold,
cow of gold,
knock the hag out,
knock her cold."

Instead of an udder, a cow's leg shot forth from the bung and kicked the hag. Jerker continued to sing the song, and as he did, the cow's leg continued to kick the mother and her daughter. The old lady was angry, but eventually pleaded with Jerker, promising to do anything in order to get him to stop. He told her to bring him all the gold she and her daughter had earned by milking the cows of the village, and he also took the bung.

Jerker woke the manservant, and together they carried the bag of gold back to the village, which they distributed equally to all the villagers. The people were grateful and decided to all give Jerker 10% of their share. Jerker was able to buy a farm and marry the girl he liked. Lady Skinflint and her daughter became poor. The bung he destroyed in a fire so that it would never harm anyone again.

*Story by Anna Wahlenberg, illustration by John Bauer. By the way, interesting article on John Bauer here, that compares him to contemporary fairy tale artists

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Color symbolism in Disney's Beauty and the Beast

 The filmmakers of Disney's Beauty and the Beast were very intentional about many of the details, including the colors of each characters' wardrobes.

For example, can you tell what color is missing from the picture below?
 I would never in a million years have picked up on this if I hadn't read it in Charles Solomon's Tale as Old as Time, but Belle is the only one in her village to wear blue, so that visually she stands out, because she's different from everyone else. I like this concept but kind of wish they'd used something a little more obvious. Who notices lack of blue?
 But another reason for Belle's wardrobe: In the words of Art Director Brian McEntee, "Beast starts out in very dark colors; Belle starts off in very cool colors. As the film progresses, her wardrobe warms up and his cools down. When you get to the ballroom, she's in gold, and he's in blue: they're falling in love, so they're at the same place."

But I'm convinced that the real logic behind each Disney princess' dress can be boiled down to marketing-so that when the princesses are displayed all together they create a nice rainbow effect 
By the way...this is my hundredth post with a Beauty and the Beast tag!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Cinderella before Perrault

We've all come to know the Perrault version as the classic Cinderella, especially through the Disney movie based on Perrault's tale. But as Pat Schaefer reminds us in "The Contribution of Marian Roalfe Cox," from Cox's 1893 collection of Cinderella tales, many of the "standard" details we think of as making up the story of Cinderella aren't really the most prominent in the history of the story. In the words of Stith Thompson (1946): "The version of Perrault is so familiar through two hundred and fifty years' use as a nursery tale that we are likely to think that all the details he mentions are essential. Some of them, as a matter of fact, are practically unknown elsewhere." Using Schaefer's gleaning of Cox's text, we can see how non-essential some of the details really are:

Glass slippers-in Cox's study of 345 variants of the Cinderella tale, only six of them involve glass slippers. The identification of the heroine through footwear is prominent, however, but the shoes are most often made of other precious metals-silver, pearls, silk, diamonds-but sometimes more simple shoes, such as clogs and boots. Other Cinderellas were identified not through shoes at all, but through other objects-jewelry or a glove

The ball-Cinderellas are discovered at some sort of gathering, but most often at church and not a ball. Cinderellas may also attend festivals, the theatre, the races, the dancing-green, or simply go to town.

Midnight-Cinderella is rarely given such a specific stipulation, and the spell doesn't actually "end," she is simply warned to return before the others.
Fairy godmother-This element also is rare, as most Cinderellas are aided by animals, supernatural beings, or inanimate objects. Animals usually represent the spirit of a dead mother or father, and may be any thing from dogs to fish, ermine to eel. Cinderella may also be helped by a tree (such as in the Grimm version), or even in one tale, by a magic sword.
 Illustrations by Edmund Dulac

Edit: This article, shared by Heidi of Surlalune, has a quote I really like which very much relates to this post: "There is no one authoritative tale of Cinderella, only a hall of mirrors with a different face in each reflection." In the article Marie Rutkoski discusses various versions of Cinderella, especially how the older ones connect Cinderella so closely to nature-animals and plants end up being the driving force in the action in the story. Click through for a fairly brief but interesting read!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Basile's The Young Slave

"The Young Slave" is a Snow White variant found in Giambattista Basile's collection, The Pentamerone.

In this tale, a young woman is impregnated by swallowing a rose leaf. She sent the child, named Lisa, to the fairies to give her charms, but the last fairy slipped and twisted her foot as she was running to see the child, and uttered a curse against her-that when the child was seven, her mother would leave a comb in her hair, stuck into the hair, from which the child would perish.

This happened just as the fairy had said, and the mother lamented bitterly, and encased the body in seven caskets of crystal, each one within the other, which she put in a distant room and locked, keeping the key in her pocket, telling no one. After some time, as the mother was dying, she entrusted the key to her brother, begging him to never open the last room in the house.

The brother was faithful, but when he left on a hunting party, he gave the keys to his wife, telling her not to open the last room. The wife grew suspicious, and "impelled by jealousy and consumed by curiosity, which is a woman's first attribute," she opened the forbidden chamber. Lisa had grown into a woman in her sleep, the caskets lengthening with her, and the wife found a beautiful woman hidden in the caskets. Convinced she was her husband's mistress, she opened the caskets and dragged Lisa out by the hair, causing the comb to drop and Lisa to awake. The jealous wife began to beat Lisa, tearing her hair and clothes, giving her bruises all over, and kept her as a slave.

One day the husband was going out of town again, and asked everyone in the household what presents they would like him to bring them, "even the cats." The wife became furious when the husband asked Lisa as well, but the husband insisted it was only courteous to offer Lisa a gift. Lisa demanded a doll, a knife, and a pumice-stone, and added that if the husband forgot them, he would be unable to cross the first river he came to on his return.

The husband did initially forget the gifts, but upon being unable to cross water on his way home, he remembered, and bought the gifts for Lisa. When Lisa had her doll, she began to tell the doll her story, which the husband overheard. Lisa was weeping and sharpening her knife, telling the doll, "Answer me, dolly, or I will kill myself with this knife." The husband, her uncle, kicked down the door and snatched the knife away.

Once her uncle had learned the truth, he drove his wife away and gave Lisa a husband of her own choice. "Thus Lisa testified that
              heaven rains favors on us when we least expect it"
I don't know that I quite agree with the "moral" of this story being the main point that comes across. This tale has some interesting parallels with other fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty and the fairy's curse, Bluebeard and the forbidden room/blame placed on female curiosity, Cinderella and abuse, Beauty and the Beast and the request for gifts on a return from a journey, even Goose Girl in that the rescue came from the heroine telling her story to an inanimate object), as well as differences from the Grimm version we're more familiar with (seven caskets rather than dwarves, the comb is present not as a temptation from the evil mother figure but still as an instrument of death, absence of the apple). And though Lisa is rewarded with a husband, he is not at all related to her rescuer-in fact, wouldn't it have been completely counter-cultural in 17th century Italy to give a girl her choice of husband, not the other way around? Was this a little taste of female empowerment?