Friday, September 28, 2012

Women's Wiles: A Syrian Tale

This story is found in the book Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, edited by Kathleen Ragan (I featured some of Jane Yolen's preface recently). And yes, I think my fellow women especially will enjoy this tale-

There was a rich merchant who had a sign in his store that read, "Men's Wits Beat Women's Wiles." One day the blacksmith's daughter passed by and saw the sign, and it made her angry. She developed a plan to teach the blacksmith a lesson.

The next day she went into the shop, and burst into tears. The merchant pursuaded her to tell him what was wrong. She pretended that she was the daughter of the quadi, or judge, and that whenever a suitor came to ask for her hand in marriage, her father would tell the suitor his daughter was lame, had crossed eyes, and crippled, and they no longer wanted to marry her. The merchant was so moved by her beauty and by her story he determined to ask for her hand in marriage himself.

The merchant went to the quadi and asked for his daughter. The quadi insisted she was cross-eyed, lame, and crippled, but the merchant said "I shall not complain." He paid the bride money and preparations were made for the wedding.

One day a large basket was delivered from the qadi's house, which the merchant assumed would be his bride's linen, but when he opened it, he discovered a squint-eyed cripple, just as had been described to him, and not the woman who had come into his store.

The next day the blacksmith's daughter came into the store again, and the merchant demanded to know what he had done to deserve such trickery. The girl pointed to the sign and said, "Whose wits, do you think, are sharper now?...If you want me to help you out of this calamity, all you need to do is change your sign."

The merchant replaced his sign with another that said, "Women's Wiles Beat Men's Wits." The blacksmith's daughter advised him to have a wedding party, invite the gypsies, and pay them to call him cousin. As the qadi would not want to be related to gypsies by marriage, he would call off the wedding. All happened exactly as the blacksmith's daughter said, and the wedding was called off.

The next morning the merchant went to the blacksmith first thing to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage, but he made sure to go home with him for coffee, to make sure he was not tricked again. They were married with much rejoicing, "and the bride and groom lived in happiness as pure as gold of twenty-four carats."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Fairies Return Giveaway!

Goodreads is hostings a giveaway for the newly republished book, The Fairies Return! Click here to enter to win one of five copies

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Snow White and Rose Red

Arthur Rackham
Snow White and Rose Red always sticks out in my mind not primarily for being an Animal Bridegroom tale, for there are many of those, but for being an extremely rare example of positive familial female relationships. Sisters and mother all live in complete harmony from beginning to end of the tale, in direct contrast to all the other tales that gave Freud the fodder for his Oedipal theories. I always loved it for this reason and was disappointed to learn that this isn't truly a part of folklore.

The Grimms' story was based off of a tale from the early 1820s by Caroline Stahl, "The Ungrateful Dwarf," added to their 1837 edition of Children and Household Tales. According to Jack Zipes, there are no known oral tales related to this story, so Stahl's story really is the first of its kind.
Warwick Goble

In Stahl's version, the bear is not a main character, and he does not turn out to be a prince in disguise in the end who marries Snow White. The story purely revolves around Snow White's encounters with a dwarf, and after she does him favors time and time again, she never thanks her, through words or his obvious riches. After this pattern happens three times-the first to which Snow White was the only witness, the latter two her sister Rose Red was with her-the girls once again encounter the same dwarf, about to be devoured by a bear. The dwarf tries to distract the bear by pointing out how young and juicy the sisters are, but the bear devours the dwarf instead and went on his way.

Even more disappointing, in my mind, is the fact that the relationship between Snow White, Rose Red, and their mother was all completely added by Wilhelm Grimm. All we know about the sisters from Stahl's story is that they are two of "many, many" children, no mention of their personalities. Though the story shows them working together on several occasions, there is none of the love and loyalty from the Grimm's characters, who, whenever they went out, "always held hands...and when Snow White said, 'Let us never leave each other,' Rose Red answered 'Never, as long as we live.'"

Zipes points out that this is an example of the Grimms' domestication of fairy tales to become example tales for children. The first story already had an implied message against being greedy, and the sisters' relationship under Wilhelm's treatment becomes a little over exaggerated and almost suffocatingly saccharine...although I still enjoy seeing sisters and mothers get along in a fairy tale! Which version do you prefer?
Hermann Vogel

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

More CW Beauty and the Beast unenthusiasm

So no one appears to be excited about the new Beauty and the Beast show, fairy tale lovers or those just looking for entertaining new shows. The Washington Post's review deems it "hideously blah". It's nothing we haven't heard before circling around the blogosphere, mainly wondering where the Beast is: "Rather than slather on a lot of makeup and prosthetics, Vincent’s disfiguration is symbolized by a manly scar on Ryan’s pretty, pretty cheek."

In my opinion they should have just given the show and characters new names and marketed it as a new idea. Don't try to sell something as a show that still has fans and a following if it's such a stretch to equate it to the inspiration.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cinderella as related to Beauty and the Beast

W. Heath Robinson (an illustration of Beauty and the Beast...but most would probably assume it was Cinderella at first glance
I've never really thought of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella as related tales; I tend to think of them as very distinct tale types-any rise fairy tale (or rags-to-riches story) can be related to Cinderella whereas any story of forbidden/taboo love could be called a Beauty and the Beast tale. But in Jerry Griswold's The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast, he draws some connections between the Beaumont version of BATB and the Grimms' story Aschenputtel, going so far as to conclude the stories "differ only in emphasizing which parent is important". In fact, as the Grimms' collection was published about a half century after Beaumont's story, he suggests the oral tale they were told was possibly influenced by the well-known version of BATB.

1. The relationship of the main character to her sisters-the sisters in each tale are selfish and materialistic, mocking their younger sister. In Aschenputtel there is even a scene where the father makes a journey and asks his daughters which gifts they would like him to bring them, just like in BATB-the sisters ask for material, beautifying gifts (clothes and jewels), while Beauty asks for a rose and Cinderella asks for a branch-modest gifts of nature.

2. Both heroines must separate from a parent and transfer their affections to their lover. Anyone familiar with Beauty and the Beast will know Beauty is quite the Daddy's girl, willing to die for him, running home as soon as she finds out he is sick. Aschenputtel's only solace is the tree planted over her dead mother's grave, watered by her own tears, and the birds that inhabit it. It is the tree that provides her with gifts and enables her to attend the ball, and also the tree to which she escpes the second night after the ball.

Elenore Abbot
But I dislike when scholars use phrases like "transfer her affections from her father"-it's not like you only have enough love for one family member at a time. At another point Griswold says "Beauty must sever her ties to her father," even stronger wording, as if Beauty must act as if her father is dead to her in order to be romantically involved. While young adults must certainly adjust their relationships to their parents, becoming less dependant on them, I in no way think your affection for either parent needs to be lessened at all.

Yet Griswold points out that, despite the "lesson" of separating from parents (which I think may have been superimposed by scholars more so than implicit in the tales themselves, especially considering this last point), in the end the heroines are able to live happily with everyone they love-Beauty's father comes to the castle, and the birds are present at Aschenputtel's wedding.

3. Love based not on appearances. This may be a stretch for some people in the Cinderella tale, because this seems to be the quintessential example of love that is based SOLELY on her being the most attractive female at the ball. However, the slipper test becomes almost like a "groom test," to see whether or not he can recognize his bride without her finery. Though he initially looks only at the feet, "eventually he turns his gaze from the shoe to her face and recognizes the woman he fell in love with."

Aw. That would be so sweet if it were true. Actually the prince appears to have no ability to recognize faces at all in the Grimm version, he is only alerted to the situation by birds telling him whether or not blood is streaming from the shoe, because the sisters had to hack off chunks of their feet in order to get the slipper on.
Warwick Goble
But, in the sense that Cinderella in her servant-like status is symbolically beastly, I can agree with this quote of Griswold's: "The Grimms' Cinderella story may be seen as a cross-gender version of Beaumont's 'Beauty and the Beast'-one featuring a hidden bride, the other a hidden groom."

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Fairies Return

This year I had a blog first: I was sent a book from the publisher! The book is The Fairies Return:Or, New Tales for Old (Oddly Modern Fairy Tales), compiled by Peter Llewelyn Davies. Surlalune recently featured this book as well.

Peter Llewelyn Davies was one of the five boys that J.M. Barrie had befriended when he (Davies) was a child and therefore was thought to be the inpiration for Peter Pan; in fact it was all of the boys combined who eventually became the famous character, and Peter Davies resented the fact that for the rest of his life society thought of him as "Peter Pan." However, no doubt the rich imagination of J.M. Barrie which infiltrated his childhood helped inspire him to collect fairy tales later in his life.

Peter's life was full of hardships-from Maria Tatar's introduction: "Peter Davies' childhood reads in many ways like a fairy tale, not the "happily ever after" variety, but one more like the many chain tales recorded by the Grimms in which misfortune breeds hard luck which in turn begets misery and finally leads to tragedy."

As many of us less than casual fans of fairy tales will be quick to point out, it's really the suffering the characters initially go through in fairy tales that have made the tales so well-loved for so long-fairy tales are NOT idyllic scenes from start to finish, so that could be another part of the appeal of fairy tales to Davies.

The darker and more tragic parts of fairy tales would also have appealed to the audience at the time. England was in between major world wars (the collection was originally published in 1934), and many of the versions of fairy tales in the book reflect the sentiments of the era. In fact that's partly what makes this book such a unique collection, is its historical significance as well as the interpretations of tales.

I've only begun to read the stories and will probably share some more personal reflections as I get a chance to explore it more, which I'm very excited to do!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Artist feature: Jessie Wilcox Smith

I've featured the fairy tale artwork of a few artists before, which I chose because they are among my favorite fairy tale illustrators: Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, and Harry Clarke. This feature is a little unusual in that I have selected Jessie Wilcox Smith, who is one of my least favorite fairy tale authors.

Not to be excessively negative or judgemental, and I'll be the first to admit I couldn't illustrate a fairy tale well to save my life. Her illustrations are certainly very well done, but I dislike how they are aimed for such a young audience, in a way that dumbs down the stories, in my opinion. Most fairy tale heroes and heroines are children, but Smith's are barely out of infancy:

Hansel and Gretel
But what really bothers me is how she turns any animals, which would have had associations of danger and fear to the earlier tellers of fairy tales, and turns them (literally) into stuffed animals, such as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Beauty and the Beast, below (yes, the stuffed monkey is the Beast)

 As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with creating versions of fairy tales that are aimed for a specific audience, even young children. What gets fairy tale lovers extra sensitive is the prevailing notion that fairy tales are insipid, insignificant stories with idealistic plots and meant only for young children. In all fairness, Smith was illustrating these stories at a time when the prevalent idea was that fairy tales were primarily suited for children's literature (early 20th century). And I'm not sure, from a brief internet search, which is all I have time for presently, how much control she had over the content of the versions of fairy tales she illustrated (again, those of you who do, feel free to let me know in the comments!) And I do like some of her pictures, like these for Cinderella and Goose Girl:

But, those of you who have seen The Shining, look at this illustration of Snow White and Rose Red and tell me this isn't what pops into your head: "Come play with us, Danny...for ever, and ever..."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Knives by Jane Yolen

"Glass is not glass
in the language of love:
it implies sight, it suggests depth,
it mirrors and makes real,
it is sought and is seen.
What is made of glass reflects the gazer.
A queen must be made of glass."

Harry Clarke
-Excerpt from Jane Yolen's poem "Knives", discussing some of the symbolism of the glass slipper. Although the bottom of the page says it was inspired by Little Mermaid, which was actually my first thought as well, since every step the mermaid took in human form felt painful, as if she was stepping on knives-but I think it's clearly more influenced by Cinderella, in particular the stepsisters' cutting off parts of their feet to fit into the slipper in the Grimm version.

My favorite line is, "where there is one shoe, there must be a match"

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Jane Yolen: The Female Hero and the Women who Wait

In the foreward to Kathleen Ragan's Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, Jane Yolen discusses how Victorian versions of fairy tales tended to make the females more passive, and then Walt Disney continued this trend, emphasizing females who do nothing to help themselves, but must be rescued by cute sidekicks or men.

"We, the reading and viewing public, then accepted whole cloth that in folklore, as in life, everyone but the heroine is a capable being.

John Everett Millais
Was this life reflecting art or art reflecting life? As story lovers we conveniently forgot the ancient tales of Diana of the hunt, or Atalanta the strongest runner in the kingdom, or the inordinate wrath of the mother goddess Ceres, or the powerful female warriors known as Amazons, or the thousand and one other stories with a heroic female at the core. We accepted the revisionist Cinderella, patient and pathetic, forgetting how, in over five hundred European variants alone, she had made her way through a morass of petty politics or run away from an abusive father to win a share of a kingdom on her own. We let the woodsman save Little Red Riding Hood when earlier versions had already whoen her-and her grandmother-the truly capable actors in the drama.
Walter Crane

In book after book, film after film, we edited, revised, redacted, and destroyed the strength of our female heroes, substituting instead a kind of perfect pink-and-white passivity.

Why? I do not know."

I'm glad that, though Yolen does point the finger at Disney, she acknowledges that the evolution of the roles of females in fairy tales was the result of culture at large and can't really be boiled down to one man's chauvenist agenda-even uses the pronoun "we" instead of a more accusational "they." Certainly the brothers Grimm and Walt Disney shared responsibility, but this attitude was far more complex than just the stories collected and told by these men.

I posted this a couple years ago and had actually forgotten about it until recently and am sharing this story again: partly to demonstrate Yolen's next point, that there has been a cultural shift in our thinking in more recent years, but also to counter those who blame Disney films for destroying little girls' ability to see their role as anything other than the worst possible female stereotype:

 "I used to nanny for two girls, ages 5 and 7. Sarah's favorite Princess was Ariel, Michelle's was Cinderella. Among the games we would play, we would often assume the identity of our favorite Princesses and act our stories with our combined movie characters (I was obviously Belle). Now, I did not guide the play at all, but let the children come up with their own stories, but mostly what we did was rescue our Princes from the villains. We would often get ransom calls on our imaginary cell phones and have to bike down the block to Ursula's fortress and have to come up with a plan to get Eric out of there. We NEVER played that the girls were sitting around the house, trapped by the villain, and needed the boys to save them. To counter this, several children do like to play trapped, or captured-but then generally they really don't want to get rescued, either by a pretend Prince or by a girl-the excitement is in the being trapped. So maybe children aren't all mindless slaves who see a couple Princesses who do domestic chores cheerfully and assume from this that their lot in life is to sit and look pretty and prepare to be a good housewife. Just sayin'."

Keep in mind, this was before the more recent movies like Brave and Snow White and the Huntsman that intentionally show women as warriors

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cupid and Psyche: Envy

Cupid and Psyche is known in the world of fairy tales as being the earliest known literary predecessor of Beauty and the Beast; however, it has one main theme in common with Snow White which is not often talked about: that of the older woman's envy of the younger woman's beauty.

That could be because tales related to Cupid and Psyche didn't evolve into tales involving sleeping women, as far as I know, but it is jealousy that starts all of the conflict in Cupid and Psyche.

Psyche is so beautiful that people refer to her as the second Venus, causing Venus to become jealous and order her son Cupid to cause her to fall in love with "the poorest, ugliest, and vilest creature alive." An oracle prophesies that she must be left on a mountain for "a winged snake, a monster so fierce that even the gods are afraid of him."

Domenico Corvi
Fortunately for our heroine, Cupid falls in love with her and takes her to be his bride, although as far as the reader knows, she may be married to the snake monster because her husband only comes to her at night, in the dark, and forbids her to ever try and look at him.

But just when things seem to be going well for Psyche-she loves her husband, has all her needs met during the day-her sisters come to visit, and out of their envy (although this time of her situation more than her beauty, but we can pretty much assume her beauty had to do with Cupid's falling in love with her) they decide to pressure her to look on her forbidden husband, inciting his anger. This she does, and because of that Cupid leaves and she is left to suffer and accomplish impossible tasks for Venus. She does this through the help of sympathetic creatures and eventually gets her happy ending.
John William Waterhouse
But the two main sources of conflict were started because of the envy of other women. At one point, as she goes to what she believes is her death by the monstrous husband, she laments, "Now you see the reward for my unusual beauty. Now you see the damage caused by envy. When people honored my beauty and called me the new Venus, you should have cried. Now I see that people have dishonored Venus and that the goddess is behind my suffering." This almost makes it seem like the envy of a beautiful woman is normal, to be expected, and those who are jealous aren't even blamed (the sisters later suffer death, but Venus suffers no more than having to watch Cupid and Psyche live happily ever after). Reminds me of Samantha Brick and her claim that "no one is more reviled than a pretty woman."

And while I don't agree with that statement, it is true that extremely beautiful women have a unique set of issues (not that I claim to know this from experience. I mean I have good self esteem overall but I'm under no delusions). Men might go after them, but only for their looks, and other women do tend to be jealous. Beautiful women also tend to get stereotyped as being less intelligent and more shallow.

Edward Burne-Jones
"Cupid Delivering Psyche"
But, although it was envy that brought on Psyche's suffering, in the end, if it weren't for Venus' jealousy, she never would have met Cupid. I feel like I've read versions where if she had just been patient she would have been allowed to see her husband anyway, but according to Jerry Griswold's translation, there was no such promise, so her giving in to the temptation of seeing Cupid actually brought them to a place where they did not have to hide from Venus, and Psyche was made immortal so the marriage could be legitimate. When we today tend to read this myth I think we get lost in the whole "woman chided for curiosity" issue that bothers us so much but maybe we miss the point: that our trials in life, though they suck at the time, may end up giving us hope for a better future.