Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Grecian Snow White and Violence

Walter Crane
Once there was a king's daughter named Maroula who was so beautiful that the mother of Erotas (the goddess of love) decided to kill her. In the disguise of an old woman, she offered the princess a golden apple, but at the first bite the princess fell to the ground unconscious.

Maroula's brothers returned home and noticed the apple. They removed it from her mouth, and she came back to life.

But the old woman came back, this time giving Maroula a ring. Maroula's brothers did not notice the ring, and thinking there was nothing they could do, they put her in a golden coffin.
Ludwig Grimm

One day a king's son discovered Maroula in the coffin, and happened to take the enchanted ring off her finger, restoring her life. The prince and Maroula were married, but the Prince's mother was jealous. Maroula had given birth to twins, and her mother in law crept into the room and cut off the children's heads. She blamed Maroula, so the prince believed that Maroula was to blame. He ordered her hands be cut off and sewn into a sack together with the bodies of her children, and the sack hung around her neck, and his wife chased away from his palace.

Maroula met a kind monk who attached her hands and the children's heads back to their bodies, restoring them to life. Years later the Prince was reunited with his family and discovered the truth. The Prince's mother was put in a barrel of pitch, and toss her into the sea to be burned. The mother of Erotas decided Maroula had suffered enough and allowed her to live unchallenged.

This variant of Snow White struck me as being especially violent, even considering the violent family of tales it belongs to. The characters seem to delight in punishing each other in cruel ways, made more eerie by the matter of fact tone of the narrator. The punishments aren't even always logical-"tossed into the sea to be burned" doesn't even make sense.

Although we're used to the villain getting her punishment, we don't tend to hear versions today where the main characters must suffer unjustly. We take out the part of Grimm's Rapunzel where Rapunzel must tend to her children (also twins, incidentally) in the desert and her prince wander around blind from the thorns outside of the tower before they are finally reunited. We rarely hear that every step the Little Mermaid took produced pain like stepping on knives. And although many people are loving the idea of "dark fairy tales" these days, and we're getting more used to some level of danger and violence associated with the tales that many still think of as children's stories exclusively, even our minds are shocked by the idea that Snow White's hands were chopped off and she was forced to carry them around in a sack with the bodies of her dead children.

But the violence in this Greek tale has an important difference: it does not take place in a realistic world where actions are final. In this world, people can come back to life and severed limbs can be restored. Almost like Looney Tunes cartoons, where no matter what manner of pianos and anvils crush characters, they always return without a scratch. The viewer learns that nothing they see is lasting or final. I wonder how many stories from various times in history contained miraculous healings like this and how they impacted the listening experience?

Yet fairy tales don't (usually, at least) make the violence appear funny, such as in cartoons. The reader/listener still feels upset at the injustice and a sense of restoration at the ending. Yet the characters still have to suffer-although how much of that the listener takes the details to heart may depend on their expectations of story formula more than anything else.

I'm not even weighing in (in this post, at least) on the whole "what is appropriate for children" topic-just observing that not all story violence is the same, or experienced the same way.

*Story source-"Maroula and the Mother of Erotas", from Surlalune's Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Perceforest: an early Sleeping Beauty

In my previous readings on the history of Sleeping Beauty, I had come across references to the story Le Roman de Perceforest from around 1500. Granted, it hadn't been extensive research, but most of the sources said something about how it contained a girl getting raped while unconscious but was otherwise not that connected to the story we know today.

Books and online sources said as much, if they even mentioned Perceforest as being part of Sleeping Beauty's history at all. I even said the same in my own posts (I keep feeling like I should really go back and edit my archives, since I would now say a lot of things differently and/or have found more accurate information, and I hate misleading people who find old posts of mine through google searches. But I sometimes feel like I hardly have the time to keep up with other fairy tale blogs and occasionally pump out a post of my own, much less take on something like that).

Anyway, it was Surlalune's Sleeping Beauties: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White Tales From Around the World that clued me in to the fact that there's more to Perceforest than just unconscious rape.

The story goes: At Zellandine's birth, three goddesses were invited, Lucina, Themis, and Venus. Themis was upset that the knife she was given to eat with was not as fine as the ones provided for the other goddesses, so after Lucina promised health and a good reputation to the baby, Themis curses the child so that the first time she touches a piece of flax, it would stab her finger and put her into a sleep from which she would not waken. It is Venus who determines she will use her powers to save Zellanidine's life (after Cupid and Psyche, it's weird to me that Venus should ever be on the side of the beautiful young woman).

Edmund Dulac

Later, "it is told how Zephyr, in the form of a bird, offers Troylus [Zellandine's lover] transport to the tower in which the beautiful Zellandine is in an enchanted sleep...the knight accepts, and by this vehicle that once carried Psyche to the palace of love he arrives without use of a ladder in the beautiful Zellandine's chamber. He sees at one side a richly adorned bed, grand enough for a queen, the canopy and the curtains were whiter than snow. He hesitates to approach for a long time, like the true friend who is valiant in his thoughts but cowardly in his deeds. [Heidi Anne Heiner notes that this translation leaves out the face that Zellandine is sleeping in the nude] He then tries to awaken the young girl, but is finally conquered by the maiden's charms for she slept like a beautiful goddess, as tender and red as a rose with her white flesh like a lily. He speaks a long discourse begging forgiveness for his grand liberties, and sorrowfully, he decided to follow the tenets of Venus...[which I guess means sex...]
Kay Nielsen

"...Nine months later, Zellandine, who is still asleep, brings into the world a very fine son." The son sucks the flax out in an attempt to nurse, and Zellandine wakes up.

Though this story was written down in the late 1400s, it was probably composed early in the 14th century. This story, which bears much resemblance to Basile's Sun, Moon, and Talia, is not the only example of medieval sleeping beauties either-you can read more about the predecessors in Heiner's/Surlalune's book. She notes that it's difficult to find English translations of these earlier tales. It's funny, I take it for granted that you can find anything on the internet now, but there is plenty of work yet for scholars to do...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fairy Tales in the Russian Ballet

Interwoven through the history of Russian Ballet are ballets based on fairy tales and folklore. Early on, Russian folk tales provided the source for plots because it provided a sense of national pride for the audience. Ballets were based on fairy tales that are little known today, such as The Little Hump-Backed Horse, a well-known fairy tale (at the time) by Yershov, premiered in 1864, or The Goldfish, inspired by Pushkin's fairy tale. The former was a success and the latter not, although both tales were altered very much from their original sources (sound familiar?). In ballets, plot is only a part of the formula that makes it successful or not-much is also dependant on the music, the choreography, and the quality of dancers themselves. However, understanding the plot and its source was nonetheless important. The 1867 ballet The Fern's success was credited not to  Sokolov's talents in choreography, which were not outstanding, but the fact that he had a "better understanding of Russian folklore."

Scene from The Goldfish, 1905

In 1877 we come to the ballets which are well-known and loved still by Tchaikovsky, starting with Swan Lake. The element of a swan maiden is a popular theme in many Russian fairy tales, and the creators of the ballet adapted the specific plot to suit their purposes. It is Tchaikovsky's music that is recognized as the most successful element in this production. His "portrayal of the inner spiritual state of the heroes through music was an important discovery destined to turn over a new leaf in the history of ballet music and upset customary ballet cliches."

Later, in 1888, Tchaikovsky was invited to write music for another ballet based on a fairy tale-this time using Perrault's Sleeping Beauty as the source. Ironically, the choreographer, Marius Petipa, didn't like using magical elements and fairy tales in his ballets, as he thought they weren't serious enough. However, he was ordered by the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters to use Sleeping Beauty and he transformed it to become something he wanted to work on.
Maria Petipa as The Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty

Again, critics hail Tchaikovsky's music as transforming the history of ballet. Academician Boris Asafiev claimed that Sleeping Beauty was "a new form of musical-choreographic action." Asafiev claims that through the progression of the music, you can even trace the princess' maturing and growing up. As a musician I wish Roslavleva went into more detail on this one...

In 1892 production started on The Nutcracker*, with a detailed program provided by Petipa, but due to illness, the project was taken over by Lev Ivanov. Tchaikovsky's music suggested "much broader vistas and a greater range of human feelings." Ivanov used the music as his primary inspiration, portraying, in Asafiev's words, "the ripening soul of a little girl, at first playing with dolls, and then arriving at the dawn of love through dreams of a brave and manly hero-in other words the process of the 'education of sentiments'".

Scene from The Nutcracker, Mariinsky Theatre, 1892

It seems that the combination of fairy tales and music created a new direction for ballets. No longer just pretty entertainment, ballet could be a deeper exploration of humanity. Fairy tale scholars would later see the tales as exploring the human subconscious, revealing universal stages of human development. Afasiev's descriptions of the music indicate that this process was already beginning in Russian ballet.

Also unrelated to fairy tales, but I find it fascinating to see how far ballet technique has come in the past couple hundred years. Even in the late nineteenth century, double pirouettes en pointe were considered a great rarity, whereas they're now considered standard for any ballet student. That partly has to do with the development of specialized pointe shoes, but ballet is so different now than it was then.

*No, the Nutcracker is not technically a fairy tale, but I really really like it
**All information taken from Natalia Roslavleva's book, Era of the Russian Ballet: 1770-1965

Friday, July 12, 2013


My friend just told me about Fibber, a game she played while babysitting. It's for young kids, but inspired by Pinocchio.

From amazon:
"How to Play
Fibber is all about what you say and not what you play! Play cards in their order and say what you're playing. Don't have the right card? Time to put on your best poker face and try to fool everyone by playing a different card. But watch out! If you don't get away with it, you’ll have to place a nosepiece on your glasses that will continue to grow each time you’re caught! If wrongfully accused, the player who said you were fibbing has to put on a nosepiece of his or her own. It’s fun for the whole table as you watch your noses grow! Person with the SHORTEST nose wins!"

Reminds me of B.S., the card game I used to play, only with the addition of noses that grow for each lie rather than just being out. But apparently this is a hit with kids!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

George Melies' Cinderella

Silent film version of "Cinderella" from 1912. To put that in context, that's exactly 100 years after the Grimms published their first edition of "Children and Household Tales", and almost exactly a century ago from now. The special effects seem so obvious to us now but were groundbreaking at the time.

From Wikipedia: "Méliès, a prolific innovator in the use of special effects, accidentally discovered the substitution stop trick in 1896, and was one of the first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color in his work. Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality through cinematography, Méliès is sometimes referred to as the first "Cinemagician"."

Clearly he used the stop trick often in this film-Perrault's Cinderella gave him lots of opportunities to astound his audiences.

I personally think the clock sequence, starting around 16:00, is the most interesting part

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Overview of the History of Fairy Tale Scholarship

I've come across the various methods of looking at fairy tales in my research, and referenced them here on the blog, and I found it very helpful to see Marcia Lane summarize each method and put it into context in her introduction to Picturing the Rose: A Way of Looking at Fairy Tales. It also helps to see how varied approaches can be, to put our current scholarship into perspective.

Fairy tales as myth-earlier folklorists saw good and evil as a parallel to the sun (good) rising and overcoming the darkness of night (evil). Notable about this early approach is the fact that even then, there was a recognition of common motifs that occurred in folktales from cultures across the world. For more on this, you can read from my archives, Little Red Riding Hood as Sun Myth

Psychoanalytic-Freud and his followers (and later Bruno Bettelheim) created a way of looking at fairy tales that has influenced the world even today, though few current scholars take all of Freud's theories entirely at face value. I'm not the best person to summarize, because my interpretation is Freud is that everything is about sex. (When anything oblong is a penis, round is a breast, and any open space is a vagina, that pretty much covers every shape). However, what people do recognize today are his idea of Oedipal relationships. While I personally still hold that children can relate to their opposite gender parents in a way that is not necessarily sexual, in folklore there is definitely a tendency to focus on rivalries between same gender family members and positive relationships between different gender family relationships.

For further reading-Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

Collective conscious and unconscious-Lane doesn't explain what this means in her introduction, and to be honest I don't really understand it myself. Something to do with human nature and the subconscious being revealed through fairy tales? You can read more on Wikipedia. Please share in the comments if you have a simple way to explain collective unconscious.

For further reading-Marie-Louise von Franz: The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Individuation in Fairy Tales
Structuralism- Vladimir Propp, Antti Aarne, and Claude Levi-Strauss each found ways to identify the components of fairy tales and categorize and analyze tales. Propp narrowed the events of any fairy tale into several common components, or functions, from which he essentially creates an equation for each story. In my archives you can read a Proppian analysis of Beauty and the Beast. Aarne is one of the creators of the Aarne-Thompson classification of fairy tales which is in use today-almost like a Dewey decimal-like system for organizing fairy tales.

Effect of fairy tales on children-with the Disney versions of fairy tales taking over the popular imagination, and the introduction of television to the world, people became more concerned with how fairy tales fit in with children's education. This issue of appropriateness for children is definitely a hot topic today.

I perked up and this tidbit about Disney, since I'm going to Disneyland later this week and have already drunk the Disney Kool-Aid: "In a generation that was involved to the point of obsession with the idea of space travel and clean, never-ending, nuclear power, fairy tales were considered 'unscientific.' It's important to realize that the first Disney films were considered a refreshing return to fantasy. Despite the current feeling that Walt Disney bastardized and trivialized these very potent stories, for their time, the Disney films were quite daring-they dared to be unrealistic! They dared to be unscientific, and just plain entertaining." (emphasis mine)

More recently folklorists have expanded their concern with the effect of fairy tales on children to the affect on adults as well.

Gender/political awareness-This is HUGE today. It's my personal opinion that we today are so bent on making fairy tales gender equal that we miss so much else that fairy tales have to offer. Do I even need to summarize this? Modern people are uncomfortable with the fact that females in folklore tend to spend more time doing housework but otherwise taking a more passive role to their male counterparts, who are usually the ones going on adventures and fighting battles while the females sit at home and wait (sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally sleeping helplessly). I've commented on this enough, if you're new to this blog and curious you can read anything under my gender roles in fairy tales tag

For further reading-Anything by Jack Zipes. But especially Don't Bet on the Prince

I like the way Lane concludes her historical summary-to remind us that there's no one right answer. "For all the theorizing that has gone forth about the nature of the story, and the ability of a child to perceive and internalize various aspects of story, the truth is, no one can really be sure."

So true. Obviously those of us who read and write fairy tale blogs are interested in the theories of interpreting folklore, but they're only that-theories. I hope I can keep it my goal to share knowledge and passion for these mysteriously enchanting stories with my wonderful readers without getting hung up on things that don't matter :)