Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fate in Fairy Tales

One of the interesting trends evident in Rapunzel tales is the element of irony: often a maiden is imprisoned in a tower for the purpose of shielding her innocence. Yet all these tales seem to end in her not only meeting a man, but becoming pregnant.

For example, in the Jewish tale "Solomon's Daughter," as found in Surlalune's Rapunzel and Other Maiden in the Tower Stories From Around the World, Solomon imprisons his daughter in a tower because he reads in the stars that she will marry a poor youth. However, an eagle carries a poor youth to the roof of the tower, where he and the maiden fall in love. It was the very act of keeping his daughter in a tower that enabled her to meet her poor lover.

This is very similar to Sleeping Beauty, in which the young princess pricks her finger on a spindle. The irony here is that her father the king had ordered all spindles banned to keep the thirteenth fairy's prophecy from coming true, yet because he did this, his daughter didn't even know what a spindle was. In both of these tales, if the father character hadn't attempted to thwart the prophecy, it may not have even come true; it may be one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that sets off the chain of events.

In many of the cultures in which these tales circulated, the people may have given more credence to prophecies in general, whereas today we tend to consider prophecies only as interesting features of fantasy and supernatural genres. We are fascinated by the concept of being able to see into the future and the potential implications, and the possibilities of multiple futures that depend on current choices.

Yet these tales may also have a very simple message: though parents may wish or try, they cannot keep their children from growing up. Sleeping Beauty's finger prick is often given sexual/maturational connotations; although her father is trying to prevent her death in the story, on a symbolic level he may be trying to prevent her from ceasing to be a child. The witch in Rapunzel can be seen as an overprotective mother, trying to keep her daughter in ignorance of the ways of the world; yet the world has a habit of making its ways known, and often trusting your children with (appropriate) knowledge is much better than attempting to keep them ignorant and naive. In the words of the witch at the end of "Into the Woods" when she sings, "Careful the things you say/Children will listen". As Time Magazine said about the original musical, its "basic insight ... is at heart, most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong — which is to say, almost everything that can — arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions."

Illustrations by A.H. Watson

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Helen Musselwhite

Helen Musselwhite's stunning paper art has been featured on magazine covers to Christmas windows to McDonalds Happy Meal promotions. Some of her works are fairy tale specific, but even many that aren't depict the enchanting world of forests and their creatures that tend to recall fairy tales to mind. Some of the fairy tales featured here are obvious, but can you spot evidence of Snow White and Cinderella (my personal favorite) below?

And if you like these, be sure to check out Su Blackwell's book sculptures

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Maiden's Tower-Azerbaijan

Although Rapunzel is a fairly popular tale, there aren't too many actual folktales that are considered "Rapunzel" tales. In Surlalune's collection, there are only 10 Rapunzel tales, followed by 37 more general "Maiden in the Tower" tales. These vary from folk tales to myths to legends, like this one from Azerbaijan. There is a Maiden Tower in Baku that inspired many tales, including this story, published in 1911 by Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson:
"A brutal old Khan fell in love with his own daughter. She naturally rejected his addresses, until, overwhelmed at last by his importunities, she promised to yield to his desire, provided that he would build her the loftiest tower in the land. On the day when the structure was completed, she flung herself headlong from the parapet into the sea, which at that time washed close to the wall."
The tower entrance

This story, as Heidi Anne Heiner points out, is like a tragic mix of Rapunzel and Donkeyskin. Although the wikipedia entry doesn't cite incest as one of the reasons for the maiden committing suicide from the tower, but a woman being forced to marry against her wishes. Either way, the legends all seem to agree that something horrible caused a young woman to use this tower to commit suicide; a darker alternative to the traditional Rapunzel tale. But when you consider what it must be like to be imprisoned, alone, inside a tower for who knows how many years, it makes sense that the young woman might decide to take more drastic measures.

Although this tale isn't considered a possible "origin" for the Rapunzel tale (it's clearly descendant from Basile's "Petrosinella" and Charlote-Rose de la Force's "Persinette") I love when fairy tale-like stories are linked to history. Europe is full of mysterious towers, many of which were really used as prisons, so it sparks the imagination...

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Wonderful Frog

It's no secret that I am a big, big fan of the Surlalune series of Tales From Around the World. I am slowly but surely amassing my collection...although The Grateful Dead collection was just recently released, I'm finally adding two of the books to my library I'm very excited about: Frog Prince and Rapunzel.

These books will really fill out my fairy tale library. It's possible to find versions of some of the most famous tales, like "Cinderella", "Snow White", and "Little Red Riding Hood", in other sources, but "Frog Prince" and "Rapuzel" are a little more on the fringe. They're still very popular and well loved but it's a little harder to find information on them, or related tales.

And it is SO important for any folklorist (or amateur fairy tale nerd) to go beyond the most famous versions of the tales. We so often fall into the trap of analyzing all the details of the brothers Grimm or Perrault/Anderson versions of a tale without realizing that those details are not essential to the tale itself (and maybe weren't even present in the first edition of the Grimm tales, but added later as editorial choices). Only when studying multiple versions of the tales from various cultures do we start to see a picture emerge-what elements of the tales are found everywhere? What elements change with the culture?

I'll be sharing more from both of these books in the future, but for now enjoy this interesting, if not slightly disturbing, Frog Prince tale from Hungary:

The Wonderful Frog

"There was once, I don't know where, a man who had three daughters." One day the father told his eldest to fetch him some water out of the well. When the girl arrived, a huge frog called out to her from the bottom of the well, that he would not allow her to draw water until she threw him down her gold ring. The eldest refused to give her rings to such an ugly creature, and returned without water.

Next the father sent his second daughter, and the same thing happened. Finally the father sent his youngest, Betsie, pleading with her to find a way to save him from suffering thirst. Because Betsie was so fond of her father, she threw her ring down to the frog, and her father was delighted to have fresh water.

In the evening, the frog crawled out of the well and started banging on their door, crying,  "Falther-in-law! Father-in-law! I should like something to eat." The father was angry, and told his daughters to give the frog a broken plate to gnaw on. But the frog demanded some roast meat on a tin plate, and afraid the frog would cast a spell on them otherwise, the father obliged. For the same reason, the father eventually gave in to the frog's demands for wine and a silk bed.

Next the frog demanded a girl. The father commanded his eldest daughter to lie down next to the frog, but she refused. So did the middle child. The frog croaked that he didn't want the other daughters, he wanted Betsie. "So Betsie went to bed with the frog, but her father thoughtfully left a lamp burning on the top of the oven; noticing which, the frog crawled out of bed and blew the lamp out." The father attempted twice more to light the lamp, but always thwarted by the frog, "was therefore obliged to leave his dear little Betsie in the dark by the side of the ugly frog, and felt great anxiety about her."

In the morning, the father and his two eldest daughters were astonished to find a handsome lad by Betsie's side. He asked for Betsie's hand, and they were married. The elder sisters were now envious of Betsie, and she herself was very happy.
Illustrations by Charles Robinson
Tale summarized by me; full tale available in the book

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Victorian Attitudes, Murder, and Bluebeard

Beneath its prim and proper exterior, the Victorian period was a fascinating, dark time. As far as fairy tale history goes, any version of a tale that people mistakenly call the "original" or "classic" was probably created and enforced during this time period. Not only did the morality of the Grimms shape how they edited their volumes of tales, but countless other translators, editors, and illustrators in this period contributed to what we now think of as the definitive fairy tale genre.

It's getting pretty trendy today to point back to the grim and gruesome details of the fairy tales that came from this time, partly for shock value and partly to legitimize the idea that fairy tales are not just simplistic stories for children. The amount of violence found in the tales can be disturbing for modern audiences.

Illustration-H.J. Ford, "The Girl Without Hands"

Our modern consumption of murder mysteries and violent media as arguably a much better alternative to what this replaced-through the Victorian period, criminals were often publicly executed for sometimes minor infractions of the law. Going to see a hanging was entertainment for the poor people-executions drew crowds who watched the events unfold like they would watch a play on the stage.

Image of the last public hanging in England
May 26, 1868

Yet in life, as in fairy tales, this exposure to death and violence was seen as excusable because it also provided an opportunity for moralizing. It was very common during the Victorian period to add a "moral" at the end of fairy tales aimed at teaching children how to behave properly, and the same went for the way the newspapers covered famous criminal cases. Broadsides, or a cheap, one-sided newspaper, would come out with a "confession" from the criminal (printed before the death actually happened,) including a remorseful insight into the now-realized futility of a life of crime. In murder cases, people were arrested and charged, often on very little evidence. This was partly due to a police system in its infancy and in a time before science and technology provided the ways we now catch criminals, but also to pacify the crowds into thinking they were safe and to give the impression that there was a happy ending, because the criminal was done away with.

Therein lies the paradox of consuming murder as entertainment-we are pleased as we are horrified, and comforted as we are disgusted. When I want a light, easy read I turn to Agatha Christie (even though I also get really depressed watching the news). The world of mystery, despite the necessary violence, is actually one of the most predictable and satisfying. There is a clear villain and a clear happy ending in which the criminal is caught and brought to justice.
George Melies' "Bluebeard", 1901

This goes a long way to explain the fact that Bluebeard was wildly popular in the Victorian period and even considered a suitable source for children's entertainment. The awful image of the bloody chamber was exciting as it was dreadful, and it was all okay as long as it taught children a very important lesson (in fact, the bloody chamber in Bluebeard is very similar to the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussaud's waxworks museum, very popular in the Victorian era, where bodies and scenes of famous murderers and their victims are on display. A google search will get you even more disturbing images than this one of the heads of French royalty as they were, just after the guillotine).
And of course, one of the greatest mysteries of fairy tale history is how so many people in the Victorian period could have actually interpreted the Bluebeard tale as a cautionary story against women's curiosity and not the obviously more evil serial killing husband. Yet these quotes really shed light on the issue: at the trial of Maria Manning, a famous 1849 murder case, her husband's barrister said "History teaches us that the female is capable of reaching higher in point of virtue than the male, but that when once she gives way to vice, she sinks far lower than our sex." Somehow their unfair expectations of females having the ability to achieve near "perfection" (more like, submission) was also used to unfairly condemn. Even though Maria and her husband were both found guilty of murdering Maria's lover, a popular ballad sung and sold at the execution (it really was an entertainment source!) goes "Old and young, pray take a warning/Females, lead a virtuous life/Think upon the fateful morning/Frederick Manning and his wife." Note that females are singled out for the warning despite their joint guilt.
Russian Illustrated Children's Book (anybody know the artist?)

Yet the gender bias was so strong that some women were able to use this idea to their advantage-female murderers who are most likely guilty were able to escape sentencing simply because the public could not believe that they were actually guilty, such as Florence Bravo and Madeleine Smith. Though the evidence all pointed to them having murdered their husbands, the public couldn't accept that a young, beautiful, proper woman could have done such an "unfeminine" thing. Many people thought it was unseemly for a woman to even take interest in their cases, yet the world of murder was actually somewhat empowering. Women caught in oppressive marriages could actually speak out for themselves-at her trial Florence told reporters that her abusive husband "had no right to treat me in such a way" and was unpunished for poisoning him. Detective fiction as a genre was pretty proto feminist at its beginning, featuring strong and clever females.

One more fairy tale connection-in the famous Road Hill House case, older sister Constance eventually confessed to slashing her brother's throat in the middle of the night. The reason was most likely that the little boy was her stepbrother, and much like Cinderella, Constance and her full brother were mistreated, while her stepmother's children were given preferential treatment. She had previously run away from home and told her friends that she was treated cruelly. Once again she was not initially convicted, partially because of prejudice (servants were suspected first) and  delicate Victorian sensibilities (a key piece of evidence, her nightgown being missing and bloodied, was not spoken of because it was inappropriate to talk about what a woman wore to bed). Yet years later she confessed and gave some closure to an unsolved case.

Arthur Rackham-Cinderella

*Source: The Art of the English Murder, by Lucy Worsley. Not directly fairy tale related, but a fascinating read that I highly recommend! I couldn't put it down!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

"The Book of Lost Things" by John Connolly is a novel about a young boy growing up in World War II who lost his mother, and shortly after the books on his shelf begin to speak with him. Although the official book description doesn't mention fairy tales, most of those characters are from the tales of the brothers Grimm. This Amazon review titled "One highly enjoyable and extremely adult fairy tale" says:

"The source for most of the tales encountered by David, during his journey through an alternate but un-named land, is the Brother's Grimm. And the structure itself lends closely to Lewis Carroll's tales of Alice's adventure in Wonderland and her journey Through the Looking Glass. But we cannot omit L. Frank Baum from this porridge of evil but sublime. His imprint is there and presiding with more than a tip of the hat to Dorothy and her journey to Oz and to the `Magnificent Wizard' (and a reminder of at least a couple of her companions, along the way through that journey).

But don't think I'm going to say this tale is a `copy' of any of the above! The story is wholly original in the telling... and then some.
It should be said (and already has been) that this rendering is not for children. And it is not for the faint of heart. If anything, the story can be viewed as cautionary fairy tale melded with contemporary warning to the likes of Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy (and Gacy especially, when `feeling' the creepy crawly `below-world' of the crooked man and some of his personal culinary delights). Both of these monsters could easily have existed in David's alternate world.

And wasn't that, after all is said and done, the original warning of the Brother's Grimm?

Beware of that which seems innocent and pure because... it may be not!"

A part of me just wants to roll my eyes and say, "Another dark, twisted, adult adaptation of the Grimms' tales? How original." Although it's trendy, that doesn't mean another book with the same general premise can't be thoughtful and have unique interpretations. It's gotten pretty good reviews overall. My brother in law is reading this book right now (and he's a high school English teacher, so I generally trust his opinion on books) and he says it's well written and enjoyable. He mentioned something about the seven dwarfs being Marxist and Snow White having gotten fat. The end of the book even includes the text of the Grimm tales and some of Connolly's notes on them, which would be a really helpful feature for those who don't have a copy of Grimms Fairy Tales lying around (although I'd guess in this audience, most of you already do).

It's not a new book, but I didn't realize it was so closely tied with fairy tales. Has anyone read it?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fairy Tale Journals made by Slow Design

My good friend just found the coolest journal in the world for me-the pink "Beauty and the Beast" one below. The series, Libri Muti, features two other fairy tale titles:
Libri Muti fairy tale notebooks-One Thousand and One Nights and Beauty and the Beast

Product description:
"Libri Muti (Italian for Mute Books) are inspired by the “forbidden books” of the revolution period in many cultures.

The Mute Books collection reinterprets classical titles, mixing traditional printing and binding techniques together with a fresh spirit, added by hand-coloured edges.
These classical titled empty notebooks allow anyone to now freely fill with its own feeling."

The journal is beautiful in person. It's great for someone with a lot to write about, it's very thick and really feels more like a book than a normal journal. The exposed binding is really the only thing that gives you a clue it's not a regular book from the outside. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Collector's Edition of Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter (AKA, EYE CANDY)

Gypsy of Once Upon a Blog was kind enough to send these images over to me, with some information about a very special book:

 "ROSE DAUGHTER - A Re-telling of Beauty and the Beast; text by Newbery Award winner, Robin McKinley and illustrations by Anne Bachelier. The "Livre d'artist," literally Artist's Book, has a long tradition in Europe. Picasso, Dali, Buffet, Chagall and Fini are but a few of the major artists that have illustrated texts by writers such as Baudelaire, GenĂȘt, Hugo, Flaubert and Poe.

This collectors edition is limited to only 1,000 copies. The varied levels within the edition are marked by binding intricacies as well as the option of original art work accompanying the book. Choices include the actual original mixed media illustrations by Bachelier, four different signed and numbered original etchings by Bachelier, and a suite of 24 off-set lithographs of the illustrations Pencil signed & numbered by the artist. The book itself measures 14" x 17." Inside, over 160 pages feature a beautiful flowing typeface printed with red-orange and black inks on a textured linen white paper. Thirty-three sparkling color illustrations were printed separately on a specially coated paper to assure the colors would be exact. The individual illustrations were then painstakingly "hand-tipped" into their rightful places in the book. The process was time-consuming but the reaction to the fantastic images has proven this historical technique worthwhile.

The marriage of Anne Bachelier's stunning art work and Robin McKinley's brilliant text have resulted in one of the most beautiful art books ever created. Certain to become a classic, in the tradition of Rackham and Dulac, this is the definitive Beauty and the Beast.
"My approach to publishing reflects the same ideas that drove me to open CFM Gallery: Art can be beautiful, and if you aren't seeing things out there that move you, then you have to create them yourself. I published ROSE DAUGHTER - A Re-Telling of Beauty and the Beast for one very selfish reason: I wanted to own a copy of the book I could see in my head." Neil P. Zukerman (1998)"

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bitter Greens

I was very excited to read Kate Forsyth's latest novel Bitter Greens and glad to find it at my library. The idea of weaving the life the author of one of the most famous versions of "Rapunzel", Charlotte-Rose de la Force, with the plot of the fairy tale itself, was intriguing to me.

One of the first things I noticed was how well researched it was. I can't imagine how much time it took Forsyth to read about all the little details, from court life in France under the reign of Louis XIV, to the secluded convents, to the life of mask makers in sixteenth century Italy. The details made the story believable and at the same time educational. I loved the interweaving of historical characters into the plot (including famous fairy tale collectors Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault!).

I also loved learning some more about the significance and beliefs about parsley, for in De la Force's version of the fairy tale, the heroine is named after parsley (Persinette) and not the rapunzel plant. "There's a legend that parsley first grew where the blood of some Greek hero was spilt. And so the Greeks used to put bunches of it on graveyards, and sprinkle it on corpses...parsley self-seeds, which means it can spring up again from where the mother plant died. Though it takes a while to germinate. When I was a child, people said that's because the seed travelled to hell and back seven times before sprouting...Only married women or widows are meant to plant parsley seeds. Any virgin who does so risks being impregnated by Lucifer."
The opening of Bitter Greens in Kate Forsyth's own handwriting

The novel weaves together three different plot lines; that of Margherita/Rapunzel/Persinette, the witch, and Charlotte-Rose. Charlotte-Rose's storyline didn't always go chronologically so it was a little confusing at times but all made sense in the end. I'll admit it took me a little while to get into the book at first-I didn't connect as much with Charlotte-Rose until I read more of her back story. But as soon as we started learning about the witch's point of view, I was hooked. I know that these days it's pretty trendy to tell the witch's back story and make the villain seem more sympathetic, but it also has to do with realism. Rapunzel's witch goes to all the trouble to outfit a tower and keep a young girl prisoner there-why would anyone possibly do that? She seems like one of the least believable fairy tale villains, but after reading the story it made perfect sense.

A major theme of the book was exploring different kinds of prisons. Obviously Persinette was locked in a tower, but Charlotte-Rose wrote the story while confined in a convent. To modern ears, this might not seem like a huge deal, but the convent described in the book was no better than a prison (probably worse than modern prisons, especially if you weren't Catholic and forced there against your will). Yet there are other types of prisons too-for a brief while Charlotte-Rose's husband was imprisoned by his father-I liked the fact that she showed men could also be imprisoned and in need of rescue, and that whole scene where she rescues him disguised as a bear is crazy, but also completely true! Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed...

(Illustration by Evanira)

Although there are symbolic prisons too. And in fact, the life of a woman in either culture (17th century France and 16th century Italy) was basically a prison. And while that may seem a tad overdramatic, just reading the novel and the historical realities about the lack of rights women had and the ways they were abused was heartbreaking. These really were dark periods of history and the some of the chatacter's stories were quite tragic. As one of the characters says, a woman had three choices in life-to be a wife, a nun, or a whore. And although, to our modern eyes, marriage would seem like the obvious best choice, to a woman at the time, marriage could actually mean the worst of both other options. Wives might be locked away, like nuns in a convent, while their husbands openly paraded around their mistresses, yet forced to pleasure their husbands with no regards to their own feelings. Men (especially the King) often flaunted mistresses, while women were shamed for losing their virginity (I will never understand how the flawed logic of this wasn't obvious at the time). At one point in the novel Persinette/Margherita muses, "She could have been sent into service, apprenticed by a craftsman, enclosed in a convent, or, in time, married-all of these were different types of imprisonment."

Ernst Liebermann

In those societies, a woman was given value only for her wealth, beauty, and chastity. In those conditions, it really isn't surprising that so many women would turn to extremes to retain their beauty, like the witch does in this story. And given that women would never be respected in society, the best they could hope for was to gain power-and through their sexuality, many of the prostitutes had at least the illusion of power, and a way to gain wealth.

As far as sexual content, there really would be no way to convey a historically account of the experience of women in those societies without frank references to sex. Charlotte-Rose herself was quite scandalous, and the whole of the Court of Louis XIV was filled with shocking affairs. That said, there were times I thought the writing went into too much detail (especially the chapter where Charlotte-Rose was engaged to the Marquis de Nesle-the descriptions of how they gave into temptation did nothing to advance the plot or characters and that section felt like erotica to me). Forsyth herself describes the book as a "sexy" retelling, so just be aware that this isn't for very young girls, and you might also want to avoid gifting it to more conservative friends and relatives.

I also didn't like how romance was portrayed. Even the couples who supposedly had happy marriages-Margherita's/Persinette's parents, Charlotte-Rose and her husband Charles, and Persinette and her lover-they were all love at first sight and pretty much instant gratification. They weren't really that different than the relationships that were abusive, and I didn't buy them.

(Illustration-Sarah Gibb)

Aside from those flaws, it was a fascinating and exciting book. It really "made history come alive" to me, to use the cliche. For example-to an introvert like me, the idea of being locked away in a tower sometimes seems like it would be wonderful (especially if you have Disney's "Tangled" in mind and the tower is basically home to every pleasure a little girl could wish for). But reading the book, the tower really seemed like an imposing prison. Things I vaguely remembered from history class, like the French religious wars, all of a sudden have so much more meaning and elicited a very emotional response. It really brought together lots of things I've read separately-music history, art history, fairy tale history, general history-and made me feel like I have a much better understanding of the time periods in general now.

I wasn't sure how it would end and I won't give away spoilers, only say that there was one twist on the traditional story that might not have worked but I think Forsyth did an excellent job with it, and typing up loose ends. If anyone else has read "Bitter Greens", please feel free to discuss in the comments! It's definitely a book that will stay in my mind for a while.