Friday, April 21, 2017

Sleep in Fairy Tales

With my son Pearson almost 2 months old now, I have never been more sleep deprived in my life. Sleeping during the day when the baby sleeps, the advice you're usually given, is not as easy as it sounds-especially when you've always had a mild case of insomnia. I always used to think the main character in "Princess and the Pea" was too unrelatable-who wants to be a Princess who's too pampered and sensitive? But when I started to think of the pea as being the thoughts that keep me up at night, or a brain that takes a long time to relax, I now think of it in a whole new light.

Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov

I also find it very ironic that "Sleeping Beauty" begins with the desire for a child and then involves a supernaturally long sleep. By now, the mere thought of getting a full 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep is a longed-for fantasy, so rather than seeming like a curse, the idea of a 100 year's nap sounds wonderful.  Maybe the sleeping princess isn't a way to condition little girls to be passive, but sometimes simply the parents telling a story expressing their own desire for sleep after that beloved baby finally arrives.

Yet, sleep functions very differently in other tales. In Animal Bridegroom stories, such as "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," the heroine disobeys the warning not to look at husband while asleep, and must go on a journey to find him. In many versions, she often then finds him engaged to another woman, where she finds a way to come to him at night but he is in a drugged sleep. Sleep is a source of temptation and an obstacle to be overcome in these instances.

Sleep can also be a dangerous, unguarded time, for heroes and villains. In "Hop o' My Thumb," the titular main character tricks the ogre into killing his sleeping daughters instead of himself and his brothers, and they use the rest of the night to escape. Many protagonists must escape a villain's house during the night, under the cover of darkness-so what is risky for one character is protection for another.

In the "Twelve Dancing Princesses," their lack of sleep part of an ambiguous curse; it's the Prince's avoiding sleep that allows him to find the truth. Same with Hansel and Gretel-they overhear what their parents intend to do to them overnight, and Hansel gathers the pebbles while their parents are sleeping. Later, it's while they sleep in the forest that their parents abandon them, sleep once again functioning as danger.

What other fairy tales are there that feature sleep/lack of sleep?

Illustration-William de Leftwich Dodge, 1899

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Basile's The Seven Doves

The "Wild Swans" tale type, mostly known now through the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimms, has an older literary precedent in Basile's "The Seven Doves" (1634-6).

Adam of Fairy Tale Fandom had done a post not too long ago on Basile's Tale of Tales and how they are much cruder than fairy tale versions we're usually familiar with, which is certainly true (for example, at one point in this tale a cat doesn't just put out a fire, it pisses on the fire to put it out). But I never really realized how Basile is often very funny, in his specific yet delightful imagery. Some of my favorite examples:

   -The tale opens: "Once upon a time...there was a good woman who gave birth to a son every year so that, when the number reached seven, the boys resembled the flute of Pan with seven holes each a little bigger than the next. As soon as the sons had grown and lost their first set of ears..." (Zipes notes that this implies that children lose sets of ears like they do teeth)

   -"Finally, one morning, when the sun was using his penknife to scratch out the mistakes that the night had made on heaven's papers..."

   -[the heroine] "felt like a plucked quail for the mistake she had made"

   -"...the sea was beating the rocks with the stick of the waves because they did not want to do the Latin homework that had been assigned them"

   -"she arrived at the foot of a killjoy mountain that poked its head through the clouds just to annoy them"

Basile seemed to have an imaginative, almost childlike way in which he viewed the world with humor and personification.

The tale itself begins with the seven brothers demanding that their mother, who is again pregnant (Heaven help her), give birth to a girl this time, or else they will leave. This element of the tale always perplexes me-in the Grimms' "Twelve Brothers," they changed their original plot in which the King threatens to kill his wife is she gives birth to a girl, to the King desiring a daughter and threatening to kill his sons if he doesn't get one. And here we see the brothers themselves determined not to have an eighth boy. I'm not sure what the intention of each author was in each of those strange and sad scenarios, but I'm beginning to wonder, given the extremity of each threat and how different each one is, if maybe this scene could represent the foolishness of putting pressure on a woman to give birth to any gender?

Anyway, the mother does give birth to a girl, but it's the midwife who was distracted and gave the boys the wrong signal, so they left. As the girl grew up, she demanded to go find news of her brother, and went on a journey. She finally found her brothers, who had taken up residence with an ogre who was friendly towards them, but hated women, since a woman had blinded him. So they put her in a room and instructed her to never show herself to the ogre.

Yet, one day, her fire was put out by her cat companion since she didn't share half of a nut that she ate with it (she usually gave it exactly half of all of her food), and she went to ask the ogre for fire. When she realized the ogre was going to harm her, she barricaded herself in her room, and when the brothers returned, they shoved the ogre into a pit, where he died. They scolded their sister for neglecting her instructions, and told her never to gather grass near the spot where the ogre was buried, or else they would be turned into doves.

But of day the sister, Cianna, came across an injured man, and used rosemary from that spot to make him a healing salve. The brothers-turned-doves came and berated her, going on and on about how foolish she had been and how there was no hope for them unless she found the Mother of Time.

So Cianna went on another journey, this time to find the Mother of Time. She came across many creatures who all pointed her in the right direction, if in turn she would ask a favor of the Mother of Time for them-a whale, a mouse, an army of ants, and an oak tree. Eventually she came across the same man she had helped with the rosemary from the ogre's resting place, who gave her final instructions and then decayed away as soon as he told her everything she needed to know.

This time Cianna followed the instructions perfectly, although the Mother of Time tried to deceive her. She received an answer for all of the friends who helped her along her journey as well as the solution for her brothers to regain their human form-they must "make their nest on the column of wealth," which they unintentionally did anyway when they landed on the horn of an ox, since the horn, Basile tells us, is a symbol of plenty.

From there they journeyed backwards. The oak told them to take the gold treasure that was buried underneath him in thanks, but theives took their gold and tied them all up. The other animals all helped rescue the siblings and get them their treasure and to safety.

Although on the surface, the tale seems to have a strong message about Cianna learning to follow instructions, the plot seems to contradict this a bit. And frankly, just reading the tale, there are so many sets of specific instructions she gets, it's almost tiring to read them. If she hadn't showed herself to the ogre the brothers wouldn't have become the lords of his castle (and she would never have been free). And the old man she helped heal with the rosemary was instrumental in freeing her brothers later, although that was helping to solve the problem she created by helping him-but clearly compassion was credited to her as a virtue and not a weakness, both in her desire to help him and then all of the other creatures who repaid them with help. In fact, the story ends: "Thanks to Cianna's goodness, they enjoyed a happy life proving the truth of the old proverb: Good things happen to those who forget the good they've done."

The text of this tale can be found in Jack Zipes' The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. There is an online text at Surlalune although some of the translation is different

Illustrations-Giambattista Basile (from wikipedia); "The Seven Doves," Warwick Goble

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Runaway Pancakes

Sarah Allison at Writing in Margins had referenced the Runaway Pancake family of tales a while back and I realized, other than the classic "you can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man" line, I'm not familiar with these stories at all (although my brother and I did used to love saying the line from Shrek, "Not my buttons! Not my gumdrop buttons!"). I wasn't even sure how the classic tale even ended (a fox caught the Gingerbread boy and ate him). So I went over to the list of Runaway Pancake tales at D. L. Ashliman's site and had myself a virtual pancake brunch (no Saturday morning is complete in the Tales of Faerie Kingdom without pancakes and coffee!).

It seems the story tends to go like this: A pancake escapes its original maker, and as it makes its getaway, encounters lots of other animals who express their desire to eat it. Not surprisingly, the pancake doesn't grant their request and keeps on running. It isn't until an animal, usually a fox (but sometimes a pig), claims that he doesn't want to eat it, that he is able to trick the pancake into getting into its mouth. So it's a strange, depressing tale that seems to encourage deception, unless you look at it as cleverness, depending on if you have sympathy for a talking pancake. It's that strange tension again that exists in the fairy tale world, in which characters have to eat, but even food has the potential for being anthropomorphized and given its own desires. Yet especially in a world where food was more scarce, you might feel less sympathy for a pancake whose sole purpose is to be eaten, as opposed to animal tales (in which a character might be rewarded for compassion for an animal, and yet also eat meat, sometimes of the same animal!) And although most of the breakfast pastries that are consumed, at least on Ashliman's page, are pancakes or loaves of bread, it also makes sense that the American Gingerbread Boy would be seen as sentient, since he is at least modeled after a human.

Some notable exceptions: In the Scottish "Wee Bunnock," the bunnock (small loaf of bread) is caught not because it was tricked, but simply because it became dark and it fell in a fox's hole. And the compassionate "Thick Fat Pancake" from Germany allowed itself to be eaten because it came across three hungry children.

And some slightly less related tales: the English "Dathera Dad" is about a fairy child trapped in a pudding. The Russian "Devil in the Dough-Pan" is a warning about the consequences of failing to bless your food while making it, because otherwise a demon can inhabit it-and if you bless it after the demon is there, he'll be trapped! (Although the woman still lost her loaf, it was the demon who regretted entering the bread in the first place).

Illustrations by Robert Lumley anybody else hungry now?

Monday, April 3, 2017

From the Archives: Juniper Tree Variants

Juniper Tree Variants

The Juniper Tree seems to have a deep appeal to many fairy tale lovers, despite its darker elements. The traditional version is found in the brothers Grimm.

Kay Nielsen

The Rose Tree is an English variant, by Joseph Jacobs, in which the children are gender-reversed -which struck me as odd when the bird gives the brother a present of red shoes. Having the mother hate her daughter seems so predictable in fairy tales, but in Rose Tree some of the elements are especially reminiscent of Snow White.

In "Juniper Tree", the mother has no reason to hate her son other than the fact that he came from her husband's first wife. In "Rose Tree", the hatred comes from jealousy. As the wife combs out the hair of the daughter, she "hated her more for the beauty of her hair." She sends the girl to fetch a comb, then a billet of wood, then " 'I cannot part our hair with a comb, fetch me an, lay your head down on the billet whilst I part your hair.' Well! She laid down her golden head without fear; and whist! Down came the axe, and it was off. So the mother wiped the axe and laughed."

Later, the mother cooks the heart and liver of the girl, which is reminiscent of Snow White's stepmother's attempted cannibalism-only this evil mother is successful.

As monstrous as this mother is, the mother in the Scottish tale "Pippety Pew" has no reason at all to murder her son-who is her full blooded son, not a stepson-other than to hide the fact that she tasted the stew she made for dinner "till she had tasted it all away, and she didn't know what to do for her husband's dinner. So she called Johnnie, her son, to come and have his hair combed. When she was combing his head, she slew him, and put him into the pot."

Warwick Goble

Then as the father unknowingly eats his son, the scene is more disgusting than the other variants. The father comes across the different body parts, saying, "surely that's Johnnie's foot" and "That's surely my Johnnie's hand" and yet still eats, implying this father is either incredibly stupid to confuse a human foot with a hare's, the explanation given by his wife, or knowingly feasts on his son.

In the Grimms' version, the bird is transformed back into a boy at the end. In neither the Scottish nor English counterparts does the bird ever regain human form. But I personally like the idea that there can still be redemption and hope in ugly situations, despite the fact that things won't magically be the same again-it's almost more comforting in its realism. Which ending do you prefer?