Fairy Tales 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Into the Woods and Fables: what about the narrator?

I saw "Into the Woods" performed at my high school when I was in 8th grade and remember thinking that the first and second act are polar opposites, but the crucial link between the two was the narrator.
When there is no longer a narrator to tell the story of the characters, life doesn't fit together so perfectly--baker wives fall in love with Princes, Princes cheat on their princess, Cinderella is no longer happy living in the palace, Rapunzel abandons her family, and the fairy tale world as we know it gets turned upside down. The characters have to make their own decisions, and this seems to present more of a problem of finding the correct "ingredients" needed to help the baker's wife have a child.
As the witch says: "You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right. I'm the Witch. You're the world."
The characters in Fables face the same dilemma about making decisions about whether to do the "right" thing which may not always be good. There is no narrator directing the story--the only sense of the narrator is at the very beginning where it says "Once Upon a Time...In a Fictional Land called New York City," and at the end, where it says "The End--For Now." The entire story is run by the characters and there is no outside voice directing their actions, which is why there is so much conflict. The graphic novel form allows for the author to show different viewpoints of different characters that may be happening at the same time, and the musical form also allows for this as well. Multiple characters sing at the same time on stage, each telling their own story.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fables vs. Into the Woods

Both retellings put a more modern spin on the fairytales they represent: restlessness, adultery, death. The princes are interesting characters in particular in both Fables and Into the Woods. Instead of giving us the typically suave, charming men we've read about who instantly fall in love with their fair beauties, these princes have no problem with cheating on their new wives with new women, some expected some not (like the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods). Both retellings seem to point out that the men who have been good-looking all their lives are the ones who will go down the wrong path, whereas the Beast in Fables is still a devoted, loving husband: his only complaint is that lack of money has put a strain on his marriage with Beauty. Both stories have put more power in the hands of the so-called "damsels in distress." Cinderella in both versions is a force to be reckoned with; she goes out and get what she wants.

Both retellings also stay relatively true to their originals, in the major details anyway: Rose Red and Snow White are still sisters, Cinderella's stepsisters' eyes are still plucked out, the young maidens end up with their princes at some point, Blue Beard's reputation precedes him. The Grimms would have never made their young women sexual creatures, nor would they have had their narrator gobbled up by a giant.

Fables and Into the Woods

Both of these "stories" were interesting and unusual. Fables seemed to be more modern than Into the Woods, but both incorporated a variety of fairy tale characters. In both cases, there were some elements of the fairy tales that were included to maintain the recognizability of the characters, such as Bluebeard's reputation and the wolf meeting Red Riding Hood in the Woods. But because the characters from different stories were interacting with each other, some details had to be changed. For example, no one tried to take Little Red Riding Hood's cape and Bluebeard did not marry Rose Red.

I guess in the sense that these were all originally fairy tales, a compilation of them must also be a fairy tale? Many details are left that would not coincide with the new story that is being formed with all of the characters in Fables, such as Snow White's evil stepmother or the seven dwarfs. That is made to be part of her past, so that instead of combining the fairy tales, they just use the characters to form another fairy tale that presumably occurs after the events of the original tales.

Into the Woods, on the other hand, more or less maintained the actions of the original tales, but had the characters interact with each other in the infamous forest that many stories use. Cinderella is still trying to get to the ball despite her stepmother and stepsisters and Red Riding Hood is still trying to get to her grandmother's house.

In a way, Into the Woods is more like a traditional fairy tale than Fables because it maintains the separate story lines, and Fables is a mystery, which is not typical for fairy tales. There is not a great deal of magic in Fables, and it feels more like "a day in the life of a fairy tale character." Though they both combine elements of well-known fairy tales, the end products are not the same.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sondheim and Willingham

I found both of this week's contemporary fairy tale encounters extremely interesting, not only because of the extensiveness of the characters portrayed but also because of the relatively accurate retellings of the Grimms' tales (Cinderella in Into the Woods suffered the same consequences as her Grimms counterpart and Rose Red - who is virtually unknown to most readers not familiar with the Grimms' "Snow White and Rose Red" - was included in Willingham's comic book). But I think what I found most interesting in both of these contemporary fairy-tale themed plots was the way in which Prince Charming(s) was represented.

A stark contrast to the fairy tale prince of perfection, both "Into the Woods" and "Fables" have cheating, untrustworthy princes who hurt the women that love them. In "Into the Woods," both princes represent this very idealistic stock type that falls head over heels exceedingly quickly but then once the chase has ended, they rapidly lose interest and move on, singing of "Agony" and "Moment(s) in the Woods". Similarly, in "Fables," there is only one Prince Charming who wedded and cheated on and divorced each of the female fairy tale characters whose fable ended with marriage to Prince Charming. He uses his skills in bed to trick women into giving him money and support.

Snow White's harsh attitude toward her ex-husband signifies scathing resentment and anger (hundreds of years after the fact) at his adultery with her sister. Into the Woods seems acutely aware of the fairy tale romance ideal and turns that on its head when Cinderella doesn't seem especially excited about being pursued, as well as when the Baker's Wife realizes that being with Prince Charming is not an ideal to long for. This new male prince character most likely results from a more modern feminist, cynical viewpoint that doesn't portray men as rescuers, or rather doesn't portray women as needing rescuers. The women in both of these contemporary versions are strong and independent, instead of the poor, silent female who is simply destined, so it seems, to wed a prince.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hyacinth and Roseblossom

The fairy tale elements of this story are rather shallow. It could be said that the main character is a loner, a dissenter from social norm; he seeks solitude and worries others in his excessive time spent in the wild. This connection with nature is typical of a fairy tale hero or heroine, as is the first quality attributed to Hyacinth: goodness. Immediately, however, romantic elements are thrust into the story. Hyacinth is not only good, but thoughtful. That goodness does not entail thoughtfulness is important to note (and typical of “good” fairy tale characters who are simply such by virtue of their innate moral codes), but so is their being classified side-by-side. That thoughtfulness is suggested as in some way furthering Hyacinth’s goodness is an entirely romantic concept. As the reader, we thus know from the start that he will eventually reap benefits from his connection with nature.
Hyacinth’s home town is also set up in a somewhat fairy-tale like manner, in the sense that the townspeople and his parents are ordinary (they raised and treated him well, and are now concerned for his welfare), his lover is nearly perfect and likewise is their love relationship. Naturally, he embarks on an uncertain journey to escape this cookie-cutter lifestyle.
In Hyacinth’s search for deeper meaning, there are many references to the complications of communication; it is suggested that effective verbal communication between any two creatures is next to impossible. This, of course, represents speech and human contact within the real world; one can never express to another what it is that truly constitutes the human condition. So, at first we feel lost. As the reader, we expect that this uncommunicative world is a helpless one, that the only response Hyacinth can illicit is laughter or silence foreshadows doom, does it not?
Quite the contrary: as each individual perceives the world around him subjectively, this is the limit of his understanding and is thus—to him, and him alone—perfection. On this journey, Hyacinth does not gain new eyes, but rather renews the ones he has. He is transformed not because he has discovered anything revolutionary but instead he has rediscovered everything, “familiar yet filled with a brilliance he had never seen before” in its wondrous harmony– utterly confusing and imperfect, yet thrilling.

The Story of a Fairy Tale

This story is about 5 wise men who go out into the world to find Truth, which has apparently been lost. Each comes back, convinced of his own findings, which include: Science, Theology, Love, Gold, and Wine. They all begin to fight each other and end up in poor condition. Then, a little girl comes along, saying she has found Truth in the meadow. So, everyone follows her to find this being that cannot really be categorized in any human form, but is rather like, a god or an angel or some other supernatural being. This we learn is a Fairy Tale. The wise men leave to continue fighting but many people stay behind with the Fairy Tale.

This story resembles a fairy tale in that there is a problem and a journey to find a solution. As the story goes on, each of the men is referred to as whatever he considered Truth. Thus, the story is more about the opposition between Science, Theology, Love, Gold, Wine, and the Fairy Tale, than the people themselves. In addition, the description of the Fairy Tale was very perfect and inhuman. This contributed to the typical timeless, placeless, magical feel of the fairy tale.

I think Carl Ewald uses this story to make some kind of point about Truth and its interpretations. Although, the fact that he construes the Fairy Tale in the end as the "real" Truth is interesting. Obviously, fairy tales are not realistic, so maybe the fact that he compares them to Truth says something about his disbelief in a real Truth or that Truth cannot be interpreted in one single way or found in one particular place.

The biographical notes mentioned that he wrote to incorporate his views on social Darwinism. So, perhaps this can be included in the interpretation of his message?

Of Feminine Subtlety

The Gesta Romanorum is an anonymous collection of legends, fairytales, fables, et cetera, based on Roman history and medieval legends that can be dated back to the end of the 13th century. Most of these collected tales have either a didactic or Christian message: "Of Feminine Subtlety" is no different.

There are several elements in this story that could very well make it a fairytale: the repetition of the number 3 (3 brothers, 3 enchanted objects, 3 times Jonathan is outsmarted), the presence of enchanted/ magic objects, and the eventual torturous death of the manipulative, overly sexual woman. Jonathan, the protagonist of the story, is the youngest brother of 3. Each of the young men inherit things from their father: land, possession, and, in Jonathan's case, magic objects. Unlike his brothers, however, Jonathan is instructed to give his inheritance to his mother until he's mature enough and ready for them. He goes to university and excels in his studies, but when it comes time for him to start collecting his inheritance, his mother will only give him one object at a time and warns him not to give any of his to gifts to women because they will lead to his downfall. Being a didactic fairytale, Jonathan does not heed his mother's advice and ends up in the middle of desert.

But there's hope since Jonathan works his way back to his native city by claiming he's a physician and calls upon the woman who's bested him since she's dying:
Now the lady who had cheated him of the talismans was sick to death, and she immediately sent for him. Jonathan was so well disguised that she could not recognize him, but her remembered her very well. As soon as he came to her, he declared that the medicine would not be able to help her unless she confessed her sins...Since she was on the very verge of death, the lady admitted in a low voice that she had cheated Jonathan of his ring, necklace, and cloth and had left him in a desert place to be devoured by wild beasts...Then Jonathan gave her some of the fruit which produced leprosy, and after she ate it, he gave her some of the water which separated the flesh from the bones. As a result, she was tortured with agony.

This sounds very much like the end of stories like Snow White, where the evil mother/ stepmother must dance in red hot iron shoes until she falls down and dies. Like those stories, it's almost as if the "victim" forces a little too much justice on the party who has injured him/ her. Sure this woman, who after her initial meeting with Jonathan is referred to as "the concubine," was manipulative and did deserve her comeuppance. But the punishment did not exactly fit the crime because Jonathan had also intended to leave this woman in the desert to fend for herself against the wild beasts; she just beat him to the punch. Why should she be "tortured with agony" because this guy was too naive and stupid not to continually give away all his secrets?

The Day Boy and the Night Girl

I read George MacDonald's The Day Boy and the Night Girl which was published in 1879, so not too long after the Grimm tales. This story has an evil witch who keeps captive a boy and a girl. However, the characters have names that are very specific to their personalities, and MacDonald takes extra care to describe their physical appearance.
The tale starts out by describing Watho, who is an evilly beautiful witch with red hair, white skin and black eyes. She also has the ability (as found out at the end of the tale) to turn herself into a red werewolf. Clearly her hair is symbolic of the flames of hell.
Watho has two ladies "visit" her. One is Aurora, who has rosy skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, whose appearance clearly correlates to the day. The other lady is Vesper, who is blind and lives in an underground chamber. Her hair is black and she has black eyes, and her skin is described as being "silvery." Both of these women have children--Aurora has a boy and Vesper has a girl. Watho tells Aurora that her baby has died and so Aurora flees from the castle. Vesper dies in childbirth so the little girl never knows her mother. Who are the fathers? The boy (Photogen) is the son of a king, but Vesper's husband was dead, so there is a mystery of who the father of her daughter (Nycteris) is.
Watho has a "plan" for both children. She keeps Photogen in the sun all day and never lets him see night, and he is the embodiment of the strong and fearless male. When Watho forbids Photogen to hunt at night, the reader knows that he will not obey, which is a characteristic of the fairy tale. "Photogen listened respectfully, but as he knew neither the taste nor fear nor the temptation of the night, her words were but sounds to him."

Nycteris is kept in the underground chamber, so when she escapes and sees the moon because it gives off so much more light than her little lamp, she believes it to be the day.
The literary elements are that MacDonald places a lot of attention of the characters' thoughts, and he switches between characters throughout his story, it is divided into sections, and when Photogen and Nycteris meet and their stories combine, their story is divided into chapters. It is also much longer than a regular fairy tale.
Both Nycteris and Photogen have to rely on each other to survive because Nycteris fears the brightness and heat of the sun, and Photogen becomes a coward by night. Through their combined efforts, they defeat the werewolf form of Watho. Nycteris smells the beast on the wind because of her heightened senses, and Photogen strikes the wolf in the heart with his arrow.
I believe that what makes this more of a literary tale despite the characteristics of the fairy tale is that there is so much attention to detail, to the names (Photogen-sun, Nycteris-night), to the use of detailed images to describe the emotions of both characters upon their encounters with the night and day.
When Nycteris feels wind for the first time, it is described as such:

As she knelt, something softly flapped her, embraced her, stroked her, fondled her. She rose to her feet but saw nothing, did not know what it was. It was likest a woman's breath. For she knew nothing of the air even, had never breathed the still newborn freshness of the world....Still less did she know of the air alive with motion--of that thrice blessed thing, the wind of a summer night. It was pure spiritual wine, filling her whole being with an intoxication of purest joy. To breathe was a perfect existence. It seemed to her the light itself she drew into her lungs. Possessed by the power of the gorgeous night, she seemed at one and the same moment annihilated and glorified. (Zipes 437)

Of all the traditional fairy tales we have read, not one of them described a person, or nature in such precise detail. The description is beautiful and compelling, and definitely the work of literature, not of folk origins.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rilke's How Treason Came to Russia

In Rilke's short Kunstmarchen, taken from "Stories of God," a greedy Czar demands 12 barrels of gold from neighboring princes who in turn require that he answer 3 riddles in 3 years time. The Czar asks all the wise men and counselors, beheading all those who do not know the answer. The time goes by in such a fashion and he must meet the princes, although he hasn't solved the riddles yet. On his way to the meeting place, the Czar encounters a peasant who knows the solutions to the riddles. The peasant, after some hesitation, requests one barrel of gold in return for the answers, to which the Czar consents. But the Czar is greedy and gives the peasant instead a barrel of sand and a little gold on top. The peasant sees through this, gives a moralizing lesson, and vanishes. The messenger describes this peasant as "God himself."

There are several characteristics that clearly demarcate this tale as a Kunstmarchen rather than a fairy tale. For one, the Czar is named - Czar Ivan Vassilievitch. As we know little about his character, it is interesting that Rilke would name him so specifically. This serves in contrast to the unspecified timelessness generally featured in fairy tales. Moreover, the violent repetition and pure selfishness of the Czar's persona inhabits something not typical to the fairy tale. He is merciless and greedy, similar to King Mark from the Philosopher's Stone, situating this tale with the later literary fairy tales that emerged. The character of God, as well, stems from a more contemporary Christian influence. As the Grimms 1857 versions compared to the 1812 version of their fairy tales indicates, Christianity started to be written into the original tales over the course of the 1800s. It is reasonable to understand, then, the importance of the God character in "How Treason Came to Russia" which was written at the turn of the 20th century.

In terms of the literary fairy tale having similar conventions and characteristics to the fairy tale, the title - "How Treason Came to Russia" resonates with the folk tradition of making the purpose of certain tales be to describe how a cultural belief, value, or tendency came into practice. The tale also parallels the common fairy tale motif of a riddle or series of riddles that need to be solved in order to receive a reward. Yet in this tale there is neither competition between brothers nor an obstacle keeping the Czar from solving the riddles. The peasant/God simply tells him. Thus, while literary fairy tales have some resemblance to fairy tales in shared motifs, similar titles, contrast between courtly life and peasant life, it is too parabolic and too attentive to literary stylistic devices and themes to be a true fairy tale. There is, in short, not enough magic (other then the vanishing act of God) happening to locate this text within the fairy tale genre.