Fairy Tales 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The transformation of human to animal

In the Grimms stories this week, all except one feature human beings turning to or turning back from animals. In these stories, some of the humans turned animals take on qualities you'd expect. For instance, in The Twelve Brothers, the ravens cleverly swoop down to save their sister who was waiting to be burned. One would not have expected this action to be taken by swans, for example, but we are not surprised to see brave ravens do this.
In the Seven Ravens as well, the ravens react to finding their sister's ring in a cup by knowing that she is among them. They show a trait of cleverness which would not have been applicable to a dull-witted animal though.
In the The Frog King, though, a handsome prince is transformed into something that is the exact opposite of his natural self, and takes on qualities unlike that make him larger than a mere frog. For instance, he is easily able to persuade the King of his encounter with the princess. More strikingly, the frog, a gross animal that immediately disgusts the princess, transforms into a handsome prince, shocking one who would expect a prince to be something more noble.
In the transformation as well, The Frog Prince changes under conditions very different from the ones the Twelve Brothers and Seven Ravens do. The Prince is changed after an act of cruelty by a young woman, and little explanation is given why exactly. On the other hand, The Twelve Brothers and Seven Ravens are changed after a woman does a great deed of heroinism, which seems to be a more expected reason for a transformation to occur. These changes are interesting, and the discrepancies between them are interesting as well. It would be interesting to know if someone did a more in depth study on how fairy tale characters transform back to their former beings.

Disney and the Grimms: Did they have the same intentions?

What amazes me after reading the Aarne & Thompson and Propp articles in Maria Tatar's The Classic Fairy Tales, are the amount of variations one tale can have. All the tale types, all the sub-categories, the 40,000 motifs classified by Aarne; it makes the history of the fairy tale seem so much larger and infinite. As Propp mentioned in his article Folklore and Literature, "folklore should be likened not to literature but to language, which is invented by no one and which has neither an author nor authors. It arises everywhere and changes in a regular way, independently of people's will..." which gives the fairy tale a sense of timelessness (179).

In Propp's second essay, he says that the sequence of the tale, while several elements may have changed, or are left out, is always the same. I think this can be seen in the readings assigned focusing on the transformations of brothers to birds. In "The Twelve Brothers," the brothers run away to save themselves from being killed after the birth of their sister. The sister finds her long lost brothers, who welcome her with open arms. When the sister plucks 12 lilies her brothers turn into Ravens. An old woman tells her she must make a sacrifice to save her brothers. The king finds her, falls in love with her beauty, she is about to burn at the stake, when the seven years of silence are up and her brothers return to their human form and rescue her. The same pattern appears in "The Seven Ravens" and "The Six Swans," (which is one of my favorite fairy tales of all time.)
Even if the method of how the brothers turn into a bird varies, or even if the bird varies (between ravens and swans), the sequence of the story remains the same. What I think is important to notice is that one does not tire of these different versions--it is very interesting to note the variations in each tale, and wonder why it was changed.

In Zipe's article "What Makes a Repulsive Frog so Appealing," he looks at why humans are so attracted to certain fairy tales, and it is because the tales "become second nature to us...they reveal important factors about our mind, memes and human behavior" (3). Through the make-believe world of the fairy tale, our own world is enhanced, and this is why these tales are so timeless. Why some tales have flourished while others have not is due to the fact that "the power of the tale depends on the human agent's receptivity" (7). And this brings us to the connection between Grimm and Disney, which reflects Zipes' last article, "Breaking the Disney Spell." In that essay, Zipes tears Disney to shreds, leaving me disillusioned about the "magic" of Disney. Those are the movies I grew up on, and now Zipes is telling me it was all about speaking through the animator, (Disney), to change the tales to fit the social structure of the time, that he "violated" the original tales? However, I am going to compare these two quotes from both of Zipes' essays to show that the Grimm Brothers and Disney were not so different after all.

From "Breaking the Disney Spell": "The purpose of the early animated films was to make audiences awestruck and to celebrate the magical talents of the animator as demigod" (342).

From "What Makes....So Appealing?": "The brothers Grimm evidently brought together all the characters, motifs, and the topic of mating in such an efficient and aesthetically pleasing manner that from this written version the tale stuck in the minds of many people" (14).

One of the many repeated themes in all of these essays is the difference between the literary and the oral tradition, and how the tales changed once written down. Didn't the Grimms alter the tales to fit their audience, so that they were efficient and aesthetically pleasing? Basically, they did the same thing Disney does years later in twentieth century America with film--they change the story by creating their own personal additions so as to affect a greater audience. Even though the tales are written down, by no means are they fixated to remain in that "tale type." The tale types continue to be altered, as is seen in the new movie "The Frog Princess." The retellings of fairy/folk tales will retain the same sequence, but they continue to affect the human psyche, and we are attracted to the many variations over and over again because we believe them to be telling a story we recognize as our own.

Disney's Princess and the Frog

After watching the new Disney movie based on the "Frog Prince" stories, I was confused by how different the Disney version is from the Grimm's story. For example, in the Disney version, the frog prince wants to be kissed not to win the love of the princess, but to be turned back into a human for his own reasons. When she finally kisses him, he isn't transformed. Instead, she turns into a frog too and they have to go on an adventure to find a way to become human again. After reading the Zipes essay I think I can see why these changes were made to the story. Mating, or more applicable, "dating", has changed considerably since the times when marriages were arranged and fathers had the most authority in regards to their daughters' lives. Today, dating is all about choice on the part of both parties involved. The "prince" or man chooses to date a woman based on his attraction and interest in her, not on her status as a "princess". Disney showed this by making the prince indifferent to Tiana's status as a princess. He only wanted her to kiss him because he thought she fulfilled the criteria he needed in order to become human again. Women also choose mates now based on attraction and interest. Tiana didn't care that the frog claimed to be a prince. Even if he had actually turned into one when she first kissed him, she was only interested in his promise to help her obtain her dream restaurant. She was a modern woman focused on achieving something for herself beyond marriage and motherhood. The frog prince was simply a means to an end for her, not a romantic or inevitable love interest. The story does end up with the two frogs being transformed and getting romantically involved, but it is only after they have had the chance to fall in love properly. Each one's status, his as a real prince, and hers as a poor working girl, don't factor in to the relationship they foster over their time together as frogs. Disney took an age old tale and adapted it to fit modern mating ideals.
What's in a kiss? And why are kisses so important in fairytales? Kissing in a fairytale means serious business because a kiss is a means of rescue. For Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (the Disney versions anyway), true love's kiss is the only way to wake up and break the comatose spell while the frog prince/ king will remain a frog forever unless a beautiful maid/ princess kisses him.
But why a kiss? Why not a hug or a handshake to break these spells? Kate, a character in the film French Kiss, says it best: "I mean, you can disconnect from everything but a kiss. A kiss is so intimate-- two people's lips together, their breath a little bit of their souls..." A kiss is the first step to proving fertility and the first leap into sex. Traditional fairytales attempt to assert family values and gender roles: women exist to marry men with good genes and to birth their babies. This explains why the princess in "The Frog Prince" throws the frog against the wall: "Since women have to consider the possibility of pregnancy and childbirth, their thinking and mating skills have tended to be more selective than those of men" (Zipes, "What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing..."). A frog is disgusting and repulsive and most definitely does not have the kind of genes a beautiful princess would want to have in her future progeny, which is why it's not until she throws him up against a wall and he transforms into a handsome prince that she accepts him as a suitable mate and lover.
Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have the perfect domestic skills to be a good wife and mother, but it's not until they marry that these skills can really be utilized; they need suitable men in order to be truly natural in the traditional world order. Being kissed is the only way they can get suitable men and thus break out of their pastoral roles and fulfill their destinies to end up virtuous wives.

Can a repulsive frog also be appealing to the princess?

What I found interesting about the Zipes article and the “Frog Prince” stories is the argument from Bettelheim about the meaning behind the story and how Zipes refutes it. Both seem to take narrow-minded perspectives on the category of stories as a whole in that they presume that a few specific motifs that are not present in all versions of the story.

Bettleheim asserts that the princess is dealing with anxiety, anger, and hatred. Whereas, Zipes argues that she is “cunning and furious” because the frog is “inadequate and repulsive,” but there is another force (presumably the father) that makes her “accept the dark side” for which she is inevitably rewarded.

However, in one version in particular, the father is the one that makes a promise to the frog but has no say in forcing her to be with him. Instead, the frog drags her away, kicking and screaming. By the next morning, he’s a prince and they live happily ever after. Ok, so, maybe she’s upset about being taken away by a gross frog, but she doesn’t do anything about it and neither does her father.

And in a couple of other versions, the step-daughter or youngest daughter of three is compliant with the requests of the frog, even against the wishes of a stepmother.

So, I guess the point is that it is difficult to analyze the state of mind of the princess in a “Frog Prince” story if the motifs differ to such a degree that her attitude varies from version to version.

Memetics and "The Frog King"

In many ways, it seems that all memetic fairy tales are based to some extent on courtship and mating. Cinderella, The Frog King, and Beauty and the Beast, among others, all relate to the idea of one royal marrying an initially less fortunate (in terms of appearance or economic/social stature) person. Perhaps these tales gain their popularity in the ability of the performer/author/scholar/director to tweak and adjust the tales in certain ways to conform to contemporary cultural values.

Disney, in both Cinderella and The Princess and the Frog, assigns a negative value to the idea of a prince playboy. In Cinderella, the king wants his son to start a family because being a handsome youthful playboy does not make him perfect. In The Princess and the Frog, Prince Naveen’s family cuts him off from the family’s funds so that he will give up his frivolous playboy ways and settle down. Both movies, therefore, strive to maintain and support conservative values of the domestic family by ending in the playboy prince marrying.

While I was first surprised by Zipes’ argument in “What Makes A Repulsive Frog So Appealing” because her transgression of slamming the frog against a wall and breaking promises was rewarded with a prince, Zipes makes valid points about the way these frog prince tales are primarily stories of courting and mating practices. They always end in marriage, making the basic function of the story up to this ending be bringing the two together.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Vladimir Propp

It seems to me that Robert Darnton’s take on the fairy tale would resonate more closely with Vladimir Propp, as he is concerned with what the message of the tale tells about its creator, rather than the moral of the story necessarily being life-changing, as Bettleheim views it. He argues that all folklore (not to be confused with literature) is structured in the same way; every fairy tales has certain standard and unchanging functions carried out by various characters. It is thus not the specific character descriptions and the symbolic elements that are part of the course of the story that are essential to note and analyze, (nor do these specific elements resonate with the listener/reader (a child, for Bettleheim’s argument) or convey messages to them on a subconscious level) but rather the commonalities between similar tales that serve as the very basis of the story and likewise render it meaningful

Thus, I would venture further to guess that Propp would agree with Maria Tatar in that Cinderella and Donkeyskin stories may certainly be read as related; both stories fulfill the function of getting the daughter to run away from home seeking personal morality, although one uses the presence of an evil step-mother and the other, an erotic father figure. Still, it is interesting to question where Propp draws the line between a single function portrayed in various ways versus separate factors that thus render certain stories incomparable (or at least not to be read side-by-side). Further, it seems hard to follow his conviction that whatever is not found in multiple renditions of a single story is to be disregarded entirely, as it seems difficult to determine when “it becomes apparent that the new tales considered present no new functions” (Tatar, 389). If it is true that folklore is unique in its minimal agents (performer and listener), isn’t there something to be said for the creative ways in which individual rendering may vary (and further, accounting for those which resonate with audiences and are perpetuated, such as Cinderella)?