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Hey! I'm still here. Let's talk about fairytale re-tellings. The stories we know as fairytales and folk tales have been a part ...

09 March 2017

My Top Five Women in Fairytales

I'm a day late for International Women's Day, but right on time for Folklore Thursday! I'm still quite busy with graduate school work, but I wanted to post something to celebrate IWD, so here is a quick list of my top five favourite female characters in fairytales, in no particular order.

Gerda, from "The Snow Queen"

Gerda is one of the few fairytale heroines who gets to be the knight in shining armour. She and Kay are children and it would be inaccurate to portray them romantically, but most fairytale heroines who save male characters are saving their brothers, and Kay isn't Gerda's brother, so she gets to be a bit of an anomaly. Gerda is brave, adventurous, relentless, and smart: all the characteristics heroes get all the time, now in a mighty little girl.

The eponymous Feslihanci Girl

I've written about her at length here. There are quite a few fairytale and folklore heroines like her: feisty, cunning, unyielding. She plays the long game but she fights back and does not put up with mistreatment. She gets the happy ending she wants, even if it's only a fraction of what she deserves.


It's become fashionable, to a degree, to hate on the classic fairytale princesses. Sure, we all loved Jasmine, Belle, and Ariel growing up, but Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, though of a markedly different temperament, are still worthwhile. Heroines like them, and specifically Cinderella in every version of her story, have all the strength that you see in Belle or the feslihanci girl; they're just strong in a different way. And their kindness, their resilience, their patience, their mercy - it's part of the emotional labour you expect from women, and it's just as valid to eschew that as to embrace it. But my own personal philosophy stems more from these heroines: be kind whenever you can, even when people don't deserve it. My breaking point is a lot lower than Cinderella's, but it's the goal.

Cinderella's stepmother

On the flip side of that, I've always been fascinated by the villainous character in Cinderella-type stories. She represents a common fact present in much of women's history - that women in societies that wouldn't allow them to work still had to provide for their children and secure their futures. If Cinderella got the inheritance, the stepmother's daughters wouldn't get that inheritance. It was a zero sum game. And that is, of course, cruel, sexist, and unfair, and her mistreatment of her stepdaughter is inexcusable. But the part this character plays is a fascinating relic of the way women's lives used to be, and remembering women's histories is one of the more interesting facets of folklore and fairytale study.

The sea witch, from "The Little Mermaid"

While the stepmother has truly earned her villain status, the sea witch from "The Little Mermaid" has rather gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop. In the actual fairytale text, she isn't really evil. She warns the mermaid what will happen, but when the mermaid insists, the witch gives her what she wants. I think that's pretty cool of her. You can warn people and tell them they're making a mistake, but in the end, you have to let people make their own choices, including their mistakes. It's perhaps largely Disney's fault the sea witch got such a bad reputation (Ursula is maliciously intentioned, that can't be argued), but really, she's just giving people what they ask for. She's not really so bad.

05 February 2017

Everyday Folklore: Selkies

Seals at Blue Reef Tynemouth
I've always had a fondness for merpeople. The first fairytale I remember reading on my own was Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, I loved the Disney film, and I loved playing mermaids in my grandmother's pool. My mum always called me a fish because I never wanted to get out of the pool. All merfolk were of interest to me, but I had a particular love of selkies. I loved The Secret of Roan Inish, and the more recent Song of the Sea was another selkie film that I absolutely adored. My boys joke that it's risky to take me to the beach, but I tell them as long as they don't give me back my sealskin, I won't be going anywhere. My aunt wrote a song about a girl raised by selkies, and I portrayed that girl on the cover of her band's album.

That's me!

Just over five months ago I moved to northeast England. I live 15 minutes from the coast of the North Sea, where seals are rather abundant. Without exception, I refer to them all as selkies. There are many reasons I love living here, but the selkies are definitely among them; they feel like old friends, welcoming me home.

26 January 2017

The Next Disney Movie That Will Never Be: The Snake Sister

The Three Skulls, Paul Cezanne

I am finally getting around to Franz Xaver von Schönwerth's The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, the collection of previously obscure tales found a few years ago in an archive in Germany. Only halfway through the book, I've been struck by how visceral the tales are; it isn't unusual for folklore, to be sure, but the tone is very matter-of-fact. I recall several reactions to the discovery of the stories in 2012 along the lines of, "Think of the new Disney films that will come from these!" I suspect it to be unlikely, though they've certainly shown they don't mind cleaning things up (compare Disney's Snow White to the Grimms' Schneewittchen, or Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame to Hugo's), but if they did choose one to adapt, I'd like it to be this one.

"The Snake Sister" has elements of Cinderella (Schönwerth's "Ashfeathers" is a more straight-forward Cinderella) but is different enough that you don't think of it as just another Cinderella. The father has two children, a boy named Hans and a girl named Annie, and their mother has long since died. Annie's friend's mother, a witch, curses Annie to be ill until Annie's father agrees to marry her. He does, and then conveniently disappears.

The father leaves them with two houses, one in which Hans gets to live by himself, because that sounds normal, and the other in which Annie lives with her new stepmother and stepsister. The stepmother puts Annie to work, though whenever Hans comes to visit, they dress her up and serve splendid feasts to make Hans think Annie is being treated well. Hans eventually discovers the truth and decides leaving Annie there while he goes to seek his fortune is the best course of action. Hans is not the brightest.

So of course Annie continues to be mistreated while Hans is out seeking his fortune, ostensibly to save her. One day the stepmother sends Annie to fetch water from the well, believing the wild animals guarding the well will destroy Annie. Along the way, she encounters a dwarf, who rewards her kindness with a crust of bread to throw to the animals. She safely fetches water from the well, and on her return home, she hears three skulls call out to her, asking to be cleaned with the fresh water she was carrying. She uses up all her water cleaning them, but as she leaves they call out blessings to her:

"May you become even more beautiful than you already are!"
"May you succeed in everything you decide to do!"
"May you become queen, even if it means that you are first turned into a snake!"

Interestingly specific, third skull.

Annie returns home more beautiful and not torn to shreds by wild animals than ever, and the stepmother furiously sends her own daughter to the well to get some of that magical beauty. The stepdaughter has no trouble with the wild animals, apparently, but when the skulls ask to be washed, she tosses them in the mud, and they call out curses to her:

"May you return home even uglier than you already are!"
"May you fail at everything that you decide to do!"
"May you be burned at the stake after you become queen of the land!"

That third skull is pulling no punches.

Meanwhile, Hans is penniless and sleeping in the king's stables, so that's going well. The king's grooms notice Hans kissing a portrait of a beautiful young woman and weeping. They tell the king about it and the king demands that Hans let him see the portrait. Of course, he immediately falls in love with Annie's portrait and asks that Hans bring his family to the castle.

Castle Anif, Salzburg

As the four of them - Hans, Annie, the stepsister, and the stepmother - cross the lake to get to the castle, the stepmother pushes Annie in the water and turns her into a snake. When the three remaining get to the castle, the king is furious that the beautiful girl in the portrait isn't among them, but he marries the stepsister because he feels like he has to, and throws Hans in the dungeon after sentencing him to death. A brighter man than Hans would probably choose this moment to speak up, but that makes a shorter story, I suppose.

The stepmother tells her daughter to ask the king for mercy for Hans, and the king relents, saying that Hans's life will be spared if he can build a bridge over the water. Instead of doing that, Hans sits by the lake and weeps. Suddenly a mysterious snake shows up and tells Hans to go to sleep and that in the morning everything will be done. When the sun rose, the bridge was complete, and Hans was now given something to eat once a day.

The stepmother is still feeling guilty, though, and asks her daughter to again ask the king for mercy for Hans. The king tells Hans to build a castle opposite the one currently standing. Hans again sits by the lake and weeps, the snake tells him that everything will be done, and Hans goes to sleep. Hans now gets two meals a day but remains in the dungeon.

The third time this happens, the king tells Hans to bring the snake into the courtyard. As usual, Hans goes to the lake and cries. The snake shows up and says that she will go with him to the courtyard, where they will chop her to bits, and then Hans must take up her right eye and bury it at the entrance to the new castle. All of this comes to pass, and a few days later, the king looks out his window to see Annie springing up from the ground at the entrance to the new castle. Hans is summoned to dig her out, the whole story is revealed, and the stepmother is torn to pieces by horses and the stepsister is burned at the stake. Annie marries the king and becomes the queen.

I would love to see this as an animated film - with live action there would surely be extensive reliance on CGI which just leaves me cold. Ideally a traditional 2D animation would be spectacular, probably lending itself to a The Black Cauldron vibe. But as that's one of the least successful Disney films, I don't think we can much count on it. But the talking skulls, the snake, and the animals at the well would all be potentially really beautiful animations. The story mentions a knife Hans sticks into a tree that should remain shiny while he is alright and would rust if he ran into trouble, but once he puts it in the tree it is never mentioned again; it would be a fascinating motif if expanded into a film, though.

Something should probably be done about Hans if this was to be made a film. At the very least, have Annie call him out for finding out about her abuse and then leaving her there and then not speaking up when their stepmother turns her into a snake, instead having his newly-made snake sister build a bridge and a castle (which - okay, I know it's magic, but she doesn't have hands. How was this achieved. Maybe bring in those animals from the well?) and then get chopped into bits and have to regenerate herself in the dirt. Really, Hans?

In fact, having Hans's actions remain the same but have Annie explicitly call him out for them would probably be the best way to handle it. It illustrates the dangers of not speaking up when something is wrong, and shows a way to point out when you have been mistreated rather than silently accepting it. And perhaps the stepsister is part of that, too - everything she did, aside from throwing the skulls in the mud, was done at her mother's insistence. If she knew what her mother was asking was wrong, if she had told her mother she wouldn't do it, if she had told her mother what she was doing was wrong, would things have been different?

As far as casting, as I mentioned, I'd prefer animation to live action. We know Keke Palmer's got a lovely voice, and if it were to be made a musical, you'd be all set. I think it would also be interesting to see Annie and Hans played by Willow and Jaden Smith.

I am just about halfway through the book, but I may be back to discuss more Schönwerth when I finish it!

12 October 2016

Cultural Identity Through Folklore and Fairytales

I do intend to return to The Next Disney Movie That Will Never Be series (which technically, I suppose, is not yet a series as there is only one entry), but I've just recently begun working toward my master's degree in museum studies and some class discussions led to me scribbling notes on this subject in my notebook.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl 1823

I use the term 'fairytale' most often, for the simple reason that I like the look and sound of it, but a lot of what we call 'fairytales' are more accurately called 'folklore.' Tales collected by the Grimms from middle and lower class German women were, very literally, tales of the German folk. The Grimms' stated purpose was to collect the stories of the German people in an effort to preserve German cultural heritage. That said, we know the Grimms made extensive changes to the stories, both before and after they were initially published. We call them the Grimms' tales rather than simply referring to them as German folklore because they are what the Grimms made of them; their edits tell us more about the Grimms than they do of the German people.

Charles Perrault told many of the same stories as the Grimms in different dressing - which, to be fair, is the history of folklore from the very beginning. Perrault's situation was very different; he was writing for the aristocracy, for the court of Lous XIV, and was part of a group of writers who all put their own individual touches on similar stories. Thus Perrault's work is equally a reflection of the social mores of the French court and of his own personal views.

Inevitably, we learn as much about the author or editor of a specific set of tales as we do of a society. The Grimms' initial publication in 1812 gives us a brave, defiant, self-possessed Rapunzel who by 1819 was edited into a witless child. The flip would seem to indicate the German housewives and servants who told the Grimms these stories were more interested in strong heroines than the Grimm brothers were. Perrault certainly had an abhorrence of strong heroines and very literally laid out in the morals accompanying his tales what his expectations of women were, but his female contemporaries (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) wrote much more interesting women. Though Perrault's expectations of women's behaviour were likely the prevailing ones, it tells us more about him than of the French people, and certainly nothing of lower-class French people.

That is not to say we learn nothing of the cultural identity of a people from their folktales. Every time one of these stories is told, it is changed by the person telling it, but some change more than others. If we compare the English Cinderella, "Cap o' Rushes" to the German "Aschenputtel," the main difference is that there is no godmother figure to help Cap o' Rushes; she relies not on the magical or fantastical but her own patience, steadfastness, and wit, and that certainly tells us something about both the English and the German people. Perrault's "Cendrillon" emphasises the heroine's gentle nature, her willingness to endure quietly, and that her eventual reward comes from behaving properly and being gracious even to those who did not deserve it; contrast that with the Grimms' "Aschenputtel" ending in the bloody dismemberment and blinding of the step-sisters.

Knowing that folklore and fairytales are heavily characterised by the person telling them, we still associate the stories with the culture of the person telling them, which brings us to the question: what do we learn about cultural identity through folklore? And what part does folklore play in shaping cultural identity?

Perrault does make it ridiculously easy to tell what he means through his morals at the end of each of his tales. At the end of "La Belle au Bois Dormant," he writes: "A brave, rich, handsome husband is a prize well worth waiting for; but no modern woman would think it was worth waiting for a hundred years. The tale of the Sleeping Beauty shows how long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral." Clearly French women were getting a bit fast for Perrault's personal taste, but in any case it's an interesting reflection on the changing priorities of society, or at least young French women. As with most fairy tales, there is no shortage of modern re-tellings, but what appears to be the most common theme in all of them is that a woman re-awakens the princess, whether it be a lover, friend, or family member. Marriage is either a footnote or completely irrelevant. Perrault would have a heart attack.

Taking a step back, the folklore itself as a whole is a component of cultural identity. I remember listening to an audiobook of Norwegian folktales when I was younger, and I didn't take so much from the themes of the stories as much as I felt happy about the stories being mine, from the country my ancestors came from, that they were mine. It's why there's backlash when a story that's important to a specific people is adapted for a movie for a wider audience; it's why the backlash against Disney's proposed live-action Mulan that changes the priority and lessons from the story is so strong. "The Ballad of Mulan" is extremely important to the Chinese people, for reasons I will direct you to them to for explanation: here and here. Removing a story from its cultural backdrop always runs the risk of missing the point entirely, but especially when it is removed by people from another culture, it feels like a personal attack, because it is. It is a personal attack on a part of that people's identity. Their stories belong to them.

This will, of course, vary from story to story and from storyteller to storyteller, but folklore and fairytales give us insight not only to the cultural values and social mores of a people but also of the personal values and mores of the person telling them. These stories have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, but they still feel intensely personal on different levels to different individuals. They explain where we come from, become the vehicle by which we pass on our cultural and personal identities to future generations, and how we tell others in the present about ourselves and what we value, and what we want out of the world.

04 April 2016

The Next Disney Movie That Will Never Be: The Feslihanci Girl

A few days ago a news item was making the rounds, and it being the most horrible time of the year, I still don't quite know whether or not it's real, but anyway, Disney may or may not be making a live-action adaptation of the fairytale "Snow White and Rose Red," focusing this time on Rose Red. I'm going to be completely honest with you: that idea is extremely boring. I hope it was an April Fool's joke because the thought of the millions of dollars they may or may not pour into that is honestly distressing.

Fairytales and folklore aren't going anywhere, which is why Disney keeps coming back to them. They have existed for as long as humans have existed, longer than we have records of, in every corner of the world. Even before the advent of film we've been taking the old familiar stories and reworking them to fit each new generation, each new culture that encounters them. I hope we never stop finding new ways to tell these stories. The key word there, though, is "new." It's not enough to tell the same stories set in the same time periods with the same people over and over again.

While it is necessary that we start telling different stories and representing more people, I don't actually trust Disney with these at the moment. So while I'm talking about fairytale/folklore movies that I want made, I don't actually even...necessarily want them made, you know? At least not by the current team at Disney. Ideally, I want to see these films made by people from the countries from which these stories come. So there's my disclaimer.

I was initially just going to make one post and list all the stories I'd like to see told, but I thought it might be more fun to actually talk a bit more about each one. So first up is my absolute favourite Cinderella-type variant, a story from Turkey called "The Feslihanci Girl."

The version of this story I have is credited to a Turkish housewife, Gülsüm Yücel, who told the story in 1964, and it was published in 1992 in More Tales Alive in Turkey. It was collected as part of a project to document the Turkish oral tradition, and as far as I can tell this story only existed in oral tradition until it was documented in 1964 because I can find absolutely nothing else on it, so much like nearly every other major fairytale, we have no hard date on how old it is. The only clue I could find was the naming of Aleppo in the story, which was not referred to as Aleppo until the 1920s, but for all I know they could've referred to it in the story as Halab, Ha-lam, Aram-Zobah, etc. etc. originally and changed it to Aleppo later. The short version: we just don't know.

Here is how it goes. The titular feslihanci girl, so called because she waters the feslihan plants, lives next door to the son of a bey (a lord). This dude is a jerk. Spoiler. So he is bored and rich and sits by the window yelling at the feslihanci girl every day when she goes out to water her plants, and he teases her by asking how many leaves are on the plants she waters, because that is what bored rich boys think are prime insults. She responds calmly, literally every day that this happens, with, "You are rich and can read and write so surely you can tell me how many stars are in the sky."

This upsets him. So when the feslihanci girl's mother gets sick and starts craving fish, the bey's son sees this as Prime Revenge Time, goes to the next village over, buys some fish, and comes back in disguise pretending to be a fisherman himself. He goes to the feslihanci girl and tells her he will give her fish for her poor sick mother, but only in exchange for a kiss. The feslihanci girl closes the door in his face, obviously. She tells her mother what's up and her mother goes, "I am DYING just kiss the idiot and bring me the fish." Presumably after sighing and rubbing her forehead for ten minutes the feslihanci girl opens the door, allows a kiss on the cheek, and then takes the fish.

So the next day when the bey's son gives her the same garbage about the leaves and she retorts the same thing about the stars, he goes, "Well, I can't tell you about the stars but I can tell you that YOU BOUGHT FISH FROM ME FOR A KISS!"

The feslihanci girl goes inside and stops watering her plants during the day. She is hashtag relatable. This is why I can't check my mail after dark anymore, too.

Anyway. The bey's son gets mysteriously sick and because his family is rich they can afford to send for doctors from all across everywhere and one night as the feslihanci girl is going out to water her plants after dark she sees all the activity going on next door and finds out what's happening. Now it is time for Revenge Time 2: Electric Boogaloo. None of this fisherman nonsense for her, though. The feslihanci girl does not play. She dresses up as Azrail, the angel of death, and sneaks into the bey's son's room after all the doctors have left and tells him she has come for his soul. The bey's son is understandably alarmed and tells her she can do anything she wants as long as she doesn't take his soul. She goes, "Okay, but remember you said anything," and - listen, I couldn't make this up - she makes him pull down his pants and she spanks him with a pair of sheep lungs with needles stuck in them.

The feslihanci girl does not play.

The bey's son spends six more months in bed before he recovers and once he's feeling better he goes right back to yelling at the feslihanci girl, and after he teases her again about the fish incident she goes, "That's hilarious, also I know you spent six months sick in bed because someone paddled your butt with a pair of sheep lungs that cost fifty kurus."

For some reason the bey's son is now in love with her. I am not here to shame, I guess. So he asks his mother to arrange their marriage, which she does. The feslihanci girl knows something is up so before she moves into his house she packs an entire case of tools. It is a good thing she did, because the bey's son had dug a cellar under his house in which to imprison her.

So a few months go by, and the bey's son tells the feslihanci girl from the other side of the cellar door that he's going to Aleppo on business for a year. She goes, "Oh that's great. What colour horse will you ride and what colour suit will you wear? No reason, just curious." And he tells her he'll ride a black horse and wear a black suit. "Cool, cool. Okay have fun, bye!" she responds, as she turns to climb through the tunnel up to her mother's house she's spent the last few months digging.

She takes all the money her husband left her and has her mother buy her a black horse and a black suit, and she disguises herself and catches up to him on the road. This happens:

And they travel to Aleppo together. Once they get there, the feslihanci girl finds a "witch" (in Turkish folklore a witch can be an actual witch or just an old woman who is vaguely morally loose; in this instance it appears to be the latter) and has the witch sell the feslihanci girl in marriage to the bey's son, who claims to be single. They have a son, the bey's son gives his son a sword, and three days later he tells the girl he has to leave and he can't take her with him because their son is too young to travel. She goes, "Cool, it's been fun, bye," and as soon as he leaves she saddles up with the baby and rides back home, leaves the baby with her mother, crawls back through the tunnel, and is back in the cellar when her husband gets home. He essentially just checks to make sure she's still in the cellar and then goes about his business.

So the exact same thing happens again a few months later when the bey's son decides to go to India for a year, then again when he goes to Yemen. The only change is that in Yemen he has a daughter and instead of a sword she gets a bowl because he's not only a jerk but a sexist jerk. Now the feslihanci girl and the bey's son are both at home, all three of their children live with the feslihanci girl's mother in secret, and the feslihanci girl hangs out with them most of the time but every now and then pops into the cellar so when her husband checks on her she's like "'Sup, I'm still here, like always."

After spending a few years at home, he decides he is bored of this intensely boring and horrible situation he himself has created. He decides to keep his wife locked in the cellar forever and marry someone new (somewhere in the distance, Jane Eyre is screaming). And on the day of the wedding he mysteriously gets sick again, so sick he can't get out of bed. The feslihanci girl gathers her children, gives the boys their swords and their daughter the stupid BOWL, and sends them off to their father with specific messages to relay. The bey's son sees these three children at the foot of his bed and is like, "Um??" The first son goes, "O man of Aleppo!" and the bey's son is like "Haha that's weird," and the second son goes, "What is the matter, Indian gentleman?" and the bey's son is like "...oh wait," and the daughter goes, "They caught us by the arm and threw us out of our father's house in Yemen!" and the bey's son goes, "Ohhhhh no. Where are your mothers?" and they tellingly respond, "Our mother is down there," pointing to the cellar. And then all is revealed and the bey's son says to the feslihanci girl, "You're really smart, I guess I'll live happily ever after with you and you don't have to live in the cellar anymore," and to the girl he was going to marry he goes, "Uhhh you can live with me as my sister I guess?" but you know what, it doesn't say they weren't a triad. So. Your mileage may vary. But anyway, "they lived very happily together." The end.

Some thoughts!

1. I could not find anything on what the heck a feslihan is. I have absolutely no idea. But for what it's worth, tree worship is a big part of Turkish folklore and mythology. In some sects it is believed humans are descended from trees, in others that important spirits live at the Tree of Life. The swaying of tree branches and leaves symbolise worship, and the more solid trees that don't swing and sway much are believed to not worship God. Also, blackberry trees are considered particularly lucky and walking beneath them can cure a number of ills. No idea if they're related to feslihan plants, but that's what I've got. Being closely related to plants, it's possible the feslihanci girl is perhaps some sort of spirit, a trickster or some such. I'd have a better idea if I knew whether or not a feslihan was a tree, to be honest. So if you know, pass that knowledge along! I am curious. ETA: I have been informed feslihan is basil! That is not a tree. So much for my brilliant theory. But now you know all this stuff about trees in Turkish folklore! Isn't life neat.

2. This movie will literally never get made just because of the sheep lung...thing. I'm sure they'd come up with something more family-friendly but isn't that kind of a shame? It's hilarious. I love the feslihanci girl. She is a laugh riot. She can sit with me.

3. Whenever the bey's son is asked where he's from, he never actually says Turkey. His exact words are, "I have come from such and such a country." In a way this could be useful for a film adaptation because considering the story absolutely definitely takes place in the Middle East, some ambiguity about the exact location might be politically prudent. Then again, I would burn the entire world to the ground if someone tried to set this story in like, Germany. Please, please no. So maybe not definitely Turkey (because if you stick literally to where the story came from you get people insisting Disney's The Little Mermaid is set in Denmark even though Sebastian, you know, exists) but it is definitely in the Middle East. You aren't allowed to take it that far out of context.

4. That said, I have, for your consideration, cast Turkish actors for the feslihanci girl and the bey's son:

Hazal Kaya
Çağatay Ulusoy

Even if it were to be animated, I'd hate for it to be a generic voice cast of the same few American and British A-listers. So. Here's my offering.

5. Alternate ending: the feslihanci girl and the girl the bey's son almost married elope together and live happily ever after together without the jerk. Consider it.

So that's what I've got for "The Feslihanci Girl." She is rad! She'd be a cool Disney heroine! I hope Disney doesn't make this movie with their current people! Someone tell me what a feslihan is!!