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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 ...

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.

05 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!!

11 January 2016

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away: Star Wars and Fairytales

"Star Wars is more fairytale than true science fiction." - Mark Hamill

"I have been offered a movie (20th Cent. Fox) which I may accept, if they come up with proper money. London and N. Africa, starting in mid-March. Science fiction – which gives me pause – but is to be directed by Paul [sic] Lucas who did American Graffiti, which makes me feel I should. Big part. Fairy-tale rubbish but could be interesting perhaps." - Alec Guinness

During my undergrad studies I took a course called Philosophy and Science Fiction (which, in case you were wondering, was the most awesome course I ever took), and more than once the whole class got into an argument about "hard" and "soft" science fiction. Star Wars only came up once, and everyone pretty quickly dismissed it as neither hard nor soft, but not even science fiction at all. Nothing more was said about it there other than to say what it isn't, but had we been discussing what it is, I'd argue that Star Wars is, in fact, more fairytale than anything else. Another day I might make a post about space fairytales in general but for today I just want to talk about Star Wars. (cue Oscar Isaac strumming a guitar and singing "Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars..." as that is the only thing in my head lately) (that and other Oscar Isaac-related things) (I digress)

Fairytales very often begin and end with stock phrases. Everyone's familiar with "Once upon a time," but also commonly used are "There was and there was not," "Once on a time," "Beyond seven [mountains/rivers/lands/seas/etc]," and many, may variations on "Long ago," "In ancient times," "Far away," and all sorts of references to this tale taking place a long time ago in a place far, far away. Right from the very beginning, Star Wars lets us know the kind of story we're dealing with. These stock openers signal that our story is taking place in a realm other than our own: not necessarily in a different galaxy, but another country, another place, another time. It takes us out of reality so that the magic and unrealistic happenings are easier to accept.

The Force Awakens spoilers ahead!