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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 ...

17 July 2017

Blackberry Blue, Aladdin, and Representation

As is turning out to be unfortunately usual, I had something to write that was topical last week but didn't have time to write until this week. I've been on my work placement as part of my MA studies at a children's literature museum, which has been absolutely wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is the mountains of children's books surrounding me at all times. I recently came across Blackberry Blue, a collection of fairytales by Jamila Gavin, and absolutely adored it. The tales are not specific stories like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty but use elements of many fairytales and related tropes to tell new stories with canonically non-white protagonists. They are beautiful, enchanting, well-told stories and I could not recommend it enough.

I was reading this book as the news that Disney is apparently unable to find a single middle Eastern actor to play Aladdin was making the rounds. There is, of course, an entire film industry full of middle Eastern actors being cast as nothing but terrorists, not to mention the talented actors Disney already employs to portray Aladdin in parks and cruise ship shows, and Disney is merely whining about not being able to cast Johnny Depp, but anyway; what struck me about this book is how simple making a protagonist non-white is. Here is the first physical description of the titular heroine of "Blackberry Blue:"

"Her skin was as black as midnight, her lips like crushed damsons, and her tightly curled hair shone like threads of black gold."

And there it is. One sentence. Not only is she black, but she is beautiful. How simple it is to not equate darkness with evil and ugliness! How easy it is to make sure the reader knows your protagonist isn't white. Yet all we hear is how hard representation is. It's too hard to write a non-white character in a fairytale. It's too hard to cast a brown actor to play a brown man. It is never too hard to do these things; it is the challenging of laziness to which people are objecting. It is lazy to continue to make all-white fairytales and films, it is boring to insist that representation is impossible, and it is simply bad practise to refuse to broaden your horizons in your work.

ETA: Disney has since announced the casting of Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin.

01 June 2017

The Kitchen Witch

I turned in my assignments for the semester yesterday, so today I'm baking! And being in the kitchen for long periods of time always makes me think of the kitchen witch.

The kitchen witch is a witch doll or puppet hung in a kitchen to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. The origin of the tradition is difficult to pin down precisely - European in general, at least, but it pops up both in Scandinavian and German regions.

For what it's worth, the kitchen witch I remember belonged to my Norwegian grandmother. I wish I had a picture of it, but I remember it. I can't remember if my mom had a similar one, or if she just ended up with my grandmother's witch, but I remember the same witch or a very similar one in both my grandmother's and my mom's kitchens. She had curly brown hair peeking out under a yellow bonnet, and little wire glasses. I think her dress was yellow, too, or perhaps it was white and the kitchen lighting was unkind.

I remember asking about the witch and being surprised that she was a good witch. Though I've since seen other kitchen witches with more stereotypical witch faces, I remember being surprised that ours had such a kind and pretty face. From what I can find about kitchen witches, they seem to be generally perceived as positive forces, kind figures, beings of good. So few witches in folklore and fairytales are perceived as good, and it's interesting that this one is.

Over the bank holiday, I visited the York Castle Museum, which has recreations of rooms in different eras. This Victorian working class family's kitchen has a witch ball in the window. Similarly to the kitchen witch, witch balls were hung in windows to ward off evil spirits. The witch ball draws evil spirits in with its colours and decorations, then traps the spirits inside the ball with strings. The kitchen witch seems to be a benevolent spirit that protects, whereas the witch ball takes a more offensive stance.

Now the butter's at room temperature and I'm gonna go make some cupcakes! And possibly think about getting myself a new kitchen witch.

17 May 2017

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Hurra for Syttende Mai! Today I'm going to talk about my favourite Norwegian fairytale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon."

I meant to talk about this back when Beauty and the Beast came out, as one of several more interesting alternative takes on the same basic story, but just never found the time. I might still talk about a few more another time, but today it's all this one.

The story begins with a white bear encountering the heroine's father, offering endless riches to the poor man in exchange for his youngest daughter. The man likes the idea, but won't send his daughter away without her consent, so he tells her and she steadfastly refuses. The father tells the bear to come back in a week, and after a week of bribing his daughter with the promises of riches for her and their family, she consents.

At the bear's castle, she is given a bell to ring if she needs anything. After eating, she rings the bell and finds a bedroom in which everything is gold and silver, and her bed is beautiful and comfortable. As she turns out the light and goes to sleep, someone climbs into the bed with her and lays there wordlessly all night, but disappears before the sun rises.

This continues to happen every night, and the girl grows lonely and homesick. The bear agrees to let her visit her family, but makes her promise not to speak to her mother alone. Unfortunately, she does so, and her mother tells her to take a candle and light it to see who her night visitor is.

That night, when the visitor joins her, she lights the candle and sees a handsome prince. She leans over to kiss him and spills tallow on his shirt, waking him. In great distress, he tells her he is cursed to be a bear in the daylight and return to his true form at night, and had she not discovered the truth, he could have been freed in a year. Now he has to go marry a troll princess. Bummer.

He does tell her the way to get to the castle, however, so she goes after him. On her way, she encounters three old women who give her a golden apple, a golden comb, and a golden spinning wheel. They tell her the castle is impossible to find, but each sends her a little further on. The third woman sends her to the east wind, who then takes her to the west wind, who then takes her to the south wind, who takes her to the north wind, who finally drops her off at the castle.

The troll princess sees the girl with the golden apple and asks how much to buy it. The girl refuses to part with it for money, but offers to exchange it for a night with the prince. That night, the girl tries to wake the prince, but he is fast asleep. The same thing happens the next night with the comb, and though the prince does not wake, the prisoners in the dungeon below hear the girl's crying and tell the prince of it the next day. The spinning wheel is exchanged for one more night with the prince, and the prince this time merely pretends to drink the drink the troll princess brings him, suspecting it to be a sleeping potion.

The prince is awake this time when the girl joins him, and they devise a plan. The prince will refuse to marry anyone who cannot get the tallow stains out of his shirt - only Christians can get tallow out of a shirt, apparently, so the troll princess won't be able to. Sure enough, when he demands the troll princess clean his shirt, she only makes it dirtier. He calls the girl in to clean his shirt, and she is successful. The trolls explode, the prisoners are freed, and the prince and the girl live happily ever after.

The animated Disney Belle owes a bit to the heroine of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." She is head-strong and adventurous, taking things in her own time. Though she is persuaded to go with the bear, she initially refuses and remains steadfast in her decision for a week, only relenting with the knowledge that her family will be taken care of - not unlike Belle's sacrifice for Maurice's well-being. Belle's forbidden entrance to the West Wing also shares some parallels with the heroine's forbidden discussion with her mother. Belle's bravery is echoed in this heroine; she is asked, first by the bear when he picks her up from her father's house, later by the north wind, if she is scared, and she always responds, "No." She never displays fear or hesitation - curiosity and bravery, yes, but never fear.

This version of the story was collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. Like the Grimms, they traveled around Norway collecting folk tales, and compiled them into a book, Norske Folkeeventyr, first published in 1845 (two years after the sixth edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, for context).

Christianity in Norwegian folklore as we have it is an interesting case. As with all folklore and fairytales, these stories came out of thousands of years of oral tradition, but the first writing we have of them is from Asbjørnsen and Moe. While the actual fairytales such as this one weren't written down before, we do have the Old Norse mythology that also heavily features trolls. Before Christianity came to Norway around 1000 AD, Norway's trolls were the jötunn, giant beings banished to Jötunheimr by the Æsir. Though not always, they were often in opposition to the Æsir - the Norse gods as we think of them (Odin, Thor, Frigg, that whole lot).

As time went on, the term "troll" became more generally applied to folkloric antagonists. Some were truly evil, some were merely dim-witted,  but all fell under the same umbrella. As with most Christian missionary missions, folklore and native religion was a major tool in conversion. Taking antagonists people were already familiar with - antagonists that came out of the old Norse religion - and setting them up as evil pagans in contrast to the good Christian heroes and heroines of the stories played a big role in conversion, and was evidently so successful that hundreds of years later it was still being told in the fairytales that survived to be written down.

"Beauty and the Beast" is one of my favourite fairytales in every form it takes, and this one is one of my favourites. There has actually been a live action film adaptation that I haven't seen, The Polar Bear King released in 1991. It does not...appear to have the highest production values. Which is why I'd have loved for Disney to do something new and different with their live action rehashes, but, as ever, Disney does not listen to me. It's also worth noting Don Bluth's studio began work on an animated adaptation in the early 80s, but never completed it. These things often have a way of coming around again...or maybe I'm just eternally optimistic.

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!