Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cuentos de hadas y una historia triste

This week we watched and discussed one of my personal favorites: Pan’s Labyrinth or El laberinto del fauno (2006) by Guillermo del Toro. Unlike many of the other fairy tales we have read, this one is blatantly an adult fairy tale as it combines the history and fantasy genres.

Many of the tails we have looked at so far have had historical undertones such as the early Grimm stories when France had taken over Germany, however, the historical content of Pan’s Labyrinth makes up a major theme of the movie. The movie is set in 1944 Franco Era Spain after the fall of the Republic which forced the members of the Socialist party into the forests and mountains. Because of this the situations, such as that with the rationed bread, seem that much more possible, adding to the realistic switches between the real world and the fantasy world.

 The movie also has social commentary that can apply to multiple situations outside of the restrictive fascist Spain of the late 30’s into 40’s. It applauds three kinds of thinking: independent, critical, and moral, all of which can be seen through the different rebel characters.

Ofelia steps outside the traditional female role of passivity to go against what her mother, step-father, and faun servant tell her, all to eventually end up in her rightful place as princess of the underworld because of it. She rebels against her mother by not falling for the charms of the Captain, a position that symbolically relates to the conflict in Spain as she shakes with her left hand (representing the leftist socialists who were driven into the woods) instead of her right (which represents the rightist fascist rule). She also goes against her mother by dirtying her Alice-in-Wonderland dress to defeat the evil toad poisoning the tree, also symbolic of the poisonous fascist party destroying the mother country., although she did try to keep it clean...
She disobeys the Captain by taking back her baby brother and sedating him which comes into play during his defeat., can't you feel the familial love?

The most important rebellious attitude she takes is toward the faun., why would you ever disobey this? Also this shot is eerily similar to the one with Captain Vidal, exposing the villainesque qualities of the faun.
First she picks the small door other than the one that his fairies insist on in order to find the dagger. Not so coincidentally it is also the leftmost door. She also disobeys the command “no comáis ni bebáis nada” (don’t eat or drink anything) which ends in the death of two fairies and the disappointment and departure of the faun. The fact that she disobeys this order by eating grapes is connected to the relative food deprivation in Franco’s Spain as everything was rationed. Poor Ofelia was tempted by a feast and fell in order to eat at all. I know you're hungry but, oh no don't do it, it's right behind you! Also you'd have to be pretty desperate to eat anything prepared for or by this guy...
Ofelia’s final act of disobedience toward the faun is during the final trial in which she refuses to let him prick her baby brother. This works to her favor as she chose correctly because “no princess would allow innocent blood to be spilled over herself” and she gets to go back to her kingdom complete with new Dorothy shoes as there is no place like home., so this is the Underworld, huh...
By disobeying those around her that are in power, Ofelia establishes her place as a strong thinker who aids in the vanquishing of the villain in the real world and is welcomed home in her fairy tale world.

 Mercedes and the Doctor also show these three different kinds of thinking to disobey the world around them. Mercedes also breaks out of the traditional passive female role found in fairy tales to actively aid the guerrillas in defeating the Captain. She steals supplies, gets information, and wounds the Captain., trust me, she's not as sweet as she looks.
She also actively goes against his desires for her to tell his son about his death. She is a strong heroine who does what she thinks is right. With her is Dr. Ferreiro who is also aiding the guerrillas. He is there to heal the rebels so that they may continue fighting, although in the end his aid gets him killed., hey wait a minute...
He further delays the villainous Captain by euthanizing a guerrilla who was being tortured for information. When asked about his betrayal he responds that it takes a certain kind of man to blindly follow orders, something that he would not do. These independent, critical, and moral thinkers do what they feel is right instead of listening to a higher power, something that ends up in some slight misfortune on their part but ultimately ends in the greater good winning.

Del Toro uses his understanding of what a fairy tale is to make this commentary which can also be applied to situations such as September 11th when everyone was convinced there was no gray area in the aftermath, only evil Muslims and god Americans according to Dr. Deveny. This is because his tale is what Jack Zipes would describe as subversive as it has its blatant themes and the more inconspicuous ones that drive the movie from behind. Any of the scenes and happenings can be applied to many of Vladmir Propp’s 31 functions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31) whether they are happening in Ofelia’s fantasy world or in the war-divided Spain that she actually inhabits.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not so different as you'd think, and the stuff of nightmares

This week Dr. Shabbir Mian from the McDaniel Physics department visited to teach us about tales from Bangladesh.

It was interesting to closely examine literature from an Eastern culture, even more so since the professor had grown up with these stories instead of being an expert on them; I enjoyed analyzing the story with him as he did not already have preconceived ideas and we were able to teach him some as well.

Dr. Mian started the lecture in the best way possible by giving us some background information about Bangladesh. He told us why the Taj Mahal was built (as a mausoleum for a Sultan’s wife) and how that story in itself is like a tale. Then the geography of Bangladesh was explained and given importance: the tales reflect the geography. As such there are many stories involving water thanks to the Indian Ocean and river deltas, lush forests, flat land but some hills, hot weather, and monsoons. These elements along with some from the neighboring countries of India and Burma as well as early trade with China all combine to make up the stories of Bangladesh in an easy to see way.

Many of the stories come from the Rupkotha. There are generally no fairies, something that has been quite common in the other fairy tales that we have read. Most of the stories seem more like what we have classified as folk tales as the majority of them were passed down orally and therefore have slight variations in character. This concept was seen in the different versions of Blue Lotus and Red Lotus that we read/saw, especially as the plots themselves were slightly different. Other stories come from the Panchatantra from 550 AD Sanskrit, the Jataka from 5th century BC Ceylon, the Lal Behari Dey English translations of older tales from the late 19th century, and the Grandmother’s and Grandfather’s Bag which emphasizes the importance of the old passing stories down to the young. There are also more modern tales that are just as imaginative as the older ones; keeping the stories and ideals alive, even bringing in the western fairy tales which are novel to that area.

These stories are generally full of life lessons, much like the other stories that have been read, although not in a civilité manner. Virtues are rewarded, like in many stories; and evil is punished as it is in many of the darker versions of stories that we have read. There are almost always demons and monsters, talking animals, and magic. Sometimes there are ascetics which happily offer help and ask nothing in return, somewhat like a fairy godmother.  Another common feature is the jealous co-wife which takes over the role of the evil stepmother. The characters of these stories can be from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds thanks to the constant involvement of other countries in the development of Bangladesh.

The story we read, Blue Lotus and Red Lotus, shared very many themes and ideas with many of the earlier stories that we read while remaining seemingly new and refreshing. It could be classified as AT type 720 as the Blue lotus’ demon mother slew him, although she also ate him (instead of the father) and buried him for later rebirth (instead of the sister). This rebirth reflected the prized trait of virtue. The hero had to go away on a quest, as one of Vladmir Propp’s conventions, and later had to return home to regain his power. The importance of colors was brought up, although examined to be different from those in the other stories we have read since red is pure in this case instead of passionate or evil. There was a possible tie between both cultures in the treatment of the mother figure. In most tales the mother figure must be pushed away for personal growth to occur. The mother is defeated; however in Bengali culture mothers are extremely important. This conflict is possibly cured by the fact that she was killed indirectly through the murder of the hornet instead. Another difference was that the father’s health was restored instead of the son taking over as would be expected. Family is obviously praised more in the Bengali culture than in others.
Overall, it just goes to show that perhaps cultures are not as different as one would think. Jung was touching on this idea with his universal archetypes; however it is much more interesting to see the ideas in play through reading and seeing them through my own eyes. Don’t fail to read something just because you think it’s going to be too different and weird; it may be more similar than you’d think.
This week I'll be ending with the video Dr. Mian showed us that genuinely terrified me, as I'm sure it would also terrify children who watched it; although maybe not.

To make you feel a little better, here is a video I found of some adorable kids covering Sonne by Rammstein:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

I wanna see them, wanna see them... dancing!

This week we’re supposed to analyze how the tales of Hans Christian Anderson fit into our family tree of fairy tales. His tales came in after he had already been able to read many that were written by the brothers Grimm, even being included at one point. Hans Christian Anderson evolved and transformed what fairy tales could be, much like the beloved character of the Little Mermaid transformed. 
HCA goes beyond the traditional fill-in-the blank fairy tales to create characters with depth. True, this limits the amount that people can insert themselves into stories, however it also makes it more possible to insert yourself into a beautiful world and escape for a bit. Heck, that’s why I spent so many bath/shower times of my childhood imagining I was a mermaid who was going to meet a wonderful prince. These journeys are possible because his stories go beyond the simple imagine-it-yourself images to paint beautiful pictures in your mind (or for your artwork).
A common theme from the traditional fairy tales and those of HCA is the inclusion of religious ideas, although he idealizes suffering and the protestant ideals much more than your average fairy tale.
 In The Little Mermaid the mermaid is searching for an immortal soul, something that humans have, but apparently mermaids do not. Heavily preoccupied with this, she decides that she must be human in order to have one, although I believe her true motivation is to be with the man she loves and to fulfill her curiosity of what lies above the sea. If she was really only interested in having an immortal soul, I believe that the writings would not have focused so heavily on her depression due to the lack of recognition from the prince. To become human she essentially sells her mermaid soul (as symbolized by her voice) to the devil (as portrayed by the sea witch). She is not accepting of her “god-given” form, and is not accepting of it because she cannot be satisfied with her own kind. In some strange way I suppose you could also comment on subtle tones of bestiality as she is half fish, an idea that can be shared with The Beauty and the Beast. She fails to gain the love of the prince which would have allowed her to remain human, thus leading to her death. She could have saved herself by murdering the prince with a knife procured by her sisters from the sea witch; however her selfless love for him forces her instead to commit suicide and accepting her fate as sea foam. Because of this she is given the opportunity to travel the world for 300 years in penance in order to gain an immortal soul. The religious aspect of her journey is placed back into the spotlight in the end and is used to help enforce the morals of the story: do not try for upward mobility if you are not ready for the trouble and suffering. HCA also subtly adds in the lesson that children should behave for their parents in order to shorten the amount of time that the little mermaid must suffer, a technique only slightly less blatant than that of Perrault who explicitly gives the morals in his stories.

The Red Shoes is another religion-centered tale by HCA, although to a greater extent than The Little Mermaid. An orphaned girl named Karen, who has no proper shoes except for a scraggly pair of red shoes, is eventually adopted by a rich older woman who throws away her red shoes. This woman goes to buy her new shoes and Karen “tricks” her into buying new red shoes fit for a princess and continues to wear them to church despite the protestations of the churchgoers and the paintings. It is said that this is because she coveted the shoes and then focuses her attention on the shoes, moving away from God and religion because she is in love with the shoes. Eventually the man holding the door seemingly curses Karen and when she dances in the shoes she cannot stop. At first they can get them off; however when she goes back to them again she cannot and misses the rest of the life of her mother and cannot go to church as the shoes prevent her. She must have her feet chopped off and tries to go back to church due to her suffering; however the shoes still stop her. Eventually the church is brought to her and in happiness her heart bursts and her soul goes to Heaven. This story is supposed to teach that we need to move away from the love of material possessions and pride; however it just makes me feel bad for Karen. I imagine that she was not very old and she was an orphan. All she wants is a pair of nice shoes and sees those of a princess and wants to be like her. This idea is similar to that of starving children being given food for the first time: they overeat. I will admit that her re-donning of the shoes is appropriately punished in fairy tale terms as she did have a chance to escape and repent; however she did not. Perhaps if someone had explained to Karen why it was wrong to be wearing bright red shoes in church it would not have been a problem. Either way, HCA managed to write an entire story based around the profuse Christian Ideals of his time and as a continuation of the more subtle Christian additions to the Brothers Grimm.

Both of HCA’s tales have spurred other interpretations just like the other fairy tales, they even have about the same amount of change to become suitable for newer generations such as the lack of death in other versions of The Little Mermaid and the lack of foot amputation in some versions of The Red Shoes (although it can still be found in many of the ballet versions and the Korean horror film).
Overall, HCA’s tales can be seen as the next step (or many unplanned dance steps) in a fairy tale journey.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Super stories and the methods of telling them

If I say to you: Paokwa

Then you should respond to me: Pakawa

Why? Well because that is how to start stories in Swahili (albeit probably spelled incorrectly) as passed down by the amazing professor, Dr. Ochieng’ O.  K’Olewe, who came to visit our class. He shared with us the traditions and facts about oral literature (once again that question comes up about how it’s literature if it’s oral, check out my earlier post about ASL)in Kenya, in which interaction and audience participation is extremely important, especially as it's the main way of keeping records due to a previous lack of writing. Keeping the audience active is one way to keep them attentive, something that can be important when you want to get a message across. Another way is to keep them in the dark; however this method served multiple purposes. Kenya has many agricultural communities and therefore nighttime, when it is dark, is when all the work is finally done for the people. The darkness also allows for imagination and the empowerment of the voice and its intonation. Characters can be extremely easy to voice and the story takes a life of its own. When Dr. O was telling us the first story in the dark conjured up an image in my mind for sure:
Yes, that is a monkey riding a shark, they both eventually ended up trying to trick each other, but more on that later.

Now remember that before I said audience attention is important, but why? In Kenya stories are used to convey a community’s origin, as determined by history and myth, its social foundation, the reasons behind current beliefs, and affirmations of what they are. These stories, goals, and rules can also be communicated through song (our song and dance was probably my favorite part of the lesson, possibly my favorite thing from this entire year. I tried to find a video of one of the ones we sang but sadly was unable to).

The community origin aspect is important because it helps strengthen the community itself. These experiences are shared (hey guys, Jungian ideas and archetypes!)
He's so happy we're listening to him
and communication is intergenerational due to the importance of the elders in the telling of the stories.

The communication aspect also allows for acquisition of language skills, the teaching of observational skills, the acquisition of rules and taboos through the asking of morals, intellectual growth and sharp memory. But then we must ask ourselves, why do these things need to be taught? The African setting is extremely competitive and those with wit are celebrated. It is easier to learn through stories, especially when the lessons are things such as how everything is interconnected, even if you think it doesn’t pertain to you and be thankful for what you have, especially if you don’t deserve it.

The most interesting part of these stories is that they can also be used to tell origins of natural and historical things such as the maintenance of order and why things happen. Everyone has heard of why the mosquito buzzes in the ear due to its previous infatuation with the ear and its current I’ll-show-you-how-pretty-annoying-and-fun-I-can-be-after-the-breakup attitude. It is less likely that you’ve heard the origins of Somali pirates finding canoes as young boys and selling them for money, eventually evolving into taking them hostage.
Go from this:

To this:
After this presentation I could not help but wish that more lessons were taught through story and song in Western cultures. This is definitely something I plan on doing as much as I possibly can when I have my own classroom. I know that doing things this way keeps kids entertained and in an active mindset to relate things back to themselves and learning. As Dr. O urged us to continue, I too will encourage you to keep oral tradition alive: tell a story at your next social event, it may be the most entertaining thing you do.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bluebeard vs Wife: Who's the Real Troublemaker?

So this week we could either write about Bluebeard as a villain, write about the Jewish fairytales we read, or comment on other people’s blogs. Now, while the idea of commenting on the blogs of others sounds fun to me, I would rather talk about Bluebeard and how my position on his villain status changes. All quotes are from The Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar.
Let’s look at the inconsistencies in Perrault’s version, the version that is recognized as the first:

The first thing that is upsetting about this version calling him a villain is that “this man had the misfortune of having a blue beard, which made him look so ugly and frightful that women and girls alike fled at the sight of him” (144). So within reading the first paragraph we already know that some sad man will be forever alone just because of his beard color. When the two daughters do not want to marry him, they add that he had previous wives that disappeared without a trace. Ok, so that’s a bit more villainous. Bluebeard has to go on a trip and urges his new wife; the youngest of the two sisters who thought that the lavishness would make the marriage ok (does anyone else think of a gold digger here?), “to enjoy herself while he was away…to stay in good spirits” (145). He wants her to stay happy and even allows her to have friends over. The trust he puts into her even at this point is amazing; those friends could include male friends, and six weeks is a long time during which an affair would be completely possible. The next great moment of trust is the transfer of the keys, including the secret forbidden key.
Gustave Doré
I agree that he should have never given the key to her if he did not want her to open it, and he especially should not have said “ if you so much as open it a crack, there will be no limit to my anger” (145). This action could either be seen as him wanting her to open the door to see what is inside so that he could punish her, or it could be seen as him testing her trust to listen to him. The analysis that you pick determines how villainous he is. The problem is that for the wife “the temptation was so great that she was unable to resist it” (145). The woman falls once again from temptation, lines that are clearly parallel with the story of Adam and Eve. I do not want to cast all the blame on the woman, especially since I am a female; however she makes it difficult to not, although is helped some by Bluebeard’s initial giving of the key. What she finds is indeed horrifying; the bodies of all the previous wives hanging from the walls over a bloody floor.

Hermann Vogel

Ok, so that is pretty horrifying and points towards the villainy of Blubeard. Either way, she drops the key because she brought it in with her for some dumb reason and then tries to lie to Bluebeard about it instead of owning up to what she  had done, although I understand that fear will do that to most people. She tries to clean the key, lies to him about being happy of his return, delays bringing him the key, and then lies about not knowing why there is blood on the key. Bluebeard is angered and decides his wife can “take [her] place beside the ladies whom [she] saw there” and that, even though she was “so beautiful and so distressed that she would have melted a heart of stone” it would not work to beg forgiveness from Bluebeard who “had a heart harder than any rock” (146).
Walter Crane
Maybe his heart is so hard because this is the nth time of many that a woman has betrayed him, after all we have no idea why the first wife was murdered unless we are to understand it’s just because that’s what he wanted to do. It is amazing that he does not kill her right then in there instead of letting her run to pray which she uses to tell her sister to call her brothers. The brothers come and murder Bluebeard as he tries to run for his life, no such thing as imprisoning him for questioning in this time.
Gustave Doré
Then the wife inherits Bluebeard’s entire estate based on the fact that he had no heirs and she was the most recent wife, even though the reason for his death was that her brothers killed him. It is possible that this is what she deserves because he was about to kill her and she somewhat outsmarted him, but it still seems wrong that she inherits it all.
Perrault himself even seems to have a hard time determining the villain of the story as illustrated by his two morals:

Curiosity, in spite of its many charms,
Can bring with it serious regrets;
You can see a thousand examples of it every day.
Women succumb, but it’s a fleeting pleasure;
As soon as you satisfy it, it ceases to be.
And it always proves very, very costly.

If you just take a sensible point of view,
And study this grim little story,
You will understand that this tale
Is one that took place many years ago.
No longer are husbands so terrible,
Demanding the impossible,
Acting unhappy and jealous.
With their wives they toe the line;
And whatever color their beards might be,
It’s not hard to tell which of the pair is master.

The first suggests that it is the woman’s fault for being curious; an obvious position in the time of Perrault, where women were looked down upon and everything was their fault. The second suggests that the story is old and men are no longer like that. It is aiming to calm the fears of girls that are forced to marry terrifying older men.

 I still find it difficult to determine how I feel about Bluebeard and where I stand on his villain status. In fact I probably believe that the fault falls on both parties, although gray areas are not supposed to exist in fairy tales. Either way, this is how I feel.

 By the way, we’re supposed to say our favorite version; mine would have to be Bluebeard’s Egg by Atwood, but that would be far too much to analyze in one blog post. I like it because of the complexity and in depth look into feelings, things that make it not so much of a standard fairy tale, especially as it seems to mostly use it as a base. Either way, I wrote about Perrault’s Bluebeard, the one that started them all in a way.