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Posts Tagged ‘fairy tales’


I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

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(spoiler alert)

I guess I should have seen this coming way back in 2007 when Gregory Maguire rescued the reputation of Oz’s Elphaba in Wicked. Postmodern feminist lovefests are rapidly replacing the old fairytale memes of evil queens and noble princes riding to rescue damsels. This can be seen most clearly in the most recent line of Disney movies, which all feature a kickass female lead who challenges the patriarchal bad guys. And the two most recent ones—the highly popular Frozen and this summer’s Maleficent—go even further by booting romantic love to the curb in favor of love between women. (Not sexual love, of course—we haven’t reached the point where Disney would feature a romance between two women.) To accentuate the point, in each film this female bonding twist gets revealed in the exact place in the narrative where the male lead is supposed to bring his love magic and win the day.


(Memo to Disney: We get it. It’s not a big surprise anymore, it’s the New Normal. So how about a story where love between women is expected and even taken for granted? And then do the same for men.)

Of course there’s more to it than a plot twist. Let’s take a look at these two movies.

Frozen distinguishes itself with not one but two princesses. One good and one bad, right? Not so fast. They actually love each other deep down, despite the bad one’s icy habits. And they both have what appear to be eyes from an alien species: huge, saucer-shaped, and floating tentatively on their plastic CGI faces, screaming “I’m cute!” in 142 different languages. So we know right off that, deep down, they love anime and are awesome.

Good Princess Anna, the goofball, falls head over heels for a gorgeous prince and his equally gorgeous horse, so the postmodern feminists know right away he’s gonna eat it, and he does. Anna eventually has a safe romance with an ice hauler who is strong and loyal but no royal. So it’s no real surprise when her frozen heart is rescued not by him but by her big sister Elsa.

What I found interesting about Frozen is that it has no backstory at all to explain Elsa’s peculiar ice-generating powers. Was she put under a spell by a witch? Bombarded by a radioactive ice storm? Or just born that way? I suspect that the under-12 crowd who make up the main audience don’t give a flying icicle. She just has it, the power that is both a wonder and a curse. For adults, it’s a different matter. I want to know who did this to her, and why, and what the ramifications are for the world of Arrendale, and how did their parents meet, and why was the Prince of the Southern Islands such a shmuck? Guess I’ll never know.

On the other hand, Maleficent—with a much more complex target audience—is virtually all backstory. It explains “what really happened” in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, so we need to know the fairy tale first, just as in Wicked we need to know The Wizard of Oz. And just as we learn how Elphaba is unfairly branded in Oz, we learn how Maleficent’s cruelty sprang from crueler treatment at the hands of a prince who could have been her lover.

And my goodness, once you get past staring at Angelina Jolie’s supernatural cheekbones, consider all the different messages and subtexts this movie has! Overly cute fairies and other sprites and goblins, check. Innocent princess eager for first love, check. Rampaging patriarchal madness, check. Doofus prince, check. Violence and war (without a drop of blood shed but plenty of sturm und drang), check. And a once-innocent, then kickass, then evil, then repentant witch queen with devil horns and wings of a Fury, check. Then underneath it all, hints of bondage and illicit desire. It’s like the bastard child of Spiderwick Chronicles meets Legend meets Neverending Story meets Once Upon a Time meets Batman. Too violent for kids, too Magic Kingdom glittery for adults, Maleficent tries to please everyone and fails, despite entertaining visuals and a reasonably good storyline.

I wanted to love Maleficent, I really did. And it almost delivered. I crave magic tales with dark themes and haunted characters. Without buckets of gore. I guess it’s good the story didn’t have any Ewoks or Jar Jars, but that’s not saying much. Now that Disney has postmodern feminist plots down, let’s hope they can put one in a real dark fairy tale without the cute stuff.

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logoAnd so Once Upon a Time, ABC’s modern fairy tale mashup, has completed its first season. The finale had a distinctly different feel from previous episodes: with Henry under a sleeping spell, Emma and Regina have to drop their personal battle in an attempt to save his life. This leads Emma to finally accept magic for the first time—although in a humorous moment she tries to slay a dragon with a gun instead of a magic sword, with predictable results. The true love’s kiss that awakens Henry comes not from a lover—how could it?—but from his mother Emma. This breaks the curse, and suddenly everyone in town remembers their fairy tale selves—including Snow White and Prince Charming, who (despite the “end of magic,”) magically fall into each other’s arms, true lovers again at last. Even Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin seems to catch the Love Bug, reuniting with his lost love Belle.

The entire series appeared to be wrapped up in a neat tidy bow, and I thought to myself, “So everyone lives happily ever after? Really, it was that easy?”

Ah, but I underestimated the deviousness of Mr. Gold, who turns the tables on the scenario by casting one last evil spell (you can tell it’s evil because the smoke it produces is purple) in a quest for power. What that spell is, and how it affects the residents of Storybrooke and their fairy tale alter egos, will have to be revealed in Season Two (unless, of course, an evil sorcerer from ABC axes the program).

Plotting out a show like Once Upon a Time necessitates a different approach than your standard single story. Rather than a story arc, it has more of a story circle, or rather a series of nested circles. Hmm, how about a gyre? Story gyre, I like it. How challenging a plot like this would be to brew up! The overall story must propel forward, yet take numerous sidetrips with secondary characters, both in Storybrooke and Fairy Tale Land. And then, in the finale, everything has to tie together.

Once Upon a Time accomplishes all this remarkably well. Not perfectly, though. The Emma/Regina battle got repetitive at times—how often did Emma challenge Regina for the rights to Henry, then meet up with Henry with hardly a peep from Regina? Why wouldn’t Regina contact Child Protective Services? How many times did we have to hear Rumplestiltskin say, “but magic comes with a price, Dearie”? How many times did a car run off the road when one of the characters tried to escape Storybrooke?

Then there’s the character of Henry. He tirelessly tries to convince his mother Emma that she is the key to breaking a curse that she doesn’t even believe in. He is apparently the only person in Storybrooke that Regina has any love for, even as she tries, very ineffectually, to control him. Henry is adorable and acts like a kid…or does he? Where the hell are all his friends? At times he feels more like a plot device than a real person.

His mother Emma seems to have one expression on her face all the time: a look of harried disbelief, with the corners of her mouth firmly pointing south. Prince Charming is fine, but his Storybrooke counterpart is just confused. Snow White makes a dashing princess, but her mild, persecuted teacher persona in “real life” is pretty sad. I found myself hoping desperately that they’d find their inner kick-ass, but time and time I was disappointed, and when they finally got back together at the end it felt somewhat manufactured for convenience.

My favorite “good” character is none of these, but August/Pinocchio, who rides a motorbike and whose body slowly turns to wood. He’s also a writer. Cool!

Speaking of writers, I do wonder how the writers for this series will maintain our interest in the coming Fall series. Will they continue undercutting the Storybrooke action with more Fairy Tale stuff? I don’t see how they can’t. Will they continue introducing new characters with dangerous desires and confusing conflicts? They must. Will they make it all seem fresh and interesting and non-repetitive?

I sure hope so. Because despite it’s faults, I love this show.

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show logoI don’t follow too many TV shows with story lines. Soaps are over-drama’ed parodies of themselves, crime shows are too gritty—and besides, I never wanted to be a cop or a perp. Comedies can be fun for awhile—The Office held my attention for a while—but ultimately get repetitive. There’s only one show this season that’s tickled my fancy: ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

Nothing else I’ve seen on TV or cinema has so successfully explored the intricate relationship between fantasy and reality as this show. And now that Disney has apparently decided to stop doing “classic” fairy tales (articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/21/entertainment/la-et-1121-tangled-20101121), OUAT appears to be the wave of the future. Fairy tales have grown up, they’re not afraid to explore the dark places of the human psyche, and—dang, they’re just fun to watch.

The world created by OUAT is really two worlds: a fairy tale world, with fairy tale characters, magic, evil witches and innocent beauties. And a “real” contemporary town—Storybrooke, Maine—whose characters are mirrors of their fairy world counterparts. This is due to a curse cast by the Evil Queen, who hates Snow White so much that she sent all the inhabitants of the fairy tale world into Storybrooke—and then froze them in time. But all these people in Storybrooke don’t know who their fairy tale selves are. The only one who knows the truth is a boy who everyone thinks is, you know, “overly imaginative.” He’s also the subject of a battle between his adoptive mother, the Mayor/Evil Queen, and his birth mother, an out-of-town Private Investigator who is in reality the offspring of Nurse/Snow White and Amnesia Case/Prince Charming.

See what I mean? It’s hellacrazy!

Of course there are all sorts of interesting secondary characters to spice things up. Chief among them is Mr. Gold, a sinister pawnbroker who is actually Rumplestiltskin, always spinning evil bargains with desperate people like Cinderella or Jiminy Cricket. Every episode interweaves storylines from the fairy world and the real world in ways that resonate with each other. The result is a contemporary take on fairy tales that is true to the hearts of the old stories, yet connected to our world in ways that amplify their effect.

I know it sounds complicated, but trust me, it works. Are these tales for kids? Older ones, certainly—but remember, the original fairy tales weren’t packaged for consumption by 3-to-10-year-olds. This series doesn’t need snarky humor a là Shrek, but it’s not too serious, either, in spite of the dark themes at its core. What counts is that I care about the characters, and entranced by how it all works. You can check it out, with links to back episodes, at beta.abc.go.com/shows/once-upon-a-time.

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Aha! Jacob's Ladder!

This last weekend I was lucky enough to participate in a two-day class put on by Ruth Stotter for aspiring storytellers. Ruth is a professional, passionate storyteller, and her house reflects that passion. Perched on a hill in Tiburon overlooking Angel Island and San Francisco in the distance, with a three-sided picture window to let in the light of bay and sky, it feels spacious and mysterious, yet comfy—just right for curling up and discussing folk tales, fairy tales, even how to illustrate a story with origami or string play.

We all came to the workshop with different stations in life and reasons to tell stories. I want to learn how to do lively readings of my stories for children in classes and libraries. Doris tells stories in nursing homes, while Jill wants to improve her reading skills for a program at her library. Mary, of Chinese ancestry, is interested in telling celestial stories from Asia for her job running a summer camp in the San Joaquin Valley. Her husband Jared works for a Native American land restoration project, which uses creation myths and other stories to educate others about the values and rights of indigenous peoples; though storytelling isn’t in his job description, he feels that by learning how to tell stories he will better understand the stories and storytellers he researches.

As I walked in the door I was immediately struck by beautiful art objects everywhere: on the walls, tucked into nooks, on top of shelves, set on tables. It seemed that every culture was represented: European paintings, African wood carvings, Inuit stone sculpture, a basket-mask from New Guinea with a spooky-funny face, a wonderful Ben Shawn print hanging in the bathroom, a homemade pelican sculpture covered in postage stamps. I had no doubt that every piece of art had a story to tell, and that the art itself would also listen to me. Delicious! And I can say that about the excellent lunches that Ruth provided for us as well.

After doing a few warmups, we took our comfy seats in her living room as rainclouds descended on the Bay, putting us into our own storytelling weather cocoon. Ruth emphasized how the storyteller connects to her audience by gesture, eye contact, voice inflection, and body posture. “You’re giving the audience two things,” she said, “your story, of course, but you’re also giving them yourself. Take a moment before you begin your story to take the audience in, make them feel welcome. They want to make that connection with you, and you can use it to ground your performance.”

Mary gave us tips on performing, but primarily we did both short exercises as well as longer pieces that required a bit of planning. The short pieces concentrated on one aspect of performance: for example, how delivering a line with pauses in different places can change the emotional timbre of that line. “It’s all about choices you make,” she emphasized, right from the start.

After lunch I got to work on my first longer piece: a short folktale from West Africa, stripped to its bare essentials. I developed my opening hook, then gave names to two otherwise nameless characters, followed by voices, postures, and attitudes, all designed to enhance their personality differences. I even added a new character and tweaked the story a bit to make it (hopefully) more amusing. Finally I worked on my ending, the “takeaway” that illustrates the point the story makes.

When it was my turn I got up and, after taking a deep breath I launched myself into the story. No, it didn’t go perfectly; I forgot a few lines and felt a bit flustered, but overall I think I did well. It certainly illustrated to me the difference between story reading and story telling: in telling, you don’t have that written page to look at, which can be scary, but it also allows you to fully embody the story with your words and actions. The question that I’m still asking myself is: when I read one of my stories in public, do I memorize it, read it from the page, or just remember the gist of it and wing it?

Ah, choices.

The next day I did a Jicarilla Apache Coyote story. I loved being Coyote, truly an archetypal figure in folklore and ripe for all sorts of humorous interpretation. On my way back to Berkeley, Jared told me I had real stage presence, and that I should consider auditioning for theater roles in the Berkeley area. Now that is a compliment!

Now that I’m back home, the weekend still resonates with me. Ruth gave us a useful toolkit, as well as a piece of string so I can practice doing Cat’s Cradle stories for my wife’s kids tomorrow. I probably won’t become a professional storyteller—that takes years of practice and dedication—but I have no doubt that buffing up my performing skills will have a telling effect on my writing skills as well.

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