Fairy Tales 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fairy Tale of Reality

Wilhelm Wackenroder’s “A Wondrous Oriental Fairy Tale of a Naked Saint” is considered to be in a tale representing stories that have instituted elements of imagination and mysticism. It has been said that literature has been reflecting social attitudes of the authors' environment's for years, and Wackenroder's is no exception. The protagonist of this tale is a misunderstood genius who rejects the pettiness of everyday life. Only music can save him, and he abandons earth for a more divine artistic life.

Romance is the key element in this tale that drives the character's action to reach the ultimate state of bliss and peace thereafter. By embarking on a journey of spiritual enlightenment the main character finds himself in a better place than he began. Like all fairy tales, the story begins with a lack of something, and by beginning the search and finding peace, it falls under the fairy tale category. The ultimate gain after a life of suffering is "happily ever after", and that is the exact thing that was found.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I AM truth

After scanning the table of contents for a story to read, "The Story of the Fairy Tale" caught my attention. I was sure it was going to be a long history, fictional of course of the genre. To my surprise the tale was 2 pages long! However, within those 2 pages the author told a power story I think.
The tale begins with the disappearance of Truth. Five wise men set out to find Truth. They all come back with different answers: Truth= Science, Truth=Theology, Truth=Love, Truth= Gold, and finally Truth=Wine. The men argue and get into a fist fight. Interestingly the narrator makes sure it is know that Theology was the most badly injured. Then a child steps in, and says she found Truth and they all follow her to a meadow. There the whole town see a beautiful creature who proclaims she is Truth, and everyone immediately identifies her as a Fairy Tale. The Five men leave the meadow, but everyone, child and women especially, stay with the fairy tale.
I think that the author is offering us the fairy tale as Truth because truths can be hidden a narrative. In a way, the fairy tale is more truth than the five wise men's individual claims because a fairy tale can incorporate all those things. They are comforting, entertaining and educational. They are the epitome of everything anyone would want because all truths can exist in them without contradiction. Thus, this story itself is not a fairy tale, but it is meant to make us appreciate the concept so that we can freely enjoy any fairy tale.

Forgotten Heros of the Fairy Tales

Oh, to be a prince! Or a knight! Or a boy without fear! But what if luck casts you as a bit player in the larger drama? Where are your accolades? Your adoring public?

Franz Hessel's The Seventh Dwarf tells the story of Snow White but from a rather different perspective. A smaller one if you will -- horrible pun intended. The narrator is the seventh dwarf (one who remains unnamed -- this isn't Disney, after all) and he takes credit for saving Snow White's life time after time.

Why, it was he who pulled the poisoned comb from her hair. It was he who loosened her corset. And when she ate the bewitched apple, it was he who startled the coffin bearers into dropping the glass coffin and dislodging the apple from Snow White's throat.

It is a fairy tale because it still deals with the main themes of Snow White. We have magic and witches and spells. Did I mention we have dwarfs? But it also is a fairy tale because of the story-telling narrator. The reader is being directly addressed. You are sitting by the fireside listening to this dwarf tell his tale.

He ends the story by saying, "She probably think about the seven dwarfs every now and then, especially when the children sing about the seven dwarfs, who live beyond the mountains. But I'm sure that she las long since forgotten me, the last one, the seventh." Notice that the dwarfs described as being "beyond the mountains." They are not in the normal realm of reality. The "She" here is Snow White but it could also refer to history -- the dwarf's story long forgotten for some falsehoods about a prince riding to the rescue. What a shame!

-Matt P.

"Of Feminine Subtlety"

Gesta Romanorum's story is quite funny, if not a bit unpleasant toward women. That is one of the themes (women are evil) that makes his story "Of Feminine Subtlety" (I'll get to the title in a moment) have fairy tale qualities. A basic outline of the fairy tale-ness:

*A youngest son is given
*three magical gifts by his father (a king) that will help him achieve happiness outside the realm of material goods (the kingdom and personal possessions go to his brothers).
*The mother is the keeper of the items, but does not do a good job of making sure the son can handle them.
*He is warned "to beware the artifices of women" so he does not lose his magical possessions.
*He is well loved but too trusting, so he loses his gifts to a
*wily, cunning, plotting, beautiful woman (also called a "concubine"), who not only figures out how to get them from him, but she steals them away and lies to him about it later AND then leaves him in the desert to die.
*Although he is forsaken and upset, the prince doesn't forget to "fortify himself with the sign of the cross."
*He then goes on a journey through
*a magical space, where nature gives him the powers to hurt and heal, restoring him to health. He also learns some lessons about trust in this time.
*He uses his powers to nurse a king back to health and cheat his former love into a painful illness. But not before getting her to confess and give him all of his talismans back. Then "she was tortured with agony." This line is rather blunt and without feeling, as many of the evil women's ends have been.
*The prince is welcomed back with open arms -- "the whole kingdom rejoiced at his return."
*"Then he recounted how God had saved him from various dangers, and after living many years, he ended his days in peace."

Also, structurally, this story had much of the feel of oral tales. While the characters had names (unusual for a fairy tale), the writing was sparse and without elaborate (or any) details. The thing that catches me about this story is the title - "Of Feminine Subtlety." The moral of the story is don't let a woman trick you out of your magic powers, and don't get carried away by a woman's beauty. The story is pointing out ways women subtlety (I guess - how subtle she is is up for debate) trick men out of their powers (whatever they may be) and aims to help men realize this. The story has no real focus on happiness being found in hard work or trusting God (although those are both in there); it is simply a complaint about women and the tricky things they do to hurt men. Women are often not the best of characters in fairy tales, as we've talked about, especially when they are cunning or smart. They are never tricky for good - only for bad.

The Enchanted Castle

The Enchanted Castle is a classic tale of forbidden love caused by magic and mysticism. The story is about a prince who forgets his quest for knowledge when he encounters a mysterious mute veiled woman in an enchanted castle. The mute veiled woman is an interesting addition to the fairy tale. In most fairy tales, the women are judged by their looks, or in some remote cases their wit and personality. However, in this case, the man is not able to neither see nor talk to the woman even after they share a bed- a very intimate act. Nonetheless, the man is intrigued and before he can determine whether he wishes to pursue this woman he must- can you guess it? See her face to see if she is pretty enough to merit his affections. However, his selfishness and superficial tendencies backfire when he realizes after viewing the queens face (and subsequently falling in love) that she is under a curse. This curse is an example of the magical aspect in this typical of a fairy tale. In addition, there is also a connection with nature. When the prince was unable to muster the will to kill the hare (or "nature") he was rewarded. The hare led him to the castle where he would meet his true love. Therefore his interaction with and kindness towards nature catalyzed his marriage.

Also, there is a "fairy godfather" type character in the figure. The hobbit helped the prince discover the true reason behind his unusual drowsiness, as to save the innocent innkeeper. In addition, the hobbit saved the tokens left behind by the queen which ultimately caused the prince to win the jousting match and get the queen as his prize. This helper character is also characteristic of classic fairy tales. The objectification of women as prizes to be won is another quality of some fairy tales. In most fairy tales women are the object, they are to be wooed and married off. Women who are not married are unaccepted in society. Therefore the fact that the queen is a prize to be won as well as a maiden waiting to be saved, speaks to the vulnerability and overall helplessness of most women in fairy tales- especially so if the women are not beautiful.

Finally the ever present theme of love conquers all. The idea that love has the power to overcome any obstacle including magic and evil curses. When the prince won the jousting match he was able to meet his true "love" (a woman he had only met twice before) and marry her.

"The Fairy Tale About Technology" has to be a fairy tale, right?

"The Fairy Tale About Technology," written by Alfred Doblin in 1935, is the story of a Jewish family that is broken apart due to the ravages of World War I. Living in Ukraine before WWI, this family (like so many other fellow Jewish families in the area) faced the threats of others as a result of fear-mongering and religious prosecution. Eventually all the hatred towards the Jewish people boiled over, leading to a massacre of all Jewish men, women, and children. The father of the aforementioned Jewish family was able to violently protect is family, but decided to flee the first chance they got rather than wait for more attacks. However, one of the eldest sons was lost during the escape and the family presumed him to be dead. Years and years went on. The mother died. The children grew up. The father got old. For his seventieth birthday, the father received a gramophone and a radio because of his love for music. One day, the father was certain he heard his long lost son's voice over the radio. The rest of the family did not hear the song, but if the father was sure, then they were sure too. After a bit of resourceful investigation, the father finally made contact with his long lost son.

Despite the fact that this story was written about 75 years ago, this story should be considered a modern fairy tale. It has some of the fairy tale staples: a "once upon a time," a broken home life, and a recognition that good things happen to those that believe in God. On the other hand, it lacks quite a few of the things we commonly associate with fairy tales: no transformations, talking animals, or bippity boppity boo type magic. As I've said though, this still qualifies as a fairy despite all of the typical fairy tale mysticism being stripped away. This story reminds me a lot of "The Juniper Tree" really. Although it does not have an evil stepmother of sorts, the son's "resurrection" comes to the great relief of the father, freeing him from the guilt the mother placed on him by saying "You set an example for him. He probably took an ax or a knife. A Jew should hide." Lastly, the technology in the form of a radio is the modern magic bestowed upon a humble and faithful man, allowing his son to be returned to him.

The Green Serpent

Well, I was going to give a brief synopsis of this story, but it's very long and extremely convoluted, so I'll get right to the meat and taters.

There is little about this story that doesn't make it a fairy tale. The length of the story, the intricacy/complexity of the storyline, and little things like the uses of real places (Paris, for instance) that point to a literary genre other than fairy tale. However, the bulk of the story is devoted to magic, morals, transformations, redemption, etc., which are all fairly characteristic of fairy tales.

First off, there are actual transformations of various characters from human to beast, but the main character, Laidronette, does not undergo so explicit a change. She does go from the ugliest person on the planet to very pretty, but this is after she learns to value her intellect more and wants to atone for her past misdeed of indulging her curiosity. Thus, she ends up being saved.

The magic is also pretty obvious, in that it's jam-packed into every sentence in the story. From the beginning there are fairies, talking animals, tiny pagods made of of jewels and such, magic teleportation, and many others.

One thing that I found interesting is that this story seemed to take aspects from many types of stories we have read, as well as some others. The initial scenes where the twin princesses are born and 12 fairies are to bestow gifts is reminiscent of Snow White tales. When Laidronette is given the task of filling a pitcher with a whole in it, I couldn't help but think back to Greek myths and punishments in Tartarus. And when the queen is told to spin spider wed though she does not know how to spin, I think back to The Three Spinners. It was as if the author took bits and pieces of other fairy tale traditions and wove (no pun intended) them into one massive tale.

I think this story could have worked better as a traditional, short, to the point fair tale than the long story it is. Since storytelling was introduced, the author had to apply logic to many situations that we would normally just take for granted and not need explained, but as I noticed, the logic does not quite hold up. That's a big problem with filling in all the nooks and crannies that are missed in a shorter fairy tale: you just shouldn't apply logic to a clearly fantastical story.

"The Fairy Tale about Common Sense"

I read “The Fairy Tale About Common Sense”, by Erich Kastner. This story is obviously meant to entertain its reader and is a commentary on politics and society of the time. The tale does not seem to be a fairy tale at all, except for the fact that the entire story was fictional, which the author notes at the end of the story. It was written in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II; and thus, many references to war are made. Essentially, the story is about a “nice old gentlemen”, really a crooked politician, “who had the nasty habit of thinking up sensible things to do every now and then” (622). Immediately, the reader can tell that this story is a satire. The writer proceeds to explain how this rich man would “torture” experts with his sensible suggestions and diminish the significance of their expertise. Both the rich and poor are mentioned in this first paragraph. Then, the man gives a speech on how to make peace at a conference filled with many influential men from all over the world. He asks that they listen to what he’s about to say, “not for my sake, but in the interest of common sense” (623). He then gives his pitch, which is filled with references to social structure and giving equal wealth to each member of a community.

My favorite lines are spoken after the gentleman has given his speech, and he says, “I envy you, for even though I don’t believe that material things embody the highest earthly goods, I have enough common sense to realize that peace among peoples depends first on the material satisfaction of human beings. If I’ve just said that I envy you, then I’ve lied. Actually, I’m happy” (623). Unlike the typical crooked politician, this man blatantly lies and then admits that he lied. To top it off, he then takes out a cigar and begins to smoke it while discussing his plan with the statesmen, who believe he is joking with them. When the statesmen call him crazy and begin laughing uncontrollably, the gentleman admits that the plan requires a lot of money. He does not understand what they think is so funny, so he asks, “If a long war costs one hundred thousand billion dollars [WWII], why shouldn’t a long peace be worth exactly the same?” (624). More laugher erupts, and one man tells him, “War is something entirely different!” (624).

This whole story was fascinating to read because it honestly does not contain any aspects of a fairy tale. The story does begin with “Once upon a time…” and we know that the tale and its characters are fictional. However, there are no references to magic; there is no physical transformation of the protagonist; there are no talking animals; there are no fairy godmothers or witches. The story is purely a commentary about politics, war, and even the notion of “common sense”. I am not fully versed on the political problems after WWII, so I’m sure there are deeper meanings that can be drawn from this story. Feel free to comment if you know!

Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose"

I was profoundly moved by Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose.” The tale is at once haunting and exquisite: in a moonlit garden, a nightingale impales herself on the thorn of a rose, willingly enduring a slow and torturous death in the name of love. In my opinion, the tale serves as a poetic tribute to the power of love, art, and music.

In the tale, Wilde dramatizes the tension between passion and reason. On the one end, we have the Nightingale, who acts a prototype of love. From the very beginning, we understand that there is something special about this Nightingale, that she is more than any mere bird. Profoundly wise and sage-like, she possesses a deep appreciation for human love and will do anything she can to ensure its protection. The Nightingale’s selflessness immediately manifests itself in her attempt to help the lovesick student find a red rose. To procure a rose for the boy, the Nightingale must sing all night long and then impale herself on the rose’s thorn. She heroically agrees to carry out the morbid ritual, declaring, “Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?” (Wilde 263). Through such valiant, unselfish words, the bird emerges as something of a tragic martyr, willing to endure death in the name of love.

In the end, however, reason reigns over passion, as suggested by the student’s devolution from hopefully romantic to cynical academic parallels. At the beginning of the tale, the student is wistful and starry-eyed, his heart filled with the innocent, clumsy love of an adolescent. Sitting in a moonlit garden, the student ruefully muses aloud, “Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched” (Wilde 261). Here, he boldly renounces his schooling—deeming rational thought the meaningless jargon of academics and “wise men”—and asserts his allegiance with the simple beauty of the “red rose,” which stands for true, pure love. Soon, however, the force of reason proves too strong for the student to resist. By the tale’s conclusion, the boy, disillusioned by his lover’s rejection of him, carelessly discards the Nightingale’s red rose in the street. With an air of cynical defeat, he retreats into a solitary existence of “dusty” books and education, sighing that love is “quite unpractical, and, in this age to be practical is everything” (265).

By flinging the Nightingale’s red rose into the street, the Student resigns from his duty as a disciple of love and returns to the ranks of scientists and philosophers. As readers, we are to see the boy as naïve, frustrating, and ultimately foolish. Wilde, it seems, is commenting on mankind’s futile quest for knowledge. In man’s attempt to p ursue science and “truth,” the more important things in life, such as love, are carelessly tossed aside. This phenomenon, whereby love becomes engulfed by reason, is a tragic event, as tragic as the image of the broken Nightingale, lying dead in the grass with the last notes of her haunting song reverberating in the night.

I searched the web for a bit of further insight into the tale. Many sources mentioned that Wilde was a key figure in the aesthetic movement, which exalted the doctrine of “art for art’s sake”—creating art for its intrinsic value, divorced from any external moral function. Clearly, Wilde injected many of these ideals into this particular tale. For example, on page 256, the boy’s statement that the Nightingale’s notes “do not mean anything, or do any practical good” stands in direct contradiction to the principles of aestheticism (Wilde 265). Failing to recognize any discernable meaning in the song, the Student thinks it must be worthless and amateur. His teachings have conditioned him to vigorously analyze works of art, reducing something that was one whole and beautiful into scientific, sterile pieces.

However, the beauty of the Nightingale’s song is not that it has meaning, but rather that it abounds with passion and feeling. The song possesses an almost transformative quality; it causes a fragrant rose to unfurl in the middle of the moonlight-infused garden. The tragic notes rise and fall in the cold morning air like the incantation of a spell, holding the world breathless, if only for a moment. As the last of her blood begins to seep out, the Nightingale delivers one final, passionate burst of music, and suddenly the world stops, enchanted—the moon, even, “forgets the dawn, and lingers on in the sky” (264). Through this lovely language, Wilde nods to art’s inherent power. Although the science-minded boy fails to grasp the beauty of the song, the song elicits a powerful, noticeable response in nature, a realm that has not been tainted by science or reasoning. Thus, Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose," which is saturated with allusions to the aesthetic movement, dramatizes the tension between reason and passion in society and adopts the stance that passion, although grossly undermined by modern society, is more important.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"The Happy Prince", Oscar Wilde, and Christian values

Although I have now only read two literary fairy tales by Oscar Wilde – the first being this week’s required reading of “The Selfish Giant” and the second being the subject of this blog posting, “The Happy Prince” – the theme of selflessness seems to be a privileged one. In “The Selfish Giant,” a selfish giant (sorry to be repetitive) finds children playing in his garden and banishes them with a giant wall. The winter comes and freezes everything, but it is not until the children sneak in through a little hole in the wall that the giant realizes that the winter has been unnaturally prolonged (supposedly as a reflection of his icy heart). The giant decides to be nice to the children and to let them play there always, even being so nice as to befriend a mysterious little boy in the corner of his property. The giant is saddened when the little boy never returns (punishment for the giant’s heretofore icy heart?), but then one day, the boy returns bloodied. He turns out to be an allegorical representation of Jesus, and he takes the giant to the afterlife as a token of appreciation.

In “The Happy Prince,” the golden statue of a prince watches over a city and realizes that the conditions are not as perfect as he thought they were when he was alive. He sees poverty and anguish and opts selflessly to donate his golden hide, the ruby jewel on his hilt, and his sapphire eyes to those people in the city that need them. As a statue he cannot move, so he befriends a swallow who is late for his seasonal migration to Egypt. Together, the swallow and the statue work anonymously to help the impoverished people of the city until, eventually, they have nothing left to give. For having lingered, the swallow dies, and for having nothing opulent left, the city melts the statue to construct a new one. At the end, God tells his angels to bring him the two most precious things in the city, and he is brought the statue’s remaining lead heart and the dead bird.

The interesting thing about these tales is that not only do they moralize, but they do so through a distinctly Christian lens. The tales of the Brothers Grimm are predicated consistently on a general moral (in the sense of right and wrong), and the protagonist must learn his/her lesson for having not obeyed it. In these two tales, Oscar Wilde seems to propagate protagonists whose earthly redemption is rewarded with spiritual redemption in heaven. (Note: Because these are the only two fairy tales by Oscar Wilde I have read, I cannot assert a definitive solution that represents his entire œuvre. “The Happy Prince” first appeared in 1888, so perhaps there are contextual implications (Tatar 246).)

As a result, the Christian tenet of “Love thy neighbor” becomes exacted. Especially in the case of “The Happy Prince,” Wilde intends to set up identification between readers and the selfless statue and swallow and to vilify the Mayor’s and Town Councillors’ vanity and selfishness. The Art Professor at the University is an equally unlikeable character, as he agrees with the Mayor and Town Councillors that the statue must go, since “as he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful” (260). At the bottom of the page, Tatar makes the note that Oscar Wilde famously said, “All art is quite useless” (260). Nevertheless, an inert, artistically opulent statue has just dedicated all of his riches to the poor.

It is interesting to note that the Other to whom good deeds are done in these Oscar Wilde fairy tales is persistently a youth. In “The Selfish Giant,” the giant’s deeds are done for the sake of children; in “The Happy Prince,” the golden statue and kind swallow help a sick little boy (and his mother), a young man, and a little match-girl, in order. Is this just another story proclaiming moralistically the beauty of the inner self, or does the statue’s subservience to youth indicate the significance of preserving youth, who is often synonymous with beauty?