Saturday, June 21, 2014

Folktales are freaky

I wish that I had the gumption to be a folklorist but I don't. I do, however, enjoy reading folktales from various cultures in various forms. It's probably why I like the Hellboy series so much - it is almost completely reliant on folklore for its source material.

One of the most interesting things about folklore is listening to how it sounds to the modern ear: you may be reading a story that seems wholesome and normal when you suddenly find characters strangling cats for fun. It's jarring, but in a bizarre way that we all accept because we were raised by these stories.

I had to buy this book as a text for my high-level German class; I remember translating at least a few paragraphs and trying to hide the English-language pages from myself, then giving in and reading some stories just for the hell of it but I never read through all of the stories or the introduction.

The introduction is a succinct biography of the Grimm brother that also goes out of its way to properly define the place of Grimm tales in folklore (rather more literary than folk-taleish, at least according to pedantic scholars of whom Stanley Appelbaum doesn't much approve). The tales are marvelous, familiar, and disturbingly different from most of the toned-down versions that get printed as Little Golden Books. All in all, they're literally fantastic.

"The Frog King, or, Iron Henry"
This is the story we generally know as the Frog Prince - the princess is as nasty and fussy about keeping her promises in this version as in most other tellings, but usually she kisses her prince to reveal him; here she throws him against a wall instead.

"Tale of one who set out to Learn Fear"
A very funny tale about a not-too-bright boy who thinks he could be useful if only he could learn what it means to "get the shivers" - the shivers elude him until he has won a kingdom and a wife and the wife throws a bucket of minnows on him

"The Wolf and the seven Kids"
 Very similar to the story "Old Oni Woman" in Japanese folklore, a nasty wolf tricks his way into the house and eats up all but the littlest kid. There's a happy ending for everyone but the wolf.

"Brother and Sister"
Casual violence gets creepy here; an evil stepmother banishes Brother and Sister to the woods where Brother is turned into a roe deer. Sister marries a king and has his child but the old stepmother is jealous and wants the king to marry her own daughter so she sets a fire that suffocates the queen the day after she has given birth. Things turn out well, but the way the story just drops in "and she started a very hot fire so the young queen was soon suffocated" is creepy.

There's more pain and misery in this version of Rapunzel (or Rampion) than you'll typically see in a children's book but otherwise it's the same story we all know.

"The Three Spinners"
This story seems to be a blend of Rumpelstiltskin and something else - a young woman must spin flax into gold to marry the prince or she'll be killed. She engages the help of three woman who have been deformed by spinning and invites them to the wedding; their appearance causes the prince to declare that his wife will never be allowed to spin.

"Hansel and Gretel"
Pretty much exactly the version of Hansel and Gretel that everyone has heard. I'm a little perplexed by how similar this story has stayed in spite of two hundred years of translations and retellings.

"Straw, Coal, and Bean"
A silly little fable about how Straw, Coal, and Bean escape becoming dinner but have other misadventures afterwards. Straw and Coal don't make it out but Bean explodes and is stitched up by a kind tailor, which is why beans have a black seam.

"The Brave Little Tailor"
I first read this story when sitting in my daycare at eight years old. It's pretty funny and based on an audacious Tailor whose superpower is his supreme confidence. There's also a unicorn in it and I have no problem with any story that has unicorns.

A fairly standard Cinderella story; there's a magic tree instead of a fairy godmother, the ball lasts three nights instead of one, and the stepsisters are forced to mutilate themselves by cutting off part of their feet to fit in the slipper, but otherwise it's basically the Disney movie.

"Mother Holle"
Mother Holle, who is winter personified, takes in a mortal girl as a maid and rewards her for her good service; the girl's lazy sister tries to win the same sort of favor and is dipped in pitch for her troubles.

"Little Red Hood"
Little Red Riding Hood as you know it with an epilogue about another wolf being drowned in a pig trough. 

"The Bremen Town Musicians"
A Donkey, a dog, a cat, and a cock are all going to be killed by their owners because they're getting too old and worthless to be worth the cost of feeding. The animals set out to make their fortunes as musicians in Bremen Town bus instead find a shack full of robbers whom they terrify and chase away and decide to live together in the shack instead.

"Table-set-Yourself, Gold-Donkey, and Cudgel-out-of-the-Sack"
I don't remember where I first read this story but I do remember dreaming about owning a Table-set-Yourself as a kid. Three brothers are chased away from home by their father and go out to learn trades - they are given wonderful gifts when their apprenticeships are through but those gifts are stolen by a greedy innkeeper; the youngest and cleverest brother manages to right these wrongs and the family is happily reunited.

Tom Thumb told in a much simpler way than I've seen it before - there's a lot less extravagance here than in the Don Bluth version but it's a funny, cute little story.

"The six Swans"
 An evil stepmother turns six princes into swans; their sister can save them only by being totally silent for a number of years and weaving them shirts out of asters. The sister manages to marry a king in spite of her silence and has three children who are all stolen away by the stepmother, who accuses her of cannibalism. As she's about to be burned at the stake her brother-swans fly over and she tosses their shirts to them, then absolves herself and the stepmother is burned to death after she's revealed the location of the stolen children.

"Little Briar Rose"
 A version of Sleeping Beauty that is neither the most insipid nor the most venomous version I've ever heard. There are thirteen wise women instead of four fairies in this story and a lot of their gifts (beauty, obedience) seem kind of bullshitty.

"Snow White"
It's clear that Disney cleaned up this story a bit because it's really hard to have any sympathy for a truly stupid main character. The dwarves have to tell Snow at least three times not to let strangers into the house or to talk to strangers but she does anyway. Dumbass little princess.

This is another tale that doesn't seem too changed by the telling - I've never even heard any variations on this one, it's always the same story.

"The golden Bird"
Three princes have endless quests and the simplest prince succeeds (in spite of being an idiot) with the help of a kind, wise fox. 

This was one of the strangest stories in the collection. A dying queen makes the king promise that he won't marry anyone less beautiful or with hair less golden than her. The king agrees and then notices that his daughter looks an awful lot like her mother and has golden hair. She says she'll marry her father if he brings her a dress as golden as the sun, one as silver as the moon, one as bright as the stars, and a cape made of the fur of all the kinds of animals in the kingdom. He completes these tasks that she thought were impossible and promises that her wedding will be the next day. She packs her belongings away in a nutshell and runs off wearing the cloak of fur and hides in a tree. Another king finds her in the tree and allows her to act as the serving girl in his kitchen. The king holds some parties and the girl sneaks in (arresting the attention of the king with her beauty) wearing the golden, silver, and bright gowns at various times. But she has to rush back to the kitchen before he finds out who she is so she can make his bread soup. Each time she does this she hides a golden trinket at the bottom of the soup bowl for the king to find. Eventually she cuts her timing too close and the little kitchen wretch, All-kinds-of-fur, is discovered to be the beautiful princess and marries the king and lives happily ever after. There doesn't seem to be any kind of moral or message, there's no reason to hide her identity in the second kingdom, there's no reason for her to put a gold spinning wheel in the king's soup. This sort of seems like a bunch of cool elements that are almost a good story, which sucks because this could be one of the best princess stories I've ever heard.

"Six Men make their way in Life"
Superheroes are hanging out in medieval Germany, they band together with a retired soldier to take money away from a greedy king. I've got to say, I like the concept of fealty-era Mystery Men.

"Hans in luck"
A foolish boy is paid at the end of his apprenticeship and is broke by the time he makes it to Mom's house, all the while celebrating the fact that his losses make his load lighter. This is a perversely appropriate allegory for the current college debt situation in a really odd way.

"The Goose Girl"
 A magical princess has her position and her talking horse usurped by a promise made to a conniving lady's maid and becomes a goose girl. The king suspects that she might be the real princess and tricks her into revealing her story. The lady's made is dragged to death in a sphere full of spike and then covered in boiling pitch and everyone else lives happily ever after.

"The Danced-out-Shoes"
Twelve princesses are mysteriously wearing through their shoes when they're supposed to be sleeping. A humble soldier figures out how and is rewarded with the eldest as a bride. I remember this story being a hell of a lot more enchanting and whimsical when I was a kid. It's still got a lot of good imagery going on and everything, but I think it's the only story in this collection where the princess-sutor dynamic is totally unwanted and the princesses are actually pursuing their own romantic interests without parental assistance. And I feel bad for the still-enchanted princes with whom the princesses were dancing.

"Snow White and Rose Red"
Two charming, pretty girls live in the woods with their mother and are Good all the time. The befriend a bear and help a gnome and after they've helped the ungrateful gnome a few times he's killed by the bear who is then revealed as a prince who the gnome had enchanted after stealing all of the poor boy's gold. The good girls marry the prince and his brother. The story is oddly structured and feels a little bizarre, like the moral is "don't judge a person by how they look and be kind to all except for those people who it's totally okay to kill because they're assholes."

"The Master Thief"
A long-lost son returns to his parents and reveals that he's become a master thief. The lord of the village sets him to three difficult thieving tasks which he accomplishes easily. The thief is then banished from the village and no one ever sees him again. I guess the message here is do the best at whatever it is you do and don't get on the wrong side of nobles. Kind of an odd note to end on, really.

     - Alli

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Selected Folktales. Edited by Stanley Appelbaum. Dover Publications.
     New York: New York. 2003.

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