Losing it

I’ve been thinking about loss and fairy tales lately. It’s the prologue to most stories, shaping the hero’s or heroine’s current misfortune. Be they motherless, fatherless, or orphans loss is the beginning of a story in fairy tales. Disney has made this fact into a cliché. It’s been joked that Frozen didn’t become a true Disney movie until (spoiler alert) the parents are lost at sea. I almost think it’s pointless to warn you of the spoiler because as I mentioned before, it’s Disney’s hallmark.

So what can fairy tales tell us about loss? Is it the impetus that makes ordinary people into heroes? Do princesses (or would be princesses) jump at the chance to marry royal strangers because of “daddy issues”? Are feelings of abandonment just the push a boy needs to take on giants and consider thievery as a way of life? Maybe yes, but maybe nothing so blatant.

As a historian, I’m aware that these stories were written in a time when disease, war or poverty would likely tear apart families. But fairy tales don’t care about the mundane. They focus on the fantastical, spinning tales that take us out of the everyday. Wouldn’t you want to escape a reality in which becoming orphaned probably only meant a life of impoverishment and servitude? In the real world, Cinderella would have grown old and haggard at the beck and call of those three spiteful cats. Or she would have run away to the city and been forced into prostitution to survive.

Am I the only one who sees a face?

Am I the only one who sees a face?

But I’m not just a historian. I’m a person with whimsy who sees imprisoned souls in strangely shaped trees. All it takes is a too bright moon and I immediately start to spin a tale about a community of nightwalkers affected by its phases, collecting magical Moonshine. Not all the ideas become a full-fledged story, but more than a fair share get filed in my ideas folder. And one of the most basic things everyone wonders about is death and loss, so why isn’t it a prominent feature in fairy tales? Sleeping Beauty side-steps it with a sleeping spell meant to keep her in suspended animation for a century waiting for her “true love.” Snow White is barely cold in her glass coffin before Prince Charming comes along and dislodges the chunk of apple the dwarves were clearly too short to Heimlich. Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the Wolf only to be cut out of his belly by the Woodsman. Even the newest old story, Frozen, gives us a heroine who sacrifices her life and is rewarded by it being returned to her.

In my search for loss in fairy tales, I came across a story from my childhood. It falls under folklore and legend more than fairy tale, and is a popular story in Puerto Rico. It’s called La Leyenda de la Piedra del Perro, or The Legend of Dog Rock. Not far from El Morro in Old San Juan there’s a small beach with a long natural rock wall. At its tip is a rock formation that when looked at from the right angle resembles a sitting dog.

The story goes that a soldier, Enrique, from back when Puerto Rico was part of Spain, was stationed there, far from home and lonely for companionship. One day he finds an injured and emaciated puppy whom he nurses back to health with food and love. In return the dog never leaves his side and becomes his best friend. As is inevitable with all soldiers, Enrique is called to a battle which requires him to leave the dog behind. They part tearfully and as the boat carrying his human companion sails away, the dog (called Amigo) swims to the rock wall and sits there from sun up to sundown awaiting his return. There’s a brutal battle in which all hands, including Enrique, are lost. The dog overhears the news and rushes out to the wall waiting without respite. He stays so long and so still he turns to stone and remains there to this day.

I’m not sure what that story teaches us. On the one hand loss is something that can’t be gotten over and you can remain stuck in a moment of despair without moving on. Or it could mean that loss forces out the very nature of a being. For the dog, it was loyalty. It could be said that for the characters of popular fairy tales, it was a desire to be more or escape their current situation. In both cases, it led to profound change. Fairy tales teach us that no matter how mundane today might seem and yesterday was, tomorrow could be extraordinary–either good or ill. They teach us that loss is not the end of the story.

Sympathy for the Devil?

There’s a new school of thought roaming the halls for fiction. I’ve referred to it in the past as revisionist fairy tale history. The stories handed down through the generations are very clearly morality tales all with the same basic message–being good is better than being bad. There are myriad ways to put that, but the easier to digest the better. Wolves, vain queens, little men who can spin straw into gold are best avoided and it’s easy because they so obviously look evil. It’s Black Hat Syndrome or the Disney-fication of character as I like to call it. But a new tendency, a revisionist modern view, is starting to take root in fairy tales.

I say modern because it’s our modern sensibilities, our post-Freudian minds, that asks the question, “Why does evil exist?” It begs the question, what happened in the evil queen’s life to make her hate the step-daughter so much? Can we really blame a wolf for wanting a meal–a lot of us eat meat? Is it wrong to expect payment for doing all the work while the maiden gets a new life? My question is, do you think our fairy tale reading ancestors would have asked these questions?

It’s a topic I’ve been wrestling with lately regarding the new crop of fairy tales. I’m sure everyone knows about Maleficent, Disney’s new live action take on Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective. I will admit, when it first heard about it I was a little miffed because I was in the middle of writing a novel called The 13th Fairy based on the original story and I set it in Reconstruction America. It was told from the point of view of the overlooked fairy who didn’t make the party list because of a lack of golden dishware. A ridiculous reason to exclude a guest who has the potential to give some great gifts or (as they found out) a truly horrific curse. I started to wonder what happened to the fairy after she dropped the party-killing bomb. I thought her story would be much more interesting than a girl who falls asleep and waits for a prince she’s never met to wake her with a kiss. I always thought it was a little presumptuous of the other fairy to put the rest of the castle to sleep while they waited for the big rescue. Talk about royal prerogatives! Nowadays the castle folk would have sued.

But I digress. I think it’s a sign of maturity when you start wondering more about the bad guys in a story than the heroes. When we’re kids we ask why about everything, but I don’t remember questioning the stories that ended “….And they lived happily ever after.” I figured it went without saying it included pretty dresses and lots of cake, the only happily ever after a seven year old can imagine. Now I wonder about the other characters. Were the castle folk paid for their time in stasis? Were the king and queen relieved to have some new clothes? Most importantly, did Maleficent (the best name for a villain, by the way) regret her impetuous act or did she have a real axe to grind? I still haven’t seen Maleficent, but I can’t wait to find out what happens.

Are there any fairy tale villains you wish you knew more about?

At the Crossroads of Fairy Tale and Folklore

According to my outdated (read: paper copy!) Webster’s Dictionary the definition of fairy tale is a story about fairies, magic deeds, etc., while folklore is defined as the traditional beliefs, legends, etc. of a culture. So does that mean all fairy tales and folklore have in common is etc.? What’s etcetera anyway in this case? I like to think that the etc. in a fairy tale are the traditional beliefs and legends and the etc. in folklore are the fairies and magical deeds. Which means they’re the same, right? Well, now I suppose I have to address the 800-pound gorilla. That gorilla is called culture.

Does culture determine whether a story is a fairy tale or folklore? Does that imply that anything that doesn’t originate from Northern Europe (from where most popular fairy tales come) is folklore? Moreover does that imply that Northern Europe doesn’t have a culture? Neither should be the case. Fairy tales started out as folklore which became so popular that they transcended culture. That means that all folklore, despite culture, can grow to fairy tale status. All they need is a little push in the direction of popularity.

One of the barriers to wider appeal for many folk tales is language. Would we love Grimm’s Fairy Tales or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen so much if someone hadn’t decided to translate them? We should invite more cultures to the party. Right now the subject of diversity is really hot with writers, especially YA/MG writers of which I am one. It’s kind of a minefield of emotions, political correctness, and common sense that everyone has to wade through. As a parent, I want to make sure that my daughter sees herself reflected in the books she reads and the shows and movies she watches. As a writer, I want to insert my reality into my writing (even though I write mostly YA fantasy). But as a bona-fide member of the person of color club, not to mention being part of the largest minority–womankind–I feel as though I shouldn’t have to bang the drum too loudly because it’s worse than preaching to the choir. Instead of asking for change, I’m going to make change (I know there’s some funny cashier joke that I should make, but I can’t think of one–any suggestions?). For my own edification and hopefully for your enjoyment, I want to explore folklore that begs to be more popular, starting with my own.

 

 

Magic and Mayhem Part IV

Magic and Mayhem Part I

Magic and Mayhem Part II

Magic and Mayhem Part III

The next morning, Princess Amara left with her father on a week’s progress. All in attendance thought that she looked every inch a princess with a new gown, satin slippers, and a regal bearing. If any noted that she also looked exhausted they ignored her sluggish steps. The circles under her eyes could only be seen by the king, who shared her coach.

Uriel was left to look over state affairs and one of his first acts was to hire girl from the village who could help Bronwen with onerous chores. She was also charged with letting Uriel know if there was anything amiss. Thankful to have employment and smitten with Uriel, she was only too eager to oblige. What she discovered was puzzling.

“Sir, I think the princesses leave the castle at night,” she reported. “Wherever they go it must be a wilderness for their slippers as well as their tempers are frayed the next morning. Do you suppose they go to the village through the old woods?” Uriel did not answer her questions and dismissed her curtly to attend his thoughts.

After the maid left, Uriel looked over his books on portents and prophesies. While many knew the king’s fate to lose his kingdom while still living, none but two knew the first part.

Twins will come to a kingdom, one to wed and another to rule

The male will use the king as his tool

But when a son is born to the pair with a daughter

His realm will he lose to the former, not the latter

 

The rhyme reminded him of the faithful day that he and his sister had come to the palace. His twin sister had been a blushing bride and perfect queen until she began to bear twins to the king. Uriel was able to instill fear in the king with the last couplet and convinced him to banish his sons to the nether realms. His sister remembered the rhyme and became a fierce adversary until Uriel had to banish her, too. He was lucky that magic was not one of her gifts and he assumed her children were just as powerless.

But now he began to wonder where the girls went at night and to what purpose. Mariana had always been a contrary creature, seeking out matters that were none of her concern. Perhaps the girls were trying to find their mother. It was of little consequence none but he knew where she had been sent, but perhaps it was time to get the eldest princess out of the way.

Magic and Mayhem Part III

Magic and Mayhem Part I

Magic and Mayhem Part II

The council was well under way when Mariana ambled in following Uriel. Nothing of note was to be discussed today, so she wondered why her father had insisted she attend. It was her custom to hold court at his side, but she had other matters today. Her preparations for Amara’s birthday surprise weren’t yet finished and Uriel had rudely interrupted her plans.

“Mariana, we thank you for your presence. I wanted your opinion regarding Amara’s present,” he said when she approached the dais. Her curtsey was correct to the point of rudeness. Of late she had been distant and deflective. He hoped seeking her out would warm her to him, but her feelings had yet to thaw. Since her mother’s departure he felt her feelings towards him change and not for the better.

“Father, I’m sure your choice is best,” she replied looking at him yet through him. Lately she’d been oddly deferential. Uriel had pointed it out and he had to agree. With Amara turning thirteen, he realized he had little time left. This was the birthday when they all his girls turned on him. At first he wondered if it was the change from child to woman that made them aloof from their father, but now he wasn’t so sure. At the heart of it, he feared his eldest was to blame and he meant to correct it before it was too late for Amara.

“Well, I’ve decided to take Amara away on a progress of the kingdom. She has such an adventurous spirit I feel the trip will be a welcome delight. What say you to that?” asked the king. Searching her face he found no reaction, but her cool manner reminded him of her mother, the queen. He awaited the argument that would ensue.

“I wonder that you never offered any of my sisters the same opportunity, but I would ask that you waited until tomorrow so I might give her my gift before you leave. She might have use of it on her journey,” she said with the same cool restraint. Only a momentary widening of the eyes alerted Uriel to her displeasure. The king, on the other hand, was grateful for her quiet submissiveness.

Magic and Mayhem Part II

Magic and Mayhem Part I

Thirteen Years Later…

Bronwen searched through an old trunk looking for a discarded dress of one of the older princesses. The garment still had usable fabric perfect for cannibalizing. If memory served, and little escaped her recollection, Princess Anora’s castoff gown matched Princess Amara’s perfectly. It was amazing that the youngest was now to celebrate her thirteenth year. Where had the time gone? With all the activity going on, Bronwen took it upon herself to make sure Amara’s dress was the loveliest at the ball. Her eyes began to mist thinking that this task should have been the queen’s, but she shook her head. She refused to let sadness to take root in any part of this day.

Rummaging through the trunk, she found more discards. Other dresses, faded and dried flowers, and a multitude of old dancing slippers padded the bottom. She clicked her tongue, fishing out the sought after dress and then closed the lid gently. What would she do with those girls?

“I really should tell them to be more careful. If anyone knew where they went…”

“And where do they go, Bronwen?” asked smooth and silky voice. Bronwen started and instinctively sat down on the top of the trunk. She could feel the heat from a banked fire warm her backside. Clutching the fabric to her chest, she regarded the intruder.

“Who said anyone goes anywhere? What do mean by sneaking up on old woman about their own business?” she asked with a sneer. The intruder merely raised an eyebrow and walked further into the room.  His eyes swept languidly across the scene in front of him.

“All that goes on in this kingdom is my business, or have you forgotten that I have the ear of the king?” he asked willing a confrontation.

“More like the soul of our king. And I would find that more impressive if I didn’t have the ear of the queen,” she replied looking towards the ground. The tears that had threatened earlier were coming to the surface, but she wouldn’t let them fall in front of this odious man.

“And where is she now? My sister has been gone these 10 years and most likely dead. At least I think of her as such,” he said. Her head snapped up at that remark as he knew it would. Goading her was just a perk, but her evasiveness made him curious. “What are doing?”

“None of your concern, Uriel. I’m merely making sure the Princess has her gown ready for the birthday festivities. Shouldn’t you be in council?”

“Yes I should, but I was sent to find Princess Mariana. Do you know where she’s gotten to?” asked Uriel watching Bronwen’s face very carefully. He knew the old woman was hiding something, but her face betrayed nothing. Her hands however were worrying the fabric.

“Try the rose gardens or the sword room. My lady has a penchant for all things sharp,” she replied noting his attention. Abruptly she put the fabric down, but did not rise.

“Of course. And by the way, perhaps we’ve overtaxed you with duties. You shouldn’t have to mend dresses when those lower than you could. I’ll take it upon myself to find you a useful girl to help with menial tasks,” he said over his shoulder as he went in search of the king’s eldest. Bronwen had a keen mind and knew that anyone Uriel gave her would be more spy than helper. Rising slowly from the chest, she emptied it of all the tattered and torn dancing shoes. Stoking the fire, she threw them all in and hoped Uriel hadn’t seen them.