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.

Diversity Fantasy?

I remember being 4 or 5 and going to get my picture taken with Santa. My uncle took me and I didn’t want to stand in the Macy’s line, so we went elsewhere. I don’t think I was concerned with telling Santa what was on my list or even meeting the man, himself. All I knew was that I had on a cute outfit and would get my picture taken. After waiting in a line shorter than the one at Macy’s, I finally had my chance to indulge my vanity. But there was a problem. I had been lied to by my family.

We came home, my uncle and I, with a photo. In it, I was stiff and frowning. When my mother asked why I didn’t smile, I promptly replied “Santa Claus no es negro. Santa Claus es blanco.” My mother and other relatives who heard the story and saw the picture laughed to hear my explanation of how I didn’t smile because the real Santa Claus is white. Inadvertently, I had stumbled upon an idea that led me to this post.

Unimpressed with fake Santa

Unimpressed with “fake” Santa

Later, when I was a little older, I played pretend with a friend. Snow White had just been re-released. It was as good a pretend game as any. It took a turn, however, when I said I wanted to play Snow White. My friend turned to me and without malice said “You can’t play Snow White. You’re not white.” I didn’t know what to say to that, but we moved on to some other game.

Put together, it just sounds like some funny anecdotes from my childhood, but I’m betting I wasn’t the only one to have this experience. Despite myriad options to watch and read in fantasy, it has remained a rather uni-ethnic genre. Like Friends, uni-ethnic! I don’t want to soapbox, but what’s up with that?

Why in fantasy–where the limit is the entire spectrum of imagination–does the world look basically white?

There are exceptions–like BBC imports that practice colorblind casting—but very little to reflect all of us. Is it out of the realm of possibility for fantasy movies and TV to imagine a protagonist that isn’t northern European? I know our collective consciousness is based on fairy tales and fables from Germany and England, but they were meant to reflect the public at large. Now that we embrace revisionist mythology, fractured fairy tales if you will, shouldn’t we revamp the picture?

Rapunzel can be an African-American girl with super strong weave.

Jack the Giant Killer could be strong, brave, and gay.

Cinderella could be looking for the perfect pair of glass shoes to fit her size thirteen feet, supporting her plus-size frame.

Maybe Snow White could be Hispanic.

In that reality, maybe a girl would smile if she sat on Black Santa’s lap.

I would love to hear from other readers and writers about diversity in fantasy. Have you seen a book, TV show or movie that reflects our new world geared towards teens or adults?

Once Upon a Blog Post

My writings have been sporadic at best. I can only blame myself for trying to be so ambitious. It was a little crazy of me to think that I could write two novels and still the time and ability have to come up with original stories for a blog every week. Funny enough, I think my scope was too small. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I should have included other materials within the realm of fairy tales and fables. Perhaps consider the current trend of “revisionist mythology” that is sweeping books, movies, and TV.

I’ll start with Once Upon a Time… on ABC. The show takes place in a fictional town in Maine (please save your Stephen King assumptions) called Storybrooke were all the characters from fairytales and legends have been transported by a curse conjured by, you guessed it, an evil queen.

Specifically the evil queen in Snow White.

The show is now in its second season, so I won’t try and summarize the entire show thus far. Suffice it to say, good tries to trump evil and at every turn craziness ensues. I went into the show with low expectations considering how poorly fantasy shows do in the ratings on network TV (I’ll talk about Merlin in a future post). I have been more than pleasantly surprised by its popularity among other things.

The clichés are self-evident. The woman representing good is blonde and blue-eyed, while the antagonist is a dark eyed beauty with black-brown hair. I was ready for Disney-level simplicity. Good is always good and evil can’t help but be so and must lose. But a funny thing happened when they let go of the obvious. The protagonist has a checkered past complete with a prison stay. The antagonist started out as good, but through a series of unfortunate events embraced the easy way—being bad.

It’s fairytales versus pop-psychology.

“There by the grace of God” club meets Of Mice and Men.

I don’t know if it qualifies as a full-blown guilty pleasure, but it speaks to the child at heart who grew up and wondered what happened to everyone after we closed the book. The child in me gets angry when evil gets the upper hand, but the adult appreciates the realism. Good or evil, I think Once Upon a Time…is a show anyone who loves fairy tales should give a chance.

Look back for more post about this show in the future.