Beauty and the Book

I had a gift card for the local bookstore that I’d been saving for something special. And I went shopping today and spent it: The Beauty and the Beast, the full novel-length version by Mme de Villeneuve (in the 1858 translation by J. R. Planché), with amazing and fancy illustrations (some of them pop-ups) by MinaLima. It only just came out a couple of weeks ago. Now I finally have my own copy of the Villeneuve version!

 

Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter

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So in this quite amusing version I just discovered in the library, the miller’s daughter does not marry the king, but instead runs away with Rumplestiltskin (who, though “very small”, is a “gentleman”). They get married and have a daughter. Sixteen years later, said daughter finds herself at the court of the king, who hasn’t grown one whit less greedy in the meantime. He wants her to do the straw-into-gold trick again, but Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter has other ideas. The king doesn’t know what hit him, and he learns a lesson or two before Happily Ever After can commence. And once again the girl has a chance to marry the king…

 

The Issue With Rumpelstiltskin

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I have a heck of a time typing “Rumpelstiltskin” – the “ltsk” combo in the middle is really hard to get, as no other word I can think of has that sound sequence in English. For some reason, the German “Rumpelstilzchen” flows much easier from the fingers.

However, that’s not the main issue with this fairy tale. The real problem, I decided on re-reading it yesterday, is that the beautiful miller’s daughter (that’s the beautiful daughter of the miller, not the daughter of the beautiful miller – there’s English grammatical ambiguity for you) is screwed coming and going.

I used to like “Rumpelstilzchen” when I was a child. It has an ending that I always found quite satisfying: The nasty manipulative gnome is found out, and in his fury at being thwarted he tears himself in half. Happily Ever After, The End. It never occurred to me that that’s really kind of gruesome – as Max Lüthi says, it’s not a bloody tearing-apart, but a neat separation into two halves; he sort of “falls to pieces” (p.27 of Das europäische Volksmärchen). Thinking about it, I guess I always pictured it more like a piece of paper being ripped in half. Rumpelstiltskin is a paper-flat “bad guy”, so when he tears himself in half there’s no blood and guts, because he hasn’t got any.

And the other thing I didn’t think about as a kid – also due to the paper-flatness of the characters – is that the miller’s daughter, or queen, as she is now, has a terrible husband. In fact, she’s entirely surrounded by awful males. First, her father, who lies about her to make himself look better to the king. Then the king, whose chief – in fact, only – characteristic is greed; he’s ready to murder her if he doesn’t get his way. And then Rumpelstiltskin, of course, who does things for her only for a steep price. Daddy wants glory; ruler (and then husband) wants gold; gnome wants something alive (to, presumably, roast in the fire as the main dish to go with his baking and brewing).

RumpelstiltskinAnd what does the miller’s daughter want? Who knows. Well, actually – we do know, or at least as a child I knew. With fairy tales it doesn’t do to overthink. Now that I’m an adult and know something about marriage relationships, the thought of the miller’s daughter tied for life (and having to share a bed!) with a gold-digging murderer – well, it bothers me. But as a kid, I completely glossed over the “Do this by morning or I’ll kill you!” part, and the “even if she is only a miller’s daughter, I will not find a richer wife in all the world” bit, too. I skipped straight to “He married her, and the beautiful miller’s daughter became queen.” Because that, as I knew in my childish wisdom, is the key part. She got to be queen – she is now a woman of power and immense wealth. Who cares about all that mushy emotional stuff? Fairy tale characters aren’t real people.

But that’s where retellings of this tale hit a big snag. In fact, that’s one of the big snags in any fairy tale retellings – they try to flesh out the characters. Where true folktale characters are paper-flat – in Lüthi’s words, one-dimensional – novelisations and adaptations have to go further, have to make the characters “real”. And a woman whose only aim in life is power and wealth is, quite frankly, an unsympathetic character. Sure, she’s a great mate for Mr “Gimme Gold or You’re Dead” King, so her happily-ever-after is believable. But as novel readers we don’t like her, we don’t care for her, and we’d rather hear about what makes Rumpelstiltskin tick (hence Once Upon a Time‘s Rumple/Mr. Gold, who was always the most interesting character in the whole show).

“Rumpelstiltskin” adaptations struggle with the miller’s daughter and her relationship to the king. 21st-century sensibilities don’t allow for a marriage based purely on material consideration being a happy outcome – there’s no “true love” in the picture, so it can’t be any good.

I watched a 2006 movie version last night – here (with English subtitles of a sort – they seem like the product of Google Translate and sometimes spectacularly get it wrong, but they still get at the gist of the dialogue). The movie’s solution to the problem is that the king, young, handsome, and quite un-greedy, falls in love with the miller’s daughter at first sight (he’s quite cute the way he plays it – totally loses his head, can’t keep his eyes off her), and it’s his old, ugly, avaricious chief minister who does the locking her up in rooms full of straw and threatening her life (and that of her father, into the bargain, which makes her keep her mouth shut about it all).

So that’s all good – we’re doing homage to true love, and the bad guys are all, indeed, bad, and get suitably punished (the nasty minister gets drummed out of the castle by the cudgel-from-the-sack, which I liked, it being another favourite of mine). The only one who doesn’t get rapped over the knuckles for his misbehaviour is the lying papa, but as he only told lies in the first place because he’s so proud of his daughter and loves her so much, it’s all okay too.

It was interesting to see how this adaptation changes the original tale to make sure its morals fall in line with today’s ideas of what is good, bad and desirable. Some time ago I was talking about the problem with “Sleeping Beauty” – another tale that has at its core a story element that simply does not fit with today’s sensibilities (the 100-year sleep, in that case). Some fairy tales translate easily – “Cinderella” being one; with others, it seems you can’t take the “original” (17th/18th/19th-century) tale and make it fit today without changing one or more core plot points.

But that’s what makes fairy tale adaptations so interesting, both reading and writing them – how are you going to solve that unfitting plot element? On that note, I might take a stab at “Rumpelstiltskin” myself. Although I’m not sure yet where I’ll go with it, hopefully by the time I’ve typed his name a hundred times or more, my fingers will cooperate. Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstiltskin, Rumpelstilt…

Caliph Stork

Check out InkGypsy’s post on “Caliph Stork”, one of the fairy tales written by my beloved Wilhelm Hauff: http://fairytalenewsblog.blogspot.ca/2017/05/caliph-stork-by-wilhelm-hauff.html. Some gorgeous illustrations here.

What I find quite fascinating is that “Caliph Stork”, written by a early-19th-century German, has made it into genuine Middle Eastern folklore. A clear top-down genesis of a folktale – and one crossing cultural boundaries, at that! Talk about cultural appropriation – but the culture in question re-appropriated it. I wonder how many other times that has happened.

Watching Frank Churchill

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FrankChurchill (3)I’ve been watching the 1996 Emma again. No, not that one, the other one. The one with Kate Beckinsale. Yes, I like the Gwyneth Paltrow version a lot too, and the 2008 Romola Garai one – in fact, so far the Kate Beckinsale one has been my least favourite of the three; I only own a copy on taped-from-TV VHS (I know, right?). But I pulled it back out lately for reasons of research completely unrelated to Jane Austen.

You see, I’m using the Frank Churchill in that movie as a model for one of the characters I’m writing at the moment. Just physically, mind you – it’s the actor, Raymond Coulthard, his looks and the way he moves and smiles, that I’m using, not Austen’s Frank Churchill. I’m picturing a young Ray Coulthard, ca. 1996, playing the scenes in my story, which helps with writing them…

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Rabbit Trails, or: All Roads Lead to Romantic Authors

This is a repost from my other blog: Rabbit Trails that had me arriving at the ancestral home of the von Arnims. I’d love to dig around some more in that family tree – Bettina von Arnim, wife of Achim, was Clemens Brentano’s sister, and a friend of Goethe; Ludwig Grimm (artist brother of Jakob and Wilhelm) drew her portrait. So many connections…

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Today’s rabbit trails:

Read the news headlines – click on the one about the Syrian air strikes – read what Justin Trudeau had to say about it – watch brief video clip on Angela Merkel’s comments on it – wonder about her accent and where she’s from – look up Angela Merkel in Wikipedia – find out she’s from the Uckermark – wonder where the Uckermark is – look it up in Wikipedia – see on Wikipedia page picture of gorgeous castle, Schloss Boitzenburg – click through to Schloss Boitzenburg’s page – find out it’s the ancestral home of the von Arnim family – remember that that’s one of the principal families of German Romanticism, i.e. poets, fairy tale collectors, friends of the Grimms etc. – look up the von Arnims, including Achim von Arnim and his brother-in-law, Clemens Brentano

All that remains is to find Schloss Boitzenburg on Google maps, click through to the home page of the castle itself, find out that for €45/night one could rent a room, and get lost in dreams of a holiday in the von Arnims’ castle in North-east Germany.

And there you have it: even the daily news can lead to Romantic literature. You just have to be determined enough in following rabbit trails.