Magnum Opus Complete

Aaaaand here she is, all posted in the uni library’s digital collection. Ta-DAH!!! (In case you’re wondering, a thesis is a “she”. At least in German that’s so, die These or die Masterarbeit. And German is obviously right.) So if you want to actually read through the 46 pages of “Once Upon a Movie Screen”, go to Athabasca University‘s Digital Thesis and Project Room, here: http://dtpr.lib.athabascau.ca/. In the search box on the left type in “Offenwanger”, and there she’ll be, all ready for you to download, peruse and be edified by. (You’ll probably have to click “agree” on some button somewhere that makes sure you’ve understood that this is academic research, and that you shouldn’t plagiarize it or any of the many other excellent pieces of research posted on that site. But you wouldn’t have done that anyway, right?)

And that, folks, concludes our broadcast here on quill and qwerty for the time being. If you would like to keep reading more ramblings, much randomness, and even the odd bit of research, come on over to www.amovitam.ca, where my stuffed bear Steve and I share our thoughts with the cyberworld. We’d love to see you there!

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Ella Enchanted

SPOILER WARNING: This post gives away the plot of the book and movie Ella Enchanted.

I won’t have room in my paper to discuss Ella Enchanted, but it’s such a fantastic adaptation of the Cinderella story, I want to talk about it somewhere. Well, the book is fantastic, the movie, on the other hand… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the interesting things about Ella Enchanted is that the movie (released in 2004, starring Anne Hathaway) makes for a good study of an adaptation of an adaptation. The underlying story is, of course, “Cinderella”, the Perrault version. But then Gail Carson Levine adapted the story into Ella Enchanted, a young adult novel which won the 1998 Newbery Honor award. Levine’s adaptation is, above all, innovative. When I first read it, it took me almost halfway through the book to figure out that this was a Cinderella story. Okay, maybe I’m dense, but the story of Ella of Frell and her curse of obedience is so detailed and nuanced, it reads as a teen fantasy novel, not a fairy tale. The names are well disguised – the Prince is named Charmont, with everyone calling him Char; Ella, of course, is just Ella, and there is such an extensive cast of other characters that you get quite caught up in this world.

The basic premise of the story is that Ella is under a spell, cast by a well-meaning but extremely stupid fairy, which forces the girl to always be obedient. If anyone gives her a direct command, she must obey it; her body forces her to. Of course, this explains why Ella/Cinderella is so easily put upon by her stepmother and stepsisters – in this case, she literally has no other choice. She cannot rebel, she is physically unable to. Cinderella, the girl without agency, becomes Ella, a girl cursed into powerlessness. However, Levine’s Ella is a protagonist who in spite of the curse, the crippling handicap she is under, takes agency. Ella obeys direct commands, as she must, but even as a young girl discovers ways to exercise choice within the command. When her godmother, the family cook, commands her to hold the cake bowl for her, Ella holds the bowl – but she walks away with it, so Mandy has to follow her around the kitchen in order to beat the cake batter. When the singing teacher tells her to sing louder, she becomes so shrill the teacher can’t bear it, when he subsequently tells her to sing more quietly, she becomes inaudible. Ella is cursed, but she is also gifted, among other things with a knack for languages. She uses her abilities to her advantage and that of her friends, and works around her restrictions at every turn. Ella’s connection with the Prince, a sensible, kind young man, begins as a genuine friendship when he comforts her after her mother’s funeral, and she becomes as much of a support to him as his friendship is for her. Ella makes a strong effort to be rid of her curse; she tries as hard as she can, including travelling long distances through dangerous territory in order to find the fairy who cast the spell, to try to get her to undo it. None of this, however, is effective. But what finally breaks the curse, or rather, what finally gives Ella the strength to resist the curse to its breaking point, is the Prince’s marriage proposal. She realises that if she accepts the Prince and marries him, it would be he who would be at the mercy of anyone who would command her; that through her, they would be able to control the Prince, and the whole kingdom – she would become the weapon of his destruction. And so, because of her love for the Prince, despite a direct command to accept his proposal, she refuses, even though it nearly costs her her sanity. This refusal, the act of disobedience which takes all her strength, is what breaks the curse and sets her free. No longer cursed, she can marry the Prince and achieve final happiness.

Ella’s power is what permeates the whole story. Despite her crippling curse, she is a girl who takes charge of her life, she is a strong person.

The film takes this storyline, flattens it out, inserts it into a rather silly medieval-Beverly-Hills setting, adds a bad-guy royal uncle with a talking snake (who seem to have recently escaped from Disney’s Robin Hood), turns Prince Char into a teen idol, and makes the final motivation for Ella’s breaking the curse the command by Bad Guy to melodramatically stab the Prince on the stroke of midnight at the ball. Anne Hathaway’s Ella, though a quite lovely girl, is too dense to figure out that something like this might happen if she accepts the Prince, which is enough motivation for her book counterpart to find the strength in herself to resist. The girl in the movie has no agency, she is completely controlled by the curse. On the other hand, the Prince is a dimwit, and in standard rom-com style only takes notice of Ella because she is the only female who does not fall into fan-girl hysterics whenever he enters the room (or the mall opening ceremony, as it were). Like the Prince in Ever After, he needs to be lectured by CinderElla on how to be a ruler and start thinking for himself. (Another parallel between those two movies is that the more wicked one of the two stepsisters is almost the same character in both films, so much so that until I saw otherwise on IMDB, I was convinced it was the same actress playing the role.) The beautifully intricate fantasy world of Levine’s book, peopled with a myriad of races, each with their own carefully drawn culture and language, is dumbed down into a goofy kind of Disneyland where elves are oppressed by having to always sing and dance, which terrible injustice Ella makes the Prince revoke in a token nod to a serious theme (racism, in this case). Once the wicked bad-guy uncle brings about his own downfall after Ella’s rebellious breaking of her curse foils his plan to kill his nephew, the Prince (now King) and Ella can marry, and the wedding is celebrated with great pomp and ceremony – well, actually, with a big pop dance number (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) which includes every last member of the cast; and the credits roll happily ever after.

See what I mean about the difference between the book and the movie? Ella Enchanted, the film, is a piece of fluff without substance. The novel it abuses – uh, pardon me, adapts – is a brilliant re-imagining of the Cinderella story which answers the question of just why Cinderella is so easily put upon and pushed around, and thinks about how a girl can have agency in spite of the cruel restrictions placed on her. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella is a young heroine full of strength, and her overcoming of the obstacles she faces is a story of empowerment in the best fairy tale traditions. The Newbery Honor was fully deserved.

 

 

Single-sentence Fairy Tales

Once again this morning, in reading my daily dose of social media, news and blogs, I ran across the term “Wizard of Oz”, used as a pre-determined phrase, a metaphor, if you will. And it made me think of just how ubiquitous that story is in American society. We can use that term and everyone knows what we mean by it, because the Oz story is a meme in American culture – its meaning, or message, has become just about independent of Baum’s little novel from the year 1900. You just have to say “Wizard of Oz” or “Wicked Witch of the West” and people know what you mean, the whole story pops into their heads. There is a word for that – it’s a literary device, and I can’t think of what it’s called right now. Oh – here we go (thank you, Google): it’s synecdoche, which, as I just found out, is not pronounced SIN-eck-doak, but sin-ECK-do-kee. You learn something new every day.

And then I kept thinking about the fairy tales I’m studying, and how much this “the-part-represents-the-whole” thing is the case for them, too. Probably even more so than for Oz. We ALL know about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty & the Beast, and the Frog Prince, right? Right. But what do we know about them? There is one core meme, one key part to each story that sticks with us. You can sum up each story in one sentence. Here, let me give it a try.

Cinderella: Girl is made to work as slave by her stepmother, but magically gets to go to the ball where she meets the prince.

Sleeping Beauty: Girl falls asleep for a hundred years in a rose-covered castle, and is kissed awake by the prince.

Beauty and the Beast: Girl hooks up with really ugly guy, who turns out to be a prince.

The Frog Prince: Girl kisses frog, who turns into a prince.

Okay, that’s just one key meme for each story. There are other, secondary ones – for Cinderella, in particular, there’s the lost & found slipper, of course, and the pumpkin coach, which are also used memetically; but for the most part, when we speak of someone “having a Cinderella experience”, we mean the rags-to-riches, ashes-to-ballroom transformation.

And then there’s the fact that not every version of every story contains exactly those elements I mentioned. Take the Grimm’s version of “The Frog Prince”, for example: no kissing whatsoever takes place in that on, froggy gets chucked against the wall (splat!), which very effectively unfroggifies him. I’m sure most enchanted princes are grateful that the meme which took hold of our imagination is the kissing one, not the Grimm’s version – can’t you just see all those princesses going around hurling innocent amphibians against the walls of their bedrooms? Uh, no, let’s stick with kissing. Much tidier, and less work for the chamber maids. (I haven’t found out yet where or at what point in the development of the story the kissing came in; I’m not getting to “The Frog Prince” for a while yet. But it’s definitely one of the things I’ll have to look into.)

So, one thing I’m wondering: what is it about those memes that made them memes? Why do they stick so hard in our minds? Lots of thinking to do yet.

 

Take a Deep Breath…

…squint shut your eyes, and hit “send”. And there goes the essay, out into cyberspace:

“MGM, Disney and Warner – Oh My!”:

The Fairy Tale Film Adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Very well, one more paper in the bag. Breathe for a couple of days, then on to the next thing: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. “Bippety-boppety-bop”, “I waltzed with you once upon a dream”, and so on. My local library has 169 items in their catalogue under the keyword “Cinderella”. One-hundred-and-sixty-freakin’-NINE!!

I think it’s bedtime.

One More Amazing Book

At the last minute, I got one more amazing piece of research material from the library: Harry Potter: Page to Screen, the Complete Filmmaking Journey by Bob McCabe. I’m almost done my paper, but at least it can still make it into the Bibliography.

This is a beautiful, enormous coffee table book (which would need a sizable coffee table to hold it up – it’s hardcover, 9×13″, 531 pages, probably 3 or 4 lbs in weight) chock-full of pictures of all eight of the movie productions. Photos, sketches, stills, concept art, and loads and loads of text with more information than you could possibly need or desire. I want a copy of that book… But even at a discounted $50, it’s a bit much. It might be just as well I only got a hold of it now, else I would have been tempted to read most of it and include it in my paper. Which really doesn’t need more stuff stuffed in it.

But I just wanted to tell you about it – such a lovely book, it is. (No, oh no, I’m not a Hermione at all. What, me, a nerdy bookworm? You gotta be kidding.)

And now I’ve got to put the last few edits on the paper, and get it out the door.

Terry Pratchett on Stories

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling . . . stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.”

Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad, p. 8 (London: Corgi Books, 1992)

Max Lüthi

I can’t believe I didn’t find this guy before now. I thought I was pretty much done with my theory readings, but then I ran across this, one of the granddaddies of Folklore Theory: Max Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982). Or, as it were, Das europäische Volksmärchen: Form und Wesen (Bern: A. Francke Verlag, 1960). As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the definitive works on fairy tales, as important as Propp, Zipes and Warner, and a good deal more so than Bettelheim. And it’s nearly as old as Propp; the German version was first published in 1947 – not translated into English until 1982, but even that is pretty much contemporary with Zipes’ first work and Bettelheim. As I said, I’m really surprised I didn’t stumble across his theory before.

What’s so amazing about Lüthi’s work is that he looks at the form of the fairy tale – okay, the folktale, I guess – and precisely describes its elements, just what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale, and it really makes sense. (I’m going to use the word fairy tale for his original Märchen, because I think it’s a better fit, even though the English translator, John D. Niles, uses folktale.) Lüthi names five different elements or element groupings. I’ll give the English names Niles uses, because he’s the definitive translator, but I’ll tell you in a moment what I think of a couple of them. Here they are:

1.) One-dimensionality. By that, Lüthi means the fairy tales’ relationship to the supernatural. Otherworldly matters just exist, they are a matter of course. The fairy tale hero doesn’t blink when animals start talking to him, in fact, he’d much rather a wolf started talking than not, because then it isn’t a scary man-eating animal but “just” something supernatural. The fairy tale doesn’t move from “reality” to “the magic realm”, it only exists in Wonderland – in one dimension.

2.) Depthlessness. Representation of things, bodies, qualities, the internal world, relationships – none of them have any depth. Fairy tale people are the original flat characters. And that’s in fact the German word Lüthi uses (here’s one instance where I don’t entirely agree with Niles’ translation): Flächenhaftigkeit, the quality of a plain or of a flat wide surface. “Depthlessness” is a negative word, implying the lack of something; “Flächenhaftigkeit” is positive, the quality of flatness and expanse. Yes, the lack of depth or shape is part of it, but more important is this surface-ness, plain-ness. It’s the difference between a painted picture and a sculpture. Like abstract painting, which deals with the surface as a surface without trying to simulate depth through shading etc, the fairy tale is a flat, plain surface. Which leads us to:

3.) Abstract Style. The fairy tale paints the picture on its flat surface in sharply delineated contours and bright colours – literally, Lüthi points out, the fairy tale likes gold, silver, black, white, red (Snow White!) and the occasional blue, and not much else, no blended or muted colours. When he talks about this, I get an image of a fauve painting, a Matisse, for example. Bright, sharp, flat. Everything in the fairy tale is like that, formulaic, extreme, plain. The plot is simple, the characters are sharply outlined.

4.) Isolation and Universal Interconnection. This, according to Lüthi, is the “decisive identifying trait of the folktale. Isolation of characters, of plot, of episodes,” and following out of this, the “[c]apacity for universal interconnection” (that’s from the chapter’s subtitle in the table of contents). The characters are isolated beings, they have no strong connection to their families or home, which allows them to go out and connect or bond with the characters they meet in their adventure. The episodes in the plot are isolated from each other – often the hero learns nothing from one episode to the next, each scene takes place individually without following logically from the previous one. Things just happen, they generally are given no explanation.

5.) Sublimation and All-Inclusiveness. With this second word there is another translation that misses the mark just a bit. Lüthi’s word is Welthaltigkeit – “world containment”. “All-inclusiveness” is a pale term compared to this. The fairy tale contains the whole world in its little frame, and for this, it acquires and makes use of any motif it sees fit – the “magical, the mythic, the numinous” (I had to look up that word. It means “to do with the spiritual”.), “rites, erotic and worldly materials” – and it sublimates all those motifs, meaning it empties them of their predetermined purpose and makes them fit whatever it needs. The fairy tale “represent[s] … the contents of the world” (to quote from the Table of Contents again).

And out of this form of the folktale, that form of one-dimensionality, depthlessness, abstract style, isolation, universal connectedness and world containment, Lüthi says, we can see the function and meaning of the Märchen. The folk fairy tale (maybe that’s the best term to translate Märchen) is far more than mere entertainment. Unlike other forms of folk tales whose function can be wish fulfilment or normative, the folk fairy tale is Seinsdichtung, the literature or poetics of being. The folk fairy tale does not tell us how we wish the world was, nor how it ought to be, but how it is:

The folktale … is bound neither to reality nor to a dogma. Nor does it cling to individual events or experiences, for these are no more than its raw material. Not only does the folktale not need the support of the Church [unlike Saint’s Legends, with which Lüthi contrasts the folk fairy tale]; it continues to exist even in the face of clerical opposition. And yet, in its own way, it does give an answer to the burning questions of human existence, and this answer provides deep satisfaction. (The European Folktale, 84)

That’s sort of a nutshell summary of how I understand Lüthi’s theory. It’s a key piece in folklore research.

If you want to read an essay of a fairly extensive application of Lüthi to a particular piece of fantasy literature, which also includes a summary and explanation of the theory (a better explanation than mine, I think), check out folklore scholar Marie Brennan’s “That Fairy-Tale Feel: A Folkloric Approach to Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel. In fact, I’m very grateful to Brennan, as her essay served to steer me very definitely towards picking up a copy of Lüthi’s book.

I have another book of Lüthi’s sitting here, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, but I don’t think I’ll get to reading it before I write my paper. I’m still waiting for the German copy; I hope it gets here before I’m starting my next round of research. For now, Lüthi’s theory in The European Folktale is going to be a core part of my paper.