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…

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Adapting B&B: Robin McKinley

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IMG_20170327_100330655That’s what I get for not perusing my blog reader on a daily basis: I missed the post on SurLaLune’s Fairy Tale Blog about the sale on Robin McKinley’s “Beauty and the Beast” novels. Ah well. I do already own a copy of Beauty. But I’d like to have Rose Daughter as well, and yes, I’d like them as ebooks as well as hardcopies, so I can stick them on my Kobo and cart around with me, just in case I get overtaken by an urge to re-read them.

I only just discovered Robin McKinley last summer. I can’t believe I hadn’t found her long before now; by rights I should have read her back in the 80s when I was burning my way through every fairy tale book my high school library had to offer, or in the 90s, newly arrived in Canada, when I was discovering the…

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Beauty and the Beast: the Movie

Every self-respecting blogger who ever uses “fairy tales” as a tag has to have a post about the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie, don’t they? Uh, actually, no. There is no law in fairy land about liking or even watching Disney movies. You’re free to despise and/or shun them as much as you like, and I might even agree with you on many of your reasons.

However, with this movie – well, I did something I’ve never done before: I watched it twice in as many days. That’s right – that’s how much I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since they first announced it, and the excitement was building with every fresh piece of news about the casting, with every new image and trailer. I don’t think I’ve ever been as keen on seeing a film as I have this one (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, as I grew up more or less movie-and-TV-less; up until age 20 or so, I could literally count on one hand the number of films I’d seen in a theatre. But I’ve kind of been making up for it since).

And, I’m happy to say, the movie didn’t disappoint. One of the things about writing a review for this is that I don’t have to tread carefully to avoid giving spoilers – Disney filmed a giant spoiler for this twenty-six years ago; if you’ve seen the cartoon, you’ll know the movie. It is a live-action remake of the 1991 cartoon, and it is just that – a remake. The dialogue, the songs, even much of the setting, are identical to the older film. (This is in contrast to the 2015 live-action Cinderella, which, while referring to the 1950 cartoon in many ways, was a whole new movie in its own right.)

But it’s not entirely identical. With the dialogue, for example, while much of the cartoon’s spoken lines are present in the new movie, there are whole new sections or additions, and more than once iconic lines have been given to different characters or are moved to different scenes.

Others are left out altogether, and the effect is emblematic of some of the differences between the films. For example, one piece of dialogue, or rather scene, that is missing is one of my favourites from the cartoon: the Beast is leaning on the balcony railing, watching Belle with her horse. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone,” he says. “I want to do something for her. But what?” “Well,” replies Cogsworth the Clock, “there’s the usual: flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep…” (We love quoting that around our house when it comes to making suggestions for presents on a special occasion.)

As funny as that line is, it wouldn’t fit the new version of the Beast – or of Belle, for that matter. Interestingly enough, in the new movie it’s Belle who watches the Beast from the window of the castle, as he walks in the snowy courtyard with Philippe, her horse (and, if you watch carefully, the Beast is gesticulating, obviously having a quite intense discussion with the horse). The Beast is not as much of an ineptly bumbling boy who just has a bad temper and needs to be parented and coached on relationships by his faithful household retainers. Yes, there is a little of that still, but for the most part this is a much more grown-up version of the Beast – a man who has a dark side to his character that he needs to overcome.

But, at the same time, Belle isn’t just a sweet bookworm who is all goodness and light. The cartoon Belle is pure heroine – she has hardly any character arc, does not change from the beginning of the film to the end; the Beast is the one who does all the changing. In this film, Belle changes significantly. She starts the story as a farm girl (her own words), looking after her father, feeling a vague sense of dissatisfaction at her life in this “poor provincial town”; then she sacrifices herself for her father (literally pushing him out of the prison cell against his will), but makes several attempts to get away from the castle; she does not passively submit to her imprisonment. But then she learns that there might be more to the Beast and to the situation of the castle than she initially thought. As in the original story, her agency is what brings about the change in the Beast – but in herself, as well.

The relationship between her and the Beast grows slowly, as both of them discover they have more in common than they suspected. As in the cartoon, a major turning point is the Beast “giving her” his massive library – but here, he is not an illiterate boor who has never cracked the cover of one of his many volumes, but a nobleman with “an expensive education” who knows to quote Shakespeare, and leads her into his library to score a point (namely that there are so many better books to read than Belle’s favourite, Romeo and Juliet).

Belle grows up in this film. Here, she truly finds a partner who fulfils her wish “to have someone understand”. One particularly poignant scene is when the two talk about being the odd one out whose appearance in a room makes the laughter of the common people fall silent, and they begin to realise that in each other perhaps for the first time in their lives they have found a friend. The dance scene in the ballroom is as gorgeous as expected – but one additional piece of dialogue I particularly appreciated comes right afterwards: “Do you think you could be happy here?” asks the Beast (note: “could be“, not “are“), and her response: “Can anyone be happy if they aren’t free?” Beast, of course, being now a changed Beast, gets the message – it was the last tiny nudge he needed. (Take that, “Stockholm Syndrome” naysayers!) Belle goes from Hermione-in-a-dirndl to a woman who is a true equal to a changed prince, with all that implies.

But the greater depth and rounding of characters does not mean there is not plenty of laughter in the film. Here, much of the humour comes from the characters and visual humour. As in the cartoon, one exhilarating and utterly hilarious scene is the battle between the household objects and the villagers (look out for Chip the Teacup’s frisbee shooting of his stack of saucers, counting off his hits as he fires). The laugh-out-loud moments come thick and fast during much of the movie, all the way to the end.

There is much more to be said on this, but for now, just one more thing: the visuals are out-of-this-world mind-boggling. Utterly astonishing. The CG graphics are as real as they can possibly be; Lumiere, for one, is a genuine, live, walking and talking metal candelabra – how can he not be real? And the mise en scène is fantastic. The setting places the story firmly in 18th-century France: the prince (Beast) at the beginning is a ludicrously powdered and patched macaroni, and the interior of Belle’s castle bedroom, with its powder blue and silver gilt walls, looks just like the Amalienburg in Munich:

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Incidentally, there is one tiny little verbal Easter egg that you have to be a hardcore fairy tale nerd to appreciate: Belle’s village is called Villeneuve (Newtown), which just happens to be the name of the author of the first version of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. Cute, eh?

I’ll leave it there for now. As I said, this movie was worth the months of anticipation – if you haven’t seen it yet, do. I’ll come along; after all, I’ve only seen it twice in the four days it’s been out…

Life, the Universe, and Beauty and the Beast. A Tale As Old As Time…

Adapting Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty lived in the Ukraine, in 980 AD. You didn’t know that? Then you apparently haven’t read Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment (New York: Del Rey, 1999). I picked it up because I heard it was an adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty”, and kept reading to the end (rather than skimming it like I do usually) because it’s a darn good book.

It’s true, it’s an adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty”, but only in its very bare bones. There is a princess in an enchanted sleep, and the hero kisses her awake. I think the poke with the spindle is mentioned in passing as the reason for the sleep, but that’s pretty much it for the “Sleeping Beauty” plotline. However, for a wannabe folklorist the story is still very enchanting, starting with its hero. His name is Ivan, and he is a Russian boy whose family manages to emigrate from the Soviet Union when he is a child. But on the day before they leave, he sees a mysterious sleeping woman in a clearing in the woods, and her image haunts him throughout his growing years. Fast-forward fifteen years: Ivan is now a graduate student in America, the Iron Curtain has fallen, and he goes back to Kiev to do research for his dissertation:

It was a mad project, he soon realized – trying to reconstruct the earliest versions of the fairy tales described in the Afanasyev collection in order to determine whether Propp’s theory that all fairy tales in Russian were, structurally, a single fairy tale was (1) true or false and, if true, (2) rooted in some inborn psychologically true ur-tale or in some exceptionally powerful story inherent in Russian culture. (p.24)

I mean, how can you not like a hero like that? Of course, Ivan is irresistibly drawn back to the clearing in the woods, kisses the princess (not without some preceding difficulties on his part), and – well, no, they don’t live happily ever after, not yet. In fact, that’s really what the story is about, how this twentieth-century grad student and the tenth-century princess (who thinks he is a wimp because he can’t wield a sword) find their way to each other, truly fall in love, and defend her kingdom against the ultimate in nasty, Baba Yaga herself.

Don’t worry – the passage I quoted is pretty much the last time you hear about Propp and Afanasyev; this is not some high-falutin’ dusty-dry treatise on academics, but a rip-roaring good STORY. Love, adventure, magic, Molotov cocktails… And you do find out where Baba Yaga gets her house on chicken feet from. It’s all around one of the most satisfying novels I’ve read in a while.

More Gripes About Zipes

I’m getting to the point where I’m quite seriously annoyed with Professor Jack Zipes, he of the erudite fairy tale scholarship whom I’ve considered, recently, my academic guru. I was reading his 2011 book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (New York: Routledge). And what I was almost afraid to call “intellectual snobbery” in my last griping post (because, after all, who am I to disagree with Zipes?) is just constantly tripping me up in this book, and it’s no longer deserving of the gingerly approach I gave it then. It’s got to be called what it is: SNOBBERY. Okay, I’m skipping over quite a lot of what he says because it’s not relevant to my current study, and I only have so much time to read right now, so I’m zeroing in on what matters. But over and over he is scathingly dismissive of some works of adaptation, while highly praising others. And what is it that draws down Dr. Zipes’ ire the most? The name “Disney”.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, is castigated as “a banal adolescent love story” in a “rendition [that] is so stale, stiff and stupid [alliteration much?] that one must wonder why the film was such a success when it premiered in 1959.” Well, one must wonder that he still wonders, as in the preceding paragraph he is dismissing the film’s hypotext, the Grimm’s version, so much tamer than the Basile and Perrault tales of which it was an abridgement, as “a boring fairy tale” (88). Excuse me? Why does Zipes think this story has endured as one of the perennially favourite fairy tales, as part of the Western Canon? Why is it that it’s the boring Grimm’s version that’s stuck with us, not the (presumably) exciting French/Italian one with rape and hidden children and baby-eating ogresses? Well, maybe it’s because the common people like boredom. Or is it that there’s something in these stories that Zipes just fails to see?

My bet is on the latter. Here he is on “Cinderella”: “[T]he musical adaptation of Perrault’s tale that truly ignited filmgoers’ hearts [well, at least he admits that much] was Disney’s animated Cinderella (1950) … It is difficult to understand why this film … had so much success. The music is mediocre; the plot is boring; and the themes are trite” (181). I’m afraid it’s not at all difficult for me to understand why Zipes finds it difficult to understand. He’s just answered his own question. He fails to comprehend the film’s success because he finds the story boring. Condemned from your own mouth, Dr Zipes.

Now, I don’t mean to put Disney on a pedestal – far from it (far from it!). I have my own complaints about those insipid airheaded princesses and cardboard princes (“Someday my Prince will come”, indeed! Get a life, girl!), and the commercialism of the Disney enterprise just gives me the willies. But that does not lead me to write off the films that they made and their enormous success as just a case of the masses falling under the spell of the culture industry. People ain’t all that stupid, you know! And I think it’s a piece of bloomin’ arrogance to talk as if they were. Not just arrogance, ignorance. It’s missing something vital about those stories – the main, core reason that they have been popular for centuries, and keep getting told over, and over, and over, and over.

The reason we love “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” and all those other stories, and one of the biggest reasons the Disney films were the blockbusters they were on their first release and are still being watched by little girls today with unabated fanaticism – in the case of Cinderella sixty-four years later, sixty-four! – is that there is something in the story, in the “boring” plot, that speaks deeply to us. And to dismiss the films because they happen to be made by Disney is, and I’m going to stick out my neck and just say it, folly.

As I said before, folktales are tales of the folk, of the people. The common people. And today’s commoners love the Disney versions. There is no way around that. And if Dr Zipes has nothing but scorn for those films, I’m afraid I must think that he is, somehow, missing a point.

Some Gripes About Zipes

Okay, so I just put that in the title because it rhymes. However, I do have a few minor gripes with Dr Jack Zipes, him who, as I might have mentioned a time or two (dozen), I greatly admire in many ways. He’s written far too many books, for one – I keep reading Zipes books, and every time there’s still a bunch more I haven’t got to. Sigh.

But the main thing that’s starting to get my goat a bit is his – okay, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call it intellectual snobbery. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Whichever, it seems to me that whenever Zipes writes about a book or movie I like, he looks down his nose at it. Harry Potter, case in point – as far as he’s concerned, the series is a patriarchy-reinforcing product of the culture industry. On the other hand, he thinks Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is a great piece of work, whereas I tried to read Pullman some years ago and just couldn’t stick it. Gloomy, violent and disturbing – just not a fun read. So is this just a case of Zipes liking dark, heavy stories, and disliking lighter material? I kind of wonder. He really likes Pullman, for sure; in discussing Cinderella adaptations, he brings him in too, with I was a Rat. But as I mentioned before, when Zipes talks about a Gail Carson Levine adaptation of Cinderella, he ignores the brilliant Ella Enchanted and talks about Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, which isn’t a Cinderella story at all, but a retelling of “The Princess on the Glass Hill”, a different fairy tale entirely.

Which brings us to fairy tale adaptations, Zipes’ main forte. Okay, I’m with him to a point on Disney movies – the Someday-My-Prince-Will-Come bubbleheads of the 30s and 50s have me rolling my eyes, too. But the Disney fairy tale movies are still fun to watch, and what’s more, they’re incredibly popular. And that’s where I’m starting to wonder: does Zipes just disapprove of anything that the common rabble like? Is that evidence for him that the viewers/readers have fallen under the spell of the culture industry?

The thing is that the folktale, the original, oral tale, was just that – the folk tale, stories told by the Volk, the common people. In Why Fairy Tales Stick, Zipes complains at some point (I can’t find the page right now to give you the exact quote) that a great lot of the fairy tale books in print today are low-quality drivel. Well, yeah! I very much doubt that every fairy tale retelling by every nanny around the 16th-century nursery fire was a literary masterpiece. It just wasn’t preserved on paper for the next few centuries. Oral culture has given way to print culture (and it in turn to audio-visual culture, to an extent); of course there’s a goodly quantity of dross is either medium.

But the other thing is that I think it’s okay to have fairy tales that are just fun, and that those can have an impact just as great as the heavy, worthy, “deep” adaptations. Perhaps a greater one, because, as I said, they’re FUN, so they spread. Take Disney’s Enchanted, for example – Zipes doesn’t have anything good to say about it, from what I remember (I think he does talk about it somewhere – once again I can’t remember where – and is quite scathingly dismissive). But it’s a piece in which Disney skewers their own conventions, in a postmodern multi-layered self-ironic style that’s quite a delight to watch. However, you have to be able to enjoy a good, sweet, princessy romantic fairy tale to get some value out of it. It’s not deep, it most definitely isn’t heavy – but it’s thoroughly satisfying for what it is, and has a really great message with it, to boot.

And that’s the thing that’s rubbing me the wrong way about some bits of Zipes’ writings: does literary criticism always have to mean “criticising” in the common sense, namely “fault-finding”? Yes, I know that’s not the academic definition of it, but more often than not, it seems that’s what it comes down to. Can we no longer find simple enjoyment in simple-ish stories? Can a sweet story without violence and heart-wrenching pain not also have literary and cultural merit – even if it’s a cash cow? Don’t get me wrong – I’m no supporter of big business, Disney among them, and their money milking practises. But if the enjoyment of a story that ends in a wedding and happily-ever-after means I have common tastes, then so be it. A folktale is a tale of the people – so shouldn’t we look to what is popular, what the people like, rather than to what literary critics designate as worthy of our attention? Even if those literary critics happen to be Jack Zipes?

And speaking of literary criticism, here’s a quote I ran across yesterday in Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards!:

[The Librarian of the Magic University] waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism.

(London: Corgi Books, 1990, p. 257)

I’m sorry, but after all the reading I’ve been doing that struck me as inordinately funny. It probably just proves once again that I have common tastes.

Even the Bigwigs Make Mistakes

One thing I’ve learned in the course of my grad studies: even the “experts” are not infallible. During undergrad studies, one tends to look at anyone who is published with wide-eyed awe (“It’s in print, therefore it must be true!”), doubly so if the publication in question is a book. But in grad school, I’ve found out that not only do the “experts” disagree with each other (often quite violently, up to and including name-calling) and, what’s more, that I can disagree with them, too, but that sometimes they’re just plain wrong.

Case in point: my new guru Jack Zipes. In Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (New York: Routledge, 2006), he spends some time analysing the Cinderella story, and brings several examples of adaptations that subvert the original story. One of those examples is Gail Carson Levine’s Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, the story of a farm boy with two brothers who don’t like him, who is nicknamed “Cinderellis” because he gets ashes all over him, and who gets himself a princess from the top of a glass hill. So Cinderella/Cinderellis, glass slipper/glass hill – pretty obvious, eh? Zipes thinks it’s great that Levine turned Cinderella into a boy and all.

The only problem is that she didn’t. Cinderellis and the Glass Hill isn’t a retelling of Perrault’s (or Grimm’s) “Cinderella”, but of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s “The Princess on the Glass Hill”. When I read Levine’s story last night, I recognised it right away – I had just read “Glass Hill” in Lang’s Blue Fairy Book a week ago. The main character is a farm boy called Cinderlad, and yes, he wins a princess by climbing a glass hill, but there’s no wicked stepmother, no ball, no animal helpers; the story pattern is quite different. It’s Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 530, “The Glass Mountain”, not Cinderella’s Type 510A, “Persecuted Heroine”. Cinderlad isn’t persecuted by a step-family, he’s just unloved and laughed at by his real brothers – it’s an “apparently-stupid youngest son of three makes good” story.

And Zipes missed it. Which makes me feel quite smug, that I’ve caught out this scholar whom I respect so much in a flat-out mistake like that. Now, if he had stuck with analysing Levine’s Ella Enchanted, it would have been a different matter…