Saturday, May 31, 2014

Reading, reading, reading...

The Lost Sun (The United States of Asgard, #1)Taking a break from all things fairy tale to read some other books.  This past week I read three books at three different levels! At the Young Adult level, is "The Lost Sun" by Tessa Gratton.  This is the first in a series entitled The United States of Asgaard - and yes, it is steeped in Nordic Mythology.  It's not dystopian - more a parallel universe type of book.  It was an interesting read and comparisons to Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" are apt though this is a much (MUCH) tamer version.  It is also a bit more focused on teaching the reader the basics of Nordic mythology. And lots and lots and lots of teenage angst.  I found it a bit slow at the beginning but it picks up once the quest to find Baldur truly gets underway. And I think Glory is my favorite character. She definitely shakes things up a bit. It will be interesting to see where #2 goes

Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles (Madame Pamplemousse, #1)
For the elementary level readers -  "Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles" by Rupert Kingfisher, Illustrated by Sue Hellard.  This was a wonderful little book - and it's the first in a series. There are three so far.  If you enjoy Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket, these should appeal also! Our protagonist, Madeleine, does have parents but they don't seem to care for her at all!  Every summer they send her off to spend time with her cruel and greedy Uncle Lard who runs a restaurant, the Squealing Pig.  Here she is forced to work in the kitchen scrubbing all the pots and pans and dishes.  She also discovers that she has quite a gift for cooking.  One day, while running an errand to procure some disgusting pate that her uncle adores, she mistakenly enters the Edibles shop of the mysterious Madame Pamplemousse and the rest, as they say, is history. This would be a great read-aloud for 3rd/4th graders.  There's a bit of a mystery to the story and the creations that line the shelves of Mme. Pamplemousse's shop are enough to intrigue any child!  Pate of North Atlantic Sea Serpent, Violet Petal Wine, Salt-Cured Raptor Tails, Cobra Brains in Black Butter...  What a fun activity to have kids create their OWN shelf in the shop and see what concoctions they could come up with.  Volume 2 is Madame Pamplemousse and the Time-Traveling Cafe; Volume 3 is Madame Pamplemousse and the Enchanted Sweet Shop.  

Last, for adults or teens - Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See". Marie Laure is blind and lives in Paris with her father, who works at the National Museum of Natural History.  He is the locksmith, the keeper of the keys.  He is also a craftsman who builds a replica of their neighborhood so Marie Laure can learn to navigate through the streets.  On each birthday, he presents her with a puzzle box.  Parallel with Marie Laure's story, we learn about Werner Pfennig, an orphan in Germany.  And we are transported from besieged Saint Malo, France to Paris and back again; to Germany and the battlefront. The story spans from pre-WW2 1934 to today.  And shows how lives can intertwine and cross in the most amazing ways!  The book is very much like one of Marie Laure's father's creations - a puzzle box.  Twist this chapter ninety degrees this way, look for the small keyhole into this character's personality, find the barely visible seam so you can pry open this page's hidden details and finally reach the treasure inside.  On his choice for a title, Doerr states, "Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility." This is a wonderful, bittersweet, poignant read!  Just be prepared - once you start reading, you won't want to put it down.   

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Brothers Grimm and “Frau Holle”

The Brothers Grimm and “Frau Holle”

The Grimm Brothers are a fascinating study.  Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) were born in Hanau, Germany.  Their father was a lawyer - or a magistrate - and the family lived a comfortable life until he died suddenly of pneumonia in 1796. The life of the family changed drastically as a result. The brothers did manage to go to university through the generosity of their aunt and support of their grandfather. While attending law school, a professor inspired the brothers to study Medieval German literature. Jacob was responsible for supporting his mother and siblings and so he and Wilhelm became librarians in Kassel.  It was during this time that they began to collect folktales.  They had long desired to see the 200 principalities of Germany become united in a single state and became convinced that a national identity would be encouraged by capturing in print rapidly fading cultural traditions, legends, and customs. They proclaimed their fairy stories to be a pure, uncontaminated product of the German people (or volk) yet they eventually softened the message of tales they thought too violent for children. In his biography of the Grimm Brothers, Zipes proclaims they are “highly acclaimed as the founders of the popular fairy-tale tradition in the West, if not the entire world.” Their tales retain an important place in the Western canon of literature and continue to give hope to millions of readers and spectators.

A small side note - it was mentioned in more than one resource that the diligent work towards a unified Germany by the Grimms and others who had similar thoughts helped lay the groundwork for WWI, Hitler and - ultimately - WW2.  I would need to do a great deal more studying to offer a coherent opinion on the subject, but it is interesting to ponder. Maybe all the time travelers who venture back to stop Hitler should set their sights for the early 1800s and have a chat with the Brothers Grimm.  

There are at least four versions of “The Kind and the Unkind Girls” featured in the Grimms’ “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (“Tales of the Children and the Home”) but the most well-known is “Frau Holle” or “Mother Hulda”. Sharing similarities to other versions, the story goes - A widow had two daughters; one was pretty and industrious, the other was ugly and lazy. The mother loved the lazy daughter best and made the other girl sit by a well and spin until her fingers bled. As she leans over to wash her fingers, the spindle drops to the bottom of the well.  Fearing a beating, she jumps down the well to fetch it and finds herself in a lovely meadow.  She completes tasks and comes to a house where an old woman asks her to help with chores - such as shaking out her mattress so that the feathers fly about, “and then in the world it snows, for I am Mother Hulda." Our lovely girl works hard for Mother Hulda but eventually asks to be allowed to go home. For being industrious, she is covered in gold.  As with other stories, the lazy daughter is also sent to the bottom of the well.  For her laziness, she is covered in pitch that never comes off.  And to this day, when it is snows in Germany, one may still hear the expression, "Hulda is making her bed!"

Saturday, May 17, 2014

“Diamonds and Toads”

Charles Perrault’s “The Fairy” or “Diamonds and Toads”

Charles Perrault was a retired civil servant and member of the Academie francaise when he published “Contes de ma Mere l’Oye” (Tales of My Mother the Goose) in 1697 in Paris. Yes - the name "Mother Goose" originated with Perrault.  It was translated and adapted in England for nursery stories. The book contains some of the earliest written versions of the best known and most beloved plots in fairy tale history.  Perrault’s tales were written for a courtly audience and were shaped by his playful, ironic, and inventive voice.  They fascinated the adults of the royal court and lounges who enjoyed reliving the pleasures of their youth through tales of magic and enchantment. The book laid the groundwork for the Grimm’s, Andersen and Lang, to mention only a few. Perrault was one of many in France at that time to tell the tales and write them down but most of the other writers have faded into relative obscurity.
Charles Perrault
His version of the tale is a bit less grim than Basile’s version. It is also short - a mere 865 words filling less than two pages.  Our heroine has no name - she is merely a young girl who is gentle, sweet, and beautiful… and greatly abused by her disagreeable and arrogant stepmother and stepsister. Every day she must cook and clean and fetch water from the well.  One day, there is an old woman waiting at the well who asks for a drink.  This is in reality a fairy who wants to test the girl’s kindness.  The girl complies, and “…rinsing the pitcher, she drew some water from the cleanest part of the spring and handed it to her, lifting up the pitcher so that she might drink more easily.” The fairy then tells her that because of her politeness she will be granted a gift -“’I grant you that with every word you speak, a flower or a precious stone shall fall from your mouth.’”  When she returns home, speaking diamonds, her stepmother sends Fanchon, the stepsister, to also fetch water from the well.  She encounters an elegant lady (the fairy) and is, of course, rude and unkind.  In return, the fairy states, “…for your lack of courtesy I grant that for every word you speak a snake or a toad shall drop out of your mouth."  When Fanchon returns home spewing toads and snakes, her mother blames the younger sister.  Fearing a beating, the young girl runs crying into the woods where she encounters a prince.  He is so taken with her beauty that he asks her what is wrong.  She tells him the story, he falls in love with her and they are married.  Since she talks diamonds and pearls, she does not need a dowry.  Fanchon, on the other hand, is eventually turned out of her mother’s home and “at last she went into a corner of the woods and died.”

One unique element of Perrault’s fairy tales is that each includes at least one moral at the end of the tale.  “The Fairies” includes two.
Moral number one for “The Fairies” is

Diamonds and gold coins may Work some wonders in their way;
But a gentle word is worth More than all the gems on earth.

Another Moral: 

Though -- when otherwise inclined -- It's a trouble to be kind,
Often it will bring you good When you least believed it could.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Three Fairies by Giambattista Basile

The Three Fairies 
by Giambattista Basile

Giambattista Basile was an Italian poet and fairy tale collector.  The term “collector” is key - the tales did not originate with him.  According to Basile, his tales were based on those told by common townswomen.   In 1634, his collection was published posthumously by his sister as “Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille” (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones"), also known as Il Pentamerone.  It is believed to be the first national collection of fairy tales and includes many of the oldest known variants of tales in existence. 

Giambattista Basile

Basile's version of the tale is entitled “The Three Fairies” and readers are introduced to the lovely and kind Cicella who is tormented by her evil stepmother, Caradonia, and ugly stepsister, Grannizia. One day, Cicella accidentally drops her basket over a cliff. Peering down she sees a hideous ogre and politely asks if he will help her. He tells her that if she climbs down, she will be able to retrieve her basket. Instead she finds three beautiful
fairies at the bottom of the cliff. She is, of course, kind and polite. She combs their hair and claims to find pearls and rubies (among the lice). They whisk her away to their castle and show her all their treasures which she admires but does not covet. Finally, they show her beautiful dresses and ask her to choose one. Cicella chooses a sensible, plain dress. When it is time for her to leave, the fairies ask how she wants to depart.  Cicella responds that the stable door was good enough for her. The fairies, impressed with her kindness and humility, give her splendid gowns, dress her hair, and place a golden star on her forehead.

Grannizia has the same experience but is rude, complaining of the lice in the hair of the fairies. When given a choice of dresses, she grabs the fanciest dress. The fairies do not give it to her; instead she is kicked out of the stable door, where a donkey's tail (or testicles, depending on the translation) is attached to her forehead! Her mother is furious but blames Cicella. She takes Cicella’s lovely dresses and gives them to Grannizia, and sends Cicella to tend the pigs. There, a nobleman, Cuosemo, sees her and asks the stepmother if he can marry her. Caradonia tries to murder Cicella and marry Caradonia to the nobleman but her plan backfires and she murders her own daughter instead.  When she discovers her mistake, she drowns herself in the well. 

There are various translations of this tale.  Sometimes it is called “The Three Fairies” and sometimes “The Three Sisters”.  Not speaking Italian, it is difficult to determine which is the truest translation but Basile’s moral of the story is the same - "No evil ever went without punishment."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Earliest Known Versions - or "The Golden Rule"

Since the tale was originally a folk tale, spread from this person to that village to this city and on to another country by travelers, determining the exact origin of the tale is no easy task.  One can easily imagine a mother brushing the hair of her daughter, after a particularly long day of sibling squabbling, and relating a tale of how the kind girl is rewarded and the unkind girl is not. 

The very heart of the tale seems to be the maxim treat other people the way you, yourself would like to be treated.  And 'do unto others' ... is a concept that is essentially found in every culture. Confucius (551–479 BC) said "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." And Buddha (c. 623 - c. 543 BC) also stated, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”  Jesus (4 BC - 33 AD) turned the rule into a more positive action - "Do to others what you want them to do to you,” rather than an admonition to restrain from negative activities that hurt another. But all versions have one aspect in common: treat others in a manner in which you yourself would like to be treated or, more simply stated, be kind.

Ophelia and the Marvelous BoyInterestingly, I just read a book today that also expresses these same themes.  It is "Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy" by Karen Foxlee, an Australian author.  It is built around the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, which is rapidly becoming another favorite of mine.  Not because of "Frozen" but rather "Breadcrumbs" by Anne Ursu.  If you have read  and enjoyed "Breadcrumbs", then I would recommend "Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy".  When Ophelia reads the instructions passed down by the Great Wizards to the Marvelous Boy, she learns that she should: 
Be kind to everyone whom you meet along the way, and things will be well.
Kindness is far stronger than any cruelty.
Always extend your hand in friendship.
Be patient.
You may feel alone, but there will always be people who will help you along the way.
Never, ever give up.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: "The trouble with magic was that it was messy and dangerous and filled with longing.  There were too many moments that made your heart stop and ache and start again."

If you read it, let me know what you think!  Tomorrow we look at some of the earliest written versions of the tale.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


An Overview of the Tale and its Many Versions

Gustave Dore's illustration
for Perrault's "The Fairy"
There are many different titles for the versions of this tale, but the title “The Tale of the Kind and the Unkind Girls” best describes the tale as a whole.  In the tale, specific character traits of the heroine are tested including kindness, generosity, obedience and politeness.  The tale follows a characteristic plot line.  A mother (or stepmother) mistreats her kind, often beautiful, daughter and dotes upon her selfish, impolite, and usually ugly daughter.  The kind daughter is forced to perform a task and, in the process, encounters 
some sort of adversity, usually at the hands of a supernatural being. The kind daughter responds with kindness and obedience.  Rewarded with a gift for her good character, she returns home and sparks her mother’s jealousy.  In order to acquire the same riches for her own daughter, the mother sends her to meet the being.  The girl is selfish and uncooperative and instead of being rewarded, she is punished.  

The bestower of the gifts hands out rewards and punishments fairly, based on the the heroine’s inner qualities.  For the kind girl, the gift might be some type of physical transformation such as jewels and flowers falling from her mouth when speaking or a gold star planted on her forehead. The unkind girl is punished with a curse that also represents her inner nature. She might  receive a box full of bees or snakes. Or she may also undergo a physical transformation such as toads and snakes falling from her mouth when she speaks, a donkey tail planted firmly in the middle of her forehead, or being dipped in pitch.  The rewards and punishments are always in clear opposition and mirror the opposing character traits of the two girls. The tale ends with the kind girl enjoying her rewards and the unkind girl being banished or dying.  There are over one thousand variations based upon this simple theme and the fairy tale is found in all parts of the world. Individual storytellers alter the story to fit their audience. Thus the story changes as it moves from culture to culture in order to fit each new environment it encounters. For example, in one version recorded by the Grimms, when the kind girl shakes Mother Hulde's feather bed, it snows on earth.  This version includes  fanciful answer to the question "Why does it snow?" so this version would most likely not be told in an arid or subtropical climate that does not see snow.  In the tropics, the girl might encounter a beneficent crocodile instead of Mother Hulde.  

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The audience for fairy tales

 Fairy tales are not just for children.  In fact, the first fairy tales were told to adults - not to children. But they are magical.  They have the ability to unite societies across many different kinds of barriers. They can, in effect, be a social binding agent.  Adults enjoy being children again; different generations and classes lose themselves in the make-believe in different ways and, in the process, are united by the pleasures of enchantment.  Hope is conjured; the lost cause is championed; the underdog comes out on top. During the nineteenth-century fairy tales began their migration from the communal hearth into the nursery.  Urbanization and industrialization began to have an impact on the tradition of oral storytelling and fairy tales began to appear more frequently as stories for children.

Gustave Dore's illustration for Tales of Perrault, 1862
This was not in my paper - but I also think that the advent of the printing press played a role in the spread of fairy tales also.   With easier printing, the cost of printing - and thus of books - went down.  More people learned to read. And they wanted to read things that were in their own language and spoke to their own interests.  What better than tales that reminded them of stories they had heard told to them when they were children?  No sources to back that up - just my own personal beliefs.  

Speaking of sources - time to cite a few more!
Opie, Iona and Peter.  The Classic Fairy Tales. New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1992 revised

And pretty much anything by Zipes.  The one I used was Zipes, J. (1988) The Brothers Grimm: from enchanted forests to the modern world. New York, NY:   Routledge.
Jack Zipes has written and lectured extensively on the subject of fairy tales.  At last count, he had written fifteen books and edited at least a dozen.  He has his own particular viewpoint on fairy tales but his contribution cannot be discounted.  

Friday, May 9, 2014

A brief history of the fairy tale

Emphasis on the word brief -- Fairy tales are serious business.  And folks devote their entire lives and careers researching and classifying them.  So - here we go!

Many theories exist concerning the origin of the fairy tale, but none have provided conclusive proof about the original development of the literary fairy tale.  It is known, however, that the literary fairy tale found its origins in the oral telling and retelling of stories.  While one cannot say with historical precision exactly when the literary fairy tale arose, certain motifs and elements of the fairy tale can be traced to numerous types of storytelling and stories of antiquity that contributed to its formation. During the time period between 1550 and 1815, writers began transcribing fairy tales borrowed from other literary and oral tales. These narratives can be regarded as retellings that adapted the motifs, themes, and characters to fit their own taste and the expectations of the audiences for which they were writing. 

In an attempt to classify folktales, Antti Aarne produced “Types of the Folktale” in 1910. It was designed to assist in identifying recurring plot patterns in the narrative structures of traditional folktales so they could be organized, classified, and analyzed. Stith Thompson translated and expanded Aarne’s work in 1928 and again in 1961. In 2004, Hans-Jörg Uther further expanded the classification system with the publication of “The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography.” The Aarne–Thompson-Uther (ATU) system classifies folktales into broad categories like Animal Tales, Fairy Tales, Religious Tales, etc. Within each category, folktale types are further subdivided by motif patterns until individual types are listed. Each tale is assigned a number which designates its “type” of tale.  “The Tale of the Kind and Unkind Girls” is designated ATU - 480.

Note that much of this information leans toward the West.  There is a huge treasure trove of fairy tales to be found in the East also which is reflected in the retelling of our tale.  

So do any of you have a favorite fairy tale?  

Also - a brief nod to one of my main sources -- 

If you enjoy fairy tales, be sure to check out this website -

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Defining the term “fairy tale”

What springs to mind when you hear the words “fairy tale”?  A phrase like “Once upon a time…”?  A bevy of Walt Disney princesses?  Or possibly a beloved book or story remembered from childhood?   Defining the term “fairy tale” is certainly no easy task. 

The name "fairy tales" originated with writers in the French Salons who dubbed their tales "contes de fees." The term was translated into English as "fairy tales." The one essential element that allows us to set the fairy tale apart from other tales is the depiction of magical events as a valid part of human experience. 

Most fairy tale studies deal with literary fairy tales which are tales that have been written down by one or more authors. Once the story is transcribed, it becomes static in that version. It no longer exists only as folklore, but has become a part of the world's body of literature - thus the use of the term “literary fairy tales”.

Image from Disney Princess Wallpaper retrieved from
Happy almost Mother's Day!  The semester is almost over and I may have time for something other than studying.  Huzzah!  One of my classes was a Lit Survey class.  We were allowed to choose a topic and pursue it for the entire semester.  It was a sometimes frustrating but ultimately rewarding experience.  My topic was a fairy tale - "The Tale of the Kind and the Unkind Girl".  I'm guessing most folks have not heard of it - though you may have read it without realizing that is what you were reading.  I am going to publish my cumulative project here on my blog - a bit at a time so it doesn't overwhelm folks.  
And so here we go!

Once Upon a Time, There Was a Widow
Who Had Two Daughters….

The journey begins with one story - “The Talking Eggs” as retold by Robert D. San Souci.  It is a tale with a hopeful message - be kind and you are rewarded; be mean and you are punished. It has familiar themes - a wicked stepmother, a cruel stepsister, and a kind younger sister who is made to do all the work.  But it is not a Cinderella tale; it’s something different.  It is a version of a moderately obscure tale known as “The Kind and The Unkind Girls.”  As it turns out, this tale is one of the most widespread folktales, told and retold all over the world, with over one thousand different versions.  Eventually it ended up as a fairy tale when it was written down by Giambattista Basile in the early 1600’s in his Pentamerone.  But what exactly makes it a fairy tale? Are all the versions the same or do they have differences?  Is there some reason for its longevity?  These - and other questions - will be addressed in this paper.  

More tomorrow!