Fairy Tales 2010

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Aarne & Propp

To see fairytale broken down into something so concrete as a bibliography of their forms seems unnatural and pointless in my eyes. I have always considered fairytales to have some sort of formula as far as structure is concerned, but to have Aarne and Thompson designate these tales and its variant forms draws my attention to the continuity in folklore in a systematic, and literary manner.

What worries me about learning “structures” of classification for folk tales is that, as Propp puts it, the beauty of folklore is conveyed through its continuity; these tales are living organisms: they circulate, they change, they are relevant and they remain current. Through this description Popp implies that Aarne’s numerical definition of fairytales is “superficial”.

This raises a debate between preserving the fluid nature of the changing folk tale and preserving the folk tale in a literary sense. (the latter essentially freezes the tale in time thus preventing it from encountering the influences that encourage its reshaping through time.)

To make the debate between Aarne and Propp’s discourse worse it Propp’s belief that “identical acts in folk lore can have different meaning, and vice versa.” His view serves to undermine Aarne and Thompson’s classification system for relying motifs for classification because it neglects to completely account regard to the modes of these functions.

Propp inquires how many functions are known to the tale and toils with the possibility that the number of functions is extremely small because the number of personages is very large. His classification of tale by the actions in the stories is more logical than Aarnes motif-based classification.

Perhaps it is because Propp uses discourse to convey his opinions that he was able to provide a perspective that I find to be more convincing. Nevertheless, with Aarne we only see the fruits of his work without very much information regarding what his primary justifications for classification were based on. Having a better understanding of Propp’s justification for classification, having a greater familiarity with his work predisposes me to support his simpler approach to classifying folk lore.

Aarne’s system seems to contradict the organic characteristics of the living folk tale. The living, changing, relevant aspects of folk lore are aspects that I believe to be essential components to its phenomenon.

Princess and the Frog

First, regarding the criticisms from Tatar, I found the detail and specificity of Aarne and Thompson's system of classification to be extremely fascinating. Every possible plot (of about 2500 basic plots) seemed to branch out into identified subplots, settings, and motifs. Their entire catalogue must have taken decades to sort through every detail of folk tales. I thought it was interesting how, though there are thousands of mixed and matched plots and motifs to create infinitely many combinations and different stories, the same re-occuring 5-step plot is generally followed.

One thing that stuck out to me from Propp's first essay, Folklore & Literature, is this: "A literary work is immutable, but the reader always changes." A perfect example of such cultural analysis is Disney's latest animated feature, Princess and the Frog. As a culture, we are somehow accustomed to the idea of a prince trapped in a slimy frog's body and having to be slammed against a wall or kissed or some other drastic action to change him back. Whoever first came up with this strange idea probably didn't imagine the story taking place in the French Quarter or the Louisiana Bayou, with a jazz-playing alligator, Cajun firefly, or master of voodoo. The "reader" or perhaps listener of the tale centuries ago would certainly have expected a different story than what Disney gives us. Regardless, the basic 5 plot structure is still ever present and followed to a T, right up to the marriage. Motifs such as magic helpers, evil spirits and, of course, transformed humans seeking a solution, make Princess and the Frog a recognizable fairy tale. We are used to how a folk tale should begin and end, certain aspects that should be in them, and our attention is still captured by the old folk tale of the frog prince.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adaptations, hindsight

Watching Henson’s version of Hans my Hedgehog sparked some questions in me about the nature of a storytelling medium and adaptations in general. I do think that something (magic, perhaps?) is lost retelling these tales in a medium that did not exist when they were forged. My personal experience with watching fairy tales is that once the story is over, I feel conflicted and almost in debt to the main text—like I was unfaithful to the values of the original story. Even as a child, I remember watching The Wizard of Oz and then immediately begging my parents to buy me the book so I could compare the stories. Reading the Zipes article about Disney did shed some light on my conflicted feelings, but putting a personal spin on the tales is a necessity. Actually, I would argue that it is inherent in the form of a fairy tale. Even as I try to remember the exact way Cinderella got the prince in the Grimm’s version, I’m sure I’ll mix some stuff up (perhaps unconsciously to suit my individual taste…like Disney).

On the other hand, as I watched Hans my Hedgehog after having read the story, I was enthralled by the new literary and technical details added or subtracted to the narrative. Assuming most of us are watching these fairy tale films/episodes during the impressionistic years of childhood most likely not having read the story, I think that this type of informed viewing is the more rare of the two. I prefer watching these films as sort of a reconstruction exercise instead of focusing on the narrative.

The Princess and the frog

The only thing I knew about the Disney version of “The princess and the Frog” before watching it was that this would the first time that the princess in a Disney Movie would be black. An idea I really liked as minorities are often misrepresented (as being different and therefore often in whatever way bad) or not represented at all in most Disney movies. The more I was surprised that multiple articles described it as a work of discrimination. Not wanting not to go anymore in detail about that (even though I really understood most of the points some critics made), I also noticed that this is not the only difference between the other classic Walt Disney fairy tales movies like Cinderella or Snow White. Another really great shift is the introduction of a setting that really exists: New Orleans. Most other Disney classics take place in undetermined settings, or most usually also at undetermined points of time in history. But most usually one could still argue that it is somewhere in Europe a long time ago - certainly also a time when almost no blacks existed in Europe or at least racial issues were not really existent. Thus, Walt Disney did not only change the color of the princess but also one of the most distinctive features of fairy tales - a change that was somehow also necessary to give blacks the chance to play a role in a fairy tale.

Indeed, She died a Horrible Death.

I found Vladimir Propp's, "From Morphology of the Folktale" to be a very interesting article yet simultaneously contradictory. He argues that in fairy tales, "The names of the dramatis personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change." He then goes on to say how the functions are limited, sequence of function is ALWAYS identical and etc., and to explain how uniform fairy tales are, he creates a 31 step equation for all fairy tales...
I believe that in all genres, one could summarize every piece of narrative artwork ever in 31 steps. That's like playing 20 questions but with 11 extra...I mean how often would you lose? What I'm getting at is that in an attempt to characterize the uniformity of the fairy tale structure, he in turn set about in illustrating their versatility and uniqueness. Yes some fairy tales are very similar, like "The Twelve Brothers" and "The Seven Ravens" which are basically the same story with different elements or motifs, but others are much different like Hans My Hedgehog and The Singing Bone. Genres exist in movies and literature: The Western, thriller, Drama, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Spy Novels... I believe that Fairy Tales too should have more than one genre. On a side note, best ending to any story/movie ever--The Twelve Brothers: "The Evil Mother was brought before the court and put into a barrel that was filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes. Indeed, she died a horrible death.

The Zoology of Fairy Tales

When I read both the Arne/Thompson and Propp pieces, I found it slightly humorous because all I could think of was the Linnaean Taxonomy system, where things are carefully classified by their component characteristics almost ad nauseam. While I can genuinely understand how classification systems are helpful, and it makes a lot of sense to take large diverse groups (like living organisms or fairy tales) and separate them using a set of common characteristics, but I have always struggled to understand how such classifications are helpful beyond simply allowing humans to place things into boxes. I do understand that once you have things in smaller groupings you can compare and contrast them, but while I feel like that may tell us about how the things relate, it does not actually tell us about the things themselves. Now, I realize, yet again, that this may be the history major in me, but I personally am much more interested as to why the Norwegian story of Katie Woodencloak had an ox and so many Cinderella-esque elements than the fact it is a Donkeyskin story containing three dresses, and evil stepmother and church attendance...or whatever plots or motifs Arne/Thompson would use to classify it. This is the problem I have with Propp, too, is the fact that I cannot stand his attempt to analyze literature as some sort of independent entity from the society that created it. It is interesting that Propp studied hundreds of stories and managed to distill them down to a series of thirty one events that always occurred in a single order. However, I feel like the system is too vague to actually tell us anything meaningful, especially since there is no way to know at what point he reached his 31 steps and just figured out a way to apply that to the rest of the fairy tales he came across (I'm cynical, sorry). In the end, my problem with these classification systems is the fact that they attempt to analyze the fairy tale as some sort of self-contained entity, self-sustained, rather than a more integrated, almost more organic, form of expression. The classifications are a fascinating intellectual exercise, but I do not believe it helps us understand fairy tales any better, it only allows us to organize them.

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Until recently, I had never read the Grimm's version of "The Frog King," nor had I read any other versions of the story. I did see Disney's Princess and the Frog over the holidays, and growing up I certainly heard stories with vague bits about a frog, a girl, a kiss, a prince, and someone's Happily Ever After. But still treating this as little prior knowledge of the story, I have to ask:

In what language does "she became bitterly angry and threw him against the wall with all her might" translate to "

the princess kissed the frog gently on the tip of his nose"?

To be fair, the latter is crafted as the princess's remorseful apology to the frog for throwing him against the wall, but it is a profound disappointment to find that the kiss was probably pulled out of someone's arse at story time one day.

I can just see it now – a young, thirty-something woman, the mother of a little boy and a little girl, tucks her children into bed one night with the frog story. She tells the story as she remembers it from her own childhood, but as soon as she relates that the nice princess threw the frog harshly against a wall, the woman's tenderhearted young son interrupts with a gasp, saying, "Mommy! No! How could she?" Of course, the mother doesn't have the heart to tell her wide-eyed little tykes that the story's princess was just a selfish brat with no sense of gratitude about her. No, no, no. Instead the young mother improvises. She says to her children, "Yes, that wasn't very nice was it? Which is why the princess felt so bad that she rushed over to gently pick up the frog from where she threw him, lifted him to her lips, and........" The little boy grows up to be a fairy tale anthologizer, so the "Princess + Frog + Kiss = Prince" tale lives happily ever after.

If you're thinking that's probably not the way it happened, then you're probably right. But doesn't it make you wonder? We have read the opinions of Bettleheim, Darnton, Tatar, and now Zipes on the changing of fairy tales, and we blame poor dead guys like Walt Disney for changing them (check out this one of the week's blogs). But Walt certainly wasn't around for the production of his studio's latest creation, so we know it was not he who made the alterations this time.

So who did? Who can claim responsibility for changing the Frog Becomes Prince When Princess Throws Him Into A Wall motif to the Frog Become Prince When Princess Kisses Him motif? Whose line is it, and why was it changed?

My last blog, "So It Is Written," would have looked toward the shift from oral to literary traditions as the beginnings of an answer to this Wall-to-Kiss question. However, the Wall version made it into the literary tradition, so that hypothesis is null. Any ideas?
In reading all of the various tales over the past few weeks, I've been extremely surprised at the number of fairy tales that I've either never heard of or have been changed so much in modern versions that reading the originals makes them almost unrecognizable. I think it's amazing that there are so many fairy tales and yet we tend to read or focus on just a handful. Yes, everyone knows the story of Cinderella and now, the Frog Prince (more or less...Disney's version is way different than the classic) but who has ever heard of "The Devil with Three Little Golden Hairs" or "The Six Swans?" Why do we tend to repeat the same stories to children over and over again?

I understand that some of those stories can seem a bit risque but I know that personally, when I was younger, I would have loved to have had more stories than your typical Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty. One of my favorite quotes actually comes from Mr. Disney. He said, "Disneyland will continue to grow as long as there is imagination in the world." This is completely true, yet ironically Disney has contributed to the destruction of imagination in the world. As much as I love Disney, I think they are partially to blame for the lack of inclusion of many fairy tales in the lives of children. They have saturated the children's market with their movies and stories so really, you don't need to look elsewhere for entertainment. When I was little, the only fairy tales that existed were the ones Disney put in theatres and for the longest, I believed that they actually came up with those stories.

I think we should start exposing children to fairy tales other than the popular ones everyone knows. There are a lot of great stories out there and I think kids could really benefit from entertainment that stretches the imagination rather than that which requires little to no thought. Imagination did after all, give us these great fairy tales.

Appeal of Disney's Cinderella

So far, we have talked in class a lot about Cinderella stories. While reading the assigned Fairy Tales and watching the Disney version of Cinderella, I noticed similarities and differences. But I never really put much thought into the appeal behind the elements that are presented in the movie. The class discussion and analyzation of parts and elements of the film versus what was going on in the time period that it was made really made me think about the film.

Walt used the good versus evil formula to allow the good to win the delight of the audience. There was not much sophistication behind this film except the meaning behind little scenes that you would not think twice about. Cinderella, who is supposed to be covered in cinders, is clean and put together the entire movie. She is the visualization of what women should be in the 50s, clean housewives. There are also very evident gender differences and gender roles that are presented. Even the mice have to differentiate appropriately according to their genders.

I think it is very interesting to examine this film along side other versions of Cinderella. But perhaps the most interesting thing to examine, is the elements that relate to the time period. This is important because Fairy Tales changed with cultures and time, and that is exactly what this film did. Walt Disney used elements of American 50s culture to portray his own version of the classic Cinderella.