Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

Book Review – The Annotated Brothers Grimm

The Annotated Brothers GrimmThe Annotated Brothers Grimm by Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, I read selections of The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar for a folklore course. Back then, I was impressed by her scholarship, weaving a close reading of the stories with a sociologist’s approach to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the environment in which they collected, edited, and published the famous fairy tales.

The same scholarship backs up The Annotated Brothers Grimm, but Tatar’s text here — limited as it must be to margin notes, introduction, and afterword — can necessarily only give a summary and much-simplified analysis of the stories. As such, many of the notes are limited to comments on the structure of a story or a brief summary of another scholar’s take, such as Ruth Bottigheimer or Bruno Bettelheim. Frankly, I had hoped for a bit more. Descriptions of alternate variants of the stories, and cross-culture comparisons, were more interesting.

Tatar does a good job of introducing the reader to the academic controversies and issues that surround the Brothers Grimm. Can we see prototypical Nazism in the stories, or in the intent of the brothers themselves, attempting to preserve what they could of “authentic” German character? Should the sex (edited out of the second edition) and violence (left in, or even escalated) disqualify the stories from children’s literature? What about the overlay of Christianity and moralizing? Are the stories anti-Semitic? Materialistic? Sexist?

For the most part, Tatar doesn’t weigh in strongly on any one side of a question, but it’s all interesting stuff, and that’s not even touching on the stories themselves. I’ve tried to get through the complete collection of the Brothers Grimm a few times, but only made it partway. The sheer number of stories, many of which (as folk tales do) feature the same elements, makes it hard to keep track of the plot and eventually my mind grows fuzzy. One selection of any tale type is probably enough for a single reading session. But with this annotated volume, Tatar has pared the collection down significantly. The most famous are here: “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Frog Prince,” “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” etc. If you know them primarily from Disney films or other sources, reading the Grimms’ version is a fascinating study in the ways time, space, and cultural mores can shape a story. And the ways they can’t.

This book also contains many lesser known tales, like “Furrypelts,” “The Star Talers,” and my personal favorite, “The Bremen Town Musicians.” (Anyone who likes workers rebelling and/or animals outwitting humans should check that one out.) Curiously, folklorists’ favorite “The Maiden With No Hands” is nowhere to be found, although “The Juniper Tree” is, in all its cannibalistic glory. There’s nothing quite like a good fairy tale: the simplicity of the story, and the natural way unnatural and extraordinary events take place. I always find a new hero, someone to emulate and someone to identify with, whether I’m feeling like Dumling or the Brave Little Tailor.

Most of the tales appear here as they did in the Grimms’ second edition of their collection, after the brothers realized that parents were in fact reading the stories to their children. The aim in the second edition became not preserving folk tales and styles of speaking for scholars to come, but providing stories that were entertaining as well as morally educational for children. This meant editing the text of many stories (suppressing hints of sex, and adding a gloss of Christian piety and morals to the tales) as well as simply excising others. So in a special section, “Tales for Adults,” Tatar includes some of the tales that did not make the cut. Also included in the book are historical illustrations, from luminaries like Arthur Rackham; a biographical sketch of the brothers; preface to the first and second editions of the Grimms’ collection; and a curious closing section of quotes from various famous folks weighing in on why they like (or don’t like) fairy tales. Find the Terry Pratchett quote for bonus points.

I plan to follow up with Tatar’s Annotated Hans Christian Anderson.

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Book Review – Skin Folk

Skin FolkSkin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part of fantasy’s appeal is that it takes you some place unfamiliar. Yet, as Ursula Le Guin has rightly criticized, the bias of fantasy literature is to assume that characters are white and the world looks like medieval Europe. Even contemporary fantasy reverts to the European fairy tale model so often that, while Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimms are all fine and dandy, I find myself craving something different—something actually, well, unfamiliar. So browsing through my library’s eBook collection, when the words “Caribbean folklore” caught my eye, I checked out Skin Folk and discovered a skilled & intelligent writer in Nalo Hopkinson.

Like most collections, there are high points and low points, but Hopkinson’s writing and imagination are unique and do something I didn’t expect from folk tales with their tried-and-true tropes and near-universal patterns: these stories surprised me. Like, if the Snow Queen took place inside an Etch-a-Sketch. Or orgasm-heightening sex suits became sentient. Or a cockatrice grew out of a fertilized chicken egg and ate the sleazy guy next door. That’s the kind of story Hopkinson thinks of and works out.

In some cases, yes, the stories are reworkings of European stories or concepts: Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, the aforementioned Snow Queen and cockatrice. Awesome reworkings and thoroughly unique, though. I’d never, for one, thought about what Red Riding Hood was like for Grandma. In other stories, Caribbean and African figures dominate (fan favorite Anansi makes two appearances), and there are still other stories that are straight-up, near-future sci-fi, like those sentient sex suits.

Themes of gender, race, and colonialism loom large. Female characters are struggling to get along and assert themselves in a patriarchal world; dark-skinned characters deal both with the stereotypes others put on them and with internalized racism—not always successfully. A few of the tales are told in Caribbean dialect, which I know will annoy certain readers, but they can get over themselves and deal.

The author has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Canada (and a slew of other places I can’t recall), which may account for her ability to evoke very different settings and characters who more or less fit into them. Most of the protagonists are misfits and outsiders in some way. There is a lot of the bizarre, the violent, and some explicit sex. Hopkinson also plays with story structure, switching POV, jumping forward and backward in time, and never quite ending the story where I’d anticipate resolution.

I’m sure I’ll be picking up one of her novels in the future, to see how she handles a sustained narrative. I’ll also check out the sci-fi anthology, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of the Future, which she co-edited.

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