Tag Archives: fairy tales

The Issue With Rumpelstiltskin

quill and qwerty

Rumpelstiltskin-Crane1886

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…

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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 pale 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…

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Hauff’s Grave, a Pilgrimage

I was sitting on the Lufthansa plane, tapping through the movie offerings on the little screen in the seat back in front of me, choosing the films to while away the nine hours to Frankfurt. Among the German movies, a title caught my attention: Das kalte Herz, “The Cold Heart”.

Wait a minute, I said to myself, is that the “Cold Heart”? The fairy tale? I started watching the movie. Sure enough, it was the story from Wilhelm Hauff‘s collection. But it had been years – actually, more like decades – since I read it; I only had a vague memory of it. What was the real story like? Wait another minute, I said, don’t I have Hauff’s Fairy Tales downloaded on my Kobo? I did indeed. So I paused the movie, pulled out “Das kalte Herz“, and let Hauff’s words take me away to a little charcoal burner’s hut in the Black Forest, two hundred years ago or, rather, Once Upon a Time… IMG_20170313_131721979

And so I was brought back home to the fold of my favourite fairy tale book, Hauffs Märchen. Hauff was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm, but unlike them, he is not so much a fairy tale collector as an author; most of the tales in his book (all of them, in the edition I had as a kid) are his original composition. A few of them are traditional fairy tales; many others have the character of legends or adventure stories. Each of the three parts of the book is comprised of a framework story, much like The Canterbury Tales, in which a group of chance companions tell each other stories to pass the time; the frame stories are as interesting as the individual tales themselves. “The Cold Heart”, or as it is sometimes titled in English, “The Heart of Stone” or “The Little Glass Man“, belongs in the collection “The Inn in the Spessart”, in which a small group of travellers find themselves caught at night in an inn in the Spessart Mountains, threatened by a gang of robbers. They tell stories in order to be able to keep awake and vigilant in the face of danger. Felix, a young goldsmith, agrees to switch places with the noble lady the villains want to kidnap, and when the robbers burst into the inn…IMG_20170313_131706737

But I wasn’t going to tell you about Hauff’s tales. I might do that some other time; or better yet, you go read them for yourself. I was going to tell you how I went to visit Wilhelm Hauff himself.

Behringer_-_Wilhelm_Hauff_1826You see, Hauff is not only my favourite fairy tale author, he is a Swabian, born and buried in the very city I was travelling to, Stuttgart. And when I looked him up on Google,  it turned out that the cemetery where he lies is just around the corner from a place I was going to anyway, just one stop further on the bus line.IMG_20170227_120110611

And so I went on a pilgrimage to the Hoppenlau Cemetery. It’s the oldest still existing cemetery in Stuttgart, first established in 1626, the last burial having taken place in 1882. It’s a curious place, this old cemetery. Because it has been so long since the last person was buried there, all that is left of the graves, for the most part, are the ancient tombstones, their sandstone crumbling, overrun with moss and lichen. The fallen leaves from last autumn surround them in a deep, rustling brown carpet; clumps of snowdrops, crocuses and buttercups push their way through, turning their cheery little faces to the sun, which shone brightly on this late February day.

IMG_20170227_150424The cemetery isn’t being left to just crumble into oblivion. The city of Stuttgart is in the middle of a costly restoration project – whole sections of the cemetery are fenced off while the tombstones are being cleaned and repaired and the worst of the leafy and mossy intruders removed. Oh dear, I thought as I walked along the solid white fence, heading for the back left corner of the cemetery, they didn’t lock me away from Hauff’s grave, did they? I steeled myself for disappointment – but no, the fence ended, and there was a stone plaque in the ground with an arrow: “This way to the grave of the poet Wilhelm Hauff”.

IMG_20170227_114337542And there it was: Hauff’s last resting place. A large, jagged boulder set into an ivy-covered bed, an iron plaque mounted on its front: “Wilhelm Hauff, born 29 Nov. 1802, died 18 Nov. 1827”. And below, the names of his daughter Wilhelmine and his wife (and cousin) Luise. “They only rest for a while,” it says at the bottom.IMG_20170227_114128318

I sat down on the bench that faces the stone, next to a tall lime tree that was planted in his honour on the 150th anniversary of his death, and let the early spring sun shine on my face. I closed my eyes, and slowly the 21st century disappeared. The modern city sounds of cars and buses faded away, to be replaced by the clip-clop of hooves and the rattling of carts over cobblestones; the square-towering highrises surrounding the cemetery shrank down to just a few stories high, their parapets taking on the graceful curves of 18th-century architecture. A young woman in deepest black, her bonnet veiled, her wide skirts brushing the ground, came down the path between the tombstones, a small girl by the hand. “Don’t forget your Papa, Minle,” she said softly, as the little girl laid a bouquet of violets on the grave…IMG_20170223_135713524

He won’t ever be forgotten, this man who died so very young. He left behind a beautiful legacy of tales that even after 200 years have as much power as they did when they were first written.

I finished reading “The Cold Heart” on the rest of the flight to Germany; then I went right back and started reading the tales of “The Inn in the Spessart” from the beginning. Then those of “The Caravan”. And then “The Sheik of Alessandria and His Slaves”, and now that I’m back in Canada I’m still finding treasures in it that I had long forgotten, if I had ever understood them.

IMG_20170227_114409596Stuttgart people walk through the Hoppenlau Cemetery on their way to work, or sit on its benches in their lunch hour, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Perhaps Hauff did, too, when he lived in Stuttgart, nearly 200 years ago. And maybe he even thought up some of his stories there. “Dwarf Nose”, perhaps, or even “The Cold Heart”?

I’m glad I rediscovered Hauff. He rests in the Hoppenlau Cemetery – but as long as we have his tales, he is not gone.

 

 

 

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A Reboot

I’m rebooting my research blog, quillandqwerty.wordpress.com. Some of it (quite a bit of it, I think) will be reblogs from over here – no point in writing two posts on two sites, right? Anyway, quillandqwerty ho!

quill and qwerty

Has it really been two-and-a-half years since I finished my degree? Looks like it has. If you want to see what I’ve been up to in that time, you can check it out over at www.amovitam.ca.

However, in honour of the new “Beauty and the Beast” movie that’s about to hit the theatres, I think it’s time to start up again here at quill and qwerty. So, with an updated tagline and renewed vigour, we once again burst onto the stage of the blogosphere… Or rather, we quietly putter onto it, mumbling to ourselves as we turn the pages of an old volume of fairy tales.

Huh, what? Yes, quite. Just put the tea over there, will you? Thanks.

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On Princes and Princesses

mme-pompadour

I’m still knee-deep in researching 19th-century Bavaria. It’s a little disconcerting when inside your head, you’re surrounded by ladies in towering hairdos or spaniel curls, wearing great big swoopy gowns; gentlemen in top hats and tail coats; steam trains and horse carriages – and then you look up, and the realities of 21st-century life are staring you in the face. The writer’s dichotomy…

But anyway, there was something I ran across in the course of my research rabbit-trailings. Have you ever wondered why there is such a proliferation of princes and princesses in fairy tales? I have. But I think I may have found the answer.

One of the things that I was looking up was the German titles of nobility, and to my surprise I found that “prince” is ranked below “duke”. In the English system, “prince” is the highest title you can possibly hold, short of “king” or “queen”, and princes and princesses are in quite short supply. As far as I can see, only the immediate offspring of the monarch get that title, and even then it seems to be restricted to the male line. According to Wikipedia, there’s all of seventeen British princes and princesses living today; and the list of all princes and princesses since 1714 is short enough to fit inside two Wikipedia articles (here and here).

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A real-life prince: Ludwig I, Crown Prince of Bavaria. Painted by Angelica Kauffmann, 1807.

In the German system, on the other hand, “prince” or “princess” doesn’t necessarily denote “child of king”. Yes, it does mean that, too, but it can also be a translation of “Fürst”, which is a lower-ranking title of ruling nobility than “Herzog”, i.e. “duke”. So a “prince” can be a ruler of a – wait for it – principality, a small realm that doesn’t qualify as a kingdom, so its ruler isn’t a “king”. Germany, up until 1871, was a patchwork of those small principalities and duchies (unlike England, which has been one large kingdom for more than a thousand years). Add to that the fact that among the German nobility, all children get the title – not just the eldest son – and you have more counts, baronesses, marchionesses, grand dukes and what-have-you than you can shake a stick at. And yes, princes and princesses too.

So, seeing that most of the well-known fairy tales of the Western tradition originate in mainland Europe, that would explain why we can have so many princes and princesses wandering in and out of fairy land. They were pretty normal, as far as blue-bloods go. And even when they were rulers, they didn’t necessarily reign over vast island nations like Our Gracious and Noble Queen, but maybe just a little postage-stamp realm, next door to another equally minute patch of principality.

That’s how you can get princes like the one from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swine Herd”: “Once there was a poor Prince. He had a kingdom; it was very tiny. Still it was large enough to marry upon…” In fact, his kingdom is so tiny, at the end of the story “the Prince went home to his kingdom, and shut and barred the door.” That ending always tickled my fancy as a child – a kingdom so small, you can shut the door on it (and leave the bratty, stuck-up princess outside, as she deserves).

So there’s one mystery solved. You might get a prince – there’s enough of them around – but his kingdom could be kind of tiny. However, if you’re proper princess material, you won’t mind that. At least so long as there’s no peas under the mattress.

Life, the Universe, Princes and Princesses. Mine’s the one in the blue tunic, thank you.

 

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What I Did On My Holidays, or: A Visit to Storybrooke

On my holidays, I went to Storybrooke. Yes, the Once Upon a Time town. No, really!
As I mentioned before, I just spent a couple of weeks with family, and we went to the big city (aka Vancouver). And while we were there, I got a chance to go to Storybrooke. Yes, I know they tell you it’s in Maine, but actually, it’s in BC (the geographic location, British Columbia, not the time period, Before Christ). See?

Storybrooke (1)On the map, it’s actually called Steveston (which, contrary to the opinion of a certain family member, is not named after a small stuffed bear). Steveston is a really cute fishing village on the outskirts of Greater Vancouver, with a nifty harbour and an old cannery just down the street from the relevant places.

So, here I am in front of Mr. Gold’s pawn shop:
Storybrooke (2)And it really is proof that I was there myself – if I had photoshopped myself into the picture, I wouldn’t have chosen such a hideously unflattering shot of me. But because I like you, and need to show you that I was, indeed, there in the flesh, I’m letting you see this photo of me (take note of the Cinderella’s Coach pin on my shirt – I was even dressed appropriately).

This, I think, is Granny’s Diner.
Storybrooke (4)There wasn’t a single werewolf in sight, though, nor indeed any Evil Queens, Princes (Charming or otherwise), Princesses, Pirates, Dwarfs, Fairies, or Bondsbailpersons in yellow VW beetles. And the only teenagers around were, alas, Not Henry. If I’d stuck around a few weeks or months, though, I might have been able to get a glimpse of one or two of them; apparently Season 5 is slated to start filming soon.

And here is me going into the Storybrooke Library.
Storybrooke (3)Well, actually, it’s me pulling on the handle of the locked-up building which is falling apart and for sale. Anybody want to chip in to buy it?

Life, the Universe, and a Visit to Storybrooke. That’s what I did on my holidays.

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Cinderella, the Movie

If anyone doubts that the “Cinderella” story is a perennial favourite, they have obviously not been attending a movie theatre in the last week since the release of the live-action film. We went on Tuesday evening, the first cheap Tuesday after the movie came out, and the theatre was packed – the show must have been nearly sold out.

One of the things I loved about it was the demographic of the audience. Sure, there were lots of families with young children. But the middle of the front row was occupied by a group of half a dozen seniors, and they were by no means the only grey heads unaccompanied by grandchildren there. We originally sat at the end of a row beside two more empty seats; we gave up our spots and moved to a different row so a foursome of young adults – again, no children in sight – could sit together. The full age range of viewers was represented in that theatre. There was noise, bustling, rustling, chattering – and then the film started to roll, and it got quiet. A little voice somewhere in the front of the theatre piped up “It’s Cinderella!”

And so it was. This movie is a beautifully quintessential rendition of the Cinderella story, a straight-up, classic fairy tale version. No attempts here to modernise, to give tragic backstories to the villains to make them into non-villains, to make Cinderella into a 21st-century feminist icon, to subvert the base story into a lesson in, umm, the moral-du-jour. I found that aspect of the film quite refreshing – it’s a fairy tale. The characters are as flat as they are in the printed versions. Cinderella is sweet, beautiful and picked-on; the stepmother and -sisters are mean bullies; the prince is charming; the fairy godmother is magical. That flatness, what the folklorist Max Lüthi calls depthlessness, is one of the key characteristics of folktales, and Sir Kenneth Branagh did a fantastic job making a film that retains this one-dimensionality while harnessing the full empowering force of this tale.

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Yes. I wore this to the movie.

But you probably just want me to get down to it and tell you what I thought. Well, here it is: I loved it. This is hands-down my favourite “Cinderella” movie yet. The visuals and special effects are stunning. The way the film plays with colour is especially striking – in fact, I wonder if they cast Richard Madden as the Prince purely for the way his brilliantly blue eyes match Cinderella’s gown. Every pretty girl ought to have a prince with matching eyes to accessorize with. (To which my daughter commented: “Good thing Cinderella doesn’t have a penchant for wearing red.”) The visuals, the acting, the storytelling, the sheer fairy-tale-ism of it all – it’s a wonderful movie.

Speaking of acting, one pleasant surprise was Sir Derek Jacobi in the role of the Prince’s father (or, I should say, one of the pleasures of the movie; it wasn’t really a surprise, this being a Branagh film). Now, this is a Disney movie, and as such, gives more than a nod to the 1950 animated version (more on that in a minute). But the King, whom the older movie portrays as nothing more than an old-fashioned buffoon obsessed with getting grandchildren, is a changed character here. Oh, Derek Jacobi would be more than capable of bringing a comic role like that to the screen. But the King he plays in this film is a very different character, and in fact (SPOILER ALERT!), the scene of him lying in his great big bed dying, with his grown son curled up against his chest begging him not to go, is one of the most touching parts of the movie.

Dying parents do feature rather prominently in this version of the story. Having Cinderella’s mother die is, of course, a prerequisite to the whole plot. But like in almost all other film versions (and as opposed to the written tales), her father is killed off as well (today’s society can’t deal with the idea that he might still be around but perhaps doesn’t actually care that his second wife abuses his daughter); and then here we have the new twist of a deep, loving relationship between the Prince and the King, only to give the latter a death scene, too. All of those scenes are played very sensitively and deeply emotional, with beautiful acting on everyone’s part. However, because of this I’d be cautious about taking really sensitive young children to see the movie – I know I would have found those aspects of the story quite disturbing when I was little (yes, I hated Bambi, too). (Note: if your kid is okay with watching The Lion King, they can probably handle this. If not, I’d wait for it to come out on DVD so you can fast-forward.)

However, this is “Cinderella”, and we all know how this story goes. The Ball!! The Fairy Godmother!! The Gown!! The Prince!! The Slipper!! Oh, yes, this movie delivers on that – does it ever! It’s every fairy tale fantasy brought to life on the big screen in glorious oversized colour. The slipper alone is a dazzling piece of facetted crystal, and in spite of appearances, as the Fairy Godmother says, “You’ll find it’s really comfortable!”

Said Fairy Godmother is wonderful, as was fully to be expected – she is played by Helena Bonham Carter. The transformation scenes of pumpkin and mice and lizards to coach and horses and footmen are the most hilarious parts of the whole movie. Fairy Godmother isn’t the brightest – the pumpkin in question is inside a greenhouse, and she decides that that’s a perfectly adequate location for casting the spell to change it into a coach. Let’s just say that, contrary to expectations, getting the finished product out the door actually isn’t a problem.

I enjoyed this movie on so many levels, not the least of which is that it makes quite a few references to the various versions of the “Cinderella” story. The main source text, as I mentioned before, is (of course) the 1950 Disney cartoon, which in turn is based on the Perrault version of the written tale. However, there is also a reference to the Grimm’s tale (Cinderella asks her father to bring her back a branch from a tree), to the Czech/German cult classic film Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, to Gail Carson Levine’s book Ella Enchanted… Perhaps I’m reading those references into the film and they are actually unintentional, but as a bona fide fairy tale nerd who just wrote a Master’s Thesis on this very thing I enjoyed spotting them.

I could go on and on about this – I haven’t even mentioned some of the other fabulous characters, such as Cate Blanchett’s deliciously wicked stepmother, or the gorgeous score (it’s by Patrick Doyle. Patrick Doyle, people! Branagh’s Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing! The Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility!). But I think it’s time to stop gushing – I think you get the picture. The motion picture, no less. If you want to immerse yourself in one wonderful fairy tale experience, get thee to a cinema.

Life, the Universe, and Cinderella. Now I want to go watch it again.

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