One of the features of Enchanted Conversation Magazine is a monthly “Artist Spotlight”, an article that highlights the work of an artist who does work on the fairy tale/folklore/mythology theme.
For June’s Artist Spotlight, I got to interview my favourite artist: Eveline Wallace! That’s right, her of my “Peace Angel” painting. I went over to her house, interviewed her, and took pictures of her paintings; then she fed me lunch and we had a great visit. Win-win all around.
Hop on over to Enchanted Conversation and check out the interview and Eveline’s great paintings – she’s amazing:
The campfire light flickered over the floor as we sat around the circle, sipping hot chocolate, enthralled by the rise and fall of the storyteller’s voice.
“Coyote laughed at Crab. ‘Of course I will race you! How can you win, if you can only run backwards?'”
I had never heard these stories before, which is why I went to today’s Family Day event at the local art gallery – the promise of a First Nations storyteller giving Okanagan legends was too good to pass up. The “campfire” is an art installation comprised of rock, charcoal, and clear sheet plastic, with a projection of a digital fire on it. The effect is mesmerising, real and not-real at the same time, the reflections dancing over the walls and the floor of the room reminiscent of both an actual fire and the play of light at the bottom of the lake on a summer’s day.
There were stories of “How Coyote Got His Name”, of “Coyote’s Race”, of “The Boy Who Grew Up With Grizzly Bears”. The one that most tickled my fancy was “Coyote’s Race”. I can’t give it to you in the words of the original storyteller, the way First Nations stories are meant to be told. But when I asked today’s re-teller*, David Florence, if I might share a piece of it here, he thought it could be all right for me to tell bit of it in my own words. So here goes:
Coyote and the Race of Frog and the Turtles
Frog had won races against many animals, each time for his win taking away their tail. One day, Coyote said to his friends, the turtles, “I will get back your tails for you, don’t worry!” He went to Frog and said, “Will you have a race with me and my friends? The stake is all our tails, mine and the turtles.”
Frog agreed, hoping to add Coyote’s beautiful tail to his collection.
But Coyote said to the turtles, “Here is what you must do. Dig yourselves into the path along the race track, one of you every few hundred meters. The first one of you must jump into the air and come back down hard to raise a big dust cloud. Then the next one digs himself back out of the ground, and also jumps up and makes a dust cloud, and so on.”
And that is what they did. The race began, and the first turtle jumped up and came down and made a big dust cloud. When the dust settled, Frog saw far ahead of him a turtle running along the track. He ran as fast as he could to catch up with him, but the turtle jumped and made another big cloud of dust. When that was gone, there was a turtle again, far ahead of Frog. He ran as fast as he could, but try as he might, he could not catch up with the turtle. Finally he saw a turtle crossing the finish line far ahead of him, and he collapsed on the ground.
“Oh please,” he said to Coyote, “I’m so exhausted, let me rest for a while!”
“Did you let the other animals rest before you took away their tails?” said Coyote. “No, you shall not rest! Give me back the turtles’ tails, and your own too!”
And that is why Frog is such a small, weak creature, who jumps into the water to hide his ugly backside which has no tail on it at all.
What struck me about this tale is how very much it is like the Grimms’ “The Hare and the Hedgehog”, the tale of how the quick, proud hare is being tricked by the slow, humble hedgehog and his wife into exhausting himself running back and forth and thus losing the race. Unlike the similar “Hare and the Tortoise” with its moral of “Slow and steady wins the race”, here the moral is “Simple people working together can beat the proud.” Two tales from almost opposite sides of the globe with nearly the same structure and message. I told David Florence about “The Hare and the Hedgehog”, and he laughed.
Incidentally, in the story of the race of Coyote and Crab, it’s Coyote himself who gets tricked. Crab clicks his pincers and gets hold of Coyote’s tail hairs, hanging on through the whole race. At the finish line, Coyote turns around looking for crab, and crab lets go, flying across the finish and winning the race. I learned today that sometimes, Coyote the Trickster can also be the tricked. I’m still chuckling about the image of Coyote whirling around, calling, “Crab? Where are you, Crab? Hey, Crab!”
In the long, cold, dark Northern winters of the past, David Florence told us, the Okanagan people gathered around the fire in the middle of their big pit house, a space probably about as large as the room we were in today. Their fire was not an art installation with digital projections, and they weren’t sipping hot chocolate from Tim Horton’s paper cups. But the stories are the same, whether they are told in Okanagan or in English.
Life, the Universe, A Fire and Folklore. Together the people are strong.
*Note: From my understanding, in First Nations storytelling the exact wording of the original teller is important. David Florence collected these tales from local people, and he read them to us from a paper so he would not “put his own words into it”. I appreciate his permission to tell a small part of it in my own words, and apologise for any mistakes I doubtlessly made in the retelling, having only heard the story once. If you want to read a very similar tale in the voice of a real Okanagan storyteller, check out “The Turtles Won the Race” told by Josephine Shuttlesworth (scroll to the bottom of the page past the error messages). In that one, it’s Coyote himself who gets tricked by the turtles, and it’s even more similar to “The Hare and the Hedgehog”.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / by any other word would smell as sweet…”
I’ve been thinking of the term “fairy tale” in the last little while – partially inspired by William’s and Kyomi’s recent articles on the topic. They have both made an attempt to define “fairy tale”, as well as the related terms “legend”, “myth”, “fable”, and even the overarching “folklore”. I’m not going to bother with the latter here—you can go to their articles and read up on it; they’ve done a fine job already.
But when it comes to “fairy tale”, I found myself disagreeing with them on a few points (just a few minor ones, mind you). And being a congenitally opinionated person, I couldn’t resist shoving in my oar.
To start with, why do we even have to bother defining the term? Everybody knows what “fairy tale” means. Don’t they? Prince William and Kate Middleton had a fairy tale wedding. Neuschwanstein in Upper Bavaria is a fairy tale castle. A hoarfrost creates a fairy tale landscape. And so on and so forth. We don’t have to sit down and define what we mean here—everybody knows it. Fairy tales are stories of happily ever after. Of princes and princesses. Of True Love (spelled with capitals). Of True Love’s First Kiss (more capitals). Of witches and wicked stepmothers. Right? All fairy tales have those elements.
Yeah, right—I can see you rolling your eyes all the way from over here. Anyone with even the slightest aspiration to being a fairy tale buff knows that those are clichés that have a lot more to do with a handful of Disney films than with fairy tales as a genre.
So then I went to the Internet and a number of dictionaries and took a look at what they have to offer by way of definitions. Here is a sampling:
-The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.):
1. a tale about fairies. 2. an incredible story; a fabrication
A fairy tale is a type of short story that typically features folkloric fantasy characters, such as dwarfs, dragons, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, griffins, mermaids, talking animals, trolls, unicorns, or witches, and usually magic or enchantments.
1. a story, usually for children, about elves, hobgoblins, dragons, fairies, or other magical creatures. 2. an incredible or misleading statement, account, or belief.
Hmm. All of that leaves me scratching my head. Because, while those definitions cover some aspects of fairy tales, it doesn’t fit all of them by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t even cover the colloquial use of it (see above, the Royal Wedding etc.). As for fairy tales being “for children”, we won’t even go there.
Wikipedia’s says a fairy tale is “a type of short story”—well, what about Andersen’s novella-length “Snow Queen”, or even more, Mme de Villeneuve’s original “Beauty and the Beast”, which is a full-sized novel? I don’t think anyone would deny them fairy tale status.
I must say I like Merriam-Webster’s option b) the best: “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” But even there, it’s really just the first half of the sentence that works for me, because not every fairy tale ends happily. Cases in point: “The Little Mermaid” (no, in Andersen she does not marry the prince); “The Little Match Girl” (another Andersen—he’s depressing); Perrault’s original “Little Red Riding Hood” (she just gets eaten, The End); Mme D’Aulnoy’s “The Ram” (a “Beauty and the Beast” tale in which the beast just—dies). Again, we can’t claim they’re not fairy tales—Andersen’s name in particular is practically synonymous with the genre.
Another claim I’ve seen is that fairy tales are inevitably set in an unnamed place among unnamed people (they’re only generic princes or miller’s daughters or dwarfs). But how about “The Bremen Town Musicians” (Grimms Tale #27), or “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”? They take place in real cities in Germany that still exist today. As for unnamed heroes, what of Hansel and Gretel, Vasilisa, or Kai and Gerda from “The Snow Queen”?
The fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that the definition of “fairy tale” is as hard to nail down as the tales’ slippery trickster heroes. In the English language, we are furthermore hampered by the word “fairy” in the term, which leads the definition-seeker to false expectations, as demonstrated by all the dictionary entries above that call for magical creatures or fantastic beings. Again, by no means does every fairy tale have a fairy in it, be she godmother, evil, or otherwise. “The Little Match Girl”, for example, has no magical creature in it at all, only a sad child who in her dying moments has a vision of her grandmother.
But that leads me to another point. Andersen’s tales in particular do, in many cases, refute the points that have been claimed as defining the genre—yet I don’t think anyone would argue that they are not fairy tales. But they exemplify a particular type of fairy tale: the literary fairy tale. Literary fairy tales are original tales written by specific, known authors—Hans Christian Andersen, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, to name just a few. This is opposed to folk fairy tales, stories told over many years among “the common people” which were “collected” and written down by the likes of the Brothers Grimm. (There is a large overlap between the two types of fairy tales, with the Grimms, for example, editing and “literarizing” folktales, or, conversely, literary fairy tales becoming folk tales; but that’s a topic too big to deal with here.) Both kinds are fairy tales, but they’re often rather different from each other, with literary fairy tales frequently exploding the bounds of the common understanding of the term.
So back to our definitions: “a story in which improbable events…” Let’s end that sentence right there. Actually, along those lines, the best definition I’ve found so far is not an English one—it’s from the German Wikipedia:
Fairy tales (”Märchen”) are “prose texts that tell of wondrous events”.
That, as far as I’m concerned, nails it. Prose texts—not poetry, not ballads—that contain wondrous events. The essential element of a fairy tale is magic, something unusual, something wondrous. It can be kings, queens, castles, princesses, dwarfs, fairies, ogres, magic objects, spells, unicorns, princes, talking animals… but it has to be unusual, out of the ordinary.
And that, in turn, requires the setting to be, to a certain measure, ordinary. Fairy tales might take place “once upon a time” in “a kingdom far, far away”, but that long-ago time and that far-away kingdom are still part of our world. Fairy tales are not happening in Middle Earth or on the Planet Naboo (because from what we understand, in those places magical events are normal and ordinary, so stories about them aren’t fairy tales), but they can happen at the back of an old wardrobe or by having your house whirled away in a cyclone—ordinary to wondrous.
And of course they happen, over and over, to scullery maids and stable boys, and princes or princesses who have to work as scullery maids or stable boys and meet talking foxes and unicorns and witches in gingerbread houses. And sometimes magic kisses make for magic love stories (though far more often, it’s sheer hard work and determination that saves the day), and for the most part, everyone does live happily ever after, or at least until the end of their days—just like it can happen to us, every day.
Stories of magic in the midst of the ordinary—that, as far as I am concerned, is what the term “fairy tale” means, and what we mean when we refer to something as being “like a fairy tale”. Of course, all the other definitions have very valid points, too; “fairy tale” means many, if not all, of those things, just like an individual fairy tale can take many forms, depending on who tells it.
See, we do know what a fairy tale is—and the rose, by just this name, truly smells sweet.