Slap Happy Larry

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Film and Truth

The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.

Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol. 2

Of course we can say this about truth as explored in any kind of story, be it film, novel, narrative poetry or television commercial.

Violent French Washerwomen: Ar Cannerez Nos

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez nos, or the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always by night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the frefusers into the stream and drown them. 

A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence in France, Principally in the Southern Departments, from the Year 1802 to 1805: Including Some Authentic Particulars Respecting the Early Life of the French Emperor, and a General Inquiry Into His Character, Volume 3Anne Plumptre , 1 January 1810

  • A washerwoman night or washerwoman’s death is a legendary character dating back to the 8th Century.
  • She is some sort of creature or ghost originating in Gaelic culture. In Scottish Gaelic she is called a nighe bean.
  • Always met at night, cleaning cloth in a stream or a public wash-house.
  • The washerwoman is always linked to the death realm.
  • Like the Grim Reaper, if you met her it was a sign of death.
  • This washerwoman is often connected to/confused with banshees, white ladies and night spinners. (Night spinners appear in earlier versions of Rumpelstiltskin and various other fairytales.)
  • Also known in French as Lavandière de nuit, ‘washerwomen of night’.
  • The function of these legends was to reinforce certain social or religious prohibitions: mainly to punish women who kept washing clothes after sunset, while night was traditionally devoted to rest and the day to work. The risk of encountering the night washer would also be an incentive for the villagers not to go out at night and stay in their house; a principle that was recommended by the Church and sometimes reinforced by Britain in the 19th  century by the evening bells ringing a kind of curfew.
  • Sometimes night washerwomen were thought to be mothers who were cursed for killing their children.
  • Another story told people that night washerwomen were laundresses responsible for washing the laundry of the poor. By avarice, they replaced the soap by pebbles and rubbed the linen with the pebbles. The linen was terribly damaged and of course remained dirty. In a Sisyphean twist, to punish the washerwomen for this crime they were condemned to wash dirty clothes forever.

Reversals and Reveals

A picture of a mountain because in stories, character revelations often take place on one.

WHAT IS A REVEAL?

‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.

– Peggy Ramsay, agent

A revelation is basically a surprise.

Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.

WHAT IS A REVERSAL?

A ‘reversal’ is ‘the big reveal’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are. 

The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movies was a hit.

The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.

A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.

A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers. 

But you must be careful with this technique. It can reduce the story to a mere vehicle for plot, and very few stories can support such domination by the plot. O. Henry gained great fame using the reversal technique in his short stories (such as “The Gift of the Magi”), but they were also criticized for being forced, gimmicky, and mechanical.

A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself; it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.

That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.

—John Yorke, Into The Woods

THE ‘REVEALS PLOT’

When a story relies on reveals as its main source of interest for its audience, this is known as a ‘reveals’ or ‘revelations’ plot. Another name for this is the ‘big plot’, not just because there are so many surprises but also because they tend to be shocking. Although still immensely popular today—especially in detective stories and thrillers. Mysteries are required to include a big revelation, but other kinds of stories make use of revelation also. (Lord Of The Flies: Who is the beast?)

Came from: The heyday of the reveals plot was the 19th century e.g. Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), Dickens, The Portrait Of A Lady

How It Works:

  • The hero generally stays in one place, though it is not nearly so narrow an area as unity of place requires. For example, the story may take place in a town or a city. Desperate Housewives is a great example of a reveals plot. Characters don’t leave the suburbs except to visit hospitals/schools/workplaces which are themselves a part of suburban life. 
  • The reveals plot almost always covers a longer time period than unity of time allows, even up to a few years. 
  • The hero is familiar with his or her opponents, but a great deal about them is hidden from the hero and the audience. In Desperate Housewives, the mysterious newcomers have secrets. Characters and audience learn about them as each series progresses.
  • These opponents are very skilled at scheming to get what they want. This combination produces a plot that is filled with revelations, or surprises, for the hero and the audience.
  • These plots tend to start en medias res, then take the audience backwards and forward through time. We’re not just talking flashback here. One set of scenes might unravel a secret in the forward direction. Another set of scenes might move us backwards from the ‘beginning’ to the source of the mystery itself. In a detective story the plot begins in the middle of the story — the point at which the investigation gets going. In this kind of story, the plot progresses by going backwards in time. The biggest revelation will coincide with the moment of the deepest penetration into the past.

The inverse* of the ‘reveals’ plot is the ‘journey’ plot.

  • In the journey plot, surprise is limited because the hero dispatches a large number of opponents quickly.
  • The reveals plot takes few opponents and hides as much about them as possible. Revelations magnify the plot by going under the surface.
*Dickens actually blended the reveals plot with the journey plot. This shows what a master he was of plotting, since the two approaches are in many ways opposites.

Advantages Of The Reveals Plot

  • The reveals plot is organic because the opponent is the character best able to attack the weakness of the hero, and the surprises come at the moments when the hero and the audience learn how those attacks have occurred. The hero must then overcome his weakness and change or be destroyed.
  • The reveals plot maximises surprise. (Since plot basically equals ‘surprise’, surprises are always good.)

Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.

Planning and Editing A Revelations Plot

John Truby advises writers take some time to separate the reveals from the rest of the plot and look at them as one unit. Tracking the revelations sequence is one of the most valuable of all storytelling techniques. You’re checking to see if the sequence builds properly.

1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.

2. Reveals must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.

3. Reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.

4. Start the hero’s desire low and raise it with each “reveal”. It’s pretty typical in a story for the hero to be ambling along not wanting anything much and then something happens and they are forced into action. Then, at about the midway point the hero will really, really want that thing, doing everything in their powers to achieve the thing they never really wanted in the first place. The reveals are what drive the hero’s increasing intensity of desire.

Further questions to ask:

  • Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
  • Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
  • Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
  • Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
  • Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
  • Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.

Picturebook Study: Mr Big by Ed Vere

STORY STRUCTURE

This is a tale told by a storyteller narrator, who we meet on the very first page and then soon forget. Almost all picture books have third person narrators but most often we don’t consider who that might be, so there must be a good reason for introducing Mr Big’s friend. The good reason is that the friend is very small, taking up about an eighth of the title page. Then, when we meet Mr Big on the following page, he seems adequately and ridiculously large.

The ideology of the story exists as back cover copy: A true friend comes in any shape or size!

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

“Now, Mr Big had a small problem,” we are told. “Compared to everyone else he was extremely… (page turn) big!”

The rule of threes is utilised as the first ‘act’ of the picture book takes us through various situations in which Mr Big is lonely. He is so big he scares everyone away from

  1. The park
  2. The cafe
  3. The bus

His psychological weakness is clearly explained: “No one stuck around to find out who he really was. So inside, Mr Big felt very, very small.”

DESIRE

As in many picture books, our  main character’s weakness has been clearly stated in words. In this format there’s no time to show it, hoping the reader will work it out for themselves.

The desire, on the other hand, is left up to the reader’s deduction.

Mr Big is lonely; therefore he wants __________. Any child can probably work that out.

This has me asking a question I haven’t had until now, even after all this time of breaking down the structure of picture books: Do successful picturebooks spoon feed EITHER weakness/need/problem OR desire, but not both? This is something I’ll have to take a closer look into.

OPPONENT

Mr Big’s opponent is his own body — a variation on ‘he’s his own worst enemy’. But for a story that’s never quite enough — the opposition has to be personified (anthropomorphised in this story, ‘peopled’ with animals). The opponents are all the smaller creatures who refuse to stick around to get to know who he really is.

PLAN

Mr Big gives up on friendship with ‘people’ and instead seeks solace in the company of a piano who looks all alone in a shop window. He feels a connection to it, takes it home and sits down to play, to assuage his own loneliness.

BATTLE

Instead of everyone gathering for an epic battle, everyone gathers in the square to listen to the beautiful music coming from Mr Big’s window, sort of reminiscent of Rapunzel. Remember how the prince hears Rapunzel singing as he rides by and makes it his mission to discover who it is? I’m also reminded of the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday in which a piano player has the ability to enchant the people around him, changing their lives.

The ‘battle’ sequence in this kind of story is perhaps better called the ‘Culmination’. The piano playing ends with him getting invited into a local jazz band.

The ultimate success of a piano player is to be seen on the stage, and so we see him playing to a crowd, who now think he’s marvellous.

SELF-REVELATION

But the stage scene is also the self-revelation.

At last everyone could see the real Mr Big!

Just like a film such as Le Week-end, self-revelations/end-of-battles often occur in front of an audience. This is a staple from traditional mythic structure. The 3000-year-old version of ‘Photo or it didn’t happen.’

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Wisely, the author replaces the problem of loneliness with the problem of celebrity:

Mr Big has a new problem. He doesn’t get much time to be alone… and that’s just the way he likes it!

 

Fairytale Study: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

A version of The Pied Piper cover by Monico Chavez

 

First up, The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is a legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town of Hamelin, all of the children really did disappear one day.

June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are several theories.

The story itself suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. People who were able to write generally wrote to other towns nearby to let them know what was happening and what they might expect.

Another popular theory is that they were taken away for The Children’s Crusades. This is a very dark story dating from The Middle Ages. Young charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. There’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. They were almost certainly much smaller than we’ve been lead to believe. There’s no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit. It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier these days (around June 20-22).

Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania.  There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. There were injuries. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.

But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a news story similar to that.

This snippet turned into a proper tale (similar to the fairytales we read to our children today) in the next few hundred years. It was even said that someone in particular (named) saw it with his own eyes. At first there is no mention of rats. (In the 1400s version.) Continue reading

Story Notes On Le Week-end (2013)

GENRE BLEND

This is a comedy, drama, romance, but not a rom-com — unlike the bulk of romantic/comedy blends this is about a couple on their 30th wedding anniversary, attempting to fall in love with each other again. The promotional material shows the characters laughing, but this is not representative of the mood, which is heavy. The humour is dark. If you’re familiar with the work of Hanif Kureishi, well, that’s who wrote it. No surprises re the darkness.

This film bears resemblances to Date Night — an unusual  blend of comedy, crime and romance. This film, too, might have been ‘crime’ had the emphasis been slightly different. In order to bond, our old couple engages in petty thievery (doing a runner from a high-class restaurant) and then by maxing out their credit card on the most expensive suite in a fancy hotel. They walk out on that, too, and eventually they are forced to call on Morgan to bail them out of that mess. Judging by IMDb, neither Date Night nor Le Week-end have particularly broad appeal. This type of story must be especially hard to do.

This story is, however, a mythic journey. The journey underpins the structure. Even if the audience feels uncomfortable in the company of these characters, it is a very well structured film.

STORYWORLD

The setting of Paris is ironic and highlights out all the weaknesses in the characters, because if cities have their own symbolism, Paris is the city of love. If you’re failing at a romantic weekend, it’ll be all the worse if you’re failing in Paris. Micro settings within Paris itself area also symbolic, from the beige coffin of a room to the ridiculously luxurious room they choose next (a symbol of a life which is actually quite comfortable) to the graveyard they walk through to the jukebox cafe where they dance.

DESIRE

Continue reading

Short Story Study: Rapunzel

THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL

Girls locked inside towers, women locked in attics; missing girls, dead mothers. The life of a fictional woman hasn’t changed all that much over the years.  Rapunzel isn’t the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?

It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.

Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)

Continue reading

What stories existed before the male myth form?

This week on Woman’s Hour there is an interview with a woman who spends part of the year living in the Kingdom of Women in China. This is the only matriarchal and matrilineal culture in the world. Rather, it’s the only matriarchal culture left in the world. It’s difficult to imagine what such a culture looks like, but we are told to ‘flip everything’. The men are revered, but as studs and heavy lifted. There is a hierarchy but the women in a matriarchy seem to treat their men better than men treat their women in a patriarchy.

For more on this Kingdom of Women, look for the Mosuo.

How is story different in a non-patriarchal society? I say ‘non-patriarchal’ rather than ‘matriarchal’ because there is no real evidence to suggest that before patriarchy was matriarchy. In fact, evidence points to a flatter social system altogether.

I have blogged previously about how the mythic form as we know it — the form which dominates Hollywood blockbusters even today — is a strongly male-centric story. Story experts such as John Truby have started to notice a very recent shift in storytelling to what he calls the Female Myth. In children’s stories, Inside Out is the best well-known example of that. In written form, I point to The Paperbag Princess as an example of the female mythic form. (Book creators have been doing it longer than Hollywood writers have.)

The very recent Female Myth form aside, the Male Myth form — the one we’re all veeery familiar with — has been dominant for the last 3000 years.

3000 years sounds like forever, but humans have been around longer than that. We’ve been telling stories for longer than that. What did the original female myth look like? 20th Century feminist Marilyn French offers some insight in the first chapter of her 1985 book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals:

  • Most of the metal, human-shaped ornaments found from ancient times are figures of women. There are men too, but most are women. Like, not just 51% women — the overwhelmingly majority are obviously female. Some of these figurines date back to 9500BCE. (Metallurgy wasn’t widespread back then but it was still practised in certain areas.) This suggests that women were more visible in these very old societies, only later wiped from the history books.
  • These female-shaped figurines last right up almost until the Christian era.
  • Many researchers believe these figurines were significant when it comes to worship. Old cultures worshipped regeneration and fertility. It made sense to them that everything came from the female, not the male. Other symbols of regeneration (apart from the female body) included: eggs, butterflies and the aurochs (the wild ox of Europe).
  • The mother goddess was not only in charge of birth but also of death. (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” Anyone?) She was also mistress of the animals. So she could also be symbolised by dogs and pigs and other animals vital to human survival. She was also seen in the form of a bird. (We have to remember that all early art was symbolic.)
  • This view of the world — one ruled by a goddess — wasn’t limited to a small area. It was all over the show. Like, China, the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and in Europe from the far north to the Mediterranean and in Middle Europe as well. For more on this look up work done by Marija Gimbutas.
  • Around the 4th or 5th millennia BCE cultures started to make more and more male figures alongside the female ones and they started to become elaborately dressed.
  • Other changes: The female figurines of the Paleolithic era were corpulent, but after the agricultural era was ushered in she was slimmed right down. She became flanked by domesticated rather than wild animals (dogs, bulls and he-goats). The goddess was also often associated with the bear. Bears are considered particularly good mothers, and may have had a big impact on Europeans.
  • Funnily enough (for anyone who’s read the Old Testament), women were also associated with snakes. This is because snakes lose their skins and ‘regenerate’. There are a whole bunch of other symbols to do with women too, like chickens, which puts me in mind of Baba Yaga. (The bear puts me in mind of Pixar’s Brave — see, we’re still making use of these ancient symbols today.) We even see oversized depictions of female genitalia. From here things start to go downhill for women.
  • From the beginning of what’s known as ‘the Classical period’ (300CE to 900CE) women still appear as sculptures, but only as goddesses or priestesses. After that, right up to the 14th century, depictions of women — anywhere, in any form — basically cease. When we do see women, like in some Aztec art, women are huge, ugly and terrifying.
  • Between 1500 and 1900 there was a lot of religious art: Madonnas and Annunciations coexisted with many crucifixions. There were many, many portraits of saints and Church Fathers and gory martrydoms. In secular art there were condottieres on horseback, gorgeous naked Davids, kings and miinisters in ermine and gold, wizened-looking Protestant merchants with their wives and possessions spread around them.
  • Today, of course, women have reappeared in art but we continue to be depicted in a much more heavily sexualised way. We are back in the story, but even in children’s literature there are 3 male characters for every female. (See the work of Janet McCabe if you need to know someone counted.)

What the hell happened?

  • First – don’t get the wrong idea. Those ancient figures of corpulent women didn’t necessarily mean everyone was living in a matriarchy. All that means is that people valued fertility of all kinds above all else. People lived very close to the land, and had not yet begun agriculture. Men just didn’t seem as important in that kind of society. Maybe it’s because early societies didn’t even know that men were necessary for reproduction? It’s just as likely that they did know — I mean, we know now that both parties are equally important to human life but we still have a gender hierarchy. The male’s role in Paleolithic and early Neolithic society simply wasn’t considered as important as it is now.
  • Then agriculture happened. Those central ideas of fertility, regeneration and a sense of humans as integrally connected with nature… dissipated.
  • Agriculture lead to bigger populations.
  • Bigger populations lead to more complicated social systems. It’s interesting and sad that today, our definition of an ‘advanced society’ is one with an established hierarchy, between men and women, between the very rich and the very poor.
  • With agriculture humans started to use coerced animal labour. For examples, mules were roped in to till our fields for us. This lead to humans pulling away from nature. We no longer saw ourselves as part of nature, but in opposition to it.
  • And when I say ‘we’, I mean men. Men considered women, like their mules, to continue to be a part of that ‘civilization/nature’ dichotomy. It was men and men alone who were elevated to this special place, holier than everyone and everything else. For millennia, women had been considered goddesses of regeneration, so they couldn’t just jump ship away from nature with the men, right? We see this attitude clearly exemplified in works such as the Holy Bible, in which we are told that God made the Earth and the animals for the express use of humans (addressing mainly men at the time).
  • Don’t forget that before men started to use mules to till the fields, this was work which had been done by women. Even without the mules, agriculture requires male strength. Men are in charge of all areas of food production now, not just the hunting. Men control the food source. They are therefore basically in charge of who lives and who dies. It used to be the other way around.
  • It is not clear to anyone exactly how it happened, but there are plenty of clues right there. Communities started warring with each other and the status of women fell. Fell so much that women were now owned as chattels, alongside farm animals. Men owned women until very recently, and women are still fighting for equal status. See this Timeline of Women’s Rights for more on that. Most recently the fight to be in charge of one’s own reproduction is one of the main feminist issues.
  • Joseph Campbell has pointed out that this change in human society can be seen in how (and who) humans worship: Campbell divides his study of creation myths into four stages: in the first, the world is created by a goddess alone; in the second, the goddess is allied with a consort and the efforts of the pair lead to creation. Next, a male creates the world using the body of a goddess in some way; and finally, a male god alone creates it. For an example of that evolution take a close look at the Greek myths (some of the best studied mythologies in the world) and you’ll see the evolution from Ge (Earth) to Zeus. At one time Hera was the primary goddess and Zeus becomes powerful only by marrying her. Take a look at Athene — at one point she is born from the head of Zeus. (For some reason it makes more sense to be born from the head of a man than from the vagina of a woman.)

So, was this some kind of retribution? Did men get sick of living in a matriarchy and decide that men were in charge now?

No. First of all, there is no evidence that humankind lived in a matriarchy. There is no evidence that the Mosuo of today are representative of how most of the world ran way back when. Men have about twice the upper body strength of women and women, during pregnancy and childbirth (most of a woman’s life without contraception) are reliant upon men for survival and protection. There is no good reason to think that — goddess worship aside — women were ever hierarchically above men.

Marilyn French makes the distinction between ‘social charter myths’ and ‘transforming myths’.

‘(Social) charter myth’ is a term used to interpret myths which validate or justify power structures.  Any myth that seems to confirm patriarchal or establishment ideologies is probably a “charter myth”.  For example when Virgil arranged events in the Aeneid to validate the Julio-Claudians by directly connecting them to Romulus and Remus.

A ‘transforming myth’ is also known as a ‘shapeshifting myth’.

As French explains, one of these mythic forms has been worse for women than the other:

Social charter myths implicitly ascribe power to women, if only in the past. They can be read as suggesting that the sexes were once equal, or that women once dominated men. Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.

— Marilyn French

Fairytale Study: Rumpelstiltskin

The tale of Rumpelstiltskin asks a moral question: Who is the worst of the three men? The lying father who gives away his own daughter, the greedy King who threatens death, or the proto-men’s rights activist dwarf?

This is my all-time favorite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?

That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.

Riveted

Or perhaps we are to pass judgement on the miller’s daughter, who promises her first born under duress and then ‘fails’ to follow through, by handing the baby over to the gold-spinning dwarf? We are certainly invited to pass judgement on The Frog Queen, who promises to marry a frog if he retrieves her golden ball, and then promptly changes her mind once the frog has given it back. The idea that women have free will is a much newer concept than this tale. The morality of the miller’s daughter is interesting because she is both trapped in a prison, but also an honored guest. Scholars of feminism will realise that this gilded cage has resonance for many women even today.

This is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts — we don’t hear about the miller after he gives his daughter to the King, but we can assume he lived in comfort, at least for a good while. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Badjelly The Witch by Spike Milligan (1973)

THE RADIO PLAY

This story is more well-known as a radio play than as a picture book, at least to any New Zealand child of the 80s. There wasn’t much in the way of media entertainment back then, and I looked forward to Radio New Zealand’s Sunday morning children’s show with Constable Keith and Sniff the German shepherd, who was also voiced by Constable Keith. This ‘duo’ issued safety warnings and life lessons to children but also offered quizzes where you could ring in (I once even got through!), and these gags and lessons were interspersed by a selection of radio plays, mostly British, the number of which I can count on the fingers of one hand. This meant that Badjelly the Witch, performed by the comedian author himself, was played pretty much every single Sunday morning to children throughout the country.

There was also a radio play featuring snails who spoke in deep, slow voices about lettuces, but I can’t remember the name of that. There was another about a train — I think it might have been The Little Engine That Could. As you can see, Badjelly the Witch was the radio play which left the strongest impression on my childhood. It is read by a British male narrator who chuckles at the jokes. The radio play underscores the fact that Milligan’s narrative voice is primed for oral recitation: Like fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood of yore, and nursery rhymes with punchlines such as “wee wee wee, all the way home!Badjelly The Witch is meant to be performed rather than recited.

THE PICTUREBOOK

My copy has a purple cover and is full of line drawings rendered in ‘naive style’, epitomised best of all by the literal naivety of Milligan’s six year old daughter, who drew the opening double page spread. The author has handwritten the story himself and has fun with the font, turning words into pictures in places.

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