Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.
BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.
I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!
There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.
The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.
CATS AND BIRDS
Perhaps this story has more longevity as a stage play because my daughter’s class performed it last year as part of the Year 2 drama unit here in Australia. The book, however, is out of print.
A bogle, boggle or bogill is a Northumbrian and Scots term for a ghost or folkloric being, used for a variety of related folkloric creatures including:
- The Hedley Kow
- Giants such as those associated with Cobb’s Causey (also known as “ettins”, “yetuns” or “yotuns” in Northumberland and “Etenes”, “Yttins” or “Ytenes” in the South and South West).
They exist for the simple purpose of perplexing mankind rather than seriously harming or serving them.
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 3, , 1 January 1810
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
- 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.
What did Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit have in common? Apart from a dislike of only children and a shared love of ginger beer, they both wrote stories about groups of children going out into the countryside and finding adventure. In these natural environments the children came across good people and bad people (policemen, shopkeepers etc, smugglers etc.) and then there were ‘gypsies’, who readers understood were instant opponents.
The four children encounter gypsies in chapter 3 of Five Children and It. They get sick of their baby brother and wish someone, anyone, would take him. So the Psammead arranges for that to happen, and no they can’t take the wish back. But since the wishes only last until sunset, this chapter gives E. Nesbit a chance to dismantle a popular anglo belief at the time: That gypsies stole children. Much like the Elf on the Shelf, who it was said kept an eye on children even in parental absence, if children did not do as required it was often said that if they were not careful the gypsies would come and get them.
Thomas Acton, a renowned Professor of Romani Studies, says that there is no documented case of Roma or Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.
In Shadow The Sheepdog we see that gypsies came in useful as an archetype for missing dogs, too. Johnny is required to enter a gypsy caravan, where he finds the drugged Shadow inside a bag.
Madeline and the Gypsies is one of the few children’s book from the Second Golden Age of Children’s Literature to portray a gypsy as a rounded, caring and responsible individual.
WANDERERS NOT GYPSIES
- Today, calling the Roma or the Irish Travellers ‘gypsies’ is very similar to calling Native Americans ‘Indian’. The word ‘Gypsy’ is often used in a derogatory way and is based on the mistaken idea that gypsies came from Egypt.
- There are two main, distinct groups of travellers — the Roma and the Irish travellers. They are both nomadic but are separate. Romany gypsies have roots in India but Irish Travellers are, well, Irish.
- Irish travellers speak a language called Cant, Gammon or Shelta. The hit UKTV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding focuses on a group of Irish Travellers and is considered to be a poor representation of travellers. Back in the 1940s these people were called ‘Tinkers’. They became travellers due to a history of discrimination against the Irish, and may have had land taken from them.
- The Romani language is based on Punjabi/Hindi.
- The word ‘Romani’ has nothing to do, by the way, with the country Romania, or the Ancient Romans.
- Australia has its own Romani population, who first came to Australia in the early 1900s from Greece.
- Meanwhile in America, these wanderers might be referred to as hobos.
POPULAR WESTERN BOGEYMEN
No matter how safe childhood becomes, modern folklore still requires bogeymen. Apart from the Roma, we’ve also had:
- Fairies — originally fairies were used as the bogeyman: “Be good or the fairies will take you!”
- Jews — It was thought Jews abduct Christian children and use them as sacrifice in strange rituals.
- Witches — as portrayed in Roald Dahl’s middle grade novel, in which he explains witches look like everyday women.
- Black cars — in Estonia black cars were supposed to be especially dangerous because they contained people who wanted to kidnap you for your organs. Black cars are also suspicious in the West.
And now we have men in white vans.
Dragons In Folklore
Dragons have always evoked a mixture of fear and attraction.
They’re everywhere in The Bestiaries.
Folkloric dragons always talk.They are semi-human and have wily intelligence. Sometimes they’re regal, sometimes cowardly.
Dragons Around The World
Alexandra the Rock-eater: An Old Rumanian Tale retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom (1978)
Folklore refers to the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. No one knows the origins of folklore.
A fable is a parable starring animals instead of humans. This distinction has been lost in popular usage of the term, in which ‘fable’ is sometimes used instead of ‘parable’.
(A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles.)
In a fable, there is not necessarily any obvious moral but there is usually some kind of rough justice.
When it comes to the depiction of animals, folklore and fable are opposites.
Animals in Folklore
- talking animals
- clever animals that have an ambigous or helpful role
- they may even have private lives and families based on the human model
- they may co-exist witih human masters/owners/acquaintances
For a related word, which may not immediately strike you as related to ‘fable’, see Fabulism In Children’s Literature.
“Little Red Riding Hood” is one of the best-known fairy tales. Depending on who tells it, this is a feminist story, or a patriarchal one. Little Red Riding Hood is told to children, but probably features often as a sexual fantasy. Elle avait vu le loup – “She’d seen the wolf” in French means she’s lost her virginity. There are also links to ‘true crime’, with certain historical crimes reminding us of this story of a girl in the woods.
A HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL
The history of Little Red Riding Hood is summed up neatly by Angela Slatter:
It’s been an interesting journey for Little Red Riding Hood. She started life in a tribal tale about a girl who outsmarts a wolf – all on her own, no outside help. A few centuries later, she gets a red cap, loses about twenty IQ points and gets eaten by a transvestite wolf. Add another hundred or so years, the cap becomes a hood, she loses a few more brain credits, gets molested, and then eaten by the same cross-dressing wolf but is rescued by a big, strong man and learns never to disobey the rules again. Adding insult to injury, in the 40s Tex Avery turned her into a stripper. Bruno Bettelheim* looked at Gustave Dore’s 1867 Little Red Riding Hood illustrations and saw dirty pictures – Little Red in bed with the wolf, giving him the eye. A red leather-jacketed Reese Witherspoon (oh, puhleeez!) played her in an Eighties film version, Freeway, in which a friendly neighbourhood serial killer fulfils the role of the wolf. Just when you thought it was all over, Angela Carter came along, reclaimed her and set her free.
*Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
In From The Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner traces fairytales back to much older stories, oftentimes Greek and Roman legend.
Verumnus, god of autumn fruitfulness, fell in love with Pomona, goddess of summer fruitfulness, of orchards and gardens, but found that she was very zealous to keep her chastity; so he disguised himself as an old woman. In this masquerade, as the first wolf in granny’s clothing, the god of autumn softens Pomona; when he changes back into his ‘undimmed manly radiance’, she puts up no further resistance.
— Marina Warner, From The Beast to the Blonde
THE ENDURING APPEAL OF LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
Why does “Little Red Riding Hood” continue to be so popular? Perry Nodelman uses Little Red Cap as an example to explain that it’s the repetitiousness of fairytales rather than the suspense that brings readers back for more:
If we explore ‘authentic’ versions of fairy tales, particularly those in the collection of the Grimm brothers, we discover that they tend to place particular emphasis on those central episodes that form the spine of the tale and to describe them in more detail. In the story called “Little Red Cap,” we hear a lot about the little girl’s conversation with the wolf but only a quick summary of her flower picking. Further attention is drawn to the spinal episodes because so many of them repeat each other…Red Riding Hood asks the wolf about a number of his physical characteristics. Furthermore, there often tend to be curious parallels and contrasts that relate even those spinal episodes that are not directly repetitive with each other and that focus our attention on them. In the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap,” for instance, the central moments are all conversations, and most of them involve somebody theoretically wiser telling Little Red Cap what to do–first her mother, then the wolf, then the wolf disguised.
As we read or hear a fairy tale, these patterns result in a rhythmic intensifying and lessening of interest as we move from central episode to less central episode and then back again; the effect is different from the gradual intensifying toward a climax that we get in other sorts of stories. And for those of us who already know the popular fairy tales we hear–and that surely is most of us at some point early in our childhoods–our pleasure in them must derive from repetition of that rhythmic pattern rather than from the suspense we usually enjoy in story; if we already know the story, there can be no suspense in it for us.
– Words About Pictures by Perry Nodelman
The following are notes from:
- The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood by Jack Zipes
- Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein
- Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan
Various Versions and Intended Audience
WHEN I was a child, I had recurring nightmares about wolves — beasts the size of skyscrapers that walked on their hind legs around New York City blocks, chasing and eventually devouring me. My mother says she made the mistake of bringing me to see a live performance of “Little Red Riding Hood” when I was a toddler, and that the man dressed as the wolf terrified me. I started having the dreams almost immediately after I saw the play, and they lasted into high school; I don’t remember when they stopped.
It was just a play, just a scary man, yet my young brain was indelibly affected by that one moment.
— What Does A Lifetime Of Leers Do To Us? from Jessica Valenti
LRRH wasn’t always a children’s story. It’s a truth seldom acknowledged that fairy tales used to be for everyone. It’s anachronistic to even speak of ‘the child’ before a certain point in history, because the concept did not exist. There were babies, then there were people, sent out to work at the earliest opportunity.