Disability in Netflix’s The Dragon Prince

I’m a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, so when I heard that there was a new series, The Dragon Prince, streaming on Netflix from some of the same creators, I was psyched. Currently, only one season (Book One: Moon) is streaming, but more seasons are hopefully in the works. There’s a lot of hype about The Dragon Prince, and I think it’s pretty well deserved: it’s a fresh, fun high fantasy series with well-rounded characters, including lots of women and POC, which is exactly what I would expect from the people who made Avatar and Korra. I’m especially fond of Claudia, a young mage with a terrible (and therefore wonderful) sense of humor and purple gradient hair that is #goals, and General Amaya, who I’ll get to in a minute.

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(Commander Gren, General Amaya, and Prince Callum. Image from Netflix.)

What really stood out to me, though, is the story’s engagement with disability, because it is ON POINT. But beware: here be spoilers!

To explain exactly why it’s so good, I’m going to backtrack to Avatar and the character of Toph. Full disclosure: I love Toph, the blind master earthbender who mentors Aang and plays a crucial role in defeating the series’ Big Bad, Fire Lord Ozai. In a lot of ways, she’s a great character (funny, curmudgeonly, and extremely capable). But she also falls into the extremely common trope of the supercrip (someone who is disabled but has some kind of superlative or magical ability or genius that “compensates” for that disability.) For Toph, earthbending functions as magical sight; she can see just as well (and frequently better) than her companions when her bare feet are touching the ground. Again, I still love this character and her general portrayal, and I do think there are moments in the series that complicate her supercrip status, but in The Dragon Prince, the creators sidestep the supercrip trope, and other common disability tropes, in ways that are incredibly fresh and awesome for a mainstream fantasy series.

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(Toph Beifong. Image from Avatar Wikia.)

Which brings me back to General Amaya. As one of the king’s most trusted allies, she is among the most powerful players in the series – she is on the front lines of the war with Xadia, the magical kingdom in conflict with the human kingdoms. As the aunt of the princes Callum and Ezran (two of the main characters), she is emotionally connected to the rest of the cast. And she is a Deaf woman of color who communicates via American Sign Language. Commander Gren often acts as her translator, but there are a few really beautiful sequences of signing that remain untranslated because the creators decided that “when Gren wasn’t speaking for her, she spoke for herself… [they] wanted it so that understanding what she’s communicating here is for the deaf audience.” Amaya’s Deafness is an integral part of who is she, but it does not define or overwhelm her plot in the story. It is simply part of her character, and there is no bid to magically erase it or justify it. There is an excellent interview with the show’s writers about how they created Amaya, and how they made decisions about representing her onscreen, including ongoing conversations with Deaf and HoH communities and ASL interpreters.

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(General Amaya. Image from Netflix.)

The other major instance of disability in Book One involves Ava, a wolf companion to a young girl named Ellis. Ellis found Ava as a pup whose leg was stuck in a human trap. She rescued Ava, but the leg had to be amputated. When other humans insisted that Ava should be put down due to the loss of her leg, Ellis ran away with her, eventually finding a “miracle healer” who restored Ava’s leg. This is all pretty standard “cure” trope, but a twist at the end of the season reveals that the healer did not in fact restore Ava’s leg; instead, she created an illusion of a leg so that people would accept her, even though she was already perfect as she was. At the end of the season, the illusion is unmasked, and Ava is once more legible as a happy, powerful, three-legged wolf. No fixing or curing required!

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(Ellis and Ava. Image from Netflix.)

I’m so excited to see what happens in the next season! Hopefully, it will involve a lot more Amaya and even more cool representations of disability!

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Registration is OPEN: New Course on the Legend at the Carterhaugh School

We have posted before about the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic, an online center for courses on folk narrative and fantastic literature run by two of our founders, Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman.

Registration has just opened for the next course, a 10-week series on the legend. You can read more about it and register here. We’re particularly delighted to say that our third founder, Derek Newman-Stille, will be joining us for a guest lecture on the fairy blast and disability!

Here is the tentative schedule:

July 1st – Introduction to Legends

Supernatural Legends Unit
July 8th – Fairy Legends
July 15th – Vampire Legends
July 22nd – Cryptozoology Legends
July 29th – Sea Legends

Urban Legends Unit
August 5th – Ghost Legends
August 12th – House Legends
August 19th – Internet Legends

Historical Legends Unit
August 26th – British Legends
September 2nd – American Legends & Wrap Up

Don’t hesitate to contact Sara or Brittany if you have any questions!

Interview with Erin Kathleen Bahl

By Sara Cleto

When we first founded TTW, I knew I wanted to interview and feature the work of Erin Kathleen Bahl, a digital humanities scholar with an interest in folklore. Her interdisciplinary scholarship is often, at its core, about how we tell stories through text, images, objects, memory, and more. Her beautiful webcomic “Citrus and Canaries: The Witch’s Orchard Charm,” which she created for TTW, can be viewed here.

Through The Twisted Woods:  Tell us a little about yourself! What kind of work do you do?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I am a PhD candidate working at the intersections of digital media, composition, and folklore. I’m especially interested in varying forms of visual narrative; my creative work most definitely informs and is informed by my scholarly work in return. I’ve worked with collaborators on projects involving magical girl anime, 3D motion capture of classical Indian dance, and digital remixes of traditional fairy tales such as “The Singing, Springing Lark” and “The Bremen Town Musicians.” Ultimately, I’m interested in acts of creative making across a range of media environments, and in creating knowledge and telling stories with digital technologies.

TTW: How did you become interested in traditional narratives? And how did you become interested in digital media?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I was extremely fortunate that my small-town middle/high school offered a storytelling category on our speech and debate team. I competed as a storyteller for six years; the repertoire included a range of traditional stories such as folk tales, fairy tales, and wonder tales from around the world. It was incredible to me how one person could create an entire world for their audience with just their face, voice, and body, and I loved to see how each storyteller brought new life to the tale based on their unique style and individual interpretation.

My interests in digital media were sparked via Wagnerian opera. I worked on Siegfried for several months as a dramaturgy intern at the Hannover State Opera House and was entranced by Wagner’s theories of Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork” that incorporates multiple media and sensory channels. Digital media became a route for me to explore multimedia possibilities as an individual composer, without the resources afforded by a full opera house.

TTW: What are your thoughts on mixing folk and fairy tales and digital media? What inspires you to pursue this kind of work?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I’m most definitely inspired by the creative community around fairy tales that I’ve encountered both in person and online. There are so many individuals doing beautiful, intriguing, exquisitely crafted fairy tale-related work in a range of contexts, from poetry to jewelry to fashion to music and more! My creative making happens to be primarily digital, and I hope to contribute in my own way alongside others’ inspiring, magical work.

TTW: Is it different to work in that kind of media with such old materials as your start? Why do it? Does it lend itself better to presenting the unheard stories somehow?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I don’t necessarily see a sharp break between “new” media and “old” story materials—in fifty years or so (or five, even!) the tools I’m working with now may very well be considered ancient! I still feel so new to digital composing in many ways that it’s very comforting to work with familiar stories as a starting point. Working with a fairy tale gives me an underlying structure to rely on in generating ideas, from which I can then feel free to experiment with images, text, and panel structure. I hope to be one of many contemporary voices in dialogue with a vibrant tradition of creative storytelling, in which familiar narratives move across the media forms available in a given time and place.

TTW: Do you feel that oral storytelling and digital media are connected? How?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: In some ways, yes! Both are tools that can be used to create one instance of variation on a traditional source tale. Both deliberately use multiple mediating channels to design an audience’s experience of a story; an oral storyteller might make use of voice, face, and gesture, for example, while a digital media composer might choose to include visual, textual, audio, or video elements. With multiple mediating channels, too, come multiple potential channels of access, which is especially important in working so that audience members of varying abilities have equally rich access to the narrative experience.

TTW: Do you have any thoughts about how digital media can make traditional narratives and fairy tales more accessible?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I mentioned access for differing abilities briefly above; I also think digital technologies can make traditional narratives more accessible through increased ease of transmission and distribution. Stories from around the world, from multiple traditions and cultures, can be read and shared much more easily today than a century ago. With the online groups I’m part of, additionally, I can see how other individuals may have interpreted and responded to a story differently based on their own unique perspectives and experiences. I come to understand and appreciate more fully the complex layers at the hearts of familiar tales when I have the chance to look at them through other peoples’ eyes.

TTW: What is your favorite fairy tale?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: That’s a hard one! I would have to say “Thousandfurs”—as someone who wears a lot of dresses and skirts, I’ve always loved the imagery of dresses as golden as the sun, as silvery as the moon, and as glittering as the stars. (I would totally wear the golden one every day!)

TTW: What inspired you to create the piece you made for TTW?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I tend to be inspired by a single image that captures my attention, and that I want to explore in more detail. In the case of this comic, what grabbed me first was the idea of the witch in an orchard full of canaries (i.e., what if the canaries emerging from the stolen oranges in the source tale were not exceptions, but part of a larger flock?) I knew I wanted to build up to that moment, and as I worked the piece slowly picked up more sinister undertones—by the end, the explosion of canaries was no longer a moment of delirious joy, but a fleeting, fragile moment of sunshine in a cold world. I’d like for my work to be rich in suggestion and short on explanation, though, so I’m curious to hear how others respond to and interpret the piece!

TTW: Where would you like to see digital art inspired by folklore go next? Are there any projects you’d like to do or that you’d like to see happen?

Erin Kathleen Bahl: I’d love to see it go everywhere! I’m currently working with Brittany Warman on a creative web-piece called “Facets”—we combine poetry, illustrations, and web design in varying arrangements to present a critical/creative reading of “The Singing, Springing Lark.” I’m also working with Margaret Price on a creative digital scholarly project that uses “The Bremen Town Musicians” to explore audio description of visual narrative as an integral part of a more broadly accessible storytelling experience. In general, I’d love to see more collaborative online spaces like Through the Twisted Woods that fuse scholarship and art, and that are committed to foregrounding marginalized voices in fairy tale and folk narratives. I also hope to see (and help create!) more short-form comics, print or digital, that engage traditional narratives as source material or stylistic inspiration—there’s a lot of great work out there, but there’s always more to explore!

Erin Kathleen Bahl is a doctoral candidate in the English department at the Ohio State University studying digital media, composition, and folklore. Her research investigates the possibilities that new media and digital technologies offer for creating knowledge and telling stories. She is currently working on a dissertation exploring processes of invention and design in composing new media scholarship. Her work has been published in The Nashville ReviewComposition Studies, Humanities Journal, Harlot of the Arts, Signs and MediaShowcasing the Best of CIWIC/DMAC, and Computers and Composition (print and online).

“Citrus and Canaries: The Witch’s Orchard Charm” by Erin Kathleen Bahl

TTW is thrilled to publish this beautiful fairy-tale webcomic, “Citrus and Canaries: The Witch’s Orchard Charm” by Erin Kathleen Bahl, a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University. Erin’s academic and creative work bridges the fields of RCL, digital humanities, and folklore. We conducted an interview with Erin about her work, which you can read here.

 

Erin Kathleen Bahl is a doctoral candidate in the English department at the Ohio State University studying digital media, composition, and folklore. Her research investigates the possibilities that new media and digital technologies offer for creating knowledge and telling stories. She is currently working on a dissertation exploring processes of invention and design in composing new media scholarship. Her work has been published in The Nashville Review, Composition StudiesHumanities Journal, Harlot of the ArtsSigns and Media, Showcasing the Best of CIWIC/DMAC, and Computers and Composition (print and online).

Review: Your Name

I’ve had the limited Columbus theatre run of Makoto Shinkai’s film Your Name on my calendar for months, and last week, I finally got to see it. (Ok, I saw it twice, and dragged fellow TTW founder Brittany with me the second time because it’s that good.)

[Image from funimationfilms.com]

I debated whether I should do a review of Your Name for TTW because it is not strictly based on folk narrative- though I have seen reviewers suggest that it is in part inspired by an ancient Japanese poem, “Torikaebaya Monogatari,” which Wikipedia helpfully notes translates as “The Changelings,” a promising folkloric title if there ever was one. However, this connection seems tenuous at best, and, more importantly, I do not have the background in Japanese folk narrative to speak to this with any authority.

Yet even without relying on this potential narrative connection, there is something distinctly folkloric about this film. Academics often talk about folklore as the ever-shifting dynamic between continuity and change- the conversation between tradition and adaptation (see the work of Barre Toelken for more on this.) Folklore is about repetition, communication, identity, and links between the future and the past. And Your Name is absolutely about all these things.

Your Name explores a magical connection between Mitsuha, a girl from a fictional town in rural Japan, and Taki, a high school boy living and working in Tokyo. Mitsuha lives with her grandmother and younger sister next to a shrine that they maintain, and she feels ambivalent and often outright furious at the way she is anchored to the past and to rural life. At one point, she participates in an elaborate ritual at the shrine and is deeply embarrassed when her classmates make fun of her. It is her wish to be “a handsome Tokyo boy” in her next life that seems to somehow catalyze her connection to Taki, whose backstory is decidedly secondary. Much of the initial plot revolves around mysterious body-swaps between the pair and the confusion they experience when living each other’s lives. Mitsuha has to learn to navigate Tokyo and fast-paced work at a restaurant, while Taki struggles with traditional braiding and travels to a sacred location associated with Mitsuha’s family’s shrine. They initially find each other’s lives baffling, and they leave each other notes in their phones (and occasionally on each other’s bodies) to provide guidelines, advice, and scoldings. Communication between the two, despite never having met, is crucial to keeping their lives intact.

I’m avoiding spoilers in this post, so I’ll just say that time and memory are in constant flux throughout the film. Your Name asks its audience to consider what happens when some stories are lost and if they can be revived. It asks what we can learn from other people’s lives and perspectives and presents beauty in the mundane and in the magical- and that is folklore at its best.

The Carterhaugh School

Two of our admins, Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman, recently founded The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic, and we are wrapping up our first long course on The Fairy Tale.

From our “About” page:

“The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic is an online center for classes on folk narrative and fantastic literature created in 2016 by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman. We both hold Masters degrees in Folklore from George Mason University and are currently completing PhDs in English and Folklore at the Ohio State University.

At OSU we have taught courses on folklore, fairy tales, folk narrative, nineteenth-century to contemporary British literature, fantastic literature, and composition, earning nominations for teaching awards and commendations from both supervisors and students. When we aren’t teaching or working on our dissertations, we are scholars and writers who have published peer-reviewed articles, sold stories and poems, written book introductions and encyclopedia entries, and published both creative and academic reviews. Supported by our backgrounds in academia and creative writing, we aim to use our knowledge and our passion for these subjects to share their wonder, solidify their importance in society, and spread a bit of magic into the world.

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Folklore is an enormous category that unfortunately breeds a great deal of misinformation. In a Carterhaugh class, we will be your guides – we know exactly how to navigate this material and can teach you to do the same! We guarantee that the passion we feel for this subject will be contagious – through video lectures, PowerPoint presentations, beautifully designed PDF lesson summaries, interactive assignments, and much more, a Carterhaugh student will fully engage with the fascinating topics that each class offers. These are the courses for people who dreamed of elven battles while studying economics, those who have always sworn they could see ghosts, those who longed for a school of magic to send them an unexpected acceptance letter.”

The Fairy Tale course brought together students from age 12 to 70 and covered tales from England, China, France, Turkey, India, the US, and more. We were blown away by our students’ amazing reflections on the lectures and readings, and we look forward to seeing their final projects, which will span traditional essays, creative writing, fine arts, and other avenues.

Over the summer, we’ll be teaching another course on folk legend, which will feature classes on fairies, selkies, mermaids, and more- and we’re delighted to have our third TTW admin, Derek, join us for a special lesson on the fairy blast and disability studies. If you’ve ever been curious about the kinds of things that we discuss in our classrooms or wanted to learn more about the tales that don’t often get told, please join us! You can sign up for our newsletter to hear about new course offerings here.

“Waking” by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman

Two of our founders, Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman, have a new poem out in Liminality! Liminality highlights voices and stories that are betwixt and between, and we highly recommend their back issues, as well as the current issue.

Our poem, “Waking,” combines two well-known fairy tales, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, to craft a new tale about rejecting old stories and forging new paths. It’s self-consciously feminist, but upon re-reading, I found myself thinking about non-normative states and sleeping, about the generative possibilities of dreaming across bodies and borders…

You can read “Waking” here.