A review of Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales (2015 [originally 1908], JMJ Publishing)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Filled with magic and wonder with supernatural beings and powerful animals, this is a fascinating volume of tales. However, reading through it, it is clear that it was meant for an anglo-American audience and the tales collected are highly modified for those intended readers. Although in some cases, Japanese phrases are used, much of the collection favours the words and phrases and telling style of Anglophone fairy tales. The volume reveals its age by translating even words which have entered common English parlance such as Samurai (instead translating it as “knight”) and “oni” is translated as “ogre”. Instead of Kami and Yokai, spirits in this collection are called “fairies”, a label that doesn’t quite fit them.
However, these are still powerful tales about human encounters with a complex and confusing world. The stories explore intergenerational issues and misunderstandings, jealousy, love, loyalty, and honour. The tales are populated with arrogant figures needing to learn their lessons, cruel-hearted people needing to transform, and acts of violence that need to be atoned for. They are tales where help appears in strange and unexpected places and where any stranger could be a spirit in disguise.
Curses and Blessings A review of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (Harper, 1997) By Derek Newman-Stille
Ella Enchanted is a fascinating take on the Cinderella tale that exposes issues of patriarchal control in fairy tales. Ella of Frell is given a gift by a fairy at birth, something that in other fairy tales would be a blessing, but Ella comes to see her “gift” as a curse. Thinking young women should be compliant, the fairy Lucinda gives her the “gift” of obedience. No matter what she wants to do, she has to follow any command given to her. Being a person with a powerful personality, Ella does not submit easily, but finds ways to rebel against her curse by resisting it as long as she can (often to the point of pain) and by finding ways to comply with someone’s command without granting them their desires.
Gail Carson Levine’s version of the Cinderella tale is one of resistance and of a woman who seeks to make her own way in the world while everyone around her tries to control her. It is a tale that critiques recent Cinderella tales that espouse the idea that wishes can come true and that magic always helps. In Ella Enchanted, magic is dangerous, often bringing with it dire results.
Gail Carson Levine critiques fairy tales on multiple levels in her tale. By making Ella a person who loves fairy tales, Carson Levine makes her character a critical witness to the creation of fairy tales. Ella is given a book of fairy tales by a fairy that gives substance and character development to the tales. We are told by Ella that she encounters “a real fairy tale this time, “the Shoemaker and the Elves.” In this version, though, each elf had a personality, and I came to know them better than the shoemaker. And I finally understood why the elves disappeared after the shoemaker made clothes for them.” Carson Levine provides us with a microcosm of what she is doing with Ella Enchanted, providing readers with a fairy tale where characters are given personalities and substance and supernatural beings are more than just deus ex machina. Where most traditional fairy tales, like those of the Grimm Brothers, tend to focus on the story over the personalities of the characters, Gail Carson Levine creates a character-driven narrative that allows the reader to have an insight into the personalities of the characters.
A review of George MacDonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin” (Strahan & Co., 1872)
By Derek Newman-Stille
The Princess and the Goblin is a beautiful tale with contrasting imagery of light and darkness. It features a princess who is described as the embodiment of virtues (most of which problematically involve obedience) and honesty who is lost and encounters a figure claiming to be her great great great grandmother. This grandmotherly figure communicates with doves, spins spider webs into magic string, had a hearth made of roses that are also flames, is described as transcendently beautiful… and can only be seen by the princess. In contrast to this image of heavenly beauty are the goblins – a race that was tossed out of the kingdom in ages past and has lived under the mountain in darkness. They are described as horrendously ugly and misshapen. MacDonald’s tale interweaves these images of darkness and light, intersecting in the space of the mines, where human and goblin worlds collide.
MacDonald explores imagery of being lost, using this as an allegory for faith. It is when the princess is lost that she is able to find her grandmother, and it is only through faith that characters find each other. The princess’ grandmother spins a string for her that she must believe in and follow to find her way and that others must believe in to find the princess. MacDonald playa with ideas of faith as a solution for confusion and feeling lost, using areas like the mines as metaphors for the labrythine confusion of the human experience. Truth and fiction interplay in The Princess and the Goblin and MacDonald explores the idea that disbelief in someone is a form of insult and faith in someone’s word is an important marker of respect.
Like many fairy tale authors, MacDonald examines the complexities of interactions between adults and children, and, in particular, explores the theme of children being ignored and viewed as faulty witnesses. MacDonald challenges adults to believe in the stories of children instead of dismissing everything they say as idle fantasy. In The Princess and the Goblin, disbelief always causes harm to the characters, but it also causes harm to the relationships between people, and that harm is harder to overcome. As the princess says “When I tell you the truth, you say to me “Don’t tell stories”: it seems I must tell stories before you will believe me.” She tells others that she would have to lie to be believed and she refuses to lie.
MacDonald’s tale is one of belief and faith, involving truths that only some people can see and constant questions about the nature of reality. Characters are constantly asked to believe in things that they cannot see and to have faith in people who see things that others cannot. MacDonald tells his audience “Perhaps some people can see things other people can’t see”
People think of Yule and the Christmas holiday as a time of joy and wonderment, a celebration of light, but there has always been a darker side to the holiday season, after all, it is at the Winter Solstice that we experience the darkest day of the year.
In Iceland, one of the most famous Christmas Monsters is Gryla, an ogress, Troll, or giantess who gathers the naughty children up into a sack and brings them home to eat.
Her husband was the troll Lappaluthi, and her children were the Yule Lads, 13 tricksters with names like Spoon Licker (whose role was to lick spoons), Pot Scraper (who would steal unwashed pots and lick them), and Door Slammer (who slams doors to keep everyone awake) (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/meet-the-thirteen-yule-lads-icelands-own-mischievous-santa-clauses-180948162/). The National Museum of Iceland notes: “Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from that poem.” (https://www.thjodminjasafn.is/)
Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches
By Derek Newman-Stille
Most readers probably best know Hekate from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where her name is spelled “Hecate” and she appears before the three witches, angry at their interactions with Macbeth. The association between witches and Hekate extends back long before Shakespeare and in the ancient Greek and Roman world she was frequently referred to as the goddess of witches.
Hekate was a Titaness, a race of deities before the Olympain gods and is often associated with Chthonic things (underworldly things). She is frequently depicted holding torches, and occasionally with a black dog since black dogs were offered to her as sacrifices. She has an association with crossroads and texts often portray her rituals happening at crossroads. She is often depicted as having three forms as Hekate Triformis.
Not only was Hekate considered a goddess of witchcraft, she was also associated with the night, the moon, necromancy (divination through the dead), and ghosts in general. Her approach was believed to be preceded by the howling and wining of gods and she was described as wandering along with the restless dead. Yet despite her frightful associations, she was often associated with protection and her shines were often placed at dangerous areas like crossroads and doorways (areas where things intersect). The ancient Greeks often used frightful imagery as apotropaic charms (charms to ward off evil), frequently employing Medusa’s frightening visage for this purpose, so it makes sense that Hekate, a goddess with frightful associations, would be used in a similar vein.
Her helpful form shows up in the Kore/Persephone myth. When Hades abducts Kore/Persephone, Demeter searches for the young goddess who was her daughter and Hekate aids her in her search. She is even described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as “tender-hearted” and “bright-coiffed”.
Hecate is mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony where she is described as a goddess who was honoured “above all” by Zeus, who gave her shares of the earth, sea, and sky. Hesiod associates her with giving wealth to human beings, bestowing judgement, and giving victory in games.
One of the most famous witches in Ancient Greek literature, Medea, is described as a priestess of Hekate in The Argonautica, by Apollonius Rhodius. Unlike most priestesses, who learn their worship from other priestesses, Medea was described by Apollonius as learning her craft directly from the goddess. In the Argonautica, Apollonius refuses to describe the rituals Medea performs to Hekate, saying “For Medea bade them land and propitiate Hekate with sacrifice. Now all that the maiden prepared for offering the sacrifice may no man know, and may my soul not urge me to sing thereof. Awe restrains my lips, yet from that time the altar which the heroes raised on the beach to the goddess remains till now, a sight to men of a later day” (translated by Douglas Killings). For Apollonius, Hekate’s rituals were meant to be kept a mystery and veiled in secrecy. Apollonius does let slip that honey was used as an offering to the goddess. When Medea’s husband, Jason, invokes the goddess, Apollonius describes the ritual: “he dug a pit in the ground of a cubit’s depth and heaped up billets of wood, and over it he cut the throat of the sheep, and duly placed the carcas above; and he kindled the logs placing fire beneath, and poured over them mingled libations, calling on Hekate Brimo to aid him in the contests. And when he had called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was a gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of the underworld. All the meadows trembled at her step; and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that mead of Amarantian Phasis” (translated by Douglas Killings). Hekate’s presence causes fear and dread to spread and even the sound of her steps scare away other supernatural creatures like nymphs.
Ovid describes the shrine to Hekate that Medea visits as being deep in the forest.
In Euripides’ play Medea, the witch Medea calls upon her chosen goddess by saying “So help me She who of all Gods hath been the best to me, of all my chosen queen and helpmate, Hekate, who dwells apart, the flame of flame, in my fire’s inmost heart” (translated by Gilbert Murray) before she proceeds to kill her own children. Hekate is evoked by Medea both to help protect Jason, and then to take vengeance on his children.
The Roman playwright Seneca also wrote a version of Medea‘s story, and in it, he refers to Media setting up an altar to Hekate within her house. She invokes the goddess with the words “Now summoned by my rites, appear, you heavenly globe of night, displaying your most hostile looks, with menace in every face”, Hekate is associated with the moon in this prayer and is multifaced. Medea later refers to Hekate receiving her prayers with the words “My prayers are received: Thrice has bold Hekate vouchsafed the barking of dogs, and set off uncanny fires with her light-bearing torch”.
Hekate was frequently evoked in curse tablets in the ancient Greek and Roman world, her name inscribed on iron alongside the intended victim. The iron was then pierced with nails and dropped into areas that were considered close to the underworld like underground springs, caves, and graveyards.
The Orphic Hymn to Hekate refers to her primarily as the goddess of roads and crossroads and calls her a “tomb spirit, revelling in the souls of the dead”, yet the hymn also calls her beautiful. It reveals that she is a goddess of complexity and contradiction. She is described as norcturnal, monstrous, and repelling… but it also calls her a beautiful goddess, a youth, and a maiden. She is described as delighting in wild places and loving deer, but she is also described as a devourer of beasts.
Hekate, like magic itself in the ancient Greek and Roman world, is complex, multifaceted, and inconsistent. Her complexity may be reflected in the fact that she is depicted with three forms, not able to capture her contradictory nature in one single form.
She gathers lavender and thyme, hangs them in bundles in her windows. She wears shredded black silk or neat houndstooth suits or jeans with quiet confidence and a wicked smile. She lives on the margins, in cottages at the forest’s edge, in tiny apartments papered with Morris vines. She beguiles, she enchants, and she makes your life pulse and sparkle when you need her most.
The witch is a polarizing figure, inspiring fear, fascination, and curiosity with the invocation of her name. At the heart of these responses is the simple recognition of her power: she represents freedom from everyday rules and knowledge of the forbidden. She (or he or they!) is loved and hated, a shadowy presence on the margins of society, and yet she also possesses the ability to hold communities together, to speak to those of us who long for something more.
She is, quite simply, magic, powerful and strange.
Join two Through the Twisted Woods founders, Dr. Sara Cleto and Dr. Brittany Warman, in an online masterclass for an exploration of the witch in all her multiplicities. Registration is open and will end on April 30th. The course begins on May 1st: Walpurgisnacht!
A review of Murder She Wrote Season 5, episode 21: Mirror, Mirror On the Wall
By Derek Newman-Stille
I have often thought that creating a murder mystery story around Snow White would be an exciting and engaging idea. However, fairy tales are engaged in constant revisioning and reimagining and I found out that my vision had already been realized, though with more realism and less fairy tale content… and it had been realized in the strangest of places – on Murder She Wrote. For those of you unfamiliar with Murder She Wrote, it ran from 1984 until 1996 and featured widowed mystery writer Jessica Fletcher who travelled from place to place solving murders. The show engaged in a lot of meta activities, engaging in cross-overs with other shows, proposing solutions for murder mysteries filmed in the 40s, and, as I discovered, even playing with fairy tale narratives.
The two-part episode Mirror, Mirror On The Wall is a fairy tale adaptation, but brought into the world of Jessica Fletcher and the fictional Maine town of Cabot Cove. Like the fairy tale Snow White, the story features attempted murder, and, of course, a poisoned apple. It is also a story that features jealousy. However, rather than engaging in the ageism of Snow White, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall features two women of roughly the same age. It does still engage in jealousy, but is instead about one writer, Eudora McVeigh, who used to be a best-selling mystery author who is now experiencing writer’s block and her jealousy of Jessica Fletcher’s rising success in the genre. By featuring two ageing women, Mirror, Mirror On The Wall intentionally disrupts the idea of older women being threatened by and afraid of younger women, instead placing the interest of the episode on the competitive world of creative writing and one woman’s fear of another’s success.
Although Murder She Wrote has anti-feminist elements, often directly criticizing feminists, it, perhaps unintentionally, brings attention to the problem of women who don’t engage in ideas of sisterhood and instead seek to oppress each other. Rather than directing her anger at a system that only favours one female mystery writer at a time, Eudora begins the episode by wanting revenge on Jessica, seeing her success as inherently threatening to her own instead of seeking revenge on her publisher who is setting her aside in favour of Jessica. She ignores the men who are oppressing her and instead turns her anger toward another female writer, not seeing the potential for a united front by both of them sharing resources and challenge the patriarchal system and male publisher who is seeking to pit them against each other.
Fascinatingly, Eudora keeps referring to Cabot Cove as a little fairy tale town, pointing out the town’s perceived simplicity and wholesomeness… however, as we who read fairy tales know, there is a dark side to fairy tales, and not only does this fairy tale end in violence and murder (like so many), in this episode, the Sheriff (who moved from New York for a nice, simple life), points out one of the key issues of the show – for a small, quiet little town… there are the highest number of murders per capita. The show features about 24 episodes per year, many of them set in Cabot Cove, and lasted for 12 seasons… and there is at least one murder per episode in addition to multiple attempted murders. Cabot Cove’s quaint, dreamy, fairy tale setting is constantly being undone by murder in order to keep the show progressing.
Ultimately, like most Murder She Wrote episodes, the fairy tale storyline is secondary to the main focus on the show – murder. Ultimately, it is a story that engages with human psychology, clues, criminal slip ups, and the all-important confession.