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.
Truth, Faith, and Goblins
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”
A review of Jewel Kats’ Hansel & Gretel: A Fairy tale with a Down Syndrome Twist (Loving Healing Press, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Many fairy tales portray disability as a problem of character, as something that indicates a problem in a character’s personality. Jewel Kats wrote a series of fairy tale re-workings and re-writings in picture book format that imagine disability as a factor of human life rather than as a symbol or indication of a problem. In her “Hansel & Gretel: A Fairy tale with a Down Syndrome Twist”, Kats explores the possibilities within folk and fairy tale narratives for opening up questions about disability.
Kats recreates Hansel as a person who has Down Syndrome. He experiences discrimination at home as his mother tries to protect him, telling him that he is “sick” and in need of protection. His father reminds everyone that he isn’t ill, he is someone who has Down syndrome. When outside of his come, Hansel feels a sense of freedom that he didn’t have in his home.
When Hansel encounters the witch in the narrative and her talking toad, he encounters discrimination because of his Down syndrome. Hansel responds to the witch seeing him exclusively as a walking disability by providing his name, showing that he is a complete person, not a symbol of disability. When the witch assumes he is unintelligent, he responds by outsmarting her.
Kats creates a transformative tale that is about challenging assumptions about Down Syndrome and creating understanding between people who have Down Syndrome and those who don’t.
“Hansel & Gretel: A Fairy tale with a Down Syndrome Twist” is a fairy tale adaptation that combines excellent illustrations with a powerful narrative that reminds readers that fairy tales are transformative. It is written as a children’s book, but has those moments of re-thinking that allow people of any age to question ideas of disability.
To discover more about the work of Jewel Kats, visit her website at http://www.jewelkats.com/