Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Fairy Tales

The Bluebeard Variations No. 1

O May, month of nerdy holidays. I write this on May the Fourth, a.k.a. Star Wars Day. Two days ago, this past Saturday, was two tasty holidays: Independent Bookstore Day and Free Comic Book Day.

In honor of Free Comic Book Day, I drew (yes, me, using a Wacom tablet for the first time) the first in a series of comics that follow the trials and tribulations of that wacky fairy-tale wife murderer, Bluebeard.

Comic: The Bluebeard Variations #1

Poor Bluebeard; he just can’t catch a break. All he wants to do is find personal fulfillment by repeatedly murdering his wives. And yet. In this series, it just never goes right for him.

In part inspired by Blondie, in part inspired by David Ives’ play Variations on the Death of Trotsky, I have thirteen of these comics that I am, at this point, planning on drawing my damn self. Realizing how long it takes to draw stuff is a healthy exercise that every writer of comics should undergo at least once. 🙂

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fantasy

What qualifies as fantasy, in the modern genre sense?

Therese Neilsen, "Fact or Fiction" card art from Magic: The Gathering

Therese Neilsen, “Fact or Fiction” card art from Magic: The Gathering

It’s hard to define precisely. Perhaps we can look for elves, dwarves, knights, ghosts, the supernatural, monsters, gods, and magic. But not only do those things come up in other genres–ghosts, for example, are in everything from Hamlet to Beloved–but they do not entirely define the genre. There’s been plenty of argument about the minutiae of genre boundaries: science fiction vs fantasy vs science fantasy vs magical realism vs horror vs dark fantasy vs …

Scholar Michael Trout defines a division between science fiction and fantasy: Fantasy “could’ve happened, but didn’t” in an “imaginary past”; science fiction “hasn’t happened yet but could” (usually) in an “imaginary future.” Even these boundaries are fuzzy as all heck.

The modern fantasy genre has its roots in fairy tales; fairy tales have roots inexorably entwined with myth. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the father of the modern fantasy genre, thought a lot about what defines the fantasy genre. He says that the main thing about fantasy creating a compelling “Secondary World,” a world in which the reader can be completely immersed, a world in which the reader can invest their belief fully. He says, in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events.

So how can I make a fantasy world?

Trolls by Brian Froud

Trolls by Brian Froud

Sometimes I see people use a few of the outer markers of the fantasy genre, that being a sort of generic Northern European medieval pastiche: knights, princesses, dragons, fairies. This irritates me. First off, it does a disservice to the genre as a whole, limiting it to a small portion of what it is an cutting away at its history. Secondly, it flaunts a stunning lack of research and world-building. Even if you do want to invoke Northern European medieval fantasy, like Tolkien did, you can do so with research and care or you can sort of rip off Tolkien. Goodness knows both happen and are published.

Let’s look at Tolkien’s world and do a bit of reverse-engineering. Tolkien based his world heavily off of Norse mythology. Middle-Earth echoes Midgard; the One Ring echoes the Ring Cycle; Eowyn echoes the Valkyrie Brunhilda. Gandalf resembles the form of Odin takes when he wanders the world of men. Tolkien straight-up ripped the names of most of his dwarves from the Norse Edda Völuspá. So Tolkein researched an sourced his Middle-Earth world off of Norse myth; a few smatterings of other things were thrown in there, not to mention Tolkien’s more unique spins on fantasy creatures like Hobbits and Uruk-Hai.

J.R.R. Tolkien, illustration for The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, illustration for The Lord of the Rings

Other works of fantasy take off on other Northern European mythos: Lloyd Alexander’s stunning series The Chronicles of Prydain cherry-picks the most exciting bits out of the 9th-century Welsh epic The Mabinogion. Countless revamps of the King Arthur mythos from England have become classic, including T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

Of course, there are plenty of fantasy books that break of out what Rachel Pollack refers to as the “interminable Celtic bullshit” model of fantasy. J.K. Rowling incorporates elements of not only Celtic, but also Greek and Eastern European creatures and tales into her Harry Potter universe. Nigerian tales about twins and doubles figure heavily into Helen Oyeyemi’s deliciously frightening novel The Icarus Girl. The Arabian Nights and its associated Islamic fantasy mythos has influenced everything from Disney’s Aladdin to G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen to Saladin Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon. Thankfully anime and manga have become popular enough in the United States to expose Americans to Japanese fantasy, everything from ancient monsters (like Kappa and Oni) to classic fairy tale tropes (spirit possession, angry ghosts) to more modern tropes (Magical Girls).

Cover art for Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon

cover art for Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon

My point here is that any fantasy setting likely has some kind of cultural backdrop that comes with it. Orcs are Norse: they’re Dark Elves re-skinned. (Yes, with extra bonus racism. Fantasy deals with race, Othering, and imperialism, from The Tempest onwards. Deal with it.) Dragons are delightfully universal and appear in many different cultures, albeit with different appearances and abilities depending on the myths surrounding them. When you are writing fantasy, and building your worlds, consider which bits of Earth you may or may not be invoking.

For example, you could invoke Frank Frazetta's vision of Conan the Barbarian, and then I'd have to go quietly vomiting into the night.

For example, you could invoke Frank Frazetta’s vision of Conan the Barbarian, and then I’d have to remind you to read hero epics like the Greek Hercules or the Irish Cu Chulainn, and then go off quietly vomiting into the night.

In the 1970s, Gary Gygax and others created Dungeons & Dragons–two images that efficiently invoke the fantasy genre. One thing the game’s creators sought to do was to make up some brand-new monsters that weren’t based on existing myths. Thus we have Gelatinous Cubes, Beholders, and Displacer Beasts, among others. But was the D&D world completely original? Of course not: there are plenty of culturally specific references, monsters, and language. I think having a fantasy world completely separate from our own is not only impossible but not a particularly compelling goal. To me, a good fantasy world takes what’s happening in our own world on a mythological level and spins it or provides a fresh and compelling Secondary World.

Behold!  (It's a Beholder, from the Monster Manual.)

Behold!
(It’s a Beholder, from the Monster Manual.)

Mostly what I’m challenging folks to do here is consider any fantasy worlds you’ve created, and do your own cultural math: What myths, fairy tales and/or ancient worlds are you using to build up your fantasy world? If you haven’t used any on purpose, I have a feeling something probably crept out subconsciously. Try and track it down and see what it is, and if that’s what you were going for. I’m not gonna say that world doesn’t need another Celtic-based fantasy novel. I love Celtic fantasy novels. Goodness knows I’m obsessed with Celtic changeling mythos and will for sure rewrite and polish my novel about that at some point. What I will say is that the world has a lot of damn interesting stories, and perhaps it would be worth your while to go forth and find them. And then, when you do find them, do some real damn research, write real characters, and don’t go totally off the rails like Stephenie Meyer did with her Quileute werewolves.

Now go forth and read this roundtable with a bunch of fantasy writers of color who have more coherent things to say about this than I do.

A few fantasy novels that are not based in Norse or Celtic or Greek or Roman mythos:

The Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin (never mind the whitewashed TV version)

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (also her novel Mr. Fox)

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Wild Seed (the Patternist series) by Octavia E. Butler

The Last Wish by Andrej Sapowski (which The Witcher videogames are based on)

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (which is the closest to Doing Its Own Damn Thing of any of these books)

Wild Seed cover illustration by Wayne Barlowe

Wild Seed cover illustration by Wayne Barlowe

What other fantasy novels should we be reading? Got any that aren’t Norse-Greek-Celtic-Roman? Post ’em in the comments, precioussss.

The Heroine’s Journey, Part Two

So what do heroic stories look like, if not Campbell’s monomyth? Are there female-specific stories and story structure?

At the panel I went to at GeekGirlCon, B.J. Priester, Tricia Barr, Jennifer Stuller, and Alan Kistler identified a few things they noticed while looking at female-centric films and television shows of the past thirty or so years. Here’s some of the things they found:

Heroine’s journeys tend to be less about an individual going forth and coming back tales, and more about getting a whole community through heroic growth. It’s not just about the heroine; it’s about her AND her community. Collaboration, not just cooperation.

The whole Scooby Gang is part of the process.

The whole Scooby Gang is part of the process. They’re not just Buffy’s sidekicks. Anyone who thinks different, um, I dare you to tangle with Willow. Or Spike. Or Riley. Or Giles. (I guess you could tangle with Xander, but you’ll probably have an angry witch on your hands.)

Tricia Barr pointed out that Jada Solo (Han and Leia’s daughter) does get a monomyth-esque origin story in the Star Wars novels, but it’s nonetheless about finding herself within community, not separate from it. Also, the panelists pointed out, the Harry Potter books then follow more of a heroine’s journey than a monomythic hero’s journey.

I find this model of the heroine’s journey compelling, not only because it busts out of the monomyth, but also because it goes beyond even Maureen Murdock’s model of the heroine’s journey, which is intriguing, but ultimately a model for a solo journey of the lone heroine.

Murdock talks a lot about why often heroines collect male sidekicks, for example.

Murdock talks a lot about why often heroines collect male sidekicks, for example.

In Campbell’s monomyth, women show up as a) quest objects, b) the Goddess, or c) the Temptress.

fig 1: woman as quest object.

fig 1: woman as quest object.

According to Campbell, the Goddess gives the hero a boon of divine love, but then he has to go have an Oedipal moment and feel tempted and weird. Or, as Campbell puts it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “The mystical marriage of the queen goddess of the world represent the hero’s total master of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master.”  But when he starts to realize that women, and himself, are actual living creatures with slowly decaying bodies, “there is experiences a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul.”

In the hero’s journey, love is a mixed blessing then, okay if divine but problematic if fleshy. In the heroine’s journey, love and connection are a boon; something the heroine struggles with but ultimately needs as a source of strength.

Learning to love is part of Xena's redemption quest.

Learning to love is part of Xena’s redemption quest.

Some of the tropes that continue to dog female characters in modern media: Dead Mom and/or Cop Dad. Dead Mom is a trope as old as time; it’s a recurring theme in fairy tales. Many have written about it, notably Carl Jung. Perfect Mom dies and is a source of strength for the hero/ine from beyond the grave, oftentimes via a magical object like Vassalisa’s doll, or Cinderella’s magical tree and/or flock of murderous doves. The perfect mother dies and is replaced with a wicked stepmother in these tales, because the Victorians couldn’t handle wicked mothers. The further you go back in the tales, the more wicked mothers you find. (You also find more incestuous fathers, but that’s a separate another tale for another time.)

Speaking of fathers, though, Cop Dad comes up more often than is comfortable in modern TV. It’s irritating because, as Alan Kistler pointed out, it emphasizes that the father is not only a part of who the heroine is now, but in fact the reason why she’s heroic.

So the Lance sisters from the DC show Arrow have Cop Dad. That being said, at least Laurel can not only hold her own in a fight, but is a badass lawyer. Sara is freakin' Black Canary, which was not because of her father...it was because of other men, but hey. Perhaps that at least bends the trope?

So the Lance sisters from the DC show Arrow have Cop Dad. That being said, at least Cop Dad is around, and also a three-dimensional, flawed character. Plus, Laurel can not only hold her own in a fight, but is also a badass lawyer. Sara is freakin’ Black Canary, which was not really because of her father…it was because of other men, but hey. Perhaps that at least bends the trope?

The panelists’ final point was this: we are storytellers. We help shape stories. Look forward, not backward. Look to the ways heroine stories can be, and how we want to write them.

The Heroine’s Journey

So this past weekend, I attended GeekGirlCon in Seattle. It’s a wonderful con: a crowd of probably 70% women, 30% men, a selection of geeky arts, crafts, real SCIENCE, great panels and awesome networking opportunities.

My buddy @tereshkova2001 doing science!!1! (luminol experiement), dressed as Ms. Frizzle.

My buddy @tereshkova2001 doing science!!1! (luminol experiement), dressed as Ms. Frizzle.

One of said great panels that I went to was titled “The Heroine’s Journey: Moving Beyond Campbell’s Monomyth.” (When I saw this in the program I was like THEY’RE PLAYING MY SONG GOTTA GO. As a reminder, the title of my master’s critical “thesis” i.e. 20-page paper was “Mistress of Both Worlds: Women’s Stories and the Monomyth.”)

So I was 85% incredibly pleased with this panel and 15%…displeased? Feeling like they were missing something? At the end of the panel I sort of vibrated and wrote stuff down for the next 20 minutes because I was so excited about the topic and had so many thoughts and feelings. Allow me to try and explain.

First off, a description of the panel:

The panel was moderated by B.J. Priester, who has a great series of blog posts on FANgirl Blog about the Heroine’s Journey. You can start here.

Panelists included Star Wars expert Tricia Barr of FANgirl Blog, Jennifer Stuller of Ink-Stained Amazon, and Alan Kistler of The Mary Sue and other places as well. They are all super-rad and I recommend checking out their work.

The basic thesis of the panel was this:

  1. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is a story far too limited to tell women’s stories. This is because a) it was based in male Freudian psychology and b) it’s limited to a going forth-becoming-returning story, i.e. a coming-of-age tale.
  2. Also Campbell was an asshat who dismissed women as even needing to go on a “hero’s journey” because they were obviously either sort of pre-enlightened quest objects, or the Goddess, or the temptress.
  3. There are specific aspects of stories involving a central female heroine that move beyond and differ significantly from the monomyth. (These were SO RAD that I’m going to discuss them next post.)

The only bit of the panel that I had a hard time with was that the panel was a bit dismissive of fairy tales. Look forward, not back, they said. And I agree that looking forward is our goal, and that these new stories with central female characters in the 20th and 21st centuries are great and worthy of study. However, it’s throwing the baby out with the bath water to dismiss fairy tales and even myth entirely. In fact, I think fairy tales in particular are incredibly important. (Duh. It’s me.)

But why? Because they have been orally transmitted vessels of popular, often populist culture for millennia. Until a bunch of middle class mostly dudes wrote them down, fairy tales were told mostly by women and poor folks. The panelists pointed out that myth and old tale have often been vehicles for advancing the ideals of patriarchal societies. And to an extent, yes. But I think there’s a lot more going on in myth and tale than mere patriarchal values. I have a working thesis that fairy tales were collected by the Great Collectors of Tales (Mme. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy in France, The Brothers Grimm in Germany, Alexander Afansyev in Russia, Joseph Jacobs in England, etc.) riiight at about the time that nationalism was becoming a thing. The tales of a particular region suddenly got co-opted into that region’s national identity, and used as a cultural touchstone. Thing is, many have used tales for very specific purposes: nationalism, morality (e.g. bowdlerized versions of tales being read to children), propaganda (you bet the Nazis latched on to the Grimm tales), and vehicles for a particular school of thought (coughBRUNOBETTLEHEIMcough). So fairy tales have been used and abused for many reasons, patriarchal culture being a major one. But that is not all they are.

So why do I like fairy tales so dang much?

They are simultaneously problematic and redemptive for women. They are wrought with tropes and bizarre internal logic, but at the same time they exist in a weird psychological landscape that I find freeing. The influence of fairy tales in particular is strange and universal, and not always nice.

For example, why do tales about women with hands or an arm cut off come up in so many cultures? Why tales of wicked mothers? How did this dang dead mother, father raising daughter thing come about? Why so many discussions of incest in these tales? Psychologists love to have goes at answering questions like this. And I don’t begrudge psychologists their place to do so. But I’m also curious as to how we as world-builders and story-creators respond to fairy tales. We’re not all Jungian jerks like Campbell. What have we to take from this incredible wealth of source material?

 

Anyway, after the panel, my friend says “So…is this gonna be a blog post?”
And I, in my vibrating-muttering-frantically-scribbling state still, said, “It’s gonna be a book.”

Point is, I have a lot to say about the Heroine’s Journey. Stay tuned for some more of it next post, including all the awesome points that the panel made.

Obsessions and Golems

Gosh. I could write about things that aren’t stock photos OR classic epic poetry today. Huh. That being said, if you’re craving some classics, follow me on Twitter (@AnneBeanTweets) for my occasional live-tweets while reading Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Also, even though Stock Photo Hell is dead, long live Stock Photo Hell. The link there is about a video/PR campaign by the Republican party that disastrously backfired, not only because they used the hashtag #IAmARepublican but because the video seems to have been made almost entirely of stock photos. And as the Republican party trying to say how your members are diverse and interesting when in reality you searched “smiling Indian doctor” on iStockphoto.com for an image to use? Cheeeeesy.

Seriously, though: caveat scriptor. Whatever you write about will come back to haunt you in weird ways, like being sent endless Disney Princess memes, being acutely aware of stock photos, or finding Google Glass creepily similar to the dystopian novel you wrote a few years back.

But for real, in terms of my writing obsessions, can we talk about fairy tales? Specifically, can we talk about Jewish tales and legends?! Because they are the coolest. There are rampaging golems, vampires, a weaponized alphabet, demonesses stalking people from behind mirrors, magical artifacts, ghosts that possess the living (dybbuk), and more! A great starting place is to check out Howard Schwartz’s books of Jewish tales, such as Elijah’s Violin and Lilith’s Cave.

cover of The Golem by NeugroschelRecently I’ve been reading a collection of golem stories translated by Joachim Neugroschel. The book contains multiple stories by multiple folks including the classic 1921 play by H. Leivick. Right now I’ve been going through stories originally published by Yudl Rosenberg in 1909 that detail the exploits of the golem as raised by Rabbi Leyb of Prague. Rabbi Leyb, a.k.a. The Maharal, was a badass Rabbi/wizard who did subversive and heroic things to protect the Jews of Prague. The number one thing that endangered the Jews was the blood libel, i.e. Christians planting copious quantities of blood and/or the bodies of dead children in Jewish houses/the Jewish ghetto in order to convince everyone that Jews killed children. Never mind where the Christians were getting all these child-corpses from. (In one of the tales, a particularly nutty priest who’s been in a long feud with Rabbi Leyb actually kills a child to use in the blood libel. He is defeated by the golem and exposed for his fraud.)

So, for those of you who are not as obsessive about this stuff as me, a golem is a creature made of clay and brought to life by inscribing the word “emet” or “truth” in Hebrew on its forehead. In order to “kill” a golem, one rubs out the first letter of the word so that it reads “met” or “dead.” The golem cannot speak, and is inhumanly strong. I knew all this, coming into the Rosenberg stories. What I didn’t know was that the Golem of Prague had a name and occasionally got up to wacky hijinks. Joseph the Golem, a.k.a. the Golem of Prague, was one part protector and one part domestic servant. In fact, this one time there was an awkward situation where the Rabbi’s wife forgot to turn off the golem after she’d asked him to carry water and over flowed the…wait, doesn’t that sound a little bit familiar?

Mickey Mouse in Disney's Sorcerer's ApprenticeApparently, as Neugroschel mentions in the introduction to the book, Goerthe based his symphonic poem on the golem story, and the rest, as they say, is history. I find it interesting to track where golem mythos shows up in modern culture, from The Thing (Ben Grimm is Jewish) to incarnations in The X Files and Sleepy Hollow.

cover to Saga of the Swamp Thing #11, featuring the golem

An actual golem showed up in Saga of the Swamp Thing #11.

 

That’s all I’ve got. Join me next week for one or more of my usual obsessions: fairy tales, feminism, writing craft, and/or comics. Oh my.

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