Dr. Deveny’s lecture on “Pan’s Labyrinth” brought a new, modern historical perspective to fairytales we had never seen before. Taking place during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-9, the film injects fantasy into the volatile environment surrounding little Ofelia, stepdaughter of a Fascist military captain. Weaving the fantasy into reality, director Guillermo del Toro parallels the fight between socialism and fascism during Franco’s reign with the fight between Ofelia/Mercedes and Captain Vidal. And he inputs almost all of Propp’s 31 Functions of folk tales into the story.
Ofelia is the victim, having been taken away from her city home to live in the woods; being persecuted by the captain for sickening his pregnant wife, Carmen (with the mandrake root); and being told she can never venture through the labyrinth in the backyard or else she will get lost. Of course she does not obey that last interdiction, and her finding of the faun (an ambiguous creature who, in representing half man and half animal, we do not know if he is a helpful guide or a hindrance) is what starts her three-part journey. She must complete three tasks in order to return, before the full moon occurs, to another world where she is actually a princess. The crescent birthmark on her left shoulder proves so; she must then prove to the faun that she is the actual princess and worthy of being a princess by completing said tasks. She receives all sorts of magical items (fairies, chalk, a healing mandrake root, enchanted stones) and must test her bravery in using them to gather all sorts of items and evade death. In the end she is able to complete the third task after what seems like disobeying the faun, and after the captain kills her, she goes to her other world and indeed becomes a princess.
What Dr. Deveny forgot to mention in his grandiose speech picking apart every goddamn symbol in the movie was the big picture and its subtleties. del Toro relates Ofelia’s journey to the political situation abound because the poor girl uses these little fantasies to cope with the psychological trauma of both living in a new home with a new, abusive father and living in time of war. They are both a distraction and a self-proof that she is brave and worth the trials through which she puts herself. Her mother is sick and pregnant and unfortunately has no clue that her only daughter is clawing for her attention and needs her support. Having always been a reader as a child, Ofelia uses the fairytales she knows to invent new ones to explain the natural phenomena around her, just like fairytales do for many cultures. For example, Ofelia must be scared of the woods knowing that there are people in them and the captain is constantly hunting through them for infidels. Thus, she puts herself through a treacherous journey in the forest so she can face her fears; she uses the large, overbearing frog that eventually dies at her hand to provide an allegory to her fear of the unknown. Furthermore, she creates her own fairytale of sorts when she uses the chalk to draw a door into another realm in the house where the pale man lies. She uses this task to prove to herself that she can abstain from delicious foods during a time of famine, and she ultimately fails. But of course she does not die; this is just a fantasy of hers. Then, when she escapes and closes the door, we hear bumping noises coming from the place where the door used to be, implying that she is using this fairytales to explain why this new, wooded house creaks at night. She is using the pale man as a coping mechanism for her fears of what goes bump in the night as well as digressing from her famine and the famine that is plaguing the citizens around her. I could keep going but you understand my point; del Toro uses her journey to prove the lengths a little girl will go to to distract herself from the emotional and psychological torture of war and political instability as well as familial uprooting. And when she dies, she dies; her return to the fantasy world we see actually occurs befoer she completely dies, when she is satisfied that she sacrificed her life for the baby’s. She smiles when she comes to terms with her existsence–thenshe dies. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending where she goes to heaven; rather, she has just compelted her life’s journey, even if that life is tragically short.
Having read “Blue Lotus and Red Lotus” previous to listening to Dr. Mian’s presentation, I predicted that we would be discussing the similarities between Bengali fairytales and traditional European fairytales. For example, the story shares many archetypes on common with Grimm tales: burying the gold and iron balls underneath the bamboo tree is analogous to a sister burying her brother’s bones beneath a juniper tree in the Grimm’s Juniper Tree. Both situations use the tree as a source of rebirth, because the two young boys pop out of eggs within the stalks as two princes, as the boy becomes reborn as a phoenix. Both stories then cary on the plot so that the reborn individuals can address their initial cause of death: the evil mother figure. The lotuses kill the Rakkhashi, and the phoenix drops a stone on his stepmother. This plot twist also intimates another obvious archetype beign shared: the evil stepmother. These shared themes make me believe more in poly-genesis, where stories contain similar themes because they share the same underlying morals or lessons common to the collective unconscious of all humanity.
However, we did not really go over any of this in extravagant detail; instead, I learned about his unique concept of fairytales and how differently Bengali fairytales are formulated than traditional European fairytales. For example, many Bengali fairytales come from the Sanksrit “Panchatantra” collection of fables from ~550 AD. And these fairytales, collectively called Rupkothas, do not ever really contain “fairies.” A more tangible difference is that the common theme of Bengali fairytales is that virtue is rewarded and evil is punished; that is, an individual who starts out evil in a story will succumb to the good that other characters represent, and there is no redemption or lesson-learning from within the tales. Rather, that is up for the readers, or more appropriately listeners, to discern for themselves. There are similarities, as well, between the different cultures of fairytales. For example, Rupkothas have a large emphasis on talking animals, and that theme is also abundant in European fairytales. There are demons and monsters and witches, characters we always see in Grimm tales and the like.
So, I suppose that by understanding that these fairytales are unique in that they do have a Bengali cultural base and come specifically from old Sanskrit texts rather than being ripped from verbal tales during trade (as was the case in many European fairytales), that they can also be similar since, overall, people must share a collective unconscious (or common sense, if you will).
Look at that! Brown people!
In true Mean Girls sense (anybody catch the titular quote?), Oscar Wilde lived a life “as artificial as possible.” Nevertheless, he sought a deeper understanding of human motive in capturing sorrow through fairytales. His intended audience, unlike the common Grimm tale or even Andersen’s tales upon which he based many of his works, is “childlike people from eighteen to eighty.” Almost all of his fairytales characterize magical individuals, but they never end happily ever after. In fact, they almost always die, or were never alive.
The Selfish Giant, for example, poses a mean ogre-like character who prevents children from playing in his garden and causes a chilly winter around the garden. Wilde animates the seasons to illustrate the giant’s emotional state, loneliness; it is no surprise, then, that when the ogre finally finds the little boy he was looking for (the one who snuck into his garden during the first winter period and made it spring again), the overshadowing winter pales in comparison to the white blossoms of the tree in the corner of the garden. The ogre asks who could have put nails in the no-coincidence Jesus-like boy, and the boy responds that it was out of Love and tells the ogre he will take him to Paradise. The ogre then dies, lying peacefully under the tree.
He dies–not the best message to give to young children, who may see that the only way to be happy is to die. But the ogre dies having found a reason to live–to entertain and facilitate the children’s play. It is this complex emotional paradox of figuring out one’s personal reason for existence and then being happy to die once it is found out that surrounds most of Oscar Wilde’s stories. He injects regular moral-telling fairytales with deep existential undertones to allow more adult readers to be able to learn from the stories, not just children who have yet to learn the “rules of society.” Wilde differs from other fairytales, despite using magic and marveling over a cute canon of typical fairytale characters, in that he fixates on figuring out the purpose of life and understanding one’s own situations instead of transcending an entire society’s worth of lessons.
African American folk and fairy tales are unique to the African experience, considering the diaspora traveled from the continent all over the Americas. Most went to Brazil, but some came to America by way of Barbados or straight to Charleston. The storytelling tradition began in the country continent of Africa with the Griots and Griottes who were associated with royal families and kept history alive through storytelling. Considering the Africans came to a racist, conservative, traditional American culture during the times of slavery and afterward (unfortunately), they had no option but to resort to their traditions to keep themselves sane and preserve the values of their own culture. For example, the basket-weaving tradition carried over from Sierra Leone, and traditional African stories were brought into American literature with Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby and Anansi the Spider.
But beyond the sense of cultural preservation, what makes African American folk and fairytales so unique is that they go beyond repeating African traditions: they narrate the clash of African and American cultures. W.E.B. DuBois tells us about the grit of the double identity in his work The Souls of Black Folk. In his tale, he digresses about how the African American is responsible for representing and maintaining his community, but he is also responsible for living in the American culture with an American lifestyle. It is a delicate balance between conceding to live like the ‘white folks’ and being too stubborn to be able to be successful in what some African Americans could perceive as a foreign culture. He also stresses that there is a mixture; no African American is pure Africa, he is a mix of white, black, and anything in between. One must embrace this mixture, inspiring the African American folk and fairytales spawned in post-slavery America.
The Brownies’ Book is the best example of African American folktales because it collects all of the magazines designed by the NAACP for African Americans and presents one sum picture of the 1920s culture. It is indicative of cultural identity surfacing in the Harlem Renaissance, and even simple fairytales in it like “How Mr. Crocodile Got His Rough Back” exemplify the unique African American culture. It combines the traditional African theme of explaining natural phenomena through personification with the African American identity of describing the torn family lifestyle. The father works in Florida, away from his family, just to win the daily bread; meanwhile, it is unsafe for a colored child to play outside, so he is forced to distract himself with his Granny’s tales. These African American folk and fairy tales are a ‘tool for edification,’ allowing the unfortunately-confined African American culture to blossom into a population of global citizens.