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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fairy Tale Towers and False Brides: “Maid Maleen”

As we’ve previously discussed here, the practice of locking women up in towers of one sort of another was not exactly unknown in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. In some cases, the women entered willingly, interested in pursuing a religious life—out of either genuine religious devotion, or interest in the opportunities offered by cloisters, which included education, culture and the opportunity to avoid the risks of childbirth. In other cases, the women did not enter willingly at all, but found themselves forced into prison and death. Some for crimes they committed; some for purely political reasons; and at least two because if you’re going to marry six women but not do that all at once you have got to hurry up the process by imprisoning and then executing them in towers.

Not at all surprisingly, this historical reality bled into fairy tales. Rapunzel and its variants are probably the best known, especially after a certain recent movie, but equally interesting is a story of a maiden imprisoned not by a witch, but by her own father: Maid Maleen.

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A Tale of Artistry and Unfairness: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”

I may tell you unpleasant truths, but that is a proof of my friendship.

Most of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales deal with some sort of magic—witches, or fairies, or mermaids, or tiny girls who can fit inside a flower and set off for adventures. But a few of his stories contain realistic settings—including one of his most famous and influential tales, “The Ugly Duckling,” originally published in 1843.

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Fairy Tales of Magical Abductions and Sudden Coups: “The Blue Light” and “The Tinderbox”

Hans Christian Andersen is primarily known for his original fairy tales, which borrowed images from the stories told to him by his grandmother and other elderly people in childhood, but used their own plots and characters. But from time to time, he also worked with existing fairy tales, adding his own touches to both obscure and better known tales, as in his story, “The Tinder Box,” one of his very first published fairy tales, based on a tale so well known that the Brothers Grimm also collected a version, “The Blue Light,” making this one of the few fairy tales to be both a Grimm and Andersen tale.

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Dinosaurs, Westerns, and Cars Don’t Mix: Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

Disney had never had much luck with animated dinosaurs. The dinosaurs of Fantasia had been one of the most critically panned parts of that otherwise astonishing film, and Fantasia itself needed several rereleases before it turned a profit. Dinosaur was a minor box office success, but a dull movie that earned little critical praise and was soon forgotten. (It didn’t help that it was not even recognized by Disney as a Disney animated film for a few years after its release.)

Still. Rival Universal Studios continued to have amazing success with films that focused on dinosaurs eating people, and the dinosaur attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and even—to a lesser extent—the dinosaur attraction at Epcot remained popular with tourists.

If Disney couldn’t exactly make dinosaurs work—well. Perhaps Pixar could.

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When the Evil Stepmother Has a Cinderella Story of Her Own: Danielle Teller’s All the Ever Afters

It can be rather difficult to summon up any sympathy for the stepmother in most versions of Cinderella. Oh, she may not be the worst of the evil stepmothers out there—after all, she never tries to kill her young, beautiful stepdaughter, unlike a certain Evil Queen with a poisoned apple fetish. And she seems motivated, at least in part, with the purest of motives: to help her own daughters achieve a brilliant marriage, and thus, a happy ending. Still. Against this, she turns her stepdaughter into a servant, blatantly favors her own daughters, and—in many versions—quite possibly robs her stepdaughter of her inheritance. And, of course, she famously refuses to let her lovely stepdaughter go to a ball.

No wonder we mostly cheer for Cinderella.

But what if we heard the stepmother’s side of this tale. Would we still cheer as hard?

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Is Killing Giants Ever Justified? The Evolving Tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk”

Last week, we talked about the first literary version of Jack and the Beanstalk, a weird tale from 1734 framed by discussions of Christmas traditions, witches, hobgoblins and ghosts, that hinted at revolution and overthrow. And pretty much stated flat out, without hinting, that before Jack went up the beanstalk, he was involved in some entertaining bedtime fun with his grandmother, an enchantress, fun that eventually allowed him to become the ruler of an entire world. Ahem.

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The Original Story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” Was Emphatically Not for Children

If, like me, you once tried to plant jelly beans in your backyard in the hopes that they would create either a magical jelly bean tree or summon a giant talking bunny, because if it worked in fairy tales it would of course work in an ordinary backyard in Indiana, you are doubtless familiar with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, a tale of almost but not quite getting cheated by a con man and then having to deal with the massive repercussions.

You might, however, be a little less familiar with some of the older versions of the tale—and just how Jack initially got those magic beans.

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A Return to Artistic Triumph: Pixar’s Inside Out

Something seemed to be, well, off with the Pixar brand after the brilliant Toy Story 3 (2010). Perhaps, critics whispered, that something was parent company Disney, who had insisted that Pixar create a sequel to one of its lesser regarded films, Cars (2006), leading to the beautiful but largely bland Cars 2 (2011), and followed up with a demand for a Disney Princess film, Brave (2012)—not exactly in the wheelhouse of the male-dominated Pixar films. Or perhaps that something was the multiple demands on John Lasseter, still supervising Pixar’s creative team, but also charged with bringing the Disney Animation Studios back from the brink of yet another creative downturn. After all, the Disney Animation Studios were starting to produce films that felt rather like Pixar films—most notably with Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)—making it rather easy to assume that Lasseter’s attention was focused more on Disney than Pixar. Perhaps it was the absence of Steve Jobs, who had died in 2011.

Or perhaps, others argued, the Pixar brand had never been all that amazing to begin with—sure, the studio had given us the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo (2003), but their films had also included the relatively weak A Bug’s Life (1998) and the aforementioned Cars. Maybe the astonishing streak of films between 2007 and 2010—Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010)—was just, well, a lucky, astonishing streak of films, a creative burst that would not be repeated. The Disney Animation Studios, after all, had enjoyed—or suffered—similar trends: a few years of great films all in a row, marked by decidedly weaker films in the middle.

[Luckily, writer/director Pete Docter thought that animating human emotions might be fun.]

A Less Comforting Supernatural Guardian: The Grimms’ “Godfather Death”

It can be easier, I suppose, to imagine death as something a little less impersonal than, well, death. Say, something, or perhaps someone, almost human, or at least looking almost human, arriving more as an escort than a killer, pointing people to the next step – whatever that step might be. A little bit easier, maybe. For some people, at least.

This comfort perhaps explains why so many myths and folktales in western culture focus on the figure of Death – often inviting Death to enter their homes, or even almost join their families. “Godfather Death,” retold by the Brothers Grimm, is one of several typical examples.

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The Brothers Grimm’s “Bearskin” Asks: What Would You Do for a Magic, Bottomless Purse?

After princesses, the most popular subject in western fairy tales might just be bears. Talking bears, transformed bears, bears able to use sign language, bears arousing questionable passions in young handsome princes, bears with somewhat questionable agendas, the occasional dead bear—you name the bear, and it’s probably in some fairy tale, somewhere. To the point where even a deal with the devil story ends up managing to involve a bear. A mostly dead bear, true, but, still, a bear.

Oh, and yes, make some indirect points about ensuring that soldiers receive some sort of income post-war and musing on the boundaries between humans, bears and monsters, but I choose to focus on the bear part.

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Can Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time Possibly Live Up to the Book?

Tomorrow is the release date of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time.

I loved the book.

I loved Meg.

I—mostly—love Disney, in an off-and-on, “it really depends upon the last film and just how much are the theme parks charging for drinks right now” kinda way.

I am apprehensive.

Gulp.

[Spoilers for the novel]

Departing from the Disney Message Just a Tad: Monsters University

If you’re not scary, what kind of monster are you?

The astonishing success of the 1999 Toy Story 2—a movie that managed to outgross its predecessor and earn even better reviews—made Disney even more eager for sequels. When, just two years later, Monsters, Inc. managed to outgross Toy Story 2, Disney believed that they knew what that next sequel could be, and told Pixar creatives to start brainstorming. Disney executives were so eager, in fact, that when Disney and Pixar parted ways in 2005, Disney announced that they would be going ahead with a sequel to Monsters, Inc.

It just wouldn’t be created by Pixar.

[Very spoilery, since a part of the ending needs discussion.]

I’ve Fallen for Who Now? The French Fairy Tale of “Bearskin”

We’re all fairly familiar with the tale of the girl who meets her prince at a ball. But what if the princess just happens to already be legally and religiously married—to an ogre? And is having just a few issues with her current personal appearance, by which I mean “sometimes she looks like a bear, although the sort of bear that collects flowers in the wood, not the sort of bear that eats people, although frankly, given the sort of story she’s in, she probably should be eating more people.”

You’d have the French salon fairy tale, “Bearskin.”

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Imprisonment and the Fairy Tales of Henriette Julie de Murat

Most of the French salon fairy tale writers lived lives mired in scandal and intrigue. Few, however, were quite as scandalous as Henriette Julie de Murat (1670?—1716), who, contemporaries whispered, was a lover of women, and who, authorities insisted, needed to spend some quality in prison, and who, she herself insisted, needed to dress up as a man in order to escape said prison—and this is before I mention all of the rumors of her teenage affairs in Brittany, or the tales of how she more than once wore peasant clothing in the very halls of Versailles itself.

Oh, and she also wrote fairy tales.

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Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults: Snow White, Blood Red

In 1993, editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling offered up an anthology of fairy tales written expressly for an adult audience, Snow White, Blood Red. Featuring writers as distinct as Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee, Charles de Lint and Patricia McKillip, the anthology contains nineteen fairy tales and one poem, as well as two introductory essays from the editors.

It’s a book that I mostly remembered for one of its retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, and also for introducing me to Charles de Lint’s Newford stories and novels.Rereading it now, I realized that I’d forgotten its other strength: it showcases just how much can be done with and inspired by fairy tales.

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