content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Delicate Magics: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin

At the entrance to the town they put on visibility. It made them no warmer, and impaired their self-esteem.

In the last decade of her life, author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) told an interviewer that “I want to write about something different.”

That different turned out to be fairy tales. Warner had played with themes of magic and enchantment in her work before, and always had an interest in folklore, but for this project, she tried something a bit different: interconnected stories of other and fairy. Most were published in The New Yorker from 1972-1975, and collected in the last book printed in Warner’s lifetime: Kingdoms of Elfin (1976). Regrettably out of print for decades, the collection is now being reissued by Handheld Press, with a foreward by Greer Gilman, an introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies, and extensive footnotes by Kate McDonald.

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Defining Princesses: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Swineherd”

“The Princess and the Pea” is perhaps Andersen’s most famous tale about a princess, or more precisely, explaining what a princess actually is. That is, a princess is someone who will show up soaking wet on your doorstop and demand that a bed be prepared especially for her particular needs, and then will spend the next day complaining about it, but, on the bright side, the entire incident will later give you a small interesting exhibit for your museum.

Maybe not that much of a bright side.

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A Stolen Fairy Tale: The Swan Princess

The animation studios at Disney in the 1980s could be a rather stressful place, to put it mildly. Even for an animator who had started with the 1973 Robin Hood, continued through the 1977 The Rescuers, and eventually found himself directing the 1981 The Fox and the Hound, which if not exactly one of Disney’s all-time great success stories, had earned a solid profit on its initial release, and would later continue to bring the company steady earnings from video and streaming sales.

Unfortunately, after these mild successes, Disney executives thought it would be a good idea to assign that animator, Richard Rich, to help direct the already troubled production of 1985 The Black Cauldron. Like many seemingly good ideas in Disney history, this one turned out poorly. Rich ended up having “creative differences” with multiple people assigned to the project, including then-animator Tim Burton, screenwriter Rosemary Anne Sisson, animators John Musker and Ron Clements (who slid over to The Great Mouse Detective and thus, managed to transform later Disney history) and, most importantly, newly arrived Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who, in a moment retold in awed voices years later, was allegedly so horrified—or infuriated—by his first viewing of The Black Cauldron that he grabbed the film from the animators and started making his own edits.

Rich decided it was time to leave. Possibly time to start his own studio. Definitely time to think of creating his own film about a fairy tale princess. Perhaps with a connection to ballet.

The eventual—very eventual—result: The Swan Princess.

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Bringing Fairy Tale to Ballet: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky started incorporating fairy tales and fairy land in some of his earliest musical works. Two early operas, Undina and Vakula the Smith, were directly based on the popular literary fairy tales Undine, by Frederick de la Motte Fouqué, and “Christmas Eve,” by Nikolai Gogol, and Tchaikovsky referenced other fairy tales and magical motifs in the rest of his work.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when he finally turned to writing a ballet, he chose one with a fairy tale theme.

It is perhaps surprising, given that ballet’s later near central place in ballet repertoire, that initially that ballet was a complete failure.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales of Flight: “The Storks” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter”

Sure, The Ugly Duckling is better known. Sure, The Little Mermaid became a multi-million—probably edging towards a billion now—franchise property. Sure, Thumbelina and The Six Swans show up in more fairy tale collections. And sure, The Emperor’s New Clothes is referenced far more frequently.

But when I was a child, the Hans Christian Andersen stories that most haunted me were the ones that featured storks.

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Unnatural Love and Healing: Charles Perrault’s “Donkey-Skin” and Other Fairy Tales

Incestuous and quasi-incestuous relationships were hardly unknown at the court of Louis XIV. The king himself had married his first cousin, Maria-Theresa of Spain, largely for political reasons. His brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans, had married another first cousin, Henrietta of England, before marrying a more distant cousin, Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatine, whose grandmother was related to the royal French family, and who could trace other connections through both parents. Various aristocrats at the court followed these royal examples for financial or other reasons, and in other countries, the occasional marriage between a niece and uncle, or an aunt and nephew—for political reasons—were not unknown. And those were just the relationships validated by the Church.

That perhaps helps explain why so many of the French salon fairy tales focus on similar relationships between cousins or even closer relations, and why Charles Perrault, working both in and against these traditions, decided to take up the theme in what is often regarded as the least pleasant of his fairy tales, Donkey-Skin, classified by folklorists as Aarne-Thompson type 510B, unnatural love.

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Fairy Tale Animation: La Jeune Fille Sans Mains (The Girl Without Hands)

“You wanted to be rich. How could you be in peace?”

The fairy tale “The Girl Without Hands,” first published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 1812 Children’s and Household Tales, and revised in subsequent editions, has never been a particular favorite of filmmakers for a long list of reasons, including, but not limited to, its disturbing subject matter, its split storyline (the second half of the story almost seems to be discussing different characters), its religious themes, and the perceived difficulties of portraying a character losing both hands. It would, I think, make for a great live action horror flick—but that’s not the way Hollywood has seen the story, at least so far.

None of this, however, stopped French animator Sébastian Laudenbach from using it as the subject of his first film, which debuted at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and later at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, where it lost two awards to My Life as a Zucchini, but picked up the Jury Award—just enough to earn it an extremely limited release in the United States in 2017.

The win was entirely deserved: however questionable the subject matter, the animation is, well, astonishing.

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The Power of Cleverness and Research: German Fairy Tale “Rumpelstiltskin”

Tales of magical dwarves who trade magical assistance for some future object were common enough in 19th century Germany that the Grimm brothers found four separate tales in the Hesse region alone to combine into the tale that they called “Rumpelstiltskin,”—not to mention several other closely related tales. And it wasn’t just Hesse. As the Grimms noted in their extensive footnotes to the tale, nearly every element of Rumpelstiltskin had an analogy somewhere else in European folklore and literature, from songs to the elaborately crafted French salon fairy tales to legends about the life of St. Olaf.

So what made this version stand out—particularly since it wasn’t even the only story about magical spinners in their collection?

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When Everyone Just Wants to Eat: Norwegian Fairy Tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”

Although arguably the best known of the group, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were hardly the only 19th century European scholars to embark on the study of folklore and publish collections of fairy tales. Indeed, by then, the idea of fairy tale collections stretched back centuries—with authors either proudly presenting fairy tales inspired by oral sources or earlier written versions as their own creations, or, more modestly, claiming that the tales they carefully crafted were taken from stories they had heard as children. Those collections continued to be penned throughout the 19th century, augmented by academic studies that presented fairy tales as an important part of culture, often as part of creating nation states and national identity.

Among these scholars were Norwegian scholars Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, better known to history as simply Asbjørnsen and Moe, who preserved for us the delightful tale of the “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

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Warner Bros.’ Three Merrie and Looney Versions of “The Three Little Pigs”

Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs was an instant legend among animators, then just starting to develop their craft. It also was an instant legend among film studios, who saw that for once, a cartoon could be a bigger draw than the main feature.

Naturally, rival Warner Bros had to get into the action, with three different cartoon takes on the three little pigs.

And equally naturally, their first take was a direct slam and parody of their great rival.

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A Folktale Saves Technicolor: Disney’s Take on “The Three Little Pigs”

In 1917, film color processor Technicolor wowed audiences with some of the first moving color images ever projected on screen. But after that initial triumph, things proved a bit wobbly. Their second method, Process 2 Technicolor, which used two strip negatives in red and green to create a color image on screen, had at least solved the problem of needing to find skilled projectionists who could align the images correctly during film performances (a failure of the Process 1 Technicolor), but failed in nearly every other respect. Process 2 created images that were easily scratched, film that could (and often did) fall through projectors, and colors that could be kindly described as “pale,” “somewhat off,” “unrealistic”, or in the words of unkinder critics, “awful.” Undaunted, Technicolor went to work, created an improved Process 3—which projected moving specks onto the screen. Not only did this distort the images; audience members assumed they were looking at insects.

Perhaps understandably, audiences did not rush to see these colored films. So, with the Great Depression still lingering, several film studios considered dropping the costly color process altogether. By 1932, Technicolor faced potential ruin. But the company thought they had a solution: a new three strip color process that could provide vibrant colors that could, in most cases, reproduce the actual colors filmed by the camera. The only problem—a tiny tiny tiny problem—was that the process wasn’t quite ready for film yet. But it might—it might—be ready for cartoons.

They just had to find someone interested in a bit of experimentation.

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The Story of a Bear of Very Little Brain

In August 1921, author A.A. Milne bought his one year old son, Christopher Robin, a teddy bear. This did not, perhaps, seem all that momentous at the time either for literary history or for large media conglomerate companies that used a mouse and a fairy as corporate logos. But a few years later, Milne found himself telling stories about his son and the teddy bear, now called “Winnie-the-Pooh,” or, on some pages, “Winnie-ther-Pooh.” Gradually, these turned into stories that Milne was able to sell to Punch Magazine.

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Family Tradition and Destiny: Pixar’s Coco

When director Lee Unkrich first pitched the idea of an animated film focused on a Mexican protagonist, it was not a completely new idea for either Pixar or parent company Disney. Disney, after all, had released the goodwill tour film Saludos Amigos, a live action/animated attempt to introduce United States viewers to South American cultures, as far back as 1942, and followed that up with The Three Caballeros (1945), a deeply weird escape from World War II horrors, and, decades later, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), which had a llama speaking with the distinctive tones of David Spade.

So, ok, it was mostly new—and even that was still more than Pixar had managed in its 18 previous films, beyond releasing a film featuring its protagonists travelling to South America (the 2009 Up) where they encountered Christopher Plummer, and having Buzz Lightyear briefly burst into Spanish during Toy Story 3. True, Pixar’s Ratatouille and Brave had at least explored non-American settings and accents, and the animation studio had sent its talking cars around the world in Cars 2. Still. Pixar and Disney both agreed that a touch more diversity would probably be a good thing, and gave Unkrich the go-ahead to start developing a film then tentatively titled Día de los Muertos.

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Questionable Scholars and Rhyming Pigs: J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps’ “The Three Little Pigs”

As I noted in part one of this “The Three Little Pigs” discussion, many of the first recorded versions of this tale lack something most fairy tale lovers would consider rather essential to a fairy tale about pigs: pigs. Oh, other aspects of the tale were there—the predator, the three houses made of different building materials, and the final death and entrapment of the predator.

Pigs, not so much—possibly why these pig-free tales tended to languish in near obscurity in academic works.

Fortunately, one scholar—James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820-1889)—had the sense to record a rhymed version for children, saving the tale for posterity.

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Politics and Fairy Tales: Early Versions of “The Three Little Pigs”

Recently, author Chuck Wendig got into a minor spat on Twitter with another Twitter user who insisted that stories do not have to be political. As an example, the Twitter user mentioned “The Three Little Pigs.”

My screams probably could have heard on the other side of the ocean.

So, even though Chuck Wendig already did a good job of explaining just why this story is perhaps not the best example of non-political storytelling, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a more in depth look at the tale here and its history. Even though I HATE THIS STORY. And even though many early versions don’t even MENTION pigs at all…

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