Fairy Tales 2010

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Boys Who would be Birds and Women who Love Them

Tale type 451 - The brothers that were turned into birds.

From a value standpoint, the role of the sister in these narratives seems most revealing. While in most of the stories we've seen with male protagonist, the male vanquishes his foe or overcomes his obstacle withe the use of ingenuity, hard work, and/or verbal wit, the sister must overcome her obstacle with self-sacrifice and domesticity. The sister, whom in only tangential ways was responsible for the brothers' plight in any of the stories that we had to read for class, must sacrifice her voice, going silent for years at a tilt, while also performing a typical act of domesticity, like sowing clothes. The sister, in these cases at least, suffers these indignities willingly, even so far as it would mean sacrificing her own life. The king which finds the sister hiding in the tree takes her as his bride, despite never hearing her talk. It is in a sense the ultimate misogynist gesture, loving the women based strictly on personal appearance with no regard for her identity. If these ills aren't enough, the sister must also find herself in such great peril by the end of the story that only the miraculous arrival of her bird brothers can save the day. She is not even given the satisfaction of existing as principle heroine, once again relying on the interference of male saviors. The sister's suffering finds her no benefit but a restoration of the status quo, and a new husband.

It's interesting that the bird was seen as existing somewhere between the world and the heavens, their flight supposedly granting them some connection with ethereal forces. The brothers show that they retain some vestige of their consciousness at the end, when they come to save their sister, so their departure at the time of their transportation could be read as voluntary. Granted this new "enlightened" perspective, the brothers take the sky, reveling in their new position as pseudo-heavenly body. It is only when their sister becomes endangered that they return to the Earth, themselves sacrificing their divine aspect to be man again.

Propp vs. Aarne and Thompson

I thought that our discussion in class about the classification of fairy tales was really interesting particularly because as I have been reading a lot of the fairy tales I have kind of been trying to figure out which ones fit together and have common themes. It was interesting to read about two different people who tried to classify these fairy tales but in a very different way. Although the work of Aarne and Thompson is impressive, I think that I would agree with the way that Propp classifies fairy tales. Although Aarne and Thompson pick up on motifs that are important to not in fairy tales, they have thousands of motifs that they have come up with so the process of classifing and grouping fairy tales really doesn't have much of a point. On the other hand, Propp classifies his fairy tales by the actions that are in the stories. This seems like a much more effective way. Still though, he has 31 functions all of which are hard to keep in memory while reading the fairy tales. I think that the most effective way to classify these fairy tales is by the shortened Propp technique, the protagonist has a lack of something, that lack of something leads them to a quest, on the quest a magical helper is encountered, the protagonist is subject to one or more tests, and then their is some sort of reward for the completion of this test. I think for the most part when classifying fairy tales this is the quickest, most effective way to classify and think about the story while you are reading and taking mental notes.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Classifying fairy tales

After talking about the Aarne and Thompson Classification System and seeing it in Tartar's book, I am not convinced that is the way to go about studying fairy tales. I feel that there are way too may categories to search through to find all the motifs of one particular fairy tale. I think it is a great idea to find motifs and compare them with other fairy tales, but I feel as if Aarne and Thompson took it too far. I'm sorry, but 40,000 standard motifs is not normal. Not every fairy tale has mice turning into horses. What about the different versions of fairy tales? Do they all count as an individual fairy tale, or can we classify them all together as essentially the same thing? Although that does get complicated when fairy tales begin to combine. However, I feel that if you take every single version of "Cinderella" for instance, you will of course get a lot of motifs that are the same. They're supposed to be the same. I just think that Aarne and Thompson took this classification system way too far.
That being said, I like what Vladimir Propp says. He narrows it down to 31 functions. I like the idea of narrowing it down to actions, but sometimes I feel as if there are some important motifs that are not necessarily actions. For example: the evil stepmother. She is in quite a few types of fairy tales, but no specific action is necessarily a motif for all of them. Yet, I like his 31 functions. As I read them, they sounded very familiar and I was able to think of a few fairy tales that we have already read that would apply to each function. Quite a few functions seem redundant, but for the most part they all work for me. I can see why it was narrowed down even further, though. Yet, I do think this is a good start to examining fairy tales. Like I mentioned in my previous blog, I believe that it is best if we compare fairy tales and find similarities and differences to understand them better. This is a good step toward comparing fairy tales.
On another note, one thing that I wonder is: since Propp looked more at the literary structure of these fairy tales, what would he think about the movies about them nowadays? I wonder how he would analyze the way a fairy tale film is made: what shots were used, what was shown and what was not, whose perspective we watch certain actions from, etc. I'm just curious.

Fairy Tale Biology

I found Zipes’ breadth of research for “What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing” to be very impressive; though the article seemed at times to be a hodgepodge of little “previews” for the fields he looked into (memetics, evolutionary biology, neurology, etc.), his tangents on the whole added up to a thoughtful and generally cogent argument. Memetics often seems to be a useless and overly systematized view of what are actually very complex cascades of communication and alteration, but The Frog Prince’s thematic link to sexual selection makes it a very believable example of a meme in action. What most interested me, however, was the potential to extend evolutionary ideas to other facets of fairy tale history. For example, Zipes’ crusade against the “Disney spell” casts Disney-fication as a sort of “dumbing down” process resulting from Disney’s own social agenda. But the less vindictive among us are quick to point out that Disney may have just been “giving the people what they want,” and I wonder if we might more accurately describe it as an analogy to evolution’s Fisherian runaway. We have all wondered why a male peacock would be so focused on getting an unwieldy and predator-attracting set of feathers, and the answer is that female peacocks just like them (because it’s beneficial to mate with a male who will give you very attractive sons!). In the same way, Disney movies have (arguably, of course) descended into a saccharine, romance-obsessed, conservative morass only because people like such versions (and people only like those versions because it’s culturally good to have seen popular movies…or something like that).
An easier application lies in explaining the “universal human psyche/disposition” hypothesis of why we find similar tale types all over the world (I believe Propp was a fan of this one). At first glance, it appears far-fetched that our neurology would be so rigid in dictating the creative processes of all human storytellers that any culture left to its own devices would come up with a definite set of tales. But we might view it this way: that humans come up with all sorts of tales (most of which have only been heard by a very small portion of individuals throughout history), and that it is only those tales that are most easily transmitted and make the most “sense” to our brains that survive from generation. Thus, we all know Cinderella not because the story is hard-wired into the genome, but because the story has features that are naturally more agreeable to us than the features of other stories. I suppose this idea is just Memetics 101, but I’d like to call it literary convergent evolution.

The Flying Brothers

Today's discussion in class about the brothers being turned into birds was very interesting to me. Comparing the stories of "The Twelve Brothers," "The Seven Ravens," and "The Six Swans," it is quite astonishing how many similar aspects there are to the stories. In fact, considering how much the Grimms often "revise" (or in my opinion, drastically change) the stories, I'm a bit surprised that they kept these three as distinct stories. Although concepts like the evil stepmother and other such motifs are of course common throughout all of the fairy tales, the sheer number of motifs that these two stories share would be shocking I think. I'm quite curious to know just how many motifs (as categorized as discussed today) would be shared among the three stories. 
It also would be nice to know where the Grimms (or other fairy tale analysts) think that the stories originated because I wonder how prevalent the concept of a transformation into a bird really was at the time of the origination of the tales. Although I am by no means a religious studies major, I know that flying is often a theme in religious tales as well. As professor Figal said, the ability to fly gives one a truly unique characteristic that no other human can (literally) come close to. Because of their ability, birds can be thought of as "higher" than humans in multiple ways. Actually, even just in general, I wonder if many of these stories have religious connections or origins. Religion (even unorganized spirituality) pertains very closely to stories. One could easily argue that without the concept of stories or tales, religion would not exist at all. The Bible in itself is just a collection of stories. I realize that I've gotten on quite a tangent; I just think it's an amusing topic, even for someone who is seriously lacking in knowledge about any religion or its history. Hopefully we'll touch on it more later.

Frog sexuality

The thing that stood out to me the most within Zipes' essay, "What Makes a Repulsive Frog
So Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales" is the amount of editing that the story of the Frog Prince went through. The Grimms were known for extending the length of the tales that they collected, this one not being an exception. The story, according to Zipes, doubled in length between the 1809 and 1857 editions of the Grimms' collections. This allowed for the characters to be developed more and also allows fore the tale as a whole to be fleshed out and more eloquently worded. The Grimms were able to do this while maintaining the original story's structure and motifs. The main fact that stood out to me was that the tale had been de-sexualized from the earlier versions. When i read the story and the frog wished to go to bed with the princess, i, perhaps naively, thought that the frog just wanted to sleep in the same bed as a princess, not necessarily have sex with her. This brings me to the part of this story that doesn't make very much sense to me. When the princess throws the frog against the wall, he turns into a prince and then beds her. Why would the frog be rewarded for trying unsuccessfully to sleep with a princess? Throughout the story, with the exception of the frog actually helping the princess in the beginning, the frog is rude and pushy. It doesn't make sense to me to reward this behavior within the story. Also, its good of the princess to refuse the frog, albeit trying to kill it is a little unnecessary.

Zipes on Frogs

Although I found Jack Zipes' argument in his essay "What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing: Memetics and Fairytales" a bit of a stretch, I thought the parallels he drew between how memes are transmitted and the passing of genes was very interesting. Zipes argues that a meme becomes so memorable and relevant that we store it and pass it onto others and the reason stories akin to The Frog King became so popular is because we remember them because they give people advice essentially on mating and relationships. Zipes further argues that the "power of such a tale depends on the human agent's receptivity to it and use of it in understanding the environment (social-cultural context) and translation it in other situations". He goes on to say that "Tales of all kinds enable us to comprehend our strategies and to learn how to court and mate. They also help us to adapt and use strategies as cultural and environmental conditions change". However, although he may have a point in how we relate to relationships as children, I am not aware of anyone who, in times of dating desperation seek advice from a fairy tale. I understand that his argument is that adults may select these tales to read to their children because they reflect cultural values, and I do agree that sometimes when discussing relationships people may reflect back on the 'fairytale princess and prince' love story as optimal, but I think he goes a bit too far in saying that these stories have been perpetuated and have become popular because they instruct us on how to mate and date.

Zipes cites Geoffrey Milller from his book "The Mating Mind" in Miller's argument that humans developed a "strange new game of reproduction. They started selecting one another for their brains...The intellectual and technical advancements of our species in the last few thousand years depend on mental capacities and motivations originally shaped by sexual selection". Though I can get on board with Miller's argument, Zipes goes a bit beyond by arguing that Miller's analysis is evidence of how men and women competing for each other "fostered great and diverse innovations in the arts, sciences, and technology" which may have "contributed to biological adaptations and affected the way we transmit cultural artifacts with our brains". Although Zipes does provide some intriguing evidence, I don't believe that our sexual choices over the past generations motivated us or made us more able to recall fairytales and perpetuate them today. Although I do believe fairytales are representative of their respective cultures, I don't think we continue to tell them because we need dating advice.
I am almost positive that most of my family members as well as my friends believe that Disney is the genesis of fairy tales. Although I don’t know, more than likely my family members and friends have never reviewed the history of Disney or (comparatively) analyzed Disney fairy tales. My little sister for example, thoroughly enjoyed Disney’s Princess and the Frog. Does she care about the morphology of the tale? Of course not! She was mostly excited to see a Black princess, which I think tapped into the “modernity” theme (landscape wise) that Zipes mentions in Breaking the Disney Spell. Princess Tiana is a realistic protagonist, understanding that hard work gets you where you need to go, not just wishing. Domesticity ideals are still upheld like cleaning and the use of culinary genius. Prince Naveen, the arrogant and lazy prince perfectly fits “Disney’s enterprising hero who does nothing to help the community.” Disney’s businesslike mentality allowed his empire to manipulate an existing story and infuse conservative ideas to prevent viewers from examining the tale too closely. Disney diverts the audience’s attention with agreeable imagery and engaging characters with an easy to follow tale. Zipes refers to this as “non reflective viewing that’s adorable, easy and comforting in its simplicity.” Whatever it is that you want to call it, the Disney legacy is clearly being upheld and will only continue to thrive with nostalgic, impressionable, loyal audiences and future technological advances.