Wednesday, April 16, 2014

21st Century Fairy Tale Telling

Metalalia--Postmodern Fairy Tales for Your Tablet and Phone

It's been about 200 years since the brothers Grimm first committed pen to paper in order to preserve the folktales of their native Germany.

Since then, fairy tales have grown and contracted, been melted down and reforged to make new alloys of folk-and-fiction.  The twenty-first century has already seen impressive and stunning contributions to the fairy tale tradition, but what about the storytelling medium?  To see the written word upon paper expire is the last thing I want, as I'm sure all of you agree.  But adaptability is key to survival.  And movies just aren't cutting it as a successful fairy tale medium (see my review of Disney's latest Frozen).

Enter Metalalia, an immersive, digital fairy tale storytelling experience.

character design for The Wind-up Boy

Musician Pam Shaffer and author Alex Nicholson have defied distance to join their creative efforts over the width of the Atlantic (Steel thistles and glass mountains?  Please!).  Together, with a team of talented professionals, they've laid the foundations for an app that will bring "future-twisted fairy tales" to your fingertips with original scores, fresh imagery, and interactive elements.  This means users will be able to "tailor their experience by combining or removing artistic elements, customizing the story, and making it more accessible."

first page of The Hair-Woven Rope

A multimedia storytelling experience that harnesses organic audience-to-author interaction recreating folkloric origins in a 21st century context?  I think yes.

The Metalalia team are rallying fairy tale enthusiasts and free-spirited creative types to help them fund the launch of their app on Kickstarter.  At the time of my writing, they have already raised almost $2,000 of their $9,000 dollar goal.

If this looks like something you'd appreciate; if you feel the importance of the digital medium in preserving our sacred fairy tales and engendering new ones; or if you just want some really cool freebies, click over there and donate anything from $1 to $1,000.  Whatever you feel moved to contribute.

If you're at all like me, they'll have you at "digital illuminated manuscript" and "William Blake."


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Kingdom of Arthur

I'm sorry I've been neglectful of this blog for the past year or so.  My personal life has undergone some huge shifts in the past months, one of which has been to temporarily relocate to Wales--the country adjacent to England, part of the island of Britain.

Wales is my heart's home and, as you fairy tale lovers might know, the mother of the great English-speaking tradition.  It sounds paradoxical; but most scholars agree that the culture, language, and people of Wales are the most direct inheritors of pre-Roman Britain.  It is unfortunate that the pre-Christian mythology did not survive intact like it did in Ireland, but the little that does remain is wealthy enough.  The most influential being none other than King Arthur.

So why else should people who care about fairy tales care about Wales?  The great historical scholar, Geoffrey Ashe, wrote a comprehensive volume converging British history and myth, Mythology of the British Isles, modeled on Robert Graves's book on Greek mythology.  This divides the myths chronologically and by themes, with a summary of each myth and then a historical analysis.  What emerges from these collected mini-volumes is a trail of bread crumbs leading back to Wales--which would have been to where the Brythonic peoples retreated during both the Roman and Anglo-Saxon invasions.  What is more, there was a great deal of Irish settlement in Wales from the West, cross-pollinating the mythologies and restoring and/or preserving the mythic elements shared in common between the two Celtic peoples.*

Following Chesterton's lead that all folk stories are growths from roots of fact and seeds of history, Ashe speculates that King Arthur really lived.  And out here, near the gray Irish sea-waves crashing on gray rocks and mysterious doors-in-walls, it's not a bit hard to believe.

* Though a Celtic identity was popular in the early 20th century, scholars are now in doubt as to whether or not the Celtic language-speaking peoples could justifiably be considered part of the same ethnic and cultural groups.  It is doubtful whether those who lived in Britain before Roman rule even shared genetic link with the people known as Celts to the Roman Empire of the time, or if there was merely similarity from trade and cross-cultural influence.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Missing the Heart of the Fairy Tale

A Review of Disney's Frozen

I should be sleeping, or reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I stumbled upon this review of Frozen and remembered that I had similar things to say about it.  So.

I liked Frozen.  It was funny, sweet, and well-animated, if a bit buggish (whatever happened to the beautiful, graceful characters from original Disney, making appearances as late as Princess Tiana?).  The songs weren't particularly moving, but I did get the refrain do you want to build a snowman? stuck in my head, so I suppose it was effective.  It takes place in a clear and easy-to-pinpoint location with decent attention to the visualization of culture and customs.  Being a fan of folk culture, and especially Scandinavian folk culture, I enjoyed that part of the film immensely.  But for our purposes here on Straw into Gold, it is imperative that I communicate the residual impression it left with me, which was this: Frozen was not, except by a deft maneuvering of the imagination, a fairy tale.

Minkyu Li, Frozen concept art

My problem with Frozen is that it was virtually gutted of all things Faerie.

I don't mean that it was hardly recognizable from its inspiration, Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, although it was that.  I mean the magic was all but absent.

Oh, there was magic, as in the powers of Princess Elsa to make ice and snow from the touch of her fingertips.  But there was an utter lack of the magic of Faerie; the sense of and cautious reverence for the Otherworld; of danger from an almost-but-not-quite pernicious sentience; of the fickle, and uninterested, yet inexplicably connected existence just beyond the reach of of our own.  There was no alarm at Elsa's powers or inkling that something deeper was going on in relation to them (the curse of a slighted fairy, or the residual trait of an ancestor's mingling with gods); and even the characters' fear of Elsa was not found in the nature and source of the powers but in her potential to do damage with them.  After the ball scene when the new queen's secret is revealed, Anna doesn't even pause to wonder at this astounding development; it's all par for the course.  "So that's why she's shut me out all these years."  O-kay.

Granted, in traditional fairy tales, fantastic events are often presented without any commentary on their fantasticness.  But the fairy tales never mean to make the fantastical belong to the mortal.  There is always an explanation of sorts, even if that explanation shuts out further investigation, like the lid of box snapping shut on a hand.  "She was actually a faerie changeling in disguise."  That's it, that's all that's needed.  A recognition of the Other, of some always-and-ought-to-be unknown.

Even the trolls are pared down to their lowest common denominator, emptying them of all the mystery and danger of the otherfolk and making them mere comical, cartoonish creatures.

Finally, the glass shard in the heart* loses its potency.  Rather than darkening the sight of Anna,** the shard in the eye (generalized to "head" in the movie) only knocks her unconscious and turns white a strand of her hair.  All her memories have to be erased so she forgets her sister's gift-curse and doesn't question Elsa's separation from her.  But that is a secondary, and not a direct, result of the ice shard.  The second ice shard slowly freezes Anna's body but leaves her heart untainted.  What kind of congress with Faerie only touches the outside of a person, only his physical existence; leaves his perception of the world unshaken?

When Anna finally reaches the palace of her ice queen sister, it is opposite of what little Gerda finds when she arrives at the sheer and terrible fortress of the Snow Queen.  Anna finds only a very human girl, with very human hurts and emotions and fears, and the rest of the palace empty.  But Gerda finds the Snow Queen absent--as her nature, one might say, is a great, gaping absence--and dear Kai with his soul half-killed, working away mechanically at a puzzle made of shards of ice, trying, yet ever failing, to form the word eternity.  Anna's act of sacrificial love for her sister Elsa breaks the spell, as one would expect.  When Elsa feels and knows her sister's love for her, her frigid emotional walls falter and crumble.  It is a self-administered cure.  But when Gerda finds poor Kai enslaved to logic--the ice-cold logic of the mind, of science, of nature, and of seasons--her shed tears melt his heart and wash loose the shards of glass.


For Faerie is vast and fierce, and we often tremble before it and believe ourselves helpless.  But in this, the heroes and heroines of fairy tales prove us mistaken.  We are not helpess.  Faerie is wild but not immune to obeisance--for those with stout hearts and stubborn wills, though the winter seem endless, and the journey long.

*  changed from glass to ice in the movie, so as to remove the uncomfortable and politically incorrect hell-mirror-falling-from-heaven scenario
**  who is the combination of Kai and Gerda from Anderson, though Elsa, the Snow Queen figure, has bits of Kai in her as well


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Something in the Water

Do do do do do do do do do do

I wear a demeanor made of bright pretty things
What she wears, what she wears, what she wears
Birds singing on my shoulder in harmony it seems
How they sing, how they sing, how they sing

Give me nights of solitude, red wine just a glass or two,
Reclined in a hammock on a balmy evening
I'll pretend that it's no thing that's skipping my heart when I think of you
Thinking of me babe I'm crazy over you

Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, something in the water
Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, that makes me love you like –

I've got halos made of summer, rhythms made of spring
What she wears, what she wears, what she wears
I got crowns of words a woven each one a song to sing
Oh I sing, oh I sing, oh I sing

Give me long days in the sun,
Preludes to the nights to come
Previews of the mornings laying in all lazy
Give me something fun to do like a life of loving you
Kiss me quick now baby I'm still crazy over you

Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, something in the water
Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water that makes me love you like I do

Oooh oooh oooh [x3]

Give me nights of solitude, red wine just a glass or two, give me something fun to do

Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, something in the water
Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water that makes me love you like I do

Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water, something in the water
Aaah Aaah Aaah
There's something in the water that makes me love you like I –

Do do do do do do do do do do


Sunday, January 12, 2014

HPP: Many First Impressions

Two introductions are made in Chapter 5 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, mostly in relation to each other: the dementor and Professor Lupin.  At this point, we're not sure of the alignment of either, though we're told that dementors are (mostly) under control and there for the students' protection; and Professor Lupin is trustworthy enough to be employed by Dumbledore and also very handy after Harry's first encounter with the former.

Jenna writes, "In all the speculative fiction I've ever read, I cannot think of a more troubling invention than the dementor," and I'm with her there.  I'm also with her when she says that the horror of demenotors draw from the fact that they are a real thing in this world:  a beast called depression, which is far more common and far more conspicuous than demenotors in the fictional one.  But there is another thing that troubles me about the dementors, and for that explanation, I'll quote Masha: "But the dementors fail in one essential and deeply troubling sense. The ‘dementor’s kiss’ steals the soul of the victim."  If this is truly the case--and we've yet to finish the book and series, so more remains to be seen--then that is an extremely terrifying being, and an extremely depressing universe for it to exist in.  And one, I think, that is flawed.

We more or less agreed, over in Masha's combox, that 

. . . what horrifies [. . .] about the dementors [is] that we exist in a world where one's soul cannot merely cease to be like that.  Rowling's fatal mistake--if we want to carry the depression metaphor to its fullest--is in emotionalizing the soul.  The soul is more than feeling, it's got an intellectual element to it (I think Aristotle and Plato touch on this?)  So a soul can be thrust into the pit of despair, but the ultimate sin [in the Judeo-Christian philosophy] is an intellectual denial of God's goodness.

I'm sure we'll discuss this more as the dementors make their reappearance later in the book.  I'll just add to Jenna's comment on chocolate being an odd, tiny remedy for the chill of the dementors.  I like that it is something that is so often made to be the enemy of modern women and their figures.  I think it's an important affirmation that simple, ordinary things aren't just okay for us but good for us--that life is about taste and enjoying a bit of luxury in the un-lofty, and that that healthful reverence a healthy person makes.  

If no one has anything else to add, we'll leave them at the gates to the Hogwarts grounds and move forward, to Chapter 6, and the third major character introduction of Professor Trelawney.  She's a brilliant character, and a lovely parody; smoky and glittering and mysterious, everything a fortune teller-psychic-palmist ought to be, according to popular conception.  I do appreciate Rowling's fond use of tropes and reader expectations.  (Giving her the name Sibyll?  I know Masha's not impressed by the easy-come puns, but I enjoy them!)  I'm also very much appreciative of Rowling's perceptive depiction of the faults and follies of divination.

Completely aside from any assertion as to its accuracy, Trelawney's showcasing in the Gryffindor's first session is an effective argument against the practice and/or use of divination; the children, excepting Hermione, are nervous wrecks afterward.  Whether or not they really do know the future or only think they do, an important invisible thing has been shoved aside to make room for her revelations: hope.  It's determinism with the face of mysticism.  And really, even if it weren't an imprecise art, like Professor McGonagall says; or, also as she says, there are some who really possess it in it full capacity; why would anyone want to use it, let alone learn it as part of their course syllabi?  Jenna might tease me for thinking much too far into it for a children's book, but I have to be honest with my first time impressions, right?  c;

The minor character Sir Cadogan was such a nice treat for me--Rowling's clearly familiar with the Arthurian, chivalric tradition, from the Welsh-originating name to the fat knight's dated speech.

I'm happy for Hagrid's appointment as a teacher but not sure he can handle his own against snotty little brats like Malfoy; he's too much of a gentle giant.  Although, if he has anything going for him in the role, it's that he's hopelessly and sweetly oblivious to his own beautiful character and outstanding strengths.  If he could just gain a little bit of self confidence, enough to ignore the Slytherins' teasing, he'd easily shut them up and put them in their place by the mere existence of his excellence.

I love Hagrid.  (Who doesn't?)