Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bored to Death

A Review of Disney's Maleficent


The first thing I do after watching a movie is to head over to Rotten Tomatoes to peruse the film reviews by proper critics.  The second thing I do, if it is a fairy tale movie, is to hit up all my fairy tale blog peeps for a more balanced perspective.  Sadly, my colleagues have been rather silent on the matter, with a few exceptions, so I suppose I ought to help get the ball rolling.

source
Before we go on, let us first note:  Here there be spoilers.

We've been hearing about Maleficent for years, but in the end my experience of the film can be summed up in one word: bored.  I don't know if I'm the best judge of entertainment, since I have a peculiar and finicky taste, but from the opening voice-over to the ending credits, I found little to hold my attention.  If it had not been for the pretty costuming and talented actresses, I might have lost interest entirely.  It was just all very tepid, underneath the fancy CG.  I didn't feel there was much at stake.  Maleficent lost her wings, and her love, but she was good and happy before she met Stefan and during his absence.  If she could walk into the castle to curse a baby, surely she could have retrieved her wings while she was at it.  Even the curse is tamed to a sleep-like death, without a desperate, last minute intervention from a good fairy.

"Mom, is that you?", source

The supporting characters are boiled down to their lowest common denominators, becoming tedious distractions rather than tools to help the story along.  Certainly not characters in their own rights, with complexities and inner goings-on.  

Stefan  is a kind of caricature born out of the necessity for a villain, and his motivation is weak.  The filmmakers need to give us a little bit more to work with if they want us to meet them in the middle; it's hard enough to believe that a kind boy, who would throw away his iron ring because it hurt a magical creature he only just met, would then become so heartlessly ambitious so as to turn around and try to kill the same creature, someone he cared for enough to have spent time growing up with her.

The pet raven is given a speaking voice by occasionally taking the form of a human but still doesn't have much to say.

In the end, Maleficent and Aurora alone are given room for growth and exploration, while the other characters and plot developments move around like props.  But even poor Aurora's character is charming and bland.  Her greatest moment is when she speaks out to the witch hiding in the shadows and does not recoil from her.  Not much of a monumental and memorable game-changer.

For me, the most engaging moment of the whole movie was when Maleficent stands over the sleeping Aurora and wills her curse undone, only to have it thrown back in her face.  And I credit all that to Ms. Jolie's powerful acting.  (Also done well in the moment she realizes her wings have been taken from her.  Maybe a tad melodramatic, but so wrenching and real that it made me hurt for her!)

Adam of Fairy Tale Fandom writes,

[Maleficent is] about two people and how their hearts become darkened by ambition, anger, bitterness and revenge. It’s also about how one of them starts to regain some light through exposure to someone who is good and innocent.

and I think he's absolutely right.  But I feel like the key relationship, between Maleficent and Aurora, is not given any time to develop, what between Maleficent watching her in her sleep and Aurora playing in the Moors with the magical creatures which are all show and no soul--the eeriness of Faerie is lost in this film, and I'd like to think I've cultivated a good radar for it.  In Brave, for instance, that otherworldliness remains intact.  It's hard for me to suspend disbelief and get behind Aurora's running away to the magical Moors forever, when it's just.  So.  Boring.

laughing and twirling and playing with magical creatures can only entertain me for so long
source

Besides that, there were a lot of other little frustrations.  How did the writers choose which elements of their original movie to keep?  When does one draw the line?

"We won't have Maleficent turn into a dragon, but we still need a dragon, so we'll have someone else be it."

Or, "there's no need for thorns around the castle, but it's such a major element to the original, so we'll have thorns protecting Faerie instead."

Even the spinning wheel is chosen because Maleficent happens to see it when placing the curse.  I much prefer the mystery of not knowing to that.  Why would a benign fairy even be named Maleficent, for that matter?  I hoped it would be a name she took on, as she did her new staff and cloak.  But apparently her parents had a strange sense of humor, or else didn't have a dictionary on hand at her christening.

irrelevent but still interesting, source

When I was a little girl, I lived and breathed Sleeping Beauty.  It was my absolute favorite Disney movie.  I wanted to be Aurora/Briar Rose.  And I never wanted or needed an explanation for the, well, maleficence of Maleficent.

While I'm all for revisionist re-imaginings and villainous back stories, I worry this new trend is overlooking an important aspect of fairy tales: the fact that there is evil and ugliness in the world, just as there is hope and unspeakable beauty.  To try to reason away these things (or, as the case may be, relegate them to a bland, mortal antagonist) steals a little bit of their wonder, and it robs us of one of the great consolations of fairy tales.  Whatever the reasons may be for them, dragons exist, and so do wicked fairies.  Yet there is always hope: a low door in the wall, a maiden's tears; a magic circle, a fairy godmother; a hole in the spell, one last gift-bearer overlooked and forgotten.  The bad is not absolute, though it may seem impenetrable as a wall of thorns.

And even death becomes only sleep in the end.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Family, Feuds, and Fairy Tales

Reading up recently on The Mabinogi has reminded me of the strong role of family in fairy tales and the sagas that came before them.  The Saga of Hrolf Kraki is a veritable family drama-fest, with brothers stealing each others' wives, and wives betraying husbands, and blood feuds, and boons and curses passing over generations.

Family ties were of utmost import in these pre-Christian societies, so that the slight of a kinsman was considered a grievous offense against one's person.  The same loyalty could start a war or keep a dangerous man from justice.  Often, disputes would arise between one's spouse and one's family member.  In my reading, the side of the blood-relative is almost always taken over that of the spouse.  And children, being tainted by half their blood, might suffer or be spared for the offending parent.

In the Mabinogi, Branwen, sister of the high king of Britain, is betrothed to the king of Ireland to keep peace between the two lands.  Branwen's other brother, however, finds insult in not being consulted about the marriage, and in a fit, slaughters the Irish king's horses.  The high king, Bran the Blessed, is himself greatly offended by their brother's doings, but rather than punish or disown him, offers recompense to the Irish king.  The Irish king takes the gifts and his bride, but does not forget the slight, and a series of events unfold that lead to the scouring of two mighty lands.  Branwen loses her child and dies of a broken heart before the end of it.

Branwen releasing a starling to send a message to her brother of her mistreatment at the hands of the Irish king, source

A similar deterioration occurs in late Arthurian legend, when Arthur will not--or cannot--decry the adultery between his wife and Sir Lancelot, a brother in honor and oath--since the arrival of Christianity, an even stronger bond than blood.  The adultery weakens the kingdom, and in this weakness, King Arthur's nephews are able to overthrow and mortally wound him.

Alan Lee,  the head of Bran the Blessed

I used to pinch the covers of my books in frustration at Bran and Arthur--surely, they could have avoided such tragedy by a firm decision and a swift act.  But the truth is that their situations are universal and entirely relevant.  The conflict of family loyalty and honor is as alive now as it was then.  And in the news on the television, and in our own personal lives, we too often encounter those who let toxic family relationships destroy all hope for happiness.

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Friday, May 9, 2014

You Know You're a Fairy Tale Blogger When


Kristin from Tales of Faerie and Gypsy from Once Upon a Blog have instigated a bloggy carnival of fairy tale goodness and invited me to join!  Some of my admissions aren't a result of being a blogger so much as a general lover (and a passionate lover I am at that!), but blogging certainly aggravates the pre-existing condition.  So, without further ado:

You know you're a fairy tale blogger when . . .

  • you always check the backs of wardrobes, just in case
  • you tell your child not to pick flowers or kick rocks in the woods because "the fairies wouldn't like that"
  • you ruin Disney viewings with friends with this helpful introduction: "in the original/oldest version of the tale. . ."
  • you're on alert for even the slightest fairy tale tropes and underlying themes in modern movies and television shows
  • ditto books
  • you judge which television series to watch next on Netflix according to two criteria: (1) is this a fairy tale show? and (2) can I blog about it?  (see post on Ever After High here)
  • you tell Grimm and Anderson versions of Disney movies whenever an opportunity arises (I told Anderson's The Little Mermaid to a seven-year-old while washing dishes)
  • you swear you keep seeing Ents on your evening walks
  • you dedicate an entire Pinterest account to collecting fairy tale art and images
  • collecting and organizing those images take up an unwholesome amount of your time
  • you pen letters (or want to) with a quill and ink
  • you resolve to read the Harry Potter series because it's such a major player in the mythic/fairy tale genre
  • you never tire of the observation that there are next to no fairies in fairy tales but plenty of fairies in folktales
  • you write your college senior project on fairy tales
  • you have more than one blog, and wrestle with simplifying by combining them, but just can't drop your fairy tale blog, even if it means less time and more work for you
  • you know the difference between dwarfs, elves, goblins, pixies, gnomes, and fairies
  • you know the difference between "dwarfs" and "dwarves"
  • you sometimes "lose" fairy tale library books which are no longer in print (but they were so lonely and hadn't been checked out since 1968!)
  • you leave cake out on All Hallows' Eve, to welcome lonely spirits, but would only ever admit this on a blog!
  • the names Gerda and Kai and Hansel and Gretel are on your list of potential future baby names--bonus points for twins
  • you're a bit of a snob about prissy boutiques and their cutesy "happily ever after" pillows and frogs-in-crowns cartoons on hand towels; like, what, are fairy tales a joke to you?
  • and think, "they have no idea what a real fairy tale is" and "if only they knew they're creating the opposite of their desired effect!"
  • you tire of the phrase "real life Cinderella," because you doubt there were any fairy godmothers or magical birds involved
  • it's been said already but bears saying again: your Amazon wishlist is hurting for it!
  • you learn to spin on a drop spindle on the sole merit of spinning's popularity in fairy tales
  • you want to purchase a spinning wheel some day
  • and fully intend to use it, not just for decoration
  • your dream home is just short of a gingerbread house in the woods
  • and you decorate your current home like one!
  • you have a love-hate relationship with fairy tale interpretations because they are so interesting but because just the fairy tales themselves are more powerful than our attempts to understand them
  • you make G.K. Chesterton the patron saint of your blog
  • you write a fairy tale novel approximately ten years in the making
  • you consider the admonition "you're living in a fairy tale!" a supreme compliment

I better stop before I use up everyone else's.  But I promise all of the above is true!  Other posts in the series so far by

Kristin from Tales of Faerie
Gypsy from Once Upon a Blog
Heidi of SurLaLune
Adam of Fairy Tale Fandom
Tahlia from Diamonds and Toads and Timeless Tales
Kate at Enchanted Conversation
Kristina at Twice Upon a Time
Reilly, co-founder of the Australian Fairy Tales Society

Reilly tagged me, and now I tag Megan of The Dark Forest!

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Saint Walpurgis Eve

Saint Walpurga
source
(please note: accuracy of article questionable)
Hallowe'en is a popular modern holiday evolved from the medieval festival, with roots in pre-Christian Europe.  But the average person doesn't celebrate, let alone know about, Hallows Eve's opposite and counterpart, St. Walpurgis Eve, the night before May Day, whose ancient name is Beltane.

Here in Wales, the holy day of May 1st survives only as a disembodied bank holiday, floating around the days of the week depending on the calendar year.  But that wasn't always the case.  It used to be a night of bonfires and blessings, drinking and feasting, of ritualistic acknowledgement of the changing seasons, and a celebration to usher in the fullness of spring.

There are four seasonal festivals that have been celebrated, in some shape or form, for over 2,000 years in the west: Hallowe'en/All Souls Day and Christmas Eve/Christmas survived the test of time, but Saint Walpurgis/May Day and Midsummer's Eve/Day, for some reason, lost their potency.  Their remnants are found in our cultural traditions.  Midsummer's Night was fortunate to be memorialized by Shakespeare's play, but vintage pictures of maypoles and skimming literary references keep May Day buzzing in the back of our consciousnesses, like static low on the television.  Even still, they are better known than the all-but-forgotten Saint Brigid's Day and Lamas Day, celebrated on February 1st and August 1st, respectively.

Ida Waugh, source


Some of these holy days mark the middle of the seasons rather than the beginning of them.  The summer and winter solstices recognize the approximate time when the lengthening or shortening of the days reverse or, as we know now, when the earth stands still and pauses before it starts to tilt in reverse direction.  But the ancient Gaelic festivals were somewhere between the end of one season and the beginning of another; associated with transitions, in all their forms, as thresholds where one is neither in nor out, neither here nor there.

The difference in calendars and the reckoning of seasons is difficult to grasp; I can hardly get my bearings on them myself.  I grew up with the popular seasonal groupings of spring (March, April, May), summer (June, July, August), autumn (September, October, November), and winter (December, January, February), but the ancient holy days suggest a different kind of division--especially in the remaining Catholic tradition of a the vigil, in which a new day begins at nightfall rather than sunrise.  By celestial time-keeping, however, all the seasons are bumped forward about a month.  By this reckoning, autumn starts in October, winter in January, etc.  Look up the "first day of autumn" and "the first day of winter" in your calendar diary, and you'll see what I mean!*

neo-Pagan "wheel of the year," source

Awareness of the season and where one is in the calendar is integral to folklore and fairy tales.  Brushes with the otherworld were most likely to occur on the liminal days (equinoxes), and even Midsummer could mean trouble for maidens and wandering children.  We can see how the seasonal waxing and waning, dying and awakening of the earth inspired folk traditions and daily living.  The seasonal changes weren't just about the weather.  They were near--and sometimes dear--realities.  Just like fairy tales.



*Tolkien adapted and elaborated on the seasons and the folk traditions to engineer personalized calendars for the races populating Middle Earth--right down to the Leap Days!

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sweetness and Bite: A Book Review

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente


Turning to the fist page of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is like stepping into the midnight garden of the initiated--those who tenderly love fairy tales and Know What They're About, all sweetness and bite and none of the Disney sanitation.  The very first line of the novel is fair warning to the casual wader:

Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog.

And if there were any hint of doubt left, the sentence immediately following casts it aside:

Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday.

Here, in two sentences, is the bone and sinew of fairy tale: something ordinary expectedly-unexpectedly intercepting the extraordinary.  This knowing tone--the expected unexpectedness--is carried through the story seamlessly and with much obvious enjoyment by Ms. Valente, making it a delight to read and a sort of wink aside to fairy tale enthusiasts.

Ann Lambert, source

The story itself is not complex and takes the form of the hero's journey, but the characters, respectful attention to fairy tale tradition, and exquisitely crafted syntax make for a heady feast.  Ms. Valente chooses to circumvent the cultural-specific folkore and go straight for the idea-of-fairytale-personified: the Strange Country, the universal otherworld.  This mix of folkloric traditions might be jarring if it wasn't done so thoroughly.  There's a pooka, or pwca from the Welsh (love it!!); spriggans from Cornwall; a marid from Indian mythology; glashtyn from the Manx; the tsukumogami of Japanese tradition, and witches.  All tied together into an exotic bouquet with a steel wire of steampunk.  I love that September's mother works at a factory and sports the greasy muscles of Rosy the Riveter.

September's relationship with her parents is an example of how Valente skilfully works the Victorian narration.  A lot of the character development and revelation is secondary--not part of the action but disclosed to us in prose.  It's done extremely well, by the curious technique of witholding knowledge.  We get the impression in early chapters that September is a disloyal child, but we are given a glimpse into her growth as time goes on, only becoming aware of it as September does.  I'm finding it hard to describe, but if anyone who has read the book and has something to add, let's discuss it in the comments!

artist? [not credited in my copy]
September going "native" in the country of Autumn.

Other things I enjoyed about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making:


  • the vocabulary.  I learned several new words, no lie.
  • the Victorian chapter introductions--clever, whimsical, and functional!
  • the ridiculously long title
  • the subtle love story.  I don't think Saturday's name would have worked as well without it.  As a pair with September, though, it makes sense.
  • September's love of Halloween.  Valente nails the autumn mood and suspense the same as Ray Bradbury, and that's saying something!
  • A-Through-L, the Wyverary.  I've been cultivating my own type of book-loving dragon since learning about the my high school's literary magazine the Pendragon


I'm looking forward to reading the sequels and sharing the stories with my son as he grows.  The Fairyland series is a modern classic, and is an luscious addition to any fairy tale library.

A few closing notes:

I can't emphasize enough how much Ms. Valente knows her stuff.   It's delightful to read an author who has so carefully studied Faerie--and as is the way with Faerie (and fairy tales) this book isn't simpering and innocent.  There must be blood is one of the sovereign rules of Fairyland.  There's also lying, witches, blood tithes, and unsympathetic creatures.  But the fickle, dangerous, and mysteriously ordered otherworld of folklore and human memory is intact and recognizable. The witticisms abound, and are somewhere between fact and nonsense--which means it's probably, as is the way with literary things, truth.  Such as the assertion that children have no hearts, which is what makes them terribly thoughtless, reckless, and selfish, and that we grow hearts as we age.   It's biting but beautiful observation, and put in a way that maybe skims the truth of the matter far better than psychoanalysis.

This is a book of Fairy, and sojourners should expect to get messy; charmed; ravished; and even lose their hearts. . .

{If you liked this review, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing the books via my Amazon Affiliate links.  Thanks for your support!}

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