Sunday, May 6, 2012

The ends.

Alas, how quickly this semester flew by! This will be my last blog post for the purposes of our fairy tales class, but if the motivation ever finds me I may post from time to time in the future—perhaps in a different blog though. Looking back over my previous posts, and my original post especially, I see that I was interested throughout the semester in being able to take away from this course an understanding of the cultures and histories behind the tales we read. I think that this goal was achieved, especially when we ventured from Europe to Africa, the Levant, and the Orient. I also found in my posts a fair amount of skepticism of some of the perspectives we used to approach fairy tales. My biggest target was Freudian psychoanalysis, but I also never truly accepted Jungian theory either. I often ended up arguing from these perspectives anyway, simply because I think it is good to be able to argue from a stance that is not my own.
If I had to put a finger on my favorite tale, I would have to say that it remains unchanged from what it was at the beginning of the semester: Hansel and Gretel. As with then, I still greatly enjoy the idea of two siblings working together (the only other time this happened was in the story of Neelkamal and Lalkamal (not coincidentally, this was my favorite new fairy tale that we learned). As I said, I enjoyed the broad range of cultures we visited, but I think that it would have been interesting to have some pre-1492 fairy tales from Latin America, though perhaps this is a challenge since most of that civilization was likely wiped out by disease before anyone would have thought to write down some fairy tales. I think that between the cultural scope and variety of perspectives used in our analysis, this class is quite well-suited to be an SIS. I probably could have spent some more time earlier in the semester reading, but after midterms I picked up because I realized how much more those who did the full reading were getting out of the class. Common sense, but still.
For lack of some witty thing to end my blog, I leave you all with this: It has been a great adventure reading, discussing (debating), deriding, and enjoying these folk and fairy tales with all of you!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Propps to you, Laberinto.

Good evening, dear reader! Somewhat departing from our normal modus operandi, we spent two classes on a single story that was seemingly original rather than the latest offspring of centuries of retellings of a tale (not to mention we actually managed to finish a movie). This movie was “El Laberinto del Fauno” and the professor leading the lecture was Dr. Deveny, our resident expert on all things Spanish.
This lecture took us in a different direction than we normally take in class, probably possible because we spent so much time on one tale (not saying that this is better or worse than our usual method, just different). Rather than the Freudian vs. Jungian semantics that we get out of Bettelheim and von Franz, we systematically went through the tale looking at Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions. Together, we managed to find almost all of them, even though they were out of order compared to other fairy tales. For example, function 7 (deceit of victim by villain- where the captain tricks Mercedes into revealing that she has an extra key) comes after function 21 (hero is pursued- where Ofelia is chased by the pale man). Other than the lack of order, the characters in the functions don’t always apply to the same character in the film. For example, both Mercedes and Ofelia fit the role of hero, depending on the function. We also looked into fairy tale motifs that presented themselves throughout the film. We found the inclusion of the special numbers 3 and 7 in the number of trials and rings at the center of the labyrinth, respectively. Naturally, we could not entirely escape sexual undertones, such as the fig tree’s symbolizing a womb and Ofelia’s fear of childbirth, which she is forced to face with her nurturing the mandrake root. Finally, we also have the setting of the film in 1940’s Spain. The political conflict between the Left and Right is seen throughout with the battles against the rebel guerillas. Also, the food and general supply shortage seen in the film is accurate. According to Dr. Deveny, even the brutal scene wherein the Captain bashes a hunter’s face in with a beer bottle is based on a real event. For me, however, this seems to be a separate storyline. The only real place where the fairy tale and the political history intertwine is Captain Vidal, arguably the villain in both, depending on your political perspective. I felt that this movie and the way we approached it added to the sense of the course being an SIS, as it was yet another perspective in looking at fairy tales.
One last thing that was really Dr. Deveny’s emphasis, but one that I agree with, is that the main point of the movie is to be an independent thinker. This is embodied in both the doctor who goes against the captain (costing him his life) and in Ofelia (a departure from the fairytale tradition of the passive, obedient female). This lesson resonated with me, but maybe that is just the young college student in me.

My next blog post will be the last that is related to this class. It remains to be seen whether or not I will continue to make use of it afterwards. Until then, then.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rupkatha of Bangladesh

            Tuesday’s class saw us in a lecture by Dr. Shabbir Mian titled “Rupkotha: Folk and Fairy tales from Bangladesh.” One of the first points he addressed was that these tales don’t actually have any fairies in them. Instead, there are commonly talking animals and demons featuring in these tales. I found this interesting, especially the fact that birds are often the animal of choice, as this was also seen in some of the western tales we have read, including “The Juniper Tree” and “The Robber Bridegroom.” He explained to us that the Bengali environment (its tropical forest, many rivers, and ocean shore) is reflected in the tales via motifs of water and treetop antagonists (apparently demons like to hang out in the canopy). This is also seen in western tales, though perhaps to us it is not as obvious since we do not approach our environment from a foreign perspective. That is, our attention is much more easily drawn to a lush South Asian landscape than to a village on the edge of a forest or medieval castles, since the latter is already so ingrained in our cultural heritage.
                        Also, we got to watch this epic movie. I am at a loss for words for this one. 

            Beyond the physical descriptions and characters, the moral nature of Bengali Rupkotha was also addressed. This is where such tales are truly divergent from European tales. For example, in many European tales, Christian themes of redemption and forgiveness have been worked in over the centuries. In Rupkotha, however, such ideas are absent: virtue is rewarded while evil is summarily punished. I found that this went against my previous assumptions about the culture, by which I thought that it was very non-retaliatory much in the style of Buddhists. Obviously I don’t pretend to have any true grasp of the people of this are of the world, and I suppose that an unforgiving nature does not mean that they do not value peace- they simply use a different method of attaining it.
            To end on a note of similarity, Rupkothas are traditionally told to children to teach them some life lesson, which is what the evolution of the European fairytale has trended towards. Beyond this, they are meant to be entertaining with their use of the out-of-the-ordinary, including magic, talking animals, and transformations, which can be compared to the historic role of European tales to entertain the lower class to bring fun to a dull life (before they were adapted by the aristocracy).
            That’s all for this time. On an unrelated note: I was seriously awed by Dr. Mian’s description of the population density in Bangladesh! It is impressive that they manage to live so closely with their fellow man, though obviously it is not helping their living standards terribly much. Well, until next time all!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Folktales at the Crossroads of the World

It’s that time again! So, what makes Arabic folk and fairytales unique? To start, the language used, Arabic, is standardized in written form by the Quran, which is considered the highest expression of literary art by many Arabs. I find the idea that anything written in this language would thus take upon itself the benefit and burden of such a standard intriguing, as English speakers have no work that unifies the language in this manner. One logical consequence of this for Arabic folk tales is that they are less divergent—changing little over time. Another is that there is more emphasis placed on how something is said than on what is said.  This makes some sense to me, as it explains the similarities found between folk and fairytales of the East and West, as many travelled through the Middle East through trade. That is not to say that the Arabs did not change the stories over time, morphing them to better fit their own culture, and certainly not to say that they did not create their own tales.
Speaking of the culture, it is much like African culture in the importance of oral tradition until fairly recent times (relative to the West). In fact, this explains the existence of pre-Islam tales, as without the oral tradition or literacy, the tales would never be able to be preserved over generations. Meanwhile in Europe, one can find examples such as Aesop and Ovid transcribing tales in ancient Greece and Rome. This is irrelevant, I think, to rating the quality of Arabic tales compared to European ones; it is simply another difference between the two cultures, which has had the aforementioned effects on the tales.

This coming week, we can look forward to the fairytales of the Subcontinent which, as far as I can tell, is the original source of many fairy tales, before they travelled west. Till then!


Sunday, April 8, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different.

Happy Easter everyone! This past week in our Folk/Fairytales class has been spent on African stories, and it is my pleasure to relate to you, my dear reader, my impression of the lecture given by McDaniel’s own Dr. Ochieng’ K’Olewe.
Right from the get-go he was telling us fairytales that he heard in his childhood in Kenya. I enjoyed the energy he put into his lecture and apparently so did the rest of the class, as he somehow managed to get a group of college students up and moving without complaint. As it turns out, the call-and-response style of story he mostly told is well-suited to this, and since it is an authentic style of storytelling in Africa, the experience was made all the better.
Beyond the enjoyment I got out of it, I also had my understanding of Fairytales reinforced by the new perspective he brought. The previous week (with Jewish folk tales) I finally began to understand that even though Jungian theory states that archetypes are universal, one can still find different emphases placed on certain archetypes depending on cultural differences. This lecture reinforced this understanding by explaining to the class that the emphasis on such things as wit and the interconnectedness of everything has its roots in the lifestyle of those that created the stories. For example, wit implies a quickness of thought that could have been vital to survival, and it would have been evident to a society that up until recently has been quite dependent on its environment and ecosystem that events never truly happen in isolation. I personally enjoyed this last interpretation very much as someone interested in history. It is an important idea—that it is impossible to separate any one historical event from the timeline and say that it happened without cause.
Personal relations to the content aside, I think that anyone learning about African folk tales could take similar lessons away. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this latest installment, look forward to next week’s blog post!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Now for something more... Levantine

Alas, I must break the promise made in my last blog post: I think it would be more fun for me to compare Jewish Folktales to those of other (predominantly Christian-European) tales we have read in our class. The first point I would like to make is that despite any differences found, one can comfortably reason that according to Jungian theory, all fairy tales—Jewish, pagan, or otherwise—are based on the same pool of archetypes. Thus any differences found will be due to a cultural emphasis on certain archetypes over others, rather than differences in unconscious thinking. On that note, I begin with an element of (against?) Jewish society that has persisted for centuries: persecution. Without diverging into the history of this, the persecution of the Jews has the effect of making religion in the tale more obvious to the reader, as it is rather hard to miss such gems as “the Jews were falsely accused by their enemies of having murdered…” and “What is the meaning of this, Jew?” (The Rabbi and the Inquisitor). This, compared to other tales we have read in which God is the only reference to religion mentioned, and then generally in passing. Of course, if one wants to take a closer look at the fairy tales we have read, on can certainly read into certain Christian motifs, but such would be expected.
One character seemingly “unique” to Jewish folklore is the Rabbi. I call into question the uniqueness of the character not because a rabbi can, to my memory, be found in any of the non-Jewish tales which we have read, but because the archetype embodied by the rabbi certainly does. Of course, this is the wise old man. Plenty of fairy tales have dispensers of wisdom; those in Jewish tales just happen to have the fa├žade of Jewish religion and culture obscuring the universal archetype beneath.
Lastly, and tied to the first point about persecution, is the idea of the wandering Jew. I find that even this facet of Jewish culture is not at all unique in folk tales; it merely goes under a different name. After all, many tales use a journey caused by the persecution of step mother, witch, or other “bad guy” as a plot device. Thus, here again one can see that really it is Jewish culture making a superficial change to what is an almost standard aspect of a folk/fairy tale. Not that this is a good or a bad thing—it is just a pattern that seems evident. In summary, I suppose one could argue for differences in culture and religion-specific references, but not on any truly basic level. Again, that’s assuming we can go by Jungian theory here. If you disagree (and I don’t even know if I agree) then this analysis is not terribly useful to you. In which case, my dear reader, I know a lovely book by a certain Bettelheim that will have you counting phallic symbols to get to sleep. I’ll stick to sheep, thanks. Till next time everyone!