Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: 'The Hazel Wood' - What We Liked, What We Didn't & Why It's Still Fairy Tale Catnip

We must begin with the book's premise because the atmosphere of The Hazel Wood and its promises are as much a part of the experience as the actual story. Based on this alone is easy to see why it quickly became a best-seller. Here's an excerpt from a wonderful summary by Caitlyn Paxson (of Goblin Fruit, NPR book reviews, Fakelore Podcast):
Official/promotional tarot card featuring quotes by characters

Alice has spent her whole life on the run with her mother, almost as if something terrible is chasing them. They can't ever seem to escape their family legacy: Alice's grandmother is a famous author, who wrote a book of dark fairy tales set in a mythical world called the Hinterland. It's a book so rare and compelling that it has die-hard fans who've never even read it — including Alice. Alice doesn't know her grandmother, who shut herself away in an estate called the Hazel Wood before Alice was even born, but she is secretly obsessed with her and the elusive world that she created. 
When the news comes that her grandmother has died, it seems like maybe Alice and her mother can finally catch their breath. They settle into a life in New York, but Alice keeps waiting for the darkness to find them. 
Sure enough, one day Alice goes home to find that her mother has been kidnapped by terrifying creatures who may be the denizens of the Hinterland come to life. The only clue is a torn page from her grandmother's book, and a dire message from her mother: "Stay away from the Hazel Wood."
Just reading this description has us wishing to re-read it, it's so compelling. How can you not be intrigued when the official blurb includes the phrase: "the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales"? It's clearly enchanting but we've been hesitant to review this book. The Hazel Wood made such a splash on social media, impressively got optioned for a movie even before being released, and so many fairy tale aficionados seem to really love it, we knew it would be a tough review, especially if we didn't completely love it too.

We wanted to love it. We expected to love it. We just... didn't - at least not "completely".

We do love the approach of debut author Melissa Albert and all she has to say about the story and why she wrote it, not to mention her "whys" of being drawn to fairy tales. Speaking to Bustle she said:
"Fairy tales seem, when I reread them now, almost shockingly spare. They’re more of a skeleton you can hang different skins on," Albert says. "The Hazel Wood isn’t a retelling, but it plays with elements of lots of the tales I loved as a kid." Among her inspirations: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” “The Juniper Tree,” and "The Little Mermaid."
It's obvious Albert is a talented writer with great ideas and her debut novel is clearly catnip for fairy tale folk; there's so much great fodder there to feed a fairy tale soul.

Czech cover
As Caitlyn says so eloquently:
This book is crafted with all the care that goes into spinning nettle shirts for your enchanted swan-brothers and all the agony and beauty of spitting up roses and diamonds. It looks head-on at trauma, and gives its compelling heroine the space to find her truth and begin the hard work of healing her wounds. It ponders fandom and the true nature of the places we idolized as children. It even has an Alan Lomax shout-out for all the folklore nerds in the audience.
And we do agree with the entire paragraph above.

Bulgarian cover
Unfortunately, our lasting impression is largely dissatisfaction. It feels strange to read a constant flow of gushing, glowing reviews when your takeaway is so different, so we are finally sharing our impressions via a "likes vs dislikes" summary. Perhaps there are readers that will relate here and there, or perhaps it just illuminates why, perhaps, we're just not the best audience for this novel.

That said we will be watching for more from Albert with great interest and will happily pre-order that promised book of tales, should it ever be completed! (More on this below.) So now to our lists:

What We Liked:
  • The gorgeous cover, very alluring to fairy tale folk
  • The "book within a book" that the story revolves around, Tales From The Hinterland, and the concept of a cult-followed fairy tale collection (*shivers of delight!*)
  • The unique take on a changeling' (a.k.a. an "ex-story")
  • Use of fairy tale motifs beyond the well-known ones
  • The idea and character of the grandmother, Althea Proserpine, and her interviews - we wanted more
  • Opening with, and interweaving Vanity Fair interviews, clippings etc - gave it a great flavor - this kept us reading, hoping for more
  • The potential for the online community/cult, to have a life beyond the book - for real-life readers to take up the torch
  • The idea of stories being alive (just like real fairy tales are)
  • Some of the initial imagery and use of language was unique and genuinely spell-binding
  • There are lots of folklore "easter-eggs" and allusions and parallels to myth and some fairly big (often inverted) fairy tales - the names of characters are chosen for good reason
  • Where the Hinterland encroached on the real world, it worked well and felt like a real force of "Otherness"
  • We saw lots of potential for inspiration a community of readers to create related ephemera: magazine clippings, story fragments, page fragments, endpaper designs, gate designs (& motifs used in the real world as an 'echo'), used library cards, old photos, scratchings of fantasy illustrations on modern coffee napkins, mentions on web pages like clues, discussion board transcripts by the 'cult following' etc
  • The telling of Althea's tales* (relayed by other characters) was truly magical and brought those tales to life. This is where the author shone; the tales and the telling of them, along with the  Vanity Fair reports of Althea's own story, were the absolute gems of the book. We kept reading in hopes of another tale and another... Sadly there were only two included. As another reviewer put it: If Albert wrote out the Hinterland fairy tales and published it, I would buy that in a heartbeat.
French and Serbian covers
That's a lot of like! You may even wish to stop here. If you're curious though (and what person interested in fairy tales doesn't have that trait), what follows is our "other" list.

What We Didn't Like:
  • That only two of the all-important twelve tales were 'told'/ included within the novel (and none of the others are available anywhere).
  • Too many fairy tale motifs used, particularly once Alice was in the Hinterlands.
    • the mentions were so constant and distracting (like "stream of consciousness") the text felt "overstuffed" - we felt like flagging all the mentions just to tally the number per page and chapter (Note: we realize a reader who isn't as obsessed with fairy tales wouldn't be so bothered. It might actually be useful and great for re-reads for most folks.)
    • the references felt a bit like name dropping rather than significant
  • Gratuitous bad language - it often felt out of place, unnatural, trying too hard to be edgy
  • The protagonist, Alice, was more than just "unlikable".  She was so relentlessly angry, often speaking venomously to those in her company. As with the "kick the puppy" syndrome in movies**, we didn't like spending time with her and so didn't care very much when things were tough for her.
  • Alice's obsession with her Grandmother's book of tales was such a driving force in all her actions it implied things would change for her (or change her), or perhaps things would be clearer - or more twists revealed - if she ever got to read the whole collection. As it never happened it felt the story was incomplete and the author reneged on a promise.
  • The author's use of language - at first unique and interesting - never quite settled into a natural rhythm and had a tendency to feel self-conscious.
  • There was not nearly enough about the grandmother - it's almost as if we were tricked into being obsessed with her too then had no avenues open to us when no more information was forthcoming.
  • Once entering Hinterland (aka Fairyland, aka Fairy Tale Land) it was often written like an extended, oversaturated dream sequence, and quickly became boring.
  • The lack of the complete fairy tale book  (Tales From The Hinterlands) either within the pages or somewhere in the real world or on the web to be found, meant possibilities beyond the book fizzled pretty quickly - like an unfinished idea - it felt like a huge missed opportunity.
  • Naming so many specific book and film (and music) titles pulled us out of the story; current novels especially (eg. Boy Snow Bird) are too recent a "reader experience" to see referenced without getting somewhat derailed.
  • While we didn't mind Hinterland being very dark, there really didn't seem much space left in Fairy Tale Land for wonder and enchantment; we missed that balance. Even the dark fae tend to simultaneously attract and repel their victims.
  • We didn't care a lot about the conclusion, especially once it was clear we'd never get to read the rest of Althea's book (set up as one of the main mysteries). The restless ending only served to amplify our ambivalence throughout.
We felt the book never completely settled into a confident rhythm and were left tired and sad at the end.
UK cover and Spanish cover
Readers can probably see that our second list isn't the usual set of reader criticisms. We were very conflicted reading this book. As we said at the outset, perhaps it's just that we're not the ideal audience for the novel.

It should be noted, that hasn't stopped us from remaining intrigued by the premise, and the promise of a new book of fairy stories. Despite our objections, we remain drawn to the catnip which is The Hazel Wood.

What We're Wishing For Now:
  • We feel like this book begs for a companion, namely, Tales From The Hinterland. Somewhere there needs to be a complete copy of the tales, even if it's via a difficult internet hunt to unearth them. A unique "re" published volume would be a great marketing tie-in and awesome collection of new and unique tales. Without the opportunity to read the tales it feels as though we're missing a large chunk of the story. 
    • Note: Since first writing this review, it has been announced that a companion volume, Tales From the Hinterland, that is, the entire collection of Althea Proserpine's tales will be published sometime in 2020. We will happily pre-order this as soon as it's possible. Though it will likely work fine as a standalone, perhaps it will also serve to give us more of a sense of completeness for The Hazel Wood. Before this much-anticipated volume, however, a sequel to The Hazel Wood will be published first sometime during 2019. The title just revealed as of January 11, 2019, is The Night Country.
  • A movie may very well make better sense of the great collection of ideas in the book and focus it better, especially if they're judicious with the design, in using/combining fairy tale motifs and in focusing on which characters to develop properly
We will probably give this novel a re-read down the line and believe we are likely to appreciate it more a second time around. For now, though, we will stick to re-reading Althea's tales. More than any experience of Alice's in "Fairy Tale Land", the tales, as dark as they are, were the sections that showed us that even in the darkest of woods there is hope. 

Bonus fairy tale article of the day:
Interested in how fairy tale tropes are challenged, tales are inverted and use of various myths mine the depths of this novel? You may be interested in:
by CS Peterson.

* The two tales are 'Alice-Three-Times' and 'The Door That Wasn't There'.
** It is said that once a character in a movie kicks a dog, the audience loses all sympathy for him (or her) and nothing they do to redeem themselves from then on  - even, say, saving a planet of orphaned baby pandas  - will make an audience be on their side again. The act crosses a "moral event horizon" and is essentially unforgivable.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Theater: "The River Bride"

The River Bride play by Marisela Treviño Orta, poster by Kate Forrester
You had to know it wouldn't be long before a theater post turned up, didn't you? And we do indeed have a magical production for you to consider seeing:
The River Bride
A Grim Latino Fairy Tale
by Marisela Treviño Orta
Press photo by Tom McGrath 
Press release: Once upon a time, in a fishing village along the Amazon, there lived two sisters struggling to find their happily-ever-after. Helena is dreading her sister Belmira's wedding. The groom, Duarte, should have been hers. And she knows that her sister only wants to escape their sleepy Brazilian town for an exciting new life in the city. But three days before the wedding, fishermen pull a mysterious stranger out of the river - a man with no past who offers both sisters an alluring, possibly dangerous future. Brazilian folklore and lyric storytelling blend into a heartrending tale of true love, regret, transformation, and the struggle to stay true to your family while staying true to yourself.
“The River Bride” is deceptively simple, as all good fairy tales are. And also like all good fairy tales, there are lessons to be learned, this one about the courage to love and the danger in thoughtless love. (
Photography & gif by Mark Holthusen
It's pretty clear this play is a fairy tale. It even opens with "Once upon a time...". Broadway World waxed eloquent about the production staged by Arizona Theater Company in December 2018, and gave every reason for magic realism folks and lovers of Latin American folklore to go see this play (as well as being recommended as a wonderful piece of real theater that's accessible to all ages). Here's their brief summary of the Brazilian tale (aka The Legend of the Pink River Dolphin or Bufeo Colorado - in full at this link) The River Bride is based on:
In the telling of this story, the poet/playwright has adopted a piece of the region's folklore as her metaphor ~ the fable of a boto , a river dolphin, that every June surfaces as a man for three days during which he must find a wife or return to the river.
And Broadway World give a lovely description of what the production feels like to watch:
In Arizona Theatre Company's reprise of the work that it first honored four years ago with its National Latino Playwriting Award, director Kinan Valdez conveys Orta's allegory into a vivid sensory experience. Gifted with a choreographic sensibility, he masterfully marries the emotions of the characters with the mood of their environs. Whether it's a sudden downpour, a curtain of tropical foliage, or the changing tones of the river, David Lee Cuthbert's projections and Emiliano Valdez's sound effects create a lush and seductive frame for the action on the stage.
(We'll let you read the rest of the review yourself if you're intrigued!)
A little note of additional interest and something to watch for: The River Bride is actually one of a trilogy of "grim Latino fairy tales" that playwright Marisela Treviño Orta has written, including Wolf at the Door* (which premiered at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Fall 2018) and Alcira. In an interview with Abel of  Howlround Theater Commons Orta discussed her inspiration by both the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Latinx mythology. Here's an excerpt:
Press photo by Tom McGrath
Abel: Wolf at the Door... along with The River Bride, contain the subtitle or description “a grim Latino fairy tale.” Could you elaborate more on this description and some elements of this type of fairy tale?

Marisela: Of course “grim” is a bit of word play on the Brothers Grimm. Their fairy tales are so dark and violent. They were cautionary tales—helping people navigate the dark and dangerous world they lived in. These days fairy tales are very sanitized; a lot of the violence is gone and the focus is more on the “happy ending.”
With this cycle of plays, I was interested in writing fairy tales similar to those written by the Brothers Grimm—cautionary tales for adults. The plays deal with regret, agency, and empowerment.
The fairy tales are “Latino” because each of them draws inspiration from a specific Latino folklore or mythology. Wolf at the Door is set Mexico and is based on a Mesoamerican belief. The River Bride is set in Brazil and is inspired by Amazonian folklore. And Alcira is set in San Francisco and is based on Aztec mythology.
They sound fascinating, don't they? We'll have to keep an eye out...
Mark Holthusen

In the meantime, The River Bride is being staged and performed by the Stages Repertory Theater in Houston, Texas through February 10th, 2019. Though not the same production (or director or cast) as that reviewed by Broadway World, it has been receiving glowing press reviews (see below), that indicate it worth your time and money, should you be lucky enough to get tickets before it's sold out

(If you do - please let us know what you thought. We'd be happy to post your review!**)

“Full of seductiveness and rhythm … Wonderful, moving, riveting!” 
— Arizona Daily Star

"A mesmerizing, magical tale of heartbreaking romance...A shining example of what live theatre is all about: superb storytelling; marvelous actors; and technical expertise that transcends into seamless, stunning reality right before the audience's eyes."
 Times Standard

"A thought provoking, stunningly raw and romantic production for all ages"

— Buzz Center Stage
Press photo by Tom McGrath

* Synopsis of Wolf at the Door: In this dark fairy tale, Isadora finds the strength to stand up to her abusive husband Septimo when he forces the very pregnant Yolot to stay against her will. While Septimo makes plans for the baby, Isadora and Yolot devise one of their own. And as a pack of wolves closes in on the hacienda, Isadora must decide what price she'll pay for her own freedom. Wolf at the Door is set to be staged by various companies during 2019. (Check out Kitchen Dog Theater's page of the production, April 11 to May 5, 2019.)

**Reviews of books, theater or movies are welcome by any of our readers, though remain subject to approval by Once Upon A Blog's editor. Credit is always given to the writer (personal blurb optional) and we are happy to post a link to the writer's personal website or social media pages for promotion. We do not require exclusive publishing rights, only permission for the content to remain publicly available at our home site.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Amnesty International PSA: "No Consent = No Fairytale"

A heavier subject today but a prevalent one that's been discussed inside fairy tale circles for a long time. Since the #MeToo era began, the issue of consent in fairy tales has included the public at large and brought to society's attention how prevalent and dangerous the issues surrounding consent remain in our upbringing.

Amnesty International's most recent PSA highlights the importance of having the definitive legal definition of rape as being based on the absence of consent. The campaign focusing on this issue uses something not-too-surprising: a sleeping fairy tale princess being kissed (and felt up) by a prince.

Take a look:
While the basis of recognizing rape by the absence of consent is the international standard of human rights, only nine out of thirty-three European countries recognize this "simple truth" (the UK being counted separately in this instance). While at first, it seems like a no-brainer for countries to adopt this as a legal definition, the truth is it gets murky pretty quickly due to the current, very flawed, need to "prove" rape by the victim, usually based on resistance.

From Amnesty International, UK:
"... the remaining European countries are lagging far behind, with their criminal laws still defining rape on the basis of physical force or threat thereof, coercion or inability to defend oneself.  
According to the European Commission’s 2016 survey on gender-based violence, almost one-third of respondents considered that sexual intercourse without consent may be justified “in certain circumstances.” These included, for example, if the person is drunk or under the influence of drugs, is voluntarily going home with someone, wearing revealing clothes, not saying “no” clearly or not fighting back."
When using the images of a sleeping Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, who are under enchantment, or in a death-like sleep, it should be noted these are very apt metaphors for situations in which consent is absent - and it's not due to passivity. The lack of body response or resistance has been proven to be a very real - and involuntary - physical defense. 
"In fact, despite the expectation that a “model” rape victim will fight her attacker back, freezing when confronted with a sexual attack has been recognised as a common physiological and psychological response, leaving the person unable to oppose the assault, often to the point of immobility. For example, a 2017 Swedish clinical study found that 70% of the 298 women rape survivors assessed experienced “involuntary paralysis” during the assault."
This is especially important to consider as there is a very real and justified fear by victims that resistance will equal death. (You can read more about this in the Amnesty International article.) Clearly, survivors are still getting the majority of the blame for being assaulted. How this mentality is still prevalent in 2018-19 is head-scratching.

What fairy tale folk and storytellers should be aware of is the enormous role and obstacle that myth and stereotypes play to adopting the consent-based definition. This, of course, includes how fairy tales are being told and retold. Our modern versions of 'happily ever' after might appear cleaner on the surface (with the "it's just a harmless kiss" mentality) than older tale versions that blatantly include the obsession of a prince with a dead body, or the rape of a sleeping maiden alone in the woods, but it's clear these "sanitized" versions have added to the harm by romanticizing acts of obsession, power and violence over (mainly) women and children. While there are no easy or straightforward solutions as far as retelling fairy tales go (banning just sweeps things under the carpet and does much more harm than good, and any retold version will likely include societal bias and the prevalent social attitudes), these oft-repeated and referred-to tales need to, once again, be revised in their retelling.1
It's not that this isn't being done, by the way. It's that the revised versions, and sometimes older and better variants, aren't the most popular, accessible image of those tales (still!)2. The public generally isn't aware that other ways of telling these stories exist, so the old ones are perpetuated, if at all. While Disney (arguably the strongest pop-culture fairy tale influence on the world) has finally shown a change in the way they tell their (market-dominating) versions of the tales, consistency of resistance to the harmful classic images needs to continue, and how we tell the tales to our children and audiences needs to be far more discerning. There are many (many!) resources of revisionist fairy tales, for young children through grown-ups, but there are also, it should be noted, far more 'healthy' variants or versions of these old fairy tales available - and easily accessible! - for the telling3. The age of the internet means you often don't even need to leave your house to find them. Sometimes it's as easy as going to that (rarely-visited) second or third page of Google search results.

Heigh-ho storytellers!

1 It obviously isn't enough to just call a rape, a rape, in the retellings. We also need to address the issue of women, and society, accepting marriage to their attackers - and/or a payoff in terms of a crown and increased status - as a 'happy ending'.
2  And it's not (as we heard someone say recently) about removing the "classic romance" of childhood fairy tales. It's about revising what romance is considered to be. 
3  Thanks to the efforts of newly published collections of fairy tales such as the Oddly Modern Fairy Tales series, and storytellers, like Dr. Zalka Csenge Virág who are mining the wealth of old tales in libraries and universities around the world for stories we can - and should - be telling.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Why Is Pinocchio In Aquaman? (spoilers hidden)

We did not expect a specific repeating reference to a fairy tale in the current blockbuster Aquaman (about to hit the billion dollar mark this weekend), yet there it was: Pinocchio. Not exactly the fairy tale you'd expect to get nods in a DC superhero movie, but the references are very deliberate and repeat often enough throughout the film in such particular ways that it's clear there are supposed to be parallels to Aquaman's own story. Who'd have thunk?

Quote from Jason Momoa doing publicity for Aquaman
Just to get this part out of the way, our opinion is that Aquaman is a ridiculously fun and silly adventure that - thankfully - has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek for most of the time, has incredible (and fairy tale-like) visuals, and overall reminds us of kids playing with their action figures, who then grew up and turned those imagination games into something you can now see on the big screen. It suffers a little from an identity crisis, being an odd mash-up of Star Wars under the sea + Indiana Jones + Lovecraft (because why not?) all held together somewhat loosely with Arthur pulling his proverbial sword from the stone, but isn't that what playing imagination games tend to be like anyway? While it is far from perfect, there's no doubt it has the spirit and love of the original comics (and weaves in an astonishing number of DC easter eggs and nods throughout) and still manages to be fun for many who have never cared about Aquaman before. It also has a very blatant ecoconscious message that all by itself had our audience cheering (and likely made them much more forgiving of the movie's imperfections).
Aquaman 2018 promotional hot of the undersea warrior factions
Mondo X Cyclops poster by Jessica Seamans
We're not comic experts here (our focus has been rather narrow in that genre, concentrating mainly on Bill Willingham's Fables) so we don't have the inside track on fairy tales the DC Aquaman comic series has referenced in the past (you may wish to hit up Adam Hoffman on those questions!) but director James Wan wasn't afraid to nod to pop-culture versions of fairy tales when he could slide them in* (see end of post for examples). Wan has also shown a lot of delight and enthusiasm for the variety of Aquaman memes popping up all over the internet. It's clear this project had a lot of joy and childlike play in the creation of it, and that leaks through to the audience very well. This childlike sense of wonder and fun is underscored by the way the film opens and ends with a very fairy tale-like narrative (sadly, a little clunky in execution), so the audience does appear to be invited to consider this a kind of epic fairy tale (or a combination of tales, as Atlanna - Aquaman's mother - clearly has a fairy tale of her own).

Pinocchio, however, was mentioned specifically twice by name. There was even a picture book involved and, using visuals and some props, the fairy tale obliquely underscored Aquaman's journey. While the movie clearly uses the Sword in the Stone legend as a basis for Aquaman's rise to hero (yes, Aquaman's surface name is Arthur, no it's not a coincidence), the Pinocchio theme is (generally) much more subtle**. The rise to hero (more than just-king) happens alongside Arthur learning who he is, accepting himself and, eventually making his own choices rather than being pushed into a role (that is, used as a puppet). It also shows him early on deliberately playing the fool, only to reveal there's much more to him (and his understanding of the world and classic literature and mythology) than first appears. But there are other strong references too - both visually and in the script.
(highlight incomplete paragraphs below to reveal hidden/spoiler text): 
- Right when Arthur is seemingly defeated, he narrowly avoids death by escaping into the mouth of a whale when he uses his 'speaks to fish' powers (which includes all sea creatures) and asks it to let him and Mera in. The visuals are very specific and the nod to the fairy tale is very clear.
- Extra trivia: if you play the video game Kingdom Hearts you will know that Monstro is both a character and a world that needs to be defeated. Once you conquer Monstro you're finally allowed to go to Atlantica aka The Little Mermaid's underwater home aka Atlantis.)
- Arthur's personal journey, as well as clues to how he might overcome his adversities and enemies, is also foreshadowed in the background when he's a small child. His mother is telling him stories, holding a fork, by the way, and in the background, there's a wooden Pinocchio doll sitting upright.
- When Arthur is taken down to the ruins of old Atlantis and he is convinced to go on the quest, there is a puppet-doll sitting at the bottom of the ocean too, albeit a creepy one as this prop does double duty as a nod to the director's previous horror film The Conjuring, as well as letting us know it's going to get a little Cthulhu-like before there's any real 'win' for Arthur).
- Later, in Italy (of course) during the search for lost-Atlantis (aka the Indiana Jones sequences) a child is at a fountain and is given an Atlantean coin by Mera, which the child uses to make a wish. Mera causes the water to form into dancing dolphins, which delights the child who runs away to tell others and returns to gift Mera with a book, specifically Pinocchio (an illustrated Carlo Collodi picture book, not a Disney one).
- Mera flips through it, sees the whale scene, and accuses Arthur of getting his ideas from a fairy tale. Cue the odd line about "from the movie not from the book" which hasn't landed with the audience as it was supposed to.

Quote from Director James Wan, commenting on the creation of Aquaman
The scene with the book is also near a turning point in the movie, in which Arthur truly starts embracing his mixed heritage and finding his unique way through. As puts it: "It's all executed a bit awkwardly, to be honest, but it's nice that the DCEU (Ed. note: Stands for DC Extended Universe) is even trying to be allegorical at this point." (source)
[Side note: We find it very interesting that it's Pinocchio, not Jonah, that is the model here, but a fairy tale allegory likely works better than a biblical one in such an effects-filled fantasy. Jonah isn't generally considered a puppet or pawn, or needing to find his real self (though a case could be made for it). Pinocchio is the clearer - and safer - choice. With the threat of world catastrophe being a solid theme, Jonah would have worked allegorically in this aspect too (in the Bible, God threatens the great city of Ninevah, aka capital of the Assyrian empire - think "ancient equivalent of New York" - unless Jonah goes and warns them and they repent) but it would seem the filmmakers wanted to concentrate on Arthur's personal journey more, which the Pinocchio parallel does well. Another note of interest is that Pinocchio is usually referenced with regard to truth and lies, but that wasn't the focus at all, especially as far as Arthur's character was concerned. It's refreshing to see Pinocchio being a touchstone in a different way. ]
Apart from the fantastic and colorful underwater cities and cultures, the most powerful scenes, visually speaking, are the Lovecraftian ones. (They truly are cinematically stunning!) These sequences too could be considered to reflect some darker aspects of Pinocchio. Interestingly, we noticed some common threads between the semi-successful Speilberg sci-fi updating of Pinocchio, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and this much darker section of the film, especially with regard to themes of loneliness and abandonment. Though Mera makes for a formidable, non-distressed damsel/partner through much of the film, it's clear at this point Arthur has choices he needs to make by himself. Although there's no blue fairy in Aquaman (SPOILER - highlight to view: we think a kaiju blue fairy would make for a very interesting interpretation! And Julie Andrews really does have the perfect voice for that dual role...            END SPOILER), Arthur's final personal challenge before the film's action-packed ending has much of the same atmosphere of soul searching and surrender that Pinocchio and David (in A.I.) exhibit at the same juncture of their stories. It should be noted, though, that Arthur's journey quickly transitions from "I'm a real boy" to being crowned "superhero" and a very crowd-pleasing finale.
Aquaman (2018)  rides a sea dragon
We'll finish on this note of observation. In social media, the response to Pinocchio appearing in Aquaman has been interesting. A good portion of folks are basically saying: 
"Did Aquaman make me want to watch Pinocchio again? Yes. Yes, it did."
We can't complain about that.
*  *  *
Fairy tale art bonus of the day:
Below is the gorgeous Pinocchio painting by John Rowe for Disney Fine Art, that we had a bit of fun with for the header. Kudos to John Rowe who is the amazing artist of this dynamic piece!

Pinocchio - The Wrath of Monstro - Geppetto by John Rowe

One of the many meme posters created from
the original, this one reflecting the
strong eco-theme in Aquaman
Note: You may also wish to check out this article: How Cinema’s New Aquaman Draws on the Mythology of Ancient Sea Gods

*At a glance: Disney's The Little Mermaid - at least 4 specific ways, more if you're keen - it even begins with a fairy tale-like narration, just in case you were missing the point; in a flip version of The Little Mermaid tale, man finds wounded silent/feral sea woman, rescues her, falls in love; woman eats goldfish in a very Splash like/little mermaid manner, tridents and forks are interchangeable at points, that red-red hair of Mera's and her seriously-mermaid-y outfit; the whole "part of your world" yearning (which may even have been said aloud at some point); an octopus plays the drums, though to be fair, this is actually DC canon).

   Moana - the very Maui-like vibe Arthur/Aquaman plays with [the star, Jason Momoa, has Polynesian heritage too], as well as the visuals like his tattoos which are quite specific, and there's even a giant hook used at one point.

** There is a particular line of dialogue about Pinocchio "the movie versus the book", that has a bunch of the audience scratching their heads over why that was said. We think this was supposed to be rather more sly than it came across, and was really just a clumsily layered joke referencing DC vs Disney, true fans (comic readers) vs new fans (moviegoers), and Arthur playing into Mera's impression that Arthur was a bit of a blockhead (puppet pun intended), though it's quite clear in the surrounding scenes that his upbringing included a good grounding in classical history and literature.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

My Fairy Tale Survival Kit For Cancer (& Other Real Life Crises) - By Gypsy Thornton

"Silence will carry your voice like the nest that holds the sleeping birds"
Text by Rabindranath Tagore, illustration from the Stray Birds series by Kuri Huang
(Artist's social media & contact details at end of post)
2018 will forever be the year in which I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. Having now had a double mastectomy, and continuing ongoing treatment, I can now officially say I am a breast cancer survivor.

I wish I could say I am feeling strong and confident and I have a new zest for life. Maybe that will come, if I'm lucky, but I'm certainly not there yet. I am clear, however, on one thing: fairy tales remain integral to my life; and by "life" I mean living beyond "surviving". 

Everyone's experience with cancer (and other life-threatening issues) is different but there are commonalities too, so to that end, here's my home-spun, Fairy Tale Survival Kit. I hope you find it useful.
(Note: I've included books and resources that were touchstones for me for each point. I suggest substituting resources that speak personally to you.)
My Fairy Tale Survival Kit for Cancer
(& Other Real Life Crises)

1. Be the one who learns what Fear is
      (and face it)
Fairy tale resource: Outfoxing Fear: Folktales From Around the World by Kathleen Ragan

    This book, written in direct response to the 9/11 attack in the US, and its aftermath, was especially helpful in exploring different cultural attitudes to fear and death. The tales really did have the effect of making me feel less trapped in my too-many thoughts, and eventually became a great way to talk about those specific fears with my son in a less direct way. Reading these fairy tales, especially, "grim-with-humor" stories to - and with - my son, gave us a way to talk (and think) about our very real fears without directing addressing my cancer. Seeing the way different cultures deal with various fears made us feel less isolated and encouraged us to think differently about facing our own very specific ones. Reading these tales also encouraged the first real laughter I had after my diagnosis and surgery - something vitally important to "living life beyond surviving".

2. Ask Baba Yaga to tell you her stories
       (and listen to her advice)
Fairy tale resources: Baba Yaga - The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales - Introduction and translations by Sibelan Forrester, with contributions by Helena Goscilo and Martin Skoro and a foreword by Jack Zipes; Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldy Advice For Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia
    As regular readers here know, Baba Yaga has been a favorite of mine for many, many years, largely in part because of her primal aspect as well as her dual nature. Discussing the beautifully illustrated yet harsh stories in The Wild Witch of the East, gave my son and I something of substance to talk about that didn't feel like like a waste of suddenly-very-precious time together. They gave us a much-needed break from talking about cancer, pain, illness, doctors, hospitals, fears, and death. It was also an avenue to feel other emotions without guilt; to be shocked, disgusted and delighted, to laugh and to be real together without creating more exhaustion or focusing on very real fears. The raw yet lyrical advice to mundane and heartfelt questions in Ask Baba Yaga was another source of relief for me. The Baba's mythic (and sometimes feral) replies can be applied to an array of human experience and I found I was able to think about things I needed to in a fresh way. That different lens helped me see beyond my self-focus and not get so overwhelmed. Fairy tales tell resonant truths and offer hope for the journey. Baba Yaga makes sure you pay attention to those truths and illuminates the path with flaming skulls. It's exactly what I, and my family, needed.

3. Learn to use sleep as a weapon
       (avoiding poison apples isn't as easy as you'd think)
Fairy tale resources: Snow White variations & articles (papers, books, movies, novels & some deep thinking - Link 1 - history & Jung, Link 2 - Zipes & Tatar on the tale, Link 3 - a writer/psychologist explores problem resolving as a married Snow White, Link 4 - Novel: 'White As Snow' by Tanith Lee, Link 5 - Movie: Blancanieves (released Blu-ray/DVD 2012) directed by Pablo Berger, Link 6 - Picture Book: by Benjamin Lacombe, Link 7 - The Other Sleeping Beauty by WillowWeb)
    I quickly found there is this incredible pressure to "be an inspiring role model" when having "brave and radical surgery" (apparently a common pressure for breast cancer patients). But though I might have looked brave going into it all, I didn't feel brave. It isn't thrilling to "avoid death", it's exhausting. I couldn't do basic physical things and my brain had trouble putting the most elementary sentences together. (For a writer-reader this is very distressing!) I couldn't manage calls or visits; reading was hard; emails, news and social media were best avoided. The last thing I felt able to do was support and cheer others on, let alone write posts or a book (yes, I was asked) to "chronicle my inspiring journey". My stress was massively increased - the exact opposite situation my long-term survival is dependent on. Having also had to move house just days before the surgery, I had purposely unpacked my Snow White book collection where I could see them when I came home from hospital, to have them comfort and inspire me, to remind me to believe in new beginnings, to aim for survival despite the odds, and to have grace through it all. But I found myself returning to the image Snow Drop's death-like sleep and her lack of choice about it until that apple piece was dislodged. I knew I wouldn't be fully recovered until the cancer - and its poisonous effects - were completely gone from my body. Prior to diagnosis I was very fit and ultra-healthy (according to doctors). I had even maintained an excellent "anti-cancer" diet for many years, yet I still fell victim to the disease. Given that my chronic sleep issues and long-term stress likely had a big influence on my getting cancer in the first place, I knew I needed to fix that as a priority. Right then I gave myself permission to side step all of the pressure, build a cocoon of social silence and let myself sleep instead. Being able to think of this process as my season of hibernation and healing, so I could eventually bloom again, has truly helped change my thinking, and made it easier to get something my life depends on right now: lots of good quality, healing sleep. It's going to take a good long while, so if I don't get back to you, assume I'm sleeping... zzzz...
Note: A quick shoutout to those beyond my close family who have continued to send encouragement in many forms without pressuring me to respond over the weeks and months, especially Lisa, Louisa, Tahlia, Jack and Gina - a sincere THANK YOU to you very special people! It means more than I can say to have you be steadfast in your support despite the silence from my end. ❦
4. Know that your tale matters
       (you don't need to be a 7th son of a 7th son)
Fairy tale resource: Folk by Zoe Gilbert
     This book is in my top three of 2018. Though I'm certain I would have loved this book at any time, reading it at this crisis point was extremely helpful, and resonated right when I needed it. It reminded me that hardship doesn't mean an absence of magic and wonder. While the cycle of stories in Folk that take a generation to unfold, have as many happy endings as not, wonder infuses every mundane life and, to me, that felt both accessible and oddly reassuring. Unlike many modern reworkings of fairy tales and folklore, Folk does not continuously focus on a single person; there is no 'hero' or 'destined one'. Any one  - every one - of the community is touched by wonder - be it horrific or fantastic, no matter how long or short the life, no matter how stupid or smart, no matter how well or unwell, no matter how gifted or talented - or not. Where many retellings and collections focus on 'the special' for fairy tale and folklore to make a difference, this book focuses on ordinary people. With so much of my life having been changed and taken away, this made it feel like fairy tales were still accessible to me and that wonder is always close by.

5. Be your own fairy godmother
       (don't wait for magic to come to you)
Fairy tale resources: The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year by Linda Raedisch; The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury; #FolkloreThursday
   Time becomes uber-precious when Death leaves a calling card; it shifts your perspective. Getting my kid clean every day is suddenly nowhere near as important as helping him mark occasions and nurturing a 'habit of Wonder'*. I realized that paying attention to our place in the world via seasonal traditions, lore, rituals and story, helps us feel part of it. It lifts our lives out of the mediocre and shows us how we can make a difference - something I really want my son to understand. Doing this gives our story more, well, magic. But it's tough to commit to. Making magic is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort, and feels twenty-times harder when you are sick. Despite the wisdom of 'give yourself a pass this year' (advice which has great merit) I did my best to make magic this Samhain/Halloween and Christmas/Yule season for my little boy. It made me realize that even the most mundane of us, in the most undesirable situation, can work magic, if we try. While we may not be up to creating coaches out of pumpkins, just a touch of homemade enchantment can transform the world around us. It just doesn't come free. Not even the gifted get off doing magic for no price. As with most things worth doing, magic is 90% (or more) hard work. But despite the limited strength and energy dealing with cancer dishes you, it truly is worth it. My mundane 'efforts-by-human' look and feel like REAL magic, to my son but also, surprisingly, to me. Turns out, those endorphins that flood my system when I see shiny eyes taking in wonder, have a magic of their own: they're one of the best cancer fighters on the planet.

6. Look for breadcrumbs when you're lost
       (they're everywhere!)
Fairy tale resources: Firebird by Mercedes Lackey; Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey (an ongoing historical-fantasy, fairy tale-based series)
    When I got my diagnosis, I found I had to make a lot of life-altering decisions (for me and my family) very quickly. To my dismay, I learned that if I didn't ask the right questions, certain things were never explained and yet it was my responsibility to figure all this out. I have spent  weeks worth of hours studying medical papers and texts, trying to understand current cancer research and my options so I can make the best decisions, but there are no right answers - or guaranteed treatment. This weighty research is hard enough pre-surgery but afterward, when treatment can get very complicated, and you have to discuss and decide while in pain, with a brain that is in an awful fog, feeling like your survival depends upon your decisions, it can drown you. I needed a brain break. At first I tried my usual route - fairy tale study and research - something I have always greatly enjoyed but instead I felt suddenly stupid, unable to concentrate and it only resulted in exacerbating my stress - I couldn't even do what I loved anymore! Disillusioned, I picked up an old fairy tale novel I had never gotten around to reading, wondering if I should donate it to a thrift store. It was an Elemental Masters novel, a series I'd always considered a light read for a younger audience, but flipping through the first few pages, something caught my eye. I was able to read and enjoy it and - surprise! - there was enough fairy tale 'meat' for me to chew on when I needed it. Even on the 'good' days, when my neurons were firing more normally, I found myself inspired to pursue plenty of research crumbs. It actually brought tears of relief to my eyes and I proceeded to hunt down others in the series and carried a book with me to every doctor's appointment so I could escape the stressy-go-round my brain would spiral into there. I would go so far as to say these books helped me find my way back to myself and my 'tell-a-tale' heart... (Heh.) Once there was a girl who never went anywhere without a book of stories in her hand. Wherever she went, she always had with her somewhere she wanted to be...***

7. Know that a leftover wing doesn't have to be a curse
       (neither do scars)
Fairy tale resource: A Wild Swan And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham, Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
     While a double mastectomy is about more than losing body parts, what I didn't know is that it can also make you feel like an "unwoman". I never expected this. I thought the physical challenge would be the hardest part. Despite feeling very different from most folks my whole life, this was the first time I truly felt less than human. Reconstruction (a ridiculously painful, debilitating and still!-onging process of many months), seems - to me - only to underscore the fact. I finally started to find my feet again (so to speak) when I considered the little mermaid and the prince left with the wild swan's wing (note: a wild swan's wing). In Michael Cunningham's tales the characters tend toward self-indulgent victims of curses or magic; they are sad, lonely and often unable (or unwilling) to change their circumstance. The more I read, the more I found myself annoyed that the aspect of wonder each character lived with, was unappreciated, even hated. It wasn't until I came to the line in the title story of the wing curling itself on the sad prince's form that I realized I was guilty of heading down the same path.** Different may mean "something wrong" to most people, but it doesn't have to. It's taken a while but I've finally realized, with a different (to "normal") silhouette and extensive scars (outside and in) comes new opportunities - if I do something about it. I can't be the "old me". There's no going back. But the "new me" doesn't have to be tragic and feel cursed. I find I now have more realistic expectations of myself and others, but also appreciate those moments of wonder and magic much more. Maybe I'm a little distorted in form - I'm not used to it yet - but I can more easily see the wild in me now.
✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ~
My journey through these particular woods has a long way to go but I'm grateful for every step forward. Clearly my tale isn't quite done yet...
Have fairy tales ever been helpful to you in a real life crisis?
Note: I must include a very heartfelt "thank you" to my fairy tale friend and OUABlog's partner Tahlia Merrill, Editor-in-Chief of Timeless Tales Magazine, for keeping the blog alive the past few months. She coordinated and posted book reviews, especially of books she knew I wished to have signal-boosted, and pointed readers toward fresh fairy tale goodness in Timeless Tales Magazine and on social media so I could ignore the online world and just pay attention to my immediate one. She will continue to do so as she can manage, as I cannot guarantee any consistency of posting from my end for the quite some time, so we thank you for your patience with the random timing of posts and reviews.
All artwork in this post by Kuri Huang's Andersen's Tales for Guomai & her Stray Birds series, based on verse by Indian poet Tagore. From top to bottom including the header: 1. Stray Birds series, 2. Steadfast Tin Soldier, 3. Stray Birds series, 4. Snow Queen (1), 5. The Iron Pig, 6. Snow Queen (2), 7. The Tinderbox, 8. The Wild Swans, 9. The Little Mermaid, 10. Thumbelina
Kuri Huang - Freelance Illustrator
Available for commissions - Contact her at
✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ∘ ✾ ~
Covers of books (and movie) mentioned:

*A 'habit of Wonder' is the best term I could think of to describe having a constant awareness of the potential of Wonder in a situation and nurturing it.                                                        ** A comment on the New York Times' printing of the title story from A Wild Swan and Other Tales (Cunningham) caught my attention and gave me excellent food for thought on this subject. I have included the relevant section below. Story at this link for context:                                 I believe the story's ending is profound: the wing has developed an autonomous nature as any unintegrated archetypal complex is prone to do. This mysterious condition is often populated with (usually hidden) evolutionary vestiges that become symbolic at best, but more commonly just uncomfortable, when, in the modern era, their significance is rendered banal by confusion and ignorance. (Excerpt from comment by BC_ OR from Portland Oregon in Oct, 2015)                                                                                                                              *** This is a paraphrase of a JK Rowling quote. Also see these other great reasons for always carrying a book.