Monday, March 30, 2020

Review of Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese Tales (Oddly Modern Fairy Tales series)

(Review written by Leigh Smith)

“I have pledged me to the worship of the Odd . . . the Strange . . . the Monstrous… ”
~Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn


If I had a digital file of Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese tales, I'd be curious to run a search for how many times this word appears amid his 28 tales. This before-his-time multiculturist’s dark fairy tale work foreshadowed an entire body of unsettling art. 

He anticipated the so-called automatic writing of practitioners such as André Breton, opened receptive minds to Cubism and Surrealism movements of the 1920s and primed the public imagination for the fantastical tales of  H.P. Lovecraft. Lafcadio Hearn successfully navigated multiple cultures, transforming himself from Other to revered father figure/folklorist/historian. In short, he became the hero of his own fairy tale life.

As a fan of the macabre and fantastical, I was drawn to this book as a soul to the quintessentially Japanese cherry blossom (sakura)*. The collection's obsession with strangeness is also why I think it’s accessible to our own generation of culturally fluid, proudly freak flag-flying readers. 

Lafcadio Hearn portrait
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, aka Koizumi Yakumo. 1889
Photo by Frederick Gutekunst / Public domain
Japanese readers in 1900 may have been steeped in the Buddhist and Shinto teachings about life’s vagaries, but in 2020, we have our ‘disappearing’ social media to remind us of our impermanence (Snapchat, TikTok, etc.).

Plus, modern readers will appreciate the bite-sized nature of Hearn’s stories. The tales are just that: short “tail ends” of Japanese legends and folklore, which can be quickly digested and enjoyed. Even the opener, which is the longest story in this anthology-of-sorts—“The Dream of a Summer Day” and its Pandora-like box—is only 17 pages. Most of the stories clock in at only a handful of pages. As a whole, they transcend their time, but for a couple zeitgeist themes or tropes that I'll mention later.

Hearn's “Exotic” Tales

These stories, selected by editor Andrei Codrescu, originally introduced the Western mind to Japanese culture, as seen through Shinto and Buddhist lenses. The cast of colorful characters and tropes readers encounter include:

  • A man who saddles and rides his corpse-wife by clinging to her hair.
  • An enchanting screen maiden (an artist's depiction of a woman on a screen) who becomes real.
  • A shark-person (Samébito) who weeps blood that turns to jewels upon the ground.
  • A samurai-beloved young woman named Aoyagi who experiences a metamorphic twist of fate.
  •  A priest who is transformed into a Golden Carp.
  • An unwitting entertainer for the dead, in the oft-cited ghost story, “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hōichi”.**

If one thing prevails in this collection, it is this: all is not what it seems, for everything is changing. Constantly. And because everything is in a state of flux, all does not necessarily end well. So, dear reader, do not expect the happily-ever-afters of heavily modernized and Westernized fairy tales. Hearn had his finger on the pulse of the unsettling. Let's briefly explore why that might be.

Lafcadio Hearn: Other from Another Mother

Hearn and Koizumi Setsu.
Unknown photographer in Japan pre-1904 / Public domain
It is not a surprise that Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) wrote from a position of Other, considering how he became entangled with his parents' inner demons as a child. He bounced from his mother’s homeland of Greece to his father’s home in Ireland. Both parents eventually abandoned him. 

At age 7, he became a permanent ward of his aunt. By the time he was 19, he was virtually penniless but on his way to America. After spending some time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a decade in New Orleans, he finally settled in Japan for the last 14 years of his life. He married a Japanese woman and started a family.

“[Hearn] never returned to the womb of his mother's Lefkada [Greece] but found himself at home in a patriarchal world where he was a Father, unlike his own genitor.” 
-Andrei Codrescu, Editor of Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn

It’s impossible not to view these stories through a modern lens. And that lens uncovers glaring threads of patriarchy and age-ism. And while Hearn’s position as an esteemed member of society was hard won, his privilege is reflected in his many elitist characters.  I don't doubt that Hearn (called Mr. Koizumi while he wrote these stories) was a product of his time. But it’s still problematic when the women who appear in these tales exist along a binary. If they’re human, they’re generally preternaturally beautiful, young, graceful, and self-sacrificing—like any “good” Japanese wife of the Hearn’s time. Conversely, they can also be ugly, vain, unpleasant hags. The non-human women are supernaturally monstrous “Yuki-Onna” (White Witch) and often violent.
Suuhi Yuki-onna
Yuki-onna by Sawaki Suushi / Public domain
A perfect example is the farmer's wife in “Of a Mirror and a Bell.” She covets the return of her bronze mirror, which had been given for melting down to make a temple bell, but it, alone among the mirrors, would not melt. In short, it was magically imbued with the woman's anger and covetousness. Hearn even reminds readers of the supposed old saying, “a mirror is the soul of a woman.”

One positive tale in which the woman's value is not dependent on her beauty, but perhaps her duty, introduces a milk nurse named O-Sodé who asks a divinity to trade her life for that of the now-sick girl she'd nursed 15 years earlier. In her remembrance, the family of the saved girl plants the best cherry tree they can find (“Ubazakura,” or “Cherry tree of the Milk Nurse” which has flowers of white and pink).

Men, in these tales, especially those of the samurai or priestly class, were generally treated more favorably, with wider character variation among both human men and divinities or magical beings.

Lafcadio Hearn in the 21st Century

Beyond the aforementioned shortcomings, however, I see much to enjoy in this cross-cultural experience of reading Hearn. In some ways, I can vicariously commune with Japanese culture through him. I was also pleasantly surprised to see parallels between the myths and legends of other cultures. Here are a few I picked up:

  • “The Story of Aoyagi” (Aoyagi means green willow) could find (new/old) fans of Edith Hamilton, Bulfinch et al, in its parallels with several Greco-Roman stories such as those of the united-in-death lovers Baucis and Philemon, or oak and linden.
  • “The Story of Kwashin Koji”: In this tale, a religious painting seems to undulate and show real, flowing blood. This recalls stories such as Wilde's “The Picture of Dorian Gray” or the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.
  • In “Hi-Mawari,” a boy and his older friend (Robert, age 8) search for Welsh fairy rings but instead encounter a harper. The harper's music is said to be witchcraft. Fans of Greco-Roman mythology will quickly be reminded of the magical musician, Orpheus, who used a song to win his wife back from Hades.

All is Unreality—Even Us

Hiroshige, 36 Views of Mount Fuji Series 7
Woodblock print of cherry blossom
"Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji"
by Hiroshige / Public domain

It would be too simple to reduce Lafcadio Hearn to a purveyor of the strange, predicting the 20th century’s modernism and political upheavals. I like to think of Hearn's work as living and breathing, even in its preoccupation with the impermanence of life.

The collection will appeal to all lovers of uncanny short stories, from Poe to Neil Gaiman. Furthermore, the curious black and white illustrations of flying severed heads, faceless women, samurai, etc. will appeal to fans of anime and manga, I think. This volume also could draw in readers who appreciate the reverence for nature beyond simply the national symbol of the sakura (cherry blossom). “The Story of Aoyagi” is tailor-made for those who decry the cutting of forests.

Read the tales within Japanese Tale of Lafcadio Hearn. Even its foreword (by Jack Zipes) and introduction (Codrescu) are accessible to non-academics. Just remember—in the words of 14th century Buddhist priest Kenko: “All is unreality. Nothing is worth discussing, worth desiring.”

Japanese Tale of Lafcadio Hearn can be purchased on Amazon or via the Princeton University Press' website. It's part of Princeton's "Oddly Modern Fairy Tales" series.

Read our review of another book in this series: Workers' Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain

*Modern novelist, Hanya Yanagihara, wrote in a recent essay in The New York Times Style Magazine, that “Japan without the cherry blossom is like a person without a head: The image is wrong, inconceivable.”

**From Hearn's Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904)

Leigh Smith writes strange tales herself, mostly under the pseudonym Leigh Ward-Smith. In the real world, she writes marketing copy, curates/manages social media for an architectural firm, and does research and editing for a retired professor. She occasionally blogs at Leigh's Wordsmithery (; likewise the occasional tweet @1WomanWordsmith.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Review: Christian Bärmann’s “The Giant Ohl and Tiny Tim”

(Review written by Lily Stejskal)

Giants typically get a bad rap in fairy tales, so if that’s where you met all your giants, you might automatically assume they were all evil and hateful towards humans. Our folklore “giants”: Charles Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, and the Brothers Grimm, all seem to agree that giants are liminal—neither fully human nor fully beast. They universally portray the non-human parts of giants as evil or wrong, just because they’re different.

Translated and edited by Jack Zipes
I must admit I have never met a giant, but if they exist, I’m sure I’d be just as likely to meet a gentle giant, like Christian Bärmann’s Giant Ohl, as the vicious giants littering more famous fairy tales.

After reading The Giant Ohl and Tiny Tim, I’m honestly surprised that Ohl even had the courage to try living among humans. Humans like Jacobs’ “Molly Whuppie” and Perrault’s “Little Thumb” steal from the giants they encounter. Then, when the giants try to retrieve their stuff, they’re killed (just read “Jack and the Beanstalk”). Sometimes the humans even kill giants just for the heck of it, like in “Jack the Giant Killer”.

Even in one of the kinder tales about giants—Grimm’s “The Young Giant”—there’s the underlying message that humans and giants can’t mix. In this tale, a baby no bigger than a human thumb (much like Little Thumb), is nurtured by a giant. Male giants are apparently able to “suckle at their chest”, but this results in the boy growing so big that he eventually becomes a giant himself.

However, this giant clearly believes humans have no place among giants, because he gives the supersized boy back to his human parents. But the parents don’t want him back. This leads the boy to hurting and deceiving others. If either side had accepted him, perhaps he would have turned out alright. But in the Grimm’s world, it’s simply not possible for giants and humans to live together in harmony.

Gulliver Awed by Three Giant Beggars in the Land of Brobdingnag
by Paul Gavarni, 1862. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
With all that in mind, when our gentle Giant Ohl is told by a fortune teller that he’ll find happiness with humans, why does he believe them? The book doesn’t say. I can only give kudos to Ohl for being brave enough to seek out companionship among the creatures who have caused his kind such pain.

Ohl is lucky because the humans in this book don’t automatically label him as evil.  They’re afraid of him, and probably willing to kill him to protect themselves, but are also curious about him, which is why, intentionally or otherwise, they end up giving him a chance.
That’s progress as far as I’m concerned.

Ohl may not suckle any human children, but he certainly loves them and knows how to be kind to them. He carries them on his back as they take summer trips together. None of this would surprise a modern audience, but it may have surprised people at the time. Bärmann wrote in the years surrounding World War I, right after the Victorian era, when parenting was often done at a distance and playtime wasn’t a high priority in many households. In that way, perhaps The Giant Ohl was ahead of its time.

Any fairy tale scholars out there have ideas about why Bärmann had such love for giants? Information about him online has been tough to find. His Goodreads page says that he was a German painter who published most of his work in the early 1900s. At first, I thought it might stem from a general cultural shift between the time of Perrault (the 1600s) and Grimm’s (early 1800s), but that doesn’t fully explain it. Because Joseph Jacobs, of the infamous Jack stories, was a contemporary of Bärmann, and clearly had zero fondness for giants. (Fun fact: Jacobs was from Australia!)

I can see why Jack Zipes chose this story to revive as a part of his new “Forgotten Fairy Tales” series. If you’re a fan of Roald Dahl’s The BFG or Harry Potter’s friend Hagrid, you should check out The Giant Ohl. You can purchase it directly through the Wayne State University Press' website and I think you’ll find it delightful.
L'ogre et le petit poucet
by Honore Daumier, 19th century. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

About the reviewer:

Lily Stejskal has enjoyed reading, telling, writing, studying and re-imagining fairy tales, as well as other stories, all her life.  She started seriously interpreting and analyzing fairy tales at age fourteen. This served her well in college, where she studied English and Psychology.  Since then, Lily has been working on new fairy tale retellings and other types of fiction, for both children and adults.