good art is contagious: students make fairy tales


It’s that time in the semester when I eat, sleep and breathe fairy tales. The students in the two sections of my Fairy Tales & Fantasies class have had some practice, by now, at identifying the common bloodlines from one variant to another and discerning how the different cultural contexts affect the stories. Class discussion is lively and insightful, particularly for the 8:00am start time.

They’ve also been making their own fairy tales. The Fairy Tale Redux assignment, worth 1/3 of their grade for the term, asks them to pick a tale, any tale, and re-mount it in whichever way they think will best illuminate something new about the story and show off their creative skills.

It’s harder than it sounds. There are time limits, adaptation challenges, group work frustrations, technical difficulties–and I insist they write an Artist Statement that justifies their approach on a theoretical and aesthetic level.

Sara Jo is a philosophy major who signed up for my course because she’s interested in knowing more about deep story structures in human psychology and culture. She is a gift to have in class: deeply curious, intellectually courageous, highly adept at thinking and speaking on her feet.

For her FT Redux, Sara Jo focused on Rapunzel. She wrote a free-verse meditation inspired by a specific claim in the Grimm Brothers’ variant: that Rapunzel sings from her window in the tower, and her song is what first attracts the Prince passing by in the forest. And Sara Jo decided to illustrate her poetry with hand-drawn tarot cards that capture the archetypal significance of key motifs in the story. What more can I possibly say about this?? You need to see it for yourself, right here:

as sibyl, she sang

lesser-known tales: Little Louse and Little Flea

A little louse and a little flea were living together in a house and were brewing beer in an eggshell when the louse fell in and was scalded. Then the flea began to scream as loud as he could, and the little door to the room asked:

‘Why are you screaming, little flea?’

‘Because little louse has been scalded.’

Then the little door began to creak, and a little broom in the corner asked, ‘Why are you creaking, little door?’

‘Why shouldn’t I creak? Little louse has just got scalded. Little flea is weeping.”

‘Well, then I’m going to break my little water jug,’ said the maiden, and as she was breaking it, the little spring from which the water came asked, ‘Maiden, why are you breaking the little water jug?’

‘Why shouldn’t I break it? Little louse has just got scalded. Little flea is weeping. Little door is creaking. Little broom is sweeping. Little cart is racing. Little dung heap is burning. Little tree is shaking.’

‘Goodness gracious!’ said the little spring. ‘Then I’m going to flow,’ and it began to flow so violently that they were all drowned in the water–the maiden, the little tree, the little dung heap, the little cart, the little door, the little flea, and the little louse, every last one of them.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

read more lesser-known tales

Mermaids: Hans Christian Andersen vs. Disney

Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out in 1990, a few years before most of my students were born. They all watched the DVD as tots, and so Hans Christian Andersen’s original 1836 story (on their required reading list) is a shock and, for many, a disappointment. Spunky Ariel, with her sassy seashell bra and her adorable sidekick Flounder, is leagues away from Andersen’s melancholy mermaid.

Hans C. A.’s tales tend toward the emotionally ambiguous. Think bittersweet. (Remember the Little Match Girl? She freezes to death while hallucinating herself in her deceased grandmother’s arms.) His heroines model servility and sacrifice, trading in their earthly woes for the promise of heavenly reward. mermaid

The unnamed little mermaid in Andersen’s story suffers horrific physical pain at her transformation, “as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead.” Every step on land is torture for her, “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives.” In the end the prince marries another girl, and the mermaid dies. Luckily (?) her sisters cut off their hair for the sea witch (more sacrifice!) so that she’ll be permitted to join the “daughters of the air” and be granted an immortal soul after 300 years.

The-Little-Mermaid-BannerWhat Disney does with this twisted, soggy handkerchief of a story is restore a lot of the fairy tale tropes Andersen abandoned. The songs are Disney’s own contribution to the fairy-tale genre, but they fit right in with the oral tradition of the folk tale and its hearthside/market/festival tellings. From Disney we get the traditional talking animal helpers, who bring the skills of the trickster to Ariel’s aid. We get the dramatic power struggle in which the little guys, the nobodies, win out over the rich and powerful. We see a clear boundary between good and evil, and the meting out of justice in the end. And of course we get the happy ending! The wedding! The tearful “I love you, Daddy!” from Ariel.

Disney’s Little Mermaid is every bit as sentimental as Andersen’s version. But in an earthier, more human way–much closer to the way of the old stories.

lesser-known tales: How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig…As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

One of the councilmen, a wise old man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand an a Rhenish gold coin in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If the boy took the apple, he was to be set free. If he took the gold coin, he was to be killed.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

on kissing frogs

Frog King2

Polling my students the other day, I was surprised to learn that only about half of them know the story of the Frog Prince. The golden ball down the well? I prompted. Let me eat from your plate and sleep on your pillow? Nope. The DVD release of the Disney library through the late 1990s and early 2000s ensured they’d all have Snow White and Little Mermaid and Aladdin in their blood, but a lot of the picture-book fairy tales seem to have passed them by.

In my novel Mad Miss Mimic there’s a scene where the main character is sitting happily in the parlour next to her handsome suitor Mr. Thornfax, and her aunt comments that she looks like the princess with her golden ball. “Wouldn’t that make me the loathsome frog?” Mr. Thornfax asks her.

Now I’m worried my YA readers won’t know what the heck my characters are talking about. This is one of my deepest fears: that my English Professorhood disqualifies me from writing anything people will actually enjoy reading.

And yet, I also really want everyone to know the story of the Frog Prince. In fact I think everyone should be familiar with this story and as many other as possible of these deep-roots stories of the western world.

In every edition of their collected tales, the Grimm brothers put the Frog Prince first. Their earliest edition of the story, called “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich” is particularly groovy, for two reasons:

1) There’s no frog-kissing in it whatsoever. The transformation from amphibian to handsome prince happens like this: The princess is so grossed out at the thought of sleeping with the frog that she picks him up and hurls him against her bedroom wall. When he ricochets back onto her bed he’s gorgeous, and we’re told, “Well, now indeed he did become her dear companion, and she cherished him as she had promised, and in their delight they fell asleep together.” (Isn’t it great how so much bed-centered activity is contained in the gentle word “cherished,” here?)

2) Iron Henry! I mean, what is this guy even doing in this story? He makes an appearance only belatedly, after the happily-ever-after part. Henry was a servant so saddened by his master the prince being turned to a frog that he had three iron bands cast around his heart to stop it from breaking. After the transformation back, the happy couple hears a loud crack from the back of the carriage. “It’s really nothing but the band around my heart [breaking off],” Henry assures them. And because this is a fairy tale, where things happen in threes, they have to pull over twice more for the same reason.

frog king1

lesser-known tales: Riffraff

Early the next morning, as the sun was rising and everyone was asleep, the rooster woke the hen, fetched the egg, pecked it open, and together they devoured it. After throwing the shells on the hearth, they went to the needle, who was still asleep, grabbed him by the head, and stuck him into the innkeeper’s easy chair. Then they stuck the pin into the innkeeper’s towel. Finally, without much ado, they flew away over the heath.

Then he swore he would never again let riffraff stay at his inn, especially when they eat so much, pay nothing, and play mean tricks on top of it all.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

illustration Elizabeth Fox

girl meets wolf


My students tell me Little Red Riding Hood is their favourite fairy tale. It used to scare them silly, they say. They adored the refrain with its shiver-inducing climax: “The better to eat you with, my dear!” Plus, there’s something untamed about it, they add. Disney hasn’t touched it.

In class we read an early variant of LRRH first, called “The Story of Grandmother.” The wolf puts Grandmother’s blood in a bottle and her flesh on a plate in the larder. When the girl shows up, he invites her to eat and drink, and the only comment in the story on this cannibalistic act is from a cat who saunters by and says, “A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her grandmother.” The wolf directs the girl to take off one article of clothing at a time and throw it into the fire. Naked, she climbs into bed with him. Then we get the refrain about the big ears, eyes, teeth–but she tricks him into letting her go outside to urinate and thus saves her own hide.

Fascinating, isn’t it, how the blood-drinking and the strip tease are transmuted over the centuries (formalized by Charles Perrault in his 1697 anthology) into the main character’s signature red hood/cape. LRRH4

The girl gets younger, more naive, and eventually (in the Grimm brothers‘ collection) needs rescuing by a passing huntsman. The takeaway of the tale changes, too, from Use your wits to Obey your parents.

But no matter how sanitized it has become, the edginess of the story still isn’t lost on us. The metaphor of the path (life path, Path of Righteousness) and the dangers of straying off it are still current. The gender roles (male=predator, female=victim) certainly continue to haunt.

The urge to rewrite the story is strong in my classroom: last semester, at least 30% of students’ “Fairy Tale Redux” assignments tackled variants of Little Red, reinterpreting them into gansta rap songs, watercolour illustrations, stop-motion animation shorts, Instagram accounts, vlog rants, celebrity-scandal magazine stories, self-defence school advertisements, and digital flipbooks.

fairy path

HRcollageA side effect of reading (and teaching) fairy tales: things encountered on the forest path seem just a little less ordinary…


what makes it a fairy tale?

This week, in the first Fairy Tales & Fantasy class of the term, I read the Grimm brothers’ story “Fitcher’s Bird” (1857) aloud to my students. (Alas, I forgot my Story Hat at home–but I intend to share a tale every week, so I’ll have lots more chances to wear it).

Maurice Sendak’s illustration of Fitcher’s Bird


Do you know “Fitcher’s Bird”? It’s a weird one even for the Grimms. The clever and cunning Third Sister outwits the evil wizard who has dismembered her sisters by dipping herself in honey and rolling in the feather bed. Everyone who sees her assumes she’s a giant bird, and when they ask her what Third Sister is up to, she points to a skull she decorated with jewels and flowers and set up in the window, looking out.

After I read the story in class, I ask for a show of hands. No, no one’s heard it before. Yes, regardless, everyone recognizes it as a fairy tale. But how? What makes it a fairy tale? Together, we begin to list the conventions that mark the genre of the fairy tale:

Magic (the blood won’t wash off the egg; the sisters’ limbs, once put in order, are reanimated). Clear poles of good and evil (wizard=bad, bird-girl=good). A happy ending (well anyhow one in which Justice is unequivocally meted out: wizard is locked inside castle and burnt along with all his wedding guests). The weak outwitting the strong (all that business with the feathers). A repetitive narrative structure, often using the number 3 (sisters; elsewhere pigs, Billy Goats Gruff). A refrain, also repeated (“O Fitcher’s Bird, how com’st thou here?”/”I come from Fitcher’s house quite near.”) A damsel in distress, and a (male) rescuer (Third Sister’s kinsmen come to avenge her). A setting involving travel between cottage and castle (the wizard is forced to carry the sisters home on his back in a basket) and/or the dangerous open road between. The motif of female curiosity and disobedience (the sisters use the one key the wizard forbade them).

We will re-do this list again and again in class over the coming weeks. We’ll add to it (the wild woods, the child seer, the magical/animal helper, the false mother, the trickster hero, the collapse of hierarchy) and we’ll explore how various tale-tellers, authors and filmmakers have used the fairy tale for moral education, psychological insight, political critique and sheer literary delight.

But honestly, all the learning is in the stories themselves. The variants that pre-date Disney by half a millennium. The post-modern remixes. Our own creative reinterpretations. And the lesser-known tales read, with the classroom lights down low, by the professor in the crazy hat.