Monday, April 30, 2012

A True Labyrinth

This week we watched Pan's Labyrinth. I cannot count the number of times I had been told that Pan's Labyrinth was a fantastic movie, so I went into the experience with high expectations. Big Mistake.  To say I didn't like the movie would not strictly be true - it did keep me entertained for two hours - but I failed to see anything that supposedly made Pan's Labyrinth a memorable movie.  However, it did contain many fairy tale-esque elements that were fun to discuss with Dr. Deveny.

Like a traditional fairy tale, Pan's Labyrinth oversimplified right and wrong. In order to make the fascist Franco regime look bad, the captain not only is a brutal murderer, but an unkind husband and stepfather. By making him "evil" in all aspects of his life, the director was able to push viewers into seeing the captain as a classic fairy tale villain. Similarly, the guerillas were portrayed as very good people. The references to the "left" were not lost on Dr. Deveny, who pointed to Ophelia's birthmark, the door that she opened to find the key, and the hand she held out to the captain as examples of Ophelia's, and therefore the viewer's intended leftist opinion.

Dr. Deveny's lecture, unlike other guest speakers, focused entirely on this one story. That allowed us to look deeper than we otherwise could have. For instance we were able to identify almost all of Vladimir Propp's functions in Pan's Labyrinth.  Because it was so much longer than other fairy tales, Pan's Labyrinth was able to have a much bigger story arc, including an embedded story, than a traditional fairy tale.

We also talked about how the female protagonist broke from the typical fairy tale. Although women are often the title characters in fairy tales (Cinderella, Snow White, Goldilocks, Beauty and the Beast, etc), they are almost always passive.  Take Cinderella: she goes back home and waits around for the Prince to come find her. Or Snow White: she falls into a coma! It is entirely up to the Prince to come save her. In Pan's Labyrinth, by contrast, it is Ophelia who takes action. She enters the labyrinth, she follows the fairies, and she even goes back to the faun and begs for another chance when he dismisses her as a failure.

There were some elements that Dr. Deveny did not talk about - namely the purpose of the faun and his tasks for Ophelia. While one may take them at face value, a more intellectual approach would suggest that Ophelia makes up these stories to help her cope with the tumultuous events all around her. Between moving, getting a new father, losing attention from a pregnant mother, and hearing about the fighting, Ophelia is overwhelmed and reverts to what she knows best: fairy tales. We know that she loved to read them as a child, so it is logical to assume that she made up her own to distract herself and to indirectly confront her new fears. The discovery of the faun in the labyrinth reflects her curiosity and need to explore her new world. The trip to find the frog in the forest reflects her fear of the forest which, she has been told, is full of dangerous people and things. The pale man story can be used as an explanation for why the house makes noise that is easier for Ophelia to understand than the story her mother told. And ultimately stealing her brother is her way of rebelling against her stepfather and protesting his authority.

Pan's Labyrinth is full of symbolism, motifs, and metaphors that teach lessons about life and emotions. However, I would not recommend it to a friend - despite its many clever symbols, Pan's Labyrinth simply failed to amuse me very much.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"We've Eaten off the Same Plate...We Shared a Bed!"

On Thursday Dr. Alles came in to talk. Dr. Alles is Dr. Esa's old friend, and also the funniest teacher I have ever encountered in my life. He came to give a lecture on Indian Fairy Tales, “Myths and Legends of the Ādivāsīs in India," and ended up providing us with more laughs than we have had all semester.

Dr. Alles was very relaxed, clearly enjoying the class. He was also incredible knowledgeable as far as Adivasis tales, because he has been to India and joined the locals in their traditions. His lecture included lessons in decapitation, all night dance parties, planting trees in cow dung, making houses entirely of gold, finding a location for a gold smithy, distilling liquor, drawing on living room walls, riding motorcycles through cornfields, rerouting live electric wires, and, of course, smoking opium.

One major difference I noticed is that these people not only tell their fairy tales, but they live them. Because their fairy tales involve the Gods, they continue to honor the Gods with ceremonies. The one ceremony which Dr. Alles has taken part in multiple times, involved paintings to honor the gods and the symbolic planting of trees, as well as an all night party to celebrate.

Dr. Alles, in his travels, has been able to experience some incredible things. He has partaken in ceremonies. He has distilled and drank liquor. He has smoked opium (but not gotten high). From his lecture I came to understand that Adivasi folk tale tradition is as much about the experience than anything else. Unlike the West, these stories are meant for people of all ages, and everyone joins in the ceremonies. There is no moral for young children to act a certain way. (OK, maybe there are some morals. But that's not the main component of these stories.) Instead these stories are partly origin stories (why a hill is shaped a certain way, etc), and partly necessary to maintain a culture.

India is a very diverse area. The sub-continent is filled with people from many different areas, whose origins stretch as far apart as Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In order to have their own culture, the Adivasi must keep telling stories and living them through their ceremonies. In order to continue to exist as a people, and not get lost in the 21st century brouhaha, they have to find a way to strengthen and make necessary the community. And they have chosen to do so with their fairy tales, their ceremonies, and their liquor.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Not a Very Fairy-Tale

This week we read Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde's "Fairy Tales." I really liked them a lot. They were interesting, funny, and generally enjoyable. However, they were not at all typical of fairy tales as we have studied up to this point.

Firstly, Andersen and Wilde both go into much more description than a typical fairy tale. Most fairy tales comment on a feature or two of the main character, say, flowing blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes. These tales, on the other hand, had much more in depth descriptions of the characters. These stories were also much longer, covering more bases and telling more aspects of the story than a traditional fairy tale would.

Religion is also brought more into these tales than others. The Happy Prince, by Wilde, is one example in which the God of Christianity appears, and, true to Christian tradition, is just and all-knowing. In traditional fairy tales we see much less use of God and much more reliance on the characters to solve their own problems.
"Happily ever after," one of the two most iconic fairy tale phrases (the other being "once upon a time"), does not appear in Andersen's or Wilde's work. In The Happy Prince, for example, the statue of the Prince is torn down and the swallow dies, despite all they have done for the city. Instead it is God who grants them each a wonderful eternal life in heaven, which, as I mentioned above, would not happen in traditional fairy tales.

Andersen and Wilde both tell compelling, interesting stories. Both are clearly good writers, creative and artistic. However, I do not think either can be classified as true fairy tales, because of the depth of description, the use of religion, and the lack of "fairy tale endings."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Origin Tales: Africa

Recently Dr. Ochieng visited our class and gave us some great renditions of African folk tales. Dr. Ochieng made great use of everything in the room: the light switches, the blackboard, the drums he brought, and even a few students.
Turning of the lights each time he told a story set the mood, and he began each story with a call and response typical of Kenyan story-telling. (Yes, this meant that each of us had to memorize a short Kenyan phrase.) In this way, he was able to recreate at least to a small extent the traditions of Kenya; stories there are typically told in the dark because as long as it is light outside, there is work to be done.
As Dr. Ochieng told more and more stories, the theme became very clear: origins. The stories all in some way explained the world, giving clear reasons for why things happen. These explanations focused mostly on animal behaviors, and many ended with the phrase "And that is why you never see a _______ doing _______. The motif that was most prominent throughout was that of wit: one animal tricking another. My favorite example of this was the rabbit that was sentenced to drinking a pot of boiling water. He requests, and is granted permission, to have each of his family members personally inspect the water before he drinks it. Being a rabbit his family is enormous, and by the time he has to drink it, it has cooled off. This motif reveals the cultural emphasis placed on wit and smarts.

By far the best part of Dr. Ocheing's lecture was when he asked us to join him in song and dance. Using a repetitive chorus, we were somewhat able to follow along, and while Dr. Ochieng provided the majority of the singing, two of our own led the dancing. It was very fun and at the same time a great tool for us to learn more about the culture of storytelling in Kenya.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Looking at Some Other Blogs

For those who care, you can access each week's syllabus and blog assignment on Dr. Esa's blog. Dr. Esa is fond of posting cartoons and funny videos, so check his page out.

I also recommend that everyone who is in the least bit interested in fairy tales read Sammi's blog. Sammi is an Honors student and a fellow tutor at the writing center, not to mention a heck of a lot more creative than I am. Her blog is written as if Sammi's life is a fairy tale, and her mission or quest is to follow the instructions of "King Esa." It is truly funny to see how she takes what are typical daily assignments and transforms them with her language into heroic quests.

For a drier, more academic approach, check out my ex-roommate Joel's blog. He follows prompts strictly, answering exactly what is asked in a most direct and efficient way. From an economic point of view, Joel certainly makes the most out of both his time and his words.

If you'd prefer to feel good all the time and smile while being completely unnoticed, check out my favorite softball pitcher Becky's blog. She is insightful and puts more effort into her posts than I ever will. For a more comprehensive review of her blog, check out my earlier post Peer Review.

And of course, if you are obsessed with bees, head on over to Cassie's blog, because she never stops talking about the little flying critters. As one of the more well-read and intelligent students I know, Cassie never ceases to amaze me with her theories and theses which I would never think of in a million years, but which seem to come naturally to her. Cassie's blog is an excellent blend of creativity and downright smarts. Not only do Cassie's posts sound really smart (words like "necromancer," "cinematographic," and "accentuate" are far from rare), but the posts actually are smart.

For a glimpse into the mind of one of the hardest working students I know, take a peek at Jason's blog. His blog combines some nice "boyish attitude" (i.e. poking fun at Joel) with some writing that is incredibly reminiscent of something I would expect to read on a database like JSTOR. That is, his writing has the voice of a professional, or perhaps more accurately an academic. Jason would never forget to mention an angle or an idea that is related to the topic, and does not hesitate to tackle obstacles head on.

This is just a sample of the wonderful blogs in the class, each uniquely different. Click any of the links on the left sidebar and you won't be disappointed. These blogs are great examples of what McDaniel College is all about - each blog carries a distinct voice, but in unison they are all working together, helping each other forward.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cinderella Story in Real Life

Rags to Riches: the American Dream

Is Cinderella's "rags to riches" story possible? Can one go from a truly horrific life to a blessed one? In short, is the American Dream possible? And what roles do magic and marriage have in a rags to riches scenario?

In the various Cinderella stories we have read, the heroine is able to reach a better life using magic and marriage. In each case she is a "good" person: she is patient, kind, and intelligent; she does not disrespect those that treat her terribly, and she longs for a better life. In each case, a helper presents himself to aid the Cinderella character: a fairy godmother, birds, a cow, trees, etc. Each of these helpers uses magic to get the heroine into a good situation.

In real life, this magic cannot happen. The idea that a fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach is obviously not true. But are there other ways for one to go from rags to riches? I think so.

First of all, marriage is definitely possible as a means to improve quality of life. For an extreme example, look at a country like Haiti. Haitians know that if they can marry an American, they will be able to go live in America. This is not to say all Haitians are desperate to leave, nor that they all dream of marrying Americans; however this is a good example of how a marriage can really and truly take someone from one life into a completely different life. This exists within America too, surely, but we do not typically think Americans can be living as poorly as Cinderella originally lived.

I also think there are other examples of rags to riches that may not be perfect mirrors of Cinderella, but are similar. For example, many athletes can quickly go from being under-appreciated and overlooked to celebrated and famous (see: Jose Bautista, Jeremy Lin, Brady Anderson, Tom Brady, Jacoby Ellsbury, the Miracle on Ice team, etc.).
In Michael Lewis' Moneyball, two players in particular are presented as completely unwanted: Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. Hatteberg, apparently too injured to play, thought his baseball career was over; Bradford, who pitched in a most unconventional style, was never considered a real pitcher. Billy Beane, however, saw through the "outer ugliness" of both players - an ugliness that is comparable to Cinderella's dirty clothes and lack of social position - and signed them to play for his team, where they became, like Cinderella, stars. In order for this comparison to work, Beane would have to be considered both the helper and the Prince.

Cinderella and stories like hers are important because they give people hope. They help people believe that if they keep working hard, pushing through, enduring and persevering, that one day they could be rewarded.