Saturday, April 20, 2013

Prince Ali, Yes, It Is He, But Not As You Know Him

My sister spent four years majoring in religious studies, with a concentration on Islam. As a side effect, she now cannot watch the Disney Aladdin without wincing at the rampant orientalism and the stuff it just gets wrong. I have no such handicap - in fact, Aladdin was my first fictional crush, so I'll always see that movie through rose-tinted lenses - but I also know she's got a point. And it goes all the way back to Scheherazade herself.

Why is the story of Aladdin always the story of the exotic Other?

Weird as it is for Westerners to think about (or at least for me), most of the stories of the mysterious and exotic Arabian Nights are in fact set in a milieu that would have been intimately familiar to contemporary readers and/or listeners: their own world. We don't blink at TV shows about doctors or high schoolers; even though they use tools and language that would seem miraculous to someone from another time or culture, they're a part of our world that we take completely for granted. How different is your garden-variety fairy godmother from your average djinn, anyway? Same in-story function, different trappings. And to people hearing the stories of the Arabian Nights, viziers and bazaars and multi-colored fish would have sounded as familiar to us as presidents and supermarkets and... multi-colored fish.

But while the majority of the Thousand and One Tales are set in a familiar world (albeit one with fairy tale rules added in), the story of the poor boy and his magic lamp moves across the continent to China. No, you didn't read that wrong. The names don't change ethnicity - for instance, our hero, Ala ad-Din, falls head over heels in love with Princess Badr al-Budur - and the princess's father is a sheik. There's nothing specifically Chinese about the story, the characters, or the world it's set in. The only reason for it to take place in China is to rope in the mystique of the Other.

Fast-forward to America in 1992. Is China as exotic and mysterious as it was centuries ago, at the height of the silk trade? Of course not! It's a Communist country with restrictions on childbirth, a lousy human rights track record, and potential nukes. You bet your sweet patootie Disney's not setting their next blockbuster in China barely two years after the Berlin Wall came down.

So they move it back to the setting of the rest of Scheherazade's stories - again, easy to do because it's built around the same cultural framework - and create the exact same transformation that the original story did: not just moving it, but removing it from our familiar world, into the realm of the Other. The masculine threat of the original's sorcerer (who enters the tale masquerading as Aladdin's uncle and thus head of the family in Aladdin's place) is transformed into the rather effeminate Jafar, which in the late twentieth century was its own kind of threat. (Jafar also prefers to use others as his intermediaries rather than get his hands directly dirty, a holdover from the days when feminine meant powerless.) And lest the exoticism goes too overboard, the Genie is a delightful and deliberate anachronism, who provides both comic relief and temporal grounding for an American audience. Put bluntly, Aladdin bears about as much resemblance to Sassanid Persia as the original story does to imperial China.


So why this story? There are literally over a thousand in the complete base text - why the tale of a peasant and his djinn buddy? What about Aladdin says Other, not just to us, but to the original tellers?

The Arabian Nights, Edmund Dulac
It can't be the magic - or rather, it can't be just the magic. We'd scarcely recognize the Arabian Nights without the dazzling overflow of magic carpets, magic rings, magic horses, and djinn of every stripe, from benevolent to enslaved to murderous. The genie of the lamp is probably the best known example of that kind of power, but he performs fairly traditional djinn magic as the stories go. It can't be the cross-social romance - not only are there a few of those in the Arabian Nights, the West can't get enough of Cinderella stories. The cynic in me wonders if it's the fact that the story continues past the "happily ever after," which hardly any Western fairy tale seems to do, but the simple fact of married life and misunderstandings blowing out of proportion don't really telegraph "mystical Other." And if it's the characters' relationships, then why do most adaptations ignore the far nicer and gentler genie of the ring, who actually seems to like helping Aladdin out, in favor of the haughtier and more remote genie of the lamp?

Scheherazade and the Sultan, Sani ol Molk
Maybe, at bottom, it's got nothing to do with the plot. Maybe it's a meta-interference by reality in the way we see this particular story. Like the tale of Sinbad, Aladdin was a late addition to the Thousand and One Nights, a tale set in China, told by a fictional Persian woman, and crammed in by an 18th-century Frenchman. So really, the entire history of the story of Aladdin is one of Otherness, of foreign perceptions overlaid onto an inoffensive plot that never asked to be the focus of cultural misinterpretation. Maybe that's what makes it so easy to transpose from one setting to another; it's been moved around so much, it just takes to it better (and the extravagant magical displays provide a convenient excuse for setting it in a world more exotic than ours). Like its hero's own aspirations, the story never stops changing. Maybe it never will.

Or maybe there's something super simple and coherent going on that I've completely overlooked. Leave a comment and let me know!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Zero to Hero

Robin Hood, Milo Winter
Why are heroes so stupid?

I mean, really. Think about it. Nearly every iconic hero has at least one moment of total idiocy. "Wily" Odysseus just has to give all his contact info to the god whose son he just blinded. Beowulf deliberately tackles a dragon single-handed when he's way past his prime. Arthur ignores Merlin's very specific warning about not marrying Guinevere. Even Robin Hood, possibly the cleverest hero out there, slaps on a disguise and walks straight into Prince John's perfect trap just because he might get to make puppy eyes with Maid Marian. What's going on here?

In the structural sense, of course, there's a very good reason for their stupidity: without it, we'd have no plot. But there's got to be something else going on here. Sure, in some cases codes of honor factor in; for Odysseus to slink off without shouting his address at Poseidon would be to relinquish the fame and glory that comes with having outsmarted and incapacitated a Cyclops. Beowulf's stupidity has its roots in his own very well-established character. And we can forgive Arthur's
The Blinding of Polyphemus, Pellegrino Tibaldi
problematic choice of wife because when he chose her, he was very young and head over heels. But other brainwashed-hero moments come out of absolutely nowhere. Rama twice questions Sita's virtue, even after she's literally walked through fire to prove her purity. Aladdin might not want to admit the source of his power to his new wife, but he never even tells her that his old battered lamp is kind of special. The archery contest changes its ending depending on who tells it, but often the trap works, as Robin really should have seen coming.

So what gives? Well, maybe Sir Galahad can help explain things.

Sir Galahad, Joseph Noel Patton
First off: Sir Galahad. What a boring prig. Everything this guy does comes with its own angelic chorus and glowing light. He puts not a foot wrong. If you're in trouble on the Grail Quest, regardless of whether you've been previously established as a total badass, Galahad will swoop in and save you. He can sit in the Siege Perilous, he can defeat anyone, he alone achieves the Grail. He's so perfect it makes my teeth hurt.

And that is dull. There's no suspense when Galahad is involved. If he's on the scene, he's going to win. There's no such sweeping guarantee for any of the other knights, including Lancelot; he wins at contests of arms, but the story always reminds you that he's a failure at moral purity, and sometimes that symbolism trips him up (most notably on said Grail Quest). But Galahad only has to decide he wants to do something for it to get done. He is the reason I never much liked the Grail Quest storyline, because nothing is at stake for Galahad. It was such a relief to let him die at the end of the quest and go back to Lancelot and Guinevere and the very human, very dangerous, oh-so-relatable love that destroys a kingdom.

The Fall of Beowulf, Devin Maupin
But when Beowulf fights the dragon, I am there. I bemoan the bravado that leads him to attack the dragon alone, but it hurts to read the moment when he falls. It will never not be horrible to see Robin Hood in chains. Aladdin's despair when he comes home to find home, bride and best friend vanished moves me every time. Sure, these guys made stupid - stupid - mistakes. But that's what makes them real enough to feel for. Without those disastrous moments of failure, they'd be too perfect, like Galahad; good fortune would come to them too easily; we would never see the price that they pay for their success.

And we wouldn't see ourselves in them. Does anyone want to be Galahad? Didn't think so. But you've imagined fighting a dragon, haven't you? You've planned out your three wishes, you've rescued your beloved, you've beaten every other contestant for the prize. Everyone wants to be these heroes, not regardless of the mistakes they make, but because of those mistakes. To err, after all, is human. Robin and Aladdin and Rama are beloved because we can see their humanity, and because they suffer for it as well as triumphing through it.

Hamlet, William Morris Hunt
...which is not to say it can't go too far in the other direction.

There's a reason that Hamlet is the quintessential tragic hero, rivaled only by Oedipus. He grapples with the great dilemmas of human existence: what is life, what is death, what are humans? And he does it in exquisite poetry that speaks like prose. I honestly believe that the reason no interpretation of Hamlet ever pleases everyone is because Hamlet speaks to us individually like no other character in drama; you'll never be satisfied with someone else's Hamlet, because it's not your Hamlet. We all know him far more intimately than we know Oedipus or Jamie Tyrone or Willy Loman.

But oh dear god, do we have issues with Hamlet.

If Galahad's problem is that he's too perfect, Hamlet's problem is that he's too flawed. People have been imagining themselves into revenge scenarios for the whole of human history, but would you want to be Hamlet? Of course not! He sits on his hands for three hours and then murders everyone he knows. He's too introspective to be a successful action hero, too morbid to be a role model, too Oedipal to be a sex symbol, and too destructive for us to want his life. We love to watch him; we love to get inside his head; but in this case, the answer is definitely not to be.

So the classic heroes, the ones who fill our daydreams with swashbuckling adventure, are ultimately winners. But never all at once, and never without fighting for it. When they struggle, and sink beneath adversity, we know they're like us; when they break triumphantly free, we know we can be like them.

Who did I miss? What heroes do you admire, and why? Leave me a comment and let's talk!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Handmaiden's Tale

Are there people out there who get bored by the ordinariness of their lives? Anyone feel like escaping into a less-than-ordinary world full of magic and danger and royalty? Who's up for shucking the burdens of the daily grind and diving into adventure in another world?

Athenian Women at Home, artist unknown
Well, have fun with that. Today I'm hanging out with a bunch of handmaidens, and hoo boy, are their lives unenviable.

It makes total sense that most stories focus on extraordinary people as well as extraordinary places and events. No one wants to read a fairy tale about the sad-sack assembly-line worker who never gets a fairy godmother. Everyone would pick the princess or the wizard or the talking fox. But just because stories are full of privileged royalty doesn't mean that nobody works in Fairytale Land. And just because they live in a world of physical gods and tangible magic doesn't mean that things don't get depressingly realistic.

Odysseus and Nausicaa, William McGregor Paxton
Take, for instance, the handmaidens of Europa. "The who?" you ask. Oh, you know, just the bevy of young noblewomen dancing attendance upon a Greek princess. Not an individual character among the lot. They stand en helpless masse as bull-Zeus kidnaps Europa. A minute ago they were all having fun on the beach; now they're a collective unit of ineffectual shock. So why are they there? Well, Europa's a princess. Princesses don't get to romp alone in the sand. The handmaidens are there to underscore Europa's privileged status. (And also because without them, Europa would have become the Bronze Age equivalent of a face on a milk carton; it's only because they bring back the story that Europa's family knows Zeus snatched her.) Their entire function in-story is to inform us, the audience, that Europa is important. But we already know she's important; one, she's a princess, and two, Zeus has the hots for her, which means she'll probably pop out a demigod king or a few heroes. The handmaidens do nothing for us that isn't already being done in the story.

Well. Actually. There is that bit in the middle, in case you forgot that Greek myths rival zombie movies for bloodshed. The bit where the handmaidens, despite being the only witnesses to a princess's abduction, get tortured and executed by said princess's totally rational dad. As colenso points out in the comment, princesses can survive the occasional reckless stunt. Their attendants, not so much. One slip-up - which was neither their fault nor within their power to prevent - and you're a goner.

The Penelopiad, Nightwood Theatre

A similar school of thought holds true in the Odyssey, when Telemachus hangs the twelve traitorous handmaidens who slept with the suitors and spied on Penelope. Theirs is, in the important details, a very different case from Europa's handmaidens; Penelope's maids chose to betray their mistress and to disrespect her to her face. But even knowing that, it still seems uncomfortably excessive to force them to dispose of the mangled bodies of their butchered lovers, wash the suitors' blood from the room where they were killed, and then be hanged themselves from a ship's cable. Again, not an individual - no names, no differentiating characteristics. Whether you "bring it on yourself" or not (and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is a horrifying and brilliant argument that they actually didn't deserve their fate), a handmaiden's life is no cakewalk.

The Goose Girl, Cindy Salens Rosenheim
Which goes a long way toward explaining the outright villainous behavior of some handmaidens. The unnamed heroine of "The Goosegirl" does nothing to deserve the vicious treatment she gets from her upstart lady-in-waiting; apparently asking for a drink of water is a step too far for this handmaiden. She's an exceptionally cruel villain, too: she bides her time, forcing the heroine into subservience the moment she loses her mother's protection; she marries the heroine's intended husband;
she orders the heroine's talking horse, the witness to her takeover, slaughtered; and ultimately gets herself killed in a manner she'd explicitly intended for the heroine. It's as impossible to condone this handmaiden's actions as it is to accept the deaths of Europa's unfortunate attendants. But it's not hard to see why a simple, forgettable handmaiden would want to better her lot. It's much less dangerous to be royal than to attend royalty; after all, even in her degradation, the heroine survives.

Luckily, not everyone takes social climbing to such an extreme. But there are plenty of handmaidens out there who read their myths and know exactly who takes the fall for royal mistakes. Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, falls head-over-heels for the mysterious and beautiful Rhiannon. When they finally marry, she's a perfect queen in every way but one: she gives Pwyll no children. So the eventual birth of a son is nothing short of miraculous. Parties are thrown, ale is quaffed, and everyone in Dyfed heaves a sigh of relief.

And then a monster breaks into the palace, steals the baby prince, and slips out again with no one the wiser.

Rhiannon, Margaret Jones
Rhiannon's handmaidens, as usual, are up long before their mistress to light her fire, set out her clothes, and generally make her life easier. So they're the first ones to notice, whoops, the miracle baby's missing. And they're no fools; regardless of who's actually to blame, they'll get in trouble for not watching more closely. Their solution? Redirect the blame! Onto... the bereaved mother? Yes, obviously the only way to ensure that they're not flogged or worse is to kill a puppy, smear its blood on the sleeping Rhiannon's hands and face, and swear to high heaven that this unnatural woman totally killed and ate her own child.

Horror of horrors, it works. Pwyll can't bring himself to execute the woman he loves, so he makes her carry visitors into the palace on her back. Wouldn't you know, sixteen or so years down the line, along comes an old farmer and his strapping son to petition Pwyll. Adopted son, that is, since a cattle-stealing monster abandoned a baby at the farmer's house about sixteen years ago. Rhiannon carries her son into the palace, all the pieces of the story are fitted together, the royal family is reunited... and no one ever does anything to the seriously sketchy handmaidens who condemned the queen to a decade and a half of menial labor on oaths that they knew were false.

Don't mistake me - I'm never going to be on the side of people who kill puppies and frame mothers for infant cannibalism. But if Pwyll's literally backbreaking punishment of Rhiannon was lenient, it's easy to see why the handmaidens would have been so terrified of his vengeance that even the most grotesque lies seemed like a better option.

Birthing chair, Roman era (artist unknown)
So, between the blandness of the job, the occupational hazards, and the psychological stress of knowing you'll pay with your life for the first thing to go wrong, are there any good handmaidens out there? Well, sort of. Maid Maleen has a devoted handmaiden who gets walled up in a tower with her, protects her on her journey to another kingdom, and basically acts as her much-needed mother. Cinderella is perhaps the quintessential good handmaiden, even though she's also the heroine of her own story. And Zilpah and Bilhah obediently let themselves become weapons in Rachel and Leah's war over Jacob, each bearing two sons and surrendering them to their respective mistresses to raise as their own. But even this good
Seducer, Nasreddine Dinet
behavior has its limits; Bilhah and Reuben's fling gets Reuben disinherited. And Cinderella's social climbing is acceptable because it's less of a climb than a restoration; she was born to privilege, and the perversion of the natural order is not in her ascent from handmaiden to princess, but in her earlier enforced descent from wealth to poverty. Compare her fate with the Goosegirl's handmaiden. Ouch. Fairy tales love them some status quo.

Maid Maleen, Louisa Roy
Ultimately, that's the moral of whatever fate the handmaidens of legend meet. It's not about character development, rewards, or even, really, punishment. If a story features a handmaiden, she is there to reinforce the status quo. She may get to move the plot, but if so she's a villain; the lower classes are supposed to wait for their betters to order them, not take matters into their own hands. Only by obedience and devotion can a handmaiden end the story alive and on the side of the good guys.

But if that's too much of a downer ending for the rest of us real-world peons, just remember: handmaidens also know how to frame someone and get away with it. Not quite glass slipper material, but agency and survival aren't bad consolation prizes.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hell Hath No Fury

It's no secret that the Greek gods had a very over-the-top idea of punishment for mortals who crossed them. Brag about your musical talent? Apollo will flay off your skin and make a drum out of it. Display pride in your vast brood of children? Whoops, they're all dead and now you're a stone because you just wouldn't stop crying about it for some reason. And gods all help you if Aphrodite catches you (or anyone close to you) even thinking you're prettier than she is.

But then there are some punishments that really cross a line. Some of the foulest monsters of Greek mythology started out as mortals or demigods who actually didn't do anything. Arguably the most memorable metamorphosis in the mythos was in fact right. And there's something else they all have in common, aside from the varying degrees of innocence: the cruelest transformative punishments in Greek mythology are all perpetrated on women, by women.

Let's start off light. Atalanta, fastest human who ever lived, has just lost the race to Hippomenes, who cleverly employed divine assistance from tricksy Aphrodite. But lo and behold, the frigid ice-queen falls head over heels in love with the man who defeated her! It's a happy ending all around, with Atalanta bending her murderous pride enough to fall in love, Hippomenes' guts and devotion being amply rewarded, King Iason getting his troublesome daughter off his hands, and Aphrodite getting plaudits for arranging the whole thing.

Except not so much with that last one. No, Atalanta and Hippomenes are way too busy going at it like rabbits to toss a nod in Aphrodite's direction. Granted, this was a dumb thing for them to forget, but it's hardly on the level of, say, Agamemnon forgetting to sacrifice to Artemis and then being forced to kill his daughter in penance. A newlywed couple forgets to thank Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire, because they're too busy having sex. Of all the sins of omission, this has got to be the easiest to forgive.

But Aphrodite, as previously stated, is a vindictive bitch. One roll in the hay too many, and poof! Atalanta and Hippomenes are now lions. "So what?" you ask. So plenty - the Greeks thought lions couldn't mate with each other. Aphrodite harnesses the pair to her chariot, furnishing them with an eternal bondage setup that, according to the wisdom of the day, they could never take advantage of.

Atalanta and Hippomenes Changed into Lions, Crispijn van de Passe
Biology saves the day here. I like to imagine the two of them in the Olympian stables, unharnessed after a long day's work, turning to each other and saying, "Oh, honey, those gods are so dumb, aren't they? Move that fine feline ass over here!" But for the Greeks, there was no happy Darwinian ending. For a perfectly understandable slip of the mind, a pair of consumingly passionate lovers are kept apart forever. And it's not difficult to interpret this as Aphrodite's reaction to being threatened. Hippomenes isn't the problem child; his petition to Aphrodite before the race proves him very aware of the gods' power. No, the stone in the sandal here is Atalanta, determined virgin, spurner of Aphrodite's gifts, the dream convert who forgets to thank her sponsor. Aphrodite likes Hippomenes, but Atalanta is the prize she's after. And when famously independent Atalanta doesn't instantly fall to her knees and thank Aphrodite for the gift of a sex drive, there are no second chances. How dare Atalanta enjoy her sexy times? How dare she imagine it's got more to do with her and Hippomenes than with Aphrodite's influence?

Circe Invidiosa, John William Waterhouse
And like I said, that's the light version. The first you ever hear of Scylla is that she's half-woman, half-monster, with six ravenous animal heads instead of a lower half, and that she gets the munchies when Odysseus' ship sails by. But this beast started out as a perfectly normal naiad whose only "crime" was being unrequitedly loved by Glaucus, the first merman. When Glaucus goes to Circe for a love potion, Circe decides that his fish tail isn't nearly the turnoff that Scylla thinks it is and puts the moves on Glaucus herself. He rejects her, which she really should have seen coming, given the whole love-potion thing. Circe's reaction? She poisons Scylla's bathing pool, turning her into the monster Odysseus meets.

Scylla, GENZOMAN
Keep in mind that Circe has never met Scylla. She knows nothing about her except that Scylla's her rival, which isn't even really true; Scylla's not interested in Glaucus at all. Circe directs her anger at a completely passive noncombatant who has tried repeatedly to step offstage and live her damn life. Because one fish-legged weirdo said no, a freaking goddess destroys the life and future of a harmless would-be passerby. Poor Scylla is condemned to eternity as a hideous monster because Circe can't be bothered to vent her anger constructively. At least Aphrodite had a reason for flipping out on Atalanta and Hippomenes - a stupid and flimsy reason, but a reason. In Scylla's story, Circe behaves with all the wisdom and maturity of a fifteen-year-old nursing a first crush.

And she never suffers for it. Sure, she loses Glaucus, but she'd already done that; transforming Scylla is retaliation, not Plan B. She never gets called to account; she just goes on with her seductive witch-goddess gig. And she never gives a second thought to the innocent whose immortal life she just ruined. I never thought I'd say this, but she might be worse than Aphrodite.

Continuing the "unexpected bitch" trend, guess who makes it on here twice?

Only my favorite goddess, Athena. You know. Goddess of wisdom. The one who you'd think would be immune to all this nonsense. Dammit.

Athena and Arachne, SnittyCakez
I've already covered the reasons why Athena massively overreacted to Arachne's stupidity. But the fact remains that Arachne was right. Greek mythology's most famous metamorph arguably deserved what she got, but inarguably had a valid point. Because the only thing the gods hate more than being shown up is being wrong.

I also don't think it's a coincidence that Arachne challenges Athena on that most womanly of her talents, weaving. It's easy to forget, what with her armor and badass nature and patronage of Odysseus, that Athena also taught handicrafts to humankind. By picking a fight over weaving, Arachne issues a direct challenge to a surprisingly masculine goddess's sense of femininity. No wonder Athena gets defensive; in modern terms, Arachne is blatantly implying that even a goddess can't have it all. But it's hard to see Athena's reaction as a feminist triumph when it comes at the expense of an even more talented woman (not to mention a melodramatic tantrum that could provide a textbook case of that most female of fake diseases, "hysteria").

Medusa, Peter Paul Rubens
And what about Medusa?

This one is even sadder than Scylla, and the vindictive goddess involved is even worse than Circe. Medusa, like Scylla, started out as quite a looker (in fact, the only pretty Gorgon). Like Scylla, Medusa was desired by a god, in this case Poseidon himself. But Scylla actually lucked out in her unwanted admirer; the worst Glaucus did was try to buy a love potion. When Medusa refuses Poseidon, he rapes her in Athena's own temple and waltzes off scot-free.

Perseus, Medusa, and Athena, 5th century (artist unknown)
Again, you would think that the goddess of wisdom would understand about victim blaming. You would think that her longstanding feud with Poseidon would lead her to direct all her righteous anger at the desecration of her temple on her asshole of an uncle. Appallingly, Athena turns on Medusa instead. As "punishment" for "Medusa's" sacrilege, the goddess of wisdom turns a rape victim into Greek mythology's most famous monster, a being so hideous that the simple act of looking at her turns you to stone. And that's not even enough. She carries such a grudge that when Perseus is sent to kill Medusa, Athena actually tells him how to do it. And when he succeeds, using her tips and equipment, he gives her Medusa's head, which she promptly fixes on her shield to make herself even more invincible. That's right - not content with destroying Medusa's life and arranging her death, Athena is so committed to punishing this poor girl that she has to be the winner even after Medusa's been murdered. There are so many levels of bitter and overkill here that I don't even know where to begin.

The Medusa, CarrieAnn Reda
Okay. I know god logic follows no rules of actual logic. But can someone please explain to me exactly what Medusa did, herself, to deserve such vicious treatment?

Nothing. The answer is, she did nothing. She, in fact, is the only one in the whole sordid situation who did anything right. She said no to a guy she didn't want to sleep with. Is it her fault that she happened to be in Athena's temple? Is it her fault that Poseidon couldn't take no for an answer? The entire case against her is circumstantial at best and built on others' faults at worst.

The Despair of Scylla, Le Minh Bui
But the helpless woman is a much easier target than the righteous man, the love interest, or the powerful god. Even in stories where the whole point is their superior might, goddesses are never pitted against men. The worst of their wrath is reserved for other women, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, because the women don't fight back. Hera found that out long ago; fighting Zeus is a no-no, but plotting against the women he sleeps with is almost consequence-free.

So why isn't Hera in this post more? Well, because even she never goes to these extremes. She's persistent and vindictive, sure, and her treatment of Semele in particular is unnecessarily harsh. But all Hera wants is a quick proof that she's better than whatever hussy her husband's shacking up with today. She's not after the long-term revenge, the slow torture, the painful day-after-day agony of a life utterly blighted. She doesn't want her rivals to suffer endlessly; she just wants them gone. She's not a patch on Athena for inventiveness, or Aphrodite for cruel irony. Hera invented the technique of persecuting the defenseless woman; the other goddesses perfected it.

Athena, Leonidas Drosis
These goddesses' ultimate goal is to assert their power and regain face. In every situation, it's a goddess who's lost face somehow, whether she's been romantically rejected or ritually desecrated. And the gender code of the times guarantees that if she goes after the man responsible, she is unevenly matched and will not regain the fear and respect crucial to her worship. So she pursues the woman involved, whether or not that woman actually was responsible, because that makes the match uneven in the opposite way: the X-chromosomes cancel each other out, and we're left with immortal versus mortal (or demigod, which is just as useless sometimes). Which is not to say that goddesses don't go toe-to-toe with gods and kick their ass: Artemis and Actaeon come to mind, as do Athena and Poseidon fighting over the city of Athens. But in those cases, there was no handy woman to take the blame. When there is, the goddesses come down like she-wolves on the fold. And there will never be mercy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Love Letter to Bigamists

Right off the bat, you need to know that the Snow White story has never done much for me. This may have something to do with being traumatized before age 6 by the re-release of the Disney version (the transformation scene, oh my god), but it's also deeply rooted in my disdain for heroines who don't do anything, and distrust of stories that hold them up as role models. By now you should know that I'll take Kate Crackernuts over the fairest of them all any day of the week.

Which makes it odd that a Snow White variant is among my favorite fairy tales of all time.

Silver-tree, John Batten
"Gold-tree and Silver-tree" is different from the classic version, though, in all the ways that matter. The Scots felt no need to whitewash the mother's murderous designs on her biological daughter; Silver-tree, the evil queen, even couches her single successful plot in a false solicitude for Gold-tree's well-being. Gold-tree has a modicum of sense; when she sees Silver-tree's ship coming for her, she knows perfectly well that her mother wants to kill her, and that she needs to hide. But the biggest difference, and the reason why I love this version, lies in the actions of the prince.

In the Grimms' Snow White, the prince is at best a moron and at worst a necrophiliac. Either way, he is primarily a plot device. And in "Gold-tree and Silver-tree," that's exactly how he starts out. Right after Silver-tree finds out that Gold-tree is more beautiful than she is, up rides the prince, seeking Gold-tree's hand in marriage. Problem solved: Gold-tree marries the prince, her father slips Silver-tree a goat's heart, and for bonus points, Gold-tree and the prince actually fall in love. Everything's perfect until Silver-tree realizes that Gold-tree's alive, sticks a poisoned dart in her finger, and sails back home, presumably cackling all the way.

Death of Gold-tree, Michelle Hunt
Point one in the prince's favor: He doesn't try to kiss, sleep with, or otherwise perform acts of dubious consensuality on the seemingly-dead body of his wife. (He does keep her unblemished corpse in a locked room, but he can't really be blamed for that, since it's plot-relevant and he's grieving for his lost love. At least, I cut him some slack on that. And I bet poor Talia would, too.)

And then things get really interesting. The prince remarries.

So. It's a fairy tale. We already know that Gold-tree's not really dead. But no one in the story does. This may be the one and only time where I'm glad to see characters not operating in full awareness of fairy tale logic. I'll pull out my hair and scream at clueless third brothers and innocent girls victimized by their stepsisters, wondering why the hell they don't wise up. But here, I'm completely on board, because what's happening is that real-life logic is superseding fairy tale logic. Of course the prince would remarry. He's a prince, and he didn't have any kids with Gold-tree. It's his job, regardless of the fact that he still mourns the woman he loved.

Gold-tree, Morris Meredith Williams
And then, he wins my undying love, because his second wife is a complete and total badass. When he forgets to take the key to Gold-tree's locked room, she Bluebeards in there and finds the body of her predecessor. Does she go all "other woman" on poor defenseless Gold-tree? Does she cook her in a stew? Does she confront her husband about the near-literal skeleton in his closet?

Nope. She just takes out the poisoned dart. And when the prince gets home, she tells him right away, "Hey, I woke up your first wife, and you obviously still love her, so I'll just peace out and let you two lovebirds get back together." Is there anyone else in fairy tales who freely walks away from a love conflict with sincere goodwill? Is there anyone in the real world who can do that? The second wife basically thumbs her nose at fairy tale convention, while at the same time making us desperate to keep her around. I love her for it.

Two Princesses, One Prince, V-Eclipse
Point two in the prince's favor: He made a very intelligent second marriage.

Point three in the prince's favor: As soon as the second wife offers to step out, he refuses to let her. She says she'll go away. His exact words in reply? "Oh! indeed you shall not go away, but I shall have both of you."

This guy is so cool. Maybe not smart enough to just take the dart out of his first wife's finger, but totally smart enough to marry a woman with brains, to value her for her intelligence, and to let his first and second loves know that he cherishes them both equally.

It's hardly conventional, either in fairy tales or in the world we live in. But I have to think that this is one awesome three-way marriage. No one is superior: Gold-tree owes her life to the second wife, who owes her continued place to the prince, who owes his happiness to both of them. It's impossible to feel like anyone's an interloper here, because they all play integral parts in the relationship. Plus we get to keep the smart girl on the heroes' team. This is a total win for everyone involved.

The clincher of it all, vindicating the prince's unconventional decision, is that the second wife is solely responsible for the death of Silver-tree (remember her?). Once again, Silver-tree hears that Gold-tree's alive and comes back for more murder. Gold-tree's initial instinct - to flee, again - is firmly countermanded by the second wife, who gets them both down on the beach to say hello. Silver-tree offers Gold-tree a cup laced with poison, pulling the caring-mother card yet again in front of witnesses. Cool as a cucumber, the second wife retorts that she doesn't know where you come from, honey, but in this country the person offering a drink takes a sip first, I mean really, where are your manners. And when Silver-tree pretends to drink, the second wife just smacks the bottom of the cup so that the poison goes straight into the would-be murderess's mouth. Call me crazy, but I think that's even more karmic than Snow White's stepmother dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes. It's quick, it's elegant, and it's not nearly as grotesque.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre, eala-nedea
This is a fairy tale where real-world rules also apply. Sure, there's a talking trout and some confusion over the actual fact of death. There's also unvarnished mother-daughter darkness, the irreplaceable value of second love, and perhaps the most unconventional marriage fairy tales have to offer, portrayed in unambiguously glowing terms. I've never read a fairy tale quite like this one. With the exception of the Beauty and the Beast variants, I've never seen more interesting romantic dynamics. It's a lot more complicated and compelling than "someday my prince will come."

And it's subversive as hell. It pokes fun at the passive heroine. It giggles at the genre's conventions. A secondary character steals center stage halfway through, and the reader never looks back. It never punishes its heroes for their atypical choices, and in fact rewards the unexpected over the standard. Fairy tales exist to reinforce the status quo. But by the end of this one, you're cheering for the triumph of true love expressed through bigamy. That is gutsy like nobody's business. And more than anything else, I love this story for that very fact: that it stakes out its territory, takes a stand, and refuses to back down.

If only we could get Snow White to read it...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where Have All the Mothers Gone?

It's impossible to read fairy tales without realizing one very glaring absence in the lives of nearly every hero or heroine. They have no mothers. They have stepmothers out the wazoo, perfectly ready to throw their innocent stepchildren under the closest available bus, but no mothers. They have fathers, who are either malicious favorite-players or ineffectual weaklings bullied by their second wives. But no mothers. Fairytale Land should put out an APB for all its missing moms.

The Death of Rachel, Giambettino Cignaroli
The lack of maternal influence has painfully obvious results. Scads of motherless heroines fall effortlessly into the clutches of their evil stepmothers. And that's not even the worst of it. Take the story of Joseph and his brothers. Granted, those kids had four mothers to share around, but the death of the beloved Rachel leaves a huge hole in the structure of Jacob's family. Zilpah and Bilhah are never allowed much say in the raising of their sons, and Leah is either incapable of or uninterested in keeping twelve rowdy boys in line. In effect, if not in fact, Jacob's sons are motherless. They live in a world of ruthless male competition. And Jacob himself, as consolation for the loss of his love, makes no bones about the fact that Rachel's son Joseph is his favorite. With no mother to teach morality and a father who's hardly modeling good behavior, it's no wonder that resentment and hatred fester among the brothers, leading ultimately to the other eleven selling Joseph into slavery to get rid of their rival. It's difficult to say what would have happened with Rachel as an active presence in their lives, but it's pretty clear that Jacob wouldn't have favored Joseph so flagrantly if he hadn't been mourning the boy's mother.

Snow White illustration, Franz Juttner
The plot thickens when you go back to the Grimm stories and realize that those clever German boys weren't just cataloging folktales. They were deliberately shaping the moral compasses of the next generation. Mothers, real mothers, could never be allowed to do the horrific things to their children that they do in those well-loved stories: poison them with apples, abandon them in the woods, etc. It was much easier to kill the mothers before they had a chance to become evil. That way, the stories preserved a saintly image of a mother who often dies in giving her child life, side by side with the villainous hag who usurps her place. Better to put the kids at risk from a world without a mother than to admit that mothers are, in fact, capable of the same horrors as other human beings.

Kate Crackernuts, Trina Schart Hyman
But that line of thinking leaves us singularly ill-equipped to handle, say, the heroine's mother in Kate Crackernuts. Bold, quick-thinking princess Kate is clearly the story's protagonist, but her half-sister Anne is the beauty of the family. Kate's mother (who is Anne's stepmother) resents her biological daughter being overshadowed, so out of love for Kate, she magics a sheep's head onto Anne's shoulders. What on earth should our reaction be? Should we be glad that at least one fairytale mother cares about her daughter's future? Should we be outraged that the queen could do such a thing to her trusting stepdaughter? Should we renounce the queen's actions utterly (as Kate herself does), or should we allow that her motive was love and concern? After all, the queen's just doing exactly what fairytale convention demands of her: being cruel and manipulative toward her stepdaughter. It's her bad luck that her story involves one of the few sets of siblings who actually like each other, creating an instant gray area where the evil stepmother's biological child is our hero.

So, having no mother is bad. Having a vindictive mother is bad. Having a caring mother is bad. Is there any kind of good mother who's not also dead?

Demeter and Persephone, Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
Well, there's always Demeter.

Right from the start, she's got the loving and nurturing aspect of motherhood covered; she's goddess of the harvest, so we already know she'll take awesome care of her daughter. And going by the brief glimpse we get of young carefree Persephone before Hades abducts her, it seems fair to say that Demeter knocked it out of the park. Once Persephone goes missing, Demeter essentially shuts down the earth, holding life itself hostage until her daughter is returned. Her determined crusade to find Persephone is the sole reason Zeus gets off his arse and sends Hermes to bring Persephone back. And even though Hades tricks Persephone into spending three months of the year with him, the remaining nine are divinely judged to be the purview of the mother-daughter team of spring and harvest, which creates lovely weather and plentiful harvests and ensures that even the mortals want Persephone to stay with her mom.

Isis & Horus, Judith Page
And look over there! It's Isis, who brought her dead husband back to life just so she could get pregnant. She spends decades incognito, using her powerful magic to protect Horus from his murderous uncle who's got teams canvassing Egypt looking for him. When Set gets past her vigilance and nearly kills Horus via scorpions, Isis calls in favors from the gods in order to save her son. She devotes every waking minute to teaching Horus exactly how to survive the inevitable battle with Set. Unlike with Demeter and Persephone, we get to see Isis's efforts fulfilled: Horus trounces Set (albeit with some interesting methods), avenges his father, and becomes king of Egypt (and ultimately a god). Well done, Isis.

And now the Virgin Mary is knocking at the door. Gotta count her, too. Betrothed-but-not-married knocked-up-by-God virgin mom sounds like the premise of a VH1 show. But Mary makes it work. She convinces a very skeptical Joseph that she didn't actually cheat on him (at least not by choice - we can talk
Madonna and Child, Il Sassoferrato
about God's consent issues later), goes with him to Bethlehem ready to drop at any second, gives birth alone in a freaking stable, and maintains a strong and loving relationship with her son for his entire life, which sadly ends before hers. Statistically, she should have been screwed. Every card was stacked against her. But out of the jaws of defeat, Mary snatches an enormous parental victory. Very few women can successfully raise a Savior.

So yes, there are positive models of motherhood who play active and crucial roles in their children's stories. But there's a catch. They're all goddesses. (You can quibble about Mary's divine status, but she ascends to Heaven at the moment of her death, and has more icons and fan-worship than any sanctified Christian who's not Jesus. The woman's a goddess.) Fairytale mothers are mortals with only mortal strength. Is it fair to ask human mothers to live up to the astonishing lengths that goddesses go to in protecting and raising their children?

Brave, Disney/Pixar
It might actually be fine. Because what the ranks of good living mothers sorely need to oppose the army of evil mothers is power. The evil mother's menace comes from the fact that she has all the power and her child-victim has none. To declare her disgust for her mother's methods, Kate Crackernuts has to go into self-imposed exile. Even the sainted dead moms have power; Cinderella's dresses her up for the ball, assisting her in her only avenue of escape from her powerful stepmother's dominance. So the good mothers need the power that goddesses of life and love can provide: the strength to endure, the courage to nurture, the will to make things better. The goddess-mothers aren't providing an unreachable ideal. They exist to brace up mortal mothers, to show them what qualities will serve them best, and to remind them that - divine or not - every good mother has what it takes.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Revisiting Lancelot

Sir Lancelot, Melissa A. Benson
Is it just me, or is Lancelot kind of boring?

Because really, you can only hear "best knight in the world" so many times before you get sick of both the phrase and the person it describes. From his intro to his elegantly repenting death, Lancelot is so perfect it's disgusting. He usurps the stories the second he appears; his arrival at Camelot signals the transition from "exploits of Arthur the warrior king" to "loosely connected vignettes mostly centering on this new French guy." There's no enemy who can face him, and no woman who can avoid falling head over heels the second she sees his exquisite yet manly face. He does exactly one thing wrong in his entire life, and even that had a certain inevitability to it: of course the world's most beautiful woman is going to fall for the best knight.

It's even written into the legends that Lancelot nauseates his fellow knights, who understandably don't get the joke the seventeenth time Monsieur Perfect knocks them out of their saddles. (While in disguise. And then rides away like tournaments are beneath him, when he obviously cares enough to joust in them.) Let's not forget how easy it was for Mordred to gather a band of disaffected knights to surprise him in Guinevere's chamber. Dude did not have a huge fan club.

So here's the thing. If we accept that it's very easy to get bored with Lancelot, the question that never gets asked is: why?

Sort of redundant, yes? Didn't I just answer it?

The Sword of Lancelot, Howard David Johnson
Well, yes and no. Take a step back from the stories. Look at them as plot alone. Lancelot is incredible. Remember what I said a few paragraphs above about how no enemy can face him? No enemy can face him. He goes up against knights who make careers of killing for fun, and he routinely destroys them. He does unspeakable things to ideas like "hopeless situation" and "no way out." When the woman he loves is in danger, he morphs into this amazing cross between James Bond and Superman, traveling incognito, busting up everything but his beloved during the rescue, and fighting the abductor with one hand tied behind his back because honor demands it. And he still splits this guy's head open. There is a reason this man is described as the best knight in the world. And it is because he is the best knight in the world.

One could argue that if it weren't for everyone else's insistence on his perfection, Lancelot would be seen not as irreparably fallen and kind of bland, but as the badass to end all badasses. I'd bet on him versus anyone. Batman? Please. Darth Vader? Don't make me laugh. Lancelot could take out Jaws if he wanted to. Without even using a boat.

Gawain and the Green Knight, David Hitchcock
Look at Gawain, another badass from the same cycle, and another owner of the "best in show" title (before Lancelot came along, that is). No sissy perfection for Gawain. He runs headlong into danger, carried away by his impulses, and he too wins more than should be humanly possible. But he (and his authors) aren't nearly as obsessed with his perfection as Lancelot. Sure, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" takes valuable time out of the quest shenanigans to explain why his pentangle shield is the most sacred thing ever, but it's really just ironic foreshadowing of Gawain's ultimate failure. He carries the perfect shield, but the knight it guards is only human.

Sound familiar? Perfect knight, fatal weakness, inevitable fall... It's the same story as Lancelot's ill-fated romance with Guinevere. On the outside, he is all that a knight should be; inside, he knows himself to be unworthy.

The difference between them, though, is that Gawain moves on. Humiliated and angry with himself, he tells all of Camelot about his disgrace. But Arthur, demonstrating exactly why he's awesome, gently reminds Gawain of his many accomplishments over the course of the quest, not least of which is the fact that the Green Knight honored him enough to leave him alive. Arthur takes it a step further by declaring that Gawain's green garter, until now a badge of shame, will be regarded by all as a symbol of Gawain's honor and courage in revealing his own weakness.

For obvious reasons, Lancelot cannot do the same. But that's a cop-out, because of course Arthur isn't stupid and already knows about Guinevere. Gawain's declaration allows him to get his failure off his chest, and in fact helps him reclaim the honor he thought he had lost; Lancelot's unwillingness to jeopardize that very same appearance of honor dooms him to cling to his sin. With no expiation, it festers, becoming the central facet of his character, while Gawain is able to grow beyond his misdeed.

So in addition to being the biggest badass at the Round Table, Lancelot's also got the most emotional turmoil of anyone (except maybe Arthur). Constantly aware of the hypocrisy on which his life is built, hating himself but loving Guinevere more, he has the most fascinating inner life of all the knights. He is a man desperate for perfection who can't help clinging to his one flaw. And he knows it the whole time. He is never allowed a moment to forget the contradiction of himself. He wrestles with it every single day, and always comes back with the same answer: he is not strong enough to reject what is at once the best and worst thing in his life.

He's not just a badass. He's a relatable badass.

Lancelot of the Lake, Delphine Gache
Everyone knows about the struggle to succeed; everyone understands the unexpected roadblocks that get in the way; everyone knows how bitter failure tastes. Lancelot's story is the story of every time we couldn't make something better. He is universal and human like no other character in the entire cycle.

I think it's time we reclaimed Lancelot. It's not going to be easy; his character forms around the very thing that holds him back. But we can definitely start celebrating his feats of arms as the ridiculously awesome career that they are. We can see the good as well as the sinful in his love for Guinevere; it's hard to do justice to the man when we keep dismissing and belittling the passion for which he sacrificed his soul. And instead of complaining about how boring he is, we - and I include myself here - can instead start asking why, for hundreds and hundreds of years, we've kept coming back to his story and finding things in it that touch our hearts.