Something

“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”

— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt

They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either.  I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.

Bricklayers, Childe Hassam

In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.

The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.

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Birthmarks and Invisible Clothes

In which I search out the folktale inspirations for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”.

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I’ve been reading M.R. James’ 1930 translation of Hans Christian Andersen, Forty-two Stories, which is a delight. I’ve realized that, while I’m familiar with Andersen’s most famous tales, I’ve mostly only read retellings of them, rather than reading them in Andersen’s own (translated) words. It makes such a difference! Andersen’s prose (as channeled through James, at least) is so beautifully clean and unadorned; more modern than I would have expected.

Many (though not all) of Andersen’s tales are direct retellings of folktales, albeit with his own unique voice and special details. Other tales borrow from traditional stories to a greater or lesser degree. In the preface to his translation, James gives a bit of information about the folk origins of several tales, based both on what Andersen himself said, and on James’ personal research.

Let’s explore “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd.”

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The King’s Son-in-Law

Antonio Trueba

Antonio de Trueba (1819-1889) was a Spanish reteller of folklore in the tradition of Gustavo Bécquer and Fernán Caballero (the pen name of Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber) — both of whom I’ve posted on before. Trueba combined the traditional stories of the Spanish campesinos with sophisticated literary style and humorous political and social commentary. I found this delightful tale in a back issue of the fairy tale studies journal Marvels & Tales, and it hooked me at the first paragraph:

There once was a king so avaricious that instead of spending his life making his subjects happy, he passed it running throughout his kingdom searching for mines of gold and silver, and leaving the devil in charge of the ship of State. A pox on such kings!

I have a feeling this one will speak to a lot of people.

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A Meta-Fairytale: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Curious, If True

Almost 160 years before Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill began The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, social novelist and ghost story writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote this atypical (for her) piece of metafiction. An Englishman journeys to France to research his Calvinist roots, and a case of mistaken identity gains him entry to to an unusual party….

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Ever wonder what happens to all those fairy tale characters in their happily ever after? Now you can find out.

You can read “Curious, If True” here.

I’ve added links at strategic places in the text to the relevant fairy tales; for the French tales, usually Andrew Lang’s retelling of Charles Perrault’s version. How many of the fairy tales can you identify before clicking on the links?

Even if you do recognize all the references, I recommend that after you finish Gaskell’s story, you click through and re-read the originals anyway; you’ve probably forgotten a lot of the details. In particular, one story has an entire third act that is omitted from popular renditions; I’m not sure I’d ever read it before, myself.

Some additional notes, hopefully not too spoilerish:

  • The English fairy tale Tom Thumb is not the same as the French tale Le Petit Poucet, although Andrew Lang translated Perrault’s title in a misleading way. According to Wikipedia, Perrault’s story is often known in English as Hop o’my Thumb.
  • “Gilles de Retz,” aka Gilles de Rais, was a historical person. Some believe he is the inspiration for a famous fairy tale. You can read a little bit about that here.

Enjoy!


Image: The Chateau of Neuchatel at dusk, with Jura mountains beyond by John Ruskin (1866). Source: WikiArt

The Test

A new installment in my occasional and hopefully ongoing series of active heroines: lesser-known fairy tales featuring women who do more than wait around to get rescued. This one is from Lafcadio Hearn, and was told to him by his gardener Kinjuro. I give it here, verbatim. The story features the “marriage test” motif, where a hero must pass a test in order to win the fair maiden. In most cases, the fair maiden’s father imposes the test. In some cases — like this one — the fair maiden herself sets the conditions.

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A long time ago, in the days when Fox-women and goblins haunted this land, there came to the capital with her parents a samurai girl, so beautiful that all men who saw her fell enamoured of her. And hundreds of young samurai desired and hoped to marry her, and made their desire known to her parents. For it has ever been the custom in Japan that marriages should be arranged by parents. But there are exceptions to all customs, and the case of this maiden was such an exception. Her parents declared that they intended to allow their daughter to choose her own husband, and that all who wished to win her would be free to woo her.

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Charlemagne, the Snake, and the Magic Ring

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When Charlemagne was King of the Franks, legend says, he had a pillar erected in front of his palace, with a bell attached. If anyone wanted to appeal to the King for justice, all he had to do was ring that bell, and he would be immediately conducted to the King to have his case heard.

One evening, when Charlemagne was at dinner, he heard the bell ring. He sent a servant out to see who it was, but the servant returned, saying that when he opened the door he found no one. Dinner progressed; the bell rang again. Same result. When the bell rang the third time, the monarch himself rose and went to the door.

At the pillar, he found a snake wrapped around the pull-rope of the bell, using its weight to ring it. The palace servants tried to drive the snake away, but Charlemagne stopped them.

“Clearly,” he said, “the beast has come to have its case heard. And so it shall.”

And he asked the creature what it wanted.

The snake seemed to bow before the King, and then slithered away, looking behind itself as if it wanted them to follow. They followed the snake back to its nest, where they discovered a huge, poisonous toad sitting among the snake’s eggs, quite comfortable. The snake looked up at them, as if pleading.

The King ordered his servants to take the toad away and burn it; then he and his court returned to the palace.

At the next evening’s dinner, to everyone’s surprise, the snake suddenly entered the Great Hall. It glided straight to the King’s table, bowed, then came up onto the table and dropped a magnificent diamond into the King’s wine glass. It bowed again, and then left.

The King had the diamond set into a beautiful gold ring, which he then gave to his Queen, Fastrada.

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A Darkish Little Fairy Tale, or An Anecdote on Writing

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A cool fact about aspens (from Wikipedia):

All of the aspens typically grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling, and spread by means of root suckers; new stems in the colony may appear at up to 30–40 m (98–131 ft) from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. For this reason, it is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. One such colony in Utah, given the nickname of “Pando”, is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspens. Some aspen colonies become very large with time, spreading about 1 m (3.3 ft) per year, eventually covering many hectares.

In other words, a stand of aspens is really one organism. It’s like planting a piece of ginger root: eventually, these narrow, green, bamboo-like stalks will sprout from the rhizome. If you’ve buried the ginger, then each stalk looks like an individual plant, but they’re really all sprouts from the same root. Aspens are kind of the same way.

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George MacDonald’s “The Light Princess”

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I thought that “The Light Princess” was quite a realistic fairy tale.

I know that’s an odd thing to say about a story of wicked-witch aunts, floating princesses, and a White Snake of Darkness, but it’s true. George MacDonald wrote odd and charming fairy tales, admired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit; like most great children’s storytellers, he really wrote for adults as much as for children. I suspect that there might be more in “The Light Princess” for the grown-ups than for the little ones.

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