Blog Post 14: The Last One

This is supposed to be our reflective blog entry, the one to wrap up the semester. Finals start tomorrow, and the one I’m most worried about is the one for this class. It’s not because I didn’t do the reading, because I did. I just don’t feel prepared because I missed so many classes between my sudden bout of multiple migraines followed by a sinus infection. When the classes become individual case studies of different cultures taught by guest lecturers and then the topics are never revisited again, well, that’s just bad timing to be sick.  I’m just going to extra-study those topics, I suppose.

Looking back, I liked the diversity of content in this course.  The guest lectures were definitely my favorite, and significantly contributed to the interdisciplinary nature of this course. Even though we covered so many different topics and histories and traditions regarding fairy tales and folk tales, there were always common themes, which was interesting, and ties back to Jung’s Collective Unconscious idea.  Strange, considering the part of the class I enjoyed the least was anything and everything dealing with psychology and psychological criticism.

Something I didn’t like doing as I was doing but can appreciate now are these blog posts. Not only are they a great study tool, but they helped me explore my understanding of the topics of the week and develop my own ideas. Worth it.

I also enjoyed writing my final paper, as strange as that may sound. I loved my topic, I found it to be interesting, and I basically knew what I was going to say before I even started to attempt to say it. The challenge, though, was trying to not make it ridiculously long. I think part of where I failed in writing it was cutting out too many of my own ideas for the sake of brevity, when I should’ve been cutting out my quotes. I should know better- I work at the writing center, for goodness sake.

The parts of the class that were challenging…well, the pacing was sometimes a challenge for me, as there would sometimes be so much reading and then the material would shift in a totally different direction the next class and it would come along with its own list of required readings. While I like reading, I don’t think I managed to read as closely and critically as I should have because this semester I was learning a lot about time management. Mostly, learning from my mistakes, because I overcommitted myself in other areas besides coursework, and that made everything I did more challenging. It’s probably also why I got sick so frequently. And why I developed stress-induced migraines…

The psychological criticism was challenging, too. It was harder for me to understand, and therefore harder for me to apply. It still is, I guess, because I just don’t buy into it. It seems nonsensical to me, and I feel like a lot of what we read always ended with something like- that’s how I interpret it, but everyone can interpret it differently because everyone has different experiences. Or, in contrast, it would imply that everyone should interpret this the same way because we’re all inherently the same. I just don’t like psychology.

At the same time, I loved feminist approaches to analyzing the tales. I think I’ve grown as a feminist this semester, and before this semester, I didn’t even really realize that I was one. Or maybe I didn’t embrace it. I’m not sure. I suppose the downside to this is that I’m disenchanted with fairy tales, even though I can now appreciate them for their social, cultural, and historical significance.

The thing I’ll most remember from this course is what I have learned about other cultures, which is really important to me after my study abroad experience, and because part of McDaniel College’s mission is to develop global citizenship. I think this course helps facilitate that.  I know a lot more about Germany and Bangladesh and India and the other places we read stories from, and I even know more about African-American culture in my own country than I did before. This was a good way to meet my international nonwestern requirement.

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Blog Post 13: “Once Upon a Time in Spain”: Pan’s Labyrinth

This week, we watched Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which I’ve seen several times before, and had gotten something different out of it each time I’d seen it.  However, this time, we looked at it in the context of both fairy tales and history, and I’ve gained a fuller appreciation for the film as a result.

Dr. Thomas Deveny, who I had for Great Works of the Western World 1 back in freshman year, was our guest speaker of the week.  His lecture was called, “Once Upon a Time in Spain in 1944: The Morphology of El labertino del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth).” 

We went through Propp’s functions to facilitate our analysis, but first, we discussed the historical context of the film.  “Pan’s Labyrinth” takes place after the Spanish Civil War, which explains the guerilla fighters in the woods in the film.  The film blends history and fantasy, using the technique of montage.  This helped me understand the film much better, because previously I had no idea why there was such military rule and people were fighting it. 

Ofelia’s mother married Captain Vidal and has been relocated to the countryside, where this guerilla warfare is occurring, because Vidal wants his son to be born with him.  This makes the mother, Carmen, very ill.  Ofelia reads fairy tales and brings several books with her, and I think she uses them to cope with her abrupt relocation and the replacement of her dead father with the horrid Vidal, which goes along with what we’ve read of Bettelheim in class, because fairy tales have such psychological functions.

While other fairy tales we’ve read this semester do involve historical context, Pan’s Labyrinth is different because the fairy tale elements occur simultaneously within and separately from the historical reality plot. The tale is a bildungsroman, a coming of age tale.  In this one, Ofelia breaks away from her family, passing from innocence to knowledge through her fantasy world exploration. 

The reality and fantasy interact, as we discussed while going over Propp’s functions. For example, the second function is “An interdiction is addressed to the hero.”  Ofelia/Moanna is told not to eat anything in the realm of the pale-man, but because food is so scarce in her real world, she can’t help but to eat grapes.  Food is being rationed by Vidal so that supplies don’t get to the guerillas; obviously, the people of Spain are hungry, because a man shouts about the daily bread and that nobody will go hungry.  So, when Ofelia-as-Moanna eats a grape, she violates the interdiction because of her mundane needs, and two fairies die as a result. 

The magic number three is evident in both the mundane and fantasy worlds as well. There are three instruments of torture, 3 tasks Ofelia-as-Moanna must complete, three stones that the huge toad must eat, and three numbers the stutterer must count to. 

The “Left” is significant as well.  As we’ve learned previously, the left side is the feminine side, e.g. Cinderella’s left shoe going missing. At the beginning of the film, Ofelia goes to shake Capt. Vidal’s hand, and she uses her left, which he doesn’t hesitate to criticize. Later, in the pale-man scene, the fairies tell her to open the middle box, but she defies them and chooses the left. 

This relates to one of the film’s most important themes- independent, critical, and moral thought. She makes her own decision, and it’s one of her coming-of-age moments. Other characters demonstrate this theme as well- notably, the doctor. He kills the tortured stutterer against orders, and tells Vidal that he isn’t like him, that he can’t just obey. So he walks away and gets shot in the back. He dies, but he’s noble. 

I rather enjoyed Thursday’s class, and it’s strange to think that there’s only one more week of classes left!

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Blog Post 12: Folk Tales in India and Bangladesh

I enjoyed both guest lectures this week, and want to discuss them both in this blog entry, because I learned a lot from both.  I knew hardly anything about India or Bangladesh before this week besides whatever I remembered from AP World History in high school.

On Tuesday, Dr. Mian presented a lecture called “Ruphotka,” which means beautiful words- basically, fairy tales.  It was interesting how fairy tales from Bangladesh are representative of the local environment, featuring hills, lush vegetation, monsoons, rivers and boat travel, tigers, and elephants.  As such, the tales from this culture say a lot about the experience of people from this culture.  It seems exotic to me, but that’s because I’m an American.

As with all of the folk and fairy tale traditions we’ve learned about so far, this one began in the oral tradition.  Ruphotkas originate from Sanksrit and Ceylon.  Common storylines include conflicts between good and evil and supernatural characters, which is typical, but there were some unique characteristics as well.  For example, the presence of an evil co-wife rather than the stepmother figure we’re used to seeing.  In addition, redemption wasn’t a prominent feature at all.

We read “Blue Lotus and Red Lotus,” which was really hard to understand until I read it a second time because the names were unfamiliar.

We watched this video in class, which was pretty awesome. It provides a decent summary of the story, but does leave out several plot points.

The important characteristics of this tale we discussed in class are as follows: The two brothers come back from death through eggs, which hearkens to reincarnation.  They push away dominating mother figures, and complete a quest victoriously, two common aspects of the tales we’ve previously studied, but again, there are differences.  Family is a very important aspect of these stories, and at the end, they restore their father’s health; normally, the father is seen as a competitor, or he dies.

The reading we did for Thursday’s class also showed a significance placed on family.  However, we did not discuss the Ramayana in class, but rather, Adivasis.  I can’t make this computer use the right characters, so these words are spelled incorrectly, technically. Adivasis are the first inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent- maybe not historically so, but that’s how they refer to themselves. Often, their lives are worse than those of the untouchables.

I particularly enjoyed all of Dr. Alles’s stories and photos.  I feel like I got a pretty accurate glimpse into a completely unfamiliar culture, and learned a lot from it.  He very clearly described some ritual processes and other contexts surrounding the tales we read in class.  Many of these tales were origin tales, such as how their liquor came into being.  One of the stories we read raised some interesting questions about gender, which of course is where my interests lie.

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Blog Post 11: Arabic Folk Tales

This week we read the frame story of “The 1001 Nights” and learned about Arabic folk tales.  Interestingly, the number 1000 in Arabic cultures represents infinity, so adding one to that makes it a super massive number surpassing the infinite.

As with most of the cultures we’ve learned about so far, early Islamic culture was passed around through the oral tradition. Often, it was not about what a person said, but how they said it, according to Dr. Esa’s lecture.

“The 1001 Nights” (Alf layla wa layla) is a collection of tales from various time periods and locations, and there are a heck of a lot of tales within this collection.  Dr. Esa said that the stories could be told for hours on various days on the radio, but had to leave a lot of them out.  These tales are embedded narratives within the frame story, which we read in class.  In this, a king and his brother become disenchanted with women (a bit of an understatement- one kind kills his wife and her lover in one blow), and King Shahryar decides that in order to not be cuckolded ever again, he will marry virgins and then kill them in the morning, after he’s deflowered them.

They ultimately run out of virgins, so the wazir’s daughter volunteers herself as kind of a martyr, hoping to save other women from their inevitable plight.  She tricks the king by telling him compelling tales, night after night, tale within a tale, never giving away the ending of everything until she has secured her safety- 3 years and some children later.

Other notable folk tales included Kalila wa Dimma, animal fables featuring two jackals who offer moral and practical advice; Sirats, life biographies; and The Fables of Luqman bin Ad (might be spelling that wrong because that’s where my notes get indecipherable), 47 of which are practically identical to Aesop’s Fables.

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Blog Post 10: African-American Folk and Fairy Tales

I unfortunately missed Dr. Ochieng K’Olewe’s guest lecture on Tuesday from a migraine, but from what I heard, it was awesome.  However, it leaves me no choice but to write this week’s blog entry about Thursday’s guest lecture by Dr. Johnson-Ross about African-American folk and fairy tales.

I really enjoyed this class because I didn’t previously know much of what we discussed.  She started with explaining how the storytelling tradition began under the Baobab tree, a species I only knew existed from hours spent playing Zoo Tycoon as a kid.  In Africa, villages were usually located next to one of these trees, and gatherings were held under them.

Griots and griottes were associated with elite families, and they kept the histories of those families through the oral tradition.  The most famous West African musicians nowadays come from griot families.

The slave trade brought these traditions to the Americas, and in some cases, the African traditions were allowed to thrive, especially on some South Carolinian plantations where the slave owners couldn’t handle the conditions and left the management to black overseers.  I thought it was really interesting when Dr. Johnson-Ross said that in these places now, the way people weave baskets is identical to the methods used in the places in Africa where they came from.

With the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, black arts flourished.  “The Brownie’s Book” was published by the NAACP for two years for “the children of the sun,” and contributors included Langston Hughes as a high schooler.  Dr. Johnson-Ross did a good job explaining the context of a time differently than how I’ve learned before, because in my past history classes I’ve only learned about bad things or major events, but not so much about what people were thinking and why.  It made the contents of “The Brownie’s Book” more understandable.  For example, the story we read made more sense after learning that a lot of black families were split up for economic reasons.

The publication included content for all kinds of audiences, while focusing on the education and edification black children.  I especially liked how there were games and stories from other countries in an attempt to promote knowledge of the world.

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Blog Post 9: My favorite “Bluebeard” tale

Well, this blog post is rather late.  Hopefully, it was worth the wait?

Once again, I found myself preferring the more literary of the stories, the least fairy-tale-like of all: “Bluebeard’s Egg” by Margaret Atwood.  The thing is, we weren’t even supposed to read that one for class.  I just incorrectly assumed that we had to read all of the Bluebeard tales.

I liked it because there was ambiguity.  In normal fairy tales, every detail counts, because there are fewer details, and so the interpretations are kind of dependent on how many ways you can look at these details, and how these meanings interact with each other, etc.  But this story was more my style- I’m an English major. I liked how there was intertextuality with other fairy tales and Bluebeard tales, and how the main character was in a fairy tales class just like we are, and how it took time to figure out the characters and their identities and their motivations…it was artfully crafted.

But I guess if I had to choose one of the actual stories we were supposed to read, I’d go with Perrault’s “Bluebeard.” It was gory. It was visual. I actually enjoyed reading it…until I got to the ending.  Those morals! Ugh. I’m appalled.  Once again, a good fairy tale ruined by it’s anti-woman messages.  But of course, these messages were prevalent within the tale itself, too.  Which brings me back to my frustrations with fairy tales in general, and I guess with society and the world at large: patriarchy.

My goal for the next fairy tales I read? Find something in them besides oppression of women. It’s time I try a different method of analysis beyond the feminist.

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Blog Post 8: “rags to riches through magic and marriage”

In class this week, we read the “Cinderella” tales, which largely contrasted with the Disney version- no surprise there. These tales all feature a similar narrative arc, one that Ruth Bottigheimer describes as “rags to riches through magic and marriage.”  This rather accurately describes how one can achieve wealth in the world of fairy tales.  All of the “Cinderella” protagonists eventually were freed from their lowly stations through marriage to a wealthy character, and that would not have been possible without magic.  But is that realistic?

Well, I suppose things in real life can happen that way.  People wed significant others with differing financial situations all the time, usually resulting in the person with less money suddenly finding themselves with more than what they had before. Many a gold-digger has married a rich old man, only to inherit his worth upon his death (this is me playing off a stereotype, not abandoning my feminist ideals).  But rags to riches? That’s a big leap; even gold-diggers usually aren’t in rags.  But it happens, I’m sure.

I don’t think the rags to riches story always has to happen through marriage.  There was one actress (can’t remember her name- I guess she isn’t that famous) that was discovered on the street while homeless, and ended up getting a role in some big time movie (this from an article I read on my Comcast homepage the other day about nobodies becoming somebodies).  If that’s not rags to riches, I don’t know what is.

And then you have to consider the American Dream, which is all about how anybody can find success (i.e. money) through hard work, making a “rags to riches” situation possible for everyone.

But those last two examples don’t involve marriage, and none of them at all involve magic.  Magic, in it’s usual definition, doesn’t exist, so it’s almost irrelevant.  But things can be magical, they can have an essence similar to something that would happen via magic if magic were real.  The idea of magic is one so present in society, in the collective unconscious (if you believe in that), that I suppose it exists, not as an actual thing, but as an idea.

Miracles could be magic, under that interpretation.  A “rags to riches” story is somewhat of a miracle.  Religion can also be magic, depending on what religion (some actually do magicky stuff) or depending on what you believe about religion (some thing it’s a bunch of hogwash similar to magic).  But how does that tie in to a “rags to riches” real-life plot arc? I don’t actually know.  It seems to me that the magic part of this is completely unrealistic outside of the fairy tale world.

Unless…and prepare for some sappiness here…magic is love. One could argue that love is magical (falling under the way I attempted to define it two paragraphs ago).  And love is a major factor in most Western marriages today. So…rags to riches through magic and marriage?  Totally possible.  We don’t marry based on arranged marriages or dowries or social status hardly as much anymore as in the past (or in some other non-western countries).  If love is magic, and marriage unites two people of vastly different financial standings, you could totally start out destitute and end up significantly better off.

However, in fairy tales, it seems that magic and marriage are the only means of becoming rich when previously you were in rags. Especially for women.

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