Showing posts with label fairy tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fairy tales. Show all posts

28 February 2019

Why There Always Has to be a Virgin


by Eve Fisher

A quick rundown by yours truly of the oldest characters in storydom comes up with the following:

  • The Hero
  • The Villain/Villainess
  • The Virgin

You've got those three, you've got a story.  Oh, sure there are variations out the wazoo, and there are always extra characters:  The Hero can always use a Sidekick (from Dr. Watson to Mary Lou) or a Wise Counselor (Gandalf to Jimminy Crickets), and Villains generally have to helpers (from Orcs to gang members).  Virgins - well, somebody has to give birth to them, but that's all.  In fairy tales the mothers usually die off pretty quick.  Snow White, Cinderella, almost every Gothic Romance heroine - they're all orphans.  And even if Daddy survived, he gets hitched up to the Evil Witch, and there you go, Cindy might as well be an orphan.

So you really, really, really need a virgin.  And a virgin is always female.


“[N]o language has ever had a word for a virgin man.” 
― Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage


(1) How else are you going to get a unicorn?  They're only attracted to virgins.

DomenichinounicornPalFarnese.jpg
Wikipedia fresco
by Domenichino, c. 1604–05 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome)
(2a) The marriageable hero has to have someone to rescue, and in olden days this was always someone young, beautiful, pure and (when in serious trouble) often naked (it's okay because she's a virgin).  (See Perseus and Andromeda)

(2b) The older hero has to have someone to rescue, with whom it's no struggle to stay paternal and platonic.  Think Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross; Ripley and Newt (Aliens); also almost every Shirley Temple movie ever made.

(3a) The villain has to have someone to threaten, someone pure and (when in serious trouble) damn near naked (again, it's okay because she's pure).  (King Kong and Fay Wray, and every single horror movie made until today, and beyond, which leads to:

(3b) The Horror Movie - only the virgin survives.  Read the excellent Death by Sex article on how the best way for a girl to get killed in a horror movie is to have sex.)  So when you hear weird things in the night, make sure you're a virgin, and everything (might) be okay.

Kong33promo.jpg
Wikipedia;  (WP:NFCC#4)
(4) The hero has to have someone to marry, and he certainly can't marry any of the stepsisters, etc.  Indeed, sometimes the hero gets two virgins to choose from, like in Ivanhoe, where Rebecca and Rowena waited, breathlessly, for him to make his choice, but you know from the get-go it's going to be Rowena, because, well Rebecca was dark-haired and Jewish, while Rowena was blonde Anglo-Saxon, and that's the way things rolled in Sir Walter Scott's shire.
NOTE:  I remember the only fairy tale where the hero didn't choose little Miss Goldilocks was The Twelve Dancing Princesses:  instead, when they asked him which princess he wanted to marry he said, "I am no longer young; give me the eldest."  
(5) The hero has to have someone to moon over - and with that, we get to noir.


“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” 
― Mae West


(6) NOIR.  One thing that runs through all noir is the theme that "Love Hurts".  I mean, that's pretty much what makes noir.

There's the noir hero, who's always getting punched, kicked, shot, tortured, and generally mutilated in the course the novel/film.  But he gets back up, and after some cold water and whiskey (the noir all-purpose medication and disinfectant), he's back for the next brutality in his search for truth, justice, and his client.

All that's missing is the virgin...
Women often fare worse.  From the memorable scene in the beginning of one of Mickey Spillane's novels (I just can't remember which one it is) where Mike Hammer punches the girl and then has sex with her to the "Rip it!" scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice, it's tough being a woman in a noir novel.  Even if the guy's nuts about you, willing to kill for you, chances are you're going to get slapped, punched, raped, shot and you've got a damn good chance of getting killed or going to jail.  But at least you do get to have sex.  Often with the hero.


"Every Harlot was a Virgin once."
-- WILLIAM BLAKE, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise


The virgins don't.  In noir, virgins are the muse of our (more or less) alcoholic detective - the victim's daughter (Lola Dietrichson, in Double Indemnity), the hero's secretary (Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon), the kid next door, all of whom the hero wants to keep pure, even from himself.  (I think the longest running obsession with unsullied virginity was Mike Hammer's with his secretary Velda, who had to wait a few decades for them to get together.)  They're the contrast to the slutty Gloria Grahames who give a guy what he wants when he wants it.  Just like in horror movies, one of the best ways for a noir woman to get jailed or killed is to have sex, especially with the hero.

Virgins are for marriage - or used to be.  Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters, thereby founding the royal house of Mycenae, and (eventually) Persia.  Nick and Nora Charles.  Inspector and Mrs. Maigret.  Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy.  Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (who might as well have been a virgin - by all accounts her one lover was lousy at it.)  Fruitful, happy marriages that didn't interfere in any way with the investigation of crime.

But, things are different on TV.  From soap operas to westerns, to detectives to cops, the basic theory is that marriage is boring, and while you can have a wedding it's got to end so that the hero can get on with rescuing more virgins.  Or mooning over more noir women.  (I can't help but wonder if this theory is part of the reason why Elizabeth George killed off Inspector Lynley's wife.)

This goes back a long way:   how many times did one of the Cartwrights on Bonanza get married, and she died almost immediately?  Pa Cartwright alone went through at least 3 wives, because there's the boys, and not a mother among them.   Getting engaged on that show - and many others - was the absolute kiss of death. 


“Good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere” 
― Helen Gurley Brown


(7)  Climate change.  You've got to have a virgin because, as the climate changes, and there are more disasters, you're going to have to have someone to sacrifice, and the last I heard volcanoes didn't accept old politicians or middle-aged billionaires.  (Otherwise, do I have a list for them...)  Virgins it has been, virgins it shall be.





10 January 2019

A Dream of Justice


by Eve Fisher
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” - G. K. Chesterton
Of course, that was back in the days when dragons were dangerous, fire-snorting monsters who ate everyone who came near them.  When they were evil.  Now, dragons are fun and cuddly and cute and everyone wants one.  Or they're your soul mate and enhance your sex life, as in Anne McCaffrey.

NOTE:  I loved Dragonflight and Dragonquest, so no, I'm not a dragon hater!

But what I want to point out is that you can't understand what Chesterton was talking about if you don't understand that dragons were once a mortal terror.  When dragons were, indeed, a very good analogy for the monsters and terrors that eat through childhood.

And it's not just dragons, it's fairy tales as well.  Revisionist histories of the Wicked Witch or the Evil Stepmother or the Big Bad Wolf as misunderstood victims may be intriguing to adults, but I don't think they're good for children.  Children know there is evil in the world, evil that the adults may or may not be shielding them from, evil that is threatening to their very core, evil that they can't always name (in some families, that's too dangerous) or define (some evil starts before we even have words for it).  And they need - at a young age, before they're old enough to read about Voldemort or Sauron - to have examples of evil being fought and conquered.  I did.  I desperately needed the hope that someday all evil would fall.  I needed justice.  And, imho, without a firm grasp of right and wrong, of goodness and evil, there is no real sense of justice.
“Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred...  Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.”
Thrones, Dominations - Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh
In other words, we don't really want a Casablanca where Rick refuses to stick out his neck, and settles down to another bottle while the fascists take Victor Laszlo and Ilsa away to a concentration camp.  Or a Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade goes off with the Fat Man and Cairo to find the loot.    

Black-and-white film screenshot of several people in a nightclub. A man on the far left is wearing a suit and has a woman standing next to him wearing a hat and dress. A man at the center is looking at the man on the left. A man on the far right is wearing a suit and looking to the other people.

Which is why I've been bothered for a long time about the shift from a hunger for justice to a hunger for personal gain.  A great enthusiasm for evading the law.  A grand revival of the seven deadly sins:  pride, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, wrath, and sloth (a/k/a apathy).  A celebration of them.  A sense that everyone does it, you're a fool if you don't, and compassion (for the downtrodden, the victims, the poor conned bastards) is weakness.  That noir - which I admit is entertaining on screen - is a place you'd actually want to live.
This really struck home when I read the SCOTUS blog about Nielsen v. Preap.  This is a case about "whether the federal authorities must detain immigrants who had committed crimes, often minor ones, no matter how long ago they were released from criminal custody... [T]he sticking point appeared to be how to define what would be a reasonable period of time for immigration agents to detain a person whose criminal sentence is completed.”  (Currently waiting on SCOTUS' decision.)  SCOTUS Blog

Now what really interested me about this was reading the comments (on other websites) - always a mistake - where a large number of people stopped at the word "immigrants" (or "aliens", depending on which article you read) and said, "They're illegal - boot them out."  (Cleaned up for extreme profanity, and in some cases, death threats.)  

And by saying that, they missed the most obvious thing in the world:

Everyone has legal rights, and should have legal rights, including an attorney and a hearing after an arrest for one simple reason:  Quid pro quo.  Some day an American citizen might be arrested in a foreign country (it has been known to happen; like in Russia; like right now), and they may model their legal behavior on ours, and deny an American citizen their right to a hearing, whether it's for something as minor as a parking ticket to as major as murder.

It’s also why we have:

(1) Diplomatic Immunity – not because their diplomats are so charming, but because we want to protect our own overseas from reprisal (political or otherwise) such as arrests, imprisonment, torture, and "death in custody";
NOTE:  This is also why the case of Jamal Khashoggi was/is important.  A United States resident, brutally murdered by a Saudi Arabian hit squad in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.  So far the main objections to pursuing this from our current administration is money.  As the TV Evangelist Pat Robertson said, "You’ve got $100 billion worth of arms sales...we cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East.”  (Citation)  
NOTE 2:  The arms deal is so far only "letters of intent," and a suspiciously timed 100 million dollar payment - not for arms, but "to support U.S. stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria."  Granted, the price has gone up from 30 pieces of silver, but I still object.  
NOTE 3:  And Khashoggi's murder isn't about a journalist, per se. It's about the fact that Saudi Arabia felt free to kill someone in their embassy on foreign soil, in the same way that Russia felt free to kill at least six people on British soil, and both countries are getting away with it.  Murder is murder.  And when it's allowed to happen without consequences - Well, we're going to see more of them. And they will happen here. What will we do when Americans are killed on American soil with nerve agents like A-234 or radioactive polonium?   
(2) The Geneva Conventions for humanitarian treatment of soldiers and other POWs – to protect our own soldiers and civilians. And, BTW, why calling enemy soldiers “unlawful enemy combatants” and thus evading the Geneva Conventions is a very dangerous precedent that will, undoubtedly, come back to haunt us some day.  Which leads directly to


Guantanamo Bay, where the imprisonment of "unlawful enemy combatants" is currently ongoing (40 prisoners are still there, having been imprisoned for 16 years and counting), without trial for years, subject to extraordinary rendition (i.e., transfer to a cooperative foreign country for enhanced interrogation, i.e., torture) - and with no exit in sight for those who remain.  Simply put, precedent is a dangerous thing:  again, some day captured American soldiers and civilians may find themselves on foreign soil in similar prisons.

Humans have worked hard for years, decades, centuries, to create a world in which the weak are protected from the strong, where might does not automatically make right, and where we live under the rule of law.  Where democracies make it possible for everyone to have a say as to how they are governed.  Where civil and human rights are granted to everyone (because otherwise, there are no rights, just privilege, and capricious privilege at that).  Where peace is pursued on a national and international basis.

But maybe it's been too long since World War 1 and World War 2.  Because apparently there's a strong temptation, these days, to Dehiscence.  Deconstruction.  Destruction.  
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity....
   - W. B. Yeats, first stanza of "The Second Coming"
   Donne painted by Isaac Oliver

In other words, every man for himself.  But it's not true.  John Donne had a better take, from a time that was no more war-ridden, and much more plague-ridden, short-lived, and less comfortable than ours: 
"No man is an island, entire of itself; 
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, 
as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: 
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, 
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
John Donne Meditation XVII



And the best take of all is from 750 BC, from a time of civil war, evil kings, obscene wealth in the midst overwhelming poverty, and a terrible need for social justice:

"But let justice roll down like waters 
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Amos 5:24


NOTE:  For those who are wondering what I'm doing with 2 blog posts in a row, I'm filling in for my old pal Brian Thornton, who's sick with the crud.  GET WELL SOON, BRIAN!!!

15 February 2018

Older Than You Think


by Eve Fisher
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  


Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
(Wikipedia)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
Wikipedia)
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:


"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  


PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

18 January 2018

Death by Fairytale


by Eve Fisher

A week ago, I posted this image on my Facebook page, and Paul Marks commented, "Eve, I think there's a SleuthSayers column in this":

No automatic alt text available.

And he's right, so here it is!

Traditional English folk songs can be history (a little mossy, a little mutated), myth retold (look, everyone really wants to go to Elfland, if they can just figure out a way to come out alive), news (remember when Alisoun got shot cause they thought she was a swan?), and the occasional unique idea (I'll let you know when I find one).  They're all sung in a minor key, and can be very haunting.  That's why they're still being sung.  And why I still listen to them.

But let's break down these categories a bit:

Most of English folk songs have people dying of a broken heart.  "Barbara Allan" is actually unusual, in that it's the lass that's hard-hearted (although she does die for her dead lover in the end:  "my true love died for me today, I'll die for him tomorrow").  Most of the time it's the lass that got knocked up on velvet green and was abandoned who dies of sorrow (and sometimes childbirth).  But there's a lot of broken hearts, and there still are.  For one thing, it's hard to get to a ripe old age and never have your heart broken once.  And sad songs are cathartic.  There's nothing like a good cry, especially when accompanied by alcohol and maybe a group sing-along in the bar...

The amazingly large number of deaths by drowning makes just as much sense.  Drowning was actually a major cause of death in the Middle Ages because:
(1) People drank a lot.  Beer in the morning, beer at midday, beer at night.  Granted, a lot of it was small beer, but there wasn't any caffeine in those days, and the water wasn't safe to drink and they knew it.  And even if it was, they were still going to drink beer.  Or wine.  And if anyone offered them some whiskey, well, they wouldn't turn it down.
(2) Almost every village and every city was built along water, because water was necessary for cooking, transportation (barges were the equivalent of modern semis), power (mills), and the occasional cleaning.  This meant there was lots of water to fall into while drinking, either from the banks, bridges, or well.  You combine drinking with darkness, and stumbling along home after a few pints at the pub could lead to serious injuries and more drownings.  And the Middle Ages were not known for their seating:  it was common to sit down on a bridge or the edge of a well and have a long pull at a noggin, and tip back, back, back...  Well, watch Oliver Reed in "The Three Musketeers" above...
(3) All that alcohol and water gave you a handy place to toss someone you were tired of, whether it was your spouse, your friend, or the occasional stranger.

Cruel wars...  Well, there's still, sadly, a lot of those.  Of course, back then men were often pressed into service at sea or land, against their will, or deliberately inebriated by recruiters and signed up, or ran off to join the wars, any wars.  Most of the sad songs are about peasant lads being pressed into service and never seen again by their own true love...   Sometimes the loved one goes off in search of her true love, but that rarely ends well, either.

NOTE:  The most amazing story is a real one:  "The Return of Martin Guerre" is about a peasant who went off to the wars, leaving his wife and family, and returned many years later and resumed his life as husband, father, peasant and all was well...  until the real Martin Guerre came back from the dead, years after that, and booted the imposter out and up onto the gallows.  The movie, starring a young Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, is magnificent.

Execution...  not so often, and usually NOT for being a highwayman or a footpad.  Although there are lots of serial killers, then and now.  And there are songs about the victims of said serial killers, such as "Reynardine", in which the lass is led over the mountains by a serial killer werefox cannibal "whose teeth did brightly shine". 

But most are about escaping Bluebeard types in the folk songs, legends, stories, and fairy tales:  a man who marries successive wives and kills them all, except the last who somehow figures a way out of it.  My favorite version is Grimm's "The Robber Bride".  I was fascinated as a child by the three glasses of wine the Robber gave his victims (one white, one red, and one yellow, which knocked them out), grossed out by the dismemberment (read it yourself HERE), and cheering when the Bride cleverly exposes him at the wedding feast, and he and all his band are executed.

Another version of nailing Bluebeard is a very old folk song called "The Outlandish Knight". Flora Thompson quoted hugely from this in her memoir "Lark Rise to Candleford", because she heard it almost every night from the local inn, as old David sang it to wind up the evening's drinking:



"He turned his back towards her  
   To view the leaves so green, 
And she took hold of his middle so small 
   And tumbled him into the stream.
And he sank high and he sank low 
   Until he came to the side. 
'Take hold of my hand, my pretty ladye, 
   And I will make you my bride.' '
Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man, 
   Lie there instead of me, 
For six pretty maids hast thou drowned here 
  And the seventh hath drowned thee.'


"The Outlandish Knight" is a variation of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight".  (See Steeleye Span's version.)  There's a lot of songs about Elf Knights, Elf Queens, and elves in general, and all I can say is, you don't want to go there.

Except you do.  Because it's an incredible place, full of mystery, beauty, glamour, and as long as you're there you'll never get old.  And who knows?  You may be as lucky as Thomas the Rhymer, who returns with the gift of prophecy and poetry...

Nonetheless, it can end badly, unless your true love comes to fetch you, like in Tam Lin ...  Otherwise...  I'd stay home.

And now we come to the last two:

"Wandered off, lost in the woods, and died".  One variant is the Babes in the Wood, a/k/a Hansel and Gretel, who were either murdered or driven out to starve to death in the woods... and do.  (The frequency of these tales can make you wonder about human nature.  Then again, having just seen this on the news, maybe not...)

The other variant is Rip Van Winkle, who drank the wrong wine / ale given to him by ghosts / elves / trolls, falls asleep, and awakens a hundred years later, which means that all his generation thought he died.  While Washington Irving based Rip Van Winkle on a Dutch story, "Peter Klaus", it's a very old legend.  The first go-round apparently was when, in the 3rd Century BC, the Greek historian Diogenes Laertius told the story of a shepherd, Epimenides of Knossos, who fell asleep in a cave and woke up decades later. But it might well be older than that.  There are tales of long sleepers in the Orkney Islands, where a drunken fiddler meets up with trolls, in Ireland, China, Japan, and India.  The Babylonian Talmud tells a version of it.  Who knows?  There are probably some in ancient Egypt and Sumer.  This is VERY old stuff.


Also (imho) old, old, old stuff is "being mistaken for a swan by a trigger-happy hunter."  I totally buy this one.  For one thing, swans used to be eaten, in ancient Rome, in Elizabeth times, and on.  They were apparently a delicacy.  Anyway, hunting them used to be common.  And God knows it still happens, although they're not taken for swans anymore.  Back in November, 2017, a Pennsylvania woman, out walking her dogs, was shot by a hunter who mistook her for a deer.  (Newsweek)  November was actually an interesting month for mistaken shootings:  another hunter in New York shot a brown pick-up that he mistook for a deer, still another up in Hebron, Maine killed a woman on the opening day of hunting season, and yet another hunter in Oxford, Maine shot a man in the arm.  Personally, I'm staying away from the Northeast during hunting season.

Anyway, as you can see, the "Causes of Death in Traditional English Folk Songs" can all still be used today by the modern mystery writer.  Our victims can die of a broken heart, accidents, drowning, drinking (or drugs), execution, serial killers, escaping serial killers, Elf land (think cults of all kinds), babes in the wood, and hunting accidents.  The technology may change, but the ways, and the motivations, stay pretty much the same.

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And you could do worse than to start with folk songs...











02 April 2012

Young at Heart (and Death)


Fran Rizerby Fran Rizer

Mirror, Mirror starring Julia Roberts began showing nationwide three days ago. Needless to say, I haven't seen it as I spend almost all my time at the hospital. I'm not a big Julia Roberts fan, but I'll eventually view the movie because the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in the 1800's are among my long-time loves.

The trailer doesn't indicate whether Mirror, Mirror may be more accurate to the original Brothers Grimm story than Walt Disney's bright animated version with the unforgettable little people singing, "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go."

In the Grimms' version, Snow White is exiled by her evil stepmother, the Queen, who orders a hunter to kill Snow White and bring her heart back as proof she is dead. The hunter gives the Queen a bear's heart instead. The Queen eats the heart, thinking it's Snow White's, but in the end, she's forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
Julia Roberts

Snow White isn't the only Grimms story that is more grim than the cartoon/Disney variations. Cinderella's original step sisters cut off parts of their big feet trying to trick the prince and make their clodhoppers fit into the golden (yep, not glass) slippers. The Brothers Grimm had two endings to the Cinderella tale. In the first, the step sisters are gruesomely murdered at Cinderella's wedding. In a later version, the sisters live but are blinded by charmed pigeons who peck out their eyes.

"Rumplestiltskin" is doomed in the original Grimms version by stomping his feet in a temper tantrum so violent that he buries himself up to his waist. When he tries to get away, he tears himself in half. Talk about a need for anger management!

As a child I read the works of Hans Christian Anderson, and they were far from "happily ever after" stories. Disney's adaptation of The Little Mermaid ends fine, but in Anderson's 1837 story, the little mermaid is forced to watch her beloved prince marry another. Then the sea gives her a choice of killing the prince or dying herself. She throws herself into the sea and will perhaps be able to earn her soul back by doing good deeds for three hundred years.

The Anderson stories I loved best were "The Little Match Girl" and "The Red Shoes." Both deal with orphans, evil, and punishment. I must have read "The Red Shoes" a hundred times as a child even though at the end the girl who chose red shoes over doing what her mother said is doomed to dance forever in the red shoes. She winds up dancing at her mother's funeral and the only way to end the dancing is to cut off her feet, which she does. Looking at that story from a senior citizen point of view, it seems a tragic piece to have held so much fascination for me as a young girl. Until this moment, I've never connected the trademark red stilletto heels of my thirties and forties to Hans Christian Anderson.

Not only did the fairy tales of the 1800's demonstrate far more evil than recent versions, modern authors of much famous children's literature were far from childlike innocence in their other works. Louisa May Alcott's early writings were published under pseudonyms. Her purple prose included "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" and "Betrayed by a Buckle" before she became famous for Little Women and Little Men.


Almost every third through fifth grade classroom has copies of Shel Silverstein's poetry collections including Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, as well as the wonderful children's story The Giving Tree. Great kids' books, but country music fans know Silverstein also for winning a Grammy for "A Boy Named Sue," recorded by Johnny Cash. He also wrote "Buy One, Get One Free," a short play in which two hookers pitch their wares completely in rhyme. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Men recorded Silverstein's song about STD's -- "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love the Most."

I'm compelled to mention one more children's writer, a favorite of mine. You know him as the writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), but my favorite of his kids' novels is The BFG, which I have read aloud to hundreds, perhaps thousands of children. Roald Dahl's earliest writing appeared in Playboy Magazine and included a story called "Switch Bitch."

Perhaps by now, kind readers, you are wondering how on Earth I'm going to relate this blog about children's literature to the primary topic of SleuthSayers– mystery and sometimes murder. One of my favorite Dahl stories is "Lamb to the Slaughter." This is the tale of a woman who… well, view the classic video.

If (and indeed it's a big IF) there's a message to this blog, it is that even if we choose to specialize in mystery, it's perfectly okay to venture into other genres, but if we happen to write something that will survive over two centuries, it may be rewritten by someone else along the way.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.