Calling All Storytellers: An Original, Contemporary Fairy Tale, Please!

When I think of fairy tales, I think of mythical creatures, anthropomorphic objects and animals, happy endings, and valuable lessons fully revealed at the end. The ones recorded  by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault have justifiably become classic fairy tales, with great popularity and numerous literary, film, musical, and theatre adaptations. Recently, the musical film Into the Woods, which came out on December 25, 2014, was a crossover adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”. That film was in fact an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, which was itself an adaptation of James Lapine’s book of the same name. And that’s just one specific revival of the classic fairy tales.

On the top of my head, within the past decade (give or take a couple of years) these are some of the film adaptations of fairy tales: Ella Enchanted, Enchanted, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Beastly, the four Shrek films, the three recent Disney princess films, and so many others. And apparently there’s going to be more film adaptations this year, including one of Cinderella and one of Beauty and the Beast, which I’m not too surprised about; these fairy tales are as old as time with practically no copyright laws, and they help today’s storytellers get their creative minds going with at least the basis for a story.

But where are the contemporary fairy tales?

How can there be so many adaptations, but no new, original stories? Surely some brave people have attempted to create fairy tales with new teachings of morality that are relevant to our time. Yes, some of the aforementioned (and other) adaptations of the classic fairy tales may have snuck in an extra moral lesson or two, like Disney’s Frozen with its rejection of the idea of love at first sight. But where are the fairy tales with their own original premises and new, relevant moral lessons?

As you try to think of those fairy tales of our time, keep in mind that fairy tales are short stories. I was almost going to pose the idea of The Lord of the Rings as a fairy tale, after seeing it listed as a fairy tale on Wikipedia (another reason to take Wikipedia’s words with a grain of salt). If you think about it, it does fit the genre, especially since J. R. R. Tolkien’s own definition of ‘fairy stories’ from his 1965 essay “On Fairy-Stories” describes his own literary works so well. But then I remembered that fairy tales are short stories. Oops.

Unfortunately, short stories aren’t taking the world by storm as novels and novellas are doing, so we could have missed those brilliant contemporary fairy tales. The only fairy tale-like short story I can think of on the spot is The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. You know, that princess that teenage girls dressed up as for Halloween in high school. It’s a short story because it’s a children’s picture book, it has fairy tale elements and motifs, and it teaches girls the valuable lesson that women don’t need a man to rescue them because women are capable of helping themselves. It seems like it could be the first of our contemporary fairy tales.

Now all we need are fairy tales with moral teachings on equity and diversity, discovering one’s actual passion(s), integrity in one’s work (to be applicable to any kind of work), making the choice between what’s right and what’s easy (thanks, Rowling, but maybe a short story with that lesson for the children would be best), and on feminist values (because The Paperbag Princess really only made the prince a wimp for comical effect and wouldn’t be proper in relating the genders equally).

I certainly haven’t read all of the fairy tales ever published (yet), so perhaps one of them was progressive for its time. But if not, do you know of any short stories that could be classified as contemporary fairy tales? And is there a valuable teaching pertinent to our time that I missed and should be the moral of a fairy tale? Let me know!

-contributed by Brenda Bongolan

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The Giants Made Me Eat My Spinach: From Then to Now

Giants.  From the English fairytale “Jack and the Beanstalk” to the most recent iteration in the anime and manga Attack on Titan, giants are a well-established element of fantastical stories. However, as with all story elements, they are subject to evolution. Giants in some form or another had existed in folktales and stories well before Jack and his beans were conceptualized in the late 1790s. Greek folklore is thought to contain the first of the giants in its stories of Kronos and his cohort, who both gave birth to and terrorized the gods. Legends continued to spring up around the world, culminating in Ireland with the story of Fingal (or Fionn mac Cumhaill), who is the vertically-enhanced being responsible for the Giant’s Causeway. By then, giants were an integral part of European folklore, eventually coming to England with the well-known tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.

In Jack’s story, the giants are a thinly-veiled metaphor that essentially admonishes people not to be little brats or else they’ll be stepped on. It is a cautionary tale used to remind children that the world is not a forgiving place. What better way to scare them than to tell them of huge humans, with human desires and emotions, but with devastating strength and a penchant for vendettas? This metaphor has been reused constantly across almost every tale involving giants since then, from Roald Dahl’s BFG to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. In both, the giants are, for all intents and purposes, just tremendously big people. Though perhaps not as lucid as Jack’s giants, they still demonstrate extremely human traits. These giants also have rather blatant similarities in the messages that they are attempting to convey. The world (giants) is big and scary, and if you aren’t nice to it, it won’t be nice to you. And it may even squash you anyway.

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Image from fanshare.com

 

Along comes the twenty-first century, and, apparently, a new set of rules. The anime and manga, Attack on Titan, takes the giant and gives it an entirely new spin. The giant is still big. Still bad. Still very much set on stomping. However, any human emotion, desire, or purpose has been utterly erased. These giants exist for one purpose: slaughter.

This complete reversal of everything giants had been, stylistically, up to that point, brings with it an entirely new metaphor. “Jack and the Beanstalk”, BFG, Harry Potter, and Fingal’s stories had all been written with nineteenth and twentieth century criteria. The giants in those stories were created to underline the age-old ideas of what it means to be good. Thus, it was important to see some part of ourselves in the creatures intended to be the externalizations of our punishments should we fail to be good. Attack on Titan departs from this line of thought. Its giants are pure and animalistic. Gone is “eat your vegetables, dearies, or you’ll be pulverized”. These giants seem to have a much deeper, much darker purpose—one that would take volumes to analyze, but seems to boil down to this: climate change, wonky political systems, and “don’t nuke your neighbours”.

from animediet.net
Image from animediet.net

 

Every part of a story exists for a reason, and all parts are subject to revision as society and media changes. Whether it be to inspire kids to go to bed on time or to highlight the various fallacies of modern society, giants are one such part.

-contributed by Rej Ford

 

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

slaughterhouse cover (2)
Image from amazon.com

“Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”

These are the words that begin Kurt Vonnegut’s great 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, also known as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. This is not Vonnegut’s only work of science fiction; indeed, it is not even his only good one. But of all his novels, Slaughterhouse-Five has perhaps best stood the test of time.

This is a book about a man named Billy Pilgrim, a soldier in World War II, who is time-traveling up and down his own personal timeline, from his childhood to his old age and his time as an optometrist; from being a soldier in the Second World War to his kidnapping by aliens. But even with all this mayhem of time travel and aliens, Slaughterhouse-Five never loses sight of what it is truly about: the firebombing of the city of Dresden in WWII.

Vonnegut has no concerns for linear storytelling. He tells you exactly what the book is about, what happens, and how it ends, all in the opening pages. He explains openly and almost callously the entire life story of Billy Pilgrim before actually telling that story. There are no surprises to the plot, and when Billy climbs out of the wreckage of the destroyed city on the last page, it’s something you always knew was coming.

One of the many things that are truly miraculous about this book is how science fiction ideas are used to sell the emotional story of a historical event. Vonnegut cares very little about the plausibility of his story. He doesn’t bother with scientific explanations for any of the things that happen. When he says that Billy Pilgrim is now time-traveling, that is that. Billy is time-traveling, and Vonnegut doesn’t give a single hoot if you want an explanation as to how.

When Billy is kidnapped by the extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians who put him in an alien zoo and teach him about fate and time as the fourth dimension, and who tell him that one day a Tralfamadorian test pilot will accidently destroy the universe, that is that. Vonnegut is not concerned with whether the Tralfamadorians are plausible or even remotely believable.

Illustration
Illustration by Iris Benedikt.

 

Vonnegut instead is completely unabashedly unashamed of his use of using science fiction as the vessel for his tale. The aliens are there because he wants them to be there; they translate Vonnegut’s own strange ideas onto the page and add to the chaos and inhumanity of the story.

Vonnegut does not insult you with expository jargon on pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and instead invites you to revel in the lunacy of what is almost secretly a very sad story. Vonnegut uses aliens and time travel to speak about the horrors of the Second World War. But he isn’t speaking about the war generally; he’s speaking about something that actually happened to him.

Billy is not only captured on earth and taken to the alien planet of Tralfamadore, but he is also captured at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and is held as a prisoner of war in the German city of Dresden, just as Vonnegut himself was. He is held in a building called Schlachthof-fünf: Slaughterhouse-five.

And, just like Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow inmates are some of the very few survivors of the allied firebombing of Dresden that took place between February 13 and 15, 1945, which destroyed most of the city and killed close to 25 000 people.

This was a major event both in the history of the war and in the life of Vonnegut himself, and part of the novel’s brilliance is Vonnegut’s own apparent struggle with the fact that yes, Dresden was a German city controlled by the Nazis, and yes, the Nazis were evil, but the firebombing of Dresden was also a horrifying event. Vonnegut is writing about his inability to comprehend how human beings, on both sides of the war, were capable of doing such things to one another.

This is a dark subject. This novel is about war and depression and massacres. So it stands to reason that a book about these things should be as dark, grim, and serious as its material. And yet it is not. Vonnegut finds humor in how, after all this carnage, an American soldier is tried for pillaging and shot amongst the wreckage. He finds humor, and thoughtfulness, in the idea that somewhere out there in the stars is an alien race that sees our world the same way we do.

To the Tralfamadorians, a person’s death is not sad because they are still alive in the time period in which they lived. To them, time is lucid and eternal, not linear: It is just like the pages of a book, and can be flipped back and forth. And no matter what, when you read that book, those events are still happening. All of us—everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live—are still alive in those moments, and those moments are happening right now.

This is the beauty of Vonnegut’s book. He has taken a horrific event and wrapped it in the musing of science fiction in the way only he could. For Vonnegut, science fiction was about the conveying of ideas; it was about making it possible to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to tell.

He used science fiction so that when Billy Pilgrim climbs out to survey the wreckage of Dresden, it is sad, yes—but it is also beautiful in the way that the story has been told, right down to a little bird hopping up to speak to Billy in that mass grave:

“Poo-Tee-Weet?”

-contributed by Ben Ghan

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Grew Up

SPEC_peterpan
Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel.

I think I speak for all of us when I say that we all struggle to find our footing in the world during the transition from childhood to adulthood. Growing up to become an adult is a difficult and arduous journey that forces us to decide whether to hold on to our childhood self or to let it go. Most often, we are forced to stuff the child into the deepest recesses  of our brain, where we hope to forget them so that we can move on with our adulthood.

Now I know I’ve painted a dark picture, but the truth seldom shines in the light. However, there is one question that is worth asking: why are we forced to suppress our childhood self? Why are we forced to grow up only to fulfill societal expectations that may not suit all of us?

The answer can be found in one powerful tale that tells the story of a boy who chose not to grow up: Peter Pan. We’ve all read or heard of this story by Scottish novelist J. M. Barrie, but few of us may have thought about the overarching statement that Barrie is trying to make about the many reasons for and against growing up and what ‘growth’ really means. I’ll present just one theory that looks at the other side of the story: the side that explores why Peter left, and what that may potentially reveal about ourselves.

Barrie writes that Peter left his parents as an infant, because he heard them talking about his impending transition into a man and couldn’t bear going through with it. We are led to believe that he left because he didn’t want to grow up. But what if he left because he specifically did not want to grow into his parents and society’s definition of a man?

If we closely examine Peter’s adventures in Neverland, we can see that he does grow—he grows up psychically  but not physically. He leads a group of lost boys, fights Captain Hook, and saves people. Granted, all of these tasks are not seen as typical adult responsibilities, but that is only so in the eyes of society. Peter became what he believed he wanted to be. He became a man on his own terms. Even though it seems he never grows up, he displays strength, courage, care, and love. He even has a friendship with Tinker Bell, proving that he can be in relationship. Peter retains all the qualities a grown man has without ever giving up on the child in himself.

From the perspective of our society, we would declare Peter a child. Why? Because he doesn’t have a paying job. Because he doesn’t have a family. Because he is uneducated. Because he’s irresponsible. But again, all these limitations are only set by our society. Now, I am not saying that we should overthrow the system, but I think we should acknowledge that sometimes we don’t want to be the responsible, mature adults society tells us we have to be. Sometimes we just want to be ourselves, stripped bare from the expectations and responsibilities of our society.

Peter’s journey is not just one of a boy to a man, but also one of finding who we are when we are not society’s usual nine-to-five  working citizen with a nuclear family, a post-secondary degree, and relationship issues. His journey is about finding out what we can be when we are not any of these things.

Peter Pan says more than what it initially appears to say. Society presents us with many images  of middle-class working conditions, minimum wages, brick houses, and a family, and leaves out the possibility of individual growth. I realize that somehow or the other we all have to conform to society’s ideals of a grown adult in order to survive, but that does not mean that we must forsake who we want to be as an individual. That does not mean that we have to forsake our childhood self in order to make room for our adult self. And it does not mean that we are all just working-class  students with nothing more to offer.

Peter left because there was no room for him to grow in his society, and we, too, must occasionally seek out a reprieve from our collective identity as working adults with familial and financial responsibilities in order to discover that we can be who we want to be, independent of society’s demands and conditions. So take a trip to a nearby park or mountain, hike, go camping, go to the playground, go bungee jumping, write a book, or make music—do what makes you happy, regardless of what society dictates. After all, Peter found his Neverland, and it’s time we find ours.

Ever since we began to understand the world, we became aware that there is already a plan for our future determined by our parents and by society. Growing up might be touted by them as a sacred process, but it’s tainted with their expectations of what a grown adult is and should be. We are taught that we need a degree and that we need a job so that we can nurture a family and die peacefully knowing that we lived the right life. But there is no semblance of who we are when we don’t want to do these things, when all we want is to revert back to being kids again. That’s what Peter’s tale is all about: how we can grow to be responsible and mature without ever having to forget or erase our childhood innocence and wonder.

 -contributed by Rashida Abbas

The Uncanny Beauty of Death, Scent, and Belonging in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Illustration by Ann Sheng
Illustration by Ann Sheng

I propose to start this on a whiff .

Inhale, and let it out; pick up your favourite book and close your eyes and just breathe. Let’s talk about scent and murder.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind  explores a fantastical and fabulously decadent universe. We follow the story of Jean-Baptiste  Grenouille, born at a fish market to a mother who leaves him to die after giving birth to him. She is executed for abandoning him, and so Grenouille is left an orphan in the depths of eighteenth century Paris.

There is no compassion to be found in this book. There is no happy ending. Grenouille is a monster created by the cruelty of the society he lives in and by his own unique gift: an olfactory sense that stretches beyond normal human understanding.

Grenouille is treated like an animal by those around him. His painful existence drags through a cold childhood into a miserable youth, but this story is enlivened by a rich portrayal of the senses, brought to life with Grenouille’s every breath.

We are taken through every filth-filled part of Paris, but, disturbingly, the city doesn’t come across as repulsive. Süskind makes it his duty to connect the reader to the main character in such an evocative yet delicate way that once we are present for his first murder, it becomes a disappointment to not experience the rest.

Perfume is a mix of carnal desire and disappointment, but perhaps most importantly, it is about the fear of the fleeting existence of the individual. Because Grenouille has no scent, the people around him are repulsed by him; it is this social ostracism and isolation that underlies his fear of not truly existing. He collects the scents of young girls that astound and captivate him in order to make a scent for himself out of their scents and thereby ascertain his own existence. Grenouille’s killing is almost an afterthought to this mission.

While reading, I was struck by how realistic and familiar the brutal characters portrayed were. Grenouille is the killer, but no character in the book has any shade of goodness or any other redeeming qualities.

As individuals, we tend to not recognize our sense of smell as important because it is merely one of our many senses.  But it is supremely important. Taking every scent for granted—taking breath and life for granted—is something every character in this novel is guilty of.

The importance of the power of smell is perhaps most evident in our reaction to perfume, which the book uses to highlight our desire to be individuals—to have our own scent and to be unique. In fact, many of us live our lives in the knowledge that we each have individual scents, and looking for a perfume to compliment us as we see ourselves can become a huge part of what makes us us. We share this hunt for singularity with the protagonist, and the disturbing message of the book is knowing that on some level, our stories may resemble his much more closely than we would like to admit.

The brutality of the novel is directly proportional to its fantastic and beautiful qualities. Perfume depicts the hunt of a killer not only for a victim, but also for a sense of self, which is presented as an essential beauty. Yet the fear of not being able to hold on to beauty is also present. The end of the novel is unexpected and shriveling. Despite its use of the highly fantastic, it somehow succeeds in staying unashamedly human in the rawest sense of the word.

-contributed by Magdalena Wolak

A Classroom Chat with Author Karl Schroeder

On February 25 this year, Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder visited a lecture for the Science Fiction class at the University of Toronto. Schroeder began by giving a reading from one of his short stories, “Laika’s Ghost”, which was well received by the class. A question and answer period regarding primarily his novel Sun of Suns, which the class had studied, followed. Below, paraphrased, are some memorable moments.

This piece has been edited for clarity.

Image from http://www.kschroeder.com/my-books/sun-of-suns
Image from http://www.kschroeder.com/my-books/sun-of-suns

 

Why was it important for you to write Sun of Suns?

I had just finished writing Lady of Mazes, which was meticulously crafted and took a long time to write, so I wanted a break. I wanted to write something entertaining but that still had meditations on politics. I feel that the best way to introduce complicated ideas is through the familiar.

What did you find most satisfying to write?

The ideas. People and situations. For instance, the character of Venera Fanning was especially satisfying to write because she is so preposterous. She enabled me to cut loose and write adventure. I also enjoyed getting the physics right while creating a world with rotating towns.

 What was the greatest challenge in creating Virga as a viable world?

As an artist, most of my work is not done on a conscious level; the design emerges on its own. Once you have the initial idea the rest falls out from there. A friend of mine looked at the math behind Virga with me and we found that Virga can work. I didn’t create Virga—I discovered it.

Were there any pleasant surprises that later played a crucial role in the story?

Well, I wanted to create a world in the future where I could still write about sword fights, gunfights, and pirates, and have my protagonist fly. Candesce (the sun of suns) was the story device that allowed me to do that, but it ended it up becoming an interesting part of the story on its own.

 

Schroeder also spoke about Hieroglyph, an anthology of stories featuring his story “Degrees of Freedom”. One topic of discussion was the shortage of science fiction stories that depict new forms of governance, despite the prevalence of stories that portray governments much like ours as problematic. Schroeder led a stimulating conversation with unexpected comedic moments. The visit concluded with some questions from the floor and a book signing.

Read more about Karl Schroeder at his website: http://www.kschroeder.com/

-contributed by Amanda Harvey-Sanchez