Monday, September 05, 2005

Say My Name

Saturday saw me at the Philippine International Book Fair, hanging around the Encyclopedia Britannica booth.

Yes, I'm aware that the Encyclopedia Britannica has a certain reputation among purveyors of printed reference material. The volumes are thick, long-winded, and more than a little wordy. To be sure, the Encyclopedia always seems to use a font so small that each book is practically its own eye exam.

But there's one thing about the Encyclopedia Britannica booth every Book Fair, and that's the fact that they always bring along a multimedia presentation and a projector. Last year, their demonstration involved a reference software sample that dispensed bits of knowledge in a quiz-type setup, and I knew a trivia game when I saw one.

Sadly, although I like to think of myself as being good with useless bits of knowledge, the evil Britannica people ran me through their Sports category of questions, and I crashed and burned within minutes. So I guess that you probably won't blame me when I tell you that I was looking for a little payback this year.

Fortunately for the Britannica staff, they weren't pushing their little trivia game last Saturday morning. Instead, they treated the crowd to a showing of old fairy tales, animated in a 1980s-European style and generally looking out-of-place for a booth that was supposed to be selling advanced reference material.

Still, Britannica's Rumpelstiltskin was pretty good in the telling, even if most of its intended audience was busy browsing the discount books in the National Bookstore area. It occurred to me then that Rumpelstiltskin felt more like a suspense story, a morbid tale that may or may not have been appropriate for children to begin with. It's funny, really, how many of the familiar fairy tales seem that way as well -- I mean, you have wolves eating little girls who wear red riding hoods, you have witches fattening up children for dinner, and you have mermaids who raise knives against their former lovers. Sometimes I wonder if we should blame stories like these for inspiring our culture of violence, as opposed to blaming modern computer games.

For that matter, I find Rumpelstiltskin funny. An arcane little man performs a favor in return for a girl's first-born child? A miller's daughter gets forced by a king to spin straw into gold, after which she marries him to become a queen? If anything, the latter can at least describe a few relationships I've encountered... :)

But then again, we write of dragons and robots and gibbering mouthers and zeta reticuleans. We write of young women who are blown away by the wind, or mechanics who travel with a retinue of yellow butterflies. We write of agrarian reform, or social justice, or the marvels of a president who can balance both the masses and the economy. All this, we have to admit, is pretty fantastic to begin with. How can we complain about the prospect of spinning straw into gold, then?

The truth probably lies in there somewhere, and we just have to go digging around for it. It's much like finding out the little man's name, really. The only difference is that we've had a lot more than three days to work with, and we're still blindly stumbling around despite that.

Fairy tales shouldn't be told to children, I figure. Aesop's fables would make better storytelling material for the young ones, since the objective lessons in them are far more obvious. Fairy tales have lessons embedded into their lurid details somewhere, but in the modern era, these lessons are significantly harder to find.

Outside the Book Fair and the evil, evil influence of the Britannicans, I ran into a small Physics exhibit and spent two minutes amusing myself with their Van de Graaf generator. (You know, it's that mechanism with the metal plate that charges you with enough static electricity for your hair to stand on end.) It was only vaguely educational, but it did remind me that sometimes there are things that you just want to experience and not bother thinking about too much.


I offer a warm hello to Egil and Hanna, who are probably moving around either Baguio or Australia at this moment. Do drop by Metro Manila again, and look us up. We hope you had a nice time last Saturday afternoon. :)


Anton said...

Greetings. before anything else, let me congratulate you on the continuing progress of your blog.

Slap Happy, the blogsite which i maintain, has reached its first year
anniversary. Although, i am not planning anything special for it, i
would like to ask for an anniversary message from you which i can
paste on to the Anniversary post along with other fellow bloggers.

If this is ok with you, a short message for this Thursday's post would
be truly appreciated.

Thank you and more power.

banzai cat said...


I missed that one. Oh well, maybe next year's bookfair I'll be there...

Sean said...

Anton: Heck, I'd be glad to. Drop me a line if you haven't received my e-mail yet. :)

Banzai Cat: The Bookfair's easy to miss, really. I think they need to raise the motivation factor a little...

Maryweather said...

According to a study, fairytales originated as a means for people (women in particular) to complain against the current system of government, or talk about certain concerns in their community without being too obvious about it. These were all oral.

In the stories, the powerful ones/fairies are often depicted as mean, capricious, and selfish (to refer to the current ruler/s). Of course, there are some good ones in the stories, but the mean ones are the ones that often cause trouble for the heroine who is your typical damsel in distress. The hero would be some good-looking, blonde-haired prince who is good with swords (of course, the book didn't mention this part, I'm just making an observation).

Before Disney made such tales wholesome, they were horrid and involved incest, bestiality and cannibalism. In fact, the Brothers Grimm's version of the said tales were milder than the ones that came before them.

Take Little Red Riding Hood, for instance. Little Red Riding Hood wasn't so little in the original tale. It started as a coming of age story, and a warning to young women to "steer clear of wolves" (the wolves being the men who would take advantage of them).

Sleeping Beauty contained incest and rape, as the original tale had Sleeping Beauty impregnated by the king (much to the queen's fury) in her sleep.

The reference to cannibalism in Snow White can be found when the carpenter was ordered to serve the young woman's heart to her stepmother for supper.

Mostly, the tales also show the tension between stepmother and stepdaughter. The stepmother would be mean, ambitious, and cunning. The latter would be innocent, maltreated, and good.

While the dark stories had their own appeal, I prefer the tales we have now; the ones we tell children to lull them to sleep.

(My, this is a long comment.)

Book fairs are fun.

Sean said...

Maryweather: The idea of fairy tales as a tool for gender recognition and equality is interesting. I must say that there are quite a few tales that have female protagonists, and that the various forms of Prince Charming don't exactly qualify as heroes from a literary context.

I kind of doubt that sexual connotation and phallic symbols figure into the mix, though. But hey, you're the one who raised the idea. :)

For that matter, I've noticed that the modern generations of children tend towards interesting stories as opposed to "safe" stories. We'd probably be able to tell children the details of eating princesses' hearts with no trouble at all; It's only the parents and the moralists who would be up in arms about that.

Heh. I'm reminded of a scene from The Addams Family:

Morticia: ...And so the witch lured Hansel and Gretel into the candy house, by promising them more sweets. And she told them to look in the oven, when, lo and behold, Hansel pushed the poor, defenseless witch into the oven instead, where she was burned alive, writhing in agony. Now, boys and girls... what do you think that feels like?

Mary Weather said..., seriously, they were disturbing.

"Murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and incest: the darker side of classic fairy tales figures as the subject matter for this intriguing study of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Nursery and Household Tales. "

Another good reference for such is Joan Gould's "Spinning Straws".

Sean said...

Maryweather: Yes, they were disturbing. But the fact is that, despite those disturbing aspects, they don't seem to bother most children in the least. The psychological analyses are mostly aimed towards presumably more-understanding adults. :)

lefthand said...

uh. . i'm not as good with words. i would just like to say: good post . . and comments :)

Sean said...

Lefthand: I don't know about the "not good with words" part. Your blog seems pretty good to me. :)