unsettling wonder

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and any mutated hamsters that happen to be reading:

As promised, Unsettling Wonder has come back.

Remember how I was doing a read-through of the Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmarchen? Well, the new iteration of Unsettling Wonder is almost completely not at all like that. Except that I got the idea while I was doing the Grimm read through. There were all these strange and funny little tales that no one ever talks about, all these weird little folktale variants.

So I wanted to make a place where the more offbeat, less exploited tales could be re-discovered. And, as other friends and editors came on board, including my long-time blogalectic sparring partner, Jenna St. Hilaire, I thought—making this could be a lot of fun.

The new Unsettling Wonder is a publishing imprint of Papaveria Press that includes both an online journal and various print publications. It lives at www.unsettlingwonder.com, and the website will have not only the journal, but regular posts from the editors and guest writers about folklore and fairy tales—including artist and author interviews, book reviews, and so on.

As the marvellous Katherine Langrish, UW’s folktale editor I’m happy to say, wrote at her blog:

Unsettling Wonder has only just been born, and in the way of fairytale parents we, its founders, are still looking it proudly, scratching our heads and wondering what it will make of life. Has it been born in a caul, or under a lucky star? Will its godmother be the Fairy of Good Fortune, or the sinister black-cowled figure of La Muerte?  Is it even a child, or just a bristly half-hedgehog? Anyway, do come to the christening!

And Unsettling Wonder is accepting submissions. Our first issue is themed on Wonder Voyages; you can find the formal call for papers here.

[Image by Laura Anderson]

do not collect $200

Lately I’ve been other places than the internet.

For instance, I’ve been here:

Lots of very intelligent people were talking about the Brothers Grimm. So I decided it made sense to talk about Jim Henson. You can also read my formal report on the conference here—it’s rather dry but says all the things needed to be said on such occasions. Although I’d like to have added that I had a wonderful, unforgettable time, got lost on three separate occasions, and may have left  a large part of my heart in Lisbon.

Then I went to a Thornfield concert, and got a copy of their new EP. And their new LP.

This past week, among other things, I wrote an article about Sherlock Holmes for The Hog’s Head, which I’m ridiculously pleased with. Also, my friend Jenna was very happy, which made me just as happy. And now I am preparing to go here:

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Many friends, old and new, will also be there, so if you’re one of them, do please let me know.
I’ll be talking about new fairy tales—that is, new stories told in the old way. You may have heard about the New Fairy Tale journal, which is wonderful. And so you may like to know about
the book:

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The anthology—or at least my editorial introduction to it—contains much of what I’ll talk about at Kingston. Keep an eye on this space, or similar spaces, for more details over the next few weeks. Spread the word, wide and far.

I’ve also worked on some other exciting and fascinating projects, which I can’t tell you about yet.

As a post signum to my conference report, here’s one of my favourite pictures that I took in Lisbon, from a wall near the house where we were staying. Heck, it’s one of my favourite pictures that I ever took. If you don’t know what it means, enjoy it for what it is. If you do know, it probably means close to everything.

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unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms  

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Fitcher’s Bird 

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his story should seem familiar to those who know the ‘Bluebeard’ tales, and the story of ‘Mr Fox’. But, the striking title aside, this is a variant worth getting to know. I link to Hunt’s translation here, but it’s also worth hunting around for newer texts.

This variant features, not the grim and mysterious nobleman, but a ragged beggar that steals girls away from their homes. There could of course be all sorts of xenophobic reasons for this, and all sorts of pedagogical ‘Don’t Talk to Smelly Strangers’ reasons. And in fact most of the rationales of that sort are probably still embedded in our society today. There’s also a temptation—I admit, I study the Victorians—to see Fitchter, ragged beggar-wizard as a type of Odin or Zeus, the disguised, rapacious deity that the hero of the tale must overcome. In that sense the story serves a mythological function. Here, again, the violent and oppressive tendencies of the oppression of the male over the female, the functions of patriarchy and arrogance, are externalised.

What strikes me most about this tale is the sheer courage and indomitable pluck of the heroine. Anyone disgruntled with namby-pamby Snow Whites and horribly demure Sleeping Beauties should really consider Fitcher’s Bird. Despite the Grimm’s obvious efforts to constrain it, its a wonderful and bitterly delightful deconstruction of patriarchy and oppression. The two older sisters (in the way of these things) enter the bloody chamber and are hacked to bits for it. The younger sister enters it as well, but manages to resuscitate her dismembered sisters by reassembling them. She is a sort of counter-storyteller, and anti-teller if you will, who rewrites the narrative.

As in ‘Mr Fox’, she gets a cruel vengeance on her would be lover/killer, and gets to carry it out herself. Whereas Mr Fox is battered to death by the father and brothers of his betrothed—something that could have actually happened in early English or Viking society—the younger sister takes into her own hands. She burdens Fitcher with a prohibition of her own; he must carry the basket a her parents but never once stop to rest. She will be watching from afar. Of course, the basket contains her sisters, who scold him with her voice whenever he slows his pace. One can see the hunted, panicked look  in Fitcher’s eyes as he arrives, harried and exhausted, at journey’s end.

Also unlike Mr Fox, he gets to return home—blissfully unaware that hell awaits in the arms of the vengeful dead.

unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms

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 illus-202t Thumbling as Journeyman

his story is like unto this story, which you and I have discussed before. But it’s different, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you like it better. I did.

What if a trickster is three inches high? In a world of giant, absent-minded grown-ups, of kings and cattle and criminals? Of people ready either to take advantage or simply ignore someone as small as a miniscule trickster?

You get this story, that’s what. If this isn’t a variant of the tale you’re familiar with, I urge you to go and read it.

The story draws much of its humour from the inconsistencies and perils that the world holds for the small. In a burlesque katabasis, Thumbling gets swallowed by a cow and remains mostly unharmed, although ‘[d]own below […] it pleased him ill, for it was quite dark, neither was any candle burning.’ He eventually comes out the other end (more or less), in a welter of what seem to be puns. And when, in the great tableau of the trickster tale, he falls in with a gang of thieves, they greet saying, ‘Thou giant Goliath, wilt thou go to the treasure-chamber with us?’ The humour and ribaldry of this scene progresses as Thumbling manages to rob the king’s treasury without disturbing the locks, bolts, or sentries. He goes on to confound the guards by shouting from corners of the room, convincing them they’re being robbed by a disembodied voice.

The nameless protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch (Vertigo, 1994) says of his childhood: ‘I lived in a land of giants in those days. All children do.’ If ‘Thumbling as Journeyman’ can be said to be about anything, then it’s about that. Thumbling is the grotesque child, reduced in smallness to the point of Otherness; he is at one point mistaken for a spider. The feelings of affection that small children usually elicit are inverted into revulsion. Similarly, his decrease in stature increases his wits. Rather than an innocent child-hero, he becomes the trickster and Master Thief, outwitting or avoiding both justice and natural laws.

In this sense, it seems that this is a story perhaps not about being a child, but remembering childhood, about trying to understand and perhaps explain growing up. There’s something of a parent’s wistfulness and wonder and heartache, and the eternal transience of childhood, in the most poignant moment in the tale, when physical law and magic are blur as Thumbling sets off:

“Mother, what is there to eat to-day?” “See for thyself,” said his mother. So Thumbling jumped on to the hearth, and peeped into the dish, but as he stretched his neck in too far the steam from the food caught hold of him, and carried him up the chimney. He rode about in the air on the steam for a while, until at length he sank down to the ground again. Now the little tailor was outside in the wide world…