Year’s End

Farewell to the Year of the Unlucky Number–which paradoxically was a heck of a lot better for me than 2012 ever was, so make of that what you will. And to you all, a very belated Chanukah, a mid-stream Merry Christmas (day 7 of 12), and a really rather early Happy New Year 2015.

If you’ve wondered where I’ve been—well, I’ve been sick, honestly. And writing scintillating, sparkling, wonderful blog posts was beyond me as I huddled around, feeling rubbish. As was writing dull, grumpy, turgid, uninteresting blog posts, for that matter.

But this is not a confession of blog-guilt. Nor even a New Year’s Resolution to blog more (which would be the quickest way, I think, to ensure never blogging again). Like the great John McIntyre, I’ve embraced a policy of not blogging unless I have something I want to say. And I usually do, in that sunny, cheery, talkative way I have (“Ha,” say his colleagues, and “Who?” ask his friends). And if this blog has been overly taciturn, blame it chiefly on my increased distaste for wittering, on and offline, and the uncertainty that comes with age that one’s own opinions are really as great as all that. Continue reading

mimio’s library

[Today we feature an open letter from my friend and colleague, Dr Mayako Murai. While Paradoxes by no means wishes to discourage you from donating to your own favourite charities, the uniqueness of this endeavour and the ideas behind it made it seem worth highlighting.]

Dear all,

I would like to draw your attention to the picture book library project for the earthquake and tsunami sufferers in north-eastern Japan.  The ‘Mimio Library’ project has been initiated by the artist Tomoko Konoike, who believes that the imaginative power of picture books will in the long term help the people who lost what was most precious to them to rebuild their own inner strength. (Konoike’s artwork appears on the cover of the forthcoming collection of essays Postmodern Reinterpretations of Fairy Tales [Edwin Mellon, 2011], edited by Anna Kerchy.)

This mobile library project asks donors to personalise their gift by briefly describing in writing their special attachment to it on a donation sheet which will be pasted inside the cover of the book. The aim is to construct a story-sharing network by collecting and circulating picture books with individual life stories attached to them.

For more information, please visit the following link where you can also download the donation sheet:

I would appreciate it if you could also pass on this information to those who may want to support this project.  If you have any questions, please do feel free to contact me directly.

Thank you very much in advance.

With best wishes,

Mayako Murai
Associate Professor
English Department
Kanagawa University, Japan

NB: Please send any enquiries for Dr Murai to: mr pond 47 [at] hotmail [dot] com.

this is not an anti-post

Here’s your cheerful reminder that we have a giveaway going on. It involves a wonderful signed copy of West of the Moon, and a folktale called ‘Clever Hans.’ Those of you who have read and commented on the tale tend to be universally bewildered by it. I don’t blame you. If this is a fairy tale, then we’re miles away from charming princesses and happy endings.

It’s not a fairy tale, not really. Folktale, yes. Fairy tale, if we follow Tolkien’s stringent definition, no. There’s no interfacing with another world, no brush of the eldritch, only a clueless duffer who can’t figure out how he’s supposed to act around girls and so ends up dismembering a bunch of sheep. Yes, it’s that weird.

In fact, it’s very much like another folktale that we’re all more or less familiar with: ‘The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.’ I have a particular revulsion for that song, I confess, whilst adoring it as a cracking good time. An illustrated copy of the lyrics was available in the classroom library when I was a first year. I read it, delighted with the illustrations—a bewildered goat, a terrified cat. And then the song ended:

She’s dead, of course.

It was my first encounter with a non-Bowdlerised tale. I was appalled. It didn’t help that all the animals she had eaten were standing round her like mourners at a funeral. But, come to think of it, what else is supposed to happen when you swallow a horse? It seemed logical then. It still seems logical now.

I didn’t read it again. I preferred happy endings as a child. I still do, although I have a much broader definition of happy. In fact, there could be a certain degree of ‘happy’ in the death of the old lady—she’s rapaciously devoured the natural world from insect to mammal, and finally it rises up and crushes her. That’s eco-criticism begging to happen. That’s also thinking like an academic and not a child.

Which is the whole point, really.

I’m not going to say that I learned to really like un-Bowdlerised versions of ‘The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly,’ and how much better they are. Everyone knows the old lady died—that’s the point. The whole song becomes a sort of ritual to see who can Bowdlerise the tale with the greatest aplomb.The best versions are the ones that creatively avoid or deny it—‘Perhaps she’ll die, but—she’s alive and well, of course!’ Here the happy ending is an inversion, a distortion. It’s amazing how subversive a good happy ending can be.   I’m not sure where that fits into any pattern of retelling. But a happy-ending itself may be a form of anti-tale. This seems at least in Tolkien’s term for such things: ‘eucatastrophe.’

The book did help me understand that these stories change. They’re different every telling, depending not only on the teller but on the moment, the audience, the illustrator, the lighting. In some abstract sense the tale exists, we know it an can recall it from some atemporal sphere. In a concrete sense, it’s a patter of words and sounds, horses and flies, that exists only once, only in the telling of it.

Did ‘The Old Lady and the Fly’ teach me how to behave in society, as I believe ‘Clever  Hans’ is able to? No, not really. Mister Rogers did that. Stories work differently these days. But it did teach me to respect the stories and their tellings, that no ending and no character in these tales is sacrosanct, and that sometimes no version is more shocking than the original.

Folktales are alive and well, of course.

unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through

The Louse and the Flea


here’s a tale like this tale everywhere. Scholars like me have confirmed it.

Sometimes we ask too much of tales, scholars. We ask them where they live and what they like to eat, where their parents were from and what language they spoke at home. Then we tell them, solemnly and with proof, that they’re generally wrong.

Too much of that, grumbles the reader. We just want to read the story and enjoy it.

But we ask too much of tales, too. We ask they have happy endings. We ask them to agree with what we think, and disprove things we don’t think. We ask them to accommodate us, to please us, to give us fodder for profound blog posts.

But then—this.

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unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Read-Through of the Brothers Grimm

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs


e all know about fairy tales. They’re simple. They’re straightforward. If we’re mostly familiar with the Disneyfied versions of the tales, we’re pretty sure they’re harmless, perhaps slightly banal, little stories to keep the kids busy so we can actually talk. If we’ve read a little more closely, we’re thrilled by the tales and their variants, delighted at their magical landscapes and enchanted ethics. If we’ve read academically, then chances are we’ve learned that they’re bourgeois, and that there’s only two thousand of them, or four, or one—depending on how you count.

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