Presenting a new column here in 2012, I give you the Fairy Tale Mavens’ Cocktail Hour conducted entirely in conversation.
Deborah: Welcome to the Fairy Tale Mavens’ Cocktail Hour! I’m here with fellow maven and longtime bestie Jamelle Shannon, sitting in a completely fictional but folklorically-charged bar that exists somewhere between Atlanta and Las Vegas. I’m sorry, I said folklorically-charged, didn’t I? So I meant that it exists between Terminus and Sin City.
Anyway. The fact that it’s fictional really won’t stop us from ordering drinks. What’ll you have, Jamelle?
Jamelle: My favorite mixer, cold H2O.
Deborah: A bold and entirely appropriate choice, given the little hunter on the way. And I’ll have the house brew – yes, das Blut von Großmutter, thanks. While we wait for those, I think you need a bit of an introduction, Jamelle! Give us the once upon a time of you.
Jamelle: Haha. Once upon a time I was born and it was awesome.
Deborah: Best. Bio blurb. Ever. I’ll take pity on our readers and supply a few details, though! With your permission?
Jamelle: Sure. You know I hate talking about myself.
Deborah: Born in sunny and fecund California, you traveled far and wide at the whims of the US military and your father’s career. You spent a number of years living in Japan, leading to your lifelong interest and passion for the culture. Your family ultimately settled in Alabama, where you found a bestie (moi!) and eventually escaped back west to Sin City. Now you serve the public, married a Maverick, and give in to your professed obsession with fairy tales at the slightest provocation, viz. this conversation.
Jamelle: That is most excellent.
Deborah: So, where did your interest in fairy tales come from?
Jamelle: That’s hard to say. It’s one of those things that you can’t really pinpoint because fairy tales are so ingrained in our culture, especially when you’re young. I grew up watching the Disney movies for sure, but I was also an avid reader at a young age and had consumed the Grimm versions at about the same time.
Deborah: That is always the way – regardless of whether we grow up to identify ourselves as Fairy Tale Mavens, there’s probably not a child untouched by fairy tales in some form or other.
Jamelle: Well, sure. Our pop culture is riddled with references. It’s almost like the Bible in that sense.
Deborah: Oh, I like that! I’m suddenly struck by the concept of seeing fairy tales as the Bible of the Secular. There are so many practical and pragmatic lessons embedded in these stories.
Jamelle: Exactly. Fairy/folktales are teaching tools as much as Biblical parables are.
Deborah: Much like you, I don’t remember the precise origin of my interest in fairytales – I just can’t remember a time before I was. One of my earliest prized possessions was a doll that could turn into Little Red Riding Hood, her grandmother, or the Wolf depending on which way you turned its clothing, and I have a handmade book I made when I was six or seven that retells the original Rapunzel with eyes gouged out and twins and barren wasteland all.
Jamelle: You know, I think I may have had one of those dolls too.
Deborah: Those dolls were the best! I am seriously bummed that I don’t seem to have mine anymore.
Jamelle: I am certain mine was lost in a move long ago.
Deborah: You had some serious moves, so I could understand that. I think I had one for Cinderella too, but that one used a series of aprons.
Jamelle: That also seems vaguely familiar.
Deborah: I am amused at this possibly similarity between our toy boxes! It’s just like – of course they were similar! You know?
Jamelle: It is very odd. But then perhaps we just had parents who had daughters who liked those kinds of things.
Deborah: Indubitably. (Every time I say that, I can’t help hearing Michelangelo saying it in my head from the first TMNT movie. Such a geek.)
Jamelle: Ha! Now I’m going to be hearing that too.
Deborah: At least I’ll be in good company, then! So, I thought we could talk about our favorite tales in this first cocktail hour.
Jamelle: That sounds like a capital idea.
Deborah: Who should go first? Should we play janken for it?
Jamelle: I think you should go first since you were gracious enough to come up with this idea.
Deborah: But we could have recited jan-ken-pon and everything! But alright. Thank you, ever so!
I’m awfully bad at choosing favorites, and tend to have several of any category you choose to give me! This is absolutely true of fairytales, where I had the devil’s own time choosing between “Little Red Riding Hood” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” for this conversation.
Jamelle: I know how much you adore both tales, so it’s a hard choice to make.
Deborah:I finally settled on “Little Red Riding Hood” – “The Snow Queen” has such a clear literary origin, after all, and I wanted to focus on a tale with multiple sources and versions. Also, it is impressive how ubiquitous Little Red is today – definitely one of the more popular fairy tales.
Jamelle: I think perhaps because “Little Red Riding Hood” is one of the first stories we’re told as children. It’s simple and direct; easy for a 5-year-old to understand
Deborah: Likely because the version most people are familiar with is a tale on the perils of disobedience!
Jamelle: That too! Mommas wanna make sure their babies follow the rules.
Deborah: Although the older tales were more complex narratives concerning the maturation of girls into women, while infusing the story with a healthy pragmatic consideration of sexual predation. What’s the oldest version you’re familiar with?
Jamelle: Hm. I’m not sure if I know. People definitely get eaten, I do remember that.
Deborah: There is an excellent article by Terri Windling that was published in the Journal of Mythic Arts, called “The Path of Needles or Pins: Little Red Riding Hood” that discusses many of the original French folktales that proliferated before Perrault penned his version.
She explains how the original oral narrative is called “The Grandmother’s Tale” and the wolf that the girl meets on the way to her grandmother’s cottage is a werewolf – he beats her there, eats her grandmother as is standard, but then saves some of the grandmother’s flesh and blood that he tricks the girl into eating after she arrives.
Jamelle: Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever read that version. I may have to find it.
Deborah: You should! It’s fascinating – the girl is offered a choice between the path of needles or the path of pins, which scholars have suggested are codified representations of experience for someone rushing into sexuality or having a more sedate maturation.
And the text of the werewolf ordering the girl to come to bed is much more sexualized and vulgar than subsequent versions.
Jamelle: Very interesting.
Deborah: I was incredibly fascinated to find out the wolf in “The Grandmother’s Tale” is a werewolf, considering how often contemporary writers decide to go that route with their retellings. Should we tell them they’re not being as original as they probably think they are?
Jamelle: Well, you would think a werewolf would make more sense because wolves can’t talk. Obvious solution is obvious.
Deborah: Ha! Although, of course, in fairy tales, many things have voices that don’t otherwise.
Jamelle: Of course. Talking animals is what makes them fairy tales, although it did give Disney a crutch to lean on through the years.
Deborah: In “The Grandmother’s Tale” itself, there’s also a cat and a bird that warn the girl she’s consuming the flesh and blood of her kinswoman.
Jamelle: Cats and birds always seem to know so much.
Deborah: Birds could be psychopomps, but cats are just eavesdroppers!
Jamelle: Cats could be psychopomps as well, though. Birds are snitches. Y’know, “sing like a canary”?
Deborah: Just can’t trust the lot of them.
From a “girl power!” perspective, I’m also gratified to see how many contemporary interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood cast the girl as a badass werewolf hunter.
Jamelle: I think that probably ties into how we view female sexuality these days.
Deborah: It also appeals to my sense of symmetry that the modern projects that choose to do so are in fact directly echoing the oldest versions of the tale, where the girl is clever and uses her native resourcefulness to save herself. She has no need to wait passively for the woodsman.
Deborah: A woodsman is a valuable ally to have, of course! It’s just nice not to have to twiddle one’s thumbs in the wolf’s belly while waiting for him. Y’know: have Red Hood, will Rescue Herself.
Jamelle: She’s smart enough not to let herself get trapped in the first place. Although I’m not sure what that says about poor grandmother though.
Deborah: Let’s go back to what you said about female sexuality.
Jamelle: Oh, sure.
Deborah: Which I think can explain the poor grandmother’s fate as well – she’s no longer fecund, is at the end of her cycle – her growth is done, and so let’s shuffle her off into the wolf’s digestive tract in preference of younger entertainment.
Jamelle: Poor grandmother. It’s the maiden, the mother and the…other one all over again.
Deborah: Ha! Let me glance furtively around for Granny Weatherwax, but its honestly better safe than sorry. Emphatically so, when it comes to Granny Weatherwax.
Jamelle: Which is ridiculous getting rid of Grandmother just because she’s not fertile. She still has wisdom and value in teaching younger generations. Although maybe not this particular grandmother since she does get eaten.
Deborah: Too true. How now, Granny, why are you letting wolves in in the first place? What were you hoping to get up to?
Jamelle: Perhaps she was looking for some action?
Deborah: Which is perfectly fine! Nothing wrong with that. But ladies young and old, remember: beware wolves and… other ones with poisoned apples.
Jamelle: That’s advice everyone can use.
Deborah: Ain’t that the truth? Now, do you think that the contemporary badass Little Red is meant to capture a mainstream interest in aggressive female sexuality?
Jamelle: Without a doubt. Women are becoming badasses in our pop culture, so it’s time to make them badasses in our fairy tales
Deborah: I can dig it. Although, they often seem to pursue a safe form of aggression – it’s okay for her to be known as a badass, perhaps make a few badass moves, but she’s still going to be tied up and/or rescued by a male lead before the end.
I’m thinking particularly of Syfy’s Red: Werewolf Hunter starring Felicia Day, in which she wound up in form-fitting clothing spread-eagled by the evil werewolf overlord. It did seem a bit unnecessary.
Jamelle: I didn’t see that, but then I don’t watch/read a lot of contemporary takes on fairy tales. I rarely see anything in it for me, which could be a whole ‘nother topic.
Deborah: We shall certainly have to vent on that one after proper drinks one day.
Jamelle: But I’m sure the excuse they gave was fanservice.
Deborah: Perhaps around the time Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman are in theatres.
Jamelle: Perhaps, although I’m more likely to see Mirror, Mirror if I’m to see either of those.
Deborah: At least Mirror, Mirror looks to be gorgeously directed by Tarsem Singh (oh, that color palette!) and they went the comedic route.
Jamelle: Snow White never did much for me in any case. And I can’t watch Kristen Stewart in anything.
Deborah: I have to admit that I’m not a fan of her acting either, and quite enjoyed the trailer in which she has no lines. I’m sure she’s not a mute in the film, though. Wait… what is that? Is this bar playing Semisonic’s “Closing Time”?
Open all the doors and let you out into the Wood
Turn the will’o'th’wisps on over every wolf and every girl
Deborah: But I only just finished my beer! Jamelle didn’t even get a refill on her water! I didn’t get to talk about NBC’s Grimm! Jamelle is waiting remarkably patiently to talk about her favorite “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”! And our fictional but folklorically-charged bar is closing?
Oh. Well. To be continued, then, when we meet up for the second Fairy Tale Maven Cocktail Hour! Same Bat Time?
Jamelle: Same Bat Channel.
Tune in next Tuesday night for the continuation of the Fairy Tale Mavens’ Cocktail Hour, in which Jamelle will gleefully pontificate on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”