Fairy Tale Tuesday No.110 – Mainu the Frog

As the existence of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Magic Animals implies, some creatures seem more prone to lives of enchantment and adventure than others and one fairy tale classic is the frog. Amphibians with attitude have been known to make prophecies, jump from the mouths of cursed girls and turn into royalty, but not many frogs can claim the resourcefulness of this African fairy tale’s titular character.

It doesn’t begin with him, though. The first character we meet is Kiman, who once glimpsed the daughter of the Lord Sun and the Lady Moon – or more accurately, the girl’s reflection in a pool – and has been determined to marry her ever since. She is described as being all ‘white and gold’, and while that might be referring to genetic luminescence, I’d very much like to know if it’s an original detail or if the description has been Anglicised. My guess would be the latter.

Having never spoken to this girl is not an insurmountable obstacle to Kiman, but her never leaving her parents’ celestial realm kind of is, so he’s been making the rounds asking for assistance from all the most powerful animals he knows. None are remotely interested in his one-sided love story. Eventually Kiman is in such despair he plans to drown himself in a pond. Fortunately for him, he has not quite exhausted all avenues of assistance. As he declares his intentions, Mainu the Frog emerges from the pond. “You haven’t asked me to carry your message,” he points out.

“How can you get to heaven,” Kiman says, ungratefully, “when people who have wings cannot?” Mainu just tells him to write a letter already. He then takes the missive in his mouth and travels to the well where the servants of heaven come to collect water. When they let down their jugs, Mainu hides inside one and is carried up to the palace of Lord Sun and Lady Moon. Once the water-carriers leave, Mainu hops from his hiding place, spits out the letter on a table and goes off to hide in a corner.

When Lord Sun enters for a drink of water, he is baffled. Having ascertained his water-carriers did not leave the letter there, he goes to consult with Lady Moon. Many hours later, all the water in the jugs has been used up and the water-carriers return to refill them. Mainu hides in one, returning to the well the same way he left. He tells Kiman he has delivered the message but does not as yet have a reply. “How do I know that you are not telling lies?” Kiman demands. He frets for six days, then writes another letter and has Mainu deliver that one too. This time Lord Sun writes back. “Kiman, son of Kimanze, you who send me letters about marrying my daughter. How can I agree before I know you? Come yourself, bringing with you the first-present. When I know you, I can say ‘Yes’.” A win for reasonable parenting!

He leaves the letter on the table and Mainu gives it to Kiman, who is over the moon, if only metaphorically. He tells Mainu to help himself to whatever food is in the house and sets out immediately to assemble an appropriate introductory gift. Mainu doesn’t like any of the food, but has a bit of milk and sticks around until Kiman returns in the morning with a bag of forty pearls. Kiman also writes another letter, explaining he cannot visit himself, being very busy assembling a suitable wooing-present. Clearly presents are a thing? Whatever Lord Sun and Lady Moon wish, he will do his level best to give. Mainu baulks at the pearls, but manages to stuff the bag into his mouth and the letter too.

This time Lord Sun and Lady Moon read the letter together. “Who is it comes with these things?” Lord Sun marvels. “I have never seen him. I don’t know his name or what he is like. But he has come a long way; he must be hungry and should be fed.” Lady Moon lays out a meal and they go away to consider their reply. Lord Sun wants a sack of gold as a wooing-present, a price Kiman is more than happy to pay. There is only one problem – Mainu is physically incapable of carrying such a burden to heaven with him.

Kiman is not good at handling difficulties. He threatens suicide again. Mainu tells him to calm down, asks for a piece of gold and goes off to look for a solution. He calls on a medicine man called Omari, who in exchange for the gold piece teaches the enterprising amphibian two spells: how to make big things small and small things big, and how to breathe blindness or sight into someone’s eyes. Hopping back to Kiman’s house, Mainu proudly demonstrates the first of his newfound skills. Instead of being happy, Kiman thinks of another problem. If his suit is accepted, how is his bride supposed to get down? Presumably not in the mouth of a frog…

“Have I failed you yet?” Mainu wants to know. Kiman admits he has not. Mainu has calculated for this exact obstacle and sets his plans in motion as soon as night has fallen in the palace. Searching through the rooms of sleepers, he comes to the girl Kiman is so desperate to win and breathes blindness into her eyes. Which is horrible for her, and frightening for her parents, who consult their family wizard on what’s best to do. “The maiden is promised in marriage,” the wizard declares, “but not married. The longing of him to whom she is promised has caused this mischief. Let her be given to him, and her eyes will open…I have spoken.”

Yes, we know you have spoken. Were you possibly bribed, wizard? Because your diagnosis really sucks.

The next morning Lord Sun has a rope of cobweb spun between heaven and earth so that his daughter can descend, a task which takes all day. While the construction of the rope is underway Mainu returns to Kiman and gives him notice. “Frog, I fear you are lying,” Kiman says. “And if you are lying I will have your life.” Stop being ungrateful, Kiman, and stop pretending you’re the hero of this story. You are not fooling anyone.

Mainu goes back to the well and waits. That night Lord Sun and Lady Moon descend, bringing with them a crowd of attendants and their blinded daughter. They then lose their good parenting points by leaving her alone beside the well instead of hanging around to meet her future husband. She bursts into tears. At this moment Mainu introduces himself and blows on her eyes, restoring her sight. He then leads her to Kiman’s house and looks on with satisfaction as they are married.

There’s a sub-section of fairy tales that are allegedly about idiots in love but are really about their exceptional assistants, including ‘Long, Broad and Sharpsight’ and ‘Princess Felicity’. They have the unfortunate side effect of turning the girl the theoretical protagonist wants to marry into a prize, as opposed to a person, but I love competent people and have all kinds of head canons about these support characters. Despite his unethical approach, I think Mainu the Frog deserves a spot on that list.

Review No.125 – Tiddas

Tiddas – Anita Heiss

Simon & Schuster Australia, 2014

The five members of the Vixens book club have known each other since childhood. They are tiddas, the closest of friends, familiar with the ins and outs of each other’s lives – or so it seems. Each woman has her own secrets. Dealing with a surprise pregnancy while on the cusp of a career triumph, Izzy doesn’t know how to explain her mixed feelings to Xanthe, who is so desperate for a baby it’s all she can think about. Meanwhile Veronica is struggling in the aftermath of her divorce, Ellen’s loner lifestyle gains unwanted complications and Nadine would rather spend her evenings in the company of a bottle than finish writing her latest novel. Is there really such a thing as best friends forever?

Tiddas takes a very laid-back approach to each woman’s issues, sometimes to the detriment of the story – the plot is meandering rather than focused, and Xanthe in particular gets shortchanged emotionally. Heiss’s writing style was also a problem for me, being very much prone to telling rather than showing. I was delighted, though, to find a novel set in my home state. That hardly ever happens! Tiddas is speckled with affectionate references only a Brisbanite would really get, giving it a very strong sense of place. It’s also wonderful to read a book in which Aboriginal culture, and Aboriginal characters, are given such prominence. Heiss’s other works include Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming.

Review No.124 – Adaptation

Adaptation (Adaptation No.1) – Malinda Lo

Little, Brown and Company, 2012

When the first plane falls, it seems like a terrible accident – but as reports of crashes come in from across North America, panic sets in. Waiting for the flight that will take them home to San Francisco, teenagers Reese Holloway and David Li are trapped in the ensuing chaos as airports across the country go into lockdown. Their only option is to drive through the desert. On a stretch of empty highway, a bird flies into their headlights and Reese loses control of the car. The next thing she knows, she’s waking in a military hospital so top secret no one will even tell her where she is. And that’s only the beginning of her problems…

I started Adaptation with very little idea of what it was about and I’m glad I did, because not knowing what’s happening is what gives the opening chapters their punch. The plot becomes a bit bogged down in the middle – Reese is an awful communicator and generally a pretty inaccessible person, making her dialogue with almost all the other characters rather frustrating. This could be intentional, but it didn’t work for me and I liked her friends better. It’s good to see so many significant characters who are QUILTBAG and/or of colour, which is a rarer experience than it should be. Towards the end the pace picks up again and there’s a lot to be explained in book two, Inheritance. Malinda Lo is a co-founder of the Diversity in YA blog and her other books include Ash and Huntress.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.109 – The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies

This Scottish fairy tale is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’ collection Thistle and Thyme and its protagonist is the master baker of seven counties, a woman so talented that every event of significance for miles around is considered incomplete without one of her cakes. Those who can afford it are charged a fair rate, but approached by someone too poor to pay for anything more than the tiniest treat, the baker is quite likely to whip up a sugary extravaganza and send it as a gift. LET THEM EAT CAKE.

Her cooking draws the attention of the local Fair Folk, who have covetous sweet teeth and are prone to filching a slice or two wherever they can. They are extremely fond of this particular baker’s creations but rarely get a taste as any cake of hers disappears in about ten seconds flat, leaving nothing to steal. Their solution is to kidnap the woman herself and keep her under the fairy hill as their personal baker. All they require the right opportunity.

It isn’t long in coming. The baker gets a hefty commission at a local lord’s castle and she spends the whole day baking, only setting out for home after night has fallen. As she passes the fairy hill they ambush her. Mistaking the flittering throng for fireflies, and the fern seed they blow in her eyes to make her sleepy as just the long day catching up to her, she lies down on the hill for a quick nap. The next thing she knows, she’s waking up in Fairyland. Her kidnappers tell her what they want – essentially, ‘give us the cake and no one gets hurt’.

The baker has no intention of staying under the hill for the rest of her life, or even for the rest of the night, but she beams cheerily anyway. “Why, you poor wee things! To think of me baking cakes for everyone else, and not a one for you!” The fairies have no baking supplies, so she sends them out on errand after errand until she has all the necessary ingredients. Then she finds out they have no appropriately sized mixing bowls, and they have to go get hers, plus her spoons and whisk and all the odds and ends that come with making a cake.

Finally everything is assembled and the baker starts work. “‘Tis no use!” she declares, stopping abruptly. “I can’t ever seem to mix a cake without my cat beside me, purring.” The cat is fetched, and is so easygoing about the whole thing that it actually does start purring, but that’s not enough. The baker wants her dog’s snoring too. And her teething baby, because she can’t measure properly when she’s worried about him…The baby no sooner sees her than he starts wailing, expecting to be picked up and held, so the fairies have to go get his father. The baker’s husband has noticed that everything in his house keeps disappearing and is actually very glad to find out why. He trusts that his wife has a plan.

The baby keeps screaming. His mother slips him a wooden spoon and he starts whacking it about; then she leans over to her husband and tells him to pinch the dog, who of course starts barking indignantly. “Tread on the tail of the cat!” the baker mutters, adding the poor creature’s shriek to the hellish din.

The fairies are not at all used to this sort of thing. The noise goes on and on, unbearably loud, until the baker decides to conclude matters. She pacifies the baby with a lump of sugar and takes the spoon away, nods to her husband to stop pestering their pets and turns calmly to the fairies to ask where their oven is. They don’t have one – they really did not think this plan through. “Well then,” the baker says practically, “you’ll just have to be taking me and the cake home to bake it in my own oven, and bring me back later when the cake’s all done.” The fairies look at her entourage and decide she’s way too high maintenance for them. They’re too exhausted to even take her home.

The baker feels rather sorry for them, and promises to bring the cake when it’s baked. What’s more, she’ll make them one every weekend. With that she takes the batter and leaves, her husband carrying the baby and the cat and dog trailing behind until they finally reach home. True to her word, she puts the cake into her oven to bake. The house fills with the quiet sounds of purring and snoring, a clock ticking and the kettle singing, forming a peaceful hush the fairies would never believe possible. “It doesn’t seem fair on the rest of the men,” observes the baker’s husband, “that I should have the master baker and the cleverest woman in the world all in one wife.”

Her cleverness is how she escaped; her kindness brings a different reward. When she brings the promised cake to the fairy hill, she finds a little bag full of gold pieces. Every time she delivers a cake she is very generously compensated and though she never sees the fairies again, it’s fair to assume both sides are very happy with this arrangement.

This fairy tale gets points for being so fundamentally good-natured and also for containing actual fairies, which is much rarer than you might believe. I can’t approve of antagonising pets like that, but as the other choice was indentured kitchen service, it was a cunningly passive-aggressive plan. It’s also an entirely appropriate Fairy Tale Tuesday for a week of celebration in my family. Here’s to cake and cleverness and true love!

In Dire Need of Dynamite: Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3

Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.

- Countess Constance Markievicz, Irish suffragette and revolutionary

Here’s the thing: princesses in fairy tales are not weak, they’re deeply unlucky.

If a princess is the heroine of her own story, the odds are very high that someone will attempt to either abduct or murder her; in some cases they actually succeed with the latter and through morbid magic she’ll manage to tell her story from beyond the grave, which is not what I consider a happy ending. If she’s a side character, she doubtless exists to be married off to the hero, and is very likely to be kidnapped anyway, so that he can rescue her. We don’t tend to tell stories about happy people. Something has to go wrong in order for there to be a plot, and often it is a girl’s life falling apart.

Is this a problematic device? Hell yes. Does its existence automatically condemn the characters involved? I say it does not.

Many popular criticisms of fairy tales frustrate me. Fantastic female protagonists are forgotten or ignored while the famous heroines are belittled and dismissed; older women are held to an impossible double standard while their male counterparts are accepted as default settings. In an attempt to subvert these tropes, many modern retellings go as far in the opposite direction as possible, and that can be a glorious thing. It is deeply satisfying to give a princess a sword, let her break free and find her own fortune.

Unfortunately this is humanity we’re dealing with, and humanity has an unhealthy obsession with binaries.

That is to say, instead of celebrating these heroines on their own considerable merits, it’s becoming expected that all heroines will behave the same way. That it’s always possible to escape on your own; that it’s your fault if you can’t succeed without help. Why don’t you keep a stockpile of dynamite on your person at all times so that when you are unexpectedly kidnapped and locked in a tower without doors or windows, you can just blow your way out? That’s what a real princess would do.

I have a thing to say about that. No, actually, I have two things to say:

1) Keeping a stash of dynamite on hand, should you be transported to the world of fairy tales and manage to get hold of the stuff, is actually an excellent idea. Bringing it with you when you are kidnapped would, however, be rather difficult logistically.

2) Never blame the victim. Just don’t.

And a third thing: there are many ways of saving yourself.

There are young women in these stories who are controlled by transformative magic, who are locked inside all manner of prisons, who desperately need the aid of a valiant swordsman with a getaway horse. These women have usually seen others fail in the attempt to save them. They have endured the gloating of a captor, the humiliations and isolation of imprisonment. So they come up with plans. And if their would-be saviour wants to succeed, he’d better pay close attention.

In ‘The Troll’s Little Daughter’, the hero would have had no chance of setting his love free if she had not given him detailed instructions. It’s a pattern that can be seen in many other tales, including ‘The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body’, ‘Jekovoy’, ‘The Little Tailor and the Three Dogs’, and ‘The Artful Soldier and the Czar’s Three Daughters’, to name only a few. In at least one version of ‘Rapunzel’, the prince brings her silk to weave a ladder. Though she depends on him to bring her resources (why could he not have just brought a ready made rope ladder and saved everybody a lot of trouble?) she is actively participating in her own rescue. In ‘The Wild Swans’, Elise’s brothers swoop to rescue her from a witch’s pyre, but they can only succeed because she has worked to break their enchantment.

This is co-operative rescue, a balance of knowledge and opportunity, and it works the other way around too – trapped male royals have been known to seek out the assistance of capable young women. The enchanted prince of ‘The Nine Doves’, for instance, the reckless protagonist of ‘Yellow Lily’, the talking bear from ‘Snow White and Rose Red’. Strength should not be gendered; all acts of self-defence should be celebrated, whether they take place with an explosion or a whisper. For this reason, co-operative rescue is one of my favourite fairy tale tropes. It subtly inverts your expectations, turning the protagonists into a team, each playing off the other’s skill set.

It takes courage, and trust, and determination.

It takes heroism. There’s more of that around than you might think.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.108 – The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body

In this Norse story, taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Giants, a king with seven sons gets suddenly terribly anxious about their marital prospects and sends the elder six off in a grand procession to seek brides. They strike gold with unexpected ease when they encounter the six daughters of another king, who is equally delighted at settling the sisters so conveniently. So swept away with their good fortune are the princes that they forget their father’s instruction, to bring back a bride for their youngest brother Halvor, who remained at home to keep the king company.

The six couples are on their way back to the princes’ kingdom when they come to a high black hill, wherein resides a giant who has a literally petrifying glare. One glower from him and the whole procession are turned to stone. Is it wrong that my first reaction is to ship him with Medusa?

Anyway, time passes and the princes’ father grows ever more anxious. Halvor wants to go look for them and at last the king has no choice but to let him go. As the older princes took all the best horses, the only one left is elderly and Halvor travels at a very restrained pace, slow enough to notice a grounded raven on the road. “Oh, dear prince,” the bird calls out, “I’m starving! Pray give me some food, and in your greatest need I will come to your aid.” Halvor doubts this, but offers his bag of supplies and the raven eats the lot.

Some way down the road Halvor encounters a salmon struggling on the riverbank. “Lift me up and put me in the water,” she gasps, “and in your utmost need I’ll come to your aid.” The prince obliges.

It turns out the horse was much too old for the trip; it falls dead and the prince has to leave its body by the roadside as he continues on foot. In this way he meets a wolf so ravenous it is pitiful as opposed to terrifying. When it asks for food, the prince has to explain he gave away everything he had to a raven, but then he remembers his dead mount. It’s terribly sad for the poor horse, but lucky for the wolf, who eats his fill then bounds back to the prince with renewed energy to offer himself as alternative transport.

With startling speed, they reach the giant’s hill and the fossilised pageant. Set into the hill is a door, through which the wolf insists the prince enter. Once inside, Halvor passes many empty rooms before eventually reaching one in which a beautiful girl is sitting. She is a princess, kidnapped by the giant, and appalled at the sight of her visitor. “You may be brave,” she says, “and think you will kill the giant, but no one can kill him, for he has no heart in his body!” When Halvor refuses to leave without rescuing his brothers and her too, the princess douses him in perfume so the giant won’t catch his scent, has him slide under her bed and covers him up with robes for good measure.

Soon after the giant comes in and the princess dances and sings for him, putting him into an amenable temper. “You have already given me everything I want,” she says, laying it on thick. “But there is just one question I should like to ask you – if I dared. Where do you keep your heart?” He tells her it’s under the doorstep. Of course, when the prince and princess dig into the doorstep with a pickaxe, there’s nothing to be found, so the princess come up with a different plan. They tidy the scene to hide traces of their search and she piles flowers all around. When the giant comes back, she tells him the flowers are in honour of his heart’s hiding place.

“Ho, you silly little bit of summer sunshine,” the giant chuckles, pinching her cheek and being generally patronising. He admits his heart is not under the doorstep; it’s in the cupboard. As soon as he’s gone the next morning, the two plotters rummage through piles of stored lumber, only to prove the giant was lying again. “I could sit down and cry!” the princess sighs, but sit she does not, nor does she cry – she shows Halvor how to make flower garlands instead and enlists his help in festooning the cupboard. “How could I help but deck the place where your heart lies hidden?” she flutters at the giant that evening. He tells her it’s not really there but is very reluctant to share its actual location, because he may be a creep but his instincts are good. The princess is more than a match for him, though. Decked out in her most beautiful clothes, she dances and plays the harp and showers her captor in praise until he’s so drunk on flattery he swears her to secrecy and tells her the truth.

“Over yonder lies a lake,” he explains, “and in that lake lies an island; on the island stands a church, and in that church there is a well; in that well there swims a duck; in that duck there is an egg; and in that egg lies my heart.” If those directions sound vaguely familiar, they are. The giant in ‘The Sun Princess and the Prince’ tried a similar trick. Giants, it would appear, have removable hearts as a rule, and like to place their trust in ducks.

The princess does not have the break her word, because Halvor was listening. Travelling on wolfback, he reaches the ‘yonder’ lake with tremendous speed. The wolf swims across still carrying the prince, but when they arrive at the church they find it locked, with the key hung in a high tower. No problem – the prince cashes in his favour with the raven, who retrieves it. He then reaches into the well, but as he picks up the duck it drops the egg, and Halvor has to call on the salmon to retrieve it.

“Now give the egg a squeeze,” the wolf prods, and Halvor does. From far away they hear the giant screaming, begging for his life. It seems that by holding his heart Halvor can communicate across great distances, or maybe he just shouts really, really loudly – either way, he dictates his terms and before long the procession are restored to life. Now the wolf wants Halvor to break the egg in half. The prince thinks this is dishonourable, which is absolutely true, but the wolf points out the giant will just go around turning other people to stone if he lives, which is sadly also true. He snatches the egg from Halvor’s hand and bites it. The giant doesn’t just die, he bursts.

Returning to the black hill, Halvor greets his brothers and their brides, then goes inside the giant’s house to look for the princess. He leads her out proudly, announcing, “Here is my bride!” He has no horse to carry her home, but who needs a horse when your bestie is an obliging wolf? The king is overjoyed at the return of all his children, and holds a seven-way wedding at once. The wolf and raven both attend, and the salmon receives an invitation too, though it’s not practical for her to accept. Halvor’s not a bad friend himself.

This is what I describe as co-operative rescue – neither the prince nor princess are capable of achieving their plans alone, but work together to overcome their common enemy. I feel quite sorry for the giant, who might not have been able to help turning people into stone if he could do it with just a glare, but he also kidnapped a princess and she had to humiliate herself flattering him to get away, so…yeah, under the circumstances, my sympathy is limited.

Review No.123 – The Wicked Wood

Tales from the Tower Volume Two: The Wicked Wood – Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab (ed.)

Allen&Unwin, 2011

In this collection, fairy tales grow between cracks in the mundane surface of a city, a suburb, a small town. From the sinister presence of a wildly ambitious artist to the wolf hidden in plain sight, the mermaid who would trade anything for another life to the uncontrollable craving of two sisters to get theirs back, these are stories of hunger and betrayal, longing and hope.

This anthology is a companion volume to The Wilful Eye, which I read as a part of last year’s AWW Challenge, but has a noticeably different approach. All of these retellings take place in contemporary settings and the fantasy elements tend to be more understated – in a few, there are none at all. There is a similar tone to many of these stories that I personally would have preferred broken up by a wider range settings, but the slants each writer chose to take were interesting and for the most part effective. I particularly appreciated ‘Seventy-Two Derwents’ by Cate Kennedy and ‘The Ugly Sisters’ by Maureen McCarthy. Some of the original sources for this anthology are also slightly more obscure, such as ‘The Wolf and the Seven Kids’ and ‘The Fairy’s Midwife’. It’s good to see retellings that explore beyond familiar ground.