Disney Reflections No.5 – It’s No Bed of Roses

http://images2.fanpop.com/images/photos/5800000/Beauty-and-the-Beast-disney-5841751-1280-720.jpgThis is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

‘The Beauty and the Beast’ is my mother’s favourite fairy tale and Belle is my favourite Disney princess, and incidentally one of my earliest blog posts was a detailed dissection of this movie’s plot inconsistencies, so obviously I have even more opinions than usual. By 1991 Disney had made an art form of the princess musical and this one ticks all the boxes but one; for the first time, we don’t have a glamorously evil villainess.

Don’t worry. Gaston can totally handle it.

The fairy tale: I reviewed three versions of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, my preference of which involves a snake prince and face punching, but Disney is riffing with the French one. You can tell because of all the names and Lumiere’s terrible accent.

The film: Somewhere in the depths of forested France, in a castle that may just win out over Prince Eric’s on pure architectural beauty, there lives a selfish, spoilt young prince. One wintry night, an elderly beggar woman knocks at the door, asking for a night’s shelter in return for a single rose. The prince turns her away. Karma offers unexpected whiplash when she reveals herself as a dazzling enchantress and transforms the prince into a beast. His fate is bound to the rose: it will bloom until he turns twenty one years old, but if he has not loved and been loved in return by then, he will never be human again.

Years pass. In a village not too far away, an inventor and his daughter Belle take up residence in a dilapidated old millhouse. Belle is bookish and quietly sarcastic and loves fairy tales and is basically my ideal human being. The villagers disagree; they admire her beauty but are nonplussed by her enthusiastic intellectualism. All except for the hunky local hunter Gaston, who just ignores whatever he doesn’t want to see. He has decided to ‘woo’ Belle. “Right from the moment I met her, saw her,” he carols, apparently not realising those are two different things. He tells the whole town his plan before he tells her, advises her to stop thinking, knocks her book in the mud and still comes out of the encounter thinking she likes him.

Spoiler: she doesn’t like him. She thinks he is ridiculous.

Also, she has other things on her mind, chiefly helping her father with his latest invention, an enormous wood-chopping machine that frankly looks like a lot more effort than it’s worth but that he is treating like a life’s work. When he finally gets it operational, they hitch it up to a cart and he sets off for the fair. Near nightfall, he takes a wrong turn. Here’s a handy tip when you are lost in the dark forest: pay attention to your horse’s reactions or you might find yourself thrown to the ground while wolves circle. The inventor runs for his life. A gate looms providentially into sight; it opens at his frantic shove and he ventures inside to seek assistance. He sees no one – but someone sees him.

When the prince was cursed, the enchantress turned all his employees into household furniture or knick-knacks. Lumiere the hospitable candlestick wants to allow this unexpected visitor to stay; Cogsworth the clock is more cautious, but his protests are ignored while Lumiere blithely reveals himself to the stunned inventor. Who is thrilled, prodding eagerly at Cogsworth’s inner workings in the hopes he’s now living in a steampunk novel. He’s soaked to the bone and exhausted, though, and Lumiere seizes the opportunity to display a little over-excited hospitality. Other members of the staff come out of the woodwork (not literally. Yet) including Mrs Potts the teapot, her son Chip the cup and a cute little footrest that was once a dog. How terrible a person do you have to be to enchant a DOG? That enchantress has a lot to answer for. Everyone has been going a little stir-crazy and they are happy to see a new face.

All except for the prince, whose temper has amazingly not been improved by becoming a huge furry beast. He stalks into the room, all sharp white teeth and glaring eyes. The pleas of his servants are ignored. He is, in this moment, as he drags the inventor away, every inch the monster.

Belle does not know to be worried yet, and she has more than one thing to be worried about. After their little chat, Gaston set up a wedding in the field outside her house complete with cake and musicians…all without actually proposing. He barges into her house (her eye roll when she sees him is a thing of beauty) to share his vision of domestic bliss and, in the process, deface her book again. This time even he can see she’s not interested – he turns predatory and she backs quickly to the door, so that when he tried to corner her he finds himself flying headlong over the step and into the millpond. In front of the whole town.

 

Once he’s safely stormed off and taken the townsfolk with him, Belle emerges to vent her indignation. Marriage is not what she wants right now, let http://images2.fanpop.com/images/photos/5800000/Beauty-and-the-Beast-disney-5845562-1280-720.jpg alone with Gaston – she wants adventure and friendship and really anything but staying in this village all her life. Thoughts of the disastrous proposal are pushed out her head, however, when the carthorse Philippe appears with the cart, and without Belle’s father. Philippe really is an exceptionally clever horse, he takes Belle directly back to the castle.

Just inside the gates, she finds her father’s hat. Searching the echoing spaces inside, she is led by an unseen guide (Lumiere, who has pounced on the idea that she will save them all, followed by Cogsworth, who just gets caught up in these things). She finds her father in a dank cell and is manhandled by the furious Beast, but she refuses to be cowed, insisting he take her in her father’s place. The offer is almost enough to startle him out of his rage. Almost. Not quite. He accepts in about as ungracious a manner as possible, sending for his frightening spidery carriage to transport the inventor home before (on Lumiere’s advice, it should be noted) pushing Belle into her new room. So at least she won’t be living in a dungeon. The Beast makes one attempt at conversation, telling her that as a permanent resident in the castle she may go where she wishes – only not to the West Wing. She asks why. He shouts “It is forbidden!”

He is so incredibly bad at interaction.

Meanwhile, back in the village, Gaston is brooding over his wrongs while sympathetic townsfolk remind him of how muscular and manly he is. He’s been cheered up by a bar brawl and several swooning women when Belle’s father comes bursting into the tavern telling them what’s happened and begging for aid. He’s laughed out into the snow. That scene hurts. The incident gives Gaston an idea. A really horrible idea.

Belle’s new room is actually rather luxurious but she’s sobbing so hard she probably hasn’t noticed. She’s roused from her misery by the intervention of the castle’s ladies – Mrs Potts bringing the tea and the cheerfully chatty wardrobe offering an outfit for Belle to wear to dinner with the Beast. Except she’s not planning to eat dinner with him, or look at him, or talk to him if she can help it. Lumiere and Mrs Potts do their best to cajole the Beast into something approaching civility, but he’s having a self-loathing episode and instead of trying for charm, yells through Belle’s door that she can either eat with him or starve.

He doesn’t know her very well yet. When the castle has gone quiet, and the Beast has retreated to the West Wing to wallow, Belle quietly emerges and looks around until she finds the kitchen. There, Lumiere puts on dinner and a show, because he’s like that. Belle has no good feelings for the Beast, but she’s a bit enchanted by his staff. They are certainly ready to adore her. After the meal, and the spoons’ synchronised swimming routine, Belle asks for a guided tour of the castle and gravitates towards the forbidden West Wing like it’s true north instead. Unlike the rest of the castle, which has been well maintained, these rooms are ravaged. Belle finds a shredded portrait with arresting blue eyes, and a glowing rose upon a table. Reaching out to touch it, she’s interrupted by the Beast, who is horrified – that rose, after all, is his only chance at humanity. Losing his temper yet again, he screams at her to get out and she takes him literally, riding the hell out of there.

But the wolves are still out there, and all she has to fight them off is a broken branch. At the last minute the Beast comes charging to her rescue, finally applying that ferocity of his to a worthwhile cause. Having sent the pack running, he collapses in the snow. Belle takes him home to the castle. He did, after all, save her life – and as she patches him up, she realises he’s really just a huge, sulky, fluffy idiot who is accustomed to getting his own way. They re-establish their relationship on the basis she pretty much always knows better than him.

As things improve in the castle, they grow worse in the village. Everyone believes the inventor to be a bit mad; now Gaston is capitalising on that by bribing the owner of an asylum to forcibly remove him. Not that Belle’s father is hanging around, he’s packed up a few essentials and gone straight back out to look for her.

http://a.dilcdn.com/bl/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2015/02/Belles-Cape-from-Beauty-and-the-Beast.jpgShe’s quite happy at present, exploring the castle grounds, and the Beast (by now utterly besotted) is racking his brains for nice things he can do for her. Again on Lumiere’s advice, he leads her to the library and announces every one of the books in it – and there are a LOT of books, it’s gorgeous – is hers. She’s overjoyed. The Beast’s enthusiasm is adorable here, you get the feeling he’s probably never given a present before. He’s making a huge effort, trying to eat nicely (and Belle meets him halfway, delicately slurping from her bowl), learning how to feed birds (and loving it) and dressing in handsome suits. They have a snowball fight in the garden and later read together in front of the fire while the servants look on, shipping it hard.

Cogsworth decides the budding romance needs a helpful nudge and marshals the castle’s staff to throw a spectacular ball for two. They are beginning to dream of being human again. There is in fact an entire song number devoted to this in the extended edition. It is worth watching if only for the scene where Belle reads Romeo and Juliet to the Beast and he gazes at her with heart eyes, and then she shows him how to read it himself. If books be the food of love, read on!

But the servants have a mission and these two maybe-almost-a-bit lovebirds are not getting in their way. Belle is given a stunning yellow ballgown; the Beast scrubs up well in a blue frock coat. Lumiere gives him a rousing pep talk while he’s trimmed and combed like a rather recalcitrant pet. He’s been practicing his manners, offering his arm to Belle to guide her down the stairs, and shows he has not lost all his human skills by swirling around on the dancefloor. Admittedly, they are the only couple, there’s no other couples to get in the way.

They drift out onto the balcony. The Beast awkwardly takes Belle’s hands and asks if she’s happy, the answer to which is a conditional yes; she wants to check on her father. It just so happens the Beast has a magical mirror that can show any person or place, and he offers her to use of it. I love Belle even more right now because she talks to the mirror so politely (well, I suppose you’d get in the habit if you knew just about anything could talk back).

She sees her father lying sprawled on the ground, alone, lost, very sick. In that moment she has to leave, and the Beast asks only that she keep the mirror to remember him by. The staff are appalled. The rose, you see, is drooping. Time is almost up.

Belle takes her father home – unknowingly bringing along Chip as a stowaway. But home is not safe any more, and before long Gaston and his bought doctor show up to take the ‘madman’ away. Trying to prove her father’s sanity, Belle produces the mirror and uses it to show the Beast is real. Gaston, suddenly scarily perceptive, notices how soft her voice is when she speaks of her friend’s kindness. Instead of going after her father, Gaston whips up a pitchfork-wielding, all-torches-blazing mob and marches on the castle to take down the biggest trophy he’s ever seen. A frantic Belle and her father are left prisoners in their own home…but they have an unexpected asset on their side. The woodchopping machine! Chip single-handedly gets it going – a remarkable feat considering he does not, in fact, have hands – and hacks open the locked door.

The mob has already reached the castle. Heartbroken, the Beast hardly cares. He’s a sweetie but useless in a crisis. Everyone’s lives are at stake here and the staff arm themselves however they can, setting traps, mounting assaults. The invaders are not prepared for a devilishly grinning oven or streams of boiling water from a furious teapot and her many children. A favourite moment is when the minions think they have the footstool dog cornered, only to be confronted with drawers full of animate knives. If only justice was always so sharp.

Gaston, however, keeps his eyes on the prize. While everyone else flees, he prowls through the empty rooms until he finds the Beast – who will not fight back, even pushed to the edge of the roof with a club above his head, until he hears Belle’s scream from the courtyard below. Now he knows she cares.

The club never connects. Gaston may be a fine hunter, but the Beast is all raw power and he desperately wants to live. He finally gets Gaston by the throat, holding him over thin air. He doesn’t kill him – he lets him go. After all, Belle is here, and all the Beast wants is to be with her. Gaston, instead of running, climbs after them to the balcony and stabs the Beast in the back. In so doing, he falls to his death. No one cares.

The damage is done – the Beast is dying. Belle sobs against his chest. “I love you,” she breathes, as the last rose petal falls.

There’s not much good that can be said for a sniffy enchantress who transformed a child into a monster to teach him manners and cursed his entire household staff as well (including his pets), but she included one hell of an escape clause. True love, in this instance, really does http://images5.fanpop.com/image/photos/25400000/Belle-in-Beauty-and-the-Beast-disney-princess-25447917-1280-720.jpgconquer all. Lights falls everywhere like shooting stars; the Beast floats into the air, radiating beams of magic as his limbs reshape into their true form. A man falls to the ground – a built redhead with very bright, familiar blue eyes. Belle is a little unsure at first, but those eyes confirm it. He’s her Beast.

At their first kiss, the staff are restored and the Beast rushes around giving everybody hugs. They celebrate with another grand ball. Belle’s dad strikes up a friendship with Mrs Potts; Cogsworth and Lumiere bicker wildly, as per usual. A crowd of well-dressed guests have been conjured from nowhere. On the dancefloor, Belle and her prince whirl in their own world.

Spot the Difference: I’ve heard this fairy tale described as a story about Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a valid interpretation of the source material but I could not agree with it less. To me, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a story about isolation, and how everyone needs to be seen for who they truly are. The Disney adaptation emphasises this with the Beast’s passionate self-loathing. His temper is rooted in fear and insecurity; he must learn to accept himself and his own inherent capacity for growth before he can become really loveable. But he needs Belle’s help to get there. That is not a shameful thing. It can be incredibly hard to believe in your own worth when others judge on appearances (especially when you’ve been cursed from the age of eleven, have no family and all your friends work for you plus are literally the furniture. JUST SAYING).

Belle is the Beast’s prisoner in name only and they both know it. Her beauty is what strikes him first but he actively supports her intellectualism, admires her good sense and tries to engage with her on every level he can. Belle is kind and practical, a woman who makes friends easily but takes no nonsense. Her real imprisonment was within the narrow expectations of the town, epitomised by Gaston’s breathtaking arrogance, and she handled it with the calm diplomacy of a born leader.

If you needed help remembering your humanity, why wouldn’t you go to her?

The Sharazad Project: Week 21

NSFW content

Trigger warning: ableism and physical abuse

I made a flippant joke about the Barber Show last week. LITTLE DID I KNOW. Today we return to night thirty one and the barber, who is telling family anecdotes for a disgruntled caliph. Having shared the misadventures of his eldest brother, he moves on to his second brother, who is semi-paralysed but apparently capable of walking because that’s how he meets a really ominous old lady. “I shall tell you of something,” she offers, “and guide you to it, but you must not question me too much.” Just say no!

Bro 2 is listening, however, and the old lady goes on. “What do you say to a beautiful house with a pleasant garden, flowing streams, fruit, wine, a beautiful face and someone to embrace you from evening until morning?” she wheedles. “If you do what I shall suggest to you, you will find something to please you.” Bro 2 has just enough skepticism to ask why she’s singled him out for this fantastic offer and she tells him not to ask questions.

Leading the way to a handsome mansion, she passes off Bro 2 as a craftsman and introduces him to a beautiful young woman. They exchange pleasantries. There’s nothing much Bro 2 can say, since he has no idea what he’s doing there. The girl orders a magnificent meal for them to share but spends the whole time laughing at him. He mistakes this for attraction. After the meal, musicians come to play for the girl and her maidservants; she gives Bro 2 glass after glass of wine and starts slapping him around. When he tries to leave, the old lady ushers him back into the room. It only gets worse from there. The maidservants join in the abuse, until he’s almost unconscious from the beating. The old woman insists that once the girl is drunk Bro 2 can turn the tables and it’s all disgusting. If you want to skip this story – I kind of want to skip this story – scroll down until you reach the bolded paragraph.

Anyway, back to Bro 2 and his poor life choices. The maidservants are now sprinkling him with rosewater, possibly to wake him up. “You have entered my house and endured the condition I imposed,” the girl in charge tells him. “Whoever disobeys me, I expel, but whoever endures reaches his goal…Know that God has made me passionately fond of amusement, and those who indulge me in this get what they seek.” Bro 2 takes this to mean great sex and sticks around. I predict he’ll regret that.

The maidservants pluck out his moustache and dye his eyebrows, then shave off his beard. Bro 2 starts having second thoughts at this point but the old lady assures him all this is proof of how desperately in love with him the girl is (WHAT, LADY) and Bro 2 resignedly allows it all to happen. The lady finds the resulting spectacle hilarious and orders him to dance so that she can throw cushions at him. The maids hurl bits of fruit. He falls over.

“Now you have achieved your goal,” the old woman soothes him. She tells him that once the girl is really drunk, she’ll strip and Bro 2 must strip too, then chase after the girl through the halls because even thought it’ll look like she’s trying to escape, it’s all…a game…this is so vile. The story breaks off there and when it resumes in night thirty two they’re running naked through the house. It is all a really nasty prank, of course – Bro 2 falls through a trick door and tumbles outside into a street market, where indignant shopkeepers beat him up and drag him before the governor, who has him beaten up some more and banished. The barber takes him in too. Literally the only interesting thing about this story is that the house he fell out of is said to belong to Shams al-Din, a name familiar from a previous story.

Don’t breathe easy yet, we’re seguing straight into the story of Bro 3.

This brother is blind and a beggar and really, if the barber takes such good care of his brothers, how did he not know about that? Bro 3 knocks at the door of a large house but doesn’t answer the owner’s increasingly irritable calls of ‘Who is there?’ until the door opens. Instead of giving him alms, the owner drags him inside and up several flights of stairs to the rooftop. There he asks again what Bro 3 wants, and gets very angry at the prospect of donating anything at all. He just takes off and Bro 3, trying to reach the stairs, falls off the rooftop. He gets a terrible concussion; it’s a wonder he isn’t killed.

Wandering in a daze, he comes across two friends of his, both of whom are also blind. He suggests they pool their savings for some fun after such a bad day, but unknown to any of them, the horrible man from the house is watching and follows Bro 3 to his lodgings. Even when the friends (very sensibly!) search the room for an intruder, Stalker goes undetected by hanging off the edge of their roof. Thinking themselves unobserved, the three friends count their not inconsiderable savings, take out a sum and bury the rest in a corner. After that, they share a meal.

Being blind does not make these men defenceless; Bro 3 realises a stranger is in the room when he hears someone else chewing and his friends quickly lay hands on the invader. Their shouts gather a crowd. Stalker is shameless – he shuts his eyes, pretending to be blind himself and says the men are trying to steal his money. They are all taken before the governor. Stalker is questioned first and declares that the only way to discover the truth is through torture. Also, he suggests they start with Bro 3. AND THEY DO. While Bro 3 is subjected to a savage beating, Stalker conjures up a terrible story, pretending they are a gang of con artists preying on charitable souls and the savings buried back at the lodgings are their shared ill-gotten gains.

The governor believes them. The men are brutally beaten. As a reward for his testimony, Stalker is given a large share of the buried money and the real owners are all exiled. Thus the barber must take in his third brother.

The caliph finds this hilarious – I feel a bit sick. If I had not committed myself to this project, I’d be skipping the next few segues, because I doubt it will get any better until the barber goes away. As it is, I am going to finish up this section next week or die trying.

Don’t let me overwhelm you with my enthusiasm.

Review – Dancing on Knives

Dancing on Knives – Kate Forsyth

Vintage Books, 2014

What was meant to be a fresh chance for the Sanchez family has become a nightmare. Having recently returned to painting, turbulent patriarch Augusto was forging a masterwork that would have eased their financial woes and granted his devoted daughter Sara a reprieve from his wild moods – but when he suffers a terrible accident, the family are left reeling with shock and suspicion. Augusto spent so long cultivating his own myth he ignored his own children’s lies. Now they are forced to see each other’s ugly secrets and face the question none of them want to ask: what if Augusto’s fall was not an accident at all?

There’s quite the story behind this book, which is a reworked and republished version of a novel Kate Forsyth published ten years ago under the name Kate Humphrey. The title implies it’s part of her not-exactly-a-series of loose fairy tale retellings, but though there are many references to ‘The Little Mermaid’ this is very much a separate book and not a retelling. It’s not really a mystery either, because no one will acknowledge whether or not there’s actually a crime until a good way through the book, and not much active detecting takes place. Dancing on Knives is really a family drama focusing on Sara, Augusto’s older daughter. Not a dynamic protagonist at the best of times, she’s done a disservice when big chunks of the book drift away from the main plot to explore events in her family’s past. While these certainly explain how she got to be the way she is, they don’t help the reader engage with her life, and there are a few clichés in the Sanchez family that made me a bit uncomfortable. The plot felt too slow and indirect but I should add, the contemplative, almost stream of consciousness style of the book is not a structure that usually appeals to me. I’d have liked Dancing on Knives better if it had capitalised on the tightening sense of claustrophobia and taken a more traditional mystery format.

The Sharazad Project: Week 20

We left off last week at the end of night thirty with the barber of your second-worst nightmares (he’s not Sweeney Todd level, but will talk until your ears bleed and has stalker tendencies) accusing an important government official of having murdered his master, when in fact the young man in question is upstairs with the official’s daughter, probably wishing he’d never even thought of having a haircut.

The official is both bewildered and angry at the accusation. “Don’t play the sinister old man,” the barber declares. “I know the whole story. Your daughter loves him and he loves her.” He threatens to bring the whole business before a judge. He’s already got a whole crowd behind him, and the official is riled into permitting a search of his house for the young man. Who of course desperately wants not to be found! The best hiding place he can manage at such short notice is a large chest – he shuts himself inside. Because the barber is the human incarnation of Murphy’s Law, he comes upon the very same chest and somehow hoists it up onto his head. And carries it off. Panicked, the young man kicks it open and tumbles out onto the ground, breaking his leg in the process. He then scatters the contents of his purse to distract the crowd while he stumbles off, but just cannot shake the barber off his heels.

“You brought all this on yourself,” the man insists. “If God in His grace had not sent me to you, you would never have escaped from the disaster into which you had fallen, but would have fallen into another…I don’t hold your folly against you, as you are an impatient young man of limited intelligence.” I dislike this protagonist but seriously, nobody deserves to be part of the Barber Show. Out of pure desperation, the young man flees into a market and convinces a weaver to hold the barber at bay while he arranges a more permanent escape. He divides up his money, sells his property and sets off travelling, all to get away – only to run into the barber at a dinner party. No wonder he reacted badly.

All the other guests turn on the barber, demanding to know if the story’s true. The barber swears he acted as he did out of chivalry. “It is lucky for him that it was his leg that was broken and he did not lose his life,” he says, proving he really wasn’t listening. To emphasise his point, he launches into an anecdote from his own life. Segue!

It begins one day when the caliph of Baghdad ordered ten criminals to be brought before him. They are sent off on a boat and the barber, sighting them, mistakes the occasion for a pleasure cruise. Because he genuinely can’t keep his nose out of other people’s business, he weasels his way aboard. Apparently he doesn’t pick up on the fact it’s not a floating feast from the absence of food, drink or fun. Not even when they disembark and guards start putting chains around the prisoners’ necks. Thinking the barber is another criminal, they chain him too. He doesn’t correct them. I haven’t the least idea why.

All the men are led before the caliph, who orders them to be beheaded. Someone lays out the execution mat right then and there – yes, I used the words ‘execution mat’, that is apparently a thing – so they can start chopping off heads under the caliph’s impassive eye. Luckily for the barber, the executioner is a careful man. He knows he was supposed to behead ten men, so he does. The caliph is bad at math and insists the barber is the tenth criminal; a count of bodies proves that to be untrue, so the barber is questioned. “What led you to stay silent at a time like this?” is what the caliph actually says, speaking for all of us. “How did you come to be with these criminals, and what is the reason for this, you being an old man of little brain?”

If you think the barber is going to be cowed at all by authority or the prospect of imminent death, you’d be mistaken. His only explanation, long-winded and repetitive and completely non-informative as it is, is that he was acting out of chivalry. Again. “It was a hugely honourable act on my part to share in their execution,” he says, “but all my days I have been doing favours of this kind to people, in spite of that fact that they repay me in the most brutish of ways.”

The caliph keels over laughing. When he can speak again, he asks if all the barber’s brothers are like…well, like him. The barber bristles and manages to make me dislike him even more by declaring that all his brothers show up their general inadequacy in a variety of physical deformities. The ableist awfulness does not stop there – the barber continues straight into a segue within the segue.

Okay, so the barber’s eldest brother is a tailor with spinal problems. The shop he rents looks out on the street and one day while he was busy sewing he looked up to see one of the stunningly beautiful mystery women who apparently have a secret society in Baghdad. He was besotted from the second he laid eyes on her. Neglecting his work in favour of staring hopefully out the window, he eventually saw her again and this time she saw him too, divining immediately – the way beautiful mystery women do – that he was in love with her. She sent a maid with a bundle of red silk and instructions for the tailor to make her a shift. When that was completed, the maid returned with yellow silk and some mildly flirtatious remarks to pass on. While the tailor was sewing the second garment, the object of his affections sat in the window across the street smiling and waving and generally giving the tailor reason to think his feelings might be returned.

The next time the maid visited, it was to summon the tailor before her master. Because the lady was not only married, she’d told her husband about the tailor and suggested he make a great number of shirts for the household. That does not say romance to me. Even worse, the lady had not paid him for any of the clothes he’d made. The truth is, she was well aware of his feelings and was shamelessly exploiting him with her husband’s approval. So he kept making clothes for them, abandoning his paid work in favour of lovelorn drudgery.

Their next trick beggars belief: they married him off to their maid. On the wedding night the spiteful couple advised him to sleep in the local mill (no explanation for that whatsoever) then fed the miller ugly stories about him, so that the man returned to the mill in a foul temper. He tied a rope around the tailor’s neck, making him turn the wheel in place of a bull, beating him with a whip when he did not move fast enough. When he eventually got home, aching and exhausted, the maid professed shock at his treatment but was really an active participant in her employers’ elaborate cruelties.

At his lodging house the tailor ran into the man who officiated at his marriage. Upon hearing how he spent the night, the official suspected the maid’s involvement and the tailor was angry enough to try and sever contact with his neighbours, but when the woman who originally captured his eye came crying to his door to insist her innocence, he mistook beauty for sincerity and got sucked back in. The maid, now his wife but still playing go-between, claimed that the woman’s husband was to be with friends that evening and it was a great time for a rendevous. Only it was yet another humiliation, because the woman’s husband was lying in wait and dragged him off to the governor to be punished for his attempted infidelity. The tailor was beaten and taken around the city so that people could howl abuse at him, then once that was over, he was banished. The barber took him in and they’ve lived together since.

If you’re wondering what the point of that depressing little anecdote was, a) you are not alone and b) I have dreadful news. The barber has six brothers. He’s going to tell us about ALL OF THEM.

Review – Sourdough and Other Stories

Sourdough and Other Stories – Angela Slatter

Tartarus Press, 2012

Originally published 2010

These are the tales of mothers and daughters. A woman who picks gallowberries and steps out of the world, leaving a tangle of loyalties behind; a girl with a map written into her skin; a baker who feeds vengeance to her enemy and a doll-maker with the power to mould an army. These are the tales of witches and thieves, troll-girls, brides and widows and ghosts.

Winner of the 2012 British Fantasy Award, among numerous other accolades, Angela Slatter is well known for her dark fairy tales. While I recognised only one direct retelling, every story in this collection draws on the lyrical rhythm and clean structure of traditional folk tales. They are not consecutive but are quietly interconnected; the protagonist of one will appear as a side character in another or some part of back story will be revealed. Combining raw pragmatism with strange magic, these stories are exceptionally inventive and frequently very bleak – I’d classify most as dark fantasy, but there’s definitely a strong tinge of horror. Last year Slatter released The Bitterwood Bible and other stories, a second collection set in the same world.

The Sharazad Project: Week 19

This is night twenty nine of Sharazad’s tales and we’re still working through the story of the king’s unlucky fool, who went to dinner with a tailor and his wife and choked to death on a fish bone thanks to his hosts’ careless cruelty. They tried to dump his body elsewhere but that plan failed spectacularly and now the tailor is racking his brains for a story even weirder than the night that’s just passed. If his judge, the king, is satisfied with the story, he’ll absolve everyone involved in the whole sorry business. If he’s not satisfied, he’ll hang the lot of them.

With that firmly in mind, the tailor begins.

Earlier on the day he met the hunchback, he was at a banquet. A breakfast banquet? Or does he just get up really late? Anyway, there are about twenty craftsmen and merchants attending this meal, including a handsome boy from Baghdad. This is not a great start, since every single story told to the king so far has been about a handsome boy from Baghdad. Also holding to the pattern, he’s physically injured (he has difficulties walking) and has a strange hang-up (appalled by the sight of a barber). In fact, he’s so upset about the sight of his fellow guest that he tries to leave the banquet. His host is confused and curious, asking for an explanation.

It is not a superstition about barbers in general – the young man’s hatred is specific to that barber, whom he has encountered before in Baghdad. “It is he who is responsible…for the breaking of my leg,” the young man says. “I swore that I would not associate with him in any place or in any town in which he was living.” It sounds like he left Baghdad for that very reason, which makes this meeting all the more awkward. The barber looks equally appalled, particularly when the young man continues with his story.

The segue takes us, unsurprisingly, to Baghdad and the young man’s childhood home. His father’s legacy of wealth has granted him access to a lavish lifestyle but, as he puts it, ‘God had endowed me with a hatred of women’ – he literally thinks this is an excuse for misogyny – and the very sight of a group of women moving in his general direction sends him scampering off to hide in a cul-de-sac. Amazingly, this strategy fails. Women, they are inescapable like that! You’d think we comprised fifty percent of the population or something! The young man doesn’t want to escape this time, however, because the girl watering plants at the window above him is exceptionally pretty. He throws aside his bachelor plans in favour of creepy insta-love and lurks outside her house all day. Toward nightfall, a notable official rides up and goes inside the house amid a procession of eunuchs and slaves. The young man concludes this must be the girl’s father.

I loathe our protagonist a bit more when he goes home, all woeful because he’s in love, and it turns out he has sympathetic servant girls who want to know about his problems. They cry because he’s sad. An old woman who may or may not work for him notices the commotion and comes in like a no-nonsense grandma, asking for the full story. He doesn’t deserve all this feminine support! Nor does he deserve the old woman’s instant recognition – she’s one of the few people permitted to see the girl, who’s in some kind of virginal seclusion. She goes off to talk to the girl on his behalf.

The meeting does not go well. The girl calls her ill-omened and tells her shut up. Persistently, the old lady returns a few days later, being sure to look tearful and pathetic to ensure the maximum malleability of her prey. She paints the young man as wasting away for love. “The first time that I told him what you had said to me,” the old lady guilts, “his love sickness grew worse; he kept to his bed, and there can be no doubt that he is going to die.” The girl gets in on the Romeo and Juliet thing, professing love for someone she’s neither seen nor spoken to herself. She arranges for her suitor to visit while her father is out at prayers. The young man recovers with miraculous speed.

On the appointed day, he gets ready with so much time to spare that the old woman suggests he go to the baths first. He goes one step further and calls for a barber too, to shave his head. This has some connection to his recent illness, though honestly, I have no idea what. The barber talks cheerfully, offering his services as hairdresser/surgeon, until the young man snaps at him to just shave the hair already. Instead, the barber produces an astrolabe, gabbles some astrological gobbledygook and makes a prophecy. “That shows that this is a good day for hair cutting and it also shows me that you are looking for union with someone and that this will be fortunate, but afterwards there will be words and something that I won’t mention to you.” “By God,” grinds the young man, “you have driven me to distraction, lowered my spirits and produced an omen for me that is not good. I only asked you to cut my hair, so get on and do it.”

Still reflecting on his prophecy, the barber advises that his client should not do anything at all today. “You are the only astrological barber whom I have ever met,” the young man scoffs. “I can see that you have a fund of jokes, but I only asked you here to look after my hair, and instead you have produced all this rubbish.” That’s the wrong approach. Puffing up with indignation, the barber insists not only has he the qualifications of astrologer, he’s also ‘a chemist, an expert in natural magic, grammar, morphology, philology, rhetoric, eloquence, logic, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, religious law, the traditions of the Prophet and the interpretation of the Quran’. He’s well-read and scientifically minded and he knew the young man’s dad, in fact they were good friends, he was nicknamed the ‘silent and serious one’ (good HEAVENS) and the young man should be grateful he’s here to give all this advice. “I would like to be in your service for a whole year so that you might value me as I deserve,” he concludes righteously, “and I would not want any wages from you for that.” The young man replies, “Without a doubt you will be the death of me today.”

I hope you’re enjoying the Barber Show because he’s not even close to done. As night thirty begins, he starts telling us about his six brothers. In comparison to them, he’s exceptionally quiet, and they all have weird nicknames to drive home the point. The young man desperately tries to pay him off for the job he hasn’t done but he refuses to take a coin until he’s performed the haircut. Which he then proceeds to ignore in favour of a lengthy lecture about valuing good work and how the young man’s father was such a wonderful fellow, he’d have appreciated all this chat, he once called for a bleeding and deferred it because the astrologer/ chemist/ mathematician/ barber advised he do so, and he appreciated it.

“May God have no mercy on my father for knowing a man like you!” the young man howls, now thoroughly at his wit’s end. The barber finds this hilarious. “I don’t know why you are in such a hurry,” he says. “You know that neither your father nor your grandfather would do anything except on my advice…I am not irritated by you, so how can you be irritated by me? I put up with you patiently because of the favours that your father did me.” Even as he finally begins the haircut, he talks and talks and talks some more. And every time he says something, he stops working. Having noticed at last that his customer is in something of a hurry, he is determined to find out why.

First he throws down his razor to go ascertain the exact hour with his astrolabe. There are three hours to go until the appointed meeting – he seems entirely prepared to keep pestering the young man the whole time. He brings up the various members of the family who have depended on his advice. Just to shut him up, the young man tells him he’s attending a friend’s party. Unfortunately, this reminds the barber of a dinner he promised to throw and the supplies he hasn’t bought for it. In utter desperation, the young man promises all the food he has in the house if he’ll finish the job quickly. He is forced to list everything edible, then to fetch out the wine so it can be inspected, then sit in seething impatience while the barber reels off his guest list. And all the accomplishments of those guests. And some romantic poetry about the street sweeper, upon whom it appears the barber has a crush.

This is driving me crazy. Does the young man break his leg in a frantic escape attempt?

Having described how wonderful his guests are, the barber suggests that the young man give up his plans and come to the barber’s dinner instead. “For you are still showing the traces of your illness,” he reasons, “and it may be that you will find yourself with chatterboxes who talk about what is no concern of theirs, and you might find some inquisitive fellow there who would give you a headache.” The young man laughs mirthlessly. He says no as politely as he can. The barber then suggests he come to the young man’s friend’s party instead. He gets a less polite no to that, and shows a frighteningly sudden streak of perception by guessing that there’s no party at all, that the young man has an assignation with a girl. He’s judgy about it.

He’s also finally finished cutting the young man’s hair, just in time. While he’s taking the promised food to his house, the young man seizes the chance to escape – but it is a trick, because the barber just passed on the supplies to a porter and hid nearby to watch him go. Unaware of his stalker, the young man goes straight to the girl’s house and thanks to the delay has barely enough time to get inside before the girl’s father returns. At this point, several things happen at once. The young man looks out the window and recognises the barber lurking below outside the door. A maidservant gets on the boss’s bad side and while she’s being beaten, a male slave runs to help her – in one sentence becoming my favourite character in this story.

Because he lives in a terrible time with a horrible master, he gets beaten as well. The barber thinks the cries of pain mean that the young man’s presence has been discovered and starts yelling to anyone who’ll listen that his employer has been killed. He also goes running to the young man’s house to tell all the staff there the same story. The family hear it too and before long there’s a vengeful mob returning to the house where the young man is very definitely not dead! The girl’s father goes to the door in fury and confusion, to be met with insults from the young man’s loyal servants. “What has your master done that I should kill him?” he demands.

That is the end of night thirty and a particularly enormous segment. Next Tuesday we’ll conclude the young man’s story – though I think you can probably guess what happens next.

Review – The First Man in Rome

The First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome No.1) – Colleen McCullough

Guild Publishing, 1990

In the year 110 B.C., power passes from one generation of Roman senators to another with little impetus for change – but change is coming, whether they are ready for it or not. As the new year sees in the latest in a line of uninspiring consuls, two men watch from the crowd. Gaius Marius, the New Man with his prestigious military career and thwarted political ambition, is desperate for a chance he’s almost sure will never come. Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s only reputation is one of disillusion and debauchery, but still he dreams of political glory, and there is nothing he will not sacrifice to make those dreams a reality. With war looming and unrest growing, both men will have the opportunity to test their luck, their courage – and their ruthless will to survive.

This vast historical saga is the first book by Colleen McCullough that I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. The First Man in Rome is spectacularly skillful, taking on a cast of mostly morally dubious characters and making them all immensely engaging, if not necessarily likeable – and McCullough spins together the social and political background so effectively that she rarely has to stop and explain anything in detail, allowing the plot and characters to take centre stage. She also manages to depict the attitudes of the times with calm, unjudging clarity without ever agreeing with them, and in some cases, quietly undermining them. For instance, she pays close attention to the lives of women in a society that frequently dismissed their contributions, and includes several LGBT characters (though a warning, they do not have it easy, Ancient Rome is not what you could possibly call a tolerant society). The series continues with The Grass Crown.