Disney Reflections No.1: Miss Adorable 1937 Is Making Friends and Influencing People

"Snow White 1937 poster". Via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Snow_White_1937_poster.png#mediaviewer/File:Snow_White_1937_poster.pngThis is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length animated film from Walt Disney. I should begin this post with a caveat: Snow White was never my favourite Disney fairy tale. I don’t  think I’ve actually rewatched it this millenium and the copy I’m using is the same VCR tape I watched as a child, which has a promotional prelude advertising The Lion King as ‘now showing at a cinema near you’.

The fairy tale: I’ve covered the Grimm brothers version in detail here, as part of the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.

The film: The first character we meet is the wicked queen, looking fabulous in purple and demanding her mirror confirm that. It is a scary mask floating inside the glass, not looking at all like a trustworthy source, and it tactlessly tells her that she’s been surpassed – little Snow White, her neglected stepdaughter, is now the leading looker in the land. This is basically a beauty pageant with the mirror as judge and the entire female population of the kingdom as unknowing participants. The queen is all rage.

Segue to the princess, dressed in rags and scrubbing the palace steps, making the best of things. Having befriended a flock of pigeons, she tells them that the castle well is a wishing well, and starts singing about her hopes for the future. True love features prominently. Totally by chance, the prince of her dreams happens to be riding past and decides to jump over the wall so he can join the singalong.

http://i2.cdnds.net/13/10/618x450/movies-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs_1.jpg Snow White, very reasonably, is scared and runs inside. The prince’s dreamy baritone soon wins her over, however, and she gives him a blushing pigeon as a token of her affections. Unfortunately, the queen bears witness to the budding romance. She orders her huntsman to take Snow into the woods to pick wildflowers…and there, to kill her. She even has a sinister little jewellery box, with a golden heart stabbed through by a knife on the front, for holding the princess’s heart as evidence.

Perhaps it’s been a while since she was permitted outside the castle, because Snow goes a bit wild in the woods, leaping from one patch of wildflowers to another and flirting with bluebirds. She could not be more shocked and terrified when the huntsman looms over her, knife raised – but he can’t go through with the queen’s orders and instead tells Snow White to run. The poor girl is in a mad panic. Her fear turns the wood into a nightmarish death trap. The animation here is incredible, transforming branches into grasping hands and broken logs into crocodiles. (Probably alligators, actually. This is a very American forest.)

She eventually falls in a sobbing heap. When she recovers, she’s surrounded by nervous woodland creatures trying to be sympathetic. Apologising for her freak-out, Snow White leads an impromptu song party with her new friends. When she explains her situation, they lead her to a delightful little cottage that she assumes is occupied by orphaned children, based on its teeny furniture and appalling state of disorder. Deeply sympathetic, she convinces her friends to help her clean the place up. The squirrels, in particular, take to dusting like naturals. The stag is less impressed by his role as clothes rack.

I’m being won over. Can you tell? Snow and her fluffy woodland entourage are one powerful cocktail of cuteness.

But who really owns the cottage? In a mine not too far away, seven dwarves are packing up their tools and setting off with a cheery ‘hi ho, hi ho, it’s home from work we go’. And I just realised I’m spelling ‘dwarves’ the Tolkien way, though that is not how it is spelled in the movie title – nor am I going to stop spelling it the Tolkien way, because it just looks wrong with an ‘f’.

By the time the dwarves get home, Snow and co. have not only cleaned the whole house from top to bottom, the table’s laid for supper and there’s a pot of soup bubbling on the fire. The exhausted princess has crashed upstairs across about three of the dwarves’ beds, with all the other beds claimed by the woodland entourage. They are lighter sleepers than Snow and flee the house when they hear the dwarves returning.

Seeing the lit windows and smoking chimney, the dwarves consult in a frightened huddle. They end up filing inside, picks raised, and Snow’s bluebirds – who have stayed behind up in the rafters – can’t resist scaring them with decidedly un-bluebirdish hoots. Once they’ve demolished much of Snow’s good work in their mad scramble, and after that, reassembled their collective courage, the dwarves creep upstairs to deal with the monster that has invaded their home. What they find is an adorable, china-doll-pretty princess.

Six of the dwarves are immediately smitten. Grumpy, your friendly neighbourhood misogynist – only not the friendly bit – tries to convince the others that as a woman, Snow will have ‘wicked wiles’. At this point, Snow wakes to see she’s surrounded by short bearded men. She recovers her poise with admirable speed and after politely introducing herself, she proceeds to correctly guess each dwarf’s name based on the names carved into their beds. Unexpectedly, they’ve heard of her. Grumpy, at least, has also heard of the queen. He tells his friends that Snow’s stepmother is an expert in the black arts and will kill them all when she finds out where her victim is hidden. Snow has more confidence in her retreat and offers to become a housekeeper/ mother figure if she’s allowed to stay. Promised all their favourite desserts, the other dwarves are very quick to agree, even though that means being sweetly bullied into developing table manners and personal hygiene. Grumpy maintains his bad attitude by mocking their willingness to please. They respond by throwing him in the water trough.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the queen has her heart box in hand and is anticipating a good gloat, but the magic mirror gives it ALL AWAY, right down to Snow White’s current address. Filled with cloak-swirling fury, the queen descends to her wicked lair. It’s full of skulls and potions and a wannabe evil raven who is actually scared stiff of her. The queen whips up the potions for a foolproof disguise, transforming herself into an elderly woman. The secret ingredient is lightning. Frankenstein would love this.

Snow suspects not a thing – the dwarves are showing off their music skills after supper and she’s having a marvellous time. Dopey stands on Sneezy’s shoulders to dance at the princess’s height; Grumpy channels his foul mood into organ playing. When it’s Snow White’s turn to perform and she tells the story of how she met the prince (it’s a pretty short story), the dwarves reveal they are closet romantics by demanding all the details. It never hit me before, Snow White never got the prince’s actual name. That’s why she calls him Charming.

The movie then devotes several minutes to show us everyone going to sleep. Except the queen; she’s busily poisoning an apple and monologuing about death. With a maniacal laugh, she sets off for the dwarves’ cottage.

http://d.ratingmovies.com/servlet/Main/CoverDisplay/Snow_White_And_The_Seven_Dwarfs_%281937%29.jpg?film_rn=7137The next morning, the dwarves warn Snow White not to open the door to anybody and set off to work. She starts baking, assisted by adoring birds. They go on the attack when a scary old lady appears suddenly at the window; Snow White, being Snow White, comes to the old lady’s rescue and leads her inside to rest. She also believes the queen’s story that the reddest apple in her basket is a ‘magic wishing apple’. The woodland entourage stampede towards the dwarves’ mine, but in the time it takes to get the message across, Snow has bitten the poisoned fruit.

She stops breathing. She falls.

It begins to storm. Emerging from the cottage, the queen sees the rescue party thundering towards her and runs. She climbs a cliff and tries to roll a boulder over her pursuers, but instead the rock ledge crumbles and she plunges to her death.

The grieving dwarves lay Snow White in a glass casket, in a clearing where her woodland friends can see her too. The prince, who has been looking for his ideal duet partner all this time, arrives and strides straight up to kiss the dead girl. IT IS SO INAPPROPRIATE. But it also works, since Love’s First Kiss is the only antidote to the poison and no sooner has he brushed her lips than Snow sits up. She’s thrilled. Everybody’s thrilled. The prince carries her off to his horse but proves he’s maybe okay underneath the Ken-doll blandness by lifting up each dwarf so Snow can kiss them goodbye. The couple then ride off into the sunset like the storybook royalty they are.

Spot the Difference: The Disney version ages up Snow White and trims off the other murder attempts. It also avoids the more gruesome deaths some versions inflict on the queen. The dwarves get to have separate personalities, albeit rather simplistic ones, and of course there’s the woodland entourage chewing up scenery (sometimes literally). Overall, though, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. That said, it is very American. From the raccoons and alligators in the forest to Grumpy’s drawl and Snow White’s hair cut, there’s no missing Disney’s stamp.

It’s still not my favourite, by a long shot, but I like it better rewatching as an adult. There’s an interesting streak of stealth feminism I missed the first time round – pretty much every time Grumpy says something sexist or tries to shame the other dwarves for their obliging behaviour, the narrative makes him look an idiot. Snow White’s romance is also given a touch more legitimacy by introducing her to the prince before he brings her back from the dead. She remains every inch a royal even in exile, commanding the loyalty of woodland creatures and convincing complete strangers to do what she wants by force of sheer adorableness. By that I don’t mean just good looks; she’s an enthusiastic, optimistic, surprisingly egalitarian girl who wants to adopt everyone she meets. I find it very easy to imagine her ruling a country.

The Sharazad Project: Week 4

Trigger warning: talk of racism

Night eight opens with everything going very wrong for the young king of the Black Islands. He has failed to behead his wife’s lover, instead only gashing his throat – and he doesn’t even wake up. Nor does the queen, sleeping beside him. The young king decides his rival will die of the injury and leaves without finishing the job.

The next morning, his wife comes to him with her hair shorn off in mourning. Her excuse is ridiculously over the top – according to her, every member of her family has just died, with causes ranging from ‘fighting the infidels’ to a fatal sting. She wants to swim around in her grief, and the young king makes no opposition to her building a tomb beside the palace and calling it the House of Sorrows. Her lover is not dead yet, but can no longer speak or eat anything other than broth. The queen spends most of her time in the tomb tending him.

For three years she laments in the most totally non-subtle of ways. One day, whilst she hangs around outside the tomb reciting tragic love poetry, her husband comes upon her and loses his temper. He sends up her poetry with a sarcastic extra verse, uses some horribly sexist and racist insults, and draws his sword to cut off her head. Realising it was he who ruined her lover’s life, the queen gives a villainous laugh and transforms the king into his current state: human from the waist up, stone from the waist down.

That’s not nearly enough vengeance to satisfy her, however. The four Black Islands are transformed into mountains, the king’s city becomes a pool, and she even colour co-ordinates the different religions and ethnic groups as fish. Having set up her husband in this chamber, she visits him every day to deliver a hundred whiplashes. Over the top of the raw wounds, she lays a hair shirt, and over that his splendid robe, as a mockery of what he once was.

Upon hearing this story, the older king is outraged. The next morning at dawn, he strips naked and sneaks into the House of Sorrows. Killing the slave with one sword blow, he dresses in his clothes and throws the corpse down a well. Murderous and terrifyingly unsanitary, what multi-tasking! Lying in the tomb with a sword at his side, he waits for the queen. She’s busy being a domestic abuser at first, but once done with the morning flogging she carries wine and broth into the tomb. The king fakes ‘the accent of the blacks’ (Sharazad WHY) to pretend her lover has miraculously recovered. Presumably she can’t see him very well, because she’s fooled. He also acts like he hates her, but then her lover did that too, so it’s hardly a giveaway. At his admonishments she repeals her spell on her husband, kicks him out of the palace and goes back to her ‘lover’.

Who is no happier to see her. The misery of everyone else she’s cursed is apparently what made him sick, not the sword blow to his vocal cords at all! Delighted at her chance to make things right, the queen rushes to remove her spell.

We now move into night nine, in which the people of the Black Isles are restored to humanity, except presumably the ones who got fried. That’s a rubbish covenant, incidentally. The queen hurries back to the tomb and the king draws his sword, running her through then cutting her in half. As he emerges from the House of Sorrows, his hand is seized and kissed by the young king, who wants to know what he’ll do next. The breaking of the curse changed physical boundaries; king no.1’s palace is now a whole year’s travel away. The young king does not want to be without his new friend, so the king spontaneously adopts him. Leaving the people of the city to take care of themselves – which they can probably do much better now the infighting of the royal family is over – the two kings set out on the long journey.

The vizier has been taking care of things in the first king’s lands. Being a really great second in command, he has not settled in too comfortably and is genuinely happy to see his boss back. After getting an update on how his kingdom’s doing, the older king gets his priorities straight: handing out presents, then sending for the fisherman. He asks whether he has any kids; on learning the fisherman has two daughters, the king marries one and has his royal bestie marry the other. The fisherman also has a son, who is made treasurer. The vizier, being so formidably competent, is sent off to manage the Black Islands.

The night is not yet over! Having concluded the tale of the fisherman, Sharazad continues with the story of the porter. It begins next Tuesday, when a shopping trip turns kinky and everyone gets drunk.

Review – The Bane Chronicles

The Bane Chronicles – Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan and Maureen Johnson

Walker Books, 2014

When you live forever, it is your duty to be as fabulous as possible. As a warlock, Magnus Bane is half human and half demon; he has outlived monarchies and empires, acquiring extraordinary anecdotes along the way. From a ballooning trip across Paris with Marie Antoinette to running a speakeasy in Prohibition America, to that time he started a llama stampede in Peru, he has lived many lives. These eleven stories are only a glimpse into his glittering, volatile world.

The Bane Chronicles will only make full sense to someone who has read all of Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books, beginning with book one of the Mortal Instruments series, City of Bones. The biracial, bisexual High Warlock of Brooklyn Magnus Bane is a secondary character throughout those books, if an increasingly significant one, but here he takes centre stage. Each story takes on a different time in his life, many of which connect to events from previous books and give rich backstory to other secondary characters, such as the vampire Raphael Santiago and warlock Catarina Loss.

Due to his massive experience, Magnus often comes off as a kind of time traveller, a little separate from the rest of the world – maybe that’s why I found the historical stories less convincing than the more contemporary ones. There are fascinating ideas here, and delightful references for any fan of the Shadowhunter universe. Clare has also written a steampunk prequel trilogy to the Mortal Instruments books, called the Infernal Devices, which begins with Clockwork Angel. Characters from all the books feature in The Bane Chronicles.

The Sharazad Project: Week 3

Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse, sexist language and racism

Welcome to the sixth night of Sharazad’s storytelling, in which we finally get back to the fisherman and the murderous ifrit he has trapped in a bottle. The fisherman repeats his intention of hurling the bottle into the sea, thereby sentencing its prisoner to indefinite eons of unholy boredom.

“Spare me,” cries the ifrit. “If I treated you badly, do you for your part treat me well, as the proverb says: ‘You who do good to the evil-doer, know that what he has done is punishment enough for him’. Do not do what Umama did to Atika!” The fisherman has never heard of these people and wants to hear their story. Using the same ploy as the sage Duban from last week’s segue, the ifrit says he can’t possibly talk about Umama and Atika while imprisoned.

The fisherman is infuriated. He points out, quite accurately, that the ifrit was unmoved by any of his pleas and would totally have killed him anyway. The ifrit promises to never do that again. If the fisherman only releases him, he will be made a very rich man.

This tactic has more of an effect. Making the ifrit swear to their bargain, the fisherman opens the bottle. The ifrit’s first act on being released is to grab that bottle and hurl it as far out to sea as he can, convincing the fisherman he’s about to get murdered. “This is not a good sign!” he wails. Lucky for him, the ifrit is a supernatural being of his word. He laughs at the fisherman’s pants-wetting panic (too much information, Sharazad) and tells him to start walking.

They leave the sea and the city behind for some spontaneous mountain-climbing. On the other side of the mountain is a plain and in it, a pool. The ifrit wades into the water, urging the fisherman to follow. The man realises the pool is full of colorful fish and quickly casts his net. He catches four fish – one white, another red, one blue and the last yellow. The ifrit tells him to present this catch to the king, then asks to be excused so he can go see how the world’s changed over the last eighteen hundred years.

Back in the city the fisherman brings the fish (still alive, swimming in a bowl of water) to the king’s palace, where apparently people can just walk in with presents. The king is pleased and hands over the fish to his vizier, who in turns gives them to the new cook. She’s a slave girl and it is her first day at work. The king is ‘putting his hopes in her artistry and cooking skills’, which sounds a bit ominous. The fisherman is happy though, paid off with four hundred dinars. He hurries away before anything can go wrong.

And go wrong it certainly does. While the slave girl is trying to cook the fish, the kitchen wall splits open and a beautiful young woman loaded with jewellery steps out. She’s carrying a bamboo staff. Stabbing it into the frying pan, she demands, “Fish, are you still faithful to your covenant?” The cook faints. Barely noticing, the woman repeats her question and the fish say ‘Yes’. Actually, they have more to say than that, undeterred by the fact they are dead. “If you return,” they recite, “we return/ If you keep faith, then so do we/ But if you go off, we are quits.” The beautiful woman flips over the pan with her stick and sweeps back through the wall, which closes behind her. When the cook comes to, she sees the fish burnt black and faints again. She’s having a bad day.

The vizier comes down and prods her with his foot until she explains what happened. Luckily he believes her. Ordering the fisherman to bring another catch to the palace, the vizier has the cook fry them up as before while he watches. The wall splits open once more and the beautiful woman returns to interrogate the fish.

At this moment Sharazad breaks off. Night number seven gets underway with the king being informed about the bizarre happenings in his kitchen. He wants to see for himself, so more money is thrown at the fisherman and the vizier puts a fresh pan on to fry. It seems the slave girl wanted out of the whole situation. The king soon sees why when the wall splits open; instead of the mystery woman, a towering black man come striding out to check these fish are keeping to their covenant, flips over the pan and leaves again without a word to his audience.

Fascinated, the king calls in the fisherman for a fourth time to quiz him about the source of the fish and insists on being led to the mountains with a procession of troops. Not one man amongst them has ever seen this pool before, or the plain around it either. Whoever the king asks, in fact, swears they’ve never heard of the place. The king declares he’ll not enter his own city again or do any of that pesky ruling stuff until he gets to the heart of the mystery. When his soldiers have set up camp against the mountains, the king sends for his vizier to explain his plan: he’s going out alone to investigate once dark falls and wants the vizier to cover his absence with the all-purpose excuse of sudden illness.

He picks a direction and walks for two days straight, until at last he sees a black stone palace appear in the distance. The gate is open, but no one responds to his knocking. Thinking the palace must be empty, he walks inside, calling out a few times just to be sure. For an abandoned building, it is furnished very lavishly and presumably well-maintained, as a golden net strung across the central courtyard keeps birds trapped there – the gorgeous lion-mouthed fountain would be considerably less attractive under those conditions if not regularly cleaned.

The king realises his mistake when he hears a voice reciting sad poetry. It sounds like evidence for a domestic abuse case. Going to investigate, the king finds a beautiful young man in a nearby room, seated on a low couch. He wears a silk gown and a gem-studded crown. At the sight of a stranger in his house, his first reaction is to apologise. “Your dignity deserves that I should rise for you, but I have an excuse for not doing so.” The king is not concerned about formalities, narrowing in on his purpose: what the hell’s going on with those fish.

The young man starts sobbing. He recites more poetry about how unhappy he is but that God must know what he’s doing. The king asks what’s wrong; the young man pulls aside his robe and reveals that from the waist down, he’s solid stone. Appalled, the king wants to know how this happened. “There is a marvellous tale attached to the fish and to me,” the young man replies, “which, were it written with needles on the corners of the eyes, would be a lesson for all who can learn.” That’s the second time that particular phrasing has been used and I don’t know exactly what it means, but I like it.

Anyway! The young man begins his tale. His father was king of the Black Islands and after a very respectable reign of seventy years the young man succeeds to his throne. He marries his cousin, who is so desperately in love with him that she will not eat or drink when he isn’t there. They have been married for five years when the pattern of their daily lives hiccups just slightly; the young king comes into their apartments while his wife is at the baths and, thinking him to be asleep, a pair of slave girls start gossiping within earshot. Turns out they hate their mistress because she’s a cheat, drugging her husband to make sure he sleeps while she goes cavorting with her boyfriend.

Confused and distressed, the young king decides to test their story. That night he pours away his usual evening drink and only pretends to sleep. Soon his wife rises and spits at him, “Sleep through the night and never get up. By God, I loathe you and I loathe your appearance. I am tired of living with you and I don’t know when God is going to take your life.”

So…that sounds bad. She also steals his sword. Following her through the palace gates and the markets beyond, the young king sees her spell open the city gate and go to a brick hut. He climbs onto its roof, where I think there must be a chimney or something because he can see what’s happening inside. Below him lies a black slave in tattered clothes. He is suffering from leprosy and his lips are described in very unflattering terms as being sort of swollen, but he manages to talk just fine, snapping at the queen for keeping him waiting while his cousins are off having fun. She tries to reassure him, but he accuses her of ‘playing fast and loose’ and calls her a ‘stinking bitch’, ‘vilest of the whites’. Blatant racism and sexism all in the same scene, isn’t this fun!

The queen starts crying. Managing to soothe him with her misery, she strips and gets into bed – and the young king reacts like literally every other male monarch so far, jumping down and swinging  his backup sword.

This is Sharazad’s cliffhanger. A tad risky, I’d say, given her husband’s history, but he’s addicted now and needs to know what happens next. The story continues next week with sorcery and sarcastic poetry.

Review – Currawong Manor

Currawong Manor – Josephine Pennicott

Pan Macmillan Australia, 2014

Generations of local rumour have called the house cursed, and one day in 1945 cemented its ghoulish reputation: when thirteen-year-old Shalimar Patridge drowned under mysterious circumstances, her grief-stricken mother ran in front of a train and her father, known as ‘the devil of Australian art’, vanished without a trace. Half a century later, his granddaughter Elizabeth Thorrington, herself a noted and controversial photographer, returns to Currawong Manor. There she meets Ginger Lawson, one of Rupert Patridge’s last surviving models. Both women are invested in telling the artist’s story. Only one of them, however, knows what really happened the day Shalimar died.

Though not a direct sequel, Currawong Manor is thematically similar to Pennicott’s earlier work Poet’s Cottage and characters from that book are referenced here, which is a nice narrative in-joke. There is a powerfully ominous atmosphere to Currawong Manor, melding Gothic tradition with the unique menace of the Australian bush. Its conclusion, however, disappointed me. Serious issues of exploitation and consent were raised but not adequately examined – in fact, actively dismissed – and I didn’t feel Elizabeth’s character was a strong enough protagonist to anchor the subplots. This book had the potential to go much deeper than it did.

Review – Splashdance Silver

Splashdance Silver (The Mocklore Chronicles No.1) – Tansy Rayner Roberts

Bantam, 1998

In the tiny Empire of Mocklore, where the top job is a revolving door and magic is a major inconvenience, destiny is a force stronger than gravity. When Kassa’s notorious father, the pirate Vicious Bigbeard Daggersharp, dies suddenly and leaves his silver to her, she realises she’s being pushed into a decision – whether to follow in his footsteps and don the traditional eyepatch, or take up her dead mother’s career and become a witch. What she really wants to do is dance for a living, but she wants that treasure too. Unfortunately, so does the new Empress, her poster boy Champion and an army no one will admit actually exists…

I found this copy in a teeny bookshop, where I’d ended up under somewhat strange circumstances, and recognised the title because FableCroft recently reissued the entire series. This is comic fantasy in the vein of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones, in which peculiar things happen constantly and no explanation can be expected. That didn’t always work for me, but it was definitely funny and had a bouncy, airy charm. Though Kassa was a likeable protagonist, I liked the Empress Talle better, and her Champion Aragon was always surprising me. The series continues with Liquid Gold.

The Sharazad Project: Week 2

The third night of Sharazad’s spectacularly dysfunctional marriage sees the start of a new story, the tale of the fisherman. This protagonist is an elderly man struggling to support his wife and three children. For whatever reason, he’s in the habit of casting his nets no more or less than four times each day. One day it seems he has a fantastic catch, only the weight turns out to be a dead donkey; on the next cast the net is even heavier, and this time it’s an old jar full of mud. In a failure of fairy tale tradition, the third try is no luckier. By now desperate, the fisherman addresses God directly, pointing out he only casts his net four times every day and he really, really needs to catch something – please?

Well, the prayer gets him no fish. Instead he pulls up a brass bottle with a lead seal, but that’s all right, because a bottle of this type will earn a good price at market. Before selling it on, the fisherman wants to be sure there’s nothing even better inside, so he prises off the seal and tips the bottle upside down.

Who could have predicted that was a bad idea?

Smoke comes pouring out and coalesces into a gigantic, foul-tempered ifrit, who announces his intention to kill his rescuer on the spot. “For this good news, leader of the ifrits,” the fisherman replies, heavily sarcastic, “you deserve that God’s protection be removed from you, you damned creature. Why should you kill me and what have I done to deserve this?” The ifrit explains that he joined a rebellion against King Solomon, nearly two thousand years ago, and that Solomon didn’t like that much. With the help of his vizier, the king sealed him in the brass bottle and the ifrit has been trapped ever since. Planning what he’d do upon his release is the only way he stayed sane. For the first hundred years he promised himself that whoever freed him would be granted lifelong wealth; a century later, he decided to bestow gemstones. If the fisherman had rescued him four hundred years after that, he would have been offered three wishes. But eighteen hundred years in a tiny bottle has left the ifrit very anti-humanity. All the fisherman gets now if the choice of how he’s to die.

The fisherman pleads with logic and proverbs, but the ifrit’s having none of it, so the fisherman resorts to cunning. Considering the size of the bottle, he scoffs at the idea the ifrit could ever have fit inside. Here Sharazad breaks off, seguing into Night 4, but you can probably guess where this is going. The ifrit is offended at the lack of faith in his flexibility, squeezes back inside the bottle and gets stoppered. “Ask me how you want to die,” the fisherman shouts maliciously. He announces his intention to throw the bottle back into the water and build a house at the seashore to prevent anyone ever fishing it out again. The ifrit tries to pretend the whole thing was a joke; the fisherman ain’t buying it. “You and I are like the vizier of King Yunan and Duban the sage,” he reflects, and diverts into that story:

In the land of Ruman there was once a king called Yunan, famous for his multicultural armed forces but afflicted with leprosy. Despite all the doctors attending him, the disease keeps a firm grip. One physician who comes to try his luck is Duban the sage, a man as well-educated as his nickname implies. Coming before the king in his fanciest clothes, he declares he can cure the leprosy without medicine or ointments. Yunan promises him glorious riches if he can make good on his word, plus best friend status forever.

Duban rents a place in the city and fills a polo stick with drugs. Seriously, this is his plan. He then goes to the king and explains why he should play with it. The idea is that the drug will enter through the skin and by the time the game is over, the cure will already be at work. Much as it sounds like a late night informercial, the method is effective. The healed king showers his new friend in gifts and can’t see enough of him. This arouses the jealousy of one of Yunan’s viziers, who goes to the king claiming Duban to be an enemy of the throne in roundabout politic speak. The king is confused. “If you are asleep, wake up,” the vizier snaps, a lot less diplomatically. “I am talking about the sage Duban.” Yunan is appalled at the accusation and defends Duban eloquently, recognising that it’s envy rather than evidence behind the vizier’s claims. It reminds him of the story of King Sindbad.

Yes, folks, segue within a segue! And there Sharazad breaks off again.

Night 5 begins with the story of King Sindbad. A Persian king with a passion for hunting, his most constant companion is a falcon he raised and trained himself. When they go hunting together, he has it wear a tiny golden bowl around its neck, so that it can drink in style. On one such trip the king’s men trap a gazelle. He threatens anyone who allows it to escape with death, but as he bends to study the animal, it leaps lightly over his head and bounds away. His men struggle to contain their amusement.

Furious, the king sets off alone in pursuit. His falcon blinds the poor animal and the king finishes it off, tying the body to his saddle. He then turns for home, but the sun is high overhead and the king is very thirsty. He sees a tree dripping liquid and gathers some in the falcon’s bowl, offering it his bird before drinking himself. The falcon knocks it over. Twice more the king tries to make it drink and fails. Raging at its stubborness, he cuts off its wing. The bird jerks its head in a last ditch effort and the king realises that the liquid he was collecting was actually poison dripping from the mouths of sleeping vipers. Understanding makes zero difference. The falcon dies anyway.

King Yunan’s vizier is left unmoved by the tale. “Sindbad acted out of necessity and I can see nothing wrong in that,” he insists, ignoring every single thing he’s just heard, possibly because he spent that time thinking up a comeback story of his own.

In his story there is another passionate hunter, a young prince in the care of an untrustworthy vizier. One day as they are out hunting the prince sights an enormous beast and his vizier encourages him to go kill it, so of course the prince ends up getting lost in the desert. He’s not the only one – he soon comes across a crying princess who fell asleep out here and was left behind by her companions. The prince gallantly lifts her up onto his horse so they can be lost together.

On their way through the desert, they pass a ruined building and the princess asks him to stop so she can go inside and relieve herself. I’m pretty sure that’s the first canonical bathroom break in any fairy tale I’ve read, but it’s actually a ruse – she’s a ghula (a female ghoul), not a princess at all, and her children live in the ruin. The prince is coming to check she’s okay when he hears her promising the kids ‘a fat young man’ to eat. There is no opportunity for escape. She comes out to find him standing there, shivering, and asks what’s wrong. “I have an enemy,” he tells her. The ghula offers helpful suggestions for dealing with this enemy, like bribery and prayer – which when I say it like that, do sound a slightly odd combination…The prince calls on the kindness of God and the ghula lets him go. Just like that.

The prince goes home and tells his father about the vizier’s terrible advice, upon which the king has his courtier killed. This, according to Yunan’s vizier (there are so many viziers this week) is the way to handle all problems – when in doubt, execute someone. Yunan is swayed. “Don’t you see that he cured your disease externally through something you held in your hand,” the vizier continues, “so how can you be sure that he won’t kill you by something else you hold?” His suggestion is for the king to betray Duban before Duban betrays the king.

Won over by selective storytelling, Yunan sends for his physician. There is an exchange of poetry. There is a lot of poetry in these stories, most often used as ornately moralistic punctuation to greetings or arguments. The general tone of Duban’s chosen verses is that he’s grateful for the king’s favour and that life will probably work out okay, if God wants it to. The king is unmoved. “I have sent for you,” he says, “in order to kill you and take your life.” Those things are different? Duban refutes any suggestion he’s a spy and begs to live. “If this is how you reward me,” he cries, “it is the crocodile’s reward.” The king then wants to know the story of the crocodile. Duban says he’s too upset to tell it properly while the threat of execution hangs over his head. A courtier who wants to hear the story – or possibly believes in the sage’s innocence, I don’t know – stands up to support Duban’s release, but no luck, the king has been thoroughly convinced of Duban’s guilt. The sage changes tactics. As his last request, he wants to settle his affairs and present the king with a very special book. It contains ‘innumerable secrets’ and if three lines are read from the third page, Duban’s severed head will speak aloud. The king is very excited by the prospect of such a book. “When I cut off your head, will you really talk to me?” he asks, totally missing the fact Duban can also talk with his head attached. Like he’s doing RIGHT NOW.

Duban goes to his house and returns with a book and a plate of powder. His severed head is to be placed in the powder. He is duly executed and the king obeys his instructions, rewarded when Duban’s head opens its eyes and tells him to open the book. For all his paranoia, Yunan is not a clever man. To prise apart the pages, he has to lick his finger, and the book has been laced with poison. As he is racked by fatal convulsions, Duban recites grimly satisfied poetry. So the king falls dead and the fisherman (remember him?) tells the trapped ifrit this is divine justice.

Thus concludes night no.5, and this week’s episode. Return next Tuesday for talking fish!

Review – A Trifle Dead

A Trifle Dead (Café la Femme No.1) – Livia Day

Deadlines (an imprint of Twelfth Planet Press), 2013

Tabitha Darling, manager of the Café la Femme, is a busy woman. She has hipsters to feed, shot glass trifles to make and an over-protective local police force to fend off. The last thing she needs is to find a body upstairs. Tabitha has no desire to be involved in the investigation, but she does want answers – and if a little judiciously applied baking gets the witnesses talking, how can that hurt? But the more of the story she pieces together, the more she begins to feel she was involved all along. Sometimes being the girl who knows everybody comes at a cost.

A Trifle Dead is Tansy Rayner Roberts’ first book written under the pseudonym Livia Day. A cosy mystery set in Hobart (that’s the capital city of Tasmania, for non-Australians), it is light-hearted and mischievous, with a well-concealed serious edge. Tabitha is a delightful protagonist, both playful and pragmatic, and her supporting cast are an interesting (if potentially untrustworthy) medley. The series continues with Drowned Vanilla.

The Sharazad Project: Week 1

Sharazad’s first story is about a wealthy merchant. I actually already know this one! The protagonist rides out one day to settle a business matter and in the hottest part of the day stops to eat and rest. When he’s finished eating his bread and a date, he throws the date stone in a random direction; whereupon which a huge ifrit appears (that being another type of djinn, or jinni) and tells the merchant “Get up so that I can kill you as you killed my son.” The merchant is bewildered. Turns out, when he threw that stone away it hit the ifrit’s son in the chest with sufficient force to kill him. The merchant babbles some poetry about time, which does not move the ifrit in the least, then begs to be allowed to settle matters for his family. The ifrit permits this, if the merchant will return to the same spot on New Year’s Day.

So the merchant goes home, tells his family about his impending execution, settles his business affairs then returns as he promised to the tree where this mess began. As he sits there sobbing, an elderly man approaches, leading a gazelle on a chain. Asked the cause of his tears, the merchant tells everything. “By God, brother, you are a very pious man,” Mr Gazelle says, “and your story is so wonderful that were it written with needles on the corners of men’s eyes, it would be a lesson for those who take heed.” Which is all a way of saying he’s sticking around to see what happens next.

Before long another old man shows up, bringing with him two black dogs. He too decides to stay. Then a third old man, this one accompanied by a grey mule, joins the party – so that when the ifrit finally gets there he’s quite outnumbered. The first of the old men offers him the story of how he acquired this gazelle in return for a third of the merchant’s blood, and the ifrit agrees. So the old man begins his story.

The gazelle is his cousin and also his wife. After they’d been married for thirty years without having children, he took a mistress and had a son with her. He also apparently expected there to be zero resentment on his wife’s part. When the boy was fifteen, his father went away on a business trip and came back to find mother and son both gone. His wife said the former had died and the latter had run away. This is a huge lie; she’s been practicing sorcery most of her life, a fact she’s effortlessly kept from her husband. At the first opportunity she turned her rival into a cow and the boy into a calf.

For a year the old man went into mourning until the following Id al-Adha. This is also known as Eid al-Adha, and is a Muslim festival that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It being customary at that time to make a sacrifice, the old man calls for his herdsman to bring a cow and the slave he kept as a mistress is brought before him. Transformed as she is, he doesn’t recognise her, but she’s all too aware. She cries out and the old man is shaken, asking the herdsman to bring another cow, but his wife insists it be this one. The old man has his herdsman make the kill instead. It’s horrific.

And it’s not over yet, because though the cow looked plump and healthy, she falls to skin and bone under the herdsman’s knife. A better sacrifice is required, and of course the next candidate is the enchanted calf. It rolls on the ground at the man’s feet, weeping. Already regretting his decision to kill the cow, he balks again, but his wife is determined that her revenge be carried out to the full. He goes to the calf with the knife raised…

This is where Sharazad stops. Shahriyar can’t have her executed without finding out what happens next, so for the first time in three years he lets a bride live past dawn. During the day he goes about the business of being king, then returns to the sisters to hear more of Sharazad’s tale.

As I don’t have a homicidal king breathing down my neck, I’ll keep going.

The old man couldn’t bring himself to kill the calf and had it sent back to the herd. The next day, the herdsman comes to see him. His daughter has been trained in magic and when she saw the calf yesterday she started laughing and crying at the same time. “This calf you have with you is our master’s son,” she told him, “who is under a spell laid upon him and his mother by his father’s wife. This is why I was laughing, but the reason why I wept was that his father killed his mother.”

The old man’s first reaction is not horror, but joy – he’s more concerned with his living son than the dead mistress. He goes straight to the herdsman’s daughter, asking if she can restore the boy. She will, on two conditions: if the boy will become her husband, and the sorcerous wife can be transformed too so the girl will be safe from her. The old man agrees. She takes a bowl of water, recites a spell over it, then sprinkles the water over the calf and returns him to the shape of a young man. He tells his story and marries the herdsman’s daughter, straight after which she turns the old man’s wife into a gazelle.

This all happened some years ago – the old man’s daughter-in-law has recently died, his son is travelling in India and the old man is looking for him, which is how he happened upon this particular spot at this particular time. The ifrit considers such a story worth a third of the merchant’s blood, and when the old man with the black dogs offers the same bargain, agrees to that too.

The dogs are the second old man’s elder brothers. When their father died he left them a thousand dinars apiece and each brother opened a shop. Before long, though, the eldest brother sold his shop and went off travelling. A year later, he shows up on his youngest brother’s doorstep as a beggar. The same length of time has seen Merchant No.3’s profits steadily improve, so he not only feeds and clothes his brother, he gives him the money to set up another shop. All goes well for a while, until the middle brother insists on going travelling too. His life duly falls apart, he comes home in rags, and Merchant Three once again uses his own profits to put a brother back in business.

They learn NOTHING. Having run their new businesses for a while, they take it into their heads to go travelling again and want their brother to go with them this time. He sensibly points out it didn’t work out so well before, but after six years of pestering he finally gives in. A check of the other brothers’ accounts proves they don’t have the money for a voyage, so he has to front up cash for the whole venture himself. Again. He also prudently buries half his wealth to make sure he has the means to reopen all their shops should the voyage go badly.

So the brothers buy trade goods and set off. At first all goes swimmingly; they sell their goods at a vast profit and are about to head off again when they come across a beggar girl on the beach. She approaches the sensible brother (smart girl) and asks if he’s a charitable man. “I love charity and good deeds,” he replies, “even if they give me no reward.” This being the answer she wanted, she joins him on the ship. He’s exactly as good as he promised, but his brothers are all kinds of awful. Jealous of Merchant Three’s fortune, they come into his room one night, drag out both him and his new wife, and toss them overboard.

Their mistake. His wife is really an ifrita and she is now HELLA ANNOYED.

Her first priority is saving her husband; she carries him to the nearest island. She then intends to kill the brothers and despite the merchant trying to talk her out of it, is in too great a fury to be appeased. She carries her husband back to his own country and shortly after he’s set up shop again, he comes home to find his wife waiting with the two black dogs. “I sent a message to my sister,” she explains. “It was she who transformed them, and they will not be freed from the spell for ten years.” The ten years now being almost up, the old man was on his way to get them disenchanted when he came upon this place at this time. The fascinated ifrit admits that’s worth another third of the merchant’s blood.

It’s now time for the third old man’s story. Does it surprise anyone that his mule is really his wife? Being a family member to any of these people seems like a health hazard. Anyway, having been off travelling for a year, this old man – also a merchant! – returned home to find his wife in bed with a black slave (I am so hoping we meet a black character who is not a slave and SOON). The merchant has no chance to go all Shahriyar on her, because she’s a sorceress too. Throwing water over him, she turns him into a dog and kicks him out of the house.

He takes refuge with a butcher, who also happens to have a magic daughter. “This dog is a man over whom his wife has cast a spell,” she says, “but I can free him from it.” With that she sprinkles the dog/man with water, speaks a few words and restores him to his real shape. His first act is to kiss her hand in gratitude; the second is to request help in dishing out karmic justice. Armed with a jug of spelled water, he goes home to where his wife is sleeping and transforms her into a mule.

For confirmation of his tale, the old man turns to the mule, who nods glumly. The ifrit grants him the last third of the original merchant’s blood, and the second night of Sharazad’s storytelling comes to an end. The king is so captivated he delays her execution for another day so he can be assured the merchant survives. Sure enough, with the blood debt cancelled out by the bizarre life stories of total strangers, the merchant is permitted to go on his way.

“This, however, is not more surprising than the tale of the fisherman,” Sharazad remarks. The ifrit is not the only killer with a weakness for stories. The king has to know what’s so exciting about the fisherman. So Sharazad tells him. Tune in next week for seaside shenanigans and an anecdote battle!

The Other Side of Dawn: Introducing the Sharazad Project

There have always been storytellers to keep the night at bay.

There have not always been books, and as the oratory tradition of stories is a precarious form of literary remembrance, the oldest stories ran wild in countless incarnations before eventually being recorded in writing. There are some names synonymous with the telling of fairy tales and folk lore – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen – others less well known, such as Charlotte Rose de La Force and Ruth Manning-Sanders. But there is one collection of stories too sprawling, too mercurial, to be contained by a single teller: the Thousand and One Nights.

Its very title is an obfuscation. Some of the earliest versions contained only a few hundred stories, believed to be Indian and Persian in origin, but over the centuries scholars and translators added tales from their own traditions, from medieval Arab to Syrian and Egyptian. The Thousand and One Nights as we know them contain stories from across Asia and North Africa, a magnificent storyteller’s paintbox.

The first European translation was in French, written by Antoine Galland and published in the early 18th century. He included several stories not in the original manuscript, which ironically enough have become some of the most well-known: ‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, ‘The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor’, all said to have been taken from a Syrian storyteller. Fortuitously, Galland’s translation was released at the same time that fairy tale collections were becoming popular in Europe and it was such a success that by the end of the 18th century the Thousand and One Nights had been translated into English, German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Russian, Flemish and Yiddish. It’s been a cultural touchstone throughout many parts of the world ever since.

I’m familiar with a handful of the Arabian Nights, children’s book staples and a few that are not, but I’ve never read all the stories. This year, that’s going to change. Every Tuesday I’m going to post my thoughts on another segment of the saga, taking the stories from Malcom C. Lyons’ Penguin Classics collection, The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. These are very different to the fairy tales I know best – a hella lot bawdier for one thing, and more sequential, looping in and out of each other into labyrinthine sprawls.

I really have no idea what I’m doing. Welcome to the Sharazad Project! I hope we have fun!


Trigger warning: talk of rape, murder and racism

It begins, as so many stories do, with a king and a bad idea.

This particular king’s name is Shahriyar and for ten years he has been a just and popular ruler. One day he invites his brother Shah Zaman, who rules a neighbouring land, to come visit him and Shah Zaman immediately starts making arrangements to go. It’s almost midnight when, about to depart, he remembers something else he wanted to bring and goes back to the palace for it. There he finds his wife in bed with a slave. “If this is what happens before I have even left the city, what will this damned woman do if I spend time away with my brother?” Shah Zaman wails, and murders both his wife and her boyfriend on the spot. He then continues with his plans to visit Shahriyar like nothing’s happened.

He’s fooling no one, though. At first Shahriyar attributes his obvious unhappiness to homesickness and tries to cheer him up with the prospect of a hunt, but Shah Zaman won’t go. While he mopes around the palace alone, he looks down into a courtyard and sees a large group of slaves enter, accompanied by Shahriyar’s wife. Everyone gets naked, she starts kissing one of the male slaves and the whole thing descends into a wine-fuelled orgy. Both queens have chosen black lovers (black slaves, specifically, who therefore cannot give free and full consent) and this is already feeling like a nasty stereotype. Shah Zaman decides all women are evil deceivers and feels loads better.

Shahriyar notices the difference upon his return and asks after the cause. Shah Zaman explains about his wife’s infidelity and his subsequent murderous rage. Shahriyar is A-OK with that, but is puzzled as to his brother’s sudden bounce back and won’t stop pushing until he gets the truth. So Shah Zaman tells him. Appalled, Shahriyar won’t believe his wife’s actions until he too has seen them. He fakes another hunt and when he’s supposed to be outside the city, sneaks up to a window overlooking the Courtyard of Crazy Sex. What he sees convinces him his brother was definitely not exaggerating.

“Come, let us leave at once,” Shahriyar explodes, returning to Shah Zaman. “Until we can find someone else to whom the same kind of thing happens, we have no need of a kingdom, and otherwise we would be better dead.” So they go off on a brotherly bonding roadtrip and the kingdom gets run by…their viziers, I guess?

Anyway, the brothers end up by the sea and stop at a freshwater spring to rest. All of a sudden the waves begin to crash and a huge jinni (perhaps better known a genie or djinn) emerges from the water carrying a chest. The brothers shin up the nearest tree to hide, which is unfortunately where the jinni chooses to sit and open his chest. From it he takes a box, and from the box a beautiful girl. As in, a LIVING GIRL. Apparently ‘her radiance makes suns rise and shine/ While, as for moons, she covers them in shame’. “Mistress of the nobly born,” the jinni says to her, “whom I snatched away on your wedding night, I want to sleep for a while.” Whereupon he puts his head on her knee and naps.

The girl, however, knows she’s being watched – transferring the jinni’s head to the ground, she gestures for the two kings to descend. Once they are on the ground, she demands they have sex with her, or she’ll wake the jinni and have him kill them both. They do as they’re told. It’s all really horrible. Afterwards, she demands they hand over their rings so she can add them to her collection – a string of five hundred and seventy signet rings, each symbolising a lover she’s taken to spite her kidnapper. It’s implied she’s used the same rapist tactics on all of them.

“This jinni snatched me away on my wedding night and put me inside a box, which he placed inside this chest, with its seven heavy locks, and this, in turn, he put at the bottom of the tumultuous sea with its clashing waves,” the girl explains. “What he did not know was that, when a woman wants something, nothing can get the better of her.” She then starts quoting poetry about how untrustworthy women are, and how men are so tragically helpless in the face of love. This is exactly what the two kings have been thinking themselves, so they take it as one hundred percent truth and go home to slaughter Shahriyar’s wife and all her slaves.

Shahriyar is not done yet, either, not by a LONG way. For the next three years he takes a new wife every night, ‘deflowers’ her and murders her in the morning. His people rightly decide he’s gone stark raving mad, take their daughters and flee. One day the vizier is ordered to find a new victim and there’s no girls left in the city; none, that is, save his own. The younger is Dunyazad. The elder is Shahrazad, an avid intellectual who has amassed a huge collection of poetry and histories. Seeing her father’s distress, she asks him to tell her what’s wrong and he reveals the whole miserable mess.

“Father,” Sharazad says firmly, “marry me to this man. Either I shall live or else I shall be a ransom for the children of the Muslims and save them from him.” By which I take it to mean, she’ll die as a martyr to misogyny. Her father understandably considers this to be a terrible idea. “I’m afraid you may experience what happened to the donkey and the bull with the merchant,” he tells her.

The very first segue!

So, once upon a time, there was a wealthy merchant who also understood the languages of beasts and birds. He kept a bull and a donkey, and one day the bull came into the donkey’s quarters to find them beautifully cleaned, with a full feed trough and the donkey just lounging around with nothing to do. The bull, who has to plough the fields every day, is grumpy about the disparity and wants to know how the donkey manages his life of leisure; the donkey obligingly advises him to fake illness. Unfortunately, their master overhears the plotting and when the bull won’t get up or eat the next day he has the donkey strapped to the plough instead.

The donkey is of course furious and comes up with another plan. “I heard our master say that, if you don’t get up, you are are to be given to the butcher to be slaughtered,” he tells the bull, who immediately starts eating in preparation for the next day’s work. Once again the merchant is listening. When he shows himself the bull takes to his heels, making the merchant laugh. His wife wants to know why, only there is apparently some rule that if he shares his secret he’ll die, so he refuses to tell her. She decides he was laughing at her and will give him no peace until he’s honest. He gathers all his relatives to explain his quandary, but his wife will not believe him, and he prepares to settle his affairs so she can have the truth.

Then he overhears his rooster gossiping with the dog. The rooster thinks the merchant need only lock his wife in a room and beat her until either she stops asking inconvenient questions or DIES. Liking this idea, because he’s an awful human being, the merchant tricks his wife into being alone with him then beats her until she passes out. When she comes to, she’s more than willing to let him keep his stupid secret.

The vizier’s rather long-winded point being, ask the wrong question and some guy in authority will make your life a misery – or that’s what I’m taking as his point – but Shahrazad is determined, so she dresses up fancy and her father leads her to the king. This is not a sacrifice, though. She’s given instructions to her little sister to come that night and ask for a story. In a really twisted twist, Dunyazad is forced to sit to one side and watch while the king has sex with her sister. Afterwards, the king gets restless, not knowing quite how to occupy the time between sex and murder, so when Dunyazad suggests a story he’s quick to give his permission.

Thus begins the first night.