Showing posts with label myths and fairy tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label myths and fairy tales. Show all posts

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The New Arabian Nights


The New Arabian Nights
Robert Louis Stevenson
Fiction, 186 pages

The "Arabian Nights" first appeared during the 10th century before evolving into its final form during the 14th. It’s said that this lengthy work is the greatest expression of fiction from the Islamic Golden Age, an age which arose during the reign of Baghdad caliph, Harun al-Rashid who ruled from 786 until 809. This golden age ended when Mongols overtook Baghdad in 1258. Harun al-Rashid had been dead several centuries by the time he was fictionalized as a ruler who intervenes anonymously in the lives of his subjects.

Robert Louis Stevenson created a more modern version of Harun al-Rashid in his Prince Florizel of Bohemia. The prince appears in stories set in France and England, and told in a mystery/espionage tone. The tale of the Suicide Club begins two cycles of stories involving the prince. After those stories, Stevenson addresses other characters and themes. In one story a scholarly scoundrel eaks out his living during the Middle Ages,

“The poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks. He carried his four-and- twenty years with feverish animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord;”

While the story cycles featuring Prince Florizel resemble the mystery/espionage genre, the collection overall is genre free — or perhaps hinting of genre without being confined by it. The stories also have a fairytale-like quality as do the original Arabian Nights. However, fairytales tend to generalise, but these tales come with the details filled in. Still, like fairytales, they tug at the corners of reality enough to matter. Each story finds an unexpected destination, yet one that evolves naturally from what comes before.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Armageddon, anyone?

Good omens : the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Fiction 384 pages
William Morrow, 1990, 2006

According to the bit in the back of the book, this novel has become a "cult classic" since its publication. The book's sales rank on Amazon supports this claim. I haven't read any of Pratchett's books, but I've read a few by Gaiman. I didn't like this one as well as those.

Gaiman has a talent for taking mythological themes and making them believable. But this book is more of a farce, and as such, it failed to suspend my disbelief. This story, like others by Gaiman, draws from mythology, but unlike American Gods, the mythology isn't Norse, African, or Hindu, but Christian, and that will offend some, or at least cause discomfort. Believers don't like to see their beliefs treated like myths.

 Good Omens is about a friendship between a demon and an angel. Neither sees any sense in a war between Heaven and Hell and prefer to thwart, rather than assist during Armageddon. Crowley, the demon, and Aziraphale, the angel, have lived amidst humanity for so long that they no longer see things in such black and white terms as pure good or evil. They no longer fit in with the bureaucrats of Heaven and Hell. Unfortunately their sophisticated viewpoint isn't universal; satirizing conventional behavior just doesn't work for me.

I find no humor in society's increasing polarization of beliefs and attitudes, in the absence of dialog between left and right, religious and secular, rich and poor. Envisioning Heaven and Hell populated by rigid thinking, bureaucratic zealots simply doesn't amuse me. The world is full of such people already and their numbers are steadily increasing. Maybe Armageddon is coming after all, and that's just not funny.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The hidden meaning of fairy tales

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
Bruno Bettelheim
Non-fiction 328 pages
Vintage Books, 1989, 1976

If you’ve taken courses on fiction writing or literature, it’s likely that you’ve heard about the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell introduced this concept in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell, a popularizer of mythology, drew upon themes from Jungian psychology in his structural analysis of hero myths.

Child Psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, while acknowledging Jung’s contributions, used a more Freudian approach in his analysis of fairy tales. Although there’s some degree of similarity between Bettelheim’s later and Campbell’s earlier work, Bettelheim makes no mention of Campbell.

Bettelheim is careful to point out, however, that fairy tales are not like myths. They serve different audiences and functions. Myths end in tragedy while fairy tales end happily. Fairy tales allow children to integrate id impulses with their developing egos. Myths, instead, are the voices of the superego. They moralize, while fairy tales allow their hearers to form their own conclusions.

Referring to Hercules having to choose between two women, one representing virtue and the other pleasure, Bettelheim says, “The fairy tale never confronts us so directly, or tells us outright how we must choose. Instead, the fairy tale helps children to develop the desire for a higher consciousness through what is implied in the story. The fairy tale convinces through the appeal it makes to our imagination and the attractive outcome of events, which entice us.”

He later elaborates, “Myths project an ideal personality acting on the basis of superego demands, while fairy tales depict an ego integration which allows for appropriate satisfaction of id desires. This difference accounts for the contrast between the pervasive pessimism of myths and the essential optimism of fairy tales.” I don’t agree entirely. Star Wars is often cited as an example of the hero’s journey. That movie ended happily rather than in tragedy. While Oedipus is certainly a tragedy, I’m not convinced that all myths must be pessimistic.

Bettelheim’s approach is primarily Freudian. As such, his interpretations deal with orality, sexuality, sibling rivalry, and the child’s sense of impotence. Campbell’s myth interpretation draws from the Jungian perspective. As such, it minimizes the importance of id, ego, and superego and emphasizes Jungian personality structures such as self, shadow and anima. Since the passing of Freud and Jung, neuroscience has identified many structures in the brain, however none are identical to those structures named by Jung and Freud. Nonetheless, those elusive structures remain useful for understanding both human personality and literature.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A magical story collection

Strange News from Another Star
Hermann Hesse (Denver Lindley translator)
Fiction 99 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972

Although seven of these eight stories were originally published in a volume titled, “Fairy Tales”, you’ll find no fairies in them. Magic, to be sure—but no fairies.

The first story in the collection, “Augustus”, is similar to Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant”. The heroes of both stories set themselves apart from their fellow men, and ultimately find redemption. However Wilde’s fairy tale is one that children can appreciate, while Hesse’s is clearly suitable for more mature readers. In Wilde’s story, redemption comes for a living giant, but for Augustus, it comes at the moment of death. In many of these stories, achieving harmony with one’s fellows and one’s self can only be achieved through forgetfulness (“Strange News from Another Star”) or through death (several of the stories).

Overall, the theme of the collection is man’s struggle to achieve a harmonious relationship with others of his kind, with the universe surrounding him, and with the self within him. By self, I mean that archetypical structure to which psychiatrist, C. G. Jung, referred. Hesse published this story collection, as well as his novel, “Demian” in 1919 This was the same year in which Jung first wrote about archetypes. It’s probably no coincidence that before Hesse’s two works were published in 1919, he had recently finished his Jungian psychotherapy. Whether through intention or coincidence, Hesse’s writing often illustrates Jungian principals.

These stories are well told and their allegories readily understood. Of all the stories, I only one failed to please me—I saw no point in, “A Dream Sequence.”

The best story in the collection, “Iris”, is the story of a boy for whom flowers are doors into true reality. “Each phenomenon on earth is an allegory, and each allegory is an open gate through which the soul, if it is ready, can pass into the interior of the world where you and I and day and night are all one.”

As Anselm, the boy, matures, flowers and nature lose their magic for him. He falls in love, but his love leaves him with a quest. For the remainder of his life, he follows that quest. Finally, the gate opens for him, “It was Iris into whose heart he entered, and it was the sword lily in his mother’s garden into whose blue chalice he softly strode, and as he silently drew close to the golden twilight all memory and all knowledge were suddenly at his command …”

If you've never read Hesse, and like short fiction, this collection is a good place to start.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Instant Karma

The Tea Goddess
Dekker Dreyer
Fiction 156 pages
Fringe Majority LLC. 2010

Kai and Ceire died before revealing their secret. A generation later, the Tea Goddess sends Remy a book—a book that profoundly affects his future. Soon he’s running for his life without knowing why.

Soon he’ll learn about his karmic debt and will need to repay it. But in order to do that, he’ll need to survive.

In this brief novel, few words are wasted. It takes off like a shot and races to its conclusion with just enough character development and world creation to make it believable. Personal dilemmas and violent action keep the tension high until the end. That end brings peace to several of the characters, but torment to another.

The book length of 156 pages is somewhat misleading since there’s a lot of white space throughout (I read the Kindle edition). Although not necessary, readers will take a bit more from this book if they have some familiarity with Chinese Buddhism.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Killing with the Edge of the Moon

Killing with the Edge of the Moon
A. A. Attanasio
Fiction 160 pages
Prime Books. 2006

Would you go all the way to Hell just to get a date? Chet does, but not entirely willingly. He makes the trip partly due to a very convincing witch, but also because he has a crush on Flannery.

Long ago, Orpheus made a similar trip. However, when he tried it, things didn’t work out so well. Of course, the Otherworld isn’t exactly Hell, and Flannery, unlike Orpheus’s wife, Eurydice, isn’t exactly dead. But, the situation is similar, and if Chet isn’t able to work the Fetch, Flannery will be both dead and dragon food.

While Flannery dances with fairies in the Otherworld, her body lies in a hospital bed connected to life support equipment. For Flannery, the Otherworld is far more joyful than the one she has known all her life. But Arden, the fairy prince, hasn’t told her everything, and Flannery doesn’t know how much danger she’s in. Even if her witch grandmother, Nedra, is able to convince Chet to work the Fetch, Flannery and Chet will face great danger before their story is done.

The Orpheus myth is a prime example of what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey. Chet’s hero journey is faithful to the mythic archetype, yet modern and unpredictable. Filled with reversals and surprises, Attanasio’s story pits the uncertainty of contemporary adolescence against the ageless themes of Celtic myth.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nowhere to Hide

Once again Israel and Palestine are going at each other, and as usual, the Palestinians are getting the worst of it. Benjamin Netanyahu says that the reason so many Palestinians get killed is because Hamas “hides behind civilians.” Consider the population to the Gaza Strip: There are 9,713 people per square mile living there. Compare that to the 809 people per square mile living in Israel, the 650 in the United Kingdom, the 365 in China, or the 84 in the United States.

Is it really fair to say that Hamas hides behind its civilians in an area so crowded that there’s nowhere else to hide? For years Israel has managed to portray itself as the plucky underdog fighting for survival while surrounded by enemies. There’s some truth in that, yet Israel has been far too aggressive, far too often, and now the story is beginning to wear a bit thin. Lately it looks more like a bully than an underdog.

Neither nation is entitled to claim righteousness, high-mindedness, or innocence. However, Israel is the stronger of the two nations, and as such, she should be the first to make concessions. If Israel doesn’t modify her belligerent stance, her naked aggression will be exposed, world opinion will change, and she’ll find herself with nowhere to hide.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

He read it all and lived to tell about it

Robert Irwin
Nonfiction 342 pages
Tauris Parke Paperbacks. 2004

Henry Reeve discussed the translations of the Arabian Nights available during his time, saying, “Galland is for the nursery, Lane is for the library, Payne for the study and Burton for the sewers.” Burton’s version of the Arabian Nights is full of archaic language, gratuitous vulgarity, and racism. It is also the most readily available complete translation, and the one you may have to read if you want to become thoroughly acquainted with this story collection.

During the time Burton was translating it, a Middle Eastern superstition claimed that no one could read the entire Arabian Nights without dying. Author, Robert Irwin, writes that he read the entire Burton translation without dying, but not without pondering suicide as an alternative to slogging through it. Fortunately, if you wish to be better acquainted with the Arabian Nights, you can read Irwin’s Companion instead.

Irwin explores the Arabian Nights from a variety of perspectives as evident in his chapter titles, including, “Street Entertainments”, “Low Life”, and “Sexual Fictions”. Of particular interest is Irwin’s discussion of how stories mutate, merge, migrate, and reappear elsewhere. For example, a short story about partners plotting to kill each other is the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. Later it’s a movie plot in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Other versions of a story from the Arabian Nights, “The Tale of the Woman who Wanted to Deceive her Husband” also appears in Sanskrit in the 11th century, Latin in the 12th, and in the 14th both Persian and Italian in Bocccaccio’s Decameron. In the 20th century, Thomas Mann reused the plot once again in his Dr. Faustus.     

Besides Mann, other modern authors have found inspiration in the Arabian Nights, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth and Salman Rushdie.

Irwin’s The Arabian Nights : A companion offers an expansive and thoroughgoing look at this great work. There is little that he doesn’t touch upon. If you don’t want to risk death by reading the entire Arabian Nights, then read Irwin instead.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Arabian Nights – Gathered, Privately Printed, and Out of Print

While not all of us are familiar with the titles, “The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment” or “One Thousand and One Nights”, most of us have heard the story, “Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp”, and several others associated with the story collection informally known as the Arabian Nights.

Some of the collected stories are quite ancient and of Indian origin. Others relate the fictitious doings of actual historical figures from 9th century Baghdad. Still other stories contain historical fragments from 13th and 14th century Cairo.

Some of the most well-known Arabian Nights stories were not actually part of those stories collected in Arabic versions of the text. These additional Middle-Eastern stories included “Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”,
“Prince Ahmed and his Two Sisters”, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”. They were added by French translator, Antoine Galland, and his successors.

After Galland released his 12 volume edition of the Arabian Nights, scholars began to seek the most authentic version of the text. The lengthy Egyptian version came to be considered the standard one. One of the earliest English translations by Edward Lane was heavily censored.

Although Richard Francis Burton’s translation is the most well-known uncensored version, it was preceded by John Payne’s version. Both Payne’s and Burton’s uncensored editions were printed for private subscribers, rather than the general public. Although Burton’s edition is the best known, it has been criticized for dwelling excessively on sexual matters and for its archaic language.

Most available printed editions of the Arabian Nights are abridged, intended for children, or both. A printed set of Burton’s volumes would cost you dearly, if you could find one. Luckily it is available for Kindle and other eReaders. One reviewer of the Halcyon Classics edition sold by Amazon faults it for not having working hyperlinks between the table of contents and the stories. For a broad selection of translators, this omnibus looks like a good choice.