Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just What ARE You Anyway? - A folktale about gender and confusion

Today I found a collection of gitano (Gypsy) folktales in Spanish; I bought it a couple of years ago at the Maratón de Cuentos in Guadalajara, read a few of the stories, and then got distracted by another continent. Browsing through it this time I came across a folktale that caught my interest for its treatment of gender roles and expressions.
There is a lot to say about gender fluidity and gender identities, and a lot of it has already been said. I would merely like to add my two cents, and a folktale, to the discussion.

The folktale in this particular case is titled "The Warrior Girl" but it is a type that exists in other forms and in other cultures as well (including Hungarian). At the beginning of the story, we learn that there is a man with seven daughters, which is a great shame, because if a family cannot send a son to the king's army, they are not respected by others. Moving on, the youngest daughter offers to go and take her place in the army (think Hua Mulan), but her father tells her that she can't do it, because she is a girl. Hearing that, she decides to go disguised as a man. The father argues further: She can't pass for a man because her hair is long, and her breasts are full. The girl doesn't give up: She cuts her hair and puts on clothes that conceal her breasts. This is apparently good enough for the father, who begrudgingly allows her to go.
However, arriving to the king's court, the girl soon catches the prince's eyes, who insists to his father that he would wager his life that the young soldier is, indeed, a girl in a man's clothes. "She has too delicate a face to be a man," he says. The king doesn't quite believe his son, but suggests a test: He should invite her for a walk in the palace gardens, and if she goes to admire the flowers, she is a girl. The girl, however, goes for the pear tree instead and picks some fruit, as she says, for herself and for her (female) sweetheart.
At this point the prince's naughty bits are confused, and he opts for another sure-fire test: He takes her shopping. Girls, he reasons, go for the textiles at the market. This one, however, goes for the swords, preparing for battle (since she is, you know, a soldier).
The prince, who has entirely too much frustration going on in his pants, now decides he should just see her naked and tell what she is based on her... er, equipment. But when he invites her for a swim, she jumps into the water fully clothed, claiming that she had made a sacred oath not to undress until the war is over.
The prince gives up.
And then: Divine intervention.
Gearing up for battle, the mysterious soldier's sword breaks. She curses the sword, and curses herself (in a frustrated, "**** me" kind of phrase), revealing her true gender: She refers to herself with a female adjective (this really only works in Spanish, sorry). Ta-da! The prince is happy to find out that the object of his fascination indeed identifies as female, and therefore she is fair game. He asks her to marry him right away, and the folktale goes out with a happy bang.

Sooo... yeah. I'll just leave this here as food for thought.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

10 reasons why the Nart epics are epic

I spent most of last week reading the 500-page Hungarian edition of the Ossetian Nart sagas. It was a special treat for a lot of reasons.
While a huge chuck of the Nart corpus has been published in English in the wonderful translation of John Colarusso, the Ossetian sagas, which some people argue are the original Iranian core of the epics, have yet to be translated. In the meantime, archaeologists of the Sarmatian era (an Iranian people related to the ancestors of the Narts) in Hungary have presented an amazing translation.
The Nart sagas tell us about a group of legendary heroes who essentially are one big, sometimes dysfunctional, over-powered badass family. There is a matriarch on top (Satana), and about four generations of archers, lovers, fighters, and even the mandatory trickster. The stories are not less complex or engaging than any other epic from around the world - yet they are a lot less well known.
So, here is a sampling of the epic that is the Ossetian Nart sagas:

1. Two heroes having a dance-off for the hand of a lady.
It's a refreshing change from people beating each other into the ground (which also happens a lot). Dancing happens on the blades of swords, with a bowl of water on one's head, and also on the feast tables around the food (and this was the only way I could picture it).

2. This story ending, after the hero wins the hand of a lady: "And they lived very happily for a while. But they realized that they were too different, and they decided to go their separate ways." Peaceful divorce ever after. Good for them.

3. This prophecy one hero comes by in the Underworld (which, by the way, is also a place that gives Dante a run for his laurels): "One day men and women will live peacefully as equals."
Important words from a culture where kidnapping wives was common practice at the time.

4. There is a God of Wolves called Tutir. I rest my case.

5. Sirdon the Trickster, Curse of the Narts. Dog person, single father of three. Pretty much described (accurately for a trickster) as "the Narts can't live with him, can't live without him." He is very close to Loki in attitude, but he is bullied way worse than the Norse trickster. Looks like the Narts torture him for kicks. To which he responds with nasty mischief of his own. Very layered character.

6. The practicality of the tale when Satana wants to tamper a newborn and red-hot hero baby in wolf milk (as you do), and her husband's response is: "Where the heck am I supposed to get wolf milk?!" He then goes on to ask for the help of the Mother of Dogs, and she herds a couple of hundred she-wolves into a pen. To which our hero responds: "Umm... okay, now how am I supposed to milk them?"
And really no one ever responds "Hey, we are in a mythical saga, it will just magically happen!"
Nope. He milks them with his own two hands.

7. The Nart hero Hamic has a Mustache of Steel.
That he kills a snake with. Enough said.

8. The time the Narts got God on a technicality: God cursed them saying that no matter how much wheat they work a day, it will only amount to one bucket of grain. So they started only working a handful of wheat each day, and they still got a full bucket out of it. Sheer brilliance.

9. Smart woman moments such as "I am not marrying you, hero of the Narts, because your mother is evil" or "If you don't leave my tower right now, I will put your eyes out with my scissors." Nart women might not be equal to their heroes, but they sure do run things in the background. And they do raise a raiding army every once in a while.

10. The moment one hero explains how he learned not to hurt women: He tells his companions of a time when he was a guest in a house where only women lived (men were away) and he overheard them talking among themselves in a language they didn't know he spoke. He listened to their conversations and learned from them. In the adventure he claims that he would never hurt a woman for making a mistake (namely, even for cheating!) because he listened and now he knows better.

I'll have to read the sagas over again to fully savor every awesome detail. It is definitely a repeat read.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Legendary Fathers

When I set out to make a little list of traditional stories about fathers, I thought it was going to be a cake walk. Mothers die a lot more often in story, right?... And yet, once I started really looking, and setting some criteria, the pool got smaller and smaller.
I wanted stories where the father is good (there goes Hansel and Gretel), where he takes an active role in the story (there goes Cinderella), and, most importantly, where the father does something for his child(ren), rather than being the noble image to thrive for. I wanted fathers that are good examples of parenthood, likable, and on top of all of that, have good stories. They don't throw their daughters at strangers, they don't abandon their families, and they don't sit on a pedestal waiting for their sons to measure up, or for their daughter to explain why she loves them more than salt.
Well, damn.

Stories of this kind, I had to note once again, do exist. Quite a few of them, actually. But they are not always obvious, and not always easy to find. In honor of Father's Day today (in the USA and Hungary anyway), here is a list of my favorites.

Zal takes the prize. He always takes the prize, if you ask me. This amazing white-haired prince from the Persian Book of Kings is the main hero of one of the stories I love the most in the world. On top of starring in the oldest known (and best) version of the Rapunzel tale, he is also an excellent father figure. He is abandoned by his own father early on; and when his wife is about to die in childbirth delivering their son, Zal makes a stand: "My father abandoned me once; I am not giving up on you." And then he summons a giant mythical bird who teaches him to perform the world's first C-section with his own hands, saving wife and baby. Damn right.

King Metabus
The father of Camilla, one of the most famous characters from the early legends of Rome. Running from his burning city with his infant daughter, he has to cross a river. Tying the daughter to his spear, he throws her across the water before he also flees swimming. Not a very safe way of parenting (don't try this at home), but he gets points for paternal badassery.

Fionn Mac Cool
Once when I was telling the story of the Birth of Oisín in 10th grade, and got to the point where Fionn finds his son in the woods five years after his pregnant wife is kidnapped, a teenage girl started sobbing. The reunion of father and son is one of the most emotional scenes in the Fianna legends. Good fatherhood, by the way, runs in the family; there are also lovely moments between Oisín and his son Oscar (and also between Fionn and his grandson).

Okay, so his marriage with Thetis is kind of forced, and definitely not romantic, but in at least one version of the story Peleus does display some serious paternal instincts. In the story I included in my book about how Achilles gained his superhuman speed, Peleus finds Thetis burning the baby over the fireplace at night, and freaks out, like a worried parent should. Turns out Thetis was going to make the child immortal (as an alternative to dipping him into water), and she flees after the ensuing fight, leaving daddy stranded with baby Achilles. Peleus takes the child to his own father figure, Chiron the centaur, to be healed from the burns.

And finally, talking about stepfathers: Gotta give a shout-out to the guy who saves one of the most often forgotten legendary babies. Aslög, the daughter of Brünhilde and Sigurd, is spirited away after her parents' death by Brünhilde's stepfather, Heimer, who hides her in a lute, and travels from town to town, playing soothing music to keep the baby quiet and fed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Story of a Story

This is not the first time it has happened. Being a storyteller comes with its own mysterious mechanics: Stories find you, one way or another, and sometimes, when you don't notice them the first time, they will find you again.
A couple of years ago (seven or eight) when I was just starting to dip my toe into the pool of storytelling, I found a book on my grandparents' shelf. They borrowed it from someone, and it was a slender little volume on the folklore of our region (the wetlands of nothwestern Hungary). I found a story in it about fairies; how they used to live in the marshes, and help people fish, and pee in the water to make gold (that's right, fairy pee). There was also a story about why they had to leave our world, and when they will return. It told about one fairy girl who wanted to stay, and was transformed by the Queen into a water lily so she could watch over people from the waters. I was enchanted by the story, but I was not yet in the habit of recording things I read, so I let it go.
Some time later I went to the USA for the first time on the Kellner Scholarship, and I immersed myself in the world of storytelling (that's how this blog came to be). One thing I did was conferences; I designed a workshop on Hungarian storytelling, in which I mostly told folktales to many audiences. When I was picking the stories from an endless pool of possibilities, I returned to the tale about the fairies leaving, because I thought it was unique, and yet something people could relate to (see: Lord of the Rings). Because I was in the USA at the time, I couldn't find the original book, and the story was not on the Internet either. I had to tell it from memory.
After I came home, I started looking for the book and the story, but by that time I didn't remember the title or the author. My grandparents didn't either; and it turns out there is a surprising number of books written on the folklore of our area. The books I vaguely remembered turned out to be not the one I was looking for. For years, every once in a while when I remembered the story, I went on binges of trying to figure out what the book was, and where the story is, but I never found it.
Skipping ahead to yesterday. I am in Hungary for the summer, and I was walking down the hill to visit my grandparents. There is a castle in their backyard (that's right) that has been remodeled into a school and a library. I stopped by the library; I have been frequenting it since I was a kid, and I wanted to say hi to people. Turns out they are going to rebuild, and they were in the process of weeding out their stock of books, and throwing out the ones they don't need anymore. They allowed me to go through the stacks of books taken out; even better, they had already put some of them aside for me, the ones that had something to do with folktales or storytelling. One of them was a book on local folklore; I opened it up at the Prose chapter, just in case.
And there. Was. My story.

I learned pretty early on that you can't just go out, gather up a handful of stories, and call them your repertoire. You will read an entire collection; you will mark some of the stories that you like... and then you will never use them again. But some time later, one afternoon while doing the dishes, you will suddenly think "what was that one story with the water lily in it..." and you will go through your notes, and you will realize that it was not even one of the stories you marked before. It was something completely different. And yet that is the one that finds you again in the end.
Don't ever pretend that you are the one doing the choosing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

5 books that are not as famous in the USA as they should be

I don't usually book blog, but I have been reading a really great Russian sci-fi novel this week, and I realized that probably not many people on the other side of the Pond have ever had a chance to read it. I have made a list earlier of 6 books that need an English translation a.s.a.p.; this time, I would like to make a list of books that are already available in English, but not well known and kinda hard to find.
Please take this as a cry for help: I want my American friends to experience these awesome stories and be able to talk to me about them!

Boris and Arkady Strugatsky: Monday begins on Saturday
Imagine if a Russian Terry Pratchett wrote Harry Potter. That's exactly what this book reads like, with a dash of Doctor Who in the mix, all in glorious Soviet sci-fi fashion. It is essentially the parody of bureaucracy and academia, in which magic, witchcraft and folklore are all supervised from a scientific institute filled with weird researchers and professors that have never done anything useful. Hilarious, especially if you have ever been in academia. Or bureaucracy.

Vladimir Obruchev: Plutonia
Still on the topic of Russian science-fiction. This story, essentially, is their version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Except, in this case our heroes are Russian scientists that do everything the accurate way: They document, they experiment, they collect and conserve samples, and they take their sweet time exploring the world of dinosaurs and cavemen. No mas, no fuss, exciting scientific solutions to being chased by giant ants. Neil deGrasse Tyson's wet dream.

Michael Ende: Momo
The true masterpiece from the author of The Neverending Story (which, by the way, is also sadly underrepresented in American bookstores. Most people think it was only a movie, which makes me want to hit something with the book.) Momo is the tale of a strange orphan girl who tries to stop a worldwide conspiracy of well-dressed businessmen stealing free time from people. A story with lovable characters (one of them is a storyteller!), and a deep message about what we decide to spend our time on.

Selma Lagerlöf: The wonderful adventures of Nils
Also the basis of one of the best cartoons of my childhood, this book tells the story of a young boy who gets transformed into a tiny version of himself by a gnome to learn a lesson. He embarks on a journey with a flock of wild geese and a domestic goose from his own backyard, to learn about the life of animals, and the many wonders of Sweden.

Tove Jansson: The Moomins
Talking about the cartoons of my childhood: While the artwork is adorable, The Moomins books are also a great read for children. And adults. And everyone. A family of trolls and their various friends of all shapes and sizes get into fascinating - and often supernatural - adventures.

Bonus: I wrote on MopDog about two amazing (I'm picky) Hungarian historical novels that are also available English, but sadly unknown. You can check out the post here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Aesop's Fable of Internet Arguments

Most people, when they hear Aesop's name, think "talking animals." That, however, is not the complete picture. Many of Aesop's short stories feature people, and several of the Greek gods and heroes also make an appearance. They address a wide variety of morals and teachings, sometimes longer than the story itself.
I just run into this particular Aesop's fable today, and I thought I'd share, since it is very applicable to modern day situations:

One day our favorite hero Heracles was traveling through a narrow passage in the mountains. As he trudged along, he noticed a small object, not unlike an apple, on the ground. At this point Heracles employed his go-to solution for encountering strange objects on the road: He hit it with his club. But instead of resulting in a satisfying squishy sound and some apple juice, the object seemed to grow twice its size from the hit. Heracles did what Heracles does best: He hit it again, harder. The object, in complete disregard to the hero's ego and effort, once again doubled its size. Heracles, legendarily strong but not renown for critical thinking, kept hitting it until it swelled so large it blocked his way through the passage. While he stood there, scratching his head, trying to figure out if there was a way to un-hit a solid object, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, spoke to him from the rock she had been sitting on, watching the show:
"Oh Heracles, don't be surprised! That object you have been trying to smash so heroically is Strife itself. The more one tries to destroy it by force, the larger it gets. If you leave it alone, it stays small; but if you try to fight it, it will become a rather large inconvenience."
"So... it wasn't an apple, then?"
"No, Heracles, it wasn't an apple."
"Oh good. That would have been embarrassing."

Okay, so I might have embellished it a little, but the gist is the same. I wanted to share it as an illustration to the idea that "not feeding the trolls" is by no way a modern concept that came about with the age of the Internet. People have been perfectly well arguing endlessly about insignificant things long before technology made the option global.
I also find it fun that Strife resembles an apple; it is probably a nod to Eris' golden apple that stared that whole mess with Helen of Troy.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Reflections in Colors

So this year's A to Z run was both easier and more difficult than I expected. I don't usually schedule posts ahead of time, so the end of the semester devolved into a scramble for stories and colors.
It was delightful.
I am one of those strange people that work their best on a deadline, and I also masochistically enjoy research (as long as it is about stories). You can read the results of all of this if you scroll back down through April.
The first time I did A to Z in 2012, I did my reflection in the form of a list of my favorite story characters that did not make the cut. You can see the list here.
Last year, after successfully finishing my slightly crazy Weird Princess Tales run, I reflected in the form of a list of awesome ladies from the world of story that did not get a place on the princess list. You can find that list here.
This year, I have a much shorter list of amazing characters: They are called Team Damyanti. For the first time in my A to Z career, this year I was a minion! Which means it was actually my duty to visit blogs day in and day out. I have found many wonderful, wonderful things, and I am grateful to be one of the Seven Ladies of Team Damyanti. Kind of reminded me of the Seven Wise Princesses. I got dibs on Yellow. Just sayin'.
Thank you Damyanti, Guilie, Anna, Samantha, Vidya, Jemima, and Mary!

Shameless self-promotion: If you liked my collection of weird and rare folktales, check out my book, Tales of Superhuman Powers (out on Nook, Kindle, and Paper). It is a collection of 55 folktales that have superpowers in them. It was a crazy fun book to research and write. It features 60 different superpowers, everything from invisibility through sonic blast to eye beams (yeah, really), and at least one folktale, myth or legend for each. If you ever want to be super cool in front of a class of middle school students, this is the way to do it.

With this post, the everyday routine of the Multicolored Diary resumes. Stay tuned for posts about folktales, storytelling, and assorted adventures. Follow options to the left, or find me on Twitter as @TarkabarkaHolgy.