Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why is marriage always the end of the story?

This is exactly the kind of question that usually makes me feel like throwing a classic storyteller’s hissy fit; yet here I am asking it.

People usually think of “all stories” in terms of the classic fairy tale canon, the list of tales solidified by years of telling and re-telling, and also by Disney. You know the ones I am talking about. Even when you are a storyteller with long years of experience, your brain automatically jumps to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Little Red first, just like when someone throws a ball at you and you use your dominant hand to catch it. It’s the way most of us is Western culture are wired when it comes to fairy tales.

Usually, when people ask big general questions like the one above, the Trickster in me jumps up and goes off collecting tales to torpedo it into oblivion. In my philosophy, there is a folktale out there for everything, even the most unlikely of life situations, because stories are a reflection of things people think about often and long. Life-changing events such as birth, death, love, marriage etc. are the most common examples. So, when someone comes up to me and asks “Why is marriage always the end of the story?” my first instinct is to answer: “Not always.”

With that said, the tales most often told do little to nothing to prepare anyone for life after marriage.

Marriage, more often than not, IS the end of the story. It’s the ultimate goal. They won, they got married, they lived happily ever after. Curtain, credits, copyright note, no animals were harmed, and not even a bonus scene in the end for the fans.
What does this tell to children who hear these stories over and over again, I wonder? That marriage equals the end of story, for one. No more dragons, no more adventures, no more exploring the world. The End. Game over. The only thing that comes after is happiness, forever and ever (or, in the case of Hungarian tale ending formulas, happiness until they die.)
But what if they were not happy ever after? Shhh. We don’t talk about that. If you are not happy, you bet on the wrong prince. Or princess. The whole thing is botched from the start. You just gotta wait for the One to show and save you.

Of course, there are folktales that talk about problems within married life. Most of them talk about not having a child. But it is usually the beginning of someone else’s tale (usually the child’s). Some of them, like selkie legends, tell you how you will lose your freedom to a significant other. That is, in the end, just another version of “game over.”

As a storyteller, one has to know the context these tales come from: in terms of marriage and happiness, it was a very different time. The idea that connects romantic love to marriage is a fairly new one, and far from universal even today. The idea of getting married and coming into one’s power is often connected – even the latest progressive Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog, ends with a common girl transformed into a princess through marrying a prince (sorry for the spoliers). Merida, everyone’s new favorite Mary Sue, only gets away without “game over” because she refuses to marry at all.

So, what message are we sending when we solely rely on these stories to determine the “fairy tale canon?” That marriage is a terrible thing? I would argue that not even that. What happens after the fairy tale wedding is a large white spot on our mental map, a “here be dragons” uncharted territory, and folk- and fairy tales that have held our hand through all the adventures of parent-child relationships, brotherhood, sisterhood, coming of age and courtship, stop at the border and toss us forward into oblivion without as much as a hand-drawn road map. Figure it out for yourselves, guys.

I am NOT saying that there are absolutely no folktales about married couples. Actually, there is a LOT of them. I am saying we don’t hear them enough.


Someone should compile a list.

(By the way, the illustration above is from the Persian manuscript of Nizami's Haft Paykar, the tale of the Seven Wise Princesses. The Yellow Princess from Greece tells one of the best marriage-negotiation stories I have ever read. Because Nizami is amazing, that's why.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Goodreads Book Giveaway! - Tales of Superhuman Powers

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Tales of Superhuman Powers by Csenge Virág Zalka

Tales of Superhuman Powers

by Csenge Virág Zalka

Giveaway ends October 23, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Who is the patron saint of storytelling?

(No, really, who is it? I have always wondered.)

Saint Aloysius (known endearingly as Saint Al's) Catholic School took me up on my offer to adopt them as a storyteller, and they are giving me all kinds of great stuff to do. I did three hours of Greek Mythology on Monday in 6th and 7th grade, also known as Percy Jackson Fan Club. The kids were the audience every storyteller dreams of (they literally cheered every time a familiar god or creature was mentioned), and I got to tell some of the stories I have not told in a while - Dionysus and the pirates, Momus, and the alternate myth for Achilles' heel that I researched for my book. I also snuck in some Roman mythology, since some of the girls claimed that the Romans stole everything from the Greek. Bah. All in all, I had a great time.

Today I went back to 7th grade to tell saints' legends in religion class, and I discovered something new:
It is a special privilege for a storyteller to tell to an audience that takes every word as truth.

I have always wanted to tap into saints' legends; I was raised Roman Catholic, after all, and one of the additional benefits of that is that it comes with an endless supply of stories, ranging from really amazing to really weird. But somehow, I never got around to actually doing a full storytelling performance of them, and I have always wanted to try. And what better place for a test run than a Catholic school and a roomful of 7th graders?
I selected saints that I personally like, and also saints that have a connection to Hungary, in the hopes that they would be new to the students, and maybe for the teacher as well. I started with St. Martin (who was born in Pannonia), then digressed to St. Helena (who is the patron saint of archaeology), and then even though I only had half an hour left I still managed to cram in St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Margaret of Scotland (who was also half Hungarian). As I was working my way through the stories, from origins through miracles and relics, it started to dawn on me that this time, maybe for the first time in my career, the kids were not listening to the stories as stories - they were taking them all at face value, as they are taught in religion class. To them, everything I was saying was completely true. I was not sure at first what to do with that - being religious myself, but also a storyteller that pokes and prods at stories and symbols until they show their layers - but as the stories progressed, I felt like I was incredibly lucky to have this experience. When the bread in St. Elizabeth's apron turned into roses, the entire class gasped at the miracle. When I told the story of St. Helena finding the Cross, they all wanted to know where it is now (which led to a whole discussion of how relics work, and I am proud to say, I escaped without my foot in my mouth on that one). All in all, it was a new experience.

I am looking forward to seeing what else storytelling at St. Al's is going to teach me.