Friday, November 4, 2011

Cinderella was a prostitute

Don't tell that to the fourth graders.

Telling fairy tales to a high school class composed almost entirely of seventeen year old guys does pose a certain challenge. Just hearing the term 'fairy tale' makes them think of butterfly wings and Disney princesses and fluffy animals who sing terrible songs and all the things they are just too cool to enjoy. It will take them another ten years to admit they all used to be in love with the Little Mermaid.

I have nothing against Disney; I openly admit I like a lot of stuff they do. But. Being a storyteller, I also know the importance of teaching the younger generations that Disney did not invent those stories. They merely made the appropriate for the greater public. Including kids.

So, today's goal was to show them where fairy tales come from and how they evolved from tales told by adults to adults into children's literature. Of course if I did a nice shiny presentation on the topic, the class would have walked out on me.
So, I just told them stories.

First I told them the tale of Rhodopis, also known as the 'Egyptian Cinderella' (not quite correct) or the 'Greek Cinderella' (more or less agreeable). Taking the bones of the story that I dug up from Aelian's Various Histories, I crafted a tale that is part history and part legend. Apart from Rhodopis being a hetaera (which detail one might or might not want to mention, depending of the age group), it also talks about slavery in Ancient Greece (slavery being a topic American students are familiar with anyway), Aesop, Ancient Egypt (and the dangers of swimming in the Nile) and a bunch of other very useful things. It shows kids how old some stories can be, and what a huge journey they have to go through until they turn into a Disney fairy tale.
(I especially enjoy telling it to American kids in that regard. Tell them this story is 2500 years old and they fall off their chairs.)

For the second half of the class I told them the legend of Zal and Rudabeh, as an example of a very old version of Rapunzel. The two girls who were in class were melting in their seats. Nobody can resist the charm of the white-haired Persian prince. Huh. The guys also enjoyed the story, although for different reasons; even though there were a lot of details to giggle about, their attention was captured and they followed the story from beginning to end. I have told this story a few times before, and thanks to audiences like this one, it is finally starting to take shape. The same goes for Rhodopis. Some tales are just too complex to be told well at first try; you have to see what details capture your audience the most, and where the story needs stretching or editing. But no matter how much they shift during these tellings, the natural magic of a well chosen tale (that was pretty awesome to begin with) works wonders with teenagers. Even if they are guys.

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