Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 - The year in books

It's that magical time of the year again: Time to look at my Goodreads list and see what all I consumed over the course of 2014. The challenge I set for myself was 52 books (one per week) - not counting school readings and an industrial amount of comics, I still made it by this week. Here are some of the highlights:

Something old, something new
Cress, the next installment of the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, came out this year, and it was everything we wanted it to be. Lovable characters, both old and new, exciting action with the fate of the world in the balance, and delicious Easter eggs for folktale-savvy people. In addition, the free short story The Little Android was also posted by the author online, and this is the first and only incarnation of The Little Mermaid I actually liked.
My favorite discovery for the year was Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories series. I am currently on book seven. I am a sucker for quality historical fiction, and this series has everything going for it: A little known yet crucial part of English history, Vikings, Saxons, epic battle scenes ("SHIELD WALL!"), a likable and complex protagonist, and - going against the worn stereotypes of the "dark ages" - strong, independent, and likable female characters. It combines the epicness of history with characters you really care about, and none of the corny mushy romance that flooded the internet this year thanks to the Outlander craze. Also, it will soon be a BBC show!
Another good reading experience was some of the books by the Strugatsky brothers I discovered for myself this year. Monday Begins on Saturday is pretty much the Russian take on what would have happened if Terry Pratchett wrote Harry Potter. Delightfully sarcastic, and surprisingly applicable to modern-day bureaucracy (and, khm, academia), the book and its sequel, Tale of the Troika, was a very entertaining read for someone like me who likes folklore, magic, and sarcasm.
My end-of-the-year Christmas reading also brought a discovery: Lesley M. M. Blume's Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins and Other Nasties was a treat. I don't usually like people writing fakelore, but this book captivated me for many reasons: One, the author obviously knows her fairy folklore really well, and applies it ingeniously to the setting of modern day New York City. The stories are enjoyable and whimsical, but they don't shy away from the dark corners, and the one with the mermaid especially delivered some emotional punch. It is exquisitely written, and proves that fairies do live on in the modern world.

Folktales and Legends
As a storyteller, it is part of my job to read a lot of these. Instead of an all-inclusive list, I'll just mention some of the highlights.
One of the topics I got into this year was the folktales of minority cultures in China (see my previous post for an example). There are not many collections specifically on the topic in English, but I managed to find some good ones; The Seven Sisters was my favorite, with a lot of exciting and surprising stories.
Another area that I dug into was Bavarian folktales, on the occasion of the "500 new fairy tales discovered" Schönwerth collection has been finally partially published in English. The Original Bavarian Folktales volume is a treat (and bilingual), and there is an upcoming book from the same selection titled The Turnip Princess that I can't wait to read.
The series of the year for me was the World Mythologies Series. The first volume, one I found by accident in a used book store was Fabled Cities, Princes & Jinn, the Arabian installment, and it was love at first sight. Lots of original materials, stunning illustrations, captivating stories. I put the rest of the series on my wish list, and I already received the Central American and the African volume. Yay!
Another reading and research craze of mine this year was Caucasian Nart sagas. Some of them have been published in English, while others I found in Hungarian translation at home over the summer. I now have a serious soft spot for Ossetian Nart sagas.

In Spanish
In order to prepare myself and my vocabulary for the Tenerife storytelling festival, I spent most of my year alternating between English/Hungarian and Spanish readings. I did not only improve my language skills, but I also discovered a great many new books, and got to dive into Spanish historical fiction, a genre they are clearly very fond of. Some of the best were Antonio Soler's Boabdil and Eduardo Mendoza's Pomponio Flato - the latter a very entertaining murder mystery involving a Roman philosopher and a snotty little brat called Jesus.
I also read a ton of Spanish language folktale collections, and all of them were enchanting. I dug into Basque folklore (Leyendas de Euskal Herria), myths of Costa Rica (Las semillas de nuestro rey), the legends of the Canary Islands (Cuentos antiguos de Gran Canaria), and Spanish historical legends (Leyendas españolas de todos los tiempos). I plan on reading more of all of those. I especially recommend the Gran Canaria collection (by my friend Ana Cristina Herreros and María Jesús Alvarado), because it was such a fascinating collection project.

I read a lot of them. Without going into much detail, here are some of the series I really enjoyed this year:
Fables - always and forever. Breaks my heart that it's ending, but it is going out with grace and good storytelling.
Fairest - see above
Hawkeye (or, rather, Hawkguy) - for artwork and for storytelling
Ms. Marvel - for cultural commentary, teenage antics, and adorable artwork (WINGED SLOTH!)
All-New X-Factor - for character design, colors, artwork, and classic X-men team banter
X-Force - solid story, dark places, and a team that involves both Domino and Doc Nemesis, what's not to love?

What I could have done without
Divergent and Maze Runner were both meh, and they both made better movies than books (although I gave up after the first volume in both). The new Bridget Jones was better than the previous two (it did good to Bridget to care for people other than herself sometimes), but still nowhere near as good as Adrian Mole was. R.I.P. Sue Townsend.

All in all, a year rich in discoveries and great reading adventures. I wish all of you the same for 2015!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Journey to the Sun - A story and a call

Today is the Winter Solstice, and wile it is apparently not the longest night on Earth, it is definitely going to be very long. To celebrate the turning of darkness and light, I decided to post one of my ever favorite folktales here. I have always been fascinated with stories that talk about bringing light to the world, and ending eternal darkness. This time of the year (especially in Ohio, heh) I definitely feel something of the mood that gave birth to these tales a long time ago. 
I have another reason for posting it too: I have been looking for sources or information on this tale for years, and I came up with nothing. I found it in a folktale collection in a library a long time ago and I copied it, but I don't even know what the book was called. So, this is also an open call: If anyone can help be trace this tale, or anything related to it, I would be eternally grateful. It fascinates me, and I would like to learn more.
Happy Solstice, everyone!

Journey to the Sun
(A story from the Zhuang people in China)

A long, long time ago, the Zhuang people lived in eternal darkness. They knew that the sun existed, and it made things warm and bright, and it helped things grow; but they could not see it, and they could not share the warmth. Their land was overrun by beasts - tigers, panthers, wolves - and in the dark, they could not fight them. They decided to send someone to the sun to ask for its help.
People gathered to decide who should go on the journey.
A sixty-year-old man spoke up: "I will go. I am too old to work on the land, but I can still walk just fine. No one will miss my help here. I'll go."
A middle-aged man stepped forward: "I will go! I am strong and sturdy. I can walk 160 li [app. 80km in modern measurements] in a day. I will reach the sun in no time at all."
More people came forward, men and women, all clamoring to go. Even a ten-year-old boy spoke up: "You are forgetting how far the sun must be from us. I don't think it can be reached in forty, or even fifty years. It will take at least ninety years to get there. I am young, I have time. I will go."
People all looked at each other, and they nodded.
"The boy is clever! What he says makes sense. Let him go! He might succeed."
Just then, a twenty-year-old pregnant woman named Malei stepped forward. She waved her hands above her head for silence.
"Be quiet, all of you!"
Everyone fell silent and stared at her.
"The boy is right. The sun is far away. We might not be able to reach it, even in ninety years. You should let me go. I am young and strong, and I am not afraid of beasts, not daunted by mountains. In addition, I am with child. If I can't reach the sun before I die, my child will surely carry on."
Everyone agreed that this was a good idea. The people cheered, and Malei prepared for the journey. She promised that when she reached the sun, she would light a great fire, to signal her success.
Malei set out towards the east. After eight months, she gave birth to a baby. She traveled on for a long, very long time; she walked the road for seventy years with her child. When she was finally too old and frail to go any further, she stopped at a peasant's home, and the child went on without her.
During the seventy years mother and child scaled tens of thousands of mountains, crossed tens of thousands of rivers, fought tens of thousands of wild beasts. They suffered and endured all kinds of hardships. They grew strong.
On the road they often met people that were anxious to help them when they found out that they were going to the sun. They gave them food, clothes and shelter, they ferried them across rivers, helped them over mountains.
The people left behind in Malei's home looked eagerly every day towards the east, waiting for the light of the fire. Years passed, one after another. There was no light, there was no warmth. People started to believe that Malei had died on the road. They started to believe her child was lost, and there was no hope left.
And then, after ninety-nine years of waiting, on the morning of the last day of the year, a red light appeared on the eastern horizon. And right after that first spark the sun rose, flooding the land with light and warmth. The creatures of the night fled from the brightness.
Ever since that day, to honor the memory of Malei and her son, the Zhuang wake with the rising sun, and work until it sets in the west.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cuentos Los Silos - Stories for Everyone

Los Silos is an incredibly diverse festival, with the participation of pretty much the entire town, as well as people from all over the island, and (in my case) all over the world. I was impressed by how well it all fit together, and how seamlessly it incorporated events for all ages and all tastes. 2014 was the 19th year of the festival, and the practice definitely bore fruit.
Instead of a chronological account of the events, I decided I would like to mention some of my favorite parts of the weekend, to give you all a glimpse of what it felt like to be in the middle of such a colorful, busy, inspiring whirlwind of stories. So, if you ever decide to visit Los Silos early in December, here are some of the things you can encounter:
(All pictures come from the Cuentos Los Silos Facebook site. Go and like it.)

Storytelling concerts
We all had to bring several 50 minute shows to the festival. As for me, I had 3, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. It took me almost a year to piece them together, translate them, and practice telling them in Spanish, but the end result was absolutely worth the work.
Some shows took place late in the morning (11am) and were advertised for a family audience. For that, I presented my Strange Princesses program, filled with Hungarian folktales about brave, clever, and exceptional girls. The show took place in the theater room of the local Health Center (yep), and it was filled with families. After the show, little girls lined up to thank me for the stories and give me a kiss on the cheek. A few times I stumbled over words in the stories; I was delighted to find out that the audience was more than willing to help me find the right one, and smile in approval as the story continued on.
My two adult shows took place in the local high school on the two nights of the weekend. The first one was a new program of legends about Attila the Hun; the second a series of Hungarian folktales that had connections to Spain (and even, in a symbolic way, to the Canary Islands). The house was completely full both times (about 100 people), and to my great surprise I found out later that there was even a Hungarian lady in the audience!
Sadly, I didn't get to go to the big shows of anyone else over the weekend. I would have loved to see all of them, but we either told at the same time, or other things came up on the schedule. Pretty much all of our shows played to a full house, though, and we were overwhelmed by the love and support of the audiences.

Stories from the Balcony
I was so happy I got to do this one! In the evenings, under the light of the full moon and the lampions, storytellers told one story each from various balconies around the main square. People gathered below, sitting on stairs, benches, fences and chairs, and gazed up at the pretty wooden balconies where the storytellers were. It was tons of fun to walk up the creaking wooden stairs of the town hall (more than 200 years old) and walk out onto the balcony to impart some folklore upon the masses below. Made you feel like the Pope.
I got to hear two rounds of Balconies, and I was glad I did. A lot of the local tellers did them too. In my round I shared time with Luís and Fabio (who actually did the balcony thing twice; also, he is really good at picking the right story for the right audience); walking around in the evenings I got to hear Mar González and Laura Escuela as well. Since the weather was so warm, it was great fun to sit around on the square, waiting for storytellers to appear in a strange Romeo and Juliet fashion.

Stories on Couches
This one was truly unique and fun. At 5 in the afternoon people gathered in front of the town hall, holding their tickets to a show by one of the five storytellers listed on the program. When we all gathered, volunteers led us in different directions along winding alleys and around corners until we arrived to... someone's home. In the spacious living room, hidden from the noise of the main square and the spotlight of the stages, the chosen storyteller sat in an armchair, waiting of us, accompanied by drinks and cookies. I went to Luís' session; there were ten of us there, including the couple who owned the apartment, and that was really all the living room could fit. What resulted was a very nice, quiet, relaxed hour of stories, where the storyteller talked to us instead of at us, and we all got to sit back and enjoy a quiet hour of storytelling the way it most naturally works. Luís was graceful and funny and eloquent, and even played us a lullaby on his accordion in the end.
I am suddenly a big fan of small-scale storytelling festival events.

Stories in Patios
These kind of worked the same way the Couches did, except this time we took our seats in the small hidden patios of old apartment buildings. The audience consisted of about twenty adults and children. This time I got into Fabio's session, who did not only switch quickly between Inuit myths and colorful children's books, but even told a Fionn Mac Cool story, with which he totally won the festival, at least in my eyes.
(I noticed that Spanish tellers like to tell with picture books, which pretty much defeats everything I have learned about the art of oral storytelling. They do an amazing job bringing the stories to life with their own words, and the books they use I gorgeous. I spent a lot of money on picture books in the festival's bookstore. A lot.)

Lightning round!
The end of the festival was marked by a final show in front of about 300 people in the inner court of the old convent building. On this stage all of us featured tellers told one more 5 minute story each, to say a fitting farewell to our beloved audiences. I told second, and after I did I took my place in the back of the stage on a brightly painted bench, to watch the others. In the case of some of them it was the first time I heard them tell, and instantly regretted not getting around to go to more of their concerts. The Tapetes duo was lovely, and so was Arturo, who told his own funny story about saints running a race to decide who gets to stay in the canon (a very Spanish story for a very Spanish audience). As a former Catholic school student, I was very close to peeing myself from laughter on the stage. The lineup came to a closing with a tale told by the festival's main organizer, Ernesto Rodríguez Abad, who brought all of our tales into perspective. The full moon and the stars peered in from the night sky above. At the end of the show a marching band appeared out of nowhere, and we all filed out of the building and onto the square where everything erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted long into the night.

Poems and Umbrellas
 In addition to all the shows, circles, book signings and children's workshops, there were also many volunteers walking around the square, adding more color to the weekend. Some of them carried long cardboard tubes, and if you asked them, they put it to your ear and then whispered a poem into it for you, in a vibrating, mysterious voice. Others carried umbrellas decorated with colorful cards, and if you stopped them, they stood under the umbrella with you, reading you a story from one of the cards (and then pointed you to the bookstore where you could find the corresponding book). It was all good fun, and literally brought poetry, art, and storytelling to all the people on the streets.

All in all, the festival was packed with things to do, things to hear, and things to learn. It was extremely busy, and at the same time a whole enchanted weekend full of colors and words. It was one of the best storytelling events I have ever been to, and I am deeply honored to have been asked to be a part of it, and bring my stories from Hungary all the way to Tenerife. I will be re-living and re-telling this experience for a very long time.

Cuentos Los Silos - Storytelling Festival on Tenerife

This one might have been my most adventurous storytelling job yet.
Definitely one of the best.

I was invited to the Festival Internacional del cuento de Los Silos (Los Silos International Storytelling Festival) almost a year ago. My first reaction was to look it up on the Internet; I have been to festival in Spain before, but this one I was not familiar with. Turns out it takes place in a town on Tenerife, Canary Islands. I thought about it for about a whole ten seconds before I agreed to go.

Los Silos is a small town in the northwestern corner of the island. It is far away from most tourist-frequented places (they tell me tourists congregate on the southern beaches of the island where there is sand and less rain). The town is surrounded by banana groves and breathtakingly beautiful volcanic mountains on one side, and the black rocks of the Atlantic shore on the other. From the airport we were taken by car along the long winding road that balances between ocean and mountains, through small cities and towns made of colorful houses, until late in the morning of the day after I left the US (thank you, time difference) we arrived to the main square of Los Silos, and the house that was going to be our home for the weekend.
Before I passed out for 17 hours, I took a small walk around: Around the main square stood the town hall, the building of the old convent that was transformed into the festival headquarters, and the restaurant that was going to be our regular place for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and wifi. I was also introduced to the organizing team of the festival, all extremely friendly, insanely busy, and very patient to repeat sentences when my sleep-deprived brain failed to switch over to Spanish fast enough (it always takes a day or so before I make the switch between two foreign languages).
By the time I rolled out of bed the next morning, the festival was already on full swing. In fact, it had been in full swing for more than a week at that point: The local storytellers of Tenerife, as well as some guest performers, had been making the rounds in the schools of the island, telling to kids. The festival itself is a several week long series of events, crowned by the last weekend full of storytelling all over the city, from early morning late into the night. This last three-day long extravaganza was the part that I (and a series of other storytellers from all around the world) got invited for.
Our personal headquarters for the weekend was the little café in the middle of the square. People sat out there at any given point during the day or the night. Although it was the middle of December, the weather was lovely. The locals frequently apologized to us for the cold, shivering in their coats - it was about 20 degrees Celsius (in the 60's Fahrenheit) the entire weekend. I, flying in from Freezingcold, OH, was thoroughly amused, and took all possible chances to sit outside and soak up the warm.
It was in the café on Friday that I was introduced to most of the guest storytellers of the festival. I already knew Ana Griott (her storytelling name; her real name is Ana Cristina Herreros), a lovely and elegant lady that in her spare time writes wonderful folktale collections in Spanish. I also knew Luís Correia Carmelo from Portugal from one of the FEST conferences, and I was happy to get to hear him again. I was introduced to Kamel Zouaoui, an Algerian-French storyteller who speaks a zillion languages and is very passionate about the art of storytelling; we were instantly best friends. I also met Arturo Abad, a young Canarian storyteller who lives in Granada and writes and tells wonderful tales of his own. Turns out he lived in Hungary for a month, and has a puli dog! Small world. I also got to know André Neves, a children's author and illustrator from Brazil, whose colorful and enchanting work was on display the whole weekend in the bookstore. Our little team was complete with a duo from Brazil named Tapetes contadores de historias together, and Warley Goulart and Rosana Reátegui respectively. We were joined by local storytellers such as the lovely Mar González Novell, Andrés Novoa, and Fabio González. There were many more storytellers around all weekend, but since we were scattered and very busy, I sadly didn't get to make friends with all of them. The ones I met and heard were all delightful.
The theme of the festival was the Ogre, which was represented by a large statue on the square (drawn by Fabio, who was an illustrator before he also started telling stories). It was supposed to symbolize the power of stories to present dark and scary things and help us learn to deal with them. The orge in question was not only delightfully ugly, but also very useful: One could climb in through its butt and emerge from its open maws onto the festival stage; alternately, they could also hold storytelling sessions by mysterious flashlight inside the ogre's belly. Of course kids could not get enough of it. The additional theme was recycling; in order to promote it, the square and all the venues were decorated with strings of lampions created by the kids and adults of the town from recycled materials and made to look like ghosts, little monsters, and other amusing shapes.
A lot happened during the three days of the festival weekend; parallel events took place from morning to evening. I'll describe some of them in the next post, with more pictures.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The princess is a boy: Gender, sex and folktales

I have repeatedly told people that I have this list on my English blog and have repeatedly been reminded that I don't (I wrote it in Hungarian). So, this is a post that should have been created a long time ago. Sorry for the wait.
This is a far-from-complete list of traditional stories that I have encountered that have something to do with sex (as in, someone's biological), gender, sexuality, and shifts in all of those. While many people think these are "modern" topics, they are not. It is a selection of stories I have encountered, and because I think it is important to note that they exist, and even more important to examine them, talk about them, and tell them in context, I wanted to make this list available to the general public.

(*Note: All of these stories have their own take on things. They are good starting point for discussion, but I suggest giving them a lot of thought and craft before performance. Talk about them, and talk to many people. Ask for opinions, listen, make changes as you see fit.)

Same-sex love

Aristophanes' story of love
Okay, so maybe this one is pushing the definition of "traditional story" because we only know it from a literary source - Plato's Symposium. But it is nevertheless a famous example from the ancient world, re-told, among others, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch as The Origin of Love, and in Xena the Warrior Princess in the infamous Hercules crossover (which is the first time I heard it). The story essentially presents the origin of "soul mates" of three types: Men who seek men, women who seek women, and men/women who seek the other sex.

A famous beauty for whom two gods, Apollo and Zephyrus competed. When the boy chose Apollo, Zephyrus killed him out of jealousy, and Apollo created a fragrant and colorful flower for his memory.

The angel page
This is a story I found in Legends of the Rhine; it belongs to the city of Elberfeld. While it is not explicitly a love story between the young knight and his page / squire, it lends itself easily to that reading. In the end, the page turns out to be an angel, and after any adventures he sacrifices his life on earth to save the knight's dying wife. It is a touching story in any way.

Sex/gender change
(**Note: English does not really lend itself to gender-neutral writing. Excuse my mixed pronouns.)

A story from Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book 9.666-797) in which a girl is raised as a boy to deceive her strict father. She falls in love with and gets engaged by her father to a girl who loves her back, thinking that she is a boy. The day before the wedding Iphis prays to the goddess Isis to grant her a wish for change, and the goddess turns her into a man, after which he happily marries the girl he loves.

The princess that turned into a man
This one is a Hungarian folktale; I have the short translation if anyone needs it. It is about a king that only has daughters, and when he has to send his army to war his youngest volunteers saying "men's clothes have always fit me better anyway." On the way she helps out an old woman who sees her for who she is, and helps her with her mission. She falls in love with the daughter of their ally, and gets married, but is afraid to reveal herself to her wife, and therefore the king thinks she is cheating and plans to have her killed. She is sent on a dangerous mission during with, among many adventures, she and her entire crew come under a spell that makes them switch sexes. Our hero is more than happy with the "curse" and returns home immediately to finally admit his full affection for his wife. Explicit folktale bonking ensues.

Another Greek classic. Remember the old blind prophet from the Odyssey? Well, according to legend, he spent seven years as a woman, in some versions of the story as a sacred prostitute in Corinth, while according to others as a wife and a mother. After seven years the spell got reversed, and Tiresias was a man again. This ties into him being blind: Apparently Hera blinded him after he was called on to decide a debate between Zeus and her about who enjoys sex more, men or women (wouldn't we all want to know). Tiresias said women enjoy sex TEN times more (suspiciously accurate number), and was blinded by the goddess and given the gift of prophecy by Zeus as a consolation prize.

The princess and the demon
This one is another favorite of mine, from India. Starts out similarly then Iphis, except in this version the prince(ss) meets a tree spirit/demon on the way to the wedding, and agrees to exchange sexes with him for a year. At the end of the year he returns to the site of the deal, and finds the tree spirit happily married and pregnant. They both agree they like their new sex better, and stay that way.

The warrior girl
I have blogged about this one earlier. It is a Spanish take on the Mulan story, and a prince that can't take "none of your business" for an answer.

The princess who became a man
I heard this story at the Mysteries of Europe storytelling conference in Spain, from Heidi Dahlsveen, a Norwegian storyteller. It is a Norwegian folktale about a princess whom her father wants to marry, so she runs away from home. Later she cuts off her breasts and dresses as a man, and works in a king's court until the princess falls in love with the mysterious soldier and they get married. The princess find out on the wedding night the story of her husband, and she is okay with it. But someone else, listening in (not cool) tells the king, and the king decides to order all the soldiers to undress and find out the truth. With the help of a magical old man, the young soldier avoids humiliation. He goes on to have a baby with the princess, whom the magical old man uses to illustrate a point about letting go of the pains of the past.

Another story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a Greek myth about a girl that is "ravaged" by Poseidon, who then offers to reward her with a wish (how generous) (Poseidon's a dick). Caenis asks to be turned into a man so she can never feel helpless again. This story speaks more to gender difference and sexism, but it is interesting to note that Caeneus then goes on to be a hero among the Greeks and the father of an Argonaut.

That's it for now.
For a very useful interactive map of cultures that have more than two genders, click here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Yes, Grimm fairy tales are dark, and we like them that way

News about a new edition of the Grimm fairy tales have been circling the Internet and popping up consistently on my Facebook wall. Headlines include:

Grimm Brothers' fairy tales have blood and horror restored to them in new translation (The Guardian)

New Translation of Grimm's Fairy Tales Restores the Gore and Horror (io9)

First Edition of all the Original Grimm's Fairy Tales will leave in all the gnarly parts (The Mary Sue)

Too Grimm for Disney: Original editions of classic fairy tales offer darker side of Brothers Grimm stories - including self-mutilation in Cinderella and Rapunzel getting pregnant in her tower (The Daily Mail Online)

These Grimm fairy tales are not for the kiddies (USA Today)

Brothers Grimm: Fairy tales restored & there are no "happy endings" (Hollywood Life)

So, what's up with all of this? Are we excited? Yes.
Is this good news? Yes.

Professional storytellers generally know. We might not always be allowed to tell the stories that way (especially in the USA), but trust me, we know. It's really the only party trick a storyteller has: "Did you know that Rapunzel originally gets pregnant in the tower?" "Did you know that Cinderella's sisters cut their toes and heels off to fit the shoe?" "Did you know that Snow White is strangled, stabbed in the head, and then poisoned?"
Yes, yes, and yes.

When I was little, back in Hungary, I had picture books that told the stories that way, and no one thought about it twice. I went to puppet shows where they poured red glitter out of the stepsisters' shoes to indicate the dripping blood. The firs time I saw the Disney version of some of these tales I was not entirely sure what the heck was up with them.

So, what is the fuss exactly about? Why is all the media talking about the new edition? And, most of all, what I am trying to prove here?

It's not about the stories. The Grimm tales are dark, and they have been known to be dark for a long time. I mean, who ever thought that The Pied Piper of Hamelin is a cheerful, goofy children's story? (Apparently every children's book illustrator ever). The news is not the fact that Grimm is dark. The news is that people are excited about this.

Stories can use some darkness. They don't hurt children. I (like most kids in Europe) knew the original versions when I was little, and I turned out fine (and a storyteller). And yet, these versions are regarded as something strange and new and sensational. If you work in education or entertainment, you know why. Every storyteller could talk to you for hours about parents and teachers (but never kids!) complaining about a story being "too dark" or "too gory" just because the villain dies in the end. Stories get censored left and right. What, it is okay to murder Snow White once, but not three times? (The dwarves manage to save her the first two times, in case you were wondering). Is it okay for Rapunzel to be sold by her mother and thrown from a tower, but pregnancy is a taboo?

Yes, the Grimm tales are dark, and you know what else? It's not just Grimm, either. A 17th century Italian version of Sleeping Beauty gets raped in her sleep and wakes up when she gives birth to twins. The original Red Riding Hood is torn apart and devoured by a wolf. A Swiss version of Snow White is a girl forced into slave labor by seven bandits. The ancient Greek Cinderella is a prostitute. The Hungarian Dancing Princesses don't wait for their suitors to fall asleep - they poison them dead and then go to a witches' Sabbath. I could go on.

Shiny, happy, kid-friendly tales are a product of 19th century romantic ideals of childhood. They are not the norm. Grim(m) was the norm. And some of them were never intended for children. And now while we are talking about it, hopefully we will take another look at what these stories tell us about human nature, and to what extent they need or don't need to be censored.
We might want to talk about what the villain's death means to children listening to a tale. We may want to talk about what Rapunzel can tell us about the need for sex education. We might have a discussion about Cinderella's sisters and the body image of young girls. We might talk about Sleeping Beauty and issues of consent. We might even venture to discuss Snow White and the question of taking authority figures' words at face value. And why stop there? Maybe we will even talk about censorship in other media.

Did you know that...? Yes. I did. And I am glad I do.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Kentucky Storytelling Conference 2014 - Fun with friends

It was so nice to be back in a place that has sweet tea, Southern accents, and three-dimensional geography.
And even better to be among people of story.

I drove down to Kentucky with Kevin Cordi, and as it happens when storytellers travel together, the time zone wormhole was not the only thing that made the road seem shorter. We arrived just in time for the Friday night concert. Both featured tellers, Judy Sima and Pam Holcomb, were spectacular, and a fitting welcome to the participants of the conference. I know Judy well, and her touching, eloquently told story of family and immigration was mesmerizing. It was my first time hearing Pam, but she in an instant favorite; she is hilarious and at the same time heart-warming, both on and off the stage.
I like how the KSA did open mic: They had three separate hats labeled "I have never told before" "I tell some" and "I tell a lot" so that everyone could put their name in the hat they were comfortable with, and everyone would get an equal chance to tell (instead of being flooded out by the confident, experienced tellers). It was a lovely system, and it worked out really well. Two of my new favorites from the weekend were Larry Staats (who left me in tears of laughter) and Octavia Sexton (who is a wild, wonderful lady, and a great teller of Jack tales). I was also very happy to see youth tellers on the stage (they call them Torchbearers here); they did an excellent job, fit to be in a lineup of grown-up and even professional tellers. The Friday evening story slam was similarly fun, and I especially liked the tie-breaking tell-off when two storytellers of equal scores faced each other once again in four-minute stories (and would have gone on to three, two, and one, which I would have loved to witness).
Saturday was a day of workshops interspersed with open mic. I spent the morning with a small group visiting the folklife archives of the Kentucky Museum at WKS. We got to dig into the files and play around with collections of jump-rope rhymes, wart cures, comic love songs, quilt patterns, and, of course, folktales. We also took a quick tour of the exhibitions and the log house, and returned to the hotel full of new ideas and research inspiration. I thought visiting the local museum was a great idea for a workshop. Definitely a keeper.
In the afternoon I participated in Kevin's workshop on play and word-dancing. The room was absolutely packed, and the next 75 minutes felt like being caught in a whirlwind in the best possible way. Kevin encouraged us to play, to experiment, to create, and to support each other's ideas. It was a fun workshop to do, and a great group of people to play with.
In the last slot of the afternoon, it was my turn to present. My workshop was titled "StorySpotting - Creating a bridge between storytelling and popular culture" and I talked about what we can learn as storytellers from popular media and internet fandoms. I had a captive and cheerful group, and I personally really enjoyed sharing my nerdy side with storytellers (almost as much as I enjoy sharing my storyteller side with people in the pop culture department). I think it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between traditional storytelling and pop culture. I will work more with it in the future.
I would like to make a special mention of how supportive KSA was of people with disabilities attending the conference. They were attentive, organized, and courteous. Not only were all the performances and workshops interpreted in sign language, but we also learned as tellers and presenters a lot about how to shape our work to help the interpreters do their job, and provide a good experience to every participant in our workshops. Every conference should follow their example.

All in all, it was a lovely weekend adventure in the world of story. The conference was friendly and well organized, and we were all welcomed with an open heart. As someone who travels a lot to a lot of events, I'll say that the KSA conference is definitely one of the great ones. I can't wait to visit again next year.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Story

I don't even remember when I first heard about National Novel Writing Month. It must have been the first year I was studying in the USA (that is 2007) and I remember liking the idea. I was a published author by then, so I already knew an important thing about myself: I simply cannot write alone. Maybe this stems from also being a performing storyteller, being used to constant audience feedback, but whatever the reason, it was really hard for me to get motivated when alone, and so I was constantly seeking out family members, friends, and other people not fast enough to run away, to bounce ideas and get feedback for my work. I also loved working alongside other writers, even if our genres didn't mix well, just for the motivation of writing along (yes, I am extremely competitive, thanks for asking).
In the past 7 years, I did not always participate, and when I did, I didn't always hit the 50k goal. Last year was an epic fail, for example, mostly because it collided with my first year of PhD. But the year before (2012) marked the start of my book, Tales of Superhuman Powers (55 re-tellings of folktales that feature superpowers), my first English language work, that got published by McFarland.
You win some, you lose some.

Except, you really don't lose anything.

Now, while hundreds of thousands people participate each year, NaNo also has its critics. Most of them belong to the "NOBODY CARES" camp of people (I never understand why they are on social media in the first place, if they will whine about having to look at other people's interests), and some of them are believers in "high literature" that don't trust the quality of works that come out of 30 days of crazed writing.
So here is the thing: NaNo is not perfect, and it is not for everyone. It will also not turn you magically into a bestselling author if you leave your work as it is on November 30th. There are good things, there are bad things. From my experience, here are some of them:

The Good

1. Motivation. NaNo was designed to make you put your ass into a chair, your hands onto a keyboard, and start the book you always planned to start 'someday.' It also keeps you on track with word counts and various other built-in mechanics of the challenge.

2. Community support. Despite the claims of 'nobody cares,' I have seen people actively help each other during NaNo, instead of just tooting their own horn. Heck, the forums are full of questions and answers. People support, encourage, and motive each other; they give feedback, and help with research. As they should.

3. Pre-release audience building. Who said getting people interested in your work has to start after publishing? People are invested in works if they see them being formed, and even more if they participate in their creation by supporting and motivating the author. NaNo is a great place to build interest, a following, and an audience that keeps you going simply because they want to read the finished product.

The Bad

1. Deadline stress. Are you a person that gets stressed out about deadlines and shuts down entirely? Maybe NaNo is not for you. Or maybe it's just more of a challenge.

2. Number of people. Sometimes I get intimidated by the sheer number of books people write during NaNo. How am I ever going to be one of the few that get picked up? Is it even worth trying while so many other people are also competing in the same market? Are we going to turn from writing buddies into competitors the moment November is over? While a great place for support and help, just because of the sheer number of participants, NaNo can also be intimidating.

3. Extra work. NaNo was designed to make you put out 50k words in a month to kick off your next writing project. However, since editing is forbidden during November, a lot of what you put out in a writing frenzy will probably land off the cutting table in December. It would be interesting to see percentages of how much useful written material people actually get out of NaNo. I know I scrapped an entire project once.
(But still: Getting started in the first place is priceless. At least you find out what direction you didn't want to go in).

The Story

While I don't always use it to its full potential, I do believe in NaNo. Mostly because I am not convinced that writing was ever supposed to be a solitary act. I know storytelling certainly isn't. We are social beings. Maybe we just create better within a community.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Call for Participants for a Survey on Bards and Storytellers in Role-Playing Games!

Call to gamers in the tabletop role-playing field: 
I am looking for participants for a research project on Bards and other storyteller-type characters! My name is Csenge Zalka, and I am currently a PhD student at Bowling Green State University. I am conducting a research project on how people play storyteller-type characters, and what they like or dislike about them.

If you have ever played a storyteller-type character (Bard, Eshu, Gaillard, Trubadour, Fatemaker, Lore-keeper, etc.), and you would be willing to participate in the project by filling out a short (15-20 minutes) online survey, please follow the link below! You have to be at least 18 years old to participate. 
Thank you!

If you want to fill out the survey, follow this link!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

MythOff Bowling Green: Newbies take the cake!

We had Bowling Green's (and, in fact, Ohio's) second ever MythOff event tonight!
And we saw that it was fun.

The venue was brand new: We have moved to Café Havana, the home of the Bowling Green Open Mic Night, and were greeted with the roaring sound of delicious fresh-made smoothies. Thus, MythOff was preceded by Smoothie Hour, until everyone had ordered all the heavenly beverages of their heart's desire, and settled down for the tales.
Our host, once again, was Tom (also, incidentally, the host of Open Mic), and he carried us with eloquence and empathy through the evening.
The lineup was as follows:

Round One: Giants!
In the Norse corner, Jamie opened the night with the tale of Thor's Jounrey to Utgard. In the Ossetian corner, bringing the Nart sagas to MythOff for a historic first time, was yours truly with the story of Soslan and the Giant's Skull (this tale, in which the Nart heroes excavate, reassemble and resurrect a giant from his skeleton, has a soft spot in my archaeologist heart).
The prize was the Stallion of Giants, a "full-sized horse" that was supposed to make you feel like a giant yourself (a tiny, tiny horse in a tiny, tiny box, obviously). It was awarded to the tale that sounded the most sexually charged when taken out of context (Tom's take on the questionable wording we both used describing giant parts and giant sounds). Jamie, a first-time MythOff participant, carried the steed home to his feasting hall.

Round Two: Love and War
This round pitted two first time MythOff tellers against each other with thundering success. They did not only brave the stage and the stormy seas of myth, but they also battled the demons of the blender and the steaming machine, masterfully subduing them and incorporating them into their tales. In the Irish corner was Flannery, an Open Mic veteran with a passion for Irish stories, who delivered the most upbeat version of Deirdre of the Sorrows that I have ever heard, until she brought it to a stunning and shockingly deep ending. In the Russian corner competed Zack, our SCA bardic champion, with the tale of Ilya Muromets and the Magic Sword, which was as unknown as it was spellbinding.
The prize for the round was the Arrow of Love and Hate, an obsidian arrowhead fashioned into a necklace. It was awarded for the story that reflected most the nature of the storyteller performing it. It was awarded to Flannery, for her feminine and thoughtful take on Deirdre.

Round Three: Resurrection
This round was, sadly and tragically, cut short because one of our storytellers, Dan, had to leave to take care of an emergency. The other teller, Clarke, a second time MythOff participant, did take the stage though, with a gruesome yet colorful Aztec myth about the origins of the human sacrifice.
The prize for the round was the Globe of Resurrection, a shining bouncy ball symbolizing the ability to bounce back from the worst. It was awarded to the storyteller who seemed to be the most present in his tale. The vote unanimously went to Clarke on that one.

In the audience, we had a shifting number (around 30) of rapt listeners who followed us into the world of myth and awarded the tales with applause and appreciation.

All in all, it was an epic night. And a really nice strawberry banana smoothie.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Read some quality historical fiction today!

I found out big news today: Robert Merle's Fortune de France series, one of the great reading adventures of my youth, is finally being published in English! I wanted to share this with you English-speaking readers, and make a case for adding this book to your shelves.
Not too long ago I wrote a post about 6 Books that Need an English Translation a.s.a.p. My prayers (or whining?) seem to have been answered, and Pushkin Press is proudly presenting us the first volume of one of them this September: Robert Merle's The Brethren.
Fortunes of France (or, as I knew it growing up, French History) is a captivating, exciting and adventurous series of historical fiction that takes place in late Medieval France. The whole series is 13 volumes long, enough to take you through several decades of turbulent 16th century French history, and well into the early 17th century, the world of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu so well-known from... other books. In the midst of struggle between royal houses, religions, and nations, our hero Pierre de Siorac works his way through France (and most of the lovely ladies of his time). Adventures, gallantry, some plague, lots of rapier fighting, complicated politics, generous amounts of love, dark tones, likeable characters, and a quite accurate picture of life in those times makes these books an experience that stays with you permanently.

This is not really a book review. The books have been out for a while, they are a proven classic, and people who have read them already know that they are amazing. Hopefully they will be even more popular now that they are available for the English-speaking bookworm crowd.

(...Who am I kidding? I am willing to hit you over the head until you read them.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

5 Things to Love About the SCA

When you fill out the Ultimate Geek Test (which you should), you get extra points for being in the SCA, and even more extra points for holding an office in the SCA. In mainstream culture, being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism is usually seen as an extremely geeky/nerdy activity. Which is totally fine with me, because I am a nerd. But there are also a lot of stereotypical ideas and misconceptions out there about what the SCA is, or what we do. Without attempting to dissolve all of those, today I had the inspiration to make a list of some of my favorite things about being a SCAdian:

1. Community that talks
We eat together, we sit together, we play together, and we talk a lot. I cherish the times when we sit around, everyone working on their own project of embroidery, spinning, knitting, weaving, etc. and while our hands work, we talk about things. Not just SCA things. All kinds of things. We talk about our day, and work, and the movies we like, and the shows we watch, and the books we read, and sometimes we tell stories, and we laugh a lot. In a world where I walk into classrooms full of students sitting in complete silence staring stubbornly at their phones, it is a rare thing to have one night a week when you just sit and talk to other human beings.

2. Community that dances
People who dance. Real dances (not grinding and twitching). With partners (boy and girl, girl and girl, boy and boy, no one cares). For fun. To live music. People who dance medieval dances, renaissance dances, dances you secretly admire in Jane Austin movies, in long lines, and the guys bow, and the girls curtsy, and, get this, guys don't awkwardly shuffle away to avoid it!! We dance until we can't breathe, and then we dance some more, and We. Have. DANCE CARDS.

3. Community that knows their history
One of the things I notice about my students in the USA is how different their perception of history is compared to students in Europe. Oh sure, most European students loathe history too, but they exist in a space where history has a different, long-term feel to it, and that affects how they perceive long-ago events. Long story short: If you love to have long discussions about Viking weaponry, or the dirty secrets of medieval royal bedrooms, or you love swapping Roman era inside jokes, the SCA is one of the few non.academic spaces to do it. These people are history buffs, and they know their stuff. Oh, and they also know how to make it exciting.

4. Community that creates things
Honestly, I have never been a very crafty person. I don't impulsively re-decorate, I don't make clothes, and I can only sew buttons. I used to do embroidery and friendship bracelets in high school, and that's about it. Even when I was in a Renaissance performance group in Hungary, I had my dresses made, I never got around to making them myself.
And then I joined the SCA. I joined in late August; by early November, I had a tablet weaving project. And with the woven belt came an idea for a garb, and so I started learning how to work a sewing machine. By then I had a shoe box full of needles, scissors, thread, and random tidbits. By the end of spring, I had an ongoing costume project, and a full sized toolbox full of stuff.
The joy of creating something with your own hands is severely underrated these days.

God, I missed archery after high school. So. Freaking. Much.

I rest my case.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Long stories, short stories, true stories - NSN Conference, Mesa, AZ

While I did not get to live blog everything that happened in these past 5 days of the 2014 NSN conference, now that I am sitting at the airport gate I feel like a report is in order.
Short version: The NSN conference, as usual, was epic.
Long version:

I feel like this year's #NSNStoryCon had a very balanced lineup of workshops. The proverbial pendulum that swings between the extremes of "personal stories only" and "traditional stories forever" seems to be approaching some kind of a middle ground - in my 7 year experience, this year showed a lot more attention to long-form storytelling and traditional stories than a couple of years ago. This in itself made me happy.
Master Class: I took Joe Hayes' master class on telling traditional tales from cultures other than our own. While we established up front that the discussion will not get political, that was easier said than done. People have strong feelings about telling folktales, especially from Native American cultures, without working with the community behind them. With that said, Joe did a good job of telling us tales he works with, and then guiding us backwards through the process of adapting them all the way to the original sources. We learned a lot about Southwestern Native American and Hispanic cultures. While not all of us agreed with the idea of treating stories as text separate from the culture they came from, in the end we reserved that discussion for another day.
Workshops: Too many to choose from! I would have loved all of them, but short of Hermione Granger's time turning thingy, I had to make some hard decisions. The good news? There really were no bad choices.
Pam Faro's Interfaith Interplay was a treat, especially because she drew many of her stories and examples from medieval Andalucía. We talked about spiritual stories, sacred stories, stories of faith traditions, and how to use them to create connections and bridges. Pam is a lovely lady, and a true master of the topic.
Also attended the "No Moth? No Problem!" workshop with Liz Warren, Megan Finnerty and Marilyn Omifunke Torres. It was a tour de force through organizing community storytelling events. Professional, efficient, to the point, no-bullshit presentation. We need more of these so we can all learn how to put on more quality storytelling events! Also, someone's gotta say this: Megan is the Darcy Lewis of the storytelling world. There, I said it. She is an amazing, powerful lady.
Liz Weir's Out of the tunnel and into the light of peace workshop was also eye-opening and much needed. While I thought it was going to be all about stories of ethnic/religious conflict, she gave us much more: She talked about the importance of storytelling in all kinds of conflict in one's life, from bullying to family discord. She drove home the age-old idea that it is a lot harder to hate someone once you know their story...
One of my favorite things this weekend was Rivka Willick's workshop on what storytellers can learn from comics. It was so much fun! We got to browse comics of all kinds, read them, and then play around with adapting their visual and narrative style to our storytelling. We all had great fun, came up with some great lines and images, and I personally felt sorry this was not a 3-hour intensive. We also introduced a bunch of new people to comics, which was lovely.
The last workshop of the weekend for me was Priscilla Howe's presentation on long-form storytelling. That is really where my heart is these days, so it was great to learn and talk more about it. Priscilla told us part of her Tristan and Iseult show, and then we went into questions like how do you prepare to tell one story for hours, what to do when your audience goes into a trance, and how to market long-story events to new audiences. I was so excited by the end of it that I spent dinner break with Priscilla, swapping tales and discussing possibilities.
Swaps and Fringes: The Wednesday evening healing story concert was truly a healing experience. It featured a wide variety of stories from many traditions, which was fascinating to me, and I also learned a lot from them. Thursday evening I attended Cassie Cushing and Ann Harding's fringe The Wily, the Kind and the Bittersweet. What a quality event! Both girls did a beautiful job adapting well-known fairy tales and elaborating them in their own style. They produced the best versions of the Twelve Month Brothers, Snow White and Rose Red, and the Snow Maiden that I have ever heard. The Fairy Tale Lobby story swap similarly turned into a great spontaneous lineup of stories: 7 tellers told 7 tales (including myself, trying out a new Hungarian folktale about a king and his three clever daughters). It could not have been better if we planned it that way!
The Grand Slam was also a treat to behold. Linda Gorham did a wonderful job hosting it; while the judges deliberated, she entertained us with quotes, poems, and songs related to the theme (Fire and Light). We even ended up singing some Johnny Cash. Ha! The stories ranged from hilarious to heartwarming, and for a while we had a spontaneous Chicago Fire theme going. Since I was the only name in the International Region's hat (cup), I got to tell my story too. It was the first time I told the wonderful true tale of the Győrújbarát Naked Cyclist, and I got a huge kick out of the audience reactions. I didn't make first three, but the naked man on a bike became a running joke for the rest of the conference. Some people swore to have seen him, and some people swore it was them. Fun times.
I closed the conference experience with Noa Baum's It's impossible to translate but I'll try, and it was a perfect closure. She guided us on a journey to the Jerusalem of her childhood. We laughed until our sides hurt, and we sighed in nostalgia, and listened with rapt attention as she told us personal stories filled with emotion. I heard people say this was one of the best she has ever done. I can agree with that. She is a wonderful presence on stage.
Keynotes: The opening keynote on Thursday night was much needed and well done. Queen Nur, Kiran Singh Sirah, and Doug Bland all talked about the importance of story in communities, and storytelling work that can change people's relationships to their communities and to each other. And while Kiran's kilt was the undisputed highlight of the evening, we all learned truths and went to sleep filled with hope for the future.
The Friday morning panel on Ancestral Stories was similarly much needed and deep. Four Native storytellers representing four nations talked to us about story, about myth, about the importance of water and earth, and how science and story are not only not mutually exclusive, but cannot even survive without one another. Things that needed to be said were said, and I think we will remember them for a long time.

Of course, a storytelling conference is always a lot more than what is on the program. I could spend a lot of time describing the dedication and lovely hospitality of all the organizers; the fun moments of hurried conversations with old friends in the hallways between workshops; the lunches and dinners that take forever because everyone is talking; the spontaneous and wild dance party that ensued after the end of the Oracle Awards ceremony; the explorations to downtown bookshops and restaurants; the project ideas that were born and exchanged; and the quiet conversations in corners between people who live and understand story.

Thank you all who were there, and all that wanted to be there, and all that will be there next time.
See you on the road!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

Today I found a collection of gitano 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 pronoun (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.

Friday, July 4, 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.