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.