Saturday, August 29, 2015

Story Saturday: Exploring the Dietrich Cycle II. - Dragons, Dwarves, and Love Stories

(No, this is not about The Hobbit)

As I promised last week, I am working my way though the Dietrich Cycle - just finished Great Norse, Celtic and Teutonic Legends - and picking and choosing stories that I will want to work with in the future for storytelling performances.
For today, I have an assortment of love stories for your consideration. Like in all medieval romances (duh), there is a lot of them around Dietrich and his valiant knights - and some are more quirky than others.

Hilgunde and Hildburg
(I really just have to accept that every single female name in the saga starts with Hil- or Sig-)
What can the emperor of Constantinople do when he wishes to marry a princess locked away in a tower? Obviously, he goes undercover. In the case of Hugdieterich, that means that he dresses up as a lady, and learns "the ways of women" - so well, in fact, that he becomes famous for his embroidery, and is hired, under the name Hilgunde (his own imaginary sister), to tutor the princess Hildburg. He spends several weeks in the court, and a strong friendship grows between him and the princess - who eventually discovers that her tutor is in fact a man, an emperor no less. Their friendship grow into something more... someone more, actually (babies!!). But that's another story.

Mighty Huntress Princess Minnie
(This would be such a perfect name for an anime!)
In this story another emperor (this time of Rome, or Romaburg) wishes to marry a princess - and is slightly surprised when he is told by her father that the decision is up to her. Once Dietwart and his royal entourage arrive to propose, the Lady Minnie tells them she needs time to get to know the emperor, and make up her mind whether she likes it or not. This slightly anachronistic feminist streak is starting to freak out everyone's masculinity, so they decide to go on a hunt. Turns out, the princess is actually a "mighty huntress" - which makes Dietwart and his boys scoff at her, until she leaves them behind in the dust, and makes the first kill. Unfortunately, she and her maids also scare up a dragon in the woods, and while she keeps shooting arrows at it, they can't break the dragon's scales. She turns to run, and falls... Dietwart to the rescue!
Turns out that killing a dragon and having your chest ripped open is a great in with the ladies. Also turns out that Princess Minnie is also an accomplished healer. Things just work out sometimes.

Herburt and Hild
Nothing illustrates better the difference between the King Arthur cycle and the Dietrich cycle than the fact that they both have a version of Tristan and Isolde - and the latter has a happy ending. Even more than that, it actually involves Tristan's older (and smarter) brother, Herburt - and King Arthur's very own daughter. Talk about royal families being connected.
The gist is the same: King Dietrich wishes to marry King Arthur's fair daughter, but she can't be approached by anyone. Dietrich's good man Herburt goes undercover, gets hired by Arthur, and soon becomes his trusted steward. He designs genius ways to catch a glimpse of the princess (even though she is covered in sheets and surrounded by knights and monks all the time). He ends up becoming her personal servant (as per the princess' request), and honorably proposes to Hild - in Dietrich's name. Hild, obviously, does not like this one bit, and honestly, neither does Herburt. So they run away together. Being pursued by the two most powerful monarchs of European legend and history (one of them literally breathes fire), Herburt and Hild do the only sensible thing: They have sex. Now that she is not a virgin, she is obligated to be Herburt's wife. Everyone can go home. German practicality wins over English drama.

Wow, this got longer than I expected. I'll have to leave the dwarves for next time.
Tune in next week for more!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Story Saturday: Exploring the Dietrich Cycle I. - A mosaic of tales

We are now in the second half of the year, which means that I have begun work on the second epic of my choice, under the J. J. Reneaux grant and the mentorship of the amazing Cathryn Fairlee. After long consideration, I decided to work with the Dietrich Cycle. A number of factors helped me make the decision:

1. I read the Saga of Thidrek of Bern for the A to Z challenge this year, and I enjoyed it immensely
2. I also read the Queen of the Mountains for A to Z and it is epic in all senses of the world
3. I have worked on a version of King Laurin's Rose Garden for my book (under Invisibility) and I always wanted to dig into the whole German "dwarf kingdoms" mythology more
4. Part of my heritage is Swabian, and after the Persian epic I wanted to explore something closer to home.

The Dietrich Cycle is a collection of German legends centered on King Dietrich, a mythical knight-hero figure loosely based on Theoderic the Great. Unlike the Persian Book of Kings, it is essentially a mosaic of stories I get to piece together for myself, from various sources. My main source (the most coherent and comprehensive one) is the Saga of Thidrek, a Norse re-telling of the German legends. Because of this fractured nature, there will be a lot of work with selecting the parts I want to tell, exploring the world of Dietrich and his companions, and shaping it all into one (or more) storytelling performance.

I decided to journal this process in my upcoming Story Saturday posts. Dietrich is not nearly as internationally well known as King Arthur is, and yet there are a lot of similarities - and also a lot of unique elements that make the saga cycle exciting. If you don't believe me, read my A to Z posts about the best bits!

For starters, here is a list of the sources I am working with. The ones with links attached are available for free from (yay!):

The Saga of Thidrek of Bern (translated by Edward Haymes, 1988)

Dietrich of Berne and the Dwarf King Laurin (by Ruth Sawyer, 1963) - This one actually turned out to be a novelized re-telling, I'll probably read it at the end for flavor

Great Norse, Celtic and Teutonic Legends (by Wilhelm Wagner, 2004)

The Wayland-Dietrich Saga (by Katherine M. Buck, 1924) - This one is an 8-volume (!!) attempt at a coherent poetic English re-telling of the entire cycle (Kalevala style)

Hero Tales & Legends of the Rhine (by Lewis Spence, 1915)

Teutonic Myth and Legend (by Donald Mackenzie, 1934)

Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages (by Wilhelm Wagner, 1884)

Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (by Henry Weber, 1814)

Tales and Legends of the Tyrol (by Comtesse von Günther, 1874)

The Heroic Saga-Cycle of Dietrich of Bern (by F.E. Sandbach, 1906)

Hopefully, by next week I will be able to introduce you to some characters that will be making an appearance.
Also, dragons.
Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Folklore Thursday: 7 Things You Need to Know About Hungarian Fairies

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

Hungarian fairy folklore (or what we managed to collect about it to date) is not as detailed and coherent as some other cultures' (take Ireland, for example). There is also a difference between the fairies that feature into folk beliefs, and the fairies that appear in folktales. And yet, out of the few folk creatures that we do have, fairies are definitely a fan favorite.

Here are 7 things you should know about them:

1. They are called 'tündér' (pl. 'tündérek'). They are mostly female, and ruled by a queen called Tündér Ilona.

2. They are mostly water-related creatures. The richest fairy folklore can be found in the riverlands of northwestern Hungary (Szigetköz, Csallóköz - large islands in the Danube). There are also several fairy legends from Transylvania.

3. They are human-like. Much like the Elves in Tolkien's fantasy, they appear like very beautiful humans, and they can also marry (and breed) with human men. In several stories they live in castles (legends of existing castles often attribute their building to the fairies), and in some cases they have underwater palaces or crystal domes and luscious gardens.

4. They are closely related to gold. In the riverlands people used to wash gold from the water, and they told stories about why it was so plentiful. According to some tales, the fairies brushed their golden hair, and it fell into the river, or sprinkled gold dust as they walked by. According to others, river gold is actually fairy urine.
You're welcome.

5. They are not always nice. They can be vain, or fickle, or even cruel sometimes. There is one famous folktale where Tündér Ilona is actually the villain, trying to stop a Dwarf princess from marrying the human she loves.
(Dwarves are even more rare in Hungarian stories)

6. They left. There are multiple stories from Hungarian tradition about the fairies leaving, and the theme seems to be universal across the country from Transcarpathia to Csallóköz. Some say the fairies left because of the advance of Christianity (they hated the sound of church bells) or just disappointed by the cruelty of humans. In one story I found they were hunted out by people who thought they were evil. According to some tales, they moved to the sky, which is why one name we have for the Milky Way is "The Road of the Fairies."

7. Some folklorists have suggested that Hungary, similarly to neighboring Slavic peoples, probably had the belief in "fairy sorcerers" at some point - people who could communicate with the fairies and drew magic powers from them to mitigate curses or other supernatural phenomenons. There is no solid proof of the existence of such a belief anymore, but we do have a wealth of wizards, sorcerers and magicians in our folklore, so it is not entirely impossible either.

I am currently working on compiling an English language collection of some great Hungarian folkales that feature fairies. Among other things. It is shaping up to be a fun project!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Story Saturday: Fairy tale re-tellings - The Good, the Bad, the Meh

Last week's Top Ten Tuesday was about fairy tale adaptations. I spent hours and hours browsing people's lists of their favorite books, adult and Young Adult, based on folk- and fairy tales. It was very telling for a number of reasons. One, it showed what different people think fairy tales are, and the definition varied greatly. Some lists only included folktales (mostly Grimm), while others had things like Alice, Peter Pan, or even The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (I'm looking at you, Disney).

Two, it was fascinating to see which fairy tales get re-told in current literature more often than others. According to my (non-scientific) survey of many lists, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella seemed to be winning the day. Surprisingly enough the 1001 Nights also appeared quite often (but always in the form of the same 2 books), and of course there were a few other well known tales such as Snow White and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Since I was looking for some light reads for the end of the summer, I got copies of 3 of the most often mentioned books, and read them.
Here is my impression of them, from a storyteller's perspective:

The Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Here we have a teenage girl from a starving family, who is really good with a bow because she hunts to keep them fed, and who volunteers to go to an unknown place and die to save her sisters. When she gets there, she is given a makeover, lives in a luxurious environment, still manages to get herself into mortal danger, and saves an entire country in the end.
Here is the thing I realized: It seems to me that most supernatural romances these days ARE re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast. You get the teenage girl, whisked away against her will, just to find out that her "beautiful and lethal" captor is the love of her life. Something about this fairy tale, something about this trope, sticks so deep in people's minds that it is still commanding popularity and attention, even though it is more than a little bit problematic.
(As a storyteller, I never liked Beauty and the Beast)
Don't get me wrong, this book was actually not bad at all (I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads). It just also wasn't very surprising. The only glimpse of greatness was the idea of combining the ballad of Tam Lin with the second part of Beauty and the Beast - and yet, the iconic shape-shifting rescue scene from the ballad never made it into the book. Such a pity.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Unlike the previous one, this book actually was bad. Really bad. I have a personal soft spot for the 1001 Nights as a storyteller (I even worked for a gaming company that made an MMORPG based on it), but that wasn't my main problem. This book is just not well done. It has plot holes, horrible clichés, an unlikable main character (nicknamed "Shazi"), and a total of two and a half stories told. It swaps the iconic element of the original story - Shahrzad's nightly series of storytelling - for a tired romantic cliché: The girl doesn't get more days to live because her stories are intriguing; she is allowed to live because the king finds her attractive (also, she cries and begs to be allowed to live, which clearly the previous 60-70 executed wives did not think of doing).
As a storyteller, the rock bottom for me was the night when Shazi decided it was a great idea to tell her bride-murdering husband the tale of Bluebeard. Because bride-murderers clearly want to hear stories about other bride-murderers. They are open-minded like that. At the end (before she begged to live, again) Shazi pointed out that the moral of the story is that you should not keep secrets from your wife.
That's not the moral of Bluebeard.
(Ironically, Bluebeard and Mr. Fox are probably the best counterpoint to the message Beauty and the Beast seems to be sending about romance)

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
Now THIS is how you do a Grimm re-telling. Oakes made a good choice of a less well-known tale, one of Grimm's most disturbing: The Handless Maiden. True to the original, the book is dark, gruesome, emotionally heavy, and yet compelling in its empathy for all characters involved. The language is eloquent, and the author never rubs your nose in the original story (no "It was so grim! Get it? GET IT?!"). Instead, you are left on your own to find the subtle hints and familiar imagery as the story goes along. That is what usually wins me over for fairy tale re-tellings: When I am invited to an easter egg hunt for fairy tale nuggets, but they are not marked with big pointy neon signs along the road.
(It is also very telling that many Goodreads reviews either complained that there was not enough romance in this, or said that it was just plain 'boring.' Compared to the previous two books I mentioned, this one is definitely more of an intellectual challenge. Take that or leave it as you will)

Final thoughts: I would love to see more of a range in the fairy- and folktales being re-told. I made a wish list a couple of weeks ago, so I'll just link it here. If you have any suggestions for other books I should read (now that you have seen my taste in these things), they are most welcome! :)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Story Saturday: Arthurian re-tellings I actually like

Because of my storyteller hissy fit earlier this week about the latest King Arthur remake in the works, several people asked me if there are any re-tellings of Arthurian legends that I actually like. Believe it or not, there are some. My problem is not with the idea of re-tellings; my problem is with re-tellings done wrong.
And yes, I realize this is an entirely subjective judgment.

So, just to prove that I am not some anti-adaptation storyteller grump, here is a list of My Favorite Arthurian Things:

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This was my point of entry and fandom of origin, my introduction to Arthurian legends. I don't even remember when I read it first, but I could not have been more than thirteen years old. I still love this book. It is a great re-telling, both epic and very, very human. And I love what he did with Merlin.

The Squire's Tales series by Gerald Morris
Talk about human. Morris treats Arthurian legends with empathy, great humor, and very deep understanding. He leaves the magic in, but does not shy away from making fun of certain characters, or calling out the inconsistencies in Arthurian lore. His protagonists are lovable, and he portrays Arthur exactly as I imagined him to be. Also, he does justice both to Gawain and to Kay, which is always a bonus in my eyes.
If you only read one thing from this list, read this. If you only read one book from this series, read The Quest for the Fair Unknown. Or The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf.

Excalibur (1981)
The prefect Arthurian movie has already been made, and it is called Excalibur. It is a classic. It is strange, and sometimes surreal, and very close to the original, and all-around awesome.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
What? It's the kind of humor I like. And the Hungarian dub is hilarious. Also, it's a very, very quotable movie.

The Arthur Trilogy by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Okay, so I only read the first of these three books so far, but I really liked his take on the story. Also, the stories embedded inside the story. And the idea of seeing Arthur as a child of the crossing places.

Taliesin by Stephen Lawhead
The first book in a series, and only marginally Arthur-related, but I have a soft spot for this book anyway. Partly, because I loved seeing Taliesin's legend re-told, and partly because it also features some Minoan culture, which was a strange mix that somehow worked.

So, there you have it. I am sure there are more good re-tellings out there, I just have not found them yet. Also, there are a good many that are more popular than these... But as I have mentioned earlier, I am very picky.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: My Top 10 Favorite Fairy Tale Collections

It is Top Ten Tuesday again, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish, and this week's theme is Ten Fairy Tale Retellings (or something else fairy-tale related). Since I am very picky about re-tellings, but read a TON of folk- and fairy tale collections (it is kind of a job requirement for a storyteller) I decided my top ten will be about My Favorite Fairy Tale Collections. I only selected books that are in English, although some of my childhood loves are among the Hungarian collections. Also, a lot of them contain folk- and fairy tales together.
(I have also done a list of fairy tales I want re-told, not so long ago, so I will just link it here)

Here we go (in no particular order).

Twelve Dancing Princesses (SurLaLune Fairy Tale Series)

This is a collection that contains dozens of versions of one single tale type: That of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. When they ask me which one is my favorite fairy tale, this is usually my first pick. I also adore the idea of the SurLaLune series, which publishes variations of a single tale in each volume. The other volumes are great too.

Arab Folktales by Inea Bushnaq

We had to read the entire Pantheon Fairy Tale Library series for our storytelling classes at ETSU, and it was the best homework ever. Out of the series, Arab Folktales was the one that I liked the most; it just had a lot of stories that clicked with me personally, and a lot of the fairy tales in the collection are exquisitely beautiful.

Apples from Heaven by Naomi Baltuck

This is a collection of folk- and fairy tales that are about storytelling and storytellers. It is a great premise for a book, and the tales are very well selected, and eloquently told.

The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth

It only came out this year, and it is a great collection. Remember when everyone was sharing that one article about "500 New Fairy Tales Discovered in Germany"? Well, this is an English translation of that collection. It has some amazing tales in it, and it is more graceful (and emphatic) than the Grimm stories.

Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

It's a classic, and a truly enchanting one too. Calvino re-writes some of the stories (and makes them better) but also dutifully notes what he changed in the end notes, so if you want, you can look up the original versions too. Some of my favorite fairy tales can be found in this book.

Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters by Kathleen Ragan

This is a well-selected and well-researched collection of folk- and fairy tales about women, from all over the world. It is a storytelling classic. There are a lot of great stories to be found in it, and also extensive notes. You might have gotten the idea by now that I love extensive notes...

The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile

Another classic, and one of the first collections I told stories from when I was a beginner storyteller. Colorful, literary retellings of Italian fairy tales from the 16th century. A fascinating read, if you are interested in other versions of fairy tales that are most often known as Grimm.
In addition, it was turned into a gorgeous movie this year!

Cajun Folktales by J. J. Reneaux

I have a soft spot for Cajun culture, and this story collection is amazing. Written by legendary storyteller J. J. Reneaux, it contains my favorite version of Bluebeard, among other things.

Folktales from India by A.K. Ramanujan

Another gorgeous collection of stories from the Pantheon series. There are a lot of unique stories and interesting tale types in there, and many stories deliberately selected because they talk about the importance of storytelling (and listening). All-around beautiful book to read.

The folk-lore of Rome by R. H. Busk

It is an old book, but is very close to my heart. Not only because Rome is my favorite city in the world, but also because Busk collected and compiled a lot of fascinating stories, from fairy tales to local legends, by living there and talking to the people. It is a great collection, especially if you plan to visit the city itself.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale collection I didn't list? I would love to know!

Monday, August 3, 2015

5 Arthurian things I would rather see on screen than a "streetwise" Arthur

Images from Guy Ritchie's six-movie (!!!) epic of King Arthur surfaced this week, and threw me into a complete storyteller meltdown. Here is the blurb:

"The bold new story introduces a streetwise young Arthur who runs the back alleys of Londonium with his gang, unaware of the life he was born for until he grasps hold of the sword Excalibur—and with it, his future. Instantly challenged by the power of Excalibur, Arthur is forced to make some hard choices. Throwing in with the Resistance and a mysterious young woman named Guinevere, he must learn to master the sword, face down his demons and unite the people to defeat the tyrant Vortigern, who stole his crown and murdered his parents, and become King."

Just... why?!

In order to deal with the pile of horrible ideas this film is shaping up to be (David Beckham? Really?! What, are the Spice Girls going to be the Ladies of the Lake?), I made a list of Arthurian things I would rather see on the big screen.
Because, you know, there are actual stories in there. Good ones.

A werewolf knight in King Arthur's court. How is this not a movie yet?

Merlin had a sister. They have a story. Just sayin'.

In some Welsh legends, the bard is tied to King Arthur's court. His is quite the epic story to tell, from stealing the world's knowledge from a witch, through a magical chase to rebirth, being found in a river and raised, and then using bardic magic to save his father from prison... Come on.

Dame Ragnell
"The thing all women in the world desire the most is to be able to decide their own destiny." A great tale to tell, and would make a kickass movie too. Bonus points for feminism.

Culhwch and Olwen
A Welsh classic, and also a great story. Shows a very early form of King Arthur's "gang" (God I hate that word in the blurb). It is also a version of tale type 513, Extraordinary Helpers, which means it features a team of heroes solving a series of tasks together. Love, adventure, giant-killing, the works. Roundtable Assemble, or something.

Go ahead, take a pick, any pick.
Or maybe ask a freaking storyteller.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Story Saturday: Ant-Man and other Small Things

Ant-Man is out, and it's cashing in at the box office. As the latest installment of the Marvel franchise, it is a fairly entertaining movie which can be placed in the overlap between The Borrowers and MacGyver (if you belong to my generation, that is pretty much childhood squared). It is also PG-13 (PG-12 in Hungary, because obviously Hungarian children are more mature), and I have seen a large number of very excited children watching it in the movie theater.
In the spirit of combining pop culture with traditional tales, here is how storytellers can make the most of the new craze for ants. Because let's face it, the ants are the true heroes of this story.

There is a Chinese folktale in which a student walking to the state exam sees an anthill about to be washed away by a stream. He stops to make a bridge of sticks and helps the ants walk to safety. Later, as he is handing in his written exam, he notices that he made a mistake - one of the signs he wrote is incorrect. He is about to panic, when he sees a couple of tiny ants march onto the paper and take on the shape of the correct sign. A good deed deserves another. Also, apparently ants are great for Spellcheck.

There is also another Chinese tale that portrays white ants as tiny warriors, with their own king and kingdom. They reward human kindness in a similar way.

The 7th book of Ovid's Metamorphoses tells the myth of King Aeacus of Aegina, who populated his land by asking Zeus to change ants into people. Thus the Myrmidons were born, and became fabled warriors - among them, Achilles, Aeacus' grandson.

There are also legends of giant ants from Herodotus, in case you are looking for something more terrifying. This one is more of a handbook than a story, but it is easy to turn it into one.

Ants also feature into the Grimm tale known as the Queen Bee, as the helpers of the hero. (The motif in which ants help someone gather scattered pearls or seeds is marked in the Thompson motif index as H1091.1, and it shows up in many tales around the world).

A hero being able to change himself into an ant appears in the Norwegian story of Boots and the Beasts (I included my telling of this one in my book too, under Shape-shifting) (Honestly, I am not doing this on purpose, I just did a lot of my storytelling research for that book...)

I am not mentioning the Ants and the Grasshopper on purpose - I never liked it as a child. On the other hand, Aesop's fable of the Ant and a Dove is a very neat little story.

There is a site for Native American ant myths and legends that has some very beautiful stories on it.

There is also a West African folktale that combines a Cinderella story type with a helpful ant queen. You can find the picture book here. I have not read it, but it got some really nice reviews.

Ants are awesome. Have fun, storytellers! :)