Spring ILC, Week 4: I have a really good excuse this week, I swear.

Most of my “free” time this week was used to update my resume and write a cover letter for a promotion at work. I had my interview on Friday and should hear back before the end of this week. Wish me luck!


I did churn through 80-something pages in Writing Irresistible Kidlit and several more articles for my paper. Favorite article of the week: For Discussion: Racism in Fantasy & Its Effects on People of Color by Aarti.

It’s easy to berate myself for not writing more new pages than I feel like I should, but then I remind myself that going through the story and tweaking little parts here and there still counts as work. I’m on page 73 of this first round of revision. There’s a lot more to go, and the second half of the story needs way more work than the first, but I’m letting myself take pride in what I’ve done so far.

Onward. Excelsior!

Spring ILC, Week 3: Do the actual work

I did it again—I came to the end of another week without doing any actual revision. So I sat down on Sunday night and pushed out 3 1/2 new pages. (Afterwords my brain was done, so that’s why this reflection is a day late.)


The thing is, I could do planning work all day long—worldbuilding, character-building, landscape maps, character-relationship webs, plot outlines, how they all connect to theme, word-collecting, and on and on. But at the end of the day, if I haven’t incorporated any of that into the actual story, I’m not doing the real, hard work. Planning is fun because it feels creative and free and, more importantly, consequence-free. If no one but me ever needs to see what goes on behind the scenes, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Putting new words on paper that I know I will one day show to someone is always scary. It’s always hard. And, according to more famous authors than I can name, it always will be scary and hard.

But it’s always worth it.

On Monday I finally met up with a couple of people in my local community to write and share and give feedback, and we’re making it a regular thing (I’m there right now, actually). That evening I met one-on-one with my teacher/contract sponsor for the first time, and we dove into the story, starting reading aloud from the beginning and making notes as we went along. Reading aloud changes everything, and you catch so much more by hearing the sounds of your words and feeling them in your mouth. It doesn’t usually let you know exactly what’s wrong or how to fix it, but it’s a great way to find awkward spots.

This week when I met with Cecilanne, I’d read the first thirty pages of a project she’s been working on for years, so we were able to give each other feedback. Our stories are so different from each other, but the same basic principles of storybuilding always apply—What do the choices you make as a writer convey to your reader?

I also finished Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein (great book, highly recommend) and started Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole. So far, it’s overall feel is more…cynical? It spells out the reality of how lucrative the market has become, and because of that, agents and editors and publishers are looking for what sells, and (we are left to infer) not necessarily what’s good and true and beautiful and important. I find it telling that the adjective they chose for the title is ‘irresistible.’ But I think it’s still an important read.

Last week I wrote about the dearth of academic articles on the subject I’m interested in for my paper. But, the Internet provides! (Also my friend Z, who pointed me in the direction of some awesome articles.) Favorite article of the week:
“We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” by Kameron Hurley

This week’s priorities:
-updating my resume and writing an awesome cover letter for getting a promotion at work
-reading the next chunk of Cecilanne’s story
-MOAR WRITING
-rough outline for my paper
-class homework
-getting out in the sunshine

Spring ILC, Week 2: Planning for the unplanable

I’m such a planner when it comes to short-term stuff like this ILC, or stuff that doesn’t go anywhere without me like my novel. (This is the exact opposite of how I am with long-term life stuff.) It’s only Week 2 and already I’m thinking “I don’t have enough sources for my paper (that I haven’t even begun drafting yet because it isn’t due for another eight weeks)! And in class we haven’t been given the parameters for the final project, so how can I plan for the unknown??”

Some things I have no control over, and that’s OK. Good, in fact. But those that I do, I meticulously plan with great relish.
Checks on to-do lists and timelines and schedules,
Alphabetizing and well-sharpened pencils,
Spreadsheets in binders with three silver rings,
These are a few of my favorite things!
I’d call this another good week overall. I’ve been trying to set up a small local group of writers outside of school to meet up once a week and give each other feedback on our writing. This, apparently, is easier said than done, but I do have one Yes for tomorrow. Cecilanne is also happy to receive feedback on her work, so that could work out for me as well.

On Wednesday I met with my friend and colleague at the Writing Center. We talked about big-picture stuff in terms of theme (growing up), the different kinds of relationships that my protagonist has with all the secondary characters, and how to make those relationships illustrate the theme.


On Thursday I had another great meeting with Cecilanne and we talked more specifics about how to smooth out the beginning and flesh out the ending. I need to work a lot on worldbuildinggeography, religions, history, other weird magical stuff besides the story fire, etc. Magical creatures? Maybe. Cecilanne recommended just brainstorming every cool/weird thing I can think of for these characters to run into. Even if those ideas don’t get used in this story or any future story, it’s still fun. I also need to do a lot more background work on my secondary characters to make them more rounded and to understand not only how they interact with my heroine but with each other.

My paper will explore the questions “How can children’s/YA fiction be a medium for social justice/anti-oppression work?” and “How does a writer with a ton of privilege go about doing so?”, and in trying to find sources I’ve discovered there is sadly little available in “scholarly” journals and so forth. But, because this is my paper and I get to decide how to do it, I declare that blog posts, online articles, and my friend’s in-progress undergrad paper on Harry Potter are all valid sources. Still, I’m shocked that there isn’t a book on this yet. Check back with me in ten or twenty years, maybe I’ll have written it.

Alas, this week I did not meet my goal of writing a page a day. But even on busy days when I had work and/or class, I still got something done on my ILC, so I’m calling that a success. Still. I can’t say “Less planning, less reading, more writing” because I need to do all three. “More planning, more reading, more writing” sounds daunting as heck. “Keep planning, keep reading, keep writing” feels much less scary.

Week 2 exercise: TRUCKS

Techniques of Revision Used by Cheryl Klein (TRUCKs) from Second Sight

TRUCK #1: Write out the story of your book in one sentence.
Thirteen-year-old Gaudiloquence must use her gift of storytelling to recover the magical fire stolen from her village and revive her loved ones who have been frozen. 
Wow, that sounds long and awkward.

TRUCK #2: List the first ten meaningful things your protagonist says or does.
1. She was narrating again.
-The first scene opens with the heroine narrating a story to herself as she acts it out. It shows not just that she has an active imagination but that she’s been exercising it her whole life.

2. Her breath caught in her chest and she stood as still as she was able…”Please do not run away, please please please do not run away,” she whispered [to the fox]. “I promise I will not hurt you.”
-Shows a reverence for that which she considers special, important, sacred, etc.

3. It was [her] favorite place, and she came here almost every day, speaking to it as if it were a sentient being. To the story fire, she gave all her own stories, the account of her days, her hopes and fears, pretty songs and made-up words.
-Not everyone would do this sort of thing, and the relationship she has to this magical fire is stronger than those of other people in her village.

4. “You can’t do this to me anymore, you know. As of tomorrow, I am officially a woman, not your baby sister.” […] I hate you so much I can’t see straight,” she muttered, trying to tie his bootlaces to each other so he would trip.
-Shows that she sees herself as an adult, even though other people might not. Plus, a teasingly antagonistic relationship with her big brother humanizes her and makes her more relatable.

5. [Talks with her grandparents about adulthood, yet she will always be their little girl.]
-More theme!

6. [Reassures her best friend who fears losing part of herself when they lose their old names in being given their new adult names] “Your name describes what you are—the third of three sisters—but it is not who you are. Who you are is the girl who loves bluebells and horses and songs about silver and gold. The girl who once rescued a turtle who was trapped on its back and stuck in the mud underneath the bridge. The girl who, when she gets picked on by her sisters, dreams of running away and building a little cottage on the beach. The girl who wants to be a teacher someday. The girl who sings like a flute.”
-Shows compassion, attention to detail, and appreciation for the unique gifts of others.

7. The twenty Innominate thirteen-year-olds chased, teased, screeched, and played with all their might, squeezing every last drop of fun out of their last night of childhood until either their breath or their legs gave out.
-More theme! Childhood and adulthood don’t have to be mutually exclusive. She can be mature and playful at different times.

8. Her eyes sank closed of their own exhausted will, and even though her cheeks were almost numb with the pain of smiling so much, the grin of deep contentment stayed plastered on her face. She told herself she was just resting her eyes—she was not going to fall asleep. She was too excited about what would happen at midnight.
-Setting up the safe, comfortable world in which she has grown up. She knows her place in this world, and when it is taken away, she struggles with trying to be an adult for real.

9. [She] felt guilty for being so excited for the part of the ceremony that came next—the part she’d been waiting for her whole life. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said a silent prayer of thanks that her family was spared a loss once again this year. […] Then she thought heavily of the people she knew who had lost their loved ones this year.
-Shows a balance of compassion for others and a healthy level of self-interest.

10. She climbed up onto the nearest table, lifted her face and arms in triumph, and shouted, “Gaudiloquence!” It felt like coming home and going on an adventure, all at the same time.
-Shows how she enacts the meaning and importance of her name—speaking with joy.

TRUCK #3: Write the flap copy—a summary in 250 words.
In the village of Whigmaleerie, there is a magical story fire that holds the stories, memories, and names of its peopleand the hopes and dreams of Monoria Erhvingaarde. In the midnight hour of New Year’s Day, thirteen-year-old Monoria and her peers fulfill their rite of passage into adulthood and receive their new, unique names from the story fire. Monoriaskinny and freckled, middle child, and natural storyteller—has become Gaudiloquence.
But her joy turns to fear the next morning when she awakens to find everyone in her village frozen and the story fire gone. The handsome brothers who visited Whigmaleerie and seemed enchanted by the story fire have disappeared.
On her own for the first time, Gaudiloquence must learn who to trust and who to go to for help. The Ministry, the highest power in the land, offers little assistance. If she is going to save her people, Gaudiloquence must do it herself. Along the way, she gains the help and friendship of a stray dog, a lovesick minstrel-turned-soldier, a one-handed sorceress, an eight-year-old spy, and a former soldier haunted by his past. Together they must recover the magical fire (now in the form of a sea-green orb) before it is destroyed—and the people of Whigmaleerie along with it.
Is Gaudiloquence’s storytelling more than just a quirk, more than a talent? Can she use the magic of stories to bring the frozen story fire back to life and save everyone she loves?

Holy cow, this was hard. Why was this so hard? And yeah, it’s not quite 250 words and it’s cheesy as heck, but whatever. It’ll work for now.

TRUCK #4: Make a bookmap of your novel.
-Monoria in Whigmaleerie. Happy, ordinary life.
-New Year’s Eve: Thirteen-year-olds receive their new names and Monoria becomes Gaudiloquence (Gaudé).
-Receives Name Day gifts. Meets Selva and Tagia (crush alert!) and shows them the story fire.
-Wakes up the next morning: story fire gone, everyone frozen, Selva and Taiga gone.
-Journeys toward Oneiric to get help, gets a ride from Psithurism.
-Checks into an inn and meets Anacreontic and her daughters. Tries to get in to see the magistrate and fails. Gets help from Anacreontic. Gets a letter from the magistrate allowing her an audience with the Ministry in the capital of Virid.
-Journeys to Virid with Psithurism. Checks into another inn. Goes to the Ministry and meets Manuduction and the ministers. Meets Rufescent. Ministry assigns her as the leader of the mission; gives her the assistance of Ampersand and Sinistra. Sneaks Rufescent into the inn.
Gaudé leaves Virid with Rufescent, Ampersand, and Sinistra and they go back to Whigmaleerie to investigate. Find Celerity. Discover that the fire has changed form and Selva & Taiga stole it.
-Lessons in magic, self-defense, and history. Sinistra investigates Gaudé’s magical potential. Journey to Sparsile. Celerity discovers who Selva & Taiga are working for and where they went. Meet Fossick and convince him to join them.
-Write to Ministry. Discover Fossick’s haunted past and PTSD. Journey to Cynosure. Investigate Primifulous’ shop. Break in, steal orb, escape.
-Gaudé examines orb and discovers she’s descended from the Glossophiles. Selva & Taiga attack. Wakes up on a horse with Selva. Confronts him, steals the orb back, and rides off. Falls into the river and almost drowns. Sees the orb is damaged and starts telling a story to try to save it.
-Rides back to Whigmaleerie alone, still telling her story. Starts a fire in the forge to heat up the orb. Places it back where it belongs and reawakens the story fire.
-Wakes up at home and her parents tell her what happened: friends safe, Taiga in custody, story fire told them all what happened.

OK, this brings out obvious flaws in pacing and lack of obstacles, especially in the second half. Which is most of what Cecilanne and I talked about last week, so that’s good. Gives me perspective and a physical timeline of events to tweak.

TRUCK #5: The plot checklist.
The overall change my character experiences is: more independence and confidence in herself as an adult

My central action plot is: mystery.
-And that is: Where is the story fire and why is everyone except Gaudé frozen?
-The stakes are: the lives of the people in Whigmaleerie
-My subplots are: learning who to trust, friendships, discovering and developing her magic skills.

My central emotional plot is: Gaudé’s confidence in herself as an adult
-The stakes are: the success of her mission
-This change happens because: she meets lots of unhelpful people and has to learn how to get things done, and meets a few helpful people and gets some good advice

Exposition:
-The situation at the beginning: ordinary life in Whigmaleerie, Name Day ceremony

Rising action:
-The action starts when: she wakes up to find the fire gone and everyone frozen
-Then this happens: she leaves to get help
-Because of whose action: Gaudé’s

Climax:
-Everything comes together when: she returns to Whigmaleerie and reawakens the story fire

Falling Action:
-And then: parents tell her what happened while she was asleep

Resolution:
-The reader can tell things have changed because: here’s where I need to show her changed relationships with people

The point is: being an adult is harder than it looks, but it’s something you have to make happen for yourself

TRUCK #6: Answer the question “What is it about?” with a one-sentence thesis statement for your book.
I like that. “Being an adult is harder than it looks, but it’s something you have to make happen for yourself.”

TRUCK #7: Read it aloud—or better still, have someone read it aloud to you.
Workin’ on it!

TRUCK #8: [seems not to exist. What happened to it?]

TRUCK #9: Keep a copy of everything.
Thank you, Google Drive.

TRUCK #10: Give it time.
Good advice. Breathe. Enjoy the sunshine. Keep reading, keep writing. And have fun!

Spring ILC, Week 1: What the heck is an ILC?

This quarter I’m doing an Independent Learning Project (ILC), Evergreen-speak for doing whatever you want (with faculty support) and getting credit for it. I’d been planning for a while to do an ILC this summer (my last quarter here) to learn about the world of publishing, make professional networking connections, and try to get one of my novels published. In order to that, I first need something publishable and all my novels are in NaNoWriMo-first-draft form. So this quarter I’m working on revising Gaudiloquence and the Frozen Story.


On my own time, I’m going to meet once a week with a friend and fellow tutor at the Writing Center. I’ll also meet once a week with other writers in a small group to share our stuff with each other and give each other feedback. The most enthusiastic of these is a friend and former classmate (who we’ll call Celianne) who wants to become an editor. I’ll also be meeting occasionally with my contract sponsor and teacher of the 4-credit writing class I’m also taking. Then there’s the actual work of reading books, revising my novel, and writing a research paper.

Because I work best when I have everything meticulously planned ahead of time, I’m making myself a detailed schedule for the quarter of what assignments and readings I’ll have done by what time. I’m that much of a dork. And I know that if I don’t put these kinds of things in place to help me keep myself accountable, I’ll procrastinate and flounder and get nothing done. Deadlines are good for me.

I’m already halfway through the first book I’ve assigned myself, Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein. It’s a great readaccessible, funny, and full of great advice. I need to try the exercises in the chapter called “The Art of Detection” to figure out how to best summarize my story and get at what it’s really “about.” And if those themes don’t crop up in the actual text as much as they should, that’s something to work on.


I reread my first draft for the first time in about a year (I wrote it even longer ago than that) and felt relieved. It’s not as bad as I worried. Yeah, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Of coursethat’s what rough drafts are for. But I still love the story, I genuinely care about the characters, and I wrote some decently funny moments. I feel really excited about moving forward with this.

On Thursday I had my first meeting with Cecilanne, who had read to page 58 by that point. We tried to stay away from the fun detail stuff and look at the bigger picture, or Higher-Order Concerns. I need to work on filling out the plot and description to slow the pacing WAY down. I also need to make the theme more consistently visible, which is understandable, since the theme I started out with when I set out to write it
“Stories matter”was not what came out when it was finished, and what I’m continuing with“Being an adult is hard, yo” (or something to that effect).

Cecilanne and I geeked out about my story together for a couple of hours, and I look forward to more of this every week because she’s a rock star and I love her.

On Friday I found and printed out some articles from JSTOR that might be useful for the paper I’m writing, exploring how children’s literature can be a medium for anti-oppression work and ways I might be able to make that happen in my own writing. There is disappointingly little that has been written on this subject in academic journals. So, to the Internet! There must be blogs galore that talk about this sort of thing (*fingers crossed*).

So there I was this afternoon, Sunday at the end of Week 1. I had gotten a lot of important work done, but there was one glaring omission. Revision. I hadn’t actually gone back into my manuscript and changed anything or written anything new, even though my self-imposed schedule said I would rewrite at least one scene. It doesn’t matter how much I read and talk about revision if I don’t actually DO it. So I did. I cranked out one scene, and I’m not sure how good it is, but it helps slow down the pace and build character. So yay.

One of my new goals for next week is to make that work a priority by writing at least one page a day. If I can keep that up for a week, maybe I can do it for the whole quarter. All while reading my books and researching my paper and meeting with other writers and doing the homework for class and going to work and revising my latest Inkwell article and taking driving lessons. Whew. Wish me luck.

The time I met Kate DiCamillo and everything was wonderful forever

It was 2003 and I was a senior in high school when I first saw the newly published The Tale of Despereaux on a bookstore shelf. I remembered a quote from my high school English/Theatre/Creative Writing teacher: “‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Bull$#!&! Judge it!” And I did. I looked at the illustration of Despereaux on the cover, running, a needle tied around his waist with red thread. I wondered why he didn’t seem to have a tail. I felt his urgency. I knew there was this something this mouse needed to communicate to me. I knew he needed to tell me his story. I didn’t do my usual trick of reading the first sentence of the book, or even the subtitle, which was: “Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread.” (Had I done so, my intuition would have been confirmed.) Instead, I picked up the book knowing nothing more about it than a feeling, bought it, and devoured it.

I was in love. I had expected a good story; I had not expected to read my soul in book form.

I told everyone about it. I raved about it to my classmates. I described it as a work of art disguised as a children’s book. Then a friend told me that she had gone to the bookstore and asked for it, and the sales clerk told her they were packing the books up to ship them back because they weren’t selling. I had to do something! But before I could organize a grassroots protest to buy and distribute every copy and promote it far and wide, I went to my local bookstore and there was Despereaux, bearing his shiny, new, golden Newberry Medal. And I knew he was safe.

I read Kate’s other novels for children. No one, I concluded, so perfectly articulates sadness and beauty of the world—sadness and beauty, both at the same time, in conversation with each other. And she does this in children’s books, a vastly underestimated medium. Because of Winn Dixie, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Magician’s Elephant—all gems, but none as dear to my heart as Despereaux.

In 2007 I wrote her a long fan letter (similar to what you see here), and eventually received a thank-you postcard with the P.S. “When you get published someday (which WILL happen) I hope someone writes you a letter as wonderful as the one you wrote me.”

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago when I started following her on Facebook and discovered that her magnificent brain works very much like my own when it comes to seeing the miraculous in the mundane, writing it down, trusting intuition, and letting stories develop the way they need to.

Then there was that time she was answering questions on Goodreads and answered mine:

Me: They say that all aspiring writers sometimes think, “I’m terrible at this, I’m a fraud, there are so many better writers than me, no one is ever going to publish or read this stuff, I should get a sensible career,” (etc). I know I sometimes think this way. Did you experience this when you were starting out, and if so, how did you work through it?

Kate DiCamillo: Oh, Beth. I experienced that when I was starting out. Yes. And I experience it every day still. I doubt myself. I do the work anyway.

When I learned last month that she would be visiting the Seattle Central Library on February 25th, I knew I had to be there. I tried to keep breathing on the ride up to Seattle, but I could feel my anxiety—my old nemesis—roiling beneath the surface. My pulse pounded and my throat tightened. When we sat down in the auditorium, I held my boyfriend’s hand and didn’t want to let go. Then I looked around and smiled. We must have been the only two childless adults in the audience.

When she walked in, I felt (to my great surprise and relief) more relaxed instead of more anxious. She was wearing well-worn jeans and a purple shirt, which is my standard outfit on most days. (*checks* Yup, it’s what I’m wearing today.) She was short. Her voice was deeper than I expected. She told wonderful, funny anecdotes about her life and how she gets her story ideas. She talked about being painfully shy as a kid. She was so beautifully human that I wasn’t scared anymore.

Until I stood in line to get her autograph. I clutched my boyfriend’s hand again, trying to remember the nice, thoughtful, not-crazy things that my sister had told me to say (I’ve previously babbled ridiculous things when meeting my favorite artist and my favorite comedian). And when I finally got there, I didn’t panic and I actually said those things (more or less). I told her I was an aspiring children’s novelist, too. She asked if I’d read any Anne Lamott, and when I joyfully said yes, she recommended Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

I got my picture taken with her, and I left walking on air, with a signed and personalized first edition of my favorite book ever and the inspiration that someday I will write a book that will be someone’s favorite book ever.
   

 

There is no map to the place where YA fiction and social justice meet

There’s a question that’s been percolating in my mind for a couple of years now. I first gave voice to it at a writing workshop called “Queering Writing” put on by my own dear Writing Center (this was before I worked there, but it was where I met my boss and mentor Sandy). I asked the presenter what she thought about people (like myself) who do not identify as queer writing queer characters. Since then, this question has expanded.

How do I write characters who experience oppression where I do not? Am I only “allowed” to write protagonists who share my exact status (female, white, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.)? How do I write an inclusive cast of characters without them becoming Tokens? How do I (while being aware of how much privilege I have) explore/create alternate realities where the power dynamics are different from what we know (see previous post East of the Sun, West of the Moon)?
I’m not necessarily looking for concrete answers, because there probably aren’t any. I just want to start a conversation with writers, activists, and conscious thinkers. I want to keep learning and growing forever. I want to use my writing as a force for good in the world. I want to invite my young readers to examine the dynamics of power and oppression around them and to imagine new worlds of possibilities.

The Virgin’s Coffin: Snow White, the Brothers Grimm, and Appropriation

Guess what, y’all. That paper I was working on so hard for class turned out awesome.


The Virgin’s Coffin:
Snow White, the Brothers Grimm, and Appropriation
In the tradition of early Christian martyrdom, “virginity could be the equal of any martyr’s death, signalling one of the most persistent themes in female spirituality” (Rubin, 156). All a woman had to do to be considered a martyr was 1- be Christian, 2- be a virgin, and 3- die. Snow white became a martyr when the Brothers Grimm turned her into one. They took fragments of secular and pagan stories passed down through the oral tradition, fused them together with additions of their own invention, and created a seamless narrative of a virgin’s persecution, temptation, death, and resurrection. The story remains so embedded in our cultural consciousness that even two hundred years later we continue to reinvent and reclaim Snow White, taking a passive Christian martyr and re-appropriating her into a secular hero martyr. From the Grimms to Disney to contemporary filmmakers, the way we choose to tell the story of “Snow White” becomes a reflection of our own cultural narrative.
1. The Brothers Grimm
The Brothers Grimm did not, of course, invent the story of Snow White nor any of the others in their collection of fairy tales, the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (KHM) or Children’s and Household Tales. Born in 1785 and 1786 respectively, Jacob and Wilhelm were born in the Hesse region of Germany and grew up to study philology, linguistics, law, and folklore. This was a critical time in Germany, which underwent political upheaval in the early nineteenth century with the overthrow of Napoleon’s forces and the struggle for democracy and identity as a new nation-state. This was also the era of the great German thinkers such as Goethe, Schiller, Kant, and Hegel, “that great and formative age for the development of modern German thought, culture, and education: the last four decades of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth” (Smith, 126-7). Romanticism was “a middle-class, pan-European reaction against the ideas of the Enlightenment” (Paradiž, 19) which emphasized a revitalization of the spirit of the past, native language and history, and an idealization of the simple Volk (folk). “Native folklore was to be the ‘healing power’ for the nation, a remedy for spiritual recovery and creative strength” (Kamenetsky, 25). This idealism of the past and the purity of the Volk were a crucial aspect of the Grimms’ personal motivation for the decades of work that went into the KHM. “Broadly speaking, the Grimms sought to preserve all kinds of ancient relics as if they were sacred and precious gems that originated naturally from the soil. In their minds, the tales, myths, songs, fables, legends, epics, riddles, and other narratives that emanated from the voices of the common people contained deeper meanings than so-called educated people realized” (Zipes, xix). The Grimms saw their work as not just a cultural but a spiritual duty.
The majority of Germans belonged to either the Protestant or Reformed Church, and the culture was steeped in the ideals of Martin Luther. In his book The Owl, the Raven & the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales, Ronald G. Murphy examines the personal spirituality of the Grimms in great detail.
The brothers Grimm thought of fairy tales as remnant of ancient faith expressed in poetry. Through all the revisions of their collections of tales, their preface always begins with a description of gleaning, a biblical image recalling the command that the poor are not to be prevented from gathering the remnants that survive the harvest or the storm, nor the grain that has grown unnoticed by the hedgerow or the roadside… The brothers stated that their book consists of stories which are precious crumbs of ancient faith, gleaned wheat, made into bread, and that they wished to place it only into benevolent hands which have the power to bless, hoping that these “breadcrumbs of poetry” will never come to the attention of those who would withhold them from the poor. (Murphy, 3)
The irony here is that the Grimms never actually worked with the Volk in the process of collecting these tales, so any representative voice of the poor is absent in their work. The poor are supposed to be the ones gleaning the forgotten wheat, but the brothers took that responsibility upon themselves, middle-class and educated young men, trying represent the interests of a population to which they did not belong and which they did not include.
Even more popular than the myth of the Grimms as the original authors of the tales “is the long-standing myth of the brothers’ travels through the countryside, village to village, transcribing stories told to them by farmers and peasants,” writes Valerie Paradiž.
Jacob and Wilhelm are themselves responsible, at least in part, for perpetuating that image. Though they never directly claimed to have worked in this fashion, they unwittingly created a romantic conceit about their process by hiding the identities of their most crucial collaborators … These contributors were neither commoners nor peasants … they were educated ladies. (xi)
The Grimms started by writing down the stories they remembered from their own childhoods, then proceeded to collect stories from their family and friends, mainly the ladies of the Wild and Hassenpflug families.
Storytelling was not only a common pastime for these women, but a crucial tool for exploring their place in the world. Folktales told of rites of passage, showed the types of villains one might encounter, and warned what would happen to those who transgress against the rules. “Indeed, many of the Grimms’ fairy tales dole out pedantic lessons in feminine virtue and appropriateness. The means of enforcement are often astonishingly violent” (Paradiž, 53). The story of “Snow White” in particular “silently points to the conditions of women’s socialization, to the cultural context which frames that very process of development, defining and legitimizing it, while simultaneously setting stifling boundaries for it … The Grimm version … is grounded in the nineteenth-century European dominant discourse about women and the bourgeois cult of domesticity” (Bacchilega, 3). Understandably, many modern scholars have interpreted the Grimms’ fairy tales as anti-feminist, but this is a simplistic view that does not take into account the women who were the major proliferators of oral folktales. They used storytelling as a covert instruction manual for behavior in order to survive in patriarchal nineteenth-century Europe.
The contributions of these women, unfortunately, went unsung. “When volume one of the Children’s and Household Fairy Taleswas published in 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm didn’t credit their female sources by name. Instead, they celebrated, in the foreword to the anthology, the nameless, poetic soul of German culture and its legions of ‘simple folk’ who had passed the tales down through the ages” (Paradiž, xiv). In sum, women contributed to the process but received no credit, while the poor Volk received credit but made no contribution.
After collection, the Grimms proceeded to stamp the tales with their own voices, especially Wilhelm, who was chiefly responsible for the editing process. The stories in the KHM underwent vast changes, both from source to manuscript and from the first edition (1812) to the seventh (1857, now considered the standard). The project was inspired by a collaboration with Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, to which the Grimms contributed only a few folk songs.
Although the brothers disapproved of the poetic license Brentano appeared to be taking in his adaptations, they, too, would alter, especially in later editions of the fairy tales, the transcriptions they had collected from their women friends. But though they edited and cultivated the stories, to use Jacob’s words, to suit the tastes of modern, educated readers in the nineteenth century, they nonetheless continued to perpetuate the myth of accurately preserving the past by keeping the narrative style simple and the language folksy. (Paradiž, 61-2)
Some of the stories remained fairly constant from edition to edition with only minor changes. Others, including the tale of Schneewittchen (Snow White), had more drastic alterations. This earned the Grimms serious criticism from some modern folklorists, especially John Ellis in his book One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. He casts himself in the role of dutiful whistleblower exposing a pair of charlatans. Ellis claims, “It is very hard to imagine that they could have been unaware of the discrepancy between their insistence on authenticity, on the one hand, and their disregard for it in these actions, on the other” (93). Jack Zipes, another Grimms expert and translator of the tales into English, disagrees:
The Grimms thought that the “slight” changes they made in the tales did not make much of a difference … Due to their extensive work as philologists, they firmly believed that they could cobble variants together to bring out the profound essence of the tales … Yet the Grimms were somewhat ingenuous in thinking that their changes did not alter the meanings of the tales, and that their high German could simulate the dialects and reinvigorate the blunt and colorful styles of diverse storytellers. (xxvii)
Zipes concludes that the Grimms could have better defended themselves from critics if they had acknowledged that their stories were actually new tales, continuing the tradition of storytelling through the medium of print.
The wide discrepancy between the Grimms’ ideals and their practice can be explained by the fact that their sense of loyalty to their work was based in what they considered the “essence” of the stories, rather than their exact wording (Kamenetsky, 163). The brothers saw their changes as harmless because there was no author of either oral or written stories who could claim ownership of any tale. “The general public did not distinguish between oral narrator and tale writer and regarded published stories as common property free for anyone to change” (Dégh, 69-70), therefore the Grimms would have felt no qualms about altering their material, even those they took from previously printed sources.
Faith also played a role in the Grimms’ editing process. “The challenge which Wilhelm faced was how to revive the religious feelings in fragmented ancient pagan stories in such a way that they would elicit a religious reaction of the heart of Christian contemporaries” (Murphy, 7), which he happily did. Wilhelm saw the changes he made as not just harmless but necessary.
            As previously discussed, strong patriarchal themes were already present in the tales, but the Grimms, whether consciously or not, enhanced them. In Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys; The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales, Ruth Bottigheimer illustrates how “male protagonists usually got away with devious behavior, such as lying, cheating, and stealing (as did Bruder Lustig), yet the female protagonists were caught in their dishonesty and literally ‘ended up in nail-studded barrels.’ She felt that, with few exceptions, the Grimms’ folktales portrayed women as mute and passive victims dominated by circumstance, a perverted one-sided system of justice, or a powerful male figure (king, prince, or father)” (Kamenetsky, 281). The Grimms also used their own moral outlook in widening the disparity of how good and evil characters are treated in the stories: “the innocent are treated more gently, but the evil or guilty are punished even more brutally” (Ellis, 79). Like all artists, the Grimms stamped their work with their own personal and cultural biases.
            Despite modern criticisms, many folklorists still praise the Grimms for their innovation and devotion to preserving these relics of the past. In my research, I have come to see the Grimms neither as pure loyalists to tradition nor as unscrupulous frauds but as flawed human men, enthusiastic but oblivious. They are the picture of unexamined privilege: male, white, Christian, middle class, and well educated. It would never have occurred to them to stop and wonder what the implications and long-terms effects of the changes might be. What the Grimms saw as the “essence” of a story may have been completely different than those of the women who supplied the it or the poor Volk whom the Grimms claimed to represent. Nothing is known of how they might have objected to the brothers’ appropriations. For better or worse, the changes were made, the stories were published, and the KHM went on to sell second only to the Bible in the Western world.
2. Snow White
            “Snow White” is among the stories in the KHMthat the Grimms changed dramatically from the original sources (Ellis, 74). This is partly because the several variations of the tale that the brothers collected were so disparate that there was no way to select one as “authentic” or “original.” Instead, the Grimms patched together their favorite bits, added some of their own inventions, and ended up with a tidy Christian fable.
            One of the major changes the Grimms brought to the final version was the substitution of stepmother for mother. In the first edition, it was Snow White’s biological mother who is envious of her daughter’s beauty, which tells an entirely different thematic story than the one we are used to. Ellis describes it as
a dramatic version of mother-daughter rivalry and sexual jealousy, in which the older woman, at first identifying with the flesh of her flesh, later sees herself eclipsed by a younger woman who is really a separate person and thus a rival. The daughter’s active participation in the rivalry is more than hinted at; for it is at her wedding—the celebration of her own beauty and sexuality—that her mother is put to death in grisly fashion, being forced to dance in red-hot shoes until she drops dead. Thus, she is destroyed at the very celebration of her daughter’s sexual power. (74)
This theme of rivalry is especially true in the first edition, before the change was made, because it is Snow White’s father, not the prince, who rescues her, thus reinforcing the “competition for the affection of the father/husband” (Ellis, 76). By replacing the mother with a stepmother, the Grimms turned the story of a child’s self-actualization to one of Good vs. Evil: “In masculine psychology the stepmother is a symbol of the unconscious in its destructive role—of its disturbing and devouring character” (von Franz, 120). The story of “Hansel and Gretel” suffered an identical change, indicating that the Grimms were bowing to the social pressures of their time and culture, which held motherhood as sacred (Murphy, 124). Turning the wicked mothers into wicked stepmothers provided an acceptable distance between the heroes and their villains.
            The story opens with the vivid imagery of three colors: the good queen wishes for a child as red as blood, as white as snow, and as black as ebony. These colors crop up in similar stories of initiation around the world: “Historians of religion and anthropologists tell us that white, red, and black are the colors which accompany initiation, the process of becoming a whole human being, and the child is given the parts of white, red, and black to mark her potential” (Bacchilega, 4). In earlier versions of the story, the Grimms explicitly listed these as physical qualities—lips/cheeks, skin, and eyes/hair. In the seventh edition, these physical traits were not mentioned, the ambiguity indicating that these colors are both literal and metaphorical. They represent the personal qualities that the queen desires in her child: red, warm and loving; white, innocent and faithful; black, humble and connected to the dark earth and mortality (Murphy, 123). The colors become the first indicator that the story has been given a decidedly Christian flavor; Snow White’s true beauty is not in her physical appearance but in her soul.
            Snow White is driven out by her vain and jealous stepmother, who tells the huntsman to kill the child and bring back her liver and lungs for the queen to eat (Grimm, 197). Because Snow White is so beautiful (and therefore pure of soul), the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill her. This is another Grimm addition to the story, but “the episode of the huntsman is reminiscent of similar themes of the ‘compassionate executioner’” (Girardot, 289) found not only in other fairy tales but the stories of saints and martyrs. Snow White flees into the forest, the traditional setting in fairy tales for the testing grounds where trials are faced (Murphy, 126). The gatekeepers to this realm are the seven dwarves, monk-like in their compassion, industriousness, hermitic celibacy, and morality (Murphy, 128). They take in Snow White if she agrees to keep house for them, and they serve as the voice of reason in repeatedly warning her to beware of her stepmother.
            In a story that is now no longer a coming-of-age but one of Good vs. Evil, the wicked queen has become Lucifer, who fell from Heaven “because of his infatuation with his own beauty and his refusal to accept that anyone else was ‘the most beautiful in the land’ … Lucifer tempts human beings out of jealousy… and he always tempts with some form of the same temptation to self-infatuation to which he himself succumbed” (Murphy, 126). So too does the stepmother tempt Snow White with beauty and vanity: first with colorful corset stays, then with a beautiful comb, and finally with the iconic poisoned apple, which, like Snow White herself, is beautiful and “white with red cheeks” (Grimm, 201). “In the three ordeals the stepmother sequentially attacks the white (breath), black (hair), and red (apple-blood) elements of Snow White’s nature” (Girardot, 291), the virtues of her soul that set her apart from stepmother who sees her own worth as purely physical. There is also the parallel “of the apple with the fruit of earthly desires in the Biblical garden of paradise which brings death into the world but at the same time makes Adam and Eve aware of their sexuality and godlike power to create new life” (292). Snow White’s temptation is not a mere apple, but all the apple represents—beauty and sexuality (and therefore vanity and lust).
            Snow White succumbs to temptation in all three trials—not out of perversity or unquenchable female curiosity, like Bluebeard’s wife in another Grimm tale, but out of her naive belief in the goodness of people; the simple peasant woman offering her these gifts could not be evil (Murphy, 127). Because of her innocence and purity of faith, Snow White is not cruelly punished like many fairy tale “bad girls” but merely falls into a sleep-like death that will eventually be lifted.
In further evidence of the religious tone of the story, the dwarfs wash Snow White’s body with water and wine, and all work stops for three days while they mourn (Murphy, 128). Here it is helpful to examine the symbolism present in the illustration (medium unknown, but most likely an etching) by Ludwig Emil Grimm, one of the younger brothers of Jacob and Wilhelm, for the 1825 “Little Edition” of the KHM. The image shows Snow White in the glass coffin that the dwarfs have fashioned for her, placed on top of a mountain, and guarded by one of the dwarfs and three birds: an owl, a raven, and a dove.
            Upon her death, Snow White is only seven years old (another detail added by the Grimms). When she begins to display the troubling tendency of giving in to temptation, she is put safely away until the danger is over. “The implication is that as Snow White lay deathlike in the crystal coffin for a ‘long, long time,’ she was of marriageable age at the end of the story—that is, she was around fourteen years old, or seven years beyond the age of seven” (Girardot, 283). If glass is a symbol of virginity (Faur, 27 Oct 2014), Snow White’s identity as a virgin is imposed upon her in the form of the glass coffin. She is trapped—literally by the glass coffin and figuratively by her identity as a virgin—until the dangerous time of adolescence has passed.
In example after example of Christian female martyrs, their “purity” is lauded as their most important virtue: Saint Lucy, Saint Agnes, Saint Agatha, the Virgin of Antioch (no name needed, apparently; her virginity is her identity), Saint Apollonia, Saint Margaret, and Saint Christina. It is a disturbing trend that the purity of these women’s faith is conflated with the purity of their bodies: “that the blessed virgin Lucy possessed the beauty of virginity without trace of corruption; that she radiated charity without any impure love; her progress toward God was straight and without deviation” (de Voragine, 27). So too is Snow White pure in body and soul, remaining true to the colors that define her: red/loving, white/innocent, and black/humble.
In death, Snow White’s body remains whole, pure and beautiful, suffering from no decay, which is consistent with other female Christian martyrs: “By the early modern period, incorruptibility of the whole cadaver or of a part (that is, remaining lifelike, supple, and without decay for decades after burial) was reported for almost every woman proposed for canonization” (Bynum, 70). Because Snow White is a virgin and pure of heart, her body remains whole in order to be ready for resurrection.
            The dwarfs take turns watching over the body of Snow White, but she is also guarded by three surprising figures: an owl, a raven, and a dove. The symbolism here is threefold. First, it is a repetition of the three colors that represent the virtues of Snow White’s soul: the reddish-brown owl, the black raven, and the white dove. Second, they are a nod to Wilhelm Grimm’s belief in the universal truths found in pre-Christian religions: the owl for Athena and the classic beliefs, the raven for the old Norse-Germanic beliefs, and the dove for Christianity. Third, they are the ever-present Holy Spirit that stay with Snow White until the arrival of the Son and Father (Murphy, 131).
            The final and perhaps most important addition by the Grimms is Snow White’s rescue and resurrection by the prince. Because Walt Disney’s adaptation of the story is so deeply lodged in our minds, most people are surprised to discover that in the Grimms’ final version Snow White is not awoken by the prince’s kiss. When the prince’s servants carry the coffin away, one stumbles, and the bite of poisoned apple falls from Snow White’s mouth. In Disney’s version, the prince and Snow White have already met and fallen in love. In the Grimms’ version, the prince sees Snow White for the first time when she is dead in her coffin; if the prince is merely a mortal man, the story wanders into the dangerously gruesome realm of implied necrophilia. Wilhelm Grimm wanted to stir the hearts, not chill the blood, of his readers. The Christ-like prince finds Snow White preserved in her virginal state, sees the worthiness of her beauty/soul, and enables her resurrection, telling her that he will take her to “my father’s castle” to “be my wife” (Grimm, 204). According to medieval writers, “a death to sexual reproductive life was inverted into a life in Christ as his special bride, and the late medieval authors likened the choice of a life of virginity to a death and rebirth as Christ’s bride” (Rubin, 156). If the prince were an ordinary man, Snow White would not have retained her purity in marriage. Instead, like a nun, she has become the bride of Christ.
            Throughout the various editions of the KHM, the manner of the wicked queen’s death in “Snow White” remains the same. At the wedding of Snow White and the prince, the queen is made to put on red-hot iron shoes and “dance until she fell down dead” (Grimm, 204). This “recalls folk practices of destroying a witch through the magic agency of iron. There are also associations of slippers and shoes with the female sexual organs which, as expressive of the egocentric overestimation of the physical dimension of human nature, represent the root of the stepmother’s evil” (Girardot, 297). True to fairy tale style and the Grimms’ polarized views in doling out justice, the villain suffers a grisly death and the heroine claims her Happily Ever After.
3. Beyond the Grimms: Contemporary Re-appropriation
            The fairy tale collection of the Brothers Grimm has remained hugely influential in the Western world for the past two hundred years. Adaptations appear in every conceivable medium, and “their success attests that the popular audience has internalized these formulas” (Dégh, 84-5). These retellings, often branching off into various subgenres and straying far from the “original” versions, have prompted certain critics to mourn the loss of the alleged purity of the Grimms’ collection.
In his article “Yours, Mine, or Ours? Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and the Ownership of Fairy Tales,” Donald Haase tackles the question of the ownership of fairy tales, debunking two popular myths in the process: nationalism and universalism. The Grimms’ tales are not purely German, for their sources can be traced back to French, Norse, and other European roots (385-6). The stories also cannot truly be called universal in nature, since the Grimms unconsciously wove in their own moral outlook. What psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (author of the renowned book The Uses of Enchantment) saw as universal truths were in fact the authoritarian, patriarchal values of Europe at the time of the Grimms—very similar, in fact, to Bettelheim’s own personal values (392).
            So if the Grimm fairy tales are neither national nor universal, to whom do they belong? “To be blunt: I do. And you do … We claim fairy tales in every individual act of telling and reading” (395). Fairy tales have no pure, original, incorruptible source. They have been undergoing a process of individual appropriation since the words “glass” and “coffin” were first put together. The Grimms’ tales are not holy texts to be preserved from sacrilege. Some scholars have attempted to do so, but this results in a sterile picture devoid of meaning. It is through this process of individual reclamation and appropriation that fairy tales regain their meaning—the meaning we give them.
            This is exactly what Western culture has done over and over again. The 1937 film adaptation by Walt Disney might almost be more deeply imbedded in modern American psyches than the Grimm version. Countless advertising and merchandising dollars over the past century ensured that Disney’s version not only became but stayed the new dominant narrative, the ultimate authority on Snow White. But Walt Disney was no less a product of his time than the Grimms. He downplayed the Christian symbolism in the story, but it is still present, especially in the final shot when the prince’s castle appears “not on the horizon as one might expect in a Disney film, but high above and ahead of the prince and his bride, radiant in the sky … like a golden city made of sunlight” (Murphy, 4). Disney gave us the sweetness of a happily ever after romance, a narrative produced and consumed en masse in Depression-era cinema.
            Since then, however, we have not been content with Snow White as the docile and demure damsel in distress. Modern feminism demands more of its heroines, as seen in the influx of Snow White retellings in the past few years. In the ABC series Once Upon a Time (2011-present), this new Snow White is “spunky yet vulnerable” (Tatar), armed with a bow and a complicated backstory. Another example is the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman, “reconceived to appeal to an audience partial to high-decibel special effects … Like all fairy-tale adaptations, it also operates like a magnet, picking up relevant bits and pieces of the culture that is recycling the tale” (Tatar). Once again we see a Snow White who is strong and inspiring, who “channels Joan of Arc” (Fricke; Tatar) and leads an army to reclaim her kingdom. A lesser-known version is another film in 2012 called Mirror Mirror, in which Snow White avoids death altogether by seeing through the poisoned-apple trick and outsmarting the wicked queen.
In most contemporary adaptations, the powerful fairy tale images remain—the magic mirror, the poisoned apple, the glass coffin, and the resurrection by true love’s kiss. But Snow White is no longer the Grimms’ one-dimensional archetype nor Disney’s vapid and saccharine maiden. We have given her what the Grimms never did: a personality, a purpose, and a weapon.
The Brothers Grimm were another link in this endless chain, creating their own adaptation for their own purposes. Their failure, however, was in being oblivious to the larger implications of the choices they made. No fairy tale adaptation exists in a vacuum. Every story or piece of art is part of the greater narrative of how we represent martyrs, women, and other oppressed peoples. The artist has a responsibility to the truth as they see it, but the work will inevitably be colored by their own socio-historical context. We can—and should—continue to re-appropriate fairy tales, using old stories to find new meaning, but we must be conscious of our accountability and intentional in our choices. Every martyrdom narrative has consequences, but when the martyr is fictional, her voice is our voice; we use her story to tell our own. Snow White is still our martyr; she can be a martyr for each one of us.
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Why I don’t feel bad about giving up on NaNoWriMo this year

Snow White and the Seven Deadly Sins is the fifth rough draft I’ve gotten out of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). But this is the first time I’ve attempted to finish NaNoWriMo while going to school full time, working 18 hours/week, and commuting 12 hours/week. It was ridiculously optimistic of me to attempt it in the first place, but that’s me. Here I must quote my self-adopted fairy godmother: “Love, as we have already discussed, is a powerful, wonderful, ridiculous thing, capable of moving mountains. And spools of thread.” —Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux. And yeah, I really wanted this year’s really cool winner’s T-shirt with the knight facing down the 50k-dragon, but there are more important things. Also, I don’t need another T-shirt.


I’m not giving up on the story itself (Don’t worry, Colleen!), just on the goal of finishing a rough draft of 50,000 words by Saturday (I’m at 26,000-something, I think). Finishing this story has no deadline, but finishing my research paper does. And because I’m writing my research paper on Snow White, the work I’m doing feels like a legitimate contribution to my research.

That’s why I took this class (Contested Bodies: Representations of Martyrdom) in the first place, as research for this novel. I’ve spent this quarter fascinated by all we’ve been learning, synthesizing it within myself, and using that to fuel me forward in both my novel and my research paper. And, because my professor has been skeptical about this paper from (quite literally) Day 1, I’ve also been fueled by a feeling of righteous defensiveness.

I argue that Snow White is a martyr because the Brothers Grimm turned her into one. They took bits and pieces of stories from the oral tradition that were not necessarily religious in nature, fused them together with their own beliefs, and created a deeply Christian story of a sweet little virgin martyr. There’s so much I want to go into. Did you know, for example, that most of the Grimms’ sources were female, but were never credited by name? Did you know that in the original story, it is Snow White’s biological mother, not a stepmother, who jealously tries to kill her? Did you know that, back in the day, all you had to do to be a Christian female martyr was 1- be Christian, 2- be a virgin, and 3- die? Did you know that in art and literature, glass has traditionally been a metaphor for virginity, so the dwarfs are then trapping her in that identity when they put her in a glass coffin? Guh, this is all so friggin’ fascinating and I just want to study and watch and read and write fairy tales forever. (I get to watch “Grimm” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Maleficent” and call it research. My life is awesome.) I finish by arguing that since the Grimms and Disney, we haven’t been content to let Snow White stay a demure, docile damsel in distress. Every time we’ve retold her story, we’ve given her a personality, a purpose, and a weapon.

I think I’ll post the paper here when I’m done, because I’ve been putting a ton of effort into it, and it deserves to be read by more people than just my professor. And that’s why I don’t feel bad about giving up on NaNoWriMo this year. I’m going to end up with a badass piece of work, it will just be my research paper instead of my novel. The novel’s deadline is indefinite and self-imposed. The paper’s deadline is in a week and a half. Time to get back to work.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

My favorite fairy tale is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a lesser-known (in America, anyway) Norse story similar to “Beauty and the Beast.” I’ve wanted to write my own version for a while now, but wasn’t sure what direction it would take. I did know that I wanted to mess with gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, since I thought the original fairy tale had some pretty effed-up things to say about upholding traditional gender roles. Last school year, however, I did a research paper on it (see below for the full paper) and discovered that it’s actually way more empowering than I had given it credit forwho would’ve guessed that my favorite fairy tale was all about sex? (Don’t tell 18-year-old Me, it’d break her poor puritanical heart.)

There was still one problem: fairy tales in general have a tendency to indulge in the “pure good vs. pure evil” narrative and treat certain nonhuman species as evil (in Norse stories these are often trolls). I’m not a fan of thisvillains that are evil just ’cause they are (lookin’ at you, Sauron) really bug me. So I thought, “What if the trolls in my version behave like internet trolls, who actually are evil?… Wait… What if they were literally internet trolls?!” Thus the idea to set this story in an MMORPG.

This idea is still very much in progress, and I’m not yet sure what all the rules of this particular world are. I want the game to be similar to other MMOs that are already out there, but with a self-generating, self-policing, communal feel. Artists and computer programmers and writers can submit their designs for landscapes to explore, quests to undertake, items to buy and sell. If you start acting like a troll, you get banished. Not sure how this part works—do they get banished to a specific area of the game that’s full of glitches and other people as horrible as themselves? Do they get banned from the game entirely but manage to hack their way back in?

I think the way a person gets to design their avatar is the perfect way for me to play around with gender. A 10-foot-tall bearded giant who uses she/her pronouns. An anthropomorphic orange tabby cat who uses xe/xey pronouns. A genderless, speciesless character who’ll have breasts and a beard one day, and a mermaid’s tail and hawk’s head the next. The story’s character of the white bear who sheds that form at night to become the human he really is—there’s a lot of potential there. I see the story starting out with a destitute guild (instead of a destitute family) whose latest battle has left them with the bare minimum of equipment and gold. I can’t wait to start writing up character profiles and figuring out how to convey all the different audio-visual aspects of gaming into a novel.

What I need from y’all are recommendations for games to try out, as I’ve never actually played in an MMO before. Back in middle school when my best friend and I were really into Redwall novels, she played Furcadia and I wanted to soooo badly but couldn’t because I had a Mac. These days the closest I’ve gotten is watching “The Guild.” So what games would you recommend to me? I love fantasy landscapes and creatures and stories. Any games that are geared specifically toward women, gender-nonconforming folks, and other marginalized demographics are a plus.

February 27, 2014

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The story starts with a poor husband and father who has many hungry children, and the youngest daughter is of course the most beautiful. One night during a howling storm, a White Bear knocks on the doors and promises the man that if he will give the bear his youngest daughter, the family shall be as rich as they are now poor. The girl refuses at first but finally agrees, and she packs her meager belongings and leaves with the White Bear, riding on his back.
They come to a hidden castle in a mountain, where all is of silver and gold, and the girl needs only ring a silver bell to instantly receive whatever she desires. At night, after she climbs into bed and blows out the light, a strange man climbs in bed with her. This is really the White Bear, who has shed his animal form and returns to his human form at night. This happens the same way every night.
When she returns home for a brief visit, the White Bear makes her promise that she will never talk alone with her mother, or she will bring great misfortune upon herself and him. Sure enough, her mother convinces the girl to talk with her alone and tell her everything about her time in the castle. The mother warns her daughter that the mysterious man could be a troll, so she gives her daughter a bit of candle to sneak back with her so she can look at the man while he sleeps.
The girl returns to the castle with the White Bear, and that night she lights the candle to look at him as he sleeps. She sees the most beautiful prince, and as she leans down to kiss him, three drops of tallow from the candle fall upon the prince’s shirt. He wakes, crying, “What have you done?”
He tells her that he had been cursed by his wicked stepmother into taking the form of a bear, and had the girl only stayed with him for a year without seeing his true form, the spell would have been broken. Now he must travel to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon and wed a troll princess with a nose three ells long [ell: a unit of measure equal to six hand breadths, or roughly 45 inches].
After he is gone, the girl begins a long journey to find him, but no one knows where to find the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. She is aided by three old women who she meets along the way, each of whom gives her a unique gift: a golden apple, a golden carding comb, and a golden spinning wheel. From there she travels to ask each of the four great winds if they know where the castle lies, ending with the strongest, the North Wind. He is the only one in the world to have ever traveled as far as the castle she seeks, and he takes her there.
The girl sits outside the castle window on three consecutive days, playing with each one of the golden items she received. On each day, the troll princess appears and wants to buy the item, but the girl will only give it up in exchange for spending the night alone with the prince, and the troll princess agrees. The first two nights, the girl goes to the prince’s room to find him fast asleep, and no matter how she shakes him and cries out to him, he will not wake. On the third night, he has been warned by helpful staff in the castle (fellow humans who were likewise abducted by the trolls). He pretends to drink the drugged wine that the troll princess brings him, but he really throws it out. That night, when the girl arrives, they rejoice and make their plans.
The next day, before his wedding, the prince requests a test of his bride. He asks her to wash his favorite shirt, which has gotten three drops of tallow on it. The troll princess, thinking this an easy task, agrees. She rubs and scrubs, but the spots grow bigger and blacker. Two more trolls try until the shirt is as black as soot. The prince brings in the girl sitting outside the castle to try to wash the shirt, and as soon as she dips it in the water, it is as clean as snow. The trolls explode in fury, and the prince and his beloved rescue the captured humans and return home.
In my initial interpretation of the symbols in this story, I pondered how the White Bear might represent danger, mystery, transformation, power, the promise of wealth and adventure, and the wildness of human nature. In fact he represents all of these things, but much more.
In my late teens, I loved that this story has a strong heroine that goes on a dangerous journey to rescue her man and not the other way around. In my early twenties, I began questioning what the story was saying about gender and traditional gender roles, in that the girl was expected to sleep with a stranger for a year without questioning it, and that she proved her worth by doing laundry, the task of an obedient little housewife.
I gained a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for this story by reading about it in the book Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life by Joan Gould. Heroines in fairy tales are always on journeys of transformation that mirror the journeys we take in our real lives. A little girl longs to prove herself as a young woman. A young woman yearns to be a lover or wife. A wife longs for a child. An old woman can serve to either aid or terrorize the young as they begin their own journeys. “Wicked or foolish females, by contrast, are those who fail to develop, so that their consciousness does not match their current stage of life” (Gould, xviii).
In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” our heroine is a young maiden noted for her splendid beauty, a sure indicator that she will begin her journey to becoming a lover. Her father, poor and without prospects, cannot provide for her, and so he has fallen in her esteem from the grand hero that she saw in him when she was a little girl. “He is no longer King, as he was in her childhood; his throne sits vacant, waiting for a younger, more potent male to claim it” (144).
Enter the White Bear. Like in “Beauty and the Beast” and other variations of this story,
The Beast-god, or the human who considers himself a Beast, comes out of his hiding place lusting for a female virgin, not any virgin but the particular one he has his eye on. All-powerful in his own realm, he is needy and suffering in ours, locked in a grim picture of himself that isolates him from humanity. His life cannot take on meaning except through the body of a human female (138).
The girl doesn’t have to go with him, but she does. She is intrigued, compelled, and ready to move on to the next stage of her life. In the original story, the girl is asked more than once. “Are you afraid?” and she always replies “No.” It is open to interpretation whether she is telling the truth or not.
During their time together in the castle, the girl now experiences the new realm of sex. The man is mysterious, and she only encounters him in the complete darkness of night as he enters her bed. As long as she does not disturb the mystery and deliberately ‘cast light on it’ by questioning who her lover is, they can remain together in blissful ignorance and lust indefinitely. But, once again, she is ready to move on. She feels compelled to go back to her family.
At this point, the heroine wakes up from her trance with a start, wondering if it’s right to enjoy herself in this palace with a male so shockingly different. Suddenly her blood family, particularly the circle of women, has a renewed hold on her. Only through them will she find out if she’s leading the life she ought to be leading in this obscure paradise, if she’s as happy as she thinks she is… Separation and return. The shift from blood family to lover and back again. The schism illuminates what is lacking in each of them (171).
The circle of women is often represented by sisters, but in this case it is her mother. The daughter has grown into a woman, so the mother provides her daughter with the tools she needs to protect herself. She lights the candle and sees her lover for what he really is.
Like Bluebeard’s wife opening the forbidden door, she breaks the taboo by shining her light on what she’s not permitted to see, and her curiosity isn’t weakness, as men think, but strength. How can she understand what she doesn’t see, and how can she transform what she doesn’t understand? In particular, she casts light on sex, which is a form of activity that does not like the light. Her love affair may end because of this defiance, but that doesn’t stop her, since she has discovered that happiness, which is what she thought she wanted, is not as powerful as consciousness, even though consciousness brings suffering in its wake, for which men will blame her (180).
The moment of insight is the moment of transformation, during which the two protagonists switch roles. Once the Beast has been seen for what he is, he never appears as the lord of the forest again. Stunned by his new condition, he lies indoors in a trance, waiting to be roused like a male Sleeping Beauty, while the heroine, burning with her new consciousness, displays an energy as purposeful as any mythic hero’s in order to save him (182).
The three golden items were of particular interest to me. In the ordinary world, an apple, a carding comb, and a spinning wheel are certainly ordinary items. In that context, they are symbolic of women’s work: feeding and clothing her family. Add in the magical element of gold, however (symbolic of eternity), and they become something entirely new: keys to another world. The heroine is not tempted by them, for she is motivated by a much higher purpose, but she holds onto them knowing they may be of use to her in her travels, which of course they are. The troll princess, worldly and greedy, is tempted by the golden objects and must have them at any cost.
The three old women who give the heroine these objects are, I believe, symbolic of female knowledge, wisdom, and power. They are the gatekeepers at each stage of the heroine’s journey, judging her fittingness to pass and continue with her mission. Similarly, the elemental forces of the four winds are symbolic of male knowledge, wisdom, and power. They also serve as gatekeepers, in a more wizard-like form, possibly representing fate.
The washing of the shirt I no longer see as a menial housewifely task for the heroine to prove her worthiness of the prince. Because the trolls cannot perform the job, only a human, it is proof of her humanity. It is a seemingly lowly task, showing at once how the work of running a house is both humble and noble. She ultimately rescues her lover and husband not by outside magic, brute force, or trickery, but by being what she is: human, woman, lover, wife. In that, she has truly earned her happy ending.