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Annotated Fairy Tales: The Wonderful Sheep

Okay, gang, even by my standards this one is seriously out there. It starts at “King Lear” and goes straight to bugfuck crazytown. Along the way we encounter ghosts, talking sheep, and an honest-t0-god rain of lobster-patties. It’s…something.

This particular…thingy…was written by Madame d’Aulnoy of France and published in 1697. (d’Aulnoy also gave us rather more well-known stories, including “The White Cat” which shares some of the same window-dressings, although not the rain of lobster-bits.) The translation is found in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, nearly two hundred years later.

Racism in fairy tales is hardly uncommon, but most of it is a sort of in-passing commentary (leaving aside things like Orientalism in the Arabian Nights, which is a whole ‘nother can of wet herring.) This fairy tale is somewhat unusual in that it has a black character who gets an actual speaking part, which is something I very rarely run across in European fairy tales and might almost be quite progressive…except that she’s relegated to the same role as the talking animal companions, and it gets worse from there. I honestly don’t know enough about the literature of the era to know how exactly to parse this in the context of the day, but it’s sure cringeworthy now. (If there are any experts on late 17th century French literature who’d like to weigh in on whether this is the equivalent of the crows in Dumbo or was a legitimate attempt at multiculturalism that comes out agonizing three hundred-odd years out, the comments are open!)

Seriously, though, the whole story is just messed up. So of course I had to talk about it.

Without further ado, then…and I may need alcohol to get through this one…I give you:

The Wonderful SheepCollapse )

Huh. You know, at the beginning of the suicide scene I thought it was going to be "but only their hearts fit, so the huntsman still had to cut the princess's tongue" - I remember reading/being read a couple of such fairytales as a child.

RE: Lobster patties et al
It was a TROPEISH TROPE THAT TROPES, ever since the Middle Ages (and probaby before), of a land of bounty. Tis was usually done either through "food grows on trees" or, more disquietingly, through "geography made of food", with mountains made of gnocchi upon which rained (snowed?) cheese etc. :)

On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese?

I'm never going to manage to kill this earworm.

My thoughts. Let me share them with you. l3

Hahahahah, I really love these annotation things of yours! Always makes for fun reading.

In a related topic, I took a storytelling class last summer, and while I can claim to be all-knowing on the subject (the theoretical aspect of it was only a week long, and there are so very many centuries and cultures worth of material to pull from), I did learn the following rules of thumb when it comes to authentic folktales:

1) The less detailed and/or more nonsensical or generally fucked up it is (I.E. "wait, why does this story involve disembodied talking heads in a well who grant wishes aaaaaaaaaa") the closer it probably is to an accurate transcript of an oral tradition version of the tale. The lack of detail has to do with the fact that stories that are orally passed on are usually easier to remember with less extrenuous details, and the individual tellers are freer to embellish and change things as they choose.The fucked nonsense is usually because the written down oral tales are being told out of context...presumably these were some detail that would have made PERFECT sense to the original audience who would both understand the meaning and not need an explanation.

2) the written down adaptations ala the Grimm Brothers stuff is usually being told through a paticular filter, and written from only one source, so you are already getting a biased version of a tale that was originally meant to shift and change depending on who was telling it. Furthermore, they tend to add more detail (to conform to ideals of written literature, which conflict somewhat with those things that make for a good oral tale) and they tend to try to make sense of...or at least give explanations for...the more fucked up aspects of the original tale. This usually just end up making the fucked up bits even more fucked up, especially because they are now even further removed from the original culture context.

3) These folk tale adaptors also tended to add religious connotations that weren't there originally. Christian retellers were especially notorious about adding Christian elements to stories that were originally about other pantheons entirely. My teacher and I spent a good ten minutes picking apart this really weird one she found that involved a bear and a saint, a group of devils, a devil on a many legged horse, and something about a hill with a bible verse on it before we realized it was probably originally a NORSE tale with the names filed off and Christian elements clumsily tacked on.
The rest of the class just stared as we were like "wait...the guy with the bear is Baldur! Ok, so the devil on the horse...Loki, maybe! YEAH THAT'S IT, which means the horse must be...oh it starts with an S, arrrgh what was it..."

4) one of the things that almost never got explained in the old oral tales was magic. Magic beings weren't even necessarily listed as being fairies, it could just be a random nameless old woman who also happens to be able to remove her head so she could more conveniently de-louse it.

5) Once you start seeing the reoccurring elements in these damn things, you SEE THEM EVERYWHERE. Folktales: proof that TV tropes is older than television.

Finally: heroines, off the top of my head, who had it worse than either of the gals from the last two stories:
The heroine of Many Furs--prototype Cinderella character who escaped an incestous marriage with her Father (by disguising herself in a suit made of many furs) and her happy ending involved...ummm...being discovered and married to her Father anyway. Yay?
The Girl with No Hands--...the title sorta says it all for me.

My overly-long thoughts: these things have word limits?

The original version Red Riding Hood: There was no woodsman, there was no rescue, and Red got tricked into cannibalism by the wolf. All with incredibly rape-tastic undertones, original Red Riding Hood would look like Reefer Madness sans the drugs if it were made into a movie today.
Sleeping Beauty (original version)--let's just say it wasn't a kiss that woke her, and leave it at that.

And that's not even going to some of the non-European stuff I've come across. Inuit tales could be particularly brutal, for instance.

That said, this one had quite a bit of WTF...I'm a little curious if there isn't an even MORE racist older version where the monkey and the dog were also people, or something. (Also, this one feels like a fusion of about three or four individual stories to me. Makes for interesting analysis, if nothing else.)

Yes, it's horribly racist and colonialist. Even if something is in a larger context where racism is all-pervasive, it doesn't change the fact that it's racist. It was just as dehumanizing to black folks then, even if white folks didn't recognize it as such. When all stories are told from the viewpoint of the oppressors, it may change the perception of atrocities (in the minds of those who identify with the storytellers), but not the reality of them.

I think those old fairy books were printed on hemp...

So you see that even a princess is not always happy– especially if she forgets to keep her word; and the greatest misfortunes often happen to people just as they think they have obtained their heart’s desires!

"And that's why you can't have nice things, young lady!"

At last she saw before her a great plain, quite covered with all sorts of flowers, the scent of which seemed to her nicer than anything she had ever smelled before; a broad river of orange-flower water flowed round it and fountains of wine of every kind ran in all directions and made the prettiest little cascades and brooks. The plain was covered with the strangest trees, there were whole avenues where partridges, ready roasted, hung from every branch, or, if you preferred pheasants, quails, turkeys, or rabbits, you had only to turn to the right hand or to the left and you were sure to find them.

This bit reminds me of one of the Oz books, possibly The Road to Oz, in which Dorothy visits a country and finds lunch-pails growing on trees, complete with tongue sandwiches. But the rain of lobster patties in the next sentence really blows L. Frank Baum out of the water.

There were lunch-box trees and dinner-pail trees in Ozma of Oz, the third book in the series, when Dorothy first returns to Oz by getting shipwrecked with Billina the chicken.

You know that game where you have a room full of people, and one of them starts writing a story, and then covers all but the last line they wrote and passes it to the next person, who writes a section, etc? That's what a lot of these tales remind me of.

The only thing better than your stories are the comment threads!

There is so fairy tales you can understand with knowledge of the tropes, time period or very good end of the pages annotations.
And there are others which are just WTFed into oblivion.
(Fortunately saved by your hilarious comments)

its not as fucked up as some of the italian ones (little girl raised by a disembodied buffalo head, anyone?) - have you read the version of sleeping beauty where she wakes up cos of labour pains and finds anote by her bed saying "thanks for the great night, pet"

In the one I read a long time ago, she slept through labour, but she woke up when one of the twins she had given birth to stared sucking her fingers because he was hungry, and by doing so he removed the thorn that put her to sleep in the first place. I cannot remember if there was a note.

I can't help it. I'm picturing the Sheep as looking like the ones from Kung Fu Panda.

You’ll forgive me if I’m still hung up on the freaky competitive suicide pact and not all that worried about her frock.

It's a minor detail compared to the rest of this, but given that she brought the girl along to hold up her train, I'm not surprised the dress didn't do too well with wandering through the woods.

First, thank you Ursula for your hilarious annotations. I have been quietly enjoying the hell out of them.
However, the entire time I was reading this one I was going, "I have so totally read this story before. There can't be an entire subgenre of stories with sheep-princes!" but couldn't find it in my book of French fairy tales until I realized the version in my book was called The Ram. (I am still on my first cup of coffee so I'm a little slow...) My translation is from a book of stories translated and compiled by Jack Zipes and published in 1989.

Some other translation differences for those who like this sort of thing:
- Miranda is called Merveilleuse (which means marvelous or wonderful or magical, in case you needed more reasons to hate her or her father!)
- the monkey says nothing of goblins and instead wishes to immortalize himself in "the annals of the empire of monkeys." That makes more sense, I guess. For the given value of sense in fairy tales.
- the ram isn't grim, he's "as reserved as a Roman senator." And just how reserved were Roman senators?
- the witch Ragotte doesn't just look her slave to death, she stabs her through the eye with a bodkin! Augh!
- We also get a poem about the moral of the story which goes:
"The choicest blessings sent by Heaven
Often tend to cause our ruin.
The charms, the talents, that we're given
May often end on a sad tune.
The royal ram would have surely seen
Happier days without the charms that led
The cruel Ragotte to love, then hurl her mean
But fatal vengeance on his head.
In truth he should've had a better fate,
For spurning a sordid Hymen's chains;
Honest his love - unmasked his hate -
How different from our modern swains!
Even his death may well surprise
The lovers of the present day:
Only a silly sheep now dies,
Because his ewe has gone astray."

That is a very entertaining poem (in a bizarre sort of way).

I love these stories, especially with the commentary.

I'm not sure who is creepier, the sheep or her father. What is it about Miranda that she attracts creepy almost paedophilic lovers? I mean her father favours the youngest over her sisters, classic grooming. The Sheep "watched her grow" and fancied her from the first!

I know they married younger then, but still...

I can't help wondering who the tale was aimed at, considering its moral.

That and if the Sheep hadn't been so damn impatient, he would have seen her. At least the palace guard didn't think, Talking sheep = Mutton for the feast! Now that would have been a more gruesome ending.

I love your new layout! And this has got to be the wackiest fairytale yet, heh.