Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Uncle Remus. Tales, His Songs, His Sayings. Joel Chandler Harris

How to read Uncle Remus. Start with the original:  ours dates from 1928, in dialect.  From that, I researched references and idioms, and crafted a rough translation from the dialect into more readily understandable English.  Please go back to the original, once the gist is clear.  That site is Uncle Remus Tales.  This is a work in progress, with intentions to complete the entire book before I die. It presents a community different from Walt Disney and the pablum of diluted retellings.  Remus is wise, smart, canny, manipulative, a man of facets.

How to read Uncle Remus can be approached another way:

Read it not just for the content, the story line, the personalities, life in the Old South and its immediate successive generation. Read it to find how a subjected people communicate in dangerous times: with indirection, tale, jokes, clarity to those who know, and deniability for survival, while real meaning passes over the heads of the dominant ones.

  • Read the Opinion piece by Vanessa M. Gezari, New York Times Sunday August 11, 2013, How To Read Afghanistan.  A thesis is this:  that marginalized people, whether slaves, women, others non-male in male-dominated cultures, push back.  They must do so cautiously, however, in peril if discoverred, a resistance ultimately deniable. 

She continues: Let those inhabitants of the dominated world mingle with each other, however, and the message they share becomes not necessarily more overt, but different in kind: resistance shown through "jokes, metaphors, folk tales, and codes."  Meaning is communicated, but the deniability remains.

People talk subtly, indirectly, when in danger.

Read Uncle Remus that way.

Spot the numerous examples of Uncle Remus getting "back" at Miss Sally, his underappreciated valor in saving the life of John, his use of the child to score points that he dare not rack up overtly.  Uncle Remus.  A person to be reckoned with, and Miss Sally hasn't a clue.  Go ahead, little boy, do what Uncle Remus says. Barge in on your parents very early on Christmas Day, much to their surprise.  Go ahead, Brer Rabbit. Murder and engage in mayhem.  And get away with it. After all, it is only a story, isn't it?

Then try some calamus root.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hansel and Gretel: The True Brothers Grimm. Hollywood Film Travesty

Hansel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm *
Hansel and Grethel, really
Family violence, childhood terrors, mere cleverness is gender-neutral, 
but the real courage award here, is to Gretel.

Hollywood travesty messing with cultural icons to make a buck: Hansel and Gretel Witch-Hunters.

The preoccupation with violence as entertaining in our culture takes us to films that turn traditional tales into mega-horror.  The old tales contain their own horrors, as in much of Hansel and Gretel, but those are not carried on, to affect others beyond the characters themselves, and the immediate events.  They get over it:  mean stepmother, complicit weak father, belittlement (you little fool!), abandonment with intent to cause death, fear, relief, deception, capture of Hansel, servitude of Gretel, attempted murder of the wicked witch in the candy house who lured them, and as to Gretel, bright lass as she is, a dire killing in self defense, and her release of Hansel. Scroll to the ending.

The Witch-Hunters places the action at Augsburg,northwest from Munich.  Augsburg is indeed very old. It is the third oldest in Germany.  Before the Christians were the tribes, the Romans, a crossroads. The crypt at the Cathedral shows its roots around 823 AD, with 10th Century Celtic early Christianity patterns predating the conformity-forcing  Romanization and institutionalization of western religion. See the knot swirl patterns.

 The medieval famine of 1315-21 could have been the reference time period for the tale.  But the children were not not not kidnapped.  Hollywood take note and read.

Hansel and Gretel, in summary, from The Brothers Grimm:  
Would these children have grown up to be Hollywood's Witch Hunters?

Hansel and Gretel were two children who lived with their father, a woodcutter, and stepmother.  They were very poor.  When famine came, the father wondered how he and his wife could feed the children and themselves as well. The wife, stepmother of the children, proposed that the parents give the children each a piece of bread, lead them into the forest, and leave them there. The father was appalled.  The wild animals! They will be torn to pieces!

Never mind, said the stepmother.  If they stay, then we all starve. Very well, says the father.  And the children overheard.  When the parents were asleep, Hansel then slipped out of the house and filled his pockets with bright pebbles, and assured his sister that God would not forsake them.

Just before dawn, the stepmother woke the children, gave each a piece of bread, and they all went into the woods. Hansel, however, cleverly dropped pebbles along the way.  Deep in the forest, the parents made a fire for the children, and said, stay here, children, and we will be back for you.  But they didn't.  The children had their bits of bread, thought they heard their father chopping -- but the father had only rigged a branch to rub against another to sound like his work, and that is what they really heard.  Parents gone!

After the full moon rose, the children stopped waiting (they had overheard the parents in the first place), and trudged home again, following the pebbles.  What?  You bad children? said the stepmother. You slept so long we thought you were not coming back!  But the father was delighted, because his heart had not been in the venture.

Again came famine, and the parents as before plotted to leave the children in the woods, the stepmother scolding and reproachful, the father waffling. Hansel, as before, got up to get pebbles, but the stepmother would not let him out.  The next morning, on their way into the forest, Hansel dropped bits of his allotment of bread, instead of pebbles. But the birds came and ate them up, and when the parents did not return to get the children, they began to wander, lost.

Three days went by, lost in the woods. Then a little bird flitted and caught their attention, and they followed it to a lovely house made of bread, roofed with cake, and with windows of transparent sugar.  They were so happy they began to eat at once, even answering the voice from inside asking them who is nibbling at my little house!

Then an old woman came out, and offered them warmth, and a fine supper of pancakes, sugar, nuts, milk and apples. And she put them to bed in little white beds.  But she was really a wicked witch, who lured children to her bread and cake house, and then (aha!) fattened them up and ate them.  Note that witches have red eyes, they can't see very far, but have a keen sense of smell, like animals, and can sense when humans are near.

At dawn, she slipped in close and grabbed the little boy with her bony hand! Gotcha! And she put him in a stable with a barred door for fattening up.

 Hansel and Gretel, Hansel caged. Brothers Grimm. Arthur Rackham, illustrator

 Then back to Gretel, who somehow slept through the noise of Hansel shouting.  Up with you, get to work!  And so Gretel carried water for the kettle and made the fire for the kettle above it. She got crayfish shells to eat, while Hansel, given the best food, somehow never put on a pound. Finally the witch got tired of waiting.

Then the witch said to Gretel: Creep to the oven there and see if it is hot enough for the bread I want to bake.  She intended a roast Gretel. But Gretel said, how can I get in there.  The opening is too small.  And the witch said, You stupid goose.  It is a big opening, big even enough for me. And she hobbled up to demonstrate.  Into the oven went her head.

Hansel and Grethel, Grimm. I could get into it myself! Arthur Rackham, illustration

And at that moment, clever Gretel gave the witch a push and in she went and Gretel banged shut the door. Bolt! No way out. And she left the witch to perish miserably.

Then to the stable:  Gretel opened the door, told Hansel the good news that the witch was dead, and they had a group hug.  They then went back to the house and there found chests of pearls, precious stones.  We will put what we can in our pockets, said they, and then beat it out of this enchanted wood.  So they did.

On the way, they came to a brook with no stepping stones and no bridge.  What do do?  Gretel said, ask the duck over there, and she did. Hansel popped on its back and told Gretel to join him, but she knew the duck could not carry both. So she let Hansel go across, and the duck then came back for her.

Once safely on the other side, Hansel and Gretel walked and walked some more, and finally parts of the wood seemed familiar.  The cottage they had lived in was just over there!  They ran, pushed open the door and rushed to their father who was there.  The stepmother had died, and the father was overjoyed to see them.  They scattered their pearls and gems on the floor.

"So all their troubles came to an end, and they lived together as happily as possible." 

As happily as possible.  That's sense.

No social safety net may lead adults to do dastardly things. A few freebies in life can make all the difference.  Not all women are motherly. Fathers can be fatherly one time, and not another. Where else do abused kiddies go, but home?

* The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Doubleday Page NY, 1909, illustrations by Arthur Rackham.  See discussions of evolving story at