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Terri
Registered User
(5/9/02 7:13:36 am)
Transgressive characters in fairy tales
Since there will be a panel talk on this subject at WisCon, perhaps we should start a discussion of it here? (Midori, can you post the catalog description of the panel?)

Kerrie
Registered User
(5/9/02 1:12:08 pm)
Program description (?) and Bluebeard...
Terri, is this what you were asking for:

(49) Transgressive Characters
in Fairy Tales

Fantasy Madison Room Saturday, 10:00-11:15 a.m.
"Do not step off the path!" Transgression implies that there are borders,limits to behavior and social roles which cannot be crossed without a penalty. Yet fairy tales often encourage characters to challenge these limitations, to transgress heroically or outrageously (bad girls have all the best lines!) as they undergo rites of passage or just kick the shins of authority. This panel will discuss the implications of transgressive behavior in narratives--at times surprising celebrations of misbehavior as heroic acts.
M: Midori Snyder , Kate Bernheimer , Heinz Insu Fenkl , Gregory Frost , Helen Pilinovsky , Charles
Vess , Terri Windling
Send a comment.

I so wish I could be there with all of you! Alas, I fear I may miss it next year as well due to the wedding! (Date not set yet, but nearing finality!) Wouldn't that be interesting- honeymoon at WisCon?!

Speaking of weddings and transgressions- how about starting with Mr. Bluebeard? I have been wondering, since I already live with my fiance, what limits, borders, roles will change. I don't know how many women think about it, but I sometimes wonder if the man I know will be the man I'll be married to for the rest of my life. I've probably seen one too many psychological thrillers, but I guess it sometimes happens. Mr. Right turns into Mr. Controlling, Mr. Abusive, Mr. Deadly, Mr. Psycho (or Ms. to Mrs.). Not that I think my fiance would do that, but I think it's at the subconscious level, a kind of self-preservation so to speak. Or maybe it's a fear of the self changing- will I still be the fun-loving, carefree young woman I am, or will I become someone else, someone called "wife" to someone called "husband." Individuality versus "two made one" and how all decisions affect both partners not just the one. Certain things, allowed before, no longer accepted. I think that marriage itself, in a way, is that opening of a door that can be disturbing for some, what some expect, or something trivial to others. I don't know. Any thoughts?

Soft whispers and valley blossoms,

Kerrie

Gregor9
Registered User
(5/10/02 5:19:45 am)
Re: Program description (?) and Bluebeard...
Kerrie,
Since I'm likely going to do a spin on Mr. Bluebeard on the panel (having just finished a "Bluebeard" novel for Terri), I would recommend you not worry until he offers you the keys to the house and tells you not to use one of them.
Seriously, control freaks come in a variety of forms, I think. The obvious ones are the sort who insist you have to line up the canned goods in a certain order, etc., and act out if you fail to adhere to this. (Ref: see the not-great film "Sleeping with the Enemy" as an example taken to extremes)
The less obvious ones are scarier. I know someone who married a sociopath. He in essence has two personalities: the nice public one by which everyone knows him, and the utterly cold one, detached, emotionless, that she and the therapist they went to in trying to reconcile their marriage (he believed he could snow the therapist, too, but she got around his fašade) both know. Films invariably make these kinds of people into murderers. But they don't have to kill to control, manipulate, and destroy.
And now, having infused you with mortal terror, I'd add that I'm sure you aren't getting yourself entangled with such a person. Unless he's already lining up the cans in the cupboard...

Greg

Judith Berman
Registered User
(5/10/02 6:26:55 am)
Re: Program description (?) and Bluebeard...
Seems to me there are both transgressive heroes (meaning both male and female) and villains. And perhaps other characters -- e.g., are there transgressive helpers? The discussion would proceed in different directions according to which you're talking about.

I think it was Propp who talked about interdiction/interdiction violated as one of the main ways heroes get separated from their families and the action is started in the beginnings of fairy tales. "Don't go into the forest!" "Don't open the box!" The interdiction is a gun-on-the-mantelpiece device that often seems to operate almost mechanically. But heroes can also act transgressively in the course of solving the problem(s) of the fairy tale. Do these transgressions have the same value re character? Seems to me not necessarily. (And where does said key belong?)

Kerrie
Registered User
(5/10/02 8:06:29 am)
Re: Program description (?) and Bluebeard...
Oh, he's a great guy, I trust him completely! Those were more extremes that some people experience at small levels and others at dangerous ones. It's just that some of those movies (like the ones you mentioned) make you wonder if you really know a person. Scary, when media makes us question ourselves.

In a way, I'm more worried about what I will become after I'm labeled "wife"- will I expect him to follow certain rules and be utterly disappointed to the point of hysterical crying if he lets me down, will will I feel a need to change myself to be the perfect wife and if I fail, feel I've let down the whole world? It's a scary thing, this transition from individual to spouse. Expectations change in both directions- some things are accepted of one who is single, yet not of a married person, and vice versa. For example, one is expected (in most cases) to remain chaste until the wedding, and expected to be intimate after the wedding, whereas carefree frivolity is often accepted in a single person, but a married couple needs to think of each other, be conscious of every cent spent, every action that can be misjudged. These of course are generalizations. And the transgressions could be either mistakes made or actions not taken (one spouse's infidelity or not wanting to be intimate, ever). I'm not sure how coherant I'm being, writing this in pieces.

Now that I've rambled on, I think I'll just post this and return later.

Soft whispers and valley blossoms,

Kerrie

Edited by: Kerrie at: 5/11/02 5:57:12 am
Gregor9
Registered User
(5/10/02 8:26:20 am)
Re: Program description (?) and Bluebeard...
Kerrie,
I think the healthiest thing you can do is ask all these questions. It keeps the dialogue open.
The best advice I ever heard on marriage was from Robert Mitchum (not the person one would normally expect, given his "bad boy" history in Hollyweird). Someone asked him in the 70s how he and his wife had stayed married. His reply was "Forbearance. We always agree that we will try to do better tomorrow." Remarkably intelligent, that. And now it's my turn to stop giving advice before I start signing off as Miss Lonelyhearts (and we already know how that turns out).

Greg

Kerrie
Registered User
(5/10/02 10:07:44 am)
Re: Program description (?) and Bluebeard...
Greg,

Thanks for the advice! We do keep communication open, mostly because of living with roommates in college where it was expected to discuss everything. (Or did you mean the dialogue of this board discussion?) As I mentioned, it's the way media plays with the mind that has me wonder. Probably also the fact I'm a writer, always thinking of those "what if"s. I'm sure we'll be fine.

But it does call to the fact at how strong the media can make us wonder if we've made the wrong decisions- in marriage, in the workplace, with friends. Does modern media play it up at the same level that fairy tales and folktales (more in their original forms) present the warnings? Is it a sign of the times that warnings have become so violent in film and television? Are they still warnings, or merely entertainment? And the fact that we try to "tone things down" for children. Do they learn the lessons if we try to shield them? Or do they learn the wrong lessons when we don't? I've seen many a child question themselves to the point of worry over simple matters.

Perhaps I am asking the wrong questions, or making the references seem more personal instead of generic? Just some thoughts.

Soft whispers and valley blossoms,

Kerrie

Edited by: Kerrie at: 5/11/02 6:00:15 am
midori
Unregistered User
(5/11/02 10:16:20 am)
trangressive helpers
Judith,

most definately there are transgressive helpers--think of the figures of the cat, or the dog, or the squeaky gate in Baba Yaga stories--many of them are placated by the good deeds of the heroine--and they aid her in her escape--transgressing against the "authority" of Baba Yaga. Also in a contrastive fashion, think of the servant girl in Goose Girl--who forces the young woman to change places with her so that the servant may ride into the town as the "princess." The servant transgresses against the class order--but the narrative needs her to do that in order that the young woman can essentially complete a rite of passage into adulthood--only possible if her old identity appears to be destroyed and the new one is allowed to develop under the disguise of the goose girl identity. It's actually easier to see this in Xhosa versions of the goose girl where a creature called the "imbulumakasana" appears in almost all rites of passage heroine tales, forcing the girl to change places with it (this usually happens after the girl walks off the path she's been told to remain on!). The imbulu is a most unlikely "bride"--pale and rather ugly, lisps and has this great phallic tail it wraps around its body under the long cow hide skirt. (transgressing sexual boundaries as well--moving into the androgenous). It usually meets its demise at the end of the tale by being forced to leap over a pit of milk--where upon the tail attracted by the milk, points straight down and takes the helpless imbulu down with it. Storytellers usually have great fun playing the imbulu, waiting in line to jump over the pit, whispering frantically to its tail and begging it not to betray it.

I find the notion of transgression in the narratives fascinating because of the amazing variety of expression--not just of social control--but as deliberate antithesis in a dialectical movement in a rite of passage--where the transgression is essential for the narrative to move forward. Transgression --far from carrying negative moral tag endings seems to possess a robust and lively potential. Legba in Nigerian narratives has sex with the dead in order to rid the village of a horrible curse that has been the cause of those deaths--life and fertility out of transgression--the rejeuvenation of the village.

ah well...a few random thoughts.

Kerrie
Registered User
(5/11/02 2:04:33 pm)
Re: trangressive helpers
Midori wrote:
"The servant transgresses against the class order--but the narrative needs her to do that in order that the young woman can essentially complete a rite of passage into adulthood--only possible if her old identity appears to be destroyed and the new one is allowed to develop under the disguise of the goose girl identity. "

Would that then imply also that the parents and step-parents of so many tales transgress against the role of nurturing, loving parent? For example, in "Hansel and Gretel," the parents, who should be there to protect the children, abandon them in the forest to die. In "Cinderella," the stepmother is more concerned about getting her own daughters into the royal family than their well-being by cutting off their toes and heels. In "Rumpelstiltskin," the miller brags so much about his daughter's non-existent skills, so that she must come to near execution. "In "The Girl Without Hands," the father mutilates his own child to protect himself.

Just another penny-worth...

Soft whispers and valley blossoms,

Kerrie

Karen
Unregistered User
(5/11/02 4:08:46 pm)
Little interjection
So far everyone has been discussing the subject of transgression with respect to the "original" or archetypal narratives, but what about the reworkings, the adaptations, the permutations so many people on this board are creating? Can you transgress a narrative? Is the appropriating author potentially the ultimate transgressor? Is there a metafictional level of subversion and can the creator herself/himself become the ulitmate culture hero? Hasn't Walt Disney become a culture hero, in a (perverse?) sense?

Note for Kerrie- In my own experience, I've found that two very rarely become one. There's an "us" but there's also a very firm "me" and a very firm "you" (Or, at least, I think there should be!). Often, the places where you don't meet are just as crucial for ensuring the longevity of your relationship- indeed, much of the "spark" originates in those little gaps- which sometimes seem like abysses.
And he is a wonderful man- I could see that!
All the best,
Karen.

Jess
Unregistered User
(5/11/02 4:10:36 pm)
other transgressions
What about the girl in the story (i believe it is in the Arabian Nights) who gets the magic water for her father by dressing as a boy and traveling as such. She saves her brothers who have already failed at the task and turned into stones.

Actually, the Arabian Nights are full of these tests of the limits of acceptability. Virtually every tale I have read has something in it.

Speaking of spouses, what about the husband in Griselda (is that the right sp?). He goes from the loving husband to an evil being who is capable of torturing his wife with all kinds of horrible acts, like hiding her baby in a convent and pretending she is dead and pretending to be engaged to the very same daughter, to being a loving husband again. This is is "rite of passage" into the humane.

Jess
Unregistered User
(5/11/02 4:14:06 pm)
One more transgression
What about the Little Mermaid? I always forget about Anderson's tales. Does she not transgress symbolically changing not only her physical character, but her spiritual one as well? By throwing off her identity, failing to be submissive to her father and tradition, and then actually transforming (as opposed to merely transgressing) is she not challenging the mores of society? Her reward for such an adventerous spirit for the sake of love is not just pain, but a change in her spiritual character. Just a thought for conversation.

Midori
Unregistered User
(5/12/02 5:01:46 am)
wheres the line
Kerrie,

Yes evil stepmothers, incestuous fathers, cannibalistic husbands have all transgressed the accepted social expectations of the audiences--performers present these unspeackable acts as a way of emotionally charging the story--it is unsettling and terrifying to have what should be trusted characters behaving in such brutual fashion. And for the heroine narrative--these violent acts insure that the girl will not return home (moving forward to an acceptance of the exogamous marriage at the end) The storyteller presents a violation, a transgression of the social order--and then has the protagonist transgress against that violation. In South African narratives the rite of passage of a young girl is often parallel to the purification not only of the self, but the village--a resurrection and a return to social order. In the Goose Girl version I mentioned above, the young girl is told to flee her village (and not look back) after her brother has murdered a sister and tricked the village into eating her flesh. The young girl, warned by a fly, refused the meat and denounced the brother. As she flees, the village goes up in flames. But when she arrives at the prince's village, as she goes to the field (disguised as Dog's Body, the imbulumakasana in her place) she brings her village forth from the earth and they feed her and care for her. In the end, as she is brought into the village as the new bride, she releases her village from the underworld, reclaimed, purified, even as she is.



Judith Berman
Registered User
(5/13/02 7:10:09 am)
transgression, tricksters, marriage
No discussion of transgression would be complete without mentioning tricksters -- a whole large topic in itself. Barre Toelken has written some very insightful material on the creative force of Navajo Coyote's myth-age trangressions and their enormously powerful relationship to the present day. Coyote's come to stand for all North American tricksters, though there are number of different Coyotes and lots of other tricksters and transgressions. I'm rather fond of the subgenre of "Mink gets married" stories from the north Pacific coast, where the chronically immature Mink is always going after women for the wrong reasons, then gets his comeuppance (he drowns trying to have sex with Kelp, Frog has no genitalia, he breaks his hand punching Diorite Woman). The misadventures usually involve his death, but he always comes back to life, usually awakening, embarrassed, in front of an audience of women. Some of the story tellers end with him returning home to his mom, who says, "I told you so."

Kerrie, this isn't meant to be a commentary on your own forthcoming marriage! Although I suppose the underlying message about maturity being necessary for a successful relationship is pertinent for *all* of us. My parents gave me two really useful pieces of advice: from my father, "Spend less than you earn," and from my mother, "Don't marry a man thinking you're going to change him." Both of these, I report from experience, are harder than they look.

Judith

Gregor9
Registered User
(5/13/02 7:41:40 am)
Re: other transgressions
Jess,
Yes, Patient Griselda's husband is a transgressive monster. That his cruel tests have been equated by some with the testing of Job doesn't win God any points with me, either, whether or not it is all in the name of proving Job's iron character. And that equation indicates that the husband has decided to play god in torturing his wife with these various lies. She sacrifices her youth, her life, to his cruel tests. By the time she finds out otherwise, most of her life has passed her by. I want to have the sense that Griselda may be so much smarter than the story itself, that she knows none of what her husband tells her is true--but I suspect that's just me wanting her to be clever and not infuriatingly passive. The tribulations she endures remind me a lot of Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale", where the conspiracy of truth is allied against an foolish and ill-tempered monarch who is perhaps more deserving of such punishment.

Greg

Helen
Registered User
(5/13/02 11:10:55 am)
Re: Transgressive characters in fairy tales
This topic has been a godsend for me; it sent me off on a whole new direction with my MA thesis ... as a result of your inspiration to me, it's done. It's ALIVE! Before, I had been looking at evolving images of femininity in "Donkeyskin" tales, which was really too broad for a 30 page paper. Now, I'm concentrating on the shift in representations of transgression from the furtive subversion of Straparola's Doralice to the bold decisiveness of the heroine of the Russian "The Golden Lantern," a character who leaves her father at the altar, emptying his treasury as she goes her merry way, using this wergeld to establish a new life for herself. The heroine's transgression becomes less objectionable in the eyes of society with the passage of time, reflecting the growing emphasis on individual choice over blind obedience.

This thread on the whole suggests an interesting structure of duality in transgression. It seems as though frequently, when a hero or heroine transgresses, their action is prompted by some earlier transgression on the part of the villain; in order to put matters right, they must step outside the boundaries of "civilized" behavior to work within the same sphere as their opponents. Basically, in the world of fairy tales, it appears that two wrongs do make a right ... in "Donkeyskin," the heroine's refusal to submit to the patriarchal system stems from the unnatural command issued by the father. In "Bluebeard," the wife's suspicions prove to be well-founded when they lead her to proof of her husband's crimes. And so on ... it's not a universal constant, but it seems to be a popular pattern. Forgive me if I'm rambling; between intellectual excitement, sleeplessness from completing the thesis, and the symptoms of the latest plague to run through town (and the corresponding medication ...) I hope that this makes sense...

jess
Unregistered User
(5/13/02 11:23:34 am)
More Transgressions
Kerrie,

You have a copy of my story regarding Sleeping Beauty. I hope the "good wife" sterotype in the story has not frightened you - as the character does her own transgressing similar to one expressed in an earlier entry here. If you haven't had a chance to read, you might enjoy it. I think what is interesting is that in marriage both parties must change, conform to a certain degree to the joint person. A potential transgression occurs (i.e. the control freak/schizoide personaility) where one party refuses to bend completely -or as Greg pointed out bends publically, but privately is a monstor. Alternatively, there are those instances where one party bends completely until broken and then the transgression occurs - as the person rebounds outside normal mores. Do I make sense here? So, one wonders for example with the wife in Rupenzal who sacrifices her child for lettuce is this a transgression story, or using the same story the step mother (witch) isolating the child by placing her in a tower after she has apparently raised her to puberty?


Greg,

Griselda is a story that angers me. The female character has so little pluck, the male character is in my mind more cruel than Bluebeard - at least Bluebeard warns the wives and is mercifully murderous. The King in Griselda slowly, methodically, and cruelly tortures his wife. The fact that she is unable to respond or leave the situation reminds me of the battered-wife syndrome described in psychological literature now. The worst thing about the story is the Griselda is heralded for her inaction!

On an earlier thread, Helen discussed Riquett with the Tuft and described a version where Riquett steals the Princess' intelligence back during the day after granting it to her and tortures her with the lover made to look as he does. I am not sure if this is a true transgression story since it requires magic to effect the change, but it is certainly borderline. Thoughts?

Jess

Gregor9
Registered User
(5/13/02 11:41:09 am)
Re: More Transgressions
Jess,
There's a Zipes collection with both versions of the story--the Perrault version, which ends with an admonition that wives should behave themselves, and the one written by his female cousin(?--sorry I'm at work and memory has failed me, but someone here will know), which is quite the opposite. The obvious split along sexual lines of authorship is quite telling, and was particularly useful for me as I was, at the time I read them, about to undertake a Bluebeard retelling, and really appreciated the revelation of Perrault's bias.

Greg

Laura McCaffrey
Registered User
(5/13/02 11:44:04 am)
re: transgression
Helen wrote:

"...their action is prompted by some earlier transgression on the part of the villain; in order to put matters right, they must step outside the boundaries of "civilized" behavior to work within the same sphere as their opponents. Basically, in the world of fairy tales, it appears that two wrongs do make a right..."

This started me wondering not just about transgression, but liminality. When the heroine or hero is transgressed upon, they enter a liminal state, not the normal, every day emotional state that we feel as we walk through our lives from day to day, but an intensified emotional state, full of pain, anguish, intense fear or hope. The villian lives in this liminal state always, the father gone mad with lust for his daughter, the queen so jealous that she must kill the girl who threatens her status as the most beautiful. These villians are overtaken by the intensity of their desires and bring down the same intensity of anguish on their victims.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. But I guess in reading the stories metaphorically, I could see how they are tales of those liminal moments in all our lives - not the moments when we are washing the dishes and driving to work, but those moments when we're feeling so intensely, due to our own greeds, jealousies, hurts, or hopes, that we are completely overtaken by emotion and feel sorely tested.

Helen - BTW congrats on finding the ending you were looking for.

Laura Mc

Midori
Unregistered User
(5/14/02 3:02:35 am)
Liminal/borders/trangressions
Yes, yes...there is an almost geographical representation to transgression in the narratives. Transgression in the abstract sense is about breeching the borders of appropriate behavior, misbehaving, or breaking social contracts. But narratives use concrete images to express abstractions so there is also a physical representation--to transgress implies a border between one state or place or identity and another--and movement across that border suggests the transformative potential of the transgressive act. (whew, a lot of "t"s there--). Narratives seem to pose discreet settings--human versus the fantastic world--leaving home (as a result of human transgressions--a parent who threatens/ or a situation that is untenable) and entering in the fantastic world is itself a form of transgression--crossing of a border from the familiar into the ambiguous--and eventually crossing back. "The path" may be the border--and stepping off of it in the woods, that crossing of the boundary. But this act also implies the transgressing of identity--crossing the boundaries from one social role into another--and in hero/rites of passage tales--the trangression often leads to the death of the old self (that for me is border--the princess into Goose Girl, Tattercoats, or Dog's Body) which for me is the liminal border--and it is through transgression that characters move across it--out of the woods, out of disguise, out of peril, into the new role.

But the other "boundary" is the one that exists between the human (or "familiar" or real) and the fantastic. Although ultimately both human and fantastic are part of a shared geography (and often narratives provide a brief moment of harmony and integration of the two)--in narrative terms they appear as two separate worlds--and often in conflict. Sometimes the trangressions that occur in the human world are paralleled in the fantastic world--sometimes when change is needed, the fantastic world transgresses the border and moves into the human world to initiate the conflict and the movement of the narrative. And because the fantastic is ambiguious it can be destructive--wrenching characters out of the sockets of their old lives--or creative transforming them into new ones.

I guess what I am syaing here in a long winded way--is that transgression is really dynamic and ambiguous--it can be crossing the border between human and fantastic, between the familiar and the unknown, between one identity and another. And it can be the ambiguous force (much like the fantastic itself) that allows for such crossings to occur. It can speak to the best in human society and the worst--and sometimes as in the Good Girl/Bad Girl or Trickster narratives it can allow the listeners to vicariously and gloriously wallow in the pleasure of breaking every rule.

Gregor9
Registered User
(5/14/02 8:25:43 am)
Re: Liminal/borders/trangressions
Midori,
I'd only throw in additionally that the vicarious pleasure of breaking the rules narratively also allows the audience/listener to comprehend the consequences of such transgressive behavior--that is, I think there's a potential of these stories to act as cautionary tales in some fashion.

I'm also wondering how the nature of transgression transforms in magical realist fiction where the border between real and fantastic has been rendered irrelevant. More to ponder...
Greg

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