Previous Fairy Tale Questions

October 2016

I recently scored a copy of Duncan Williamson’s “Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children,” and the very first story in the collection, “The Hedgehurst,” puzzles me greatly. It’s rich with common fairy tale motifs, one of which is “be careful what you wish for.” A childless woman wishes aloud for a baby and says that even if her baby looked like a hedgehog she would love it dearly. A wicked fairy hears the wish, and nine months later there’s a bouncing baby hedgehog in the family. He’s very smart. Very independent. He grows up very quickly.

The story was transcribed from a recording of Williamson himself telling it, and I was enthralled throughout. But toward the end, the unfortunate creature marries a princess and on his wedding night, when he thinks his bride is sleeping, he takes off his bristles and she sees that under the bristles his form is as human as any other man she’s ever met. She’s neither spoiled nor petulant; she’s resigned to her marriage as a matter of honor; but there’s apparently more magic afoot here than a simple talking, human-sized hedgehog. He has a good manners and a deferential way about him, AND he’s also not bad looking once he drops the quills. So, next day she visits the henwife.

Williamson’s editor differentiates between “henwife” (generally helpful) and “witch” (generally not so much), so I’m all set up to trust that the henwife has the best intentions. But my heart leapt to my throat when she told the princess that as soon as her husband takes the quills off she must seize the opportunity to burn them to ash. I have a nodding acquaintance with selkie stories — which are, like Williamson and like this story of the hedgehurst, also native to Scotland. For selkies, their sealskins are inseparable from their souls, their identities, their destinies. So I was terrified that it would be the same for this admittedly odd looking but fundamentally very decent hedgehurst creature.

But it all worked out fine for him. His clever wife and the henwife had broken the spell that consigned him to a hedgehog’s exterior for 23 out of every 24 hours. He turns into a 24/7 human being and they all live happily ever after.

So…I guess I’m curious about why some skins are “soul” skins and some skins are “spell” skins. Vasilisa, would you mind tossing this matter out to your friends at the Fairy Tale Lobby and … discuss.

Thanks ever so much —

Examining Exteriors in Exton

 

September 2016

Hello, VtW!
    I have just finished reading Charles Kiernan’s Fairy Tale of the Month blog, which this month is about “The Twelve Huntsmen,” and it occurred to me that I’ve read other fairy tales where a disguise works to hide oneself from someone who really knows you well and loves you, too. 

Frankly, I can’t imagine that I could ever successfully disguise myself from my wife, even if she had not seen me for years. I mean, she knows the way I walk, my voice, which pitch my voice cracks on, how I hold my shoulders, the sounds I make at night . . . Some of those things you just can’t disguise!  All that lute-playing queen had to do was cut her hair and put on a cloak and her husband couldn’t tell her from Adam, even on a long walk of, maybe, two weeks! In The Twelve Huntsmen, the forsaken bride merely dresses like a huntsman along with eleven other women, and the king hasn’t a clue. He does figure out that they are huntswomen, not huntsmen with the help of his pet lion, but that shouldn’t have been a problem–at least, not until one of them had to decide which bathroom to go to.

    So, I thought it was more than a disguise, it was enchantment! Even though there was no stated event by which the huntsman or the lute player became enchanted, I think that putting on a disguise was the point where magic intervenes to affect the course of the story, IOW, the moment when fairy tale magic happens

Now, I know I’ve read other stories where a disguise does this, but they just aren’t coming to me right now. Maybe your readers can help, and maybe we could figure out something about disguises and enchantment, too. Would you ask them?

Thanks!—Lannie in the “Land of Enchantment” (NM)

August 2016

Dear Vasilisa–

Your correspondents have been curious about fairy tale villains — how the numbers stack up comparing the ratio of good:bad male characters with good:bad female characters. This vein of discussion sparked my own curiosity about what the fates of these villains might have in common.

Punishments, “consequences” of their nefarious actions, redemptions, forgiveness, unremarked consignment to nebulous oblivion. I’d like to make an inventory of “upshots” and see what sort of demographics emerge. For instance, in The Battle of the Birds the treacherous giant meets his end — drowning — through the magical machinations of his own daughter. In un-bowderlized versions of Snow White, the jealous queen is often made to wear red hot iron slippers and dance herself to death. Molly Whuppie goes head to head with a cannibal giant who fully intends to beat her until she is bloody pulp, and yet, in spite of his reputation for eating children, all we know about him is “they never saw the giant again.” That’s getting off pretty easy, if you ask me. Mr. Fox’s fate was so gruesome that the narrator of the story refrains from telling us about it, “lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.”

It appears that within the realm of fairy tales, as a rule, heroes prevail; but when it comes to vanquishing villains, their fates are all over the map. I’d like to see if you and your Magical Friends can recall and relate the fates of some of their favorite evildoers. Maybe a pattern will emerge. (Maybe not.)

Many thanks —

Morbid in Monahans

July 2016

Beautiful Simplia and lovely Sagacia, I am so sorry I missed you, друзья, but I hope you are out somewhere giving your USA Independence Day a proper salute! I had a great night’s sleep cuddling with Murzik and listening to him purr, and I ate a delicious breakfast, I assure you. I assume you’re going to be gone for the whole holiday weekend, so I’m going to move on with sadness at not having been able to visit with you both a while.

Just a few minutes ago I received a text message on my phone, and I think you and our magical friends should be able to help this disturbed questioner, if you don’t mind. Area code 302, so maybe Delaware? Anyway, she says, (and I quote)

V.—How about more bad men in FT? U know: evil wizards, corrupt kings, abusive fathers, and so forth. thx.

June 2016

Dear Vasilisa —
A recent after-dinner conversation turned to the topic of spells in wonder tales, why they are cast, by whom, on whom, and the ways they are broken. One of my friends drew a distinction between spells and contracts. As I understood what he was saying, a spell is magic cast onto or into something or someone who has no say in the matter; it effects a supernatural change on their natural state, and it is lifted only when certain conditions are met. In contrast, a contract is a mutual agreement, whereby magic is effected and certain conditions must be met or there will be consequences. I vacillate between totally grasping what he means and blinking bewilderment. One minute it makes sense. The next minute I’m all like, “Hunh?”
Can you or your Magical Friends discuss this amongst yourselves and get back to me with some clarification?  Are there any common spell breakers you can think of. I mean, besides “love’s first kiss.”
Many thanks —
Bewildered in Bozeman
P.S. — I’ve always assumed that being under a spell is a bad thing. Do people sometimes benefit from being cast under a spell?

May 2016

April 2016

March 2016

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

I just checked out Neil Gaimon’s The Sleeper and the Spindle from the public library, and inside it, like a bookmark, was a strip of paper on which someone had written:

Boccaccio, Decameron
Contes de Fées
Snow Queen — and other H. C. Andersen
John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River
Peter Pan—J.M. Barrie
Alice in Wonderland—Lewis Carroll
Princess Bride (author?)
Oscar Wilde
George MacDonald

What do you make of this?

I’ll tell you what I think. I think someone started making a list of literary fairy tales and authors. Anyway, it got me thinking.

What role do literary fairy tales play in the lives of people today? Do you think their effect is stronger because they were written by contemporary or more modern writers? Or set in contemporary times? Or not obviously a fairy tale until you’re already hooked?

What are some other literary fairy tales that people have found to be charming or powerful? Let’s add to the list!

Mario in Maryland

PS: Vasilisa, you may not remember me, but we met once at a wedding in Novgorod. We talked briefly about Robin McKinley’s Deerskin—an odd thing to come up at a wedding now that I think about it.

February 2016

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

I found a question for (your friends at) the Fairy Tale Lobby! I read a folktale recently that ended with two girls – a mortal and a dragon princess – becoming friends. This made me think: How often do we see female friendships in fairy tales? I thought maybe positive sisterhood, but even that seems rare… Are there any good traditional stories that talk about girl and girl friendship?…

Sincerely,

Amy in Amityville

January 2016

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

The other day someone in the office asked about animals in fairy tales. Yeah, the accounting department; things can get weird around here.

The question was about why there aren’t any, once you get past Nursery Tales. At first I agreed, but the more I thought about it, the more animals I thought of in fairy tales. And not just incidental animals like sheep in a shepherd story, either. Consequential animals. Animals that play into the outcome of a story, like Ivan and the Grey Wolf, for example, or Snow Maiden and her Fox. Or those tales where someone gets turned into a raven or a swan or duck. A frog prince. A frog tsarevna. Puss in Boots. See what I mean? They’re everywhere! I tried to figure out what role animals fill in fairy tales—or what roles, plural—but I kept getting mixed up. Maybe you or the Simpletons or some of their magical friends could help.

What are your favorite fairy tales with animals. Does the animal contribute to making it a favorite tale? What role does the animal play in the tale?

Hibernating in Hibernia

December 2015

Dear Vasalisa the Wise:

Vas sweetie —

What a surprise to see you in New York last week at the slam! I noticed you did not put your name in the hat, and you declined the score sheet they were handing out. But I watched your face as those stories were being told, and I could see that you were thoroughly into a few of them. You warmed my heart. A lot of our cohorts from across the pond, and many here in the U.S. as well, distrust the slam scene. Many friends have told me, With so much great folklore in danger of being forgotten, this Slam phenomenon is, at best, a waste of time, and it might be counter-productive to the preservation of genuine stories. I’ve heard intimations that Americans are afflicted with narcissism — probably borne of a Horatio Alger mindset and the perpetuation of the myth that in America, if a person wants something bad enough, all that is needed is hard work, determination, and a couple of bootstraps.

Well…I don’t buy that Horatio Alger paradigm. And I do believe the Cult of the Individual makes for a narcissistic view of the rest of the world. But I don’t believe the U.S.’s fascination with personal stories is necessarily narcissistic. Personally, I think it’s a response to finding oneself rootless in unfamiliar soil. Carrying the horticultural metaphor further, I liken North Americans, and I am one of them, whose forebears came to this continent less than 500 years ago as an “exotic” species. Some have naturalized, some have languished, and some have become invasive. But none of us are connected to the landscapes, the geology, the climates of our DNA. In fact, so many of us are an alphabet soup of DNA, with no particular landscape, geology, or climate predominant. We have no symbols, no mythic characters, no epics to remind us who we are and where we come from.

I think our fascination with personal stories is deeper than a simplistic exhibitionist/voyeur interpretation. We’re approaching our roots from the ground down. We would if we could, but we can’t create stories for the ages. Personal stories die when their teller dies. But while s/he was alive, perhaps that teller of personal tales illuminated some motif, some universal truth, some connection that helped ground those who listened.

This is a subject that fascinates me. Artistically, I find myself with a foot on both sides of the divide between Genuine Fairy Tales and Personal (non)Fictions. I would love to know what your friends at that little tea room — I think it’s called The Fairy Tale Lobby or something like that — have to say about my hypothesis.

xoxox

Straddling in Strasbourg

November 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

I have sometimes become confused about what is a fairy tale and what isn’t. For example: where’s the line between nursery tales and fairy tales? When people list “Three Little Pigs,”  as a fairy tale, for example, I just want to shout, “Talking animals don’t make a fairy tale! Animals talk in fables and folktales, too!” Also, some fairy tales seem to have started life as a legend and maybe become a fairy tale gradually. Or maybe a fairy tale motif got applied to a real person or place somehow.

Of course, it doesn’t matter a whole lot on the scale of things, and I’m not trying to put too fine a point on it. It’s just that fairy tales have a different purpose in life, and talking animals or something that happened in Bremin or Hamlin or just doesn’t get you there!

So I thought I’d ask the question a different way. What are some of the most intensely fairy-tale-ish fairy tales you know? IMHP, they should have magic, transformation, evil, a leaving and a returning home or a journey of some kind, a hero or heroine . . . . You know: real fairy tale stuff, and lots of it!

Thanks, Vasi!

Wondering in Winedale

October 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:

I’ve been thinking about this for about a week, now.

Last Sunday our minister preached on the topic of “grace,” describing it as an undeserved gift of love, something wonderful that comes your way through no efforts or merit of your own.

Now, I’m not trying to go all religious on you, but it occurred to me that there are some perfect examples of “grace” in fairy tales. It is like that magical thing that happens that becomes a turning point in the tale or some small enchantment that gives the protagonist the ability to complete the quest.

I’m thinking of things like the little animals helping Cinderella with the housework, keeping her happy even though she is oppressed. Things like there being enough boiling oil in Morgianna’s little copper kettle to scald to death all the thieves in their man-sized clay jugs, lest they leap out and kill Ali Baba. (I suppose you could call facilitating murder a “grace” in this instance.) Things like the huntsman being moved to compassion and declining to kill Snow White, even going to some lengths to create evidence for his false report to the queen.

Would you call it “grace,” or am I being silly about this? What are some instances of grace in fairy tales that you or your magical friends can think of?

Gratefully — Grace near Graceland
(And you wondered why I asked!!)

September 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:

I’ve been thinking about this for about a week, now.

Last Sunday our minister preached on the topic of “grace,” describing it as an undeserved gift of love, something wonderful that comes your way through no efforts or merit of your own.

Now, I’m not trying to go all religious on you, but it occurred to me that there are some perfect examples of “grace” in fairy tales. It is like that magical thing that happens that becomes a turning point in the tale or some small enchantment that gives the protagonist the ability to complete the quest.

I’m thinking of things like the little animals helping Cinderella with the housework, keeping her happy even though she is oppressed. Things like there being enough boiling oil in Morgianna’s little copper kettle to scald to death all the thieves in their man-sized clay jugs, lest they leap out and kill Ali Baba. (I suppose you could call facilitating murder a “grace” in this instance.) Things like the huntsman being moved to compassion and declining to kill Snow White, even going to some lengths to create evidence for his false report to the queen.

Would you call it “grace,” or am I being silly about this? What are some instances of grace in fairy tales that you or your magical friends can think of?

Gratefully — Grace near Graceland
(And you wondered why I asked!!)

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:

August 2015

Dear Vasilisa the wise:

I just wonder: Who the heck tells Fairy Tales any more?

I mean, really TELLS them. Outloud. For their children and their friends. You know, like in the old days? Does that even happen any more?

Have we all gone so literate we can only sit by ourselves and read and shush everyone around us so we can do that? Alone?

I mean, sure you can tell about your day or tell family stories to family members or tell about something that happened in history–especially on an anniversary or something like that. Or you can recount a legend when you drive past its landmark. But Fairy Tales?

I mean really, who does that! And if they do tell Fairy Tales, how? Where? And what good do they do these days, anyway!!

Not that I’m . . .

Challenging you in Chattanooga

July 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise: 

I have recently received bunches of birthday wishes on Facebook, and it made me think about wishes in fairy tales. You know: someone is granted three wishes? or one wish? And they think it will bring about some goal, but then something gets twisted around and their wish is foiled? Sometimes the wish has a strange result because of the way they worded it, or sometimes the wish turns back upon itself and has the opposite result from what was intended. Sometimes a third wish nullifies the first two.

(Or do they? Perhaps it is just the fairy tales flitting past my head at the moment. Are there fairy tales in which the wishes actually do work to the desired end?)

As a child, I used to say to myself, “If I had a wish, I would wish for more wishes.” Would that work by the supernatural laws of Fairyland?

So, just to gather some substance about this topic, I wonder if you could help me find some stories where wishes were granted (or not) and also think about how they come out. Is it the wish that makes that story a Fairy Tale, or is it something else?

–Wishing in Washington

June 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise —
I am fascinated with the way fairy tales often neatly overlay true life experiences, taboos, injunctions, cautions, and exhortations. “Don’t deviate from the path.” “Don’t stop and pick flowers.” “Don’t talk to strangers.” Because if you do any of those things, a wolf will eat you.
And the “do” list: “Do be polite to strange old people you meet along the path.” “Do share your food.” “Do help animals in distress.” “Do accept help when it’s offered.” “Do remember to be grateful.”
What are some others? I’m trying to compile a list of fairy tales that speak directly and immediately to issues, problems, triumphs, conundrums, victories, defeats, and challenges that ordinary real people face in their ordinary real lives. I’d really love some titles to go along with the motifs. And I wonder, across cultures, about similarities and differences.
Re-searchingly
–Pragmatist in Providence

May 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,
I am so excited that this year’s Summer Reading Club theme is “Every Hero Has a Story.” What a treat for us lovers of Fairy Tales; an open invitation to tell our most favorite stories!
As I began to list out mine, I started thinking about the qualities of heroes and heroines that makes me love and admire them, the qualities that they inspire me to work harder to develop within myself. I started wondering what others thought about that, too. I mean, it’s not the dragon-slaying that makes a hero, it’s the heart to take on the dragon in the first place. It’s not defying the king/father that makes a princess a heroine, it’s the belief in something beyond her present life or the faith in her prince and the power of their love.
It occurred to me that some of your readers (or “magical friends,” as the Simpletons call them—and I won’t deny that they are magical!) have thoughts about what makes a hero a hero, and I wonder if they’d be willing to share them? I know it would help me and maybe others make make our summer story sessions magical and meaningful. Oh, and who are their favorite heroes? I’d like to know that, too.
Thanks, Dearest Heroine! Oh, and don’t say anything to Baba Yaga about the hands!
—Devoted in Dallas

April 2015

Dear Vasilisa–
I am following with interest the discussion amongst your magical friends concerning ever afters. Whatever form they take, they are critical to a fairy tale, for without some form of “ever after,” the story does not end, it merely stops.
Beginnings, too, are critical, for they set the course of a story. They are the key to unlocking the narrative and winding up the action. I wonder if you and your friends have anything to say about beginnings?
Many thanks from an enthusiastic
–Amateur in Amsterdam

March 2015

Dear Vasalisa the Wise,
I like Fairy Tales, but you know what chaps me? The ending: “Happily ever after.”
Really?? I mean, I’m all drawn into this engaging quest and some enchantment and a happy closure, but ever after? Isn’t that asking just a little too much?
We all know there are going to be unhappy times with plenty of totally miserable and despairing moments to come. Even the wealthiest and most powerful kings and queens suffer deaths of loved ones, children with illnesses and deep needs, infidelities, knee surgeries, pirated ships, stillborn grandchildren, awful, awful stuff that will happen sometime during that “ever after.” Who do we think we are fooling here?
—Dubious in Dubai
PS: I loved you in “The Frog Tsarevna.” I’ve told all my friends to read it.

February 2015

Yo, Vasilisa —
Thanks for dropping by the shop last week. You lent an air of class to the place, and people noticed. You know those caraway pumpkin crullers you ordered a dozen of? Well, you started a trend. I haven’t been able to keep them in stock.
Listen, about that conversation we had … fairy tale ethics and responsible adaptations … I get it. I so totally get it: The stories will die if they’re not given breath, and all it takes is a generation or two of silence before poof! they’ve slipped out of the collective memory. But some of those stories are…well, by today’s reckoning, totally off-base, totally inappropriate. I mean, for example, just today I encountered one where this dude buries his wife’s lover alive, right in front of her, and then he waxes poetical about how true is his love for her. Aside from the adultery issue, and a blatant double standard (she wasn’t his only wife; but he was her only husband) there’s also the homicide thing going on, and well… That particular story, I don’t think you could clean it up. It is what it is. Probably shouldn’t be changed; but who on earth is going to tell it? And to whom?
I get the necessity of doing what you gotta do to make old stories meaningful. Thing is, I have no idea how to go about the task. So I’m asking, you think you could collect some examples from the writers and storyteller friends you hang with? I know. Sounds like I’m asking for a how-to manual. A paint-by-numbers guide. I guess that’s exactly what I’m doing. I want to see some specific examples of how real writers and tellers actually do this. You think you can get your important friends to give some remedial attention to
Your old friend,
Bewildered in Bakersfield

January 2015

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,
You know how, when you’re crafting a story and there is sometimes something in it that you don’t like or that doesn’t seem right to you, you just change it slightly? Well, to me, that is something different from changing the story.
What I mean is, when storytelling and story-passing-along was an entirely oral activity with no written versions around, wouldn’t people always change them? Maybe not even on purpose, but just because you have to retell a heard story in the way that you remember and that makes sense to you, which might be just a bit different from the way you heard it.
What that means is that, as time went by and social values changed, the stories would change, too, right? Maybe “evolve” is a better word—because whatever the change is, it isn’t final, just a next step. I’m thinking of the famous example of the changes the Grimm’s made in Rapunzel between their 1812 edition when Rapunzel was pregnant and the one published in 1857 when the world was more Victorian and prudish. These days, after more time and further social change, people seem to be telling it more like the 1812 version again. To us, it just makes more sense that way.
The problem is that when a story gets written down at last, the written version quits changing; it endures way past the time when the values it expressed have lost their currency, while the various evolving oral versions simply disappear into the air. So it is that we are left with some 200-year-old written versions of stories that seem sexist or violent or unnaturally pious to today’s listener.
Might not those details have changed gradually or disappeared if left to the natural tell-listen-tell-listen-tell way of doing things?
What I’m thinking is that storytellers who adjust a story are not really guilty of “changing the story” in any culpable sort of way; they are just doing to it what might have happened naturally if the story had never been written down in the first place. Making up for lost time, you might say.
If that makes sense to you (and your magical friends), I’m  wondering how you and they may have changed some stories to make them “right.” I’m very interested in this process, so I’d also be interested in others’ views in general.
–Changing in Charleston

December, 2014

Yo! Vasilisa!

Simplia removed the paper, unfolded it, and oblivious to the bits of paper that fluttered to the floor, she read:
What’s up with you and your magical friends, so heavily invested in keeping these stories alive? These particular stories in this particular book…many of them are absolutely dreadful! As in: ‘full of dread.’ And despair. And brutality.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no shrinking violet. Thing is, though, there’s already so much maiming and dismembering and ghoulishness going on everywhere in the world right now…I sorta turned to fairy tales to take me away from all that — to plug me into a source of ancient wisdom…or something. I’m disappointed that so many of these stories end on a note of vengeance, not justice; on resignation, not resolution.

Remind me again, Vasilisa: Why are these stories necessary?

Sincerely,

Skeptical in Skye

p.s. My questions are not rhetorical. I really want to know.

November 2014

When I go to the library, I always try to get myself a collection from Joseph Jacobs or one of Andrew Lang’s color fairy books. I’ve read collections by Henri Pourrat, Italo Calvino, Jane Yolen and James Stephens, Asbjornsen and Moe or even your own Alexander Afanas’ev. Those seem to be some of the classic cultural collections of fairy tales, but my small village library doesn’t seem to have any from continents other than Europe.

Anyway, something wonderful has happened! Our librarian has asked me to recommend some folktale collections that she should buy. If I want to read them, everyone will, she said. Of course, I can’t pass up an opportunity like this! Won’t you suggest some of your favorites for me?

I’m interested in other European collections, but please don’t stop there! There are five other continents! I know that fairy tales are sometimes mixed in with folktales and legends, and that’s okay. Oh, and would you please say something about them to get me started? Just an anecdotal comment about each would be perfect!

Thanks so much! I’ll just sign off as . . .

Princess of Pittsburg

October 2014

Lucky you! You have a whole world to begin discovering. An ocean of new depths to plumb. And after the Mabigoni, so many of the fairy tales you’re familiar with with be all the richer. And there are so many other ones out there. There’s that Icelandic saga. Does it have magic? Is it a fairy tale? Some of those stories from India…they seem half myth, half legend, half folktale, half fairy tale. And what about those ‘Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio’? Twilight Zone meets The Brothers Grimm. Why don’t you ask Vasilisa to compile a reading list of essential stories, sagas, epics, and myths from all over the world? In good modern translations. I bet she’d be delighted.– Unapologetically –
Eavesdropping from Evanston.”

September 2014

I’m not sure how those two Simpletons get your mail, but I am hoping that this is one letter that you see personally.

I’m not one to complain, and I’m certainly not one to try to get other people in trouble, however, I’m not the only one who has noticed that those two have been completely misusing a very important fairy tale term, and I’m not sure whether they should be trusted with the kind of sensitive information you discuss in your syndicated column. Either they don’t know, or they don’t care–I don’t know which is worse—but, you really shouldn’t leave your reputation as a respected authority in their bungling hands.

I am speaking, of course, of the term “magical friends.” As all of us extreme fairy tale fans know, ‘magical friends’ are friends with a unique ability or magical power which, at some point in the tale becomes critical to the hero completing his/her quest; it could be something like a man with extra long legs or an animal who gives advice. With such friends, the hero can get somewhere fast or discover how to be successful at a task. (I can’t think of any more examples right now, but you know what I’m talking about.)

So, how do those Simpletons use the term? Why, to refer to us! We who love fairy tales and have read a lot of them and have opinions and useful information to offer. But there is nothing “magical” about that. That is just normal! That’s just what we fairy tale people do for each other, as I’m sure you know.

I think you should have a serious talk with those two or perhaps consider replacing them with a new assistant. (By the way, I have advanced degrees in English, psychology, and world cultures, I type 90wpm, and I happen to be in the job market at the moment. I am strongly motivated, punctual, and I don’t waste time knitting or doing other silly, distracting activities.)

Yours truly,

Post Doc in Pasadena

August 2014

Dear Vasilisa —

We all know the famous Einstein quote, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t give lip service to this idea. But the fact of the matter is, fairy tales are NOT being read, they are not being spoken, they are not being heard. The fairy tales that are, in fact, being “consumed” by children are being reinterpreted in the form of video games (where death is only virtual, and it doesn’t stink); they are being depicted larger than life on cinema screens; they are being lavishly and luridly illustrated in graphic novels and picture books; they are being lampooned by parodists. At this moment in history, popular culture is lousy with fairy tale references, motifs, imagery. But I don’t often see fairy tales being shared orally, aurally, in real time, person to person, eyeball to eyeball, one on one, in small circles, or even in large venues.

In this tiny university where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, I am witnessing a disturbing phenomenon the likes of which I’ve never before encountered. This year our university enrolled the first class of students whose entire education fell (and fell hard) under “No Child Left Behind.” Here are students who know how to pass tests, students who aspire to higher learning, students who are not stupid. But an alarming number of them seem devoid of imagination, incapable of empathy, unwilling to tolerate ambiguity, and, I fear, incapable of the introspection necessary to lock in on important questions. These students have been deprived of Story, of fable, of fairy tales, of the spoken word as a engine of imagination. Their Spoken Word environment has been one of Instruction, Admonition, Scolding, Coaching, Encouraging, Correction, Fact Dissemination. There’s little time in a contemporary child’s life for daydreaming, for boredom, for introspection, for hearing stories told to them personally in the moment.

I wonder, dear Vasilisa, do you think it’s too late for them?

Speculating in Spearfish

p.s. I’m sorry we had so little time together at the Council Sessions last month. Next year, we should come a day early or plan to stay a day after. At any rate, it’s always wonderful running into you!

July 2014

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:

Have you noticed how life imitates art? Or is it art imitates life? Or both?

I’ve been thinking about that ever since I read something Marilyn McPhie said on Storytell. She said:

But on a storytelling-related note — hearing the voices of parents who say that they sent their children north, knowing the dangers, because they felt that there was no hope for them at home and perhaps there might be some hope of a better life if they sent them away — I couldn’t help thinking about “Hansel and Gretel” and other tales of children abandoned because there was not enough food to sustain them all.  Gives a different spin on the story — maybe.

What I’ve been thinking is that, in this case and in others, life and stories bend and fold on one another, sometimes to an almost exact fit! I remember when I first began telling La Llorona in 1994, tentatively, thinking it a wild tale about something that never really happened, and then within months, Susan Smith drowned her children, and in 2001, Andrea Yates, and then in 2008, Casey Anthony.

Do these true stories shed light on the wonder tales, or do the tales shed light on the real events? I think both, actually. You just can’t help thinking about one without the other!

But what I really want to know is, are there other pairings of stories and actual current news events that line up in a way to astonish us even more; to make us wonder about both the truth and the tale more deeply? And wonder about ourselves, too? And hopefully allow us to grip the importance of such tales in our lives? I think wrestling with this will make me a better storyteller.

Wondering in Wyoming

June 2014

Dear Vasilisa the wise — I keep dropping in on your Fairy Tale Lobby, hoping to find some information I can actually use, but so far you and your Magical Friends just talk and talk and talk about fairy tales. For going on two years now. Look, I’m no scholar. I’m no collector of ancient lore. I’m not interested in exegesis and analysis. I just want to hear some fairy tales. The kids are out of school for the next couple of months and we’re trying to plan a road trip to places local and far flung where we can actually experience fairy tales. TOLD, not DRAMATIZED, not PINNED DOWN to the pages of a book. LIVE fairy tales. Vasilisa, I know you’ve got connections, so I’m sure you know who’s telling what, where they’re telling it, and when. Can you please apprise me of this data?

I am unapologetically strident and eternally grateful –

Searching in Searcy

May 2014

Dear Vasilisa the Wise–
My town has recently inaugurated an open mic story slam for tellers of traditional tales. I’m thrilled. Heretofore, all the slams I’ve attended and heard about are formatted around personal stories. I love attending, but, as one who tells only fairy tales, I have not been able to participate. Finally, I thought, I’ll have a chance to play this game of Spoken Word Slam. But alas, there are no short, short fairy tales in my repertoire. Of course, you can tell me to broaden my horizons and learn a midrash or two, some Nasruddin stories, acquaint myself with Herschel of Ostropol, check out Akbar and Birbal. And I will, Vasilisa. I will. But the genre nearest and dearest to my heart is the fairy tale. I wonder if you, wise woman, can direct me to a source of short, short format fairy tales. I would love to be able to lob a solid volley to my fellow tellers at the next slam.

Many thanks for your guidance –
Stymied in Sturbridge.

April 2014

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:

Am I missing something here? It seems to me that the whole Fairy-Tale-Loving world is suddenly focusing on stories of girls who are brave and bold, females who overcome through wisdom or trickery, women who persevere and regain something that was lost to them. What happened to the brave and bold and wise and tricky and persevering princes and kings and tradesmen and shepherds? More importantly, what will happen to the little boys who miss hearing their stories? What stories shall fathers, like me, who want their sons to hear stories of hope and heart, stories about manhood and becoming a whole and healthy man tell our sons? I need a time-out from all the girl stories. A King’s X, for us kings!

I’m not asking this to challenge you as a woman, Vasilisa, but because I think you truly are wise. I don’t want women to have fewer stories; I just want men to have more.

And I don’t mean role model stories, here; I mean stories that offer hope, the kind of hope that fairy tales give their hearers and readers, a vicarious experience that reassures boys that the troubles in their lives can be overcome or will be outlived, and there will be some kind of happiness or relief around the bend, when the task is completed. Stories that affirm boyhood, manhood, elderhood for the xy chromosome. The male version of the metaphor seems to be in short supply these days.

What do you think are the best stories for men to hear? Boys, young men, middle-aged men, old men–all of us! And maybe they’re also the best stories for girls and women to hear about men, too; ya think?

Thanks so much for considering my request.

Yours truly,
Beleaguered in Bellingham

March 2014

Yo, Vasilisa —

How goes it, kiddo? Me? I’m doing okay. Except for a case of terminal lovesickness. Vasilisa, I finally met the woman of my dreams. I was hunting in the Black Forest, when I stumbled upon a fountain where three of the most gorgeous babes I’ve ever seen were dancing and singing and … oh! They were lovely. Especially the one dressed in green sequins — Melusina. And guess what? I didn’t have to make the first move. I didn’t have to think of a snappy pickup line. SHE came on to ME.

Yesterday, I asked her to marry me and she said… She said “yes,” only it was a “yes, but.” She said she’d marry me if I promised not to look at her on Saturday. That’s random. But not impossible. I can bask in her company for the other six days of the week. I mean, we all need some “me” time, don’t we? And it works out pretty conveniently with hockey season and basketball.

So, you were always the wise one when we were kids at school. You tell me. What harm can possibly come of promising not to look at my wife on Saturdays? You know, I bet after we’ve been together for awhile, these Big Important Conditions will lose their importance and not even matter any more.

What say you?

Your old pal Ray, who is

Languishing in Luxembourg

February 2014

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

Well, here we are into February, the month of love, when we’re all thinking about love and who we love and how we show it, and it suddenly occurred to me that many of the Fairy Tales which are supposedly about romantic love don’t really show it at all. I mean, we hear that the characters fall in love, often at first glance, but we don’t hear any details about how the lovers feel or what they do to show it. Didn’t someone once say “Love is a verb”? Yet where are the fairy tales that show love in action? I don’t mean showing it by completing a physical task, by ‘doing or dying,” but by acting in a way that shows he – or she – really cares.

The only ones I can think of that show love in action are “Clever Manka” and “The Lute Player,” but Fairy tales reflect our social values, and love and romance are important to us all, so there are bound to be more. What are they?

Also, in those two cases, it is the woman who is acting in a loving way! And another thing: they are both set in the later years of a marriage, well past the courting and the honeymoon stages, yet they are the most romantic of all the ones I know! Care to comment on that?

Margaret at Match.com

January 2014

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

As an insomniac, I try to be creative about ways to lull myself to sleep. Last week, I spent several wee hours of the morning replaying all the fairy tales of my childhood that involve tasks, mysteries, ordeals or feats of bravery that the flower of the kingdom’s youth are invited to attempt with the promise of half the kingdom and a princess bride as a reward for succeeding. BUT, woe betide any man who makes an attempt and fails. He usually loses his head. Sometimes just his ears. Sometimes he’s just beaten to a bloody pulp and sent crawling home.

Vasilisa, WHAT’S THAT ABOUT!?

I know fairy tales are metaphorical and symbolic and deeper than what appears on the surface, but for the life of me, I can’t understand what “wisdom” lies beneath this motif. I’m curious to know if it’s unique to fairy tales from Europe — the part of the world that gave us Calvinism – or if it also occurs in the wonder tales of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australasia, and the first nations of the Americas.

Any insight you — or your friends — have to share on this matter will … okay, it probably won’t help me get to sleep. But it will help with the tossing and turning.

I am yours sincerely,

Bleary in Bloomington

December 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

Does anyone tell “Puss in Boots” any more? Because I would like to, but the story poses a problem for me.

Puss is such an appealing character! Who doesn’t love a cat!–even Facebook does! And he is such a devoted companion that I’d love to tell his tale, but his tricks and threats are so deceptive and so dire and so greedy that I can’t stand to. I love animal helpers in stories, but this one crosses the line! Helping his master becomes hurting and deceiving others.

The same thing happened to me with the Russian fairy tale “Emelya and the Magic Pike.” It’s easy to identify with this “Jack” character and some of his adventures are so imaginative, like when he races through village on top of his stove, that you just want to share it. But he does so much damage to people’s property and causes such pain to others, that you don’t want kids to get the idea that, well, to heck with everyone else! I’m getting what’s mine!

Some fairy tales can put you in such a dilemma!

Do you just make a big joke of it so that people see the irony? Do you ignore it and hope for the best? Do you place some kind of tag line at the end? “The views expressed in this story are not necessarily those of the storyteller?” I figure everything I say should express my views in some way!

There must be other stories that people have that experience with, too, like–well, I don’t know–what? I’ve tried several approaches to them, and I just haven’t found a satisfactory path. What do you do, Vasilisa? What do other storytellers do?

Dilemma In Duluth

October and November 2013                                                                                          (Yes, it took us two months to put this question to rest–almost!)

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

I sometimes wonder what our fairy tales say to non-traditional families. I can tell you what they say to stepmothers: you are evil! No alternative stories there! (Or are there?)

I wonder what the tales of princes and princesses pursuing one another, marrying, and living “happily ever after” say to GLBT individuals and families and, perhaps more importantly, to questioning youth?

I wonder how those tales of individuals bettering themselves heedless of their neighbors’ needs play with those whose own humanity has been trampled for generations by institutions which are themselves sadly out of date?

I know folk and fairy tales were generated in other times and other social settings, but the tales still speak and seem to affirm particular hierarchical politics and life patterns, some of which abide though some have changed or are in the process of changing.

Do these underlying conditions in fairy tales have NO effect? Or, does the good of expansive imagination and gratifying closure–or some other good (if so, what?)–outweigh their tired perspectives?

Or, am I just the privileged child of a progressive democratic society with no clear view of the great world beyond my own urban, post-industrial, capitalist environment?

–Activist in Oslo

September 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise, the Brave, the Beautiful, the Honest and Innocent,

All these decades, centuries perhaps, after your step-mother sent you into the forest to borrow fire from Baba Yaga, I owe your mother (God rest her soul), you, and your doll a debt of gratitude. Your behavior serves as an example for me to emulate when, as a reader of palms and gazer into crystal balls, I am required to tell the fortunes of scoundrels, con artists, liars, cheats, and sellers of snake oil. If I am to keep my gifts, I must never lie. If I am to keep my livelihood, there are some truths I dare not tell.

On her deathbed, when your mother gave you the little doll, she cautioned you to tell no one about it. Your own sainted mother instructed you to keep a secret from your father, your friends, the world. From this, I learned that discretion is not the same as dishonesty or dissembling.

When Baba Yaga demands to know why you are able to perform — to perfection — the impossible tasks she sets for you, you heed the doll’s admonition to tell Baba Yaga nothing but the truth. It took some creativity to come up with an honest answer that wouldn’t reveal the doll’s existence, but you did it: “Because of a my dead mother’s blessing.” From that response, I learned that refusing to tell everything you know about a matter is not necessarily the same as a telling a half-truth.

Your behavior in that story (“Vasilisa the Beautiful”) has taught me to watch out for myself. There won’t always be benevolent forces of magic working for me. In fact, I might find myself surrounded only by malevolence, and in that case I have only my wits to keep me safe. Thanks to you, your dear mother, and that doll, I can now decide when full disclosure feels like too much exposure and calibrate my responses accordingly.

Forever in your debt, I remain yours sincerely,

Carefully Clairvoyant in Cleveland

August 2013

Dear Vasalisa the Wise:

I just read one of Linda Goodman’s “Tales from the Tapestry” blog posts in which she describes how just the right story came to her at just the right time, and it gave her an important insight into a critical personal event. Hers was a tomten tale, and it shed light on something happening in her own life and reignited that positive spirit Linda is known for. If you haven’t read about it, you should! It’s right here. (http://lindagoodmanstoryteller.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-gift-of-visit-of-tomten.html)

Something like that has happened to me, too. For several years while my children were busy middle and high schoolers, my mother struggled with a terminal disease in her hometown, an hour away. Each time I went to see her, I would chastise myself: “I should be cheering at that basketball game.” “I should be setting up that birthday party.” But whenever I stayed home for their events, I would think, “I should be with my mother, helping my dad take care of her.”

One day, browsing 398.2 at the library, I read a story called “Chien Nang” http://www.talesandlegends.net/storied-women/chien-nang.html in Ruth Manning-Sanders’ Charms and Changelings. Chien Nang was also pulled between two great longings, and her dilemma was solved in a way that can only happen in fairy tales! As I approached the end of the story, I began weeping with joy! Of course, I could not replicate the story’s magical resolution, but I felt healed nonetheless. I made peace with my circumstance; I was empowered to persist.

So, if this kind of story magic has happened to Linda and me, I wonder how many others have experienced it? Vasalisa, beloved and wise, would you ask your readers if any of them have found such insights and empowerment in a particular tale at the very time they needed it? Did anyone else ever have a problem solved by a fairy tale?

I, for one, would love to read about it!

Waiting in Winnipeg

July 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

“Vasilisa — See p. 32. What think you of THAT?! — Signed — A Purist in Pikesville”

They went straight to the Fairy Tale Lobby, ordered tea and gingersnaps, then sat down and unrolled the June/July issue of Storytelling Magazine, which fell open to page 32. It was an essay titled “Fairytales, Power and Status,” by Robin Bady.

Purist in Pikesville had highlighted some of the early bits of the piece:
I became uncomfortable with stories that promoted old, anti-democratic, hierarchical social structures. I could not help but wonder: 1.) Am I ignoring the proglems of class and subtly reinforcing the romantic baggage of old forms of governance and status? 2.) How do power and status relationships drive narrative? 3.) Am I narrating fromthe point of view and interests of the upper/ruling classes? 4.) Do the class view and aspirations of the author and/or anthologist factor in?

And then she or he had written in the margin: “Puh-leeze! They’re just stories for heaven’s sake, not manifestos. Vasilisa, you’ve seen this so-called ‘ladder of power’ from the bottom rung and the top. Can you talk some sense into this woman?”

June 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

I plan to be a June bride (June 2014, that is!), and my mother keeps talking about a “Fairy Tale Wedding.”

So, what is that, exactly?

The fairy tales I know have almost no wedding description at all. Maybe they mention a feast. Often, the bride and groom have never even met until the afternoon before the ceremony. Usually the marriage decision was made by the father of the bride, and probably he didn’t even mention it to her until the last minute. In fact, all that’s usually said is that the bride is beautiful. I could hold my own in my college class or, these days, in my office, but I’m no cover girl, so that’s not it.

By the way, is “Mr. Fox” a fairy tale? Because that is one wedding I don’t care to use as a model! And as for those species disorders not discovered until the couple is alone in the bridal chamber, I’m not even going there!

So, what is my mother trying to suggest regarding our nuptials? Are there better models for weddings than in the few famous fairy tales I know, because–Sheesh!–given the facts at hand, why would anyone want a Fairy Tale Wedding?

–Bride-to-be in Brandenburg

May 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise –

I’m shocked! Shocked, I tell you. It’s bad enough that Hollywood and Disneyland have hijacked the fairy tale canon I grew up with and turned some of my favorite stories into … I don’t know … teen gothics, “Twilight” without the fangs, paeans to the Goddess Anorexia.

What happened to Standards, Vasilisa? What about the Integrity of the Canon? And what about your own minions indulging themselves in this bastardization. I know for a fact that they are great fans of the works of A. J. Jacobs. “Fractured Fairy Tales,” indeed!

Doesn’t this frivolity, this trivialization of deep lore, need to stop? Is nothing sacred?

I am sincerely

–Outraged in Oswego

April 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

Just recently one of your readers sent a message about “The Man of Law’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It inspired me to take another look at that classic story, and afterwards, in reading some critiques, I saw that the tale had an element of incest WHICH I HAD NOT DETECTED AT ALL when I read it, nor do I remember it being discussed in high school English class. I am so naive! Even poring over the Middle English, I should have caught some hint! And when I mentioned this to a friend, she told me that some Cinderella variants and maybe even Snow White have incest themes.

Can someone explain this to me? Also, what other stories which I blithely read as a youth or child have undercurrents of this serious, destructive relationship in them? Why have I not recognized it before?

–Naive in Nashville

March 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise —

This week in a fairy tale class I’m auditing, we had a little discussion about motifs, and one recurring motif in particular caught my fancy: the intercepted letter and its forged substitute. Our class explored two very different stories that hinge on this device — “The Handless Maiden” and “The Devil with Three Golden Hairs.”

In the first story, the Devil intercepts letters from the king’s mother and exchanges them with his own forged messages — lies meant to destroy a virtuous queen. In the second story, letters written by a king intent on murdering an innocent young man are intercepted by a band of robbers, who are moved to compassion for the unwitting victim. In an effort to foil the king’s nefarious plot, the robbers forge a message countermanding the king’s instructions. In the first story, the Devil is eventually defeated, in spite of his efforts; in the second, the evil king is defeated, in large part because outlaws acted outside the law.

Two things strike me as noteworthy here: 1.) Tampering with the mail, in and of itself, is not such a big deal in fairy tales as it is in the United States Postal Service. If their motives for doing it are pure, even a band of thieves is justified. 2.) Fairy tales started out as oral literature for pre-literate people. This arcane business of letter writing — “talking” to people who weren’t there by means of scratches on paper (or sheepskin, if you will) — was truly Magic. And one must be wary when dealing with Magic.

I am really curious to know if this motif — stolen and forged letters — is confined to European stories or if it occurs in other cultures. Since I’m not actually enrolled in any classes, I don’t have library privileges. I can’t just pull up the Aarne-Thompson motif index. Can you direct me to some free sources for searching out questions such as this? Or better yet, since I’m lazy, can you just tell me straight out all the stories you know from all the cultures you’re familiar with that include the element of “magical writing”?

–Dilettante in Delhi

February 2013

Hi, Vasalisa! I hope you’re feeling especially wise today. Are you smarter than a second grader? (Just kidding!)

I am a second grade teacher, and listening to folk tales and fairy tales is a requirement of our state standards for second grade. We always read and discuss several in class, including characters, setting, problem, solution and other elements of these two genres, and we also compare and contrast the tales with each other.

As a closing activity, the librarian here and at two nearby schools came up with this “Fairy Tale Bowl” idea. The students will read anywhere from 10 – 15 fairy tales and folk tales at school or on their own. On Bowl Day (kind of like Super Bowl, right?–not!), all second graders may come to school dressed as a character in one of the tales. Four students will represent each class and participate in the bowl (We have a Quizco buzzer system, which the kids love!) There are four rounds of regular questions and two lightning rounds (one word or short answers.) The team that collects the most points will win a trophy for their class and cute little medals for themselves. All the kids who participate receive ribbons and certificates.

So, you can see we need lots of questions abut fairy tales! Someone suggested I ask you. Can you help? Also, maybe you have some favorite fairy tales you’d like to suggest for second graders (7-8-years old). Thanks!

–Teaching in Texas

January 2013

Dear Vasilisa the Wise –I know this isn’t an advice to the lovelorn column, so I hope you’ll forgive me for writing to you. I didn’t know where else to turn. You’ve broken bread with Baba Yaga and lived to tell the tale; you went into the forest and came out again, not only alive but unhurt. I think you might be in a position to advise me.

See, there’s this guy I met at a Halloween party. He’s the cousin of a friend’s brother, and he’s about the most gorgeous man I’ve ever laid eyes on. Thick black hair and a well-trimmed beard, eyes the color of the sky when the moon’s full. If looks weren’t enough, his manners are so polished. He makes me feel like the most special lady in the world. Not only that, but he has fashion sense. And a hot car. AND…here’s the amazing part…he’s been calling me up and asking me out, and of course I’ve said yes, and then on New Year’s Eve he asked me for my ring size. Vasilisa, I think he’s going to ask me to marry him!

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me to re-read Bluebeard and Mr. Fox and all the other fairy tales about the handsome stranger who garrotes his girlfriends and hangs them on meathooks and bathes in their blood. I know. I know. I know he’s probably got a dark side, just like Bluebeard and Mr. Fox. But here’s the thing:

I live in a conventional household in a conventional city in a conventional part of the country, where I’m expected to follow in the footsteps of my mother and grandmother and all the other women who came before me. I’m suffocating here. I don’t see any other way out. If I were male, I’d just go ask my mother for an ashcake and a bottle of water and go out to seek my fortune. But women don’t set out to seek their fortunes, do they? And since I wasn’t lucky enough to have a step-mother (like some people I could name) to get the ball rolling by dispatching me on a visit to Baba Yaga, I figure maybe this handsome dude (His name is Crispin! Have you ever!?) is my destiny. My eyes are open, and I have a black belt in karate, so I think I can take him on if he starts exhibiting homicidal tendencies. Who knows? On the other side of my ordeal, I might marry a monarch, too! For all I know, Crispin might already be a monarch.

I’m leaning toward going with him. And if I die as a result, well, at least I won’t have died of boredom.

What do you think?

Adventurous Adventuress in Ada

December 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,
I have noticed that some fairy tales are clearly directed toward small children. I’m thinking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Chicken Little,” and more. Probably many more than I know about!
Others seem to be for older children, such as Jack Tales, “Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” (Is that a “fairy tale?” a “trickster tale”? a “wisdom tale”? or what?). Also your own story, Vasilisa, about the doll your mother gave you.
Still others seem to be for and about teenagers and young adults in the dating stage of life, or at least of marriageable age: “Frog Prince,” “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” “Snow Maiden,” “Cowherd and Weaving Maid,” and many of your stories, Vasilisa, when you marry the Tsarevich, as well as the tales the Disney princesses resemble, however remotely.
So it seems logical that there would be fairy tales for adults as well. Are there? What are some fairy tales that address adult issues. I don’t mean “adult” like X-rated; I just mean fairy tales that speak to us as mature beings. I bet some of your storyteller friends can help!

–Middle-aged in Madison

November 2012

Dear Vasilisa –

I hope you can help me. I’m starting my first year teaching — fifth grade language arts. My students are the perfect age for fairy tales. But some of the stock characters that recur in different stories have both my students and me flummoxed. I’m referring to the craftspeople and tradesmen — tinkers, tailors, bakers, millers, blacksmiths, weavers, merchants, and spinners come to mind. I’m sure there are more.
Neither my students no I have any idea what a tinker is. I know millers had something to do with grinding grain into flour, but that’s about all I know; and I have no idea why they show up so frequently as fairy tale characters.
I know only one craftsperson who makes her living with her handiwork — a potter. I don’t recall ever encountering a potter in a fairy tale.
My question to you is — Can you cite examples of other craftspeople and tradespeople in fairy tales and give me some idea of why they recur in these stories and what they might symbolize?

Thank you so much –

Post-Industrial in Potsdam

October 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise,

Last year a storyteller came to my children’s school and told a story about you and a witch to my daughter’s fifth grade class and then told “Hansel and Gretel” to my son’s fourth grade class. My children told me the stories were scary, and they had trouble getting to sleep that night.

Naturally, I called the principal the next morning and asked if he knew that stories about witches were being told in his school. He said he’d dropped by the library, and, though he missed any witch stories, it was clear to him that the children were fully engaged, and their minds were going 90 to nothing. (Right! And about what!!? Witches and other devilish thoughts!) In the end, he said he was going to just “sit” on it. That’s all he ever does: just sit! And he’s still sitting, I guess. Now I hear they are going to hire the same storyteller again this year, and he even knows about it and has approved!

Honestly, Vasilisa! Our children are assaulted by evil every day, and they don’t need their schools to actually hire people to come in and regale them with stories about more wicked, Godless creatures! I’m not against stories or storytelling at all, but there are plenty of good stories around, so why do storytellers have to pick the ones with witches in them?

–Faithful in Fairbanks

September 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:

I’m stuck. Over the course of my life I have read many wonderful fairy tales, from all four corners of the world. They live in my heart. They play in my imagination. But I have never heard them spoken. I am unable to tell them. My fairy godmother was in cahoots with my nursemaid, and at my christening she decreed that whenever I heard the words “once upon a time,” I would slip into a sound, restful sleep. While I slept, godmother and nurse indulged in endless games of pinochle. I am now a grown man. Granted, I have never suffered from insomnia or sleep deprivation. But neither have I experienced the joy of recounting a fairy tale to a companion, because as soon as the first phrase — “Once upon a time” — leaves my mouth, I’m zonked! Can you advise me?

–Stymied in Steilacoom

August 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise: Sometimes the ending of a fairy tale just isn’t right, you know? For example, we try to teach our children how risky it is to rush into marriage, and then the kids hear about some youth who marries a beautiful girl he just met in the last paragraph and ends up living happily ever after. That may have been an affirming ending in the day of arranged marriages, but today it just won’t fly. It is sheer fantasy, and one that won’t help this generation a bit!

Or what about when the king offers his daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for some trivial favor. What does that say to our daughters today?

Or, try this: a character gets punished vindictively at the end, like Snow White’s mother having to dance herself to death in red-hot shoes. Such cruel and unusual punishment is unacceptable in this day and time!

Can’t we all just get together and agree that it’s part of the natural evolutionary process of  oral storytelling to change the ending of a story, either subtly or drastically, if the old ending is no longer appropriate? So, why not simply change them? I do! And I’m just wondering: what fairy tale endings have you or your readers have wrestled with. What enters into the decision to either keep an ending or modify it?

Evolving in Evanston

July 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise: I’m sitting here in the library among the 398’s — my favorite section. And I’m looking at all these books full of fairy tales. Some of them are crusty old volumes with torn spine covers and brittle pages. Some of them are slick and new, retellings written and illustrated by the current batch of children’s book artists. The thing is though, all these books — even the crusty old ones — are retellings of old, old stories.

Vasilisa, you hang out with archetypes. Maybe you can tell me: Are there any new fairy tales bubbling forth? If so, where do theycome from? Do the motif indices ever need to be updated to accommodate new stories? And this business of freezing stories (originally oral in transmission) in the silence of print — isn’t that soet of like killing a butterfly in order to study it?

Pondering in Pomona

June 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise: I was planning to tell “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” for the Fairy Tale Lobby Storyswap at the NSN Conference, but now I read there is a 10-minute time limit for each story! My story takes 27 minutes and 17 seconds. I’ve been working on it for a long time and I can say without bias that I have created an outstanding piece of work! I am sure people would be grateful to hear it. I mean, how many times in their lives will they get a chance like this?

But–10 minutes? Really?

Should I just blow off this swap? I mean, I’ve had that “time limit” bluff pulled on me by emcees before, and it just doesn’t make sense! If people are swapping stories, they should be able to tell whichever story they want. The important thing is not how long it is, but how good it is, and mine is really great! Isn’t that ten-minute rule a bit much?

–Outraged in Oakland

May 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise: All my life I have plied my trade as a magician, pulling rabbits out of hats, finding coins inside the ears of amazed children, yanking bouquets out of my sleeve… That sort of thing. Now, late in life, I find my career taking an unexpected turn. Instead of pulling magic from thin air, as it were, it is now my task not to amaze and amuse but to assist and equip young fairy tale heroes by inserting magic into objects that appear ordinary but, in fact, lend themselves to enchantment. So far I’ve had good luck with walnuts, rag dolls, wooden whistles, mirrors and combs. But I’m running out of ideas. Some of the ordinary objects that I’ve tried to imbue with magic — wing-nuts, bottle-caps, clothespins, buttons — don’t respond at all. Can you tell me what items make effective talismans, and maybe provide me with the names of heroes who found them helpful?

Thanking you in advance, I remain your devoted and faithful servant

–Groping in Gretna

April 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise: In her review of the 500 New Fairy Tales found in Bavaria, Maria Tatar said that the manuscripts contained a large proportion of stories with male protagonists. She said, “Our own culture, under the spell of Grimm and Perrault, has favored fairy tales starring girls rather than boys, princesses rather than princes.”

However, it seems to me that so many of the fairy tales out there with female “stars” portray young women as patient (meaning inactive), valued for beauty alone, or as victims.  What good does it do girls and women to have more fairy tales featuring their gender if all those heroines ever do is sit around and look pretty and get mistreated? And now, more “Cinderfellas?” Do we need that?

Here’s all I ask:  Just give me one fairy tale with a great heroine. Or one with a great male hero. Or one of each, if you like. And tell me why you think they’re so great?

–Searching in Sitges

March 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:  Help! Last week, after a storytelling assembly where two hundred 6th graders were immersed in a program of fairy tales, one of the teachers told me he feared calls from parents complaining that the adult themes in my stories — family dysfunction, children abandoned by their parents, insensitive stepsiblings — were inappropriate for twelve-year-olds.

Then, yesterday I was discussing program possibilities with a festival director who told me she was certain that fairy tales would not be well received by her audience of intelligent, erudite, sophisticated adults.

For someone who talks for a living, I am hopelessly slow-witted when it comes to rapid responses, retorts and repartee. What would you have said to this teacher and this producer?

–At a loss in Altoona

February 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:  My two older brothers make fun of me all the time.  True, they are both handsome and clever and popular. Girls chase after them, grownups admire them, and my teachers and the coach seem duty bound to let me know I don’t measure up. I’m sure even my parents think I’m a failure compared to their first two sons.  Is there nothing a third son can do to prove himself worthy?

–Frustrated in Fresno

January 2012

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:  I’m confused. Why is the genre in which you figure so prominently called Fairy Tale? I don’t think I’ve encountered one story with you in it that has actual fairies. Apparently it’s not just a Russian thing, either. I’ve read and listened to “fairy tales” from all over the world, and what I notice is that fairies are vastly outnumbered by witches, ogres, genies, trolls, giants, elves, mermaids, dragons, wizards, crones and geezers with magical gifts, and talking animals. Who cornered the market on all these stories and branded them Fairy Tales?

-–Curious in Caracas

December 2011

Dear Vasilisa the Wise:  Just look at you!  You, with your long blond hair!  You blond heroines think you have it made, don’t you!  Why is it that fairy tale princesses are always the “fairest of them all,” anyway?  Do you think *light* makes right?  Is that fair?

–Brown and Trembling in Brussels?

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