Friday, April 26, 2013

Fairy Tale Prompt From Spinning Straw Into Gold: An Experiment in Concrete Poetry.


I love Christie's Fourth Friday Fairy Tale Prompts. When I'm given a small prompt like this I feel like I can write anything and not really be too stressed about the result. This poem must be record timing, since she just posted this month's prompt today. But it's just a small poem, something that came out very quickly. Something I don't really expect anyone to be all that impressed by. But out it came, and so why not share? Once again, the prompt is the image, the poem my reply. P.S. I hope the spacing comes out alright on different computers/ phones!

A Thousand Falling Hearts: An Experiment in Concrete.

When a thousand 
falling hearts come crashing 

                                                              d      d       d       d
                                                          o                     o 
                                                            w        o                  o
                                                                       w        w     
                                                             n                         w
                                                                         n      n        n

              hearts of love,                
of loss,  of hopes,   
     of hate, dreams, and wonders,      
    of happiness, loneliness, and tragedy
     U  R

down upon the concrete, it is good to know we have tiny red umbrellas to lift into the  a 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ella of Frell: Linguist Extraordinaire and True "Roast Mutton" Adventurer

As an aspiring Tolkien scholar there is admittedly little that doesn't remind me of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. I always try to keep my Tolkien-centered mind in check while I read other fantasy novels because I know that while there are many novelists that purposefully try to imitate Tolkien, there are many more authors whose works echo Tolkien's rather accidentally. Sometimes there is a lot significance in the connections between such novels. Sometimes there isn't. And sometimes they're just fun to talk about.

Even though I don't think there's too much significance to be found in their connection, I still want to write about Ella Enchanted and The Hobbit.

Ella Enchanted is wonderfully original (a hard thing to accomplish as a fairy tale retelling), and since it never really tries to be The Hobbit, I find the couple of things that remind me of Tolkien in the book all the more interesting. Just in case anyone's unfamiliar with the plot of Ella Enchanted, here's a short synopsis from the book:
At her birth, Ella of Frell was given a foolish fairy's gift—the "gift" of obedience. Ella must obey any order given to her, whether it's hopping on one foot for a day or chopping off her own head!But strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. She goes on a quest, encountering ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, fairy godmothers, and handsome princes, determined to break the curse—and live happily ever after.
The really great thing about Ella is that she's strong-willed and fiercely intelligent. Like Tolkien himself, Ella is a skilled and inspired linguist and language plays an important role in the novel. In the beginning of the book Ella tells us she first picked up languages from parrots: "The birds spoke all the languages of the earth: human foreign tongues and the exotic tongues of Gnomic, Elfian, Ogrese, and Abdegi (the language of the giants). I loved to imitate them, even though I didn't know what they were saying" (42). Moments later we find out how important the ability to know or imitate language is when Ella comforts and saves a gnome toddler from an ogre by speaking the gnomish greeting. As the novel continues it turns out that Ella not only has a "knack for languages" (64), but a passion for them. While at finishing school, she finds almost all of the classes she takes useless and tedious. But the one thing she finds comfort in is learning the Ayorthaian language from her friend Areida. Language strengthens Ella and Areida's friendship, inspires Ella to willingly learn something on her own, and even proves an important tool later on when Ella leaves finishing school and enters the wider world:


  • Knowing Elfian helps reassure the elfin community that she can be trusted.
  • Knowing Abdegi helps her find her father at the giant's wedding.
  • Knowing Ayorthian saves her from having to answer Lucinda in her own language (and consequently saves her from possibly being turned into a squirrel). 

And in the scene that reminds me most of The Hobbit, language is more important than ever. Everyone remembers the second chapter of The Hobbit called "Roast Mutton," where Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves surrounded by hungry trolls and are almost cooked and eaten:

"A nice pickle they were all in now: all neatly tied up in sacks, with three angry trolls (and two with burns and bashes to remember) sitting by them, arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and squash them into jelly"(39). 
On her way to find Lucinda and fix her "gift" of obedience, Ella is put in a very similar situation. She wakes up to find she's been captured. Eight ogres surround her and immediately begin contemplating the best way to cook her: "How do you liked to be cooked? Bloody? Medium? Or done to a crisp?"(96).
Unlike the trolls in The Hobbit, who speak a lower class, but understandable dialect, the ogres speak their own language. Luckily Ella "had studied sufficient Ogrese to understand almost everything"  (96) they say. And she understands that they, just like the trolls of The Hobbit, are quick to argue over how and when Ella will be cooked and who she'll be eaten by. In The Hobbit this is solved when Gandalf steps in silently and mimics the trolls own voice and dialect. He confuses the trolls and makes them argue amongst themselves until the sun rises up and turns them to stone:

"Who’s a-arguing?” said William, who thought it was Bert that had spoken.
“You are,” said Bert.
“You’re a liar,” said William; and so the argument began all over again (40).
In Ella Enchanted it is Ella herself who mimics the ogres speech. She not only talks to them in their own language, but mimics their special ability to be "irresistibly persuasive" in their speech (43). We're told when an ogre speaks, "by the end of the second sentence, you were so won over that he could do whatever he wanted with you, drop you in a pot to cook, or, if he was in a hurry, eat you raw" (44). Like Gandalf, Ella uses the ogre's speech to confuse them long enough for her to save herself:

Jeff Brimley
"You're not really hungry. You're full...How can you eat me? You're too full to eat-all of you are. Your bellies are as heavy as sacks of melons." ...SEEf let me go. I stepped away."You can sleep and have delicious dreams.."Sleep claimed them. They returned to their heap of the night, and grunting and snoring and groaning" (102).
Ella and Gandalf both mimic the speech and language of the captors to lull them into a false argument. They both confuse and beguile their enemies with their own voices until they come to safety and the trolls and ogres alike become still and silent.

While I was reading Ella Enchanted I didn't know if Levine read or liked Tolkien, but I liked to imagine that these moments were written as a sort of tribute to him. That's simply how they struck me. As it turns out, in another edition of Ella Enchanted Levine writes an appendix titled 'Gnomic Spoken Here: The Languages of Ella Enchanted' and states, "I made up the different languages because I liked the ones that J.R.R. Tolkien invented in his Lord of the Rings trilogy" (10). She even follows this statement with a small glossary of certain words and phrases of her made up languages. I'm glad to know I wasn't imagining the Tolkien allusions. But, while the influence is undeniable, Ella Enchanted is truly a novel that stands on its own, far away from even the Cinderella tale it is based on and farther still from The Hobbit.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Making Sense of the Frame Narrative in 'The Princess Bride'

Ah, The Princess Bride. Is there anyone who doesn't love this film? I've watched it for years and my family quotes it almost daily (this really isn't an exaggeration). Somehow, though I always intended to, I never read the novel it was based on until now. I loved every minute of it and even though I know many of the lines by heart, I still couldn't put it down. 

There is one alarming difference between the book and the film that I found surprisingly difficult to make sense of. Anyone coming to the book after watching the film first will notice this difference right away: it's the frame narrative. In the film, the frame is charming and simple and involves only the young boy and his grandfather, who reads the book out loud and occasionally interrupts the story as we see it play out. In the book however, the first frame is much more complicated than that:

The novel begins with William Goldman writing as "himself" (which is in reality a fictionalized, albeit close, version of himself). In it, he talks about his father reading him The Princess Bride by fictional author S. Morgentstern as a child. He goes on to describe his life as it is now and paints a rather sad picture. He is an unsatisfied adult. He has a wife who is a cold and analyzing psychiatrist, and a son who is overweight and an unmotivated reader. After about 25 pages of setting up this sad reality, the narrator (still as William Goldman) talks about returning to The Princess Bride as an adult only to find out that it is a much longer and much more boring story than what he remembers. As it turns out, his father only read to him "the action stuff, the good parts. He never bothered with the serious side at all" (27). The novel in front of us then (the second frame of the book as a whole), is Goldman's annotated and abridged version, the version his father read out loud to him, the "good parts version" (29). 

While the frame narrative itself may not be too complex, I think its message certainly is. Think about about the picture this first frame paints: right before we enter a romantic, fantastic adventure tale there is one huge dose of bitter reality. Since The Princess Bride itself is a short and fast passed story, this 30 page long opening seriously stands out. Why does Goldman introduce The Princess Bride, the story that sparked his desire and imagination for adventure, the story he describes as "the single best thing that happened to me" (12) in this way?

Scott Campbell
On one hand, this opening seems to be a very conscious contrast of what happens in reality and what happens in stories. Right before the The Princess Bride starts, the narrator says:

"But take the title words- 'true love and high adventure'- I believed that once. I thought my life was going to follow that path. Prayed that it would. Obviously it didn't, but I don't think there's high adventure left anymore. Nobody takes out a sword nowadays and cries, 'Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!'" (27)
There are also moments in the second frame, in the story itself, that echo this sentiment. Inigo states: 
"Then let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are" (234).
If we are to understand an overall moral of the tale, the first frame narrator without a doubt wants it to be: "Life isn't fair" (188). "That's what I think this book is about," (188) he says in his longest annotation in the book, "...and I'm telling you, one and all, you better believe it" (188).  Life isn't fair because William Goldman once imagined his life could be something like his favorite book- but it wasn't. Life isn't fair because the good guys don't always win, or if they do, the bad guys get away with too much before they are finally defeated:
"You better understand this: some of the wrong people die. Be ready for it...forget all the garbage your parents put out. Remember Morgenstern. You'll be a lot happier" (188).
And life isn't fair because true love might be the most important thing in the world (besides cough drops) but the narrator knows that really,"true love, you can forget about too" (29).

This cynical and pessimistic narrator reminds us over and over again that real life just isn't going to be anything like the novel. And if that wasn't enough, his jarring interruptions (or "annotations") throughout The Princess Bride continually remind us that what we're reading isn't 'real': it is a story that was written by somebody a long time ago and is something that is now being read by you. We are not to get wrapped up in the story as we read. Young William's father disapproves of this as well: "it looked like you were getting too involved and bothered" and "you're taking this very serious" (221), he says when he comes to distressing or disappointing parts in the novel. The Princess Bride is just a novel, after all and a silly one at that.

Jacob Borshard
There is a lot of this sort of reality infused the first frame. However, I find it hard to believe someone would write a tale this good, this funny, and this wonderful just to have the overall message be something along the lines of "Books are great, but really, not as great as you think. Also, life's terrible so suck it up." Instead, I think that Goldman could be asking us to look at the nature of stories and novels and to examine our own beliefs about them and how they affect us, not just as children, but throughout our lives. Because here's the thing: In The Princess Bride, happy endings abound. Westley dies but is brought back to life; True love really is more important than anything; Prince Humperdink hears the chilling "to the pain" speech; Inigo finally avenges his father; and Buttercup and Westley reunite through death time and time again.

William Goldman (as the author) is certainly playing with our expectations of 'happy endings' in life, but he is not ultimately warning us against reading books. Instead, he warns against growing out of the novels, of forgetting the impact novels had on your life. Part of the long opening is to show us how significant an impact reading made on the narrator's life, his real life:
"Picture this now: an all-but-illiterate old man struggling with an enemy tongue, an all-but-exhausted young boy fighting against sleep. And nothing between them but the words of another alien, painfully translated from native sounds to foreign. Who could suspect that in the morning a different child would wake? I remember, for myself, only trying to beat back fatigue. Even a week later I was not aware of what had begun that night, the doors that were slamming shut while others slid into the clear. Perhaps I should have at least known something, but maybe not; who can sense revelation in the wind?What happened was just this: I got hooked on the story.For the first time in my life, I became actively interested in a book" (10).
The problem really begins when the narrator stops thinking about the novel, when he forgets about how important is was to him:
"My whole life really began with my father reading me the Morgenstern when I was ten... I knew I was going to share it with my son. ...When Jason was born, I made a mental note to buy him a copy of The Princess Bride for his tenth birthday. 
After which I promptly forgot all about it" (12-13).

For the narrator who hasn't read his favorite book since he was a child, who has forgotten something so important to him, of course there's no "high adventure left anymore." Of course what happens in books is not what happens in our 'reality' -  but isn't that why novels like The Princess Bride are so important? Adventure, if we let it, happens right here, in our very hands. The narrator's fault isn't in thinking his life would be one way and having it turn out differently, it's his refusal to acknowledge that his life already has been, and can still be an adventure. If the most important idea the first frame narrator suggests is "life isn't fair," I think that The Princess Bride as a whole shows us a greater one: adventure should never become something unimaginable, something unbelievable, something inconceivable.