Friday essay: why grown-ups still need fairy tales


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Edmund Dulac’s 1910 illustration of Sleeping Beauty.
Wikimedia images

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

For as long as we have been able to stand upright and speak, we have told stories. They explained the mysteries of the world: birth, death, the seasons, day and night. They were the origins of human creativity, expressed in words but also in pictures, as evidenced by the cave paintings of Chauvet (France) and Maros (Indonesia). On the walls of these caves, the paintings, which date back to around 30-40,000 BC, tell us myths or sacred narratives of the spirits of the land, the fauna of the regions, and humankind’s relationship to them.

A hyena painting found in the Chauvet cave.
Wikimedia images

As humanity progressed, other types of stories developed. These were not concerned with the mysteries of the meaning of life but with everyday, domestic matters. While they were more mundane in the issues they explored, such tales were no less spectacular in their creativity and inclusion of the supernatural.

These smaller, everyday stories, combining the world of humans with fantastical creatures and seemingly impossible plots are now classified as fairy tales or folk tales. Such tales, originating in pre-literate societies and told by the folk (or the average person), capture the hopes and dreams of humanity. They convey messages of overcoming adversity, rising from rags to riches, and the benefits of courage.

Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackham.
Wikimedia images

Fairy tales are also extremely moral in their demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong. Their justice references the ancient tradition of an eye for an eye, and their punishments are ruthless and complete. Originally for adults (sometimes for children), fairy tales can be brutal, violent, sexual and laden with taboo. When the earliest recorded versions were made by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, the adult content was maintained. But as time progressed and Christian morality intervened, the tales became diluted, child-friendly and more benign.

Despite these changes, it is apparent that fairy tales are still needed today, even for grown-ups. In an uncanny, sometimes inexplicable way, we consciously and unconsciously continue to tell them, despite advances in logic, science and technology. It’s as if there is something ingrained in us – something we cannot suppress – that compels us to interpret the world around us through the lens of such tales. And if we are not the tellers, we are the greedy consumers.

‘Fairy tale’ princesses and ‘wicked witches’

The 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, has been cast – like her life – as a fairy tale. Throughout the year, she has been commemorated in articles with headings such as “a troubled fairy tale”, “beyond a fairy tale”, and “just another fairy tale”. While these articles have endeavoured to deconstruct the familiar narrative, they have not been entirely successful.

Fairy tale wedding? Prince Frederik and Princess Mary.
Jerry Lampen/Reuters

The notion of a fairy tale princess has also characterised the coverage of Princess Mary of Denmark and Duchess Catherine of Cambridge. Even after 13 years of marriage, our own “Aussie princess” is described as living a fairy tale, evident in 2017 media stories with titles such as “Princess Mary and Prince Frederik’s fairy tale royal romance”. Likewise, Kate, once a commoner, now a princess, has featured in articles titled “Prince William and Duchess Kate’s fairy-tale love story” and “Kate’s Most Royal Fairy Tale Gown (To Date)”. As the titles of some of these stories show, they also feature the mandatory prince charming (William), or the prince who is revealed to be not-so-charming after all (Charles). Others extend the fairy tale formula to include wicked stepmothers (Di’s real life stepmother) and wicked witches (Camilla).

Is such recourse to fairy tales merely a media stunt to sell stories packaged in an easily consumable, gossip-laden snack box? Or do these articles reflect that deep-seated compulsion of ours to tell and, in turn, to listen to stories? The answers are “yes” and “yes”. But let’s forget the media’s role and look at the more interesting latter point.

Many fairy tales began thousands of years ago, the age depending on the tale itself. Beauty and the Beast has its origins in the story of Cupid and Psyche from the Greek novel, The Golden Ass, from the second century AD.

Jacques-Louis David’s 1817 painting of Cupid and Psyche, the inspiration for Beauty and the Beast.
Wikimedia images

In this tale, the beautiful Psyche is visited at night by an invisible lover – hearing only a voice – whom she is led to believe is a monster. While recorded by the novelist, Apuleius, the story is almost certainly much older; perhaps having its origins in myth and ritual, and handed down by word of mouth.

The research of Dr Jamie Tehrani has unearthed an early date for Red Riding Hood, which he has traced back to at least 2,000 years; not originating in Asia, as once believed, but most likely in Europe. Other tales studied by Tehrani have been dated to as early as 6,000 years ago.

Fairy tales are excellent narratives with which to think through a range of human experiences: joy, disbelief, disappointment, fear, envy, disaster, greed, devastation, lust, and grief (just to name a few). They provide forms of expression to shed light not only on our own lives but on the lives beyond our own. And, contrary to the impression that fairy tales always end happily ever after, this is not the case – therein lies much of their power.

They helped our ancestors make sense of the unpredictability or randomness of life. They repeated familiar experiences of unfairness, misfortune, bad luck, and ill-treatment and sometimes showed us how courage, determination and ingenuity could be employed even by the most disempowered to change the course of events.

Arthur Rackham’s Jack and the Beanstalk Giant.
Wikimedia images

Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, tells how a chance encounter with a stranger (an old man who provides magic beans) can bring about terrible danger (meeting a giant) but also terrific good fortune (acquiring a hen that lays golden eggs). The tale also celebrates how a poor boy can make the most of an arbitrarily dangerous situation that could have gone either way – being eaten or becoming rich – through his bravery and his intellect.

Fairytales also celebrated unexpected good fortune and acts of kindness and heroism, thereby reinforcing – even restoring – our faith in humanity. As tales of the folk, they not only entertained, but reflected the turmoils and triumphs of the lower classes, and enabled them to fantasise about how the “other half” lived.

Cinderalla and social criticism

But tales of kings, queens, princes and princesses – of which there are many – are not only a means of mental escape for the poor. They are also a means of social criticism.

19th century engraving of Gustave Doré’s Cendrillon – Cinderella. From Dore’s 1864 edition of Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals, originally published in 1697.
Wikimedia images

In Cinderella, as recorded by Charles Perrault, the two stepsisters may have every material possession imaginable, but their cruelty renders them grotesque. And, of course, the lowly Cinderella triumphs. In the German version, Aschenputtel, recorded by the Brothers Grimm, the fate of the stepsisters is very different. Whereas Perrault’s version has the kindly Cinderella forgive them, the Grimms – clearly working from another tradition – describe how they have their eyes plucked out by pigeons!

Such stories of fantasising about a royal life and simultaneously despising it may have functioned as an emotional release similar to the ancient Greek experience of catharsis (the shedding of anxieties through watching outrageous tragedies and obscene comedies).

Taking the fascination with Diana’s life as a fairy tale, for example, we still employ the cathartic release of the genre to interrogate her and, for those of us so inclined, to find some meaning in the Di phenomenon. From the romantic courtship, to the wedding of the century and that dress, to motherhood, glamour, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, alienation and a new love cut short by an early death.

Diana on her wedding day in 1981.
Mal Langsdon/Reuters

Some, of course, have criticised the warm, fuzzy emotionalism that has sprung from the fairy tale of Di’s life. If it is not to your liking, there are more robust tales with powerful messages of resistance and resilience. In tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Donkeyskin, the young protagonists are persecuted and abused by predators.

There is much to complain about in these tales from a politically correct or feminist perspective. They are violent and subversive: Gretel pushes a witch into an oven and in Perrault’s version of Donkeyskin, a king wishes to marry his daughter following the death of his wife. But they are more than narratives of abuse. They are also about courage and ingenuity on the part of the young survivors.

Miwa Yanagi, Gretel 2004, gelatin silver print.
Collection of the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

Courtesy of the artist and Yoshiko Isshiki Office, Tokyo

Donkeyskin, variants of which are extant in English (Catskin) and German (All-Kinds-Of-Fur), champions the bravery and inherent goodness of the young heroine who dresses in the skin of a donkey and leaves the palace in order to escape her father’s desires. Her subsequent life as a servant, filthy, humiliated, reviled and renamed “Donkeyskin” by her fellow servants, never crushes her soul.

Within the fantasy and the convenient appearance of supernatural assistants or a romantic ending, both of which feature in Donkeyskin, these stories are powerful reminders that evil exists in the world in the form of human beings – but it is not definitive or unconquerable.

Contemporary reworkings

With the publication of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, artists and illustrators were the first interpreters of fairy tales. Visual responses have ranged from famous works by Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac to Maurice Sendak and Jan Pieńkowski.

More dissident responses have included the photographs of Dina Goldstein, whose Fallen Princesses series (2007-2009) is an astute response to the Disney princess phenomenon of unattainable, debilitating images of femininity and romance in bowdlerised versions of the original tales. Here, Goldstein critiques the superficiality of the princess stereotype, reminding us that it is as facile for children as the Diana fairy tale dream is for adults.

Before Goldstein, photographer Sarah Moon also challenged the dilution of fairy tales in the modern west through her provocative (sometimes banned) interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. In this powerful rendition, Moon takes her child reader back to the original and raw meanings embedded in the tale through her exploration of the theme of the human predator in the symbolic guise of the wolf.

Moon’s decision to return to the terror and drama of the Grimms’ version is testimony to the need to challenge the dilution and contamination of the tales. Even the Grimms were guilty of adding and subtracting to the material, particularly when it came to the insertion of overt Christian morality. Equally if not more so, the Disneyfication of fairy tales has stripped them of the power and the pain to which Moon returns.

Writers and poets have also responded to the tales and, like Moon, have regularly sought to return them to their once formidable status. Women authors in particular have created powerful, sometimes heartbreaking – but always real and truthful – new versions.

Among the thousands of old tales in new clothes is the literature of second wave feminists, including the suite entitled Transformations (1971) by renegade poet Anne Sexton, who takes the domesticity of the original tales and mocks, ridicules, cherishes and – literally – transforms them. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), a magnificent collection of retellings of famous fairy tales, is full of female empowerment, sensuality and violence in a tour de force that both reinstates the potency of the stories and re-imagines them.

Novelist, poet and essayist, Margaret Atwood also transforms the originals. Her response to The Girl Without Hands, which tells the story of a young woman who agrees to sacrifice her hands in order to save her father from the devil, in a poem of the same name is a profound meditation on the continuation of both abuse and survival.

The fairy tales first preserved by collectors such as the Brothers Grimm – retold, bastardised, edited, annotated, banned and reclaimed – belong ultimately to the folk who first told them. And the folk continue to tell and retell them. Closer to home than the Black Forest, a new show at the The Ian Potter Museum of Art contains work by international and Australian artists, including Tracy Moffatt and Sally Smart. The show returns – once again – to fairy tales to express social concerns and anxieties surrounding issues such as the abuse of power, injustice and exploitation.

Dina Goldstein, Snowy 2008 from the Fallen Princess series.
digital photograph

Courtesy of the artist

Fairy tales are, indeed, good to think with, and their retellings shed light on cultural, societal and artistic movements. Both children and adults should read more fairy tales – both the original and the transformed versions, for they are one of our cultural touchstones.

The ConversationAll the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed, is on from Thursday 23 Nov 2017 to Sunday 4 Mar 2018 at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, The University of Melbourne.

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Blaise is on Pre-Order a.k.a Let me put my words in you

Hey Everyone!

December is going  to be a massive book month here in Camp Amy so here is a brief rundown.

If you have been on my social media in the last few days you would have seen me FREAKING OUT about my awesome new cover for BLAISE, book 2 of the Blood Lake Chronicles. One more time with feeling….

 

YUP. I’m feeling it alright.

Here’s a description :

‘The stories claim I was born from a union of a demon and nun…well, least they got half of it right.’

Eldon Blaise, magician and misfit, has arrived at Gwaed Lyn to turn Rosa’s life upside down. Not only is he claiming to be the lost son of Eli Vane and his human wife Deryn, Rosa’s ancestor, but that he also used to be none other than Merlin Wylt, the magician of legend who fought by King Arthur’s side.

The curse the Autumn Queen has placed over the Aos Si is breaking, but she isn’t prepared to go down without a fight, and releases the one person that brought the great Merlin to his knees…Nimue.

Her spirit broken from a lifetime imprisoned by the Autumn Queen, Nimue must convince the Vanes to trust her. She wants to be free of the Queen forever, but winning over Merlin is going to be no easy task. She broke his heart, and being together again will bring back a life of pain and passion that neither of them can fight.

To defeat the Autumn Queen and protect Gwaed Lyn, Merlin will have to stop running and become the powerful man he used to be…that includes having the fearless and formidable Nimue by his side.

OMG MERLIN RIGHT!

SO it is up for pre-order on all platforms for a special price of 0.99 so get in while it lasts. Click here for a universal link that will take you to any store you like. It is out on December 14th,  I’m so excited to be able to finally continue the Vane family story and mash up some Arthurian mythology in for good measure. I always wanted to write Merlin, every since I was a brat who really loved the King Arthur stories. I’m not going to lie, I fan girled pretty hard researching this one and I’m so blessed I have the opportunity to write my own version of this amazing character.

NEXT!

Second Editions of Ashes of the Firebird and Rise of the Firebird will also be released across all ebook platforms on December 5th, so all you lovely readers who have been pissed that iBooks etc dont have the other books..well they are coming soon! As per the last post, my preorder plans for them didn’t work so I’m just going to do a straight release.

ALSO,

In other book news my SECRET PROJECT is currently in structural re-writes (thanks to a structural edit from the awesome Hayley Stone) and will hopefully be tied up by the end of the month so I can focus 100% on KINGDOM, book 3 of The Blood Lake Chronicles. Fun times!

AND,

This December marks THREE YEARS since releasing my first book, Cry of the Firebird. I’m staggered at how quickly the time has flown by. There will be drinks to celebrate because lets face it you need to celebrate every fucking victory as a writer.

Amy out xo

 

 

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On Pre-Orders

Hi Everyone

 

Following up from my last blog. I have looked into doing pre-orders for Ashes of the Firebird and Rise of the Firebird for their universal release in December but due to being enrolled in KDP until 3rd December, I’m not allowed to even have a pre-order page up on the other sites  as it still counts as sales. So there goes that idea. Now they will just be released on the 8th of December and I’ll put up a reminder on social media etc when the time comes.

If you really want them and don’t want to wait,  they are availabile DRM free on Amazon (which means you can convert them to epub etc with programs such as Calibre).

Amy x

firebird2firebird3

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An Update and Sexy Second Editions

It’s been a while guys…I know. I always feel a bit guilty about leaving it so long between drinks but when you’re working, doing uni, writing books and publishing, shit is bound to get a bit hectic.

Right. I’ve been underground finishing off a great Ancient History unit on the Later Roman Empire, getting inspired and fuelled for a future book I’m researching, and trying to keep my head above water. If you follow my social media you’ll know Cry of the Firebird was a no 1 best seller in September in the Amazon store – holy shit guys what a moment. Which brings me to my next topic.

In September, the reason why I managed to sell as many books as I did was my exclusivity period with Amazon finished and I launched Cry of the Firebird across all e-book platforms. I’ve been getting messages from a whole swathe new readers about the other books and I can safely say, at the beginning of December Ashes of the Firebird and Rise of the Firebird will be universally released. At the moment they are still under exclusivity so sorry, we have to wait.  I’m not sure if I am going to do a pre-order for them as there is some behind the scenes tweaking that needs to be sorted before that can happen. Also, I have just (literally in the last 30 minutes) finished sexy second editions of all of the Firebirds and damn, that’s a shit tonne of words to edit and format. I’m waiting on proofs of the new paperbacks to arrive but the digitals are up and looking gorgeous. I wanted to do second editions for a whole bunch of reasons. Mainly, because no matter how many editors you use, and eyes go over your work to check and re-check, pesky mistakes still seem to get through. Also, I am an Aussie and I wanted US spelling and Grammar editions as most of my readers are currently in the US. It was a huge undertaking (I’m so dead all I want is vodka and Lord of the Rings movies) but I am really happy with the results and I hope you are too. I’m super blessed as an indie publisher that I can make these changes and be so much happier with the end product.

In Blood Lake Chronicles news, WYLT has also been released universally and I’ve had HEAPS of messages about WHERE THE FUCK IS BLAISE. I can tell you finally that it’s currently with my kick-ass cover designer, Fiona, who is making something truly fucking amazing. This series, this character, is super important to me so I want the cover and story right. It’s a tricky time of year for freelance editors and designers which is why I haven’t announced a pre-order for it. As soon as I have all the pieces in my hot hands you guys will be the first to know. I am aiming for mid-December but I won’t make promises without all those pieces. It is coming soon. Writing on book three, KINGDOM, has started slowly due to the mad fucking rush to get second editions of the Firebird Fairytales completed but it HAS started and damn is it gonna be a ride. Now that most of my publisher’s workload is sorted I can put my Writer Hat back on and get stuck into it. It’s a lot more Celtic Myth and I’m loving how the beginning is shaping up.

What else?

I have been reading some holy shit amazing books lately. I won’t leave reviews for them because there isn’t enough time but the ones that have really blown my shit out of the water (and made me get FULL Imposter Syndrome) are as follows:

All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. Vampires, Witches, Daemons, Alchemy, Oxford…This series hit EVERYONE of my weaknesses and damn, like if you need your faith restored in incredible vampire books, seriously look no further. It’s not a snack though, these books are MEALS. The writing is rich and incredible and you can tell Harkness seriously knows her shit. They are currently making the TV series with a whole cast of power house actors (Matthew Goode holy shit!) and I seriously can’t wait.

 

The Sarah Weston Novels by Magnus Flyte.Prague, Beethoven, Alchemy, Prodigies and Princes. After suffering from a massive book hangover from the All Souls Trilogy, this duology City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams, was the perfect soloution. It’s still keeping with alchemy and magic themes but tying in history and music aswell. It’s not as heavy as the Harkness books but they were still a great series. The magic in it is awesome.

 

 

 

   The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Mysticism, Art, lost loves, reincarnations, historical romance, medieval scriptoriums… this book has it all. You know how you have those books that you think ‘that looks great I really want to read that’ but it takes you forever to get to them? This was such a book. It’s been on my radar for years but like most books that fall into this category, it found me when I needed it most. I was suffering from a massive creative burn out and it was EXACTLY what I needed. It is an incredible book that ripped my heart clean out while re-building it at the same time. It’s structured like a modern-day Dante’s Inferno, that I am ridiculously obsessed with, and it just…no words. Still. It’s a hard one to explain but worth the time.

 

Okay so that’s all from me, for now. I will keep everyone posted on the BLAISE front and make lots of noise when all of the Firebirds are available universally. If you are doing NaNoWriMo, you are my hero and keep your chin up.

Amy x                                                  

 

Posted in Amazon, Art, Demons, fairytale, fantasy, Indie Publishing, Life, magic, Novels, paranormal, promotions, Reviews, Upcoming Projects, Writing | 1 Comment

Journeys to the Underworld- Greek Myth, Film and American anxiety

A fascinating read, courtesy of the Conversation

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Gil Birmingham (Cory) and Jeremy Renner (Martin) in Wind River: grieving fathers who come together in the realm of the dead.
Production Co: Acacia Filmed Entertainment, Film 44, Ingenious Media

Paul Salmond, La Trobe University

The success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, depicting warring Olympians and Amazons, continues to stoke moviegoer interest in Greek mythology. Wonder Woman is the first foray of D.C. movies into classical mythology, a path well trodden by the Marvel cinematic universe. But is Greek myth simply a favoured and enduring wellspring for heroic sagas full of supermen and monsters or are there deeper forces at play?

To the Greeks, the underworld journey was an ideal vehicle for the hero to display his exceptional qualities, often involving the rescue of a soul trapped there. A central convention of Greek mythological narratives is katabasis, the hero’s journey to the underworld or land of the dead. At Circe’s urging, Odysseus consults the seer Tiresias in the land of the dead, where many departed souls (including Achilles) appear to him. Similar journeys are made by Heracles who rescues Theseus during his twelfth labor; Hermes, who rescues Persephone from Hades; and Aeneas who is reunited briefly with his dead father.

Alessandro Allori (1580) Odysseus questions the seer Tiresias.
Wikimedia Commons

Descents into and ascents from the underworld are themes incorporated repeatedly into modern cinema. Film developed from theatre, which in its earliest form was a way of animating mythical sagas. The katabasis has endured in cinema because it can be applied to most characters, times and settings. Often eschewing a literal journey to the underworld, a cinematic katabasis may follow a quest into a type of hell, whether a physical or psychological space.


Further reading: Guide to the classics: Homer’s Odyssey


Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein Orpheus and Eurydice, 1806.
Wikimedia Commons

One particularly celebrated underworld myth recounts Orpheus’s retrieval of his wife Eurydice. Against the warnings of Hades and Persephone, Orpheus looked back at her – only for his wife to disappear, this time permanently. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), drew directly on this myth by sending its hero, like Orpheus, into the realm of the dead to retrieve an imperilled soul trapped there.

Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne created a bleak vision of 1938 Los Angeles, parched by drought and corrupted by a shadowy cabal of oligarchs. Private investigator Jake Gittes, investigating the death of city water commissioner Hollis Mulwray, uncovers a web of corruption and murder. His attempts to rescue Mulwray’s wife, Evelyn, from the violence enveloping her results in her brutal death. In its shocking conclusion, Polanski rooted Chinatown more firmly in its mythological ancestry, pivoting the plot towards an incest revelation. Like Oedipus, redress comes through putting out eyes. Having failed to save his former love years before, Jake grieves over her death a second time with Evelyn.

Chinatown is broadly accepted as a response to Watergate. Like many films of its time, it responded to Nixon’s subversion of US political institutions by depicting a world where shadowy underworld denizens win and the hero fails to rescue his Eurydice from Hades.

In this response, Chinatown demonstrates how the influence of Greek mythological conventions on American filmmakers appears strongest during times of heightened political stress. When many perceived America as attacked from within by communism during the 1950s, for instance, Hollywood responded by reimagining Homer’s perfect warrior Achilles through the towering figure of John Wayne (through no coincidence, the most virulently anti-communist actor of all). In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Wayne’s embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards mutilates the body of Comanche war chief Scar to avenge Ethan’s defiled nieces. Like Achilles mutilating Hector in Homer’s Iliad, Ethan hates his enemies beyond death.


Further reading: Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad


In the 1970s, a younger cadre of filmmakers and audiences saw the enemy sitting in seats of power. Underworld quests found more subversive avenues for expression, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which conveyed the horrors of the Vietnam war through a nightmarish journey up the river Styx.

Underworld narratives also formed part of Hollywood’s response to widespread moral panic around ritual abuse and child murder that spread throughout America in the 1980s and 1990s. The horrific sprees of society’s new apex predators like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, linked to hysterical rumours of organised child sacrifice, inspired a film cycle fuelled by pervasive anxiety that children could be snatched up and borne away to horrible fates in hidden lairs. When Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the 1992 Oscars it was our neighbours or the corner grocer – not the government – preying on our fears.

Demme’s film deftly refashioned the myth of Theseus and the minotaur into a race-against-time manhunt. Cadet FBI agent Clarice Starling pursues a serial murderer who has abducted a Senator’s daughter. To track the beast, Clarice must descend into the den of captured cannibal monster Hannibal Lecter for clues to slay the monster at large, Buffalo Bill. For this underworld quest, Lecter is the pedagogue, not the monster. His role isn’t to eat Clarice (he passes up that opportunity when she ventures within striking distance) but to prepare her for her journey. Lecter provides the ball of string enabling Clarice to venture into the minotaur’s labyrinth and return.

Jody Foster as Clarice Stirling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Why does American cinema reflect Ancient Greek narrative conventions most strongly at times of profound social anxiety? The answer may lie in part in political similarities between Americans and ancient Athenians and the perceived vulnerability of their constitutional foundations.

Traditionalists interpret Greek art as an expression of soaring confidence in the triumph of humans over the old gods. But the Athenians were obsessed by the ephemerality of their achievement and how it rested on foundations that could collapse at any time. The late critic Robert Hughes once asserted that “ancient Greek sculpture is used to advance a specious political argument” of man being the measure of all things. Yet Greek art, he argued, was just as focussed on warding off monsters (representing political threats).

Ancient mythological themes are employed most unmistakably in American movies during times of “witch hunts” to expose hidden enemies: communist saboteurs in the 1950s, corrupt political burghers of the 1970s and the “satanic panic” of the 1980s. In response to 9/11, Hollywood was oddly reticent, as if the seismic scale of the event meant translating 9/11 to the screen was unimaginable. But television responded forcefully, particularly through the great HBO crime dramas – The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood – all of which at various times employed underworld sagas in confronting the scarring and resounding effects of violence.

Ancient myth and cinema in a time of Trump

What can we expect to see next as the rise of “Trumpism” promotes internal American division possibly unmatched since the civil war? Certainly, taking at face value Trump’s identified public enemy the “liberal media” (which includes filmmakers), US political institutions are under attack in a manner not seen since 1974. Like Nixon, Trump accuses his critics of witch hunts aimed at sabotaging the will of the people and uprooting American values.

We are yet to see reactions to the President reflected in cinema. Trump was elected ten months ago and has held office for only eight, so films responding to his Presidency are still in production. But the social trauma that saw the ascendancy of Trump’s base – the impoverishment of the “rust belt”, paranoia over Mexican gang culture, the erosion of the natural environment in the face of rapine corporations – are already part of the cinematic landscape.

And we are already seeing key political battlegrounds – the migration of drug crime across the southern border and the violation of the natural world at other frontiers – framed as underworld quests in film.

Director/screenwriter Taylor Sheridan recently explored issues of American decline in his unofficial “frontier trilogy”, using Greek mythological conventions to do so. The middle film, Hell or High Water (2016) is a relatively straightforward backwoods heist saga pitting bank-robbing brothers against a Texas ranger nearing retirement. The script reflects the financial angst of Trump voters, largely sympathising with their perceived disenfranchisement. But the first film, Sicario (2015) and the most recent, Wind River (2017) are dramatic bookends, using mythology to explore the social anxieties that saw Trump elected.

Directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, Sicario depicts an idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer, recruited by a government taskforce to combat drug cartels at the Mexican border. Overseen by a shadowy operative, Alejandro, Kate descends into a moral and literal abyss to track her quarry, eventually rejecting her handlers’ demands that she become a monster to fight monsters. In Wind River, the discovery of a young Arapaho woman’s body on a snowbound Wyoming reservation teams hunter Cory Lambert with another rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner, to track down her killer.

Wind River and Sicario are violent, electrifying films, which embrace Greek mythic conventions by sending their heroes to the realm of the dead both in pursuit of monsters and in embrace of loved ones.

In Sicario, Kate and Alejandro pursue the drug lord, Alarcon, across a Mexican landscape made hellish through darkness and night vision technology. Whereas Kate emerges from the underworld with her moral compass intact, Alejandro maddened by the murders of his wife and daughter now resides there permanently. As he tells Kate, “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf and this is a land of wolves now.”

In Wind River the murdered girl, Natalie, was a friend of Cory’s daughter – who had died in similar circumstances three years earlier. Like Orpheus, Cory experiences the loss of his beloved twice, heightening his corrosive need to have her back. But the land of the dead is not always hostile. In the film’s final scene, Cory and Natalie’s father Martin sit together in silence, mentally visiting their lost daughters in the spirit realm.

Both films are sprinkled with references to mythological deathscapes: frozen Wyoming mountains and darkened Mexican foothills become landscapes of dread. Cory, like the hero Heracles, is a hunter of lions; and wolves, traditional guardians of dead souls, embody links between living and dead.

Greek mythological conventions will likely again be used to critique what many see as a uniquely lawless US administration. It will pay to watch the output of Joss Whedon, for one, whose The Avengers (2012) depicted an Homeric world where spectacular battle scenes framed an exploration of the transformative effect of violence, the weight of heroic expectations and the toll both take on men and women who deal in warfare.

Few directors working today are as familiar with Greek heroic archetypes as Whedon. In his signature television production, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon reimagined the doomed Achilles as a teenage girl who at one point returned from a literal journey to the realm of the dead. Given Trump’s treatment of and standing with women, it will be interesting to see the nature of the heroine’s quest, and the monsters she encounters along the way, in Whedon’s upcoming project Batgirl.

The ConversationWe may not yet know what kinds of underworlds will need to be negotiated in years ahead. But American filmmakers are uniquely experienced in passing through landscapes of dread, emerging stronger and more enlightened.

Paul Salmond, Honorary Associate, Classics and Ancient History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Posted in Ancient History, Upcoming Projects, World mythology, Writing

Cry of the Firebird – Free!

Hello Everyone

Just dropping in super quick to let you know that Cry of the Firebird book one of The Firebird Fairytales is now permanently Free across all retailers! Hurray!

Grab yourself a copy here

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Posted in Amazon, fairytale, fantasy, free stories, Indie Publishing, magic, Novels, promotions | Tagged , , ,

Friday essay: Joan of Arc, our one true superhero

Ali Alizadeh, Monash University

One need not be a parent of a young child, as I am, to be conscious of the full-blown resurgence of the superhero in contemporary popular culture. Beyond the dizzying proliferation of fetishised merchandise to do with Marvel and DC protagonists and the frankly obscene sights of middle-aged folk squeezed into uncomplaining lycra and leotards at Comic-Con gatherings, one may sense the spectral presence of the hero, that crucial cultural figure which has beguiled humanity since the epics of Homer and the demigods of ancient mythology. Yet there is more to the hero than a fanciful tale of courage and exceptional strength.

Heroes and heroines are the most explicit and visible manifestations of our aspirations as well as our limitations, poetic accounts of our capacity for transformation within the boundaries of human imagination. What, then, does the ceaseless preoccupation with a particular heroic icon tell us? And why is it that despite all our cynicism and exhaustion, we still find resonance and meaning in the images of those, fictional or factual, who embark on quests for the betterment of their conditions with an unflinching optimism and self-confidence?

A miniature of Joan of Arc, circa 1450 and 1500.
Wikimedia Commons

I want to address my own decision to write a novel about one of history’s most enduring heroic personae, the medieval Frenchwoman known to us as Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431), or Joan of Arc in English. I also wish to assess her perseverance as a figure of global fascination despite her historical origins in a world that is very different to ours.

Jeanne’s world was one of conflict, tragedy and turmoil. She was born during one of the most brutal phases of history’s longest war, the Hundred Years War, which pitted an embattled French Kingdom against the forces of an intrepid England and an even more dynamic and rapacious medieval feudal duchy of Burgundy. Her native village and community were directly affected by the war’s ravages, and it was perhaps in response to the miseries of war, and perhaps also due to unique personal and psychological factors, that the young peasant woman, claiming to have been instructed by divine “voices”, left her village to end “the pity in the kingdom of France”. She was, much to the astonishment of future historians, received by the French king, armed and sent to fight the English as the “chief of war” of French forces. Her unexpected victories turned the tide of the war and made Jeanne into one of the most famous and most heroic figures of her epoch.

Has it been unsophisticated of me, a contemporary writer all too aware of the unheroic realities of our age, to devote so many years to researching and writing a book on the life of a woman who may be seen as an archetypal image of female heroism? Why is it that so many other writers and artists continue to write their own novels and songs and make films and musicals about this enigmatic icon of early European history?


Read more: Medieval women can teach us how to smash gender rules and the glass ceiling


I’ve been deeply fascinated with the story of Jeanne d’Arc since early childhood, when I came across an image of her – a horsed knight in an excessively shining armour, with an indisputably feminine face and hairdo – at a bookshop in Tehran in the early 1980s. But fascination alone does not result in an artistic project as complex and all-consuming as writing a modern literary novel.

So it is that I must admit that the tale of the young peasant woman who ran away from her village to become a knight, does not simply interest me. I find it exhilarating. Even though I have spent more than three decades reading and thinking about her, I’m still in awe of some of the basic elements and contradictions of her story.

How could an uneducated teenage girl lead armies to victory? How could a woman as highly attuned to the material conditions of her world – the topography of the battlefields, the byzantine milieu of late-medieval French politics – also sincerely believe in the metaphysical and believe that she heard the voices of saints and angels?

And why is it that this woman, so devoted to her political cause and to her vision of a united France, chose to be burnt at the stake at the age of 19 instead of acquiescing to her judges’ directives during her infamous trials of condemnation, and not live to see to the completion of her figurative crusade?

Paradoxes and complexities

There are many more paradoxes and complexities one may discern when it comes to the life of the so-called Maid of Orléans. For me, these are not entirely resolvable, nor are they reducible to one or more possible resolutions. In her I’ve found a potent paragon of the human subject at its most radical, most truthful embodiment.

She is one of the most extreme manifestations of the singularity of humanity, and a testament to our capacity to break with what reduces us to bare life. I will therefore offer this definition of the hero/ine for our time: s/he is one who, against the obsessions of bourgeois individualism and late-capitalist identity politics, fights to eradicate all impositions of individuality and identity to reach universal selfhood. S/he becomes a champion for all of us, and in her we find that most impossible and improbable phenomenon – genuine, irrefutable hope.

Long before Che, Joan of Arc committed to changing the world from the bottom up.

In my view, Jeanne d’Arc, despite living a good 350 years before the advent of the modern revolution, is an exemplary materialisation of the figure of the revolutionary. Long before Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Guevara, Jeanne the Maid of Orléans committed herself to the cause of transforming the world from the bottom up.

She fought for justice in the direction of a universal collectivity – a very early, very nascent notion of a unified nation under the rule of one sovereign – and not in the interest of a particular identitarian or sectarian grouping.

In the medieval, pre-modern heroine, we find a pre-emptive inversion of the mantras of the “progressive”, reformist, non-revolutionary bourgeois activists of postmodernity. For Jeanne the Maid, the public was the personal, and not merely the other way around. She made the world be the change that she wanted to see in herself. She thought local and acted global.

Revolutionary rupture

If Jeanne the Maid is a heroine, then, she is the heroine of the rare, luminous event of revolutionary rupture. This take is one which I’ve placed at the heart of my novel, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc. The novel is not only an articulation of her radical character as I understand her; it is also a story of forbidden amorous love and intense, heretical spirituality. But central to the novel’s fictionalised account of a historical figure’s life – and my depiction of her sexuality and unique psychology – is my view of her as a woman who was transformed by her drive to transform the world in which she lived.


Read more: Hearing voices is more common than you might think


Other artists, ideologues and believers have had widely differing configurations of the famous Frenchwoman. For most, however, she too has been a heroine, a woman who, against the limitations and expectations situated in socio-personal contexts, fought, defeated and was martyred by formidable manifestations of those very socio-personal limits. Nevertheless, mine and my other contemporaries’ versions of Jeanne the Maid’s heroism perhaps dramatically differ in their content, if not in their basic, heroic discourse.

Unlike pop star Madonna – whose recent song, Joan of Arc, depicts the Maid as metaphor for the multi-millionaire entertainer’s own discontent with fame and disagreeable pop culture journalists – I don’t see Jeanne as a symbol of my personal maladies.

Unlike former pop star David Byrne – in whose recent musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, Jeanne is an anti-Trump (pseudo) riot grrrl enraged by misogyny and binary gendered ideals – I can’t, despite my own overt political leanings, bring myself to ascribe to the medieval heroine the ethos of a contemporary ideological project.

And unlike the great Bruno Dumont – the maverick French philosopher-filmmaker, whose own musical, Jeannette: l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc, aspires to gently mock and deconstruct the religio-ideological premise of the cult of the Maid – I have approached her life with seriousness and with fidelity to the truths of her narrative.

Whatever one may conclude from considering the trajectories taken by the heroic image of Jeanne d’Arc since her brutal death in the hands of her Anglo-Burgundian enemies in 1431, one cannot but be stricken by the sheer variety of the Maid’s reincarnations. She’s been depicted as a national heroine and a nationalist symbol (and also, to my and many a leftists’ dismay, a popular mascot by French ultra-nationalists), a rebellious heretic and a goodly saint. A feminist role model and a belligerent military leader, an innocent mystic and a tortured victim.

However one may choose to view her, there can be no denying that she is, and will continue to be, one of the most singular and significant exemplars of our troubled species. Forget Wonder Woman and Batman – Jeanne d’Arc may be our one and only true superhero.

The ConversationAli Alizadeh will speak at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival on the topic of Revolutionary Women on Fri 1 Sep at 11.30am.

Ali Alizadeh, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Creative Writing, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Posted in History, Research, Uncategorized