Posts Tagged ‘Folklore’

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

July 16, 2014

The Magician KingConsider the smartphone. It can be used to stay in touch with people who are an ocean away. It can store an enormous library of books and the works of thousands of musicians. It can show the path to distant lands, record sounds, and capture images. Yet, is it considered near magical or is it taken for granted?

What if a reader could actually learn magic and enter a fantasy world? Would this bring boundless joy or would it all soon enough seem bland and uninspired?

In Lev Grossman’s The Magician King (a sequel to The Magicians), magic and discontent mingle and meet. After graduating from Brakebills, a secret college of magic, Quentin and some of his fellow magicians rule the magical realm of Fillory. This should be the happily-ever-after, but to Quentin, constantly dissatisfied, it is not. Something is missing, even as his wildest dream has come true.

He decides to go on a quest. Not a very dramatic one, but still. He commissions a ship and sails to the Outer Island to collect back taxes. While Quentin is there, he comes across a fairy tale about seven golden keys. The search for one of the keys accidentally (?) sends the king back to the miserable home of his parents on earth. He is not alone, though. By his side is Julia. She is a creature who once was a gloomy woman, desperate to attain the magician’s skills she felt entitled to (even though she had narrowly failed her entrance exam to Brakebills).

Julia has already paid the price for her quest – what will the price for Quentin’s quest be?

The Magician King is a journey to the heart of darkness of the fantasy genre. It is in part a tale of a desperate need to belong and the search for meaning. Lev Grossman may not be the heir of C. S. Lewis (as he is sometimes described), but he is certainly an author for our time.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

March 20, 2014

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness casts a spell with its use of magical realism. Set in modern day England, it appears to be a realistic story, but incorporates elements like shape-shifting, that are more often seen in fantasy and myth.  George Duncan owns a moderately successful printing shop in London.  It is his misfortune to be such a nice guy that women are attracted to him, but eventually move on to someone more interesting, leaving him quite lonely.  One night he finds an injured crane and sees that it has an arrow through its wing.  He carefully removes the arrow and the crane flies away.  The next day a lovely, but mysterious woman named Kumiko arrives at his shop.  She is an artist and they find that when she adds some of his paper cuttings to her artwork, people are so moved by the results they will pay huge sums of money to own one of their panels.  George is soon smitten with Kumiko and together they start working on a set of panels inspired by a tale that Kumiko begins to tell.  It is a tale of long lasting love and terrible anger that may reveal Kumiko’s secrets.

If this story sounds a bit familiar up to this point, it may be because it is patterned after the Japanese folktale of the crane wife.  In the folktale, a poor man finds an injured crane and nurses it back to health.  When the crane leaves, a beautiful woman comes to his door and they marry.  She weaves beautiful silks in secret, making them rich.  The man becomes greedy and peeks in to see his wife weaving.  He is surprised to see that she is weaving a bit of herself, her feathers, into the silk.  The crane sees him and flies away, never to return.  Ness expands upon this tale, using it to tell us about the nature of loneliness, forgiveness, and love in this entrancing novel.

Fans of magical realism might also enjoy Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen or Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

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Mythology by Edith Hamilton

May 24, 2013

We love stories.  We always have.  Expressing our thoughts and desires could be said to be one of the things that makes us uniquely human.  From pre-historic cave paintings to YouTube, human beings cannot help but to tell stories.

Many of the stories which we love today are taken from older civilizations, adaptations of the tales told ‘round the campfires of our ancestors.  The tale of Pygmalion has gone through numerous adaptations, including the immensely popular My Fair Lady, not to mention modern versions, done in Hollywood blockbuster style, of the entire Greek Pantheon.  Where do we go for the source, though?  We are unable to quiz the ancient Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Egyptians and countless other civilizations to whom we owe so much of our entertainment.  So we go…where?  To Edith Hamilton.

Mythology reads like a cross between a collection of fascinating short stories and a cliff notes version of some of the greatest epics ever told.  The book isn’t a classic page turner, there is no over-arching plot, but on any given day you can pick it up and read about ferocious battles, torrid romances, treacherous deceits…and that may all be in one story.  Outlining the greatest hits of Greece and Rome, even touching on the Norse Pantheon of gods and heroes, Hamilton manages to condense a great deal of historic storytelling into one book.  Anyone with an interest in mythology or storytelling, or that has a research paper to do, should find this one a fascinating read.

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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

April 25, 2013

Not only does Grace Lin write Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, she also provides stunning illustrations to accompany the story. It was part folktale, part fantasy, and an all-around great adventure as Minli set off to meet the Old Man of the Moon.

Minli’s family is poor and the only form of entertainment was the stories she had grown up listening to; her father told her about Magistrate Tiger, the Jade Dragon, and the Fruitless Mountain. Stories about fortune and people changing their luck inspire her to use one of her only copper coins in order to buy a goldfish. Instead of bringing her family good fortune, she feels the weight of her family having another mouth to feed.

When she released the fish into the river, the goldfish tells her the story of the Never-Ending Mountain. She learns of Old Man of the Moon, living at the top of the Never-Ending Mountain, whose red thread weaves together everyone’s fate. Growing up in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain, Minli finally decides that it is up to her to change the fate of her village and the fortune of her family, and she takes it upon herself to meet the Old Man.

Minli meets many different people and creatures along her journey; a flightless dragon, a Buffalo Boy, and a village in which all of its inhabitants know the true meaning of happiness. While many folktales can appear preachy, Lin employs them with ease to provide background information about the story. She ties everything up neatly with a red thread; the missing line that Minli must use to request an audience with the Old Man of the Moon.

It was an enjoyable and sweet tale about a girl’s discovery of what happiness is and the meaning of friendship. Although it was a juvenile fiction novel, I found myself amazed at the depth of the subject matter and, when I finished, I wanted to read it all over again.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog

The Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

April 27, 2012

Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Eating Animals, once said that what he loves the most about Isaac Bashevis Singer, is the vulnerability and bravery of his writing. Moreover, Singer can be described as an honest author, and he is also a deeply humane and compassionate writer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s writing career began in his native Poland, but in his early 30s, he left his home country and emigrated to America. Singer arrived in New York in 1935, and the shock of the move and life in exile were changes he never got over. He had lost his country, and if his audience had been small in Poland (Singer wrote in Yiddish), it was even smaller in New York. However, the old country proved to be a rich source of inspiration. For decades, Singer returned to the pre-World War II life of the Eastern European Jews. In this world, imps, dybbuks, and demons are as real as the baker next door is, and the devil himself is frequently the teller of the tale. In “Zeidlus the Pope,” the Evil One manages to lure a brilliant Jewish scholar away from his faith, claiming that if Zeidlus embraces Christianity, he may one day become the pope. The story ends in hell.

When Singer eventually, especially in the 1960s, began writing about life in America, the irrational element remained intact. However, in the new land, the imps, dybbuks, and demons were often replaced by neurotic behavior, delusional, love-driven deeds, and existential confusion. The supernatural aspect and the closeness to Singer’s spiritual roots never went away though. In “The Cafeteria,” corpses walk on Broadway, and in “Alone,” a nameless visitor to Miami Beach, mysteriously evicted from his hotel, drifts aimlessly and imagines that he’s in the midst of a Biblical disaster, “I was like Noah – but in an empty ark.”

Singer is a master storyteller. He never hides behind false originality (which, according to the author, “often reveal nothing but a writer’s boring and selfish personality”), and his writing is precise, transparent, and straightforward. At the same time, Singer combines the everyday experience with philosophical and theological depths, and even if his stories may be filled with human confusion and conflicts, the eternal mysteries are always present – Singer writes about them with grace and understated awe. As here, in “The Letter Writer:” “The night had ended like a dream and was followed by an obscure reality, self-absorbed, sunk in the perpetual mystery of being.”

Taken together, the components of Singer’s short stories give them the weight of great novels.

WCPL can offer the following short story collections by Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories, and Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories; find and reserve these in our catalog.

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen

March 5, 2012

Some readers may characterize the fairy tales of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen as melancholic, sad, and sentimental – true, it’s all there – but Andersen is a complex author whose tales are wonderfully rich and multifaceted.

Harold Bloom once said, “Andersen was a visionary tale-teller, but his fairy-realm was malign. Of his aesthetic eminence, I entertain no doubts, but I believe that we still have not learned how to read him.” Be that as it may – generations have been entertained by Andersen and for more than a century he has made people smile, snicker, snivel, shudder, and laugh. To read Andersen can be a sweet and tender experience, but it can also be nerve wracking or like taking a knife in your heart. And his humor is often as drastic and unexpected, as here, in The Traveling Companions. “Then the [marionette show] started, and it was a nice play with a king and a queen. They sat on the loveliest of thrones, with golden crowns on their heads and long trains on their garments, because they could afford it. […] It was quite a charming play, and it wasn’t the least bit sad. But just as the queen stood up and walked across the stage, then… Well, God only knows what that big bulldog was thinking. But since the fat butcher wasn’t holding on to him, the dog leaped at the stage and grabbed the queen around her slender waist, making it say ‘crick, crack!’ It was simply dreadful!”

What in the world!

The directness of Andersen’s storytelling, closely related to the traditional folk tales, makes it relentlessly powerful, and his imagery is splendid, stark, vivid, loving. “With fear in her heart,” it says in The Wild Swans, “as if she were about to commit an evil deed, she crept out into the moonlit night, down to the garden. She walked down the long lanes out to the deserted streets and over to the churchyard. There she saw, sitting on one of the widest headstones, a group of Lamias, hideous witches. They were taking off their rags, as if they were going to bathe, and then they buried their long, gaunt fingers in the fresh graves, pulled out the bodies, and ate their flesh.”


In Andersen’s fairy tales, the reader will encounter the Little Mermaid, the Emperor who marches naked down the street, the steadfast Tin Soldier, the Ugly Duckling, a Princess on top of twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdown quilts, the Snow Queen, and Death, witches, and trolls. His world is a world of wonder and terror, where salvation is not always granted, and where ancient folk tales collide and mingle with Christian sentiments.

Hans Christian Andersen’s writing is one of the wonders of the world.

Find and reserve the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen in our catalog.

Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey

February 1, 2012

In many languages, the same word is used for “history” and “story,” and obviously the two derive from the same linguistic root in English. The importance of strong narrative is not lost on many historians – Britisher Robert Lacey being one of them. His book Great Tales from English History: the Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More  stirs “the blood with the old stories” – some really old – but (being a researcher and historian) he checks the tales against the latest evidence.

The book starts out in 7150 B.C.E., before the British Isles were islands. The would-be Great Britain was connected to what today is continental Europe, and humans and animals crossed to and fro. Eventually, Celtic tribes settled in the area and “Britannia” has its root in pretani, the Celtic word for “painted people,” for when going into battle the islanders “stripped down to their coarse woven undershorts and painted themselves.” The Romans learned that the Celts were friendly and always happy to do business, and as Tacitus later put it, the land of these painted people could be pretium victoriae – or “well worth the conquering.” And then the land became part of the Roman Empire.

Other invasions would follow. Within a century and a half of the Romans’ departure, the south-east corner of the island had become the Saxon Shore. In time, the Anglo-Saxon pushed the Celts inland, to present day Wales, and when the Welsh talk of England today, “they use a word that means ‘the lost lands.’”

But this is merely an overture of things to come: here is the once and future king, Arthur – the legend, and what can actually be said to be known about him – here is king Canute’s attempt to turn back the waves, and here is Robin Hood who in 1589 – more than 300 years after his legendary career – became known as the man who “tooke from the rich to give to the poore.” Here is even Jesus Christ who, according to folktales, in person visited the island between the Celtic Sea and the North Sea. Which, of course, he didn’t. But as Lacey points out, “over the centuries the story would play part in inspiring history.” A story may not be true, but there is truth to be found in every story. And this is a theme that Robert Lacey returns to over and over again, in his inspired little book on English history.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

December 15, 2010

Once upon a time, in the deep, dark forests of Germania, parents occasionally – when times were hard and starvation was at the door – left their children, usually the youngest, in the woodland to die. They did this hoping to increase the remaining family members’ chances of survival. There may, in other words, be a harsh reality behind the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected, edited, and saved for the printed pages, and the imaginary woods of the brothers Grimm is closely connected to the physical forests of northern Europe.

The tales partly sprung out of these woodlands. They reach deeply into the human psyche, and those who decide to wander in the forest where folktales are born can never know whom or what they will encounter. What the wanderers can be sure of, though, is that everything is there for their sake, and that everything has got to do with them, for the fairy tale is a decidedly paranoid genre.

The stories may seem simple, and they are simple, but they are also complex and subtle, and they display every possible human emotional state. The tales are exciting, funny, entertaining, tender, sensual, adventurous, and downright scary – as is the tale of Hansel and Gretel. The plot is well-known and few can recall when they first encountered it – the story was, in a certain sense, always there. Famine engulfs the land. Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother – in some versions, mother – decides to get rid of the children, leaving them behind in the forest. Hansel is thrifty, but eventually they do get lost in the woods. There the siblings find a house of bread (!) which is the home of a witch (!!) who, as soon as a child falls into her hands, kills it, cooks it, and eats it (!!!) How grim can it get?

For the majority of the story, Gretel cries, but when an opportunity appears she takes control of the situation, destroys the witch, and saves herself and her brother. How did this happen? How could this little girl all of a sudden become the destroyer of death/the witch? The answer is: it isn’t all of a sudden. Her innermost nature has been revealed before the dramatic climax of the story, but silently. So… when you find yourself in the forest where fairy tales are born… keep a sharp lookout.

Find and request this book in our catalog.

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