Saturday, January 15, 2011

Once Upon A Time...

In these times of post-party depression (no, not those brought on by our respective politicians) as winter wages on from the long end of year holiday season toward a hoped for Valentine’s Day festive break, I thought it might be a good idea to come up with something light and cheery.  Something to get my mind off the horrible tragedy in Tucson and onto Houston, Texas where I head next week to visit my almost four- and almost two- year-old grandkids (and their parents) and find a bit of calm before setting out on a two month book tour.

My idea was to skim (not surf) the Internet in search of inspiration for an upbeat Greek topic.  Something drew me to the official website of Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not a place generally thought of as yielding up light hearted gems, but as fate would have it I landed on the Ministry’s “Greece at a Glance” page and what to my wondering eyes should appear directly above “© 2011 Ministry of Foreign Affairs” but this:

“Over the last decade, Greece has achieved impressive converging trends with the rest of the European Member States.  Real GDP growth outstripped the EU-27 average, unemployment has been declining since 2000, social expenditure has been increasing and life expectancy is among the highest in the EU-27 Member States.”

Eureka!  I had my topic for the week:  Greece and the Fairy Tale.

I expect that most who read Murder is Everywhere have at least a passing familiarity with ancient Greek myths.  Greeks think most of the world does because a few years back they tied their national tourist campaign to the slogan, “Live your Myth in Greece.”  And it is hard to imagine an educated soul in the western world who hasn’t at least heard of Greece’s legends, if not the Iliad, certainly the Odyssey.
Odysseus resisting the Sirens
Countess d'Aulnoy coined "fairy tales"

So, what is a fairy tale anyway?  Their written origins go back thousands of years, and their oral roots thousands more.  Yet, it’s still hard to say what is precisely a fairy tale for as with so many other things in life there is serious academic debate over that seemingly simple question. To make things more complicated the actual name “fairy tale” didn’t exist until the late 17th Century and at one time much of Tolkien’s work and even Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would have been considered fairy tales but today are called fantasy.  God bless progress.

As I see it, the stories we grew up with, the ones we always thought of as fairy tales, brought out gnomes, trolls, elves, dwarfs, giants, and that sort of creature, featured magic and sometimes—but far from always—an actual fairy.  Yes, fairies are no more required for fairy tales than reality is for certain economic tales.  But I digress. Back now to Greece’s seminal role in the fairy tale.

Although the Egyptians generally are credited with reducing the first fairy tale to writing in 1300 B.C.E., it was Greece’s own Aesop who brought fame to the genre with his collection of fables in the 6th Century B.C.E.  And the oral tradition of such tales in Greece goes back thousands of years before then.  That’s not to say other cultures didn’t have similar rich oral traditions.  Indeed it’s striking how so many different societies shared similar stories passing the same bit of wisdom or moral guidance across Europe, China, India, Egypt and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

Some say the similarities sprung from shared values.  Others claim they spread through tellers and listeners traveling and battling their way to far off places, but if so, for those tales to survive must they still not have rung true to each culture that absorbed them as its own?
Rapunzel today

So, what are examples of these similar tales?  I don’t want to sound Grimm (pained looks noted) but there are many.  For example, if you’re looking for something in the “Let’s rescue the maiden in the tower” vein, you can have the Greek champion shouting “Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa let down your hair,”—yes, that one young maiden had all those names—or go with the snappier “Rapunzel” of the Brothers Grimm version.
1962 movie of 1958 book

Then there’s the one about how sometimes success in life is nothing more than a matter of “being in the right place at the right time.”  The Greeks call their version “Almondseed and Almondella,” but the Grimm Brothers’ went for “Doctor Know-all.”  Just in case neither title seems particularly fetching, doesn’t the Grimm Brother’s moniker at least make you wonder if their version didn’t tickle a homonymic chord in Ian Fleming’s search for a title for perhaps his 007’s most celebrated escapade?

And then there is the most famous fairy tale of all, or at least one of the top five.  Its recorded history goes back to the 1st Century B.C.E. as the story of the Greco-Egyptian girl, Rhodopolis.  Over ensuing centuries that little Greek girl moved around quite a bit until finally finding a home in Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose tales as Cinderella.
Cinderella's crowning feat

Which reminds me.  I’ve got to start rounding up the mice and get my pumpkin moving. It’s off to Houston in a few days…and off that Foreign Ministry site this very instant.

Jeff — Saturday


  1. Is this a great post, or what?

    Wouldn't you all like to be sitting around, somewhere, exchanging thoughts with people as interesting as Jeff?

    Ya know what?
    You can!

    Jeff is kicking off a tour in the US.

    Check out his dates, and locations, here:

    And, if you happen to be in the neighborhood, and want a double-dose, go to Reston, in Virginia, on the 16th of March, where you can catch both of us at once. Jeff and I will be there, both of us together, at the Barnes and Noble.
    It will be my only bookshop visit in the US in 2011.
    And I'd love to see a few of you there.

  2. Unfortunately, none of the stops on the tour are near me. The people in Reston are in for quite a treat.

    It is strange that these stories, originally spun to entertain adults as they traveled, became stories for children. Hansel and Gretel know their stepmother is planning on killing them in a particularly gruesome way. The stories certainly give stepmothers a bad reputation.

    The requirements of hospitality in the days when no one could be turned away required that the guest provide the evenings entertainment. A good story guaranteed that the guest would be welcomed again. The storytellers were always on the lookout for new material so they had to be good listeners. They took the stories they heard, embellished them with details from their homelands and put their imprint on an old story.


  3. Good luck with the tour Jeff. Always fun to meet the readers.

    And that date with Leighton, make sure you don't 'reston' your laurels.

    I'll get my coat...

  4. I have an idea: Beth, why don't you join us in Reston because if anyone can guarantee a good story it's you:))

    As for your observation, Dan, on 'reston' on ones 'laurels' don't worry as that only happens to the hardys.

    Bet that gets 'Barumpbump' from Lenny on the snare drum.