Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What storytellers should take away from Frozen, or, "Wait, did Disney just beat the original....?"

Yes. Yes it did.

As a person who had to listen to The Little Match Girl read aloud by her teacher year after year before Christmas, the name of Hans Christian Andersen to me is eternally bound to childhood emotional trauma. I have never cared for any of his stories (and I had all the picture books), and most of them just downright made me want to curl up in a ball and wail.

Okay, so I had my doubts when I heard that Disney was coming out with a Snow Queen movie.
Even after I heard that it has most of the creative team from Tangled.

I just watched the movie, braving throngs of excited children (ADORABLE) and pre-Thanksgiving-dinner stressed out mothers (LESS ADORABLE).
And as a traditional straight up "The Book is Always Better than the Movie" kinda Storyteller gal, I just have to suck it up and admit:
I am SOLD.

HERE BE SPOILERS I KID YOU NOT



Disney seems to have recognized two very important things:

1. Apart from their age-old princess image problem, the Disney princes, well, have always also kinda sucked. Especially the early ones. Girls need role models sure, but seriously, guys did not fare much better either. But Tangled and Frozen seem to have picked up something very important: Male characters also need character. And damn do they have one now.

2. Love alone does not a happy ending make. Princesses might be teenage girls of 16-18, but that doesn't mean that they will get married and live happily ever after.
Because what if the guy picks his nose?
All men do.
(Yes that was a reference)

And here is something else that I as a Storyteller need to suck up now:

As much as we like to wail on Disney, let's admit: That is exactly what the "fairy tale canon" tells the kids. There will be One person, One Love, AT FIRST SIGHT, and it will be magical and perfect and your braces won't get tangled and the guy won't be a jerk. You might stray and wander, but you will always come back to your Perfect Match in the end. Even if you have only known each other for a day.

I don't know about anyone else, but I am taking a second look at my repertoire as we speak.
(Snow White. Oops. Sleeping Beauty. Ouch. Cinderella. Yeeeah...)
I pride myself in telling folktales and fairy tales that are not well known at all, and it is still hard to find one where a person, especially a female hero, goes through (um) multiple men before finding the right one. It's no wonder, most of these stories were born in a different time.
Don't get me wrong. I have always cringed at the idea of "modernizing" folktales and fairy tales. I did not like the kind of "feminist" re-tellings where "Cinderella goes to college." I did not like them when I started storytelling, and I don't like them now.
But there are other kinds of tales out there. Many of them. about stories that end with achievements other than love and marriage. Stories that talk about sisterhood, and family, and adventure. Many of us are already telling many of them. We will just have to double down and make sure they are told often. Told well. And that they are heard.

Storytellers, seriously, do we want to let Disney beat us to a positive message?...

Monday, November 25, 2013

My Loki is not your Loki, and that's okay

Trickster has taken over the Internet, and is laughing out loud at all of us.
...
Of course I am talking about Loki. Geez, everyone's talking about Loki these days.

Thor: The Dark World is premiering worldwide, bringing along a renewed interest in Marvel comics, Norse mythology, and, most of all, a certain trickster so masterfully embodied by Tom Hiddleston that it gave birth to this gemstone of a meme:
I really tried not to go there, but as a storyteller a little voice (probably masculine with a Scandinavian accent) keeps needling the back of my mind: I liked Loki before it was cool.
My Loki is the Loki of Norse mythology. It's the Loki of the Lokasenna. It might not be Eric the Red's Loki, or Snorri's Loki, but it is the Loki I imagined as a kid when I first devoured my way through Norse mythology books like the Very Dorky Caterpillar. When I grew up to be a storyteller, the idea of Loki grew up with me. I have always had a thing for tricksters.

And then Thor came out followed by the Avengers and then Dark World, and now I hear people all over yelling at each other in text and in person, going "THAT IS NOT WHAT LOKI IS LIKE, YOU ARE TOTALLY WRONG."
In Corner A, you see Team Hipster Loki - People who, just like me, liked Loki long before it was cool. Straight from Norse mythology, or anyhow as close as you can get without reading Icelandic and living in the 10th century. They claim that Loki is a Trickster, a god, and an all-around complex character. They quote the prosaic and the poetic Edda, and make obscure clandestine jokes about horses and Mother's Day.
In Corner B, you find Team Marvel Loki - People who read comics and have been familiar with Loki Of The Cricket Helmet for a while now. They quote comics and comic authors, frown on Jane Foster, and hang up garlic to keep away the next group on the list, known as...
Corner C, or Team Loki Hiddleston - Here Be Fangirls. These are the people who have an interest in Loki as portrayed in the Marvel cinematic universe (Earth 199999, to be completely nerdy). This Loki is a villain and a fan favorite at the same time. Some people say he only needs a hug. Some people say he is an evil psychotic bastard but damn he is sexy. Some people say he is an unappreciated genius among spandex-sporting heroes. Some people don't say anything. They just squeal. It gets uncomfortable.

Now, here is the Law of All the Universes, people:

EVERYONE IS ENTITLED TO THEIR OWN LOKI.

Deal with it.

My Loki might only be my Loki, but as a storyteller, I know a few things about Tricksters. And one thing is sure: Whenever someone tries to define what a trickster is, things merrily meander off to hell in a neat little hand basket. The entire thing that is the Trickster thrives on breaking rules and definitions. And yet, people keep trying. I have heard and read arguments over whether or not Hiddleston Loki is a trickster or "just a villain." Seriously, if you have to question it, it is already decided.

One thing to note about Dark World: It has plot holes the size of Asgard, but they did Trickster right. If you don't believe that, refer to Cory O'Brien's handy Norse Crisis Flowchart on the left, summarizing the issue.

Trickster is an archetype. That means, everyone gets their own version of it, and that is just fine.
With that said, keep arguing. Keep talking about mythology, and tricksters, and stories. Most of all, keep fighting over Loki. I am sure he loves it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Universal declaration of children's rights to listen to stories

(This declaration in ten points has been circulating among Spanish and Latin-American storytellers for decades, and has been recently posted again by the Red Internacional de Cuentacuentos. I made an English translation so it can spread even further.)

1. Every child, regardless of race, language or religion, has the right to listen to the most beautiful stories of every nation, especially the ones that inspire their imagination and teach them critical thinking.

2. Children have every right to demand a story from their parents any hour of the day. Parents who refuse to tell stories to their children do not only commit a serious crime, but they also risk that the children will never ask for a story again.

3. Every child that for some reason does not have anyone to tell them stories has the right to ask any adult of their choice. The adult shall tell the stories with kindness and love, for that is how stories should be told.

4. Children have the right to listen to stories sitting on their grandparents' knees. The children who have four living grandparents can lend some of them to others who for some reason do not have any. Similarly, grandparents who do not have grandchildren have the freedom to go to schools, parks and other places with many children, and offer to tell as many stories as they want.

5. Every child has the right to know José Martí, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Elena Fortún, Lewis Carroll, Carlo Collodi, Gloria Fuertes, María Elena Walsh, Frank Baum, J. M. Barrie, Dr. Seuss, and others.

(Every country gets to add their own authors and storytellers, so feel free to add to the list)

6. Every child has full rights to know all the myths, legends and folktales of their own country.

7. Every child has the right to invent and tell their own stories, or make their own versions of existing tales. In cases when children are primarily influenced by television, it is the adults' responsibility to lead them down the pathways of imagination and put good children's books into their hands.

8. Children have the right to demand new stories. Adults are obligated to continually provide these tales, their own or by others, with kings or without, long or short - all that matters is that they are beautiful and interesting.

9. The child always has the right to ask for one more story, or ask for the same story for the millionth time.

10. Last, every child has the right to grow up with Alice, Little Red and the wolf, Dorothy, Puss in Boots, Jack and the beanstalk, the 'happily ever after' and the 'Once upon a time', magic words that open up the gates of imagination, and fill childhood with the most amazing dreams.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why is marriage always the end of the story?

This is exactly the kind of question that usually makes me feel like throwing a classic storyteller’s hissy fit; yet here I am asking it.

People usually think of “all stories” in terms of the classic fairy tale canon, the list of tales solidified by years of telling and re-telling, and also by Disney. You know the ones I am talking about. Even when you are a storyteller with long years of experience, your brain automatically jumps to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Little Red first, just like when someone throws a ball at you and you use your dominant hand to catch it. It’s the way most of us is Western culture are wired when it comes to fairy tales.

Usually, when people ask big general questions like the one above, the Trickster in me jumps up and goes off collecting tales to torpedo it into oblivion. In my philosophy, there is a folktale out there for everything, even the most unlikely of life situations, because stories are a reflection of things people think about often and long. Life-changing events such as birth, death, love, marriage etc. are the most common examples. So, when someone comes up to me and asks “Why is marriage always the end of the story?” my first instinct is to answer: “Not always.”

With that said, the tales most often told do little to nothing to prepare anyone for life after marriage.

Marriage, more often than not, IS the end of the story. It’s the ultimate goal. They won, they got married, they lived happily ever after. Curtain, credits, copyright note, no animals were harmed, and not even a bonus scene in the end for the fans.
What does this tell to children who hear these stories over and over again, I wonder? That marriage equals the end of story, for one. No more dragons, no more adventures, no more exploring the world. The End. Game over. The only thing that comes after is happiness, forever and ever (or, in the case of Hungarian tale ending formulas, happiness until they die.)
But what if they were not happy ever after? Shhh. We don’t talk about that. If you are not happy, you bet on the wrong prince. Or princess. The whole thing is botched from the start. You just gotta wait for the One to show and save you.

Of course, there are folktales that talk about problems within married life. Most of them talk about not having a child. But it is usually the beginning of someone else’s tale (usually the child’s). Some of them, like selkie legends, tell you how you will lose your freedom to a significant other. That is, in the end, just another version of “game over.”

As a storyteller, one has to know the context these tales come from: in terms of marriage and happiness, it was a very different time. The idea that connects romantic love to marriage is a fairly new one, and far from universal even today. The idea of getting married and coming into one’s power is often connected – even the latest progressive Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog, ends with a common girl transformed into a princess through marrying a prince (sorry for the spoliers). Merida, everyone’s new favorite Mary Sue, only gets away without “game over” because she refuses to marry at all.

So, what message are we sending when we solely rely on these stories to determine the “fairy tale canon?” That marriage is a terrible thing? I would argue that not even that. What happens after the fairy tale wedding is a large white spot on our mental map, a “here be dragons” uncharted territory, and folk- and fairy tales that have held our hand through all the adventures of parent-child relationships, brotherhood, sisterhood, coming of age and courtship, stop at the border and toss us forward into oblivion without as much as a hand-drawn road map. Figure it out for yourselves, guys.

I am NOT saying that there are absolutely no folktales about married couples. Actually, there is a LOT of them. I am saying we don’t hear them enough.


Someone should compile a list.

(By the way, the illustration above is from the Persian manuscript of Nizami's Haft Paykar, the tale of the Seven Wise Princesses. The Yellow Princess from Greece tells one of the best marriage-negotiation stories I have ever read. Because Nizami is amazing, that's why.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Goodreads Book Giveaway! - Tales of Superhuman Powers

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Tales of Superhuman Powers by Csenge Virág Zalka

Tales of Superhuman Powers

by Csenge Virág Zalka

Giveaway ends October 23, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Who is the patron saint of storytelling?

(No, really, who is it? I have always wondered.)

Saint Aloysius (known endearingly as Saint Al's) Catholic School took me up on my offer to adopt them as a storyteller, and they are giving me all kinds of great stuff to do. I did three hours of Greek Mythology on Monday in 6th and 7th grade, also known as Percy Jackson Fan Club. The kids were the audience every storyteller dreams of (they literally cheered every time a familiar god or creature was mentioned), and I got to tell some of the stories I have not told in a while - Dionysus and the pirates, Momus, and the alternate myth for Achilles' heel that I researched for my book. I also snuck in some Roman mythology, since some of the girls claimed that the Romans stole everything from the Greek. Bah. All in all, I had a great time.

Today I went back to 7th grade to tell saints' legends in religion class, and I discovered something new:
It is a special privilege for a storyteller to tell to an audience that takes every word as truth.

I have always wanted to tap into saints' legends; I was raised Roman Catholic, after all, and one of the additional benefits of that is that it comes with an endless supply of stories, ranging from really amazing to really weird. But somehow, I never got around to actually doing a full storytelling performance of them, and I have always wanted to try. And what better place for a test run than a Catholic school and a roomful of 7th graders?
I selected saints that I personally like, and also saints that have a connection to Hungary, in the hopes that they would be new to the students, and maybe for the teacher as well. I started with St. Martin (who was born in Pannonia), then digressed to St. Helena (who is the patron saint of archaeology), and then even though I only had half an hour left I still managed to cram in St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Margaret of Scotland (who was also half Hungarian). As I was working my way through the stories, from origins through miracles and relics, it started to dawn on me that this time, maybe for the first time in my career, the kids were not listening to the stories as stories - they were taking them all at face value, as they are taught in religion class. To them, everything I was saying was completely true. I was not sure at first what to do with that - being religious myself, but also a storyteller that pokes and prods at stories and symbols until they show their layers - but as the stories progressed, I felt like I was incredibly lucky to have this experience. When the bread in St. Elizabeth's apron turned into roses, the entire class gasped at the miracle. When I told the story of St. Helena finding the Cross, they all wanted to know where it is now (which led to a whole discussion of how relics work, and I am proud to say, I escaped without my foot in my mouth on that one). All in all, it was a new experience.

I am looking forward to seeing what else storytelling at St. Al's is going to teach me.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Defining professional storytelling

"I am a professional storyteller," I introduce myself to people.
"Oh" they say "What does that mean?"
"That means I get paid for it."

I am re-thinking that definition as we speak.

Many young (and younger) storytellers struggle with this definition, and have conflicting feelings about their career, work, and vocation because there is no clear answer. The general Unspoken Truth accepted by most artists is this:

Thous shalt not name thyself professional if thou do not your money solely from art make.

(Yes, I just murdered the English language and salted its grave.)

I have been a professional, full-time, on-the-road traveling storyteller before, for almost two years, in-between universities. And now I am back in higher education. I am on a student visa and a scholarship, both of which specifically forbid me to work outside the university campus.
Did I just cease to be a professional storyteller?
Am I a storyteller at all?

And if money is not the answer, how does one define professional storytelling?

Taking a look at more traditional forms of employment (which, ironically, are usually not nearly as old as storytelling, named by many the second oldest profession in human history, tongue in cheek or in other places), one could say that you are a professional something if you have been trained for it. For example, I have a master's degree in Archaeology, therefore I am an archaeologist even though I have not set foot in a trench every since graduation. Still, if I claim this profession as part of my image, not many people would contest it.
But here is the thing about storytelling: many tellers have no professional training in it, and frankly, I would argue that they even need one. Circling back to the question of definitions: how would you define someone's training if his father was a storyteller, and his father before him? Storytelling really happens where the rubber meets the road: you are a great teller if you tell great stories. Problem is, people will not know that until they hear you. Most people hire the storyteller based on the image projected: "Tell enchanting tales of this and that, hails from the magical land of here and there, can occupy the attention of 200+ first graders for the time period of [blank]". I know because that is how I do it. Then, of course, people hear you tell, they like what you do, your name gets passed around, and you become part of the "storytelling world" as a "master teller" by the consensus of the only people that matter: the people listening to your tales. Happily ever after.

 But what if you also enjoy teaching pilates on the side? Or running a restaurant? Or working in a library and secretly pushing your nose in the new books to inhale the heavenly new book smell?

Many artists say that they want to make a living solely from their art because then they do not have to deal with anything else. I used to tell my clients that I asked for payment for my gigs because then "I can spend all my time working on storytelling and nothing else." Once I made my passion my full-time profession, I had all the time in the world to hone my skills and craft my stories. Right?
Yeeeah, turns out: not so much.

Storytelling (or any other art form) as a full time job is exactly that: a full-time job. As the great philosopher and poet so eloquently says: "it's ten percent luck, twenty percent skill, fifteen percent concentrated power of will, five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain, and a hundred percent reason to remember the name." With full-time occupation come marketing, web design, emails and phone calls, and, worst of all, tax paperwork (blergh). At a glance I estimate that I spent my full-time storytelling life with five percent on stage and ninety-five percent at my desk.
I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Then again, there are also other things that I would do full time in a heartbeat. I love dressing up in medieval dresses, and doing historical archery. I am also that dork that loves going to school. Turns out I quite enjoy teaching teenagers. I use a lot of storytelling in the classroom.
So now what?

There is a classic and influential piece of marketing advice floating around in the virtual universe: "If you are good at something, never do it for free." Incidentally, from the same source comes another message: "It's not about the money. It's about sending a message."
(Geez, Joker, make up your mind.)
I hit the three week limit this past Friday: I was twitching with the need to tell some stories. To get my fix, I did three things: one, I told the Saga of the Greenlanders to my class (see previous post); two, I went to a festival in Oakwood, OH with the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism and told tales of King Arthur; three, I contacted a local middle school, and offered to adopt them (see previous posts about adopting schools).
I had a great time.

That is all fine and peachy, one could say, but hey: doing things for free might actually hurt other people who are trying to do the same thing for money. If you don't want to get paid, great, but what if schools decide they will never again invite someone for actual money?
That is, first of all, a very legitimate concern, and one that I too share as a professional storyteller. People tend to get used to the freebies. People tend to live off of them (come on, college students master this skill before Composition 101). At the same time, I have been a storyteller long before I found out you can actually get paid for it. I told stories in school and in camps and at Ren festivals from the age of fourteen or fifteen, and didn't know it was a profession until I hit college. It is not something I can just cease doing if the money stops. I get quite literal physical symptoms of distress if I go more than a few weeks without doing any storytelling. And that is more than my good-natured and amazing friends should ever have to put up with. Running the risk of the worst metaphor ever: I can go for a while on drinking True Blood and Bambi's mother, but eventually I will drag a runaway into a dark alley. Or, in this case, a class full of freshmen who have never heard an Icelandic saga told before.
All I can do is keep it clear. I tell the school the reasons why this is a special offer that I did not extend to anyone else; I can tell them the reasons why I do not ask them for money. I make it a deal: they provide me a regular practice venue where I can bring new and half-baked stories for testing, risking that I will not always be at my very best, in exchange for doing it for free. I keep it connected: I tell them about other tellers they might want to invite for special events. No really, I am a very talented singer of praises. I also keep it contained: I am present at the festivals as a Bard with the SCA, a group that does not ask for money because they are all very clear on the nature of what they do: it is a hobby, something they do for FUN.
(Cue Jack Frost.)
I enjoy the freedom to do something I was born to do, without having to get paid for it.
And all the while, I keep it professional.

Being on the road full time, in and of itself, does not a great storyteller make. On the other side of the coin: not being on the road full time, at least the way I see it, has nothing to do with what you are either. And, first and foremost, the next generation should not be pressured into trying to make a full-time living from something with threats and suggestions that they have not earned their laurels unless they do. History has made the mistake of the "all or nothing" mentality a few times before, and we tell so many stories about it, we kinda have to get the point. No one should be passing for a professional storyteller while also working in a coffee shop. Art only really happens the way it is supposed to if the artist is free, one way or another, to do his or her very best. And if that means being, oh, I don't know, a historian, a musician, a teacher, a travel guide, a writer and a goose herd at the same time, all I have to say is: That must be one hell of an interesting tale.

Let's hear it.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Of ice and polar bears, or, teaching Multicultural America through sagas

How much does a polar bear weigh?
Enough to break the ice.

This has nothing to do whatsoever with the rest of the post.
Well, except for breaking ice. And Iceland.
...
I swear I am more coherent in class.

As of now, I have been teaching the undergraduate course titles Cultural Pluralism in the USA for an entire week. Most of my class are freshmen. As a storyteller, I am accustomed to working with teenagers; they are my favorite audience ever. I have discovered that freshmen are not all the different from teenagers.
What is different, however, is the fact that I am the teacher this time, not the super cool mysterious storyteller who visits the class to bring magic into everyday life. It took me some time to come to terms with that. And then I decided that storytelling shall happen, teacher or not.

Next week, we are going to start discussing the history of various ethnicities and cultural groups in the USA, against the backdrop of the history of immigration. With that in mind, I started the introductions with the topic of communication between cultures, languages, and the general issue of (mis)understanding each other over cultural barriers. That led me to remember a story that I have done some research on during my studies in Archaeology, when I was taking Icelandic saga classes for extra credit. The random piece of story and memory soon evolved into a lesson plan.
The story in question is the Saga of the Greenlanders. It has everything to do with multicultural America: it is our first source of European settlers and Native Americans meeting, trading and fighting; it also names the first known European child born on American soil (his name is Snorri). It has a scene that is especially dear to my heart in which Gudridr, the daughter-in-law of Erik the Red, meets an Indian woman, and they attempt to communicate (while their husbands are killing each other outside the house). It names instances of Vikings and Indians negotiating their cultural differences (pretty badly, which results in us not counting the settling of America from 1000 AD). It is also an important source on the life of women in the Viking era.
Yeah, I told the story in class, from Gudridr's perspective, who is a fascinating character by herself. It's definitely a keeper. And yeah, it is part of a longer epic...

To go with the storytelling experience, I also found an article written about the "My name is Gudridr" scene that discusses the possibility that the other woman (never named) was Indian. I assigned the article, told the story, and planned a discussion session about what all this one short tale tells us about cultures, communication, understanding, and the history of America.

Last but not least, it also broke the ice. Vikings tend to do so.

Friday, July 26, 2013

7 reasons we like Spain

Well, reasons I like Spain, anyway. I feel like after my third storytelling trip to the country I am entitled to form a thoroughly subjective opinion.

Thus, without further ado, I like Spain because...

1. Colors. Colors everywhere. Even the country looks colorful from the plane. Little squares of colors and dots and stripes. And people dressed in colors all over. And Desigual. Desigual all over the place. One day I will be rich and actually buy their stuff...

2. Dogs. Dogs everywhere. People who like dogs can't really be bad people, right?... We even met a bobtail. In Salobreña. On the beach. Fashionably shaved.

3. Kids. Kids everywhere. Out on the streets till one in the morning, running around, playing football (that's right, I said football), wearing colorful little dresses. Even the babies are out enjoying the cool air at night.

4. Books. They write great historical novels. I have been reading a few of them and I can't get enough. Best way to learn about history. Yay for literature!

5. Olives. I'm not crazy about seafood, but I love the olives. (I am aware they also exist elsewhere. Dogs do too.)

6. Pomegranates. Mostly in Granada. I have a personal reason to love pomegranates, and that city is covered in them. Pictures to come later.

7. Castles. Castles everywhere. That's all, folks.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

For Public Use Only: Hungarian folktales in English

I made this bibliography for one of my workshops last year, and after the post about the Archives I remembered to finally post it online.
Ta-da! Consume with care.

Hungarian folktales in English


Benedek, E. (1990). The tree that reached the sky. Budapest: Corvina.

Biro, V. (1992). Hungarian folk-tales. Oxford University Press.
Dégh, L. (1965). Folktales of Hungary. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Dégh, L. (1996). Hungarian folktales: the art of Zsuzsanna Palkó. University Press of Mississippi.
Dorson, R.M. (1978). Folktales from around the world. University of Chicago Press.
Henry, J.W. & Kriza, J. (1889). The folk-tales of the Magyars. London.
Hoffmann, P. & Bíró, G. (1969). The money hat and other Hungarian folk tales. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Illyés, Gy. (1964). Once upon a time: forty Hungarian folk-tales. Budapest: Corvina Press.
MacDonald, M.R. (2007). Little Rooster’s Diamond Button. Albert Whitman & Co.
Manning-Sanders, R. (1968). The glass man and the golden bird: Hungarian folk and fairy tales. Oxford University Press.
Molnár, I. (2001). One-time dog market at Buda – and other Hungarian folktales. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books.
Orczy, E. (1895). Old Hungarian fairy-tales. London: Dean & Son / Wolf & Co.

Ortutay, Gy. (1962). Hungarian folk tales. Budapest: Corvina.
The princess that saw everything (Mindent látó királylány). (1998). Budapest: Móra kiadó.
Wass, A. (1972). Selected Hungarian folk tales. Astor Park, FL: Danubian Press, Inc.

Also,
Selected Hungarian literature in English
('selected' as in: these are books I would recommend)


Gárdonyi, G. (1970). Slave of the Huns. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Gárdonyi, G. (1991). The eclipse of the crescent moon. Budapest: Corvina.
Leader, N.A.M. (2011). Hungarian classical ballads: and their folklore. Cambridge University Press.
Makkai, A. (1996). In quest of miracle stag: the poetry of Hungary. Atlantis Centaur.
Móra, F. (1964). The Gold Coffin. Budapest: Corvina Press.
Örkény, I. (2006). One minute stories. Budapest: Corvina.
Szabó, M. (2008). The gift of the wondrous fig tree: a fairy tale. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó.
Szerb, A. (2010). Love in a bottle. Budapest: Pushkin Press.

Out now!
(As in, shameless self promotion. But it has Hungarian folktales in it. Quite a few.)

Zalka, Cs. V. (2013). Tales of superhuman powers: 55 folktales from around the world. McFarland Publishing.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Extreme sports for storytellers: Archive diving!

As a recovering archaeologist I still seem to harbor some research instincts that came with my college eduaction (that, or watching too much Indiana Jones). Since I am spending some time home this summer, I decided to put a free spot in my schedule to good use and stop by at the Archives in the Hungarian Museum of Ethnography.
Folklorists have been tirelessly gathering Hungarian folktales for more than a century, but only a fraction of them have ever been published and made available for the public. As part of said public, I have been reading and telling those tales, but as a researcher I have always been curious about all the stories hidden in the archives, written down by hand or typewriter, or recorded on tape, and then forgotten. It was a treasue hunt waiting to happen.
One of my favorite Hungarian tellers is called Pályuk Anna. She lived almost a hundred years ago and told stories that I have never read anywhere else. Some of them are folktales, and some of them are suspiciously elaborate, but whatever their origin, they are enchanting. The book that included a collection of them mentioned that twice as many had been recorded but never published. I decided to put on my fedora and strap on my gun belt, and go raiding for the lost tales.

When I walked in, nobody seemed entirely sure what to do with me. It was a quiet Thursday morning, and frankly, everyone seemed surprised that someone even walked through the door. After talking to half a dozen very nice and helpful people someone finally directed me to the office where I filled out a research request form, and then to another where I could fill out a small slip of paper with the name of the storyteller and the title of the records I have been hoping to read. After that, all I had to do was find the library's reading room and wait...
Well, almost. First I had to go down to the basement and deposit my backpack in the cloak room. Because the cloak room door locked me out of the Archives, I had to go through the museum, exit through the front gates, walk around the museum building, and enter the archives through the side door again (where I had to explain to the receptionist what happened to get back in). Then I realized that I can't take digital pictures of the records for free, so once again I had to descend into the basement to find the museum shop and purchase a photo ticket. The door, surprise surprise, locked me out once again, so I did a second tour around the building and asked the snickering receptionist to let me back in once again. By the time I got back to the library, the records were waiting for me on the desk.

If you have not been folktale hunting to an archive before, I highly advise trying it. I felt like I had just stumbled upon a treasure chest of wonders not seen before; stories that no one had told or heard for a hundred years! For me, tales have always been living things that slumber frozen on pages until someone revives them. I spent three joyful hours leafing through the neatly typed, thin pages, taking pictures of all the tales that spoke to me (and then those that didn't, for the record. No tale left behind!) Once I was done with Pályuk Anna's legacy I discovered that another storyteller's repertoire was included in the same old folder, so I took a tour through those too, and collected some more. I can't even begin to imagine the number of stories still waiting to be found again.

My favroite tidbit was the note that another folklorist put on the collection folder: "We cannot be sure how precise the collector has been with the text of these tales. We might suspect that she re-wrote them from memory. Still, I would advise that we do not break her enthusiasm."
I agree. Let's not.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Storytellers: Adopt a school!

I am not trying to re-invent the wheel here. Many storytellers already practice this idea, and we have discussed it in class when Elizabeth Ellis was teaching us Advanced Storytelling. But I don't think I have blogged about it before, and it has been a big part of my life as a storyteller.

The basic idea is that a storyteller should adopt a school as a regular telling place.

It gets tricky when you think about it. Us storytellers spend a great portion of our work time trying to convince people to accept storytelling not only as a legitimate art form, but also as a profession, and as such, pay us for it. One way to support this claim is to not "give away" your storytelling work for free. As promotion it doesn't work, simply because people value stuff more if they have to pay for it - they assume free is "not that good." Quoting the Joker on this: "If you are good at something, never do it for free."

So, why offer a free pass to an entire school?

Because it's good for everyone. May schools struggle to make place in their budget for the arts, let alone visiting artists, and it goes without saying that storytelling is good (I could go for 'essential') for the kids. They could probably not afford to pay a resident storyteller, and even if they could, it would probably take a lot of convincing on everyone's part to do so.
Storytellers, on the other hand, need a solid testing audience.

When I first stumbled upon the idea of storytelling, my mother was the first one to offer a test audience. She teaches ESL in high school, so she took me to her classes and allowed me to tell stories in English as "listening practice," day after day, class after class. I didn't only get to practice my English telling and test my new stories, but I also got an idea of how audiences work, what they like, and how they interact with me. It was priceless in the first year of my storytelling career.

When I attended ETSU, I had a "performance scholarship" - I paid in-state tuition in exchange for regular storytelling work at the University School. It was another of those win-win situations. This time, I got to work with all ages, first grade though seniors in high school, which prepared me for pretty much any audience I can possibly run into (with the exception of seniors).

Regularly returning to the same "telling grounds" works wonders with one's repertoire. You can't tell the same story twice. If you tell to one class once a week, over the course of a school year you will develop a repertoire for that age group that will hold you over for years to come. At the same time, you can tell the same story in different classes, practice and polish it over and over again, and see how far it stretches over age groups. It's. Good. Practice.

And, apart from all the practical reasons and benefits, there is one more very important aspect: Emotional attachment. Storytellers spend their life breezing in and out of schools, libraries and other venues, forming a connection with an audience for a short period of time, and then moving on. We rarely get the chance to really get to know an audience. When one adopts a school, something great happens. After a while, when you walk into a classroom, the kids' faces will light up and they will greet you like the coolest person in the world. They will tell you things. They will follow the stories, and remember them. You no longer have to restrict your story choices to 45 minutes tops. You can do full series of stories, you can do themes, you can take requests for next time. And suddenly, you are working for an audience that is fully invested in storytelling, and they will have a deeper, more permanent understanding of what it is, and why it is fun.

Giving up one's professional convictions for the sake of one very important exception does not ruin one's storytelling career. Quite the opposite. It has given me so much extra in so many ways, I can only recommend it to anyone who has not done it before.

After I worked in a story-deprived environment for almost a year, this pretty much saved my life. The day after I finally quit work my first thing to do was to pick up the phone and call back to the University School. All I had to say was "please give me a class, any class" and I could walk in, get all the hugs, and tell some stories. I needed it as much as they did.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ain't no Cinderella like Cyborg Cinderella, or, Marissa Meyer knows what folktales are about

I don't usually write book reviews, so when I do you know it is because I have completely devolved into a squealing fangirl. So, this is me squealing.

I burned through Cinder and Scarlet in a single flight from the USA to Hungary and a long afternoon waiting to get my new passport. It was one of those rare and delightful reading experiences when the world can collapse around you, bombs can explode and flight attendants can ask for your attention and nothing gets through the haze of the book. Treasure those moments.
I am not going to tell you how amazing these books are. It's not that kinda book review. They are pretty darn good. In fact, if you ask for my personal opinion, they beat the Hunger Games out of the arena. So there.
What I would like to talk about, however, is the fact that Meyer's trilogy is an entire basket full of Easter eggs for storytellers like me.

(Talking about storytellers, the books were originally recommended to me by Janice del Negro, thank you for that!)

Many people who write "folktale adaptations" do so thinking that they are improving on traditional tales, making them up to date for modern times, modern audiences, 'giving them a twist'. Meyer, on the other hand, seems to take loving delight in playing with them, and does so with serious knowledge of the originals. She drops tiny details and references for people who share this interest just to make them gasp and giggle along the way when they discover another fairy tale clue.
And, at the same time, tells a story that is all of her own.

Cinder and Scarlet (and their sequels, Cress and Winter, which are coming out in the next two years and are already driving me nuts with the wait) are not only "fairy tale fiction" because they are based on Grimm. They are written like fairy tales. People tend to glide over what really makes fairy tales fairy tales. It's not the princesses, or the "happily ever after," not the Medieval setting. It's the story, the battle of good and evil, the adventures, the characters that we love and root for, and the villains that we hate. It's the high stakes, the quests of life and death, and the very dark places (you read that right, read the originals). It's the message and the moral, the layers upon layers of meaning, the symbols woven into the story.

Long story short: This writer knows what folktales are about.

And, finally, here is an additional benefit of these books being on the young adult market: finally something on the shelves that is not labeled "supernatural romance." Thank the Lord and Marissa Meyer for that.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Incredible Hulk and pixie dust - Storytelling with superpowers


I am back to doing some recreational storytelling at the University School, while getting a million other things done. I had to recharge some storypower after all the work at a front desk... Fortunately enough the kids still remember me, and so did the teachers, so it was only a matter of walking through the doors and asking.

I got 4th and 5th grade this week, and decided to give a trial run to some of the superpower stories I have collected for my book. I had them list whatever powers came to their mind. It was a surprising list. At first, all the boys would yell "THE HULK!" without even thinking about it. I keep running into this. Try it once, it's fun: Ask any group of kids to list superheroes or superpowers, and the very first one they think of will not be Iron Man, or Superman, or even Batman. It will always be the Hulk. Go figure.
In 5th grade one of the boys had both his hands up in the air the moment I asked the question. When I pointed at him he yelled "PIXIE DUST!" (no comment). Other kids listed the usual suspects such as flying, invisibility etc. I noted that this 5th grade class was the very first to mention shape-shifting and animal speech, probably the most common powers in folklore.

4th grade got Finn MacCool and the Giants and the Tengu's Cloak. The former has a whole bunch of heroes with powers, and is also a lot of fun to tell, provided the storyteller is allowed to mention witches, giants, archery, and mild violence (*cough*notatthecommunitycenter*cough*). When Finn McCool thinks he has defeated the witch and lets his guard down, and the baby he was supposed to be protecting is kidnapped, the entire 4th grade class broke out into a slow and sarcastic clap, shaking their heads at the great hero's mistake. It cracked me up. Similarly, the tengu's tale of a trickster being punished for mischief sits well with young kids. They have all been there.

5th grade got the Princess of Tomboso, with the mean princess stealing magical objects from Jack, and then being punished for it. The magical objects were a roaring success, I could hear the kids discussing which one of the three they would choose if they had a choice. Every time Jack ran into the princess' trap (even the first time around!) everyone would yell "DON'T BELIEVE HER!" and then groan when he did. These kids have a healthy survival instinct built in...
They demanded a second story, with shape-shifting and animal speech, and lucky I had one to offer. The tale of the Gold-spinners is one of my favorite new stories that I researched for the book. This was the first time I got to watch the kids' reaction to the story of people having the ability to talk to animals. It was the coolest thing on the planet.

I shall continue touring with these stories. I am totally selfish. I love the reactions they get from the kids.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Reflections from A to Z - Maybe next time!

So, this was my second year in A to Z, and the first time I had a theme going.

Tons of fun, people.

If you are reading this because you wandered in through A to Z: Cheers!
If you are not: Give it a thought next year. Great motivation to keep a blog going. Or two. Or three.

I did not get through even a fraction of all the princesses I have encountered so far as a working storyteller. Maybe I'll write my next book on the topic. Tales of Superhuman Powers was last year's NaNoWriMo baby, so maybe A to Z will give birth to the next...

Anyhow. In the meantime I am thinking about resurrecting a blog I started last fall under the name StorySpotting, you can find it here. It's a blog for hunting traditional stories in modern media.

As a summary for A to Z this year, similar to last year, here is a little something about female characters who did not get mentioned this year, but I love'em anyway.

Aicha the Merchant's Daughter, Demon-Slayer and adveturer (Algeria) (included in the upcoming book)
Blossom, a poor girl who befriends a dragon fond of flowers (China)
Circe, descendant of the Sun, sorceress with a vengeance against men (Greece)

Dalila the Trickster, thief extraordinaire (Arabian Nights)
Eithne, faery maiden turned mortal nun (Ireland)
Flame, or Miss Flame, Anansi's one-time fiery lover (Ghana)
Green Princess, a lady who can make flowers bloom and forests grow from the ground (Hungary)
Hiiaka the Monster-hunter, little sister to the goddess Pele (Hawaii)
Ilona, Fairy Queen of Hungary, equal parts royal and petty (Hungary)
Joan of Arc (obviously) (France)

Katamari's wife, a fisherman's daughter who fights a dragon with a single knife (Japan)
Lynet, the brave maiden in Sir Gareth's legend (Arthurian)
Maledisant, the Sassy Lady in Sir Breunor's legend (Arthurian)
Nang Sida, the Thai version of the princess Sita, from the epic Ramayana (Thailand)

Ogomiebunmielayo, the daughter of the Sky God, whose name suitors have to guess (good luck!) (Ghana)
Princess Mouse, the princess with the silkiest coat and the shiniest eyes (Finland)
Queen Anait who taught her husband what hard work is, and it saved his life in the end (Armenia)
Rhodope, the ancient Greek version of Cinderella who happened to be a prostitute (Greece)

Sarolt, wife to Chief Geza, who drank and rode like men and once killed a guy with one punch (Hungary)
Three Strong Women, a tall tale that might not be Japanese but is awesome anyway (Japan)
Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld, the Norns (Nore mythology)

Violetta, the girl who runs a series of practical jokes on a prince and gets away with it (Italy, Pentamerone)
Wanda, warrior princess and then queen (Poland)
Xiangu the only woman in the group of the Eight Immortals (China)

Yhi th Sun, main character in the prettiest creation myth ever (Australia)
Zaynab, daughter of Dalila, thief and trickster of the best kind (Arabian Nights)

See you all next year!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Northlands Storytelling Conference 2013 - The North Remembers

It took me five years, but I finally mane my way back to one of the first storytelling conferences I have ever attended: Northlands. Famous for great locations, the friendliest people, and workshops and concerts until you have stories coming out your ears.

We did this year's gig Supernatural style: Cathy Jo and I drove up from Tennessee to Wisconsin (with a short stop in Chicago) mostly listening to classic rock and slaying some demons on the way. Well, Cathy drove. I  navigated, counted dead possums, and watched the land go completely flat, and the foliage disappearing back into late winter. It was fascinating.

Northlands this year took place is Lake Geneva. I am ashamed to admit that it took me almost a day to realize why the name was so familiar: We were in the sacred homeland of Dungeons and Dragons. It could have been a true pilgrimage, except there really was nothing to pilgrim to, but still, the fact was enough.

The two keynotes were Andy Offutt Irwin (everyone's favorite hyperactive trickster) and Syd Lieberman (everyone's favorite badass Papa Smurf). They are both delightful people and great storytellers, and we shamelessly pestered them for wisdom all through the weekend. Storytellers can have fangirls too!

We also participated in workshops (divided by breaks filled with delicious buffet meals). The highlight of the weekend was Janice Del Negro's intensive three hour adventure into the modern adaptations of fairy tales. Janice is a lot of fun as a presenter - very well informed, witty, and very often sarcastic. She is also well versed in all things geeky, which just made the discussion on TV shows and Hollywood mishaps all the more lovely.
Another very well done workshop was led by Barb Schutzgruber and Dorothy Cleveland. It was about the Heroine's Journey, but it did not drift off into feminism - we talked about how there are two kinds of journeys, external and internal, and both can be done by male or female heroes. It was a very educational and thought-provoking hour and a half.

The concerts and the fringes were very exciting, and took us on a ride from emotionally heavy and deep all the way to hilariously funny. One thing I observed, however, was that over the course of the two and a half days we only heard personal stories, with one or two original ones in the mix. After doing the workshop on the use, importance, and popularity of traditional tales, this struck me as strange.

Cathy Jo and I did our Fringe of steampunk stories on Friday night. We spent dinner wearing our costumes to drum up some publicity within the conference, and many interesting discussions ensued about the nature of steampunk. The show went well, we had fun, although it was hard to keep up a rival's grumpy face during each other's stories... But we still left several people furiously Googling what steampunk is. You are welcome.

I did my workshop on role-playing games for storytellers the next day. I had thirteen people, which was absolutely ideal. We talked about what role-playing is and why and how it can be useful for storytellers and educators. We brainstormed about campaign ideas based on traditional stories (some of the ideas were awesome, like the one where the party of sever dwarfs were guarding Snow White from harm). We brainstormed characters, and then I handed out situation cards that the groups had to solve, or try to solve.
I love role-playing with storytellers. They are highly creative.

And of course there were the evenings when storytellers could sit around sipping cocktails and eating peanuts, sharing anecdotes of their latest travels, laughing, goofing off, and generally having a good time. We are all traveling people; we do not gather like this very often, and we always cherish the moments we have.

Goodbye, Northlands, see you next year!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zzzzzzz, or, the many stories of Sleeping Beauty

As an archaeologist, I have always been drawn to the story of Sleeping Beauty. I mean, finding a castle that has been fully magically preserved for a century? Heck yeah.

Anyhow, every once in a while you hear people mentioning "the real Sleeping Beauty" story just to illustrate how dark and gruesome the Grimm tales really are. There is, in fact, a less child-friendly version of the tale - but it is not Grimm.

The tale is called Sun, Moon and Talia, and it is from Italy, included in the collection called the Pentamerone. The basic idea is about the same as the well-known and Disneyfied story, with one small but significant exception: instead of prince finds girl, prince kisses girl, girl wakes up, it is prince finds girl, prince kisses girl, girl fails to wake up, prince tries for a while, prince goes home. Nine months later the still sleeping princess gives birth to twins. Well, that'll wake a girl up.

(Anyone having flashbacks to Almodovar's Habla con ella?)

I have told this story in high school, it was great fun.

Another version of the tale comes from the Arabian Nights. In this one we have a very twisted version of the "childless queen makes a wish" story motif: She says "I wish I would have a daughter even if she was allergic to flax!" What the heck, lady.
Anyhow, Sittukhan is born and she is indeed allergic to flax. Her condition, however, is actively used in the story to smuggle her out of her castle and into a prince's garden who, like a real gentleman, wakes her up first and then proposes to her. Things go right, things go wrong, and in the end of the story, it is the prince who has to fake his own death to win her back since now she is rich and independent. Go princess.

And with this interesting tidbit, we conclude this year's run of the A to Z challenge. It has been great fun! Thank you all for visiting and sticking around. The blog will keep going as usual, with more stories and some musings along the way. 

Happy Z!



Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Cover Reveal!


This, ladies and gentlemen, is the cover of my upcoming book, courtesy of McFarland. Some of the stories that I have mentioned through the Weird Princesses A to Z theme are included in the book, as well as superpowers, background information, folklore, and general storytelling goodness. The stories are organized by the 61 different supernatural powers they represent. On the cover is a Persian illustration for the legend of Isfandiyar from the Book of Kings, also included under the chapter on Invulnerability.
There is no release date for the book yet, but I will post it as soon as I know it. In the meantime go read some Persian stories, they are awesome!

Y is for the Yellow Princess

Before anyone assumes that I am being racist here, I'll let it be known that today's princess is not from China. Or any part of Asia. And actually it is not one princess, once again, as much as a type.

This is another Hungarian thing, people. Bear with me, we are almost done...

In many Hungarian folktales the traveling prince/princess/random peasant boy goes through a series of symbolic kingdoms. Some of them are kingdoms such as Ice or Fire, while others are simply designated by colors. One could assume they are the hues of the rainbow, and indeed, depending on who the audience is, sometimes I do go down the list from red to lilac (kids love it). In the stories, however, the most common are black (usually cursed), and green (fertile). Sometimes there is also red.

Another person, however, who could qualify as a princess and definitely has a connection with the color yellow is the Sun. In Hungarian tales and folklore the Sun is female (most of the time) and sometimes mentioned as "the woman dressed in sun" - great image. She is usually the helper of the hero, either by advice, or by action, but she is always definitely treated with respect fit for royalty.

That's all folks, I am still zonked out from the weekend's storytelling conference. Stay tuned for the report with steampunk, D&D, and other fun stuff.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Xenia, a Greek Princess With Questionable Morals

Not Xena. Xenia. Two entirely different people, and only one of them comes from mythology.

Xenia (a Greek word for gift) is a mortal princess that has an interesting way of meeting men. Well, one man in particular. His name is Daphnis, and he is one of those merry shepherd boys the Greeks were so fond of, frolicking around and playing music, raised by nymphs, loved by the gods of the countryside. Daphnis apparently also has an ego on him, because he loudly claims he will never fall in love. He should have known from Greek mythology that it's not safe to flaunt that in Aphrodite's face, who goes ahead and makes him fall hard for a nymph called Nais. The nymph eventually agrees to marry him, but only is he swears he will never look at another woman again. That is how marriage works, people.
BUT. Along comes Xenia, a mortal princess, who fancies Daphnis, and fancies him enough to get him drunk and drag him to bed. Sounds like a teenage soap opera yet? Good. Wife finds out, strikes Daphnis blind, who eventually wanders into a river and the nymphs, out of sister solidarity, let him drown.
Don't cheat, peeps. Especially not with a princess called "gift".

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for the Wind Princess

Again from Hungary.

Wind Princess is actually called Szelike, and is not translated "wind" because she is some kind of a weather fairy - she is translated "wind" because she is faster than the Flash on caffeine. Anyone who wants to marry her has to outrun her in a race, and of course the odds are stacked against them. I like this folktale because Szelike is not also a fast runner, but apparently she also has a childish, impatient and hasty personality that goes very well with her supernatural powers.

Did I just say powers?

Heck yeah, this story is also included in the upcoming book!

(I swear we are almost done)

I would like to take a moment here to muse about the many princesses in tradition who have to be outrun. There is Atalanta and the trick with the golden apples, then there is Camilla and her divine gift of speed (also included in the book), and then there is Szelike and her sisters, a whole array of folktale princesses who run as fast as the wind.
First things first: mind you, these princesses are not running to get caught. They have to be outrun, and a goal reached first, be it the water of life or just a shiny stone on a nearby mountain. It is not a tale of chasing the girl, it is a tale of keeping up with her.
There is a slight but important difference when the suitors have to complete some unrelated task to win the princess, and when they are pitted against the princess herself. Many people complain that folktales are "outdated" because women are given as nameless-colorless prizes for heroic deeds. While that is true in many cases, let's not skip over the fact that many times it is the princess herself who has to be outwitted, outrun, or wrestled down (we have seen all of those before through A to Z). Many times it is even stated in the tale that it was the princess' choice to set those challenges. To make sure whoever married her could hold his own.

Just something to think about.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for the Vampire Princess

Yes. I went there.
Vampires are in this year, right?
(Also known to werewolves as "hunting season")

Today's princess is brought to you from Hungary, and before you ask yes, this is a real folktale.

Tragedy strikes the royal families. Two brothers, competing for the hand of the same princess, end up destroying each other, and the princess, who by the way was in love with one of them, dies of grief. Every night after that she crawls out of her crypt and tears whoever is nearby to ribbons and shreds. And there is always someone nearby, not just for dramatic effects, but also because the King ordered guards to stand outside the crypt all day and night. A waste of money and good fighting men if you ask me.
Well, a young man comes along and offers to stand guard for a bushel of gold a night. That's a lot of money, but the King agrees none the less, because keeping his word about the guards has cost him too many good men already, so he is open for volunteers.
The young man soon realizes he is in over his head. Fortunately for him he finds an old beggar who offers to help him survive the night if he is willing to split the spoils.
What ensues from here is three nights of very creepy things. Every night at eleven the princess crawls out of her coffin and goes shrieking through the cathedral looking for someone to kill. Every night the young man finds a hiding place and barely escapes with his life when the clock strikes midnight and the princess has to go back to being dead. The third night he hides in her coffin, and when she has to go back into it he just yells "occupied!" until midnight has passed, and lo and behold, she turns human (and alive) once again.
Ta-da!

Great story for Halloween. Read it in English here!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for the Unfair Princess

Or Unkind, or Utterly Annoying. Take your pick.

We are talking about a type of princess here, rather than one particular person. The folktale type is known as King Thrushbeard, the original cautionary tale for shallow girls who want a perfect prince based on looks alone. I have always enjoyed this story and its numerous variations as a child. Of course growing up gives one a different perspective of publicly humiliating royalty in order to make a point, but a point is definitely made: If you judge people by their looks, don't expect them to accept them as you are either.

Another tale takes it to the next level: Cannetella  wants gold from her suitors. Specifically, gold teeth and golden hair. Well, she gets it, and then some, because the only one who can pull it off happens to be an evil magician who abuses her and locks her up, and comes after her even when she manages to escape. Actually very dark and depressing for a folktale. But teaches you a lesson not to run off with someone just because he looks good.

(Or wait for the nonexistent Perfect Prince who has to look just so)

(We all know that girl)

One step up from this and we are straight on Bluebeard's doorstep - the cajun version of the tale, Marie Jolie, is still one of my favorite creepy stories to tell.

And while we are on the topic of shallow and utterly annoying princesses, I'm shamelessly gonna plug Teh Book again: The tale of the Princess of Tomboso, also known as The Three Soldiers, features a princess who shamelessly cheats and beats a poor boy out of all his magical items, and does not even feel bad about it, not even a little. She ends up getting her just desserts, obviously, and even gets dumped in the end. I included the story in my book because one of the items the boy has gives him (and the thieving princess) the ability to teleport. Hilarity ensues. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for the Táltos Princess

Once again from Hungary. I sense a trend here.
Oh wait, I'm Hungarian.

Táltos is our word for a person with supernatural knowledge (probably our old word for shaman from back in the day before we became Christian). There are táltos people, táltos horses (the kind that can fly and talk), and there are táltos princesses as well. At least one.
A Táltos Princess is, obviously, the daughter of the Táltos King. Said king is strong and powerful and versed in many arts - except for one, healing, which is especially lame since his own daughter is desperately in need of some. She is missing an arm and a leg. The King is really upset about this, and after long years of desperate searching he finds a possible solution: there is a fish that grants wishes, but only to people who has never killed anyone - and only once a year.
As it happens, the day before Fish Wish Day the princess gets kidnapped (a princess is a princess is a princess), and her father slays the intruder on his way out.
Good news: Princess is alive and safe. Bad news: No fish.

Story moves on. Some time later a mysterious stranger appears in court who turns out to be the Prince of the Cloud Kingdom. He falls in love with the princess and marries her, and two things happen: She learns to fly even though she can't walk, she learns to use her powers to command the rain and the storm, and she has a son. Well, that's three, but you get the picture.

This folktale was collected from a storyteller called Anna Pályuk about a hundred years ago. The entire book containing her tales is magical. She had a sense for coloring folktales and piecing them together in new ways, and also telling stories about princes, princesses and kings that behave suspiciously like real life people.

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for the Silver Princess

And the gold, and the copper, and the diamond. But since they are all in one story, might as well put them into one post.

This is another Hungarian folktale, and also another teaser for my upcoming book, so bear with me!

Given one very strange youg man called János. They call him Carnation-hair, whatever that means, I am open to interpretations, but whatever it is (red, curly, silky, etc.), it is obviously very pretty, because princesses seem to fall in love with him a lot. János is also a telepath on the side, he learned that trick from his fairy godmother.
Intrigued yet?

János sets out on a journey across the world to find one particular princess he has seen in his dream: the Diamond Princess. But in order to get to the Diamond Kingdom, he has to travel through the lesser kingdoms: Copper, Silver, and Gold. In each kingdom a princess falls for him, and in each kingdom the Queen tried to kill him various ways. The Silver Princess, in particular, is very kind to him, but alas, she is no Diamond, and gets her silvery heart broken by the mortal.

In Hungarian folktales precious metals often represent "kingdoms" in the sky: Moon, Sun, Stars, and sometimes even Mars, for its fiery red. If this idea is right, then these princesses are not only a striking image of wealth, but also beings that represent celestial bodies. Silver Princess or Moon Princess... has a nice ring to it!

The full story will be included in my book of Tales of Superhuman Powers, under the chapter on Telepathy.

Happy Last Full Week of A to Z! Keep on typing!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for the Rainbow Princess

Marriage equality for princesses? Whaaaat?

Maybe later.

Today's princess is once again brought to you from Hungary.

Given is one queen who has a very special talent: she can change the color of her skin every hour of the day, into seventy-seven different shades. Now, Rainbow Queen has a son (who obviously did not inherit this gift) that she raises alone (!). When he is old enough to marry she only has one small request to make: he is only allowed to marry a princess that can also change her color into all the shades of the rainbow.
(Talk about a hard-to-please mommy in law...)
The prince sets out to find such a princess, and as folktales usually go, he goes through a whole series of ordeals until he manages to find one. He is, among other things, aided by a faithful zombie servant.

That is all I am telling you right now.
*shameless self-promotion*
This story is also included in my book that will be published later this year! Together with 54 other folktales that include supernatural powers such as invisibility, super strength, and eye beams.
Stay tuned for more details!

(Sorry about the image, I couldn't resist...)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for the Questions of the Princess

Also known as Her High Bitchyness Princess Tourandot.

If the name sounds familiar then you must be familiar with the Puccini opera that made it famous.

The original story and the princess(es) in it come from the Persian tradition, from a collection creatively titled "Thousand and One Days" (betcha you didn't know this was a thing). It is originally titled "Prince Calaf and the Princess of China", among various other titles.
It is a looooong story filled with delicious, delicious details.

Long story short, however: Princess Tourandot is a monster. She hates men and enjoys violence, and she has tricked her father into making an oath that if a suitor of hers does not answer all her questions on the spot, without hesitation and correctly, they will be publicly beheaded. Of course this does not frighten underage royalty, and a blood bath ensues, since Tourandot happens to be not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also embarrassingly smart for a woman in her day and age. Of course eventually a prince shows up who has been around the block (the block meaning Central Asia) and is determined to win her no matter what (really, what the heck do they like about her so much?). He answers all three questions correctly. Tourandot, unlike other fairy tale princesses, throws a major hissy fit and plots to have him assassinated in true Chinese spoiled princess fashion. But Prince Calaf still lurvs her, so he gives her a way out: it is her turn to answer a question, and if she does so, she can walk away from the wedding.
The question is embarrassingly easy, and genius at the same time: Calaf asks her with a smug little smile to say his name out loud.
(Eat it, Bilbo Baggins)
Oops: Tourandot never bothered to learn any of her suitor's names, since she did not expect them to live.

Prince : Princess
4: 0

Wedding.

Of course the entire story is a lot more complex and pretty. It also includes an alternative princess who lives as a slave in the Chinese court; guess what, she is pretty AND smart AND kind, and tried to have Calaf run away with her instead of being assassinated by Princess Predator. And then we observe a brutal scene of friendzoning on the prince's part, the reason for which can only be explained through one classic example:


Well, to each his own.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for the Pirate Princess

Because, seriously, what else?!

Today's princess is brought to you from the amazing world of Hasidic Jewish folkales - particularly, from this very entertaining book.

I love this story because, although it does present certain classic elements, it generally does not follow the fairy tale course. It is full of miscommunications, misunderstandings, and good old-fashioned screw-ups on everybody's part. The lovers, princess and prince (princess being the daughter of an emperor!) are destined for each other since before they were conceived by their parents, yet they have to go through hell to get to the happy ending. They lose each other, they find each other, they lose each other again. Not everything is neatly arranged.

Okay, so technically this lady is not a pirate per se, but she does steal more ships during the course of the story than Captain Jack Sparrow in three movies, so I decided she does qualify. Deal with it. Also, even though most versions of the story are titled "The King and the Emperor" many popular re-tellings call it "The Rebel Princess" or "The Pirate Princess" (see the story collection above).
Close enough.

Side note:
Hasidic folktales are amazing. They are beautiful, full of adventure and miracles and vivid images. Once at the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference I have heard master storyeller Rabbi Rachmiel Tobesman tell a full hour of these tales. It was magical.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for the Old Princess

Okay, so today's princess is brought to you from the most underrated Grimm fairy tale, like, ever.

Because this princess, kids, is Badass with a capital B. In fact, I should have put her under B and not O. But O will be important too. Whatever.

So, in the beginning of the story we have one ordinary princess and one overprotective king who builds a glass mountain and declares that whoever can climb the mountain can have the princess. I guess it's the trendy thing to do for royalty when they get bored with arranged marriages.

Anyhow, there is one prince who loves the princess and volunteers to climb the slippery slope -  and guess what, the princess volunteers to climb with him and "hold him if he falls."

Brownie points for the princess!

Apparently there are no rules about helping the contestants, so they begin to climb... but it is the princess who slips, and the mountain opens and swallows her up. She ends up in a cave with a nasty looking little man who has a long beard and makes her do chores around the house, threatening to kill her if she doesn't.

And no one comes to the rescue.

No, really. No king, no prince, no nothing.

The princess grows Old doing her chores and now she is called Mother Mansrot.

...

I know right?! Way to be depressing, Brothers Grimm.

But the story does not end here! The Princess (or, rather, Mother Mansrot now) gets fed up with being a slave and rescues herself in quite a genius way. No spoilers, read the story.

When she gets home, the prince is still waiting for her, and they can finally get married.

Ta-da!

No, seriously, how many princesses grow old in their fairy tales?! Even Sleeping Beauty is preserved as eternally sixteen after a hundred years. So, here is some realistic storytelling for ya, straight from the Grimm Brothers who brought you half of the Disney princesses...

The illustration for the storybook comes from here. Check it out it's really cool!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for the Nun Princess

Straying more than a little bit from folktales, here is one of the most famous Catholic legends of Hungary.

About a real princess who was also a nun. And a saint.

St. Margaret of Hungary was born as the daughter of King Bela IV in 1242, just months after the Hungarian army was beaten and the kingdom devastated by the Mongolian invasion. The king and his family fled to Klis in Croatia - the baby princess was born in that castle. The king offered her to God in exchange for liberating the kingdom from the Tartars.

The Mongolian invasion ended. The royal family returned home. Princess Margaret was raised from the age of three to become a nun. She spent most of her life on the island that was later named after her - Margaret Island on the Danube, now the green heart of Budapest.

Everyone in Hungary knows about St. Margaret. We learn about her in school. She was devout, religious, humble, and apparently, more than a little bit overachieving when it came to torturing herself. To pray for her country and her father she offered herself to God, in all kinds of disturbingly painful ways, ranging from whips and beatings to hedgehog-skin belts. She did not wash, she did the dirtiest jobs in the monastery, and she never knew anything in life except devotion.

The King himself tried to marry her off more than once, but she always refused. She remained a nun until she died at the young age of 28.

The process to make her a saint of the Catholic church was put in motion practically at the moment of her death; testimonies were collected and written. She was beatified in 1276, but she only became a saint in 1943.

My personal reason for including this princess is because her legend has the only mention of a namesake of mine. Csenge, although very old, was not a popular name through the ages - but apparently there was one noble girl who was a nun the same time as Princess Margaret who bore this name. My infamous namesake was recorded in the saint's legend for one reason only: she beat the princess in the face with the dishwashing rag.
Go figure.

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for the Myrtle Princess

Today's princess is brought to you from Italy by Giambattista Basile, who wrote the fairy tale collection Pentamerone in 1634. It's a delightful collection that contains many older versions of well-known fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

But today, we shall talk about the Myrtle Princess.

The first thing you will note if you read this story is that this girl is actually not a princess. I took a liberty with this choice. My mother told me this story countless times when I was little, over and over again, long before I ever discovered the written version, and she always calls it "Myrtle Princess" so this is how it is stuck in my head. Plus, in the end, she does marry a prince. If that counted for Princess and the Frog, it counts for me.

All in all, this story is pretty similar to the Apple Princess: A woman wishes for a child, and instead of giving birth to one, she gives birth to a sprig of myrtle. The prince, passing by, smells the sweet scent of the flowers, and begs the mother to let him take the flowerpot to the castle.

Just like the Apple Princess, Myrtle comes out of the flowers every night and walks around. Of course, eventually, she finds her way to the prince's bed. Jealous people might try to destroy their love, but all is well in the end.

The image of the Myrtle Princess lived vividly in my mind from the childhood stories. She is tiny, like a fairy, wears a pink dress and a crown of pink flowers. My grandmother used to have myrtle growing in flowerpots, and I remember sitting by, touching the silky petals carefully, and collecting the drops of sweet nectar in little syringes (I was not allowed to eat them, but that was the closest I ever got to feeling like a butterfly).

Myrtle Princess is a sweet story, if not particularly earth-shattering.

Let a new A to Z (or, rather, M to R) week begin!