Showing posts with label the storyteller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the storyteller. Show all posts

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hans? He's... a Little Different

My original plan was to take a look at the remaining Jim Henson Hour specials but I am unable to find copies of them.  So, instead, let us finish off The Storyteller.  The previous episodes I looked at were a real treat, introducing us to unfamiliar but intriguing fairy tales.  However, the remaining episodes seems to be alterations of folk tales that we have all grown up with.

Up first, is "Hans My Hedgehog."

Of course, my favorite story of all!

Okay, so a hedgehog riding a rooster probably won't seem very familiar to you as a classic tale.  But, as we go through the story, you'll find that this is nothing more than a variation on "Beauty and the Beast."

We begin with a "be careful what you wish for" type of situation wherein a barren woman wishes she could have a child, no matter how ugly it may be.  Unlike the Beast, who is a human cursed, Hans is born, already half-human, half-hedgehog.

Adorably creepy.

Unlike most hedgehogs, the prickly fur of the creature can be soft at times.  Still, people mock and ridicule the creature when he's young, and fear him as he grows older.  Hans tries to maintain manners, but his beastly nature often gets the best of him, and after his father kicks him out, he must set off on his own...via rooster.

As was the fashion at the time.

As we enter into Beauty-Beast territory, we find a lost, wandering king who must take shelter at Hans's hideaway during a storm.  Hans is a courteous, though hesitant host and the king offers Hans any reward he desires.  Hans decides that the first thing that the king sees upon returning to his kingdom shall be the gift.  The king, assuming the first thing he'll see would be his dog coming to greet him, agrees.  However, when the king returns home, his daughter instead races ahead of the dog, and Hans claims his new prize.

The king later decided to outlaw stupid fairy-tale rules to avoid similar issues in the future.

Hans is quite mean towards his new bride, and she dares not get close to him, lest he prick her.  However, she discovers that at nighttime, Hans sheds his prickly skin and becomes a man.  When he leaves to wander the gardens as a human, she touches his fur and finds that it is soft.

I...can't quite tell is this is a metaphor for something.

Hans the Man catches his bride caressing the fur the next night, and tells her that if she tells no one about this ability for one more night, he can become fully human.  The next day, however, the princess lets it slip to her parents and her mother tells her to destroy the skin in the fire in order to make the change permanent.  The following night, the princess burns the fur and Hans writhes in agony before...well, he becomes a permanent human so I guess it all worked out?

It hurts so good!

And so, the Beast has become human and he can live with his beauty happily ever after!  Comparing this story to the more well-known version creates a confusing message in the point of the story.  In the original, the Beast was being punished for his evil ways and he had to prove that he was capable of being loving in order to become human again.  Hans was always a beast, and he seemed resigned to the fact that he could never change.

Perhaps this was to imply that all men have a beastly side to them and, if his wife can confront him when he is at his weakest (in the bedroom), she can soothe him into a docile, tolerable human being.  I wouldn't put it past these old folk tales to have such an outdated message, but it's hard to tell whether that was the angle The Storyteller was aiming for.

At any rate, it's a cool, though muddled twist on a familiar tale and it's making me excited for the stories that shall follow.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Greek Myths, Part 4: Freedom

"Death cannot stop true love.  It can only delay it for a little while."
- Westley, The Princess Bride (1987)

The previous three stories have each shown the consequences of men who try to avoid fate.  And while Orpheus may not be as well known as Perseus, Theseus, and Daedalus, his quest for love in the face of absolute failure may be the most apt love story of all time.

Orpheus was one of the world's greatest musicians.  When he played his flute, everyone and everything was charmed.  His artistry and creativity makes him the perfect hero for the story that is about to follow,  because for once, he can control the fate of others.  As an artist, he chooses how people can feel.  His music is a most powerful weapon.

Careful, he's got a recorder!

His music is so alluring that it calls a wood nymph out of the tree.  Her name is Eurydice and the two instantly fall in love.

A normal day in ancient Greece.

But there are no happily ever afters in Greek myths, and once again, fate comes crashing in, beckoning Eurydice back into the forest where she belongs.  After being chased around by a lusty satyr, a snake bites her foot, killing her.  Orpheus refuses to play anymore music because he is so distraught, but the satyr encourages him to venture into the Underworld and bring Eurydice back.

You had better listen to John Leguizamo.

Orpheus is the first living soul to venture into the Underworld.  At this point, at least.  Soon all the Greek heroes will be doing it.  As such, the boatman Charon refuses to let him cross the river Styx into the lair of Hades.  But Orpheus can charm anything and his melody delights Charon, who has not heard music in a long time.

Come sail away with me, lad.

Orpheus's music however does not work on Hades himself.  Hades instead delivers a brilliant lecture on how death is inescapable and no matter what Orpheus or any man does, Hades will always have the upper hand.

You mortals bore me.

Hades's wife Persephone, however, sympathizes with the two lovers, especially since she resents Hades for dragging her into the Underworld prematurely.  She begs with Hades to give the two one more chance and Hades agrees.

Behind every strong god, there is a stronger goddess.

Hades allows Orpheus to travel back with Eurydice on the condition that he does not turn back and look at her until reaching the surface.  He must put all of his faith into this one instance that Hades is being honorable.  Because Eurydice is just a shade, she is unable to make any noise to communicate with Orpheus.  Charon also knows that he cannot help Orpheus by confirming that his love is behind them.  By the end of his journey back, Orpheus cannot bear the tension any longer and even though he has reached the surface, Eurydice hadn't by the time he turned around.  She gets sucked back into the Underworld, never to return.

Orpheus bemoans his loss for the rest of his days, turning down all other women (who eventually rise up and dismember him).  His head floated to the island of Lesbos, where it remains singing eternally.  Had Orpheus not trifled with death, he would have achieved exactly what he wanted, a reunion with Eurydice in the afterlife.  But, for mocking the power of Hades, he is stuck in his own thoughts and sorrows forever.

The problem with love stories is that it puts a lot of weight on the relationship between two people, making it seem as if it is the most important thing in the world.  And, when you're in love, that's certainly how it feels.  But there will always come a point in which it is time to let go.  Orpheus never reached this conclusion.

The only way to escape the binds of fate is to accept the inevitable.  One cannot worry about that which they have no control over.  Whether it be love, death, or regrettable mistakes of the past, some things are out of your hands entirely.  Only when we acknowledge this are we truly free.

Greek Myths, Part 3: The Man Who Knew Too Much

The story of Daedalus is confusing when compared to the prior two stories of Perseus and Theseus.  The idea of a Greek hero had been well established in the other two stories.  Either they are a super strong half-god who can do no wrong, like Perseus, or a tragic individual who is only trying to do what he feels is best, like Theseus.  Both were men of brawn.  But Daedalus is different.  He's a thinker, supposedly the best.  However, it's hard to say whether or not he is a hero.

Most people are familiar with the story of Icarus.  In order to escape isolation, inventor Daedalus creates wings for him and his son to fly towards freedom across the ocean.  But the wax used to hold the feathers together melts when Icarus flies too close to the sun, teaching us a valuable lesson in biting off more than you can chew.  For most, the story ends there, leaving Daedalus a tragic victim, but this episode weaves together more of his tales, creating a bigger picture for the character.

It's not just about flying too high.

Daedalus also had a nephew known as Talos, who was just as smart as he was, possibly smarter.  In the original story, it is unclear whether or not his rivalry with Talos occurs pre- or post- "Icarus incident," but here, we see it as an influence on the later misfortune.  Originally, envious Daedalus attempted to murder Talos by throwing him off the Acropolis and Athena spared the boy by turning him into a partridge.  Here, Talos gets no such luck, and dies.  But the murder is treated more as an ambiguous accident, where Daedalus goes momentarily insane over the fact that Talos is more talented than his own son.

The wunderkind Talos, building a saw.

A recurring vulture appears to Daedalus, tormenting him over his own insecurities.  It is what first prompts him to kill his nephew, and again it appears to remind him of his crime.  This is an original character used to tie the two tales together, even though the flying boy motif was enough.

Daedalus's spirit animal

Once in Crete, Daedalus builds the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur for King Minos (as seen previously) and since Minos doesn't want the secret about his bull-child/maze layout getting out, he imprisons Daedalus and his son.  Daedalus escapes and Icarus flies, etc., etc., and childless Daedalus ends up in the service of King Cocalus.  When Minos searches for the intelligent escaped prisoner, he issues a contest in which a thread must be passed through a spiral seashell.  Daedalus ties a string around an ant and allows the ant to pass through the shell maze, allowing King Cocalus to win the challenge.  Minos finds Daedalus and plans to execute him.

Well, it's clear that Minos is a meanie.

Daedalus, having also designed Minos's plumbing system, manages to boil Minos alive while he is in the bath, thus allowing Daedalus to escape.  And live happily ever after, I guess?

This is where we run into the issue of Daedalus?  Is he a hero?  He manages to kill three people due to his intelligence.  One is by accident, one is on purpose, and the other is ambiguous.  But I suppose this is a series of myths that was told to remind us that the world is not black and white.  We don't always have clear cut heroes and villains.  Daedalus is not necessarily someone to root for.  He is someone to pity.  His downfall is not his intelligence, but rather how he handles himself due to his intelligence.

Sometimes, the smartest thing to do is just to stay out of trouble.

Greek Myths, Part 2: Trapped

In the debate between fate and free will, the idea that free will is just an illusion is a main point of argument.  For the characters in stories, clearly they have no free will as they must do whatever the story dictates, but we still act as if they are the one's making the choices, whether they be positive or negative.  "Theseus and the Minotaur" is technically the first part of this miniseries, so it shows our Storyteller and Dog becoming trapped in the infamous Labyrinth while escaping those they have wronged.  This inspires the Storyteller to relate the most famous tale of the maze, in which the choices made by the characters cause their misfortune.

As seen in "Perseus," those who try to run from fate are doomed.  This story presents two instances of men with shameful secrets that they'd prefer to keep hidden.  The first is King Aegeus, who fathers Theseus with a common woman and leaves her, forbidding her from revealing his secret.  Years later, when Theseus yearns to learn of his parentage, he tracks down the King of Athens, who has since married the witch Medea.  Medea tries to poison Theseus so that her own children can remain the heirs to the throne, but Aegeus stops her plans.  As a result, she curses the two, promising that they will find grief at the end of the year.

Don't mess with Medea.

Meanwhile, in Crete, another king is keeping his own son hidden.  King Minos is the father to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur and keeps him locked in the Labyrinth.  Daughters and sons are continually brought into the Labyrinth as prisoners, and soon meet death at the hands of the Minotaur.  Only his sister Ariadne sees the man behind the monster, and tries to keep his humanity alive with secret visits.

Like Beauty and the Beast, if they were siblings.

When Theseus learns of these horrible sacrifices, he travels to Crete, planning to defeat the Minotaur.  Ariadne helps him traverse the maze, knowing that he can help put the creature out of it's misery.  During the battle between the two discarded sons, Theseus gains the upper hand and, despite Ariadne's change of heart to spare her brother, he kills the Minotaur.

His only crime was being misunderstood.

Theseus then promises to marry Ariadne, but steals away to return to Athens with the head of the beast.  Ariadne is distraught and laments the man who came and ruined her life.  Theseus sails home, hearing her cries, and accidentally wraps the head of the monster in the white sail that he promised to fly when he returned home, signifying to his father that he is all right.  Aegeus waits by the sea and instead sees the black sail and leaps to his death, fearing his son as died.

And so, Theseus, now the beloved King of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur, lives the rest of his life suffering from terrible nightmares in which he remains in the maze, hunting and killing his loved ones while he takes the guise of the Minotaur.

We are trapped with the choices we make.  We build our own Labyrinth of decisions and often find ourselves trying to escape it.  As Theseus learned, you cannot run from the truth.  When you come face to face with the monster, spare it, because sometimes it is difficult to tell heroes and monsters apart.

Who will I become?

Greek Myths, Part 1: Fear and Fate

After finding success with the Storyteller series, Henson planned an extended run focusing on Greek myths.  This four-episode mini-series was presented in a similar format, with a narrator telling the tales to his dog, but the time period had moved out of the medieval ages to an earlier ancient Greece.  New effects and creatures were created to tell these grand tales, allowing for deeper exploration into the world's oldest stories.

The biggest change came in the replacement of John Hurt with Michael Gambon as the Storyteller.  While Hurt presented a more humorous and passionate narration to his tales, Gambon was a tragic character, lost within the famous Labyrinth, telling stories to pass the time.

The dog is the same, though.  Maybe it's an ancestor of Hurt's dog.

The first episode that aired encapsulates that which sets Greek myths apart from the other folktales, making for a good starting point.  "Perseus and the Gorgon" contains all of the familiar tropes one expects from these ancient myths.  There is the prophecy that tries to be avoided and ends up fulfilled, a half-human, half-god hero, and a quest to kill an unbeatable monster that relies on the hero's wits and gifts from other gods to achieve victory.

Nowadays, most of the events in these tales gets ascribed to Hercules.  After all, if you've seen one demi-god hero, you've seen them all.  So, in that sense, Perseus doesn't really bring anything new to the table of heroes.  He is just a pawn that lets the story play around him.

I am a legendary hero, sir.

Fearing an oracle's vision that says Perseus will kill his grandfather King Acrisius, the aforementioned king locks his young daughter Danae in his dungeon, where Zeus impregnates her via beam of golden light.  Discovering the child, the king locks the boy and his mother in a chest, intending to drown them in the sea.  This takes them to Seriphos where the King Polydektes attempts to make Danae his wife. Perseus, a young man at this point, reaches the conclusion that if he can slay Medusa, the Gorgon woman with a head of snakes and a stare that can turn any man into stone, he and his mother will be free to go.

Don't look directly in her eyes.

Along the way, Perseus meets with other figures of Greek mythology, such as Hermes and Athena who lend him winged shoes, a cap of invisibility, a sword, and a mirror shield to fight the Gorgons.  After seeking directions from Atlas, the Titan who holds up the heavens, as well as the Gracae (who share one eye with which to see the future), Perseus fights Medusa by using his shield to look at her reflection as he swings his sword around aimlessly.

The most awkward epic battle in ancient history.

He defeats her and brings the head back to Polydektes, who foolishly wishes to see the head has proof.

Whoops! Bad call, Polydektes.

Other story threads are quickly tied up (Perseus turns Atlas to stone to give him a much needed rest from bearing the weight of the world, and he later accidentally kills his grandfather in a discuss throwing contest) and Gambon shares with us the message of the story.

We cannot fear the future.  Characters who suffered were those who tried to avoid their fates, while those who faced their fears head on succeeded.  Medusa represents all that which paralyzes us and prevents us from living our lives.  These messages are as old as history and they remain relevant to this day.  It's no wonder we enjoy revisiting these ancient tales.

Coming up are three more stories that hold more universal lessons and trace the journey of the Storyteller's own fate.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

I Will Remember You Fondly

How do we know our friends are our friends?  How do we decide to put our faith into another individual when we can never truly know that person's actual thoughts?  It all has to do with selective memory.  A relationship is nothing more than a series of memories reminding us how to feel about the other person.  The more pleasant the memories, the easier it is to trust them.  And, if they have similar positive memories about you, then a friendship can be constructed.

But your mind can always deceive you.

Jim Henson personally directed two episodes of The Storyteller, "The Soldier and Death" and "The Heartless Giant."  It is in this second tale that the themes of friendship and trust are explored.  The story is straightforward, as most folk tales are, but it is the ending of the tale that suggests there is more at play than a simple fable about loyalty.

The story concerns a fearsome giant who has sealed his heart far away so that it no longer troubles him.  He is locked in a dungeon for wreaking havoc throughout the land.  The king's youngest son bonds with the giant, who in turn manipulates him into freeing him from the castle.  After the boy's brothers disappear hunting down the giant, the boy sets forth, searching for the beast whom he once considered his friend.  He discovers the giant's hut surrounded by his brothers turned to stone.  The giant threatens to do the same to the boy, until he realizes that the boy will not try to harm him.

And the boy probably couldn't do much damage anyway.

The boy agrees to become the giant's servant so that he can gain knowledge about the whereabouts of the heart.  His plan is to restore the heart so that the giant can undo his wrongdoings and start being an actual friend.  The two bond over time, despite each one continuing to manipulate the other.  The boy eventually locates the heart, which is kept inside a duck's egg.

Don't ask how he managed to get it in there in the first place.

Although the giant doesn't want his heart restored, he could still die should it be destroyed.  So, the giant frees the brothers and the kind boy decides to give the egg to the giant, because he trusts that the giant will do the right thing and accept his heart again.  Unfortunately, we never get to see if this is actually the case, because the brothers immediately destroy the egg since, from their point of view, the giant cannot be redeemed.  The giant dies and his body turns into a hillside.

And this is the odd part.  The boy eventually grows up to be a king and has children of his own.  And when he tells the story, he changes the ending so that the giant willingly took back his heart and left the kingdom of his own accord, so as not to cause anymore trouble.

So, why didn't Henson just end the story that way in the first place?  Why have a sad ending and then have the main character deliberately make up a happy one?

And why does everyone look so confused about it?

Because, despite the title, the story wasn't about whether or not the giant got his heart back.  The story was about the boy's memory.  His entire relationship with the giant was based on manipulations and untruths.  So he created a false memory for himself.

Our minds are highly suggestible.  There are many cases of people claiming to vividly remember situations that did not actually happen.  This isn't a disorder.  This is just a normal coping mechanism.  And it occurs on a daily basis.

Think back to some of your best friends from long ago.  If you parted on good terms, chances are you'll remember your lives together positively.  Any petty fights or disagreements you may have had are gone from your memory banks because that isn't how you want to remember them or yourself.  We like to think that we always use good judgments, and part of that comes from choosing the right people to acquaint ourselves with.

The lonely boy in the story never learned what the giant intended to do with his heart.  At the end of his life, he was certainly humbled and worried about the well-being of his heart.  But he gave no indication either way of returning the heart or hiding it again.  The boy chose the happy ending for himself because it helped him get through the rest of his life.  Either he was the kid was was constantly tricked by a giant, or he was the kid who managed to make a monster have a change of heart.  He had to be the  hero of his own story.

Sometimes the lies are what keep us going.

The truth just takes away the magic of the memories.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Where Fear Comes From

Fear is a strange thing.  It is a bodily response that is both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.  It protects us from danger, but also prevents us from taking risks.  We seek it out in safe environments, like scary movies or haunted houses, but we go to great lengths to avoid it as well.  Bravery and absence of fear is considered a virtue in our society, despite the fact that we need it to maintain a long, healthy life.  Without fear, there is no initiative, no drive.

The second episode of The Storyteller involves a young man who does not possess fear.  As such, he does not possess much other knowledge either, and skates through life through his naivety and dumb luck.

Beacuase young Fearnot has no fear, he often overstays his welcome in dangerous situations.  He is not afraid of monsters.  He is not afraid of thieves.  He is not even afraid of his sweetheart's angry, possessive father who throws flowerpots at him when he tries to serenade her!

She's worth a few concussions.

After his latest bout of unintentional non-cowardice, Fearnot's father sends him off into the forest and tells him not to return until he has learned how to be afraid.  He undergoes many tests with the help of a new friend, a scheming con-man who only intends to win his money if he can successfully spook him.  He places Fearnot in the path of underwater demons, menacing ghosts, and even pulls a "knife" on him threatening to slit his throat.

Fearnot endures scarier and scarier situations, culminating in spending a night in a cursed castle.  His innocence and ignorance lets him live through the night, where countless others have perished after being frightened to death.  As a reward for living through the haunted castle, Fearnot discovers a room filled with wealth and gold as far as the eye can see.  He comes home rich and famous, thanks to his exploits resulting in the banishment of several ghouls.  Everyone adores him and for once, his lack of fear has brought him nothing but good fortune!

And, so, it goes to show that without fear, one can live happily ever- Wait!  He still has to go share his new glory with his one true love!

He rushes to her house to tell her the good news, but finds her mournful father, who tells Fearnot that due to his departure, she has fallen deathly ill with a broken heart.  He kneels down beside her, begging her to wake up.

And, for the first time in his life, Fearnot shuddered.

Fear may keep us from accomplishing a great many things.  Without the fear of pain, embrrassment, sadness, and rejection, we are able to become all that we've ever wanted to be and more.  But at what cost?

To truly love something in this world, we must also truly fear.  It is the fear of loss.  When you get down to it, fear is what results when you lose all control.  You no longer have any influence over a situation and and so you subvert to your involuntary insticts to shield and protect yourself.  Fearnot gained so much because what he lacked in wits, he made up for in his ability to take control of any situation he was in.  But his grasp only extends as far as the factors of his own life.

We cannot control what happens to our loved ones.

And that is where fear comes from.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Thousand Miles From Anywhere

As Henson grew, his ambitions became more complex.  He had a deep passion for the stories of old, and realized that he could use his advances in puppeteering technology to bring the ancient tales back to life.  He desired to create a world in which magical fairy tale creatures and humans could co-exist.  He achieved this goal in the short-lived television series The Storyteller.

Jim Henson's The Storyteller

John Hurt portrayed an elderly storyteller who would share stories with his dog and the audience.  Each episode tackled a different fable that would be virtually unknown to the average audience member.  Henson's interest in folklore allowed this series to stray away from the done-to-death fairy tales popularized by Disney.  He directed the first episode called "The Soldier and Death," which invokes many common mythic tropes and it gave him the opportunity to create more types of realistic puppets (known as "Creatures," as opposed to "Muppets").

The story selected was based on a Russian folktale involving a wandering soldier whose kindness to beggars allows him to possess some magical items.  Among these include a deck of cards that will never deal him a losing hand and a sack that can hold anything that is told to get into it.  The soldier's travels take him to a ravaged castle filled with small devils.  He decides to play them in a game of cards to acquire their possessions and service.

A game of wits (or cheating with enchanted items).

The devils are quite expressive for puppets.  Their faces are able to display fear, happiness, anger, and sadness throughout the entire story.  Even subtle eyebrow twitches are capable of being performed.

It's hard to tell from a picture, but this expression was not permanent.

One of the devils presents the soldier with a magic glass in which he can spy Death itself, whenever someone is lying ill on their deathbed.

He's at their feet.  There is still time.

When Death comes for the soldier, of course the soldier puts his magic sack into use, removing death from the world and as a result, putting an end to many of the world's problems, such as war, hunger, and disease.  What he did not account for was the downside to immortality.

Although the sets and effects are dated by today's standards, the episode maintains a solemn dignity.  This is not a children's story.  The tragic tale about the avoidance, fear, and inevitability of death remains as poignant today as it did hundreds of years ago.  Variations of this tale have appeared in countless other forms of media after this episode (as well as before it) so the story itself is nothing new.  But the presentation and unique vision that Henson brings to the story makes the story feel fresh.

The magic of television

As a storyteller himself, Henson understood the importance of sharing these stories.  In the olden days, the storyteller was one of the first forms of entertainment.  Through imagination alone, the storyteller could convince his audience of the most magical ideas transpiring in real life.  Just as his creations etched him into the stones of history, Henson paid respect to those tales that inspired him as a child, sitting around the dinner table.  The collaboration of modern technology and classic ideas abled Henson to entertain audiences and invite them to visualize the concepts in new ways.  It was now his job to trick the minds of the audience into believing in unnatural occurrences.  This is how he got away with creating so many iconic characters.  He knew exactly how to breath new life into the familiar.  He felt passing these stories along was "something we must do because we love doing it."

"The best place by the fire is kept for the storyteller."