I’ve talked before and written about in a Plural blog about the contributions and frustrations Tolkien and his Middle Earth have given me in relation to how I’ve come to define fantasy, but for the moment I’d like to talk a bit about fairy tales, particularly the misconception that they were stories “naturally” 1) geared towards children, and that they 2) exist to primarily teach children black-and-white concepts of morality. To a certain extent, I suppose, these arguments are still being thrown at fantasy itself.
Right now, people are probably aware of how messed-up the “real” versions of Disney-fied fairy tales are. Critic Jack Zipes stresses that these fairy tales had various versions, but it was only when writers began compiling these oral tales that they became canonical. In transitioning to an “official,” written form, folk tales became fairy tales, and started making that transition as stories that moralize to children. However, these stories continued to be popular among adults as well, but, basically, in making the transition into a written text, “taste” comes into play.
To horribly paraphrase Zipes, certain versions of certain fairy tales were popular because they appealed to the particular tastes of a particular demographic. They act as memes, in that these tales preserved values and help keep them in circulation, so to speak, but at the same time the content of memes are altered or changed because of individual input, then consumed by others and redistributed.
Though we could say that fairy tales are terrible for propagating what, to us, are escapist—even sexist—values, what Zipes is pointing out is that fairy tales are never just static receptacles for societal values. We can see this in action in how those Western tales that have become so familiar to us are being retold in various media, by various fictions and even institutions like Disney (with varying success, of course), with changes that reflect our milieu.
Going back to Zipes, what kinds of social values did these fairy tales reflect? For instance, we don’t see as many adaptations of the bloodier, cannibalistic versions of Red Riding Hood that ends with the innocent girl figuring out a way to escape the wolf. Hauntingly, the wolf is very much still out there, but the girl finds her way home. However, we know all about the Brothers Grimm version that tells us how the foolish girl fell prey to the wolf because of her naivety and had to be rescued by a woodsman.
And then there’s Perrault’s version, which basically ends tragically for poor Red. When I asked my students to read three versions of the tale, they pointed out how the wolf, basically, is a fairy tale analog of a sexual predator, something that we understandably don’t really see (and are not allowed to see) as children.
In yet another example, Zipes also discusses how Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote his own fairy tales as opposed to basing them on preexisting oral stories, wrote his own fairy tales that pretty much reflected those values: in “The Snow Queen,” we have a little girl who did everything right—that is, she was meek, patient, God-fearing, a proper girl. Whether it was other people, animals or nature, things she had come into contact with would conspire to help Gerda rescue Kai from the Snow Queen because she was virtuous.
Gentility and purity (more notably in young women), contentment in one’s lot in life (side by side with putting the nobility/the elite/the civilized on a pedestal) and Christian values were qualities that the 17th century European elite of Perrault’s time, which the 19th century bourgeoisie of Andersen’s liked to see in their fairy tales. Hence, we get a Red Riding Hood who, apparently deserved to be punished for being too friendly with strangers, and an angel of a peasant girl who accomplishes her task not because of wit or some other innate ability but because Heaven and Earth bent backwards in admiration of her purity.
I suppose one can see this tendency to a certain degree in how fantasy appears in local popular fantasy tropes. Superhero icons like Darna and Captain Barbell, for example, valorize the meek underdog or the paragon of (Filipina) virtue, not unlike how the romantic mode lives on in telenovellas.
As Soledad Reyes pointed out, in a way, the romance mode is a subversion of the notion that realism is the only narrative mode worth using, becoming an outlet for social unrest. Basically, the things we have become too cynical to say in realism (a clear-cut delineation of good and evil, for instance), are things that telenovellas, fantaseryes and komiks explore wholeheartedly. Born to a particular class? Magical or supernatural intervention give the individual the ability to subvert this power-struggle. The fact that we’ve got Francisco Balagtas’s Ibong Adarna and Florante at Laura as canonical works attests to how connected our narratives are to romance.
In a way, these romantic tendencies share with Tolkienesque heroic quest, pre-industrial fantasy an implicit yearning for the past, where concepts of cosmic justice are, presumably, easier to believe in than in our grimy, urban reality. Except it isn’t just industrialization that is the enemy here; it is our history of colonization. This isn’t to say that stories making use of Philippine folklore automatically lack nuance or are wish-fulfillment engines, but it’s interesting to see what kind of attitude towards the past is reflected in such works.
For me, one great marker of the various attitudes towards good and evil and how questions of morality come up in a fantasy work is how the aswang is treated by the text. Usually, the aswang is treated as archetypal evil, whether as flesh-eating monsters with a simple goal, or masquerading or allying themselves with what the modern world classifies as evil (the criminal underworld and politicians are go-to subjects). Even the American supernatural-horror-slash-police-procedural series Grimm had capitalized on this in one of their episodes.
One particular work that caught my interest was Skyworld by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria. It was a great, fun, action-filled ride—I loved the art—and for people who followed the Trese comic books, the appearance of this alternate-universe version of her and her twin bodyguards was a great treat. What also got my attention was its revisionist stance of Philippine history, and how they had woven the story of the aswang leader, Rianka, into its pivotal events.
A major premise of Skyworld has to do with the skygod Kaptan falling in love with a mortal woman and spawning a race of heroes called the Maharlika
(Spoiler alert, in case anyone is interested in reading the graphic novels! I will be tackling specific important details here after this.)
Mythological creatures and humans lived together and even fended off Magellan together, until Rianka took it upon herself to change the course of the country’s history. In short, basically we would have been led into a Golden Age by descendants of a demigod if the aswang hadn’t intervened and made sure history went against us until the memory of the Maharlika and of the past was buried in myth, making this age ripe for an aswang takeover.
Rianka is cunning, motivated by the feud between humans, who used to be just prey and her own brethren. She relishes in torturing humans (she’s almost always shown with a smile on her face, as opposed to the always-taciturn look Trese wears here and in her own series). Ignoring the fact that she’s a souped-up manananggal , she’s also beautiful, the quintessential femme fatale. I liked her but I also didn’t mind her inevitable defeat.
It’s also interesting to note that the person directly responsible for Rianka’s death was not the descendant of Kaptan, the protagonist Andoy, but Trese, who had been the mastermind behind the resistance ever since Rianka’s takeover. She not only helped plan the aswang’s destruction, she also made sure that the narrative of Hero and Monarch was not destroyed, with Andoy stepping into the Maharlika role.
The concept is an attractive one, given our many frustrations with history and various contemporary issues. Revisionism isn’t exclusive to fantasy, because we have built many myths, many narratives, many symbols around our reality to explain not just why some ills are the way they are right now, but also to explain why the good is absent in our lives (and quite timely, too, that election season is approaching). But because fables extol good behavior, and because fantasy lets us construct another reality, our frustrations and desires find an outlet here, too.
I’ve been, and continue to be, guilty of this, when I first started reading magical realism and attempted to write fiction during my undergraduate years. When I was in grade school I tried to copy Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia and of course, The Lord of the Rings. I ended up with vaguely medieval settings and I gave that up until I was introduced to modern fabulism in college.
At that point, I started writing drafts that included folkloric elements in them, because they were interesting, because the speculative fiction stories I’ve read were interesting, and—come to think of it—out of some subconscious pressure to write something Filipino. These drafts were either set in some vague pre-colonial or Spanish colonial era or were set in the province. More recently, I wrote a fantasy novel to complete my master’s degree and all throughout that ordeal (cue violins), I was plagued with the specter of Tolkien and the romance of a pre-modern, pre-industrial fantasy world.
I’ve found myself more compelled by quieter stories, by modern fabulists and their introspective look into their characters’ lives, recognizable in their domesticity and in their disquiet, or in their new, and human, spin on everyday magic. I loved Eliza Victoria’s stories, “Monster” and “Salot,” as well as her other tales in A Bottle of Storm Clouds.
Another example I want to highlight is Mervin Malonzo’s Tabi Po. I’m not asking for aswang to be good or to be tame. Malonzo manages to make an aswang a protagonist and show the sublime horror in what normally is written off as just plain savagery in the aswang’s pursuit of flesh.
Speaking of sublime horror, I’ve recently been introduced to the New Weird, and I think what I like about it is that it messes with my concept of clearly-defined boundaries between fantasy, science fiction and cosmic horror.
Perdido Street Station, written by China Mieville, who reacted strongly to the conservatism in theme and execution of Tolkien’s work but admired his contributions to world-building, had an exciting plot, and a very dense urban fantasy landscape. I find myself partial to Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, which technically probably counts more as science fiction, but revels in wonderful grotesqueries as well. And I’ve come to love the wonderful language and imagery of Catheryne Valente’s Palimpsest.
Fantasy and modern fabulism appeal to me because they present other modes of telling stories, not so much because of the tropes associated with them. Just as folk and fairy tales, in their former, oral forms, weren’t static stories and changed as the tellers changed, I’d like for the stories I read and, hopefully, the ones I write, to continually evolve.
Thanks for sitting with us through this whole run of Crossed Wires here on Pillow Talk! Read about Short, Short Fiction and Science Fiction here. ☁