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Grimm Fairy Tales

8 Sep

Fairy tales—at least as we know them—are a childhood staple. We know the classics by heart, but our beloved Disney-diluted iterations couldn’t be further from their true, markedly more sinister origins. While Walt Disney brought us some of our most beloved children’s stories, the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales are definitely not for kids. The Grimm brothers, a pair of German siblings who created some of the original tales in the 19th century, didn’t shy away from any gory details and left an astounding legacy. Born in the city of Kassel in the 18th century, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm documented hundreds of folktales from all over Europe. They were linguists, scholars, and researchers of German language and mythology, yet they lived most of their lives as underpaid academics – and likely never realized their work would someday reach world fame. Despite the fact that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are often associated with Snow White and Rapunzel, the brothers didn’t actually write any of those stories. In fact, the stories existed long before the two men were born in Germany in the mid 1780s. The fairy tales, in fact, were part of a rich oral tradition − passed down from generation to generation, often by women seeking to pass the time during household chores. But as industrialization took root, local traditions changed and scholars, like Jacob and Wilhelm, began a quest to save the stories from extinction. They interviewed relatives and friends, collecting whatever tales they could, sometimes embellishing them (although they insisted they did not). In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm published the stories as part of a collection titled Nursery and Household Tales, or what is now referred to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

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American Mythic

19 May

When we think of mythology we tend to think of the old world – European fairytales, folklore of the Far East and tales from the dark continent of Africa. Even when the new world is mentioned, in mythic terms it is the Native American folklore of the tribes and nations that first settled the lands of North and South America that comes to mind. Whilst all of this world mythology represents a rich and varied tradition of fairytales, folklore and legends, this is also to ignore the unusual and fascinating modern mythology of the United States. There are lots of interesting directions that this ‘American Mythic’ takes. There are larger than life stories of the birth of the nation, its founding fathers and the Revolutionary War; there is an entire mythology surrounding the Civil War that almost ripped apart the nascent union, when brother fought brother and fire and blood threatened to consume all the land from sea to shining sea; and up to the present day the Cold War and many other conflicts that have shaped the postwar nation also contributed to the character and myths of the modern United States. Anyone who takes the time and trouble to investigate American Mythic might be surprised at what they find.

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Fantasy Masterworks: The Last Unicorn

17 Feb

The Last Unicorn is a 1968 fantasy novel by American author Peter S. Beagle, which follows the tale of a unicorn who believes she is the last of her kind in the world and undertakes a quest to discover what has happened to the others. The Last Unicorn is also an elegy for a world that has lost its magic, lost its sense of wonder, and whose people are desperate to get it back but so passive in their acceptance of the mundanity of their lives that they can’t even see the magic and the beauty that’s there in the world around them if only they’d look. All that makes the book sound like dour and dismal stuff indeed, but it hasn’t become one of fantasy’s most beloved and enduring classics — in print consistently for fifty years and counting — for nothing. Peter S. Beagle frames his story as a fractured fairy tale, rich in self-aware humour. The Last Unicorn was meta before meta was cool. A beloved classic, it has sold more than five million copies worldwide since its original publication, been translated into at least twenty languages, spawned sequels and spin-offs and been adapted for the big and small screen numerous times. Locus magazine once ranked The Last Unicorn number five among the “All-Time Best Fantasy Novels”, based on a poll of subscribers. In the end, this is the simple message of The Last Unicorn: that the magic hasn’t gone away, that it’s all around you in your life right now, and the only thing preventing you from recognizing it and being dazzled by it is you.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

13 Jan

Gilgamesh, the famous Mesopotamian hero, is believed to be based on a real person, who was most probably a Sumerian king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem recording the hero’s exploits, was transcribed onto tablets in the second millennium BC. He is portrayed in sculptures and reliefs from every period of the region’s civilisation as a robust, bearded warrior, who struggles with lions, bulls and assorted monsters. He owes his immortality to the great epic poem that was written about him – the very first such literature known to humankind. Far from being a mere relic, the Gilgamesh epic is one of the most dramatic stories ever told. Even today, 3,500 years after its composition, its themes of friendship, loss and the fear of death have profound resonance. In Sumerian times, the epic must have enthralled its readers or, more often, its listeners – for in a society where only a small number were literate this poem was surely written to be read aloud.

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Into the Labyrinth

8 Apr

Comedian Robin Ince once said it was impossible for people under forty to experience nostalgia. Real nostalgia meant pain, he argued, a gut-aching, punch in the chest, yearning for home, youth, and a life that no longer existed. Nostalgia was the feeling you had when, having come face to face with the unalterable fact of ageing and mortality, you recognised the things you’d lost, and desperately wanted them back. The under-forties hadn’t yet the distance from their youth to be truly get nostalgia, Ince reasoned. When the under-forties think they’re experiencing nostalgia, he said, they’re just remembering stuff. He’s got a point. While it might make for a decent pub chat, the loss of Pigeon Streetand Mallett’s Mallet hasn’t left me with any inconsolable yearnings. I don’t ache for the days back when Snickers were called Marathons and nobody knew you shouldn’t make school dinners exclusively from hydrogenated trans fats. They’re just fond memories. But there’s a film which, for a lot of us, is more than just a fond memory. A film which, if we under-forties can experience nostalgia, is our generation’s Proustian ticket straight back to childhood. For over thirty years, Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth has been lodged like a bullet in our collective brain. So, following the pearl anniversary of its cinematic release, we ask: what’s all the fuss about?

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Realm of the Rising Sun

11 Feb

In Japan, as in China, there is a large pantheon of gods and demons, but whereas the Chinese mirror the bureaucracy of Earth in heaven, the Japanese pay homage through their state religion of Shintoism to a sun goddess, Amaterasu. Shintoists believe that almost 3,000 years ago Amaterasu sent her grandson down to Earth to be Japan’s first ruler, thus making the emperors of Japan her direct descendants – an actual divine family and not just a divinely chosen one. The persistence and survival of Shinto beliefs are remarkable phenomena in a country in which the majority of people are practising Buddhists. In part Shinto owes its longevity to political factors – it has been used periodically to bolster the authority of the state. Equally significant, however, is the way in which Shinto beliefs are meshed into the very fabric of Japan: into the physical landscape as well as the mental hinterland of traditions. For Shintoism (literally “The Way of the Gods”) has its roots in ancient nature worship: its first deities were the innumerable spirits – the kami or “beings of higher place” – that resided in mountains and waterfalls, or sacred groves of trees. Yet even now, when the emperors have renounced their claim to divinity, the gods have retained a place in Japanese affections. While, today, most these beliefs are consumed as entertainment – in manga or anime – there is nevertheless a sense in which for many Japanese they form an important part of national identity.

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A Touch of Frost

14 Dec

Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is sometimes described or depicted with paint brush and bucket colouring the autumnal foliage red, yellow, brown, and orange. Sometimes he is portrayed as a dangerous giant but, starting in late 19th century literature, more developed characterizations of Jack Frost depict him as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. This mischievous sprite is traditionally said to leave the frosty, fern-like patterns on windows on cold winter mornings (window frost or fern frost) and nipping the extremities in cold weather. Over time, however, Jack Frost has become far less prevalent in the modern world due to the advance of double-glazing, but he remains a well-known figure in popular culture. He is a variant of Old Man Winter who is similarly held responsible for frosty weather, nipping the nose and toes in such weather, colouring the foliage in autumn, and leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter. However, he also resembles other similar spirits of winter from around the world, including the Japanese Yuki-onna, Grandfather Frost in Russia and Mother Holle in Germany.

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The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock

18 Jun

A storyteller par excellence, Robert Holdstock wrote with considerable insight about the power of dreams, the unconscious and human desire. He began by writing science fiction, but although his early books were well received, they remain under-realised. Holdstock had yet to find his true subject and the mode that would allow him to write with passion and depth – this would occur in the Mythago Wood novels. You can find the setting of the novels on any map of England – almost. There’s Herefordshire, a peaceful little county, ‘Middle England’, as is said sometimes; looking westwards towards the Welsh border. The Ryhope estate might be approximately there, and Oak Lodge, and also the ancient forest – the primeval woodland of oak, ash, beech, and the like, with its untrodden dark interior – which gives the first novel in the sequence its magical name of Mythago Wood. Like Holdstock’s characters, we find ourselves lost in the vastness of that ancient eponymous forest when we enter the wildwood with its stench of ash, blood and animal. The Mythago Wood novels exist as a whole, and that whole is no ordinary fantasy story, with its extraordinary beauty. Rather it is about time, time solidified, death pickled, and that way we might have had to live, once upon a time.

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Spirits of the Sacred Skies

22 Jan

The ancient peoples of the vast continent of South America never formed a coherent cultural unit. They cannot, therefore be treated as such in describing their religions and mythologies. Thousands of languages and dialects were spoken throughout South America, but there were no writing systems before the Spanish conquest. The sources of ancient myths are therefore native oral records transcribed by Europeans or European-trained natives in Spanish, Portuguese or, in a few cases, Quecha (the language of the Incas), accounts by contemporary chroniclers and modern anthropological studies. Legends and mythological accounts, together with deductions based on archaeological evidence, constituted the religions of South American societies. Like all peoples, they felt compelled to explain the important things in their universe, beginning with where they came from and their place in the larger scheme of things. Despite the regional and cultural diversity of South America, there were common elements, some almost universal. In most regions, for example, there was a named creator god. Among the Andean civilizations Viracocha, with many variations, was the creator. Although his worship was prevalent among coastal civilizations, there was also confusion and/or rivalry with the supreme god Pachacamac. Among the Amazonian tribes, four almost universal themes can be recognised. First is the presence and power of shamans, and the associated use of hallucinogenic drugs to gain access into the spirit world for the wellbeing and guidance of humankind. Second is the belief in the power and ancient divinity of jaguars. Third is the practice of cannibalism and fourth, less widespread, is headhunting, a practice steeped in supernatural and ritual significance for the purpose of capturing an enemy’s soul.

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Philadelphia by Night

20 Nov

William Penn first landed in the New World in 1682. Armed with a land charter, he founded a colony based on religious freedom that just a century later would give birth to a new nation. Penn named the new city Philadelphia, derived from Greek words meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’. Magic has lurked in the Philadelphia area for as long as it has been populated (and perhaps even before humanity settled there). Magical beliefs and practices flourished among the indigenous peoples of the area, and as immigrants, missionaries, and colonists were attracted to the area, each brought their own magic with them. Since well before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600s magic has been a part of Philly’s history. The Lenape tribes who populated the area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the European settlers arrived viewed magic (or what the Europeans would label as magic) as an integral part of daily life. It was simply how the world worked and was recognised and treated as such by members of the various Lenape tribes. While many of the specifics have been lost over the four centuries of European intercession in the area, some basic information was preserved through a variety of sources.

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