Archive for the ‘Fairy Tales’ Category

Whatever Happened to “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice”?

By Bob Litton

¶I believe I have always been averse to absurdities, especially grotesque and gruesome absurdities. That’s why I am coulrophobic (turned off by clowns). The aversion probably circumscribed my enjoyment childhood, affecting not only my reaction to clowns but also to some children’s stories and nursery rhymes. I couldn’t see anything amusing about Humpty Dumpty breaking his “crown” or in Jack breaking his either. And those poor three blind mice whose tails were cut off by the farmer’s wife? Phooey! One nursery rhyme particularly annoyed me, this one:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice [or “all things nice”]
That’s what little girls are made of.

¶The reported consensus of literary historians is that the above verses were composed by English poet Robert Southey (1771-1843), although they did not appear in any of his published works. Besides his own seven children, Southey and his wife supported the wives and children of his companion romantic poets Robert Lovell and Samuel Coleridge, after the former died and the latter abandoned his family, so we cannot criticize his personal observation of what children are like. He wrote some poetry and stories for children, including “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, which was probably my own favorite in childhood.
¶But I am digressing too much from my topic: the change in our image of girls and women.
¶What bothered me about the sketches of gender above is that it paints boys in such miniscule and dingy terms (Did Southey’s boys cut off the tails of puppies?). Of course, individual grains of sugar and spice are miniscule, too, but they are usually partaken in bulk and children of both genders can’t seem to get enough of them. Moreover, reserving “everything nice” for girls pretty much excludes any pleasant attributes for boys. As another grownup male complained on an Internet site that critiqued the verse, “It isn’t fair!” Hearing that poem read aloud was my introduction to the “battle of the sexes”.
¶Back in Southey’s time, girls and women, of the upper classes in England at least, were pointedly sheltered from the cruder aspects of life. They were expected to be the moral exemplars for society, maintaining values which men, for their part, had not many qualms of abusing. Sure, there were some young gentle women — Mary Shelley, for instance — who breached that rule; but, overall, it seems that people paid at least lip service to it until the early 20th century. And it has been a downward spiral ever since Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was especially disappointed when, in 1987, the editor of the New Yorker magazine caved in and allowed a four-letter word to be printed; now that magazine’s pages are littered with words ordinarily reserved for Penthouse.
¶I was raised under the old code. Mother instructed me to surrender my seat on the trolley to ladies, especially old ladies. And I was taught by various elders that profanity was excusable only among adult males, never in the hearing of ladies. Recently, I mentioned my developing dismay about the modern trend of ubiquitous profanity to a female acquaintance at our local senior center (she is about my own age). “Yeah,” she said. “When I was young we couldn’t even say ‘sex’; we had to spell it, s-e-x’!”
¶One of the former residents at my apartment complex was an old harridan, whose unit was two doors south of mine. She was quite loud in every way: face-to-face conversation, her television-viewing, and on the phone. For some reason I never discovered, she would not have the courtesy to shut her front door when engaged in her racket-making and especially liked to stand on our common porch and chatter away on her cell phone. One afternoon, while I was outside sweeping leaves off the porch, she was in her living room, practically yelling into her phone. I walked over, opened her screen door, and pulled the main door shut. She jumped up from her chair and came to the door, opened it, and started cursing a blue streak. That old cliché about “words that would make a sailor blush” seems hardly adequate to describe her behavior. I silently kept on sweeping.
¶Don’t gather from the above that I am a “goody-two-shoes” (whatever that is!). I sometimes utter curse words, mostly while I’m driving, but my vocabulary level in the vulgar range is limited and I’m certainly not proud of my profanities; it’s just a release for my frustrations, I guess. It is mainly an echo of that old lesson “don’t swear in the company of ladies” that causes me to get slightly irritated when I hear fellows at my favorite bar punctuating their conversations with the activities and products of their body parts.
¶The problem is not just the presence of “ladies” (for they can be just as foul-mouthed); the issue is also the gratuitousness of such extended vulgarity. Imagine: If all of us — men, women and children alike — include an obscenity in every sentence we utter, those profanities would lose their effectiveness. After all, the rare use of a four-letter word used to signify a sudden change in temperament or it charged an incident with emergency. Now they are just wasted puffs of breath with a slightly foul and boring odor in them.
¶Female use of profanity is all part of the “women’s liberation” movement which began in the 1960s. It was also connected to the growing prevalence of smoking among professional women, epitomized by Philip Morris Company’s 1968 advertising slogan for its new Virginia Slims cigarettes: “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!”* Of course, smoking by women was common in the 1920s, -30s, and -40s, in the movies at least; but the trend seemed to have burgeoned in the 1960s.
¶Before I go, I want to add a few words about the other new trend: tattooing. Like cursing, this feature used to be almost the exclusive property of sailors and South Seas islanders; but now it seems to have become fashionable in my home country. I frankly don’t understand it. The human body, at least for many of us, can be beautiful; but we seem determined to besmear it with ugliness. Those generally indistinguishable markings with their lurid colors, that look more like signs of a blood disease than artwork, are just another way of attracting attention to one’s self, when the best way to do that is to be well-groomed and courteous.

*If you would like to see how this slogan developed over the years, check out this site: http://flashbak.com/youve-come-a-long-way-baby-virginia-slims-advertising-year-by-year-365664/

Finis

Acorns, etc.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
 — Luke 2:19

The fairies’ berets

Well, it’s the first week of October, although you can’t tell it by the daytime temperatures around my town; it is already scoring 92 degrees today (10/01/15) at 3 p.m. I don’t recall it getting that warm in July and August, maybe last June, which for some reason I can’t fathom has the reputation of being our hottest month. I know the steering wheel in my truck told me on several June days that hell was nearby. But we have only ourselves to blame, what with our carbon emissions history since the Industrial Revolution started.

Still, we always expect October to be a kinder month, even a time when donning a windbreaker is ordinarily the normal thing to do. In spite of the broiling heat, though, there are a few signs by which Nature is letting us know that Fall is nigh, such as a slight hint that the leaves want to change color from green to yellow, scarlet and purple. In our case here, however, the most telltale sign, that I have noticed, is the drumming of the acorns on my back porch’s metal roof. I see those nuts on the grass and sidewalk when I leave each morning for the coffee shop: they seem unusually large this year. And why have their loud tumbles never drawn my attention in the past twelve years? Yes, they simply must be larger this time.

As a child, influenced by some illustrations in fairy tale books, I would wonder if there were any “little people” around wearing parts of acorns for their caps; I was entirely ignorant at the time that what I was looking at was called a “cupule”. That was way before the age of the Internet, and my curiosity was stifled by a sense of futility until today.  I also used to occasionally wonder why we don’t eat acorns as we do pecans, walnuts and other nut delicacies. I assumed that acorns must be different from other nuts by being poisonous, but somebody told me that, no, the acorn is just bitter to the taste.

I read in Wikipedia today, though, that the ancient Greeks ate them after pounding them into a grain and that the Native Americans and Koreans still do favor certain dishes prepared using acorns. The processes involved, however, look formidably complicated and time-consuming to me. For the rest of us, grains have superseded any comparable meal ingredient. One would have to be near starvation, I suppose, to gather acorns. Yet, some of our media sites are recommending that we consider munching on various insects for sustenance: a hardly subtle reference to the likelihood of famines if climate change develops to its greatest extent.

But we want to believe that Fall is imminent, even though there seem to be no “four seasons” any more, only Summer and Winter. Autumn, like Spring, is being squeezed down to a week. Why is Fall also called “Autumn”? I wonder.

Out of balance

A Methodist minister told me, when I was about sixteen, “Life is going to be hard on you, Bob, because you are mature beyond your years.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, and I have pondered his assessment often since then. I now do not believe he was saying that my IQ was above average or that my store of common-sense was abundant: both of those qualities would, I believe, be very useful coping skills, not stumbling blocks. No, I think his point must have been that I do not have much tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and the smaller details in life. I expect the world to be much more plain and decipherable than it is. The pastor’s remark was uttered not many days after I had opined, during a meeting of our church’s governing board (of which I was an ex officio  member), that I believed we needed to do away with Santa Claus. I won’t expound on the Santa Claus issue here any further than to explain that the persona of Santa I perceived was that of a caricature of God — an image that I thought confuses children and might eventually lead them spiritually astray.

No, the issue I wish to dilate on is what personality characteristic my comment reflected. My intolerance for ambiguity and small fictions became, I think, an obsession within me, an obsession that cannot be contained now, if it ever could, even though I am aware of the discomfort it causes for me. When (at age 20) I started reading philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Zeno’s paradoxes, I sententiously declared it my ambition to resolve all paradoxes; I wasn’t going to leave any room for an ounce of doubt.

Of course, most of my readers will be aware of how naïve was my goal. As the years multiplied, so did the paradoxes and dilemmas. Even Bertrand Russell, I read later, retreated into symbolic logic to discuss rather basic matters because he saw the plain old vernacular as being the cause of many philosophical rabbit trails¹. I did not have the mathematical ability to follow his lead, so I simply gave up and tried to close my eyes and ears to insoluble problems.

But the questions attacked me anyway, very surreptitiously via my observations of Nature and the people I encountered — nay, viewed, even if I did not meet them. Why is that young man, for instance, wearing a ring in his nostril and two rings in his lower lip? Why do two people not get to know each other better before they get hitched into a relationship that leads to an acrimonious and expensive divorce? Why does a group scream, beat loudly on drums and guitars, set off explosions and claim they are making music? Why does a season of the year have two names: Fall and Autumn? All such questions invade my mind unbidden, and I don’t think I have enough life span left to research such matters. (I know, by the way, that “fall” and “autumn” are not usually capitalized, but I prefer to capitalize them for two reasons: (1) Since “fall” has two meanings, the capital “F” prevents confusion; and (2) since the words are names for seasons of the year, I consider the capitalization better etiquette.)

Subtle biases in our vocabulary

The turbulence in my brain, however, is not all perturbing; sometimes amusement results from the roiling. I often find in it fodder for my teasing humor. One evening, for instance, when I was a guest in the home of former friends — a college professor and his wife — I mentioned, almost as an aside, that I thought it peculiar there are no terms for a hectoring man (except of course “hectoring man”), while there are several for a hectoring woman: harridan, shrew, termagant, virago, harpy, vixen, and nag. Whew! I half-expected the wife to jump out of her chair and attack me, but she disappointingly remained calm, recognizing, I suppose, that I was simply being impish, not sardonic.

And then, returning my spotlight to Nature, it occurred to me this morning, as I was driving to the coffee shop just before the sun rose above Hancock Hill, when the sky was just beginning to glimmer, that we have only two words for the sun’s rising: “sunrise” and “dawn” (basically the same stage), but three for its different stages of setting: “dusk”, “sunset”, and “twilight”. There is something poetically disconcerting about that imbalance.

Many other odd imbalances have occurred to me over the past half century, but I don’t recall any of them right now, which is a good thing, because enough is enough, for the time being. It is time to say good night, dear readers.

Happy pondering.

¹”Rabbit trails go here, there, and everywhere, and pretty much tend to lead nowhere. (Have you ever watched a dog sniff out a rabbit trail? It wanders in small then wider circles, around and around, feverishly looking for the rabbit – literally, a meal and, figuratively, the point of one’s argument.) No one knows what’s at the end of a rabbit trail (the point of one’s argument). Is there even an end to it? It’s a confusing maze of pointless leads. In short, a rabbit trail leads (us) nowhere. It serves only to confuse the prey/the reader. It keeps them preoccupied and confused.”  (“Cassiopea” at UsingEnglish.com.)
²Of course I recognize that “curmudgeon” can be used to describe a man, as can the colloquial “grumpus”, but they are not gender-specific, being applicable to a habitually complaining woman as well.

Finis

A Flight of Fancy

billy-goat-gruff-troll

By Bob Litton

I deserted my once favorite café, where I used to sit and watch the Amtrak trains halt and some of their passengers disembark for a chance to stretch and gaze at the strange surroundings while the crew-change proceeded. (See my blog post of May 14, 2015 [initially published in September of 2013]). I ceased going there because three of my favorite waitresses had quit. It was an act of protest, on my part at least.

I started roosting at a café near the university, where the waitresses are most affectionate. I don’t know why they treat me so royally, since I have an unbreakable habit of constantly teasing them. I simply cannot stop. This new roost is not as decorative as the other one and is really quite noisy inside. The noise results from some regulars, the sound of whose loud conversations is magnified by cinder tile walls and rubber tile flooring. A TV tuned to a sports or a news channel, and a radio playing in the kitchen, contribute their own shares to the hubbub.

After several months of bearing up under that, I began last week to sit at one of three small tables on the porch outside. One drawback to the porch is that the railroad track is a little further away, to the south, and is largely blocked from view by some buildings and trees across the highway. I can still see part of one train car but no passengers. However, it is generally quieter on the porch, except on the weekends, when tourists and other types descend and sometimes overflow onto MY porch.

Recently, a couple about my age, whom I really like, parked in the area out front and approached. When they arrived at the porch, the woman smiled and asked, “Are you guarding the door?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I am charging a toll to enter. I am a troll charging a toll, but I’ll let you pass on in, gratis.”

After my acquaintances went inside, I pondered my potential as a troll—actually playing the part. Of course, for me to do so would require some heavy-duty facial makeup and deflation of my normally poetic vocabulary, for trolls are noted for their ugliness and stupidity; and I am noted for just the opposite: I might even have to change my name.

Then it struck me that, actually, I remembered very little about trolls, only vaguely recalling that they hung around bridges and accosted passersby. I wondered where they originated and in how many fairy tales they were characters.

When I got home, I checked them out on Wikipedia, where I discovered that the first known story of the troll was in “Three Billy Goats Gruff”: one of the stories collected by Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe between 1841 and 1844. There have been successive variations on the story, but the classic tale has each of the first two goats, in turn, persuading the stupid but hungry troll to wait for the next goat, which will be larger and thus more filling than they; and the third goat is large and stout enough to butt the troll off the bridge and into the river. The troll survives, but he doesn’t bother anyone after that.

In my estimation, the most amusing of the variants cited by Wikipedia is that found in the children’s book Timakistan by Andri Snær Magnason, summarized as follows:

The variant features a kid, its mother, and her husband. When the mother goat tells the troll to eat her husband instead of her, “the troll lost his appetite. ‘What’s the world coming to?’ he cried. ‘The kid tells me to eat its mother, and she tells me to eat her husband! Crazy family!’ The troll goes home leaving the goats uneaten.

I suppose this version appeals to me because it resonates with the current state of society—both political and cultural. Children and, by extension, we adults are supposed to extract lessons for living from such a tale. So, what have we here? The first—and most obvious—moral we can note is: In order to drive away hucksters and muggers, act like you are crazy; better yet, become crazy!

But there is more to be said about the goats and the troll.

First of all, I never did get the intent of the adjective “gruff” as applied in this story. According to the dictionary, “gruff” has two meanings: (1) abrupt or taciturn in demeanor; and (2) of a voice, low and rough in pitch. I suppose one could turn aside an accosting character with such a tone, but it seems to me more likely that the smaller goats would have employed more pathetic, smarmy tones. The persona of a lobbyist would be most apropos.

But the more important element here is the wiliness of the smaller goats, who deflect the troll by sic’ing him onto the next goat. If the goats do not have such a plan, however, then all we can assume is that the first two are treacherous, for the troll might have been able to capture and eat the second goat, at least.

As for the troll, he might be stupid but only to a degree. Why should he go to all the trouble and possible injury in overpowering a smaller goat, which may not in fact satiate his hunger, when he could venture all on a late arrival that surely will come the closest to filling his belly? He just didn’t foresee how mean and tough a grown billy goat can be. Moreover, Magnason, in his version, has granted the troll some amount of morality.

Well, dear reader, I have to go now. I must dig up something else to wonder about. But, before I leave, what does the tale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” say to you about life, about people?

Finis

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