Friday, May 5, 2017

Stories deep within stories

To understand the heartbeat of a culture and what makes its people tick, we should study their stories and folklore, their myths and legends. I've heard the term 'fairy tales' spoken with disdain. It gets trivialised and dismissed as the sort of pointless, untrue little yarns we make up to amuse kids. What a shortsighted view that is!

I believe there's a difference between true wisdom and mere sophistication. Wisdom is innate truth about life which is sensed with the heart and soul, and is often possessed by children. Sophistication, on the other hand, is more of a lofty, down the nose attitude, often assumed by people who consider themselves older in years, more prolific in text book learning and too smart to bother with made-up fiction such as fairy tales. But they don't realise that they might be brushing off something unique which could help them build a sound concept of the world and its people.

Our imagination, which we use to create those stories, is the thing that sets humans apart and makes us like our Creator. Those seemingly whimsical, arbitrary tales that get made up and handed down through generations become the building blocks in how a culture defines itself and behaves toward the rest of the world. While the morals and viewpoints put forward in folktales and fairy tales do amuse us when we're young, they also weave the fabric of our self-concept, and how we view ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. If a geographical group seems gregarious or sober, hostile or happy, we might do well to study their stories to help us figure out why.

It's tickled my fancy recently to see a new trend. The story worlds I've been immersing myself in have produced their own sets of fairy tales as companion books. On my shelf, I now have Tales of Beedle the Bard from the Harry Potter series, and Tales of the Peculiar from Ransom Riggs' Peculiar Children series. What a fantastic gift for fans who want to return to those awesome alternate universes once we've finished reading the adventures we love.

Here's why I love this idea.

1) These books are presented straight from their world.

Tales of Beedle the Bard was ostensibly translated from the original runes by none other than Hermione Granger. Who better to take on the job, considering this little book was willed to her to Professor Dumbledore? She includes additional footnotes written by Dumbledore himself during his lifetime. For true Potterheads like me, these turn out to be as much fun as the stories themselves, since he makes references to characters we love or hate.

Tales of the Peculiar was compiled by Millard Nullings. If you've read the trilogy, you'll know this invisible boy was particularly fascinated by record keeping and the secret knowledge contained in fairy tales. So Millard has selected his favourite stories from a long Peculiar tradition to include in this book. He's also written the foreword and frequent editor notes.

2) They feature the same fairy tales mentioned in the books.

In Tales of Beedle the Bard, you'll find the Tale of the Three Brothers, among others. Remember how it helped Harry, Ron and Hermione understand the Deathly Hallows, and the history of the Peverell brothers who originally owned the Invisibility Cloak, Resurrection Stone and Elder Wand? Ron was so surprised to discover it wasn't merely legend, since unlike Harry and Hermione, he grew up hearing it from his parents' knees as a bedtime story.

In the Peculiar Children trilogy, strong girl Bronwyn carried around an earlier version of their tales to read to the smaller children at night. Some turned out to have surprising accuracy in helping the gang pinpoint the location of obscure loops, especially The Tale of Cuthbert and The Pigeons of Saint Paul's, which are both in Millard's new anthology. You can't read it without remembering all this and grinning to yourself.

3) We can benefit from sound morals.

That's what I love about a good fairy tale. I'll just single out my personal favourite from each book as an example.

Tales of Beedle the Bard includes The Fountain of Fair Fortune, which shows that even when we're on a quest, what we end up with may be even better than what we hoped for in the first place. And The Splendid Cannibals in the Peculiar Tales shows that greed, appearances, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses can lead to ridiculous situations.

These stories within stories are well worth a read, especially if you appreciate the book series from which they came.

I think it's appropriate to finish off with this quote from Millard in Hollow City, since he did such a lot of work compiling Tales of the Peculiar :)

Millard: To think I once dismissed these as just stories for children. They are, in fact, extraordinarily complex, cunning even, in the way they conceal information about Peculiardom. It would take me years to decode them all.

And he's done a pretty decent job.

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