Tag Archive for folklore

The Historian: a great, sweeping Odyssey but an unfortunately tame ending

Despite the title of this blog post, I liked Elizabeth Kostova‘s book, The Historian, a lot. A lot.

You need to be pretty dedicated to read it, though. While I have no problem whatsoever with Very Long Books, this one builds fairly slowly from the beginning. It really gets going in a big way only by the time it’s already reached the length of some entire modern novels–so if you’re looking for immediate, intense action and a quick resolution, this is not the book for you. If you love history, though, and you love the idea of studying the history of folklore, especially the folklore of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, oh my, you will love this book!

It focuses on the story of Vlad Tepes, the prince of Wallachia (now part of Romania) whose story morphed into the tale of Dracula. A sixteen-year old girl traces the steps her parents took before her birth, searching for the tomb of Tepes by unearthing legends and histories all over Eastern Europe. We learn both their history and hers, as her progress is intertwined with excerpts from her scholar father’s letters. And before long, we realize that that there’s a reason why the folk tales and legends about Dracula and others like him have appeared in many different places and times: it’s possible that he was real, and that he is still alive. In finding his tomb, the characters in this book might find more horror than they bargained for.

This sounds like “just another Gothic novel,” or perhaps a “horror story lite.” There are threads of both in this book, but it’s so much more than that. I suspect that all the tales and legends that Ms. Kostova explored along the way are genuine stories from the times and cultures she sets them in. Which does raise the question: why do they appear everywhere and everywhen? With the explorations in The Historian, Kostova takes us on an actual scholarly exploration. Which I, being that sort of scholar at heart, lapped up eagerly. And the closer the protagonists get to their answers, the more unnerving and tense the novel gets.

The only disappointment I have with the book is that the ultimate problem the characters face is resolved fairly simply and with such brief work. And the reason that most of them were, in fact, chosen (unbeknownst to them) to set out on this quest is kind of a lame one. With all the difficulty of their search, over so many years and across half the continent of Europe, I would have hoped it would be for a more powerful reason, and I would also have expected the resolution to be a lot harder and take longer.

I did love the journey, though. Following the history of the Dracula story (or tales of vampires) through time and through all those lands was like a big feast for me. Despite the rather disappointing ending, I’d say Kostova did a great job of her first published novel.

New Fairy Tales Discovered!

Title page of old Grimms Fairy Stories bookThis is very exciting news, to me: Five hundred new fairytales discovered in Germany. Even just reading the headline, I thought, “Ooooh, like the Grimm brothers!” And then, reading farther along, I discovered that Franz Xaver von Schonwerth had made his collection at around the same time as the Grimms did.

Which means that, whatever that article says about the Grimms’ fairy tales “charming children,” these tales are likely quite dark. Most of the Grimms’ tales were pretty dark too, before they were sanitized and often turned into sentimental pap in more recent generations. (There was not always a happy ending, I can tell you that.)

Here’s one of the early translations of the tales that were found: The Turnip Princess. It’s a bit confusing, but that’s the thing about the real thing: fairy tales, the real original ones, are indeed a little dark and confusing. They’re like dreams, a society working out the great subconscious matters. They are not neat and tidy. But they can be and are very profound, nonetheless.

I hope these are published in English translations at some point! I am also very amused that there’s a version of Cinderella in this collection. What does that make now — 366 separate versions?

[And looking for the image of the Grimms book, I discovered this wonderful site and a discourse on the Grimm brothers’ work: Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Looks like a great read!]

Book Review – The Lost Books of the Odyssey

In his debut book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, computer scientist and author Zachary Mason doesn’t really present a novel in any form we’re used to. What he does, though, is produce a mythos.

Folklorists and historians say that if you go beyond what’s fairly recently been codified in North American culture as “the” Cinderella story, you will find at least 365 distinct versions throughout history. We’re familiar with the more “Disneyfied,” sweeter version, but other equally valid versions have much darker overtones and episodes. (You can see some of them in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, for example.)

What does this have to do with Mason’s book? Everything! Because all myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and legends have a history, most of them coming to us from a long time ago. And the more ancient they are, the more it’s guaranteed that they will have countless other versions than those we think are the “final” story.

Tabula iliaca Musei Capitolini

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is based on that premise. We already know that even if The Odyssey was primarily composed by the blind Greek poet, Homer, almost three thousand years ago, it was added to and embellished with every telling. The epic tale was transmitted orally, probably for centuries, before it was ever written down, and even the written versions would have had vast differences between them. (We see this with other “national” epics through history. The Indian Ramayana, for example, of which I’m extremely fond, has several versions.)

In his preface, Mason talks about alternate versions of episodes from The Odyssey being found on papyrus scraps, in sculpture and frieze, and in other sources too. So every episode in his own book purports to express one of these variations.

We see different interpretations of who Odysseus himself was, what actually happened at Troy and during Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca, and even variations on the real identities of primary characters. (In one episode, for example, Paris, who stole the beautiful Helen from her husband and triggered the Trojan War, was actually Death in disguise, with Troy being his underworld kingdom.) In some episodes, minor characters become very important, while in others, Odysseus’s own deeds are given several different motivations and meanings.

During the reading of the first few episodes, you feel like, “Ah, here’s another variation,” and it feels interesting but not monumental. But that changes very quickly, or at least it did in my case. I began to feel a weight on my shoulders that I thought of as the “weight of history.” It was as though, metaphorically, I could feel the entire Odysseus mythos being built up, piece by piece, over years and centuries. “This,” I thought, “is exactly how it would have happened.” This book – far from a “first novel” as it is – felt old, venerated. It felt like a treasured collection of manuscripts and papyri you might have discovered in an old chest that had long been buried in an ancient tomb.

With The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Mason creates in one place the sort of collective Odyssey that could have been (and maybe was!) dispersed throughout the ancient world. I felt, reading this book, as though I had gained a new understanding of the very nature, growth, and vital significance of mythology.

If you have any interest in the Troy and Odyssey stories, or an interest in the history of myth and storytelling, I think you will love this book, as I do.

Homer's World Map

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