This Is Maui Do It

Moana – The second Disney animated feature released this year focuses on the Pacific Islands, an area they hadn’t really explored before. Okay, Lilo & Stitch took place in Hawaii, but didn’t focus on native Hawaiian lore. This movie isn’t based on any one particular story, but takes inspiration from the mythology of Maui, a trickster hero figure who appears in many Pacific legends, although the details differ from one region to another. His using a magic fishhook to pull up islands, slowing down the Sun, lifting the sky, and bringing fire to humanity are apparently all actual myths. I don’t think, however, that there’s any precedent for his stealing a stone that creates life. His goal in doing this, to give humans immortality, does somewhat reflect the story of his trying to accomplish this feat by turning into a worm and crawling through the giant body of the goddess of death, only to be crushed by the teeth in her vagina. Obviously Disney wasn’t going to use this story in its entirety. Instead, Maui loses both the stone and his magic hook, leading to a blight on the surrounding ocean and islands, and his losing his powers.

The main protagonist is the daughter of the chief of Motu Nui, which is the actual name of both a place near Easter Island and a settlement on New Zealand, but this island doesn’t appear to be quite the same as either one. Like many Disney heroines, Moana desires to escape her insular life, in this case literally insular as no one on the island is allowed to venture beyond the reef surrounding it. Moana’s grandmother, who serves as the island’s storyteller, encourages the girl to sail out to find Maui and make him return the stone, saying the ocean has chosen her. Indeed, the ocean is portrayed as an active character of sorts, helping out Moana and occasionally answering in questions in the form of a wave.

Maui, whose voice is provided by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who is of Samoan descent on his mother’s side), is largely played for comic relief, but he has his own character arc as well. While he does all of his feats for humanity, he does so for the glory and appreciation rather than because he actually cares. He’s covered in sentient tattoos based on his deeds that can interact and even argue with him, rendered in hand-drawn animation.

He also has a dark secret from his infancy, which also appeared in some versions of the Maui mythology. Much of the focus of the film is on Moana and Maui learning to work together. The girl does have two animal companions, a pig named Pua and a chicken named Heihei, but the former is way underused despite appearing in a lot of the artwork, while the latter is mostly just used for sight gags.

In a bit of the meta-humor that seems to come up in every Disney film these days, Moana and Maui argue over whether she counts as a princess. If she does count as one, she’s one of few who doesn’t have a romantic interest. Apparently an earlier draft of the script did give her one, but I’m glad they left out that part. Save the romance for the crappy direct-to-video sequel. (Do they still make those?) I’m actually not sure how old Moana is supposed to be, although I believe her official description calls her a teenager. I have noticed that, while humans in Disney’s computer-animated features no longer look as awkward as they did in the first few Pixar films, they now mostly look like really soft dolls. The scenery is very beautifully rendered, and some excellent design went into the giant beings Moana and Maui encounter: the vain crab Tamatoa, the lava demon Te Kā, and the mother goddess Te Fiti. The coconut pirates are also a clever touch.

Te Kā is the closest the film has to a main antagonist, but he doesn’t talk or bother anyone who doesn’t come near his island.

There’s a bit of a twist to the character, not entirely original but well-managed. It’s Tamatoa who gets the villain song, as well as a post-credits scene reminiscent of Hades’ audio-only bit at the end of Hercules.

Posted in Humor, Monsters, Mythology, Pacific, Revisiting Disney, VoVat Goes to the Movies | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Counting Kallikantzaroi

I found the subject of this post a few months ago while looking for information on fairy lore from the Caucasus (I’m hoping to use it in a story I’m writing, but that could be a long way down the road), but I decided to save it, as it has a connection to Christmas. This is the Kallikantzaros, a sort of underground goblin that features in the folklore of Greece and the surrounding lands. It’s not entirely clear what Kallikantzaroi look like. They generally seem to be thought of as small, or at least able to take diminutive forms. Some references give them tusks, goat hooves, horse legs, and/or long black tails.

And I guess they wear really tight pants.
Apparently they tend to talk with a lisp, and eat worms and frogs. As they live underground, their eyes have a lot of trouble adjusting to light.

The Kallikantzaroi are said to spend most of their time trying to cut down the World Tree, but when the twelve days of Christmas come around and there’s less sunlight than at the rest of the year, they go above ground and play tricks on people. There are a few different ways that people had for driving off Kallikantzaroi, including keeping a fire burning, setting fire to smelly shoes to drive them away, and placing colanders on their doorsteps. Like vampires, these goblins are apparently so obsessive-compulsive as to have to count any large number of things, like holes in a colander. Unlike vampires, however, they’re unable to count past two, allegedly because they consider three to be a holy, and hence forbidden, number. I’m not sure why they don’t just use 2A, like Discworld wizards do with the number eight. Any child born during the twelve days might turn into a Kallikantzaros, but this can be prevented by binding the baby in garlic or straw, or singeing its toenails. And people born on Saturday are better able to see and communicate with the creatures.

When Epiphany comes around, they return to their underground dwellings, only to find the World Tree has grown back. It’s sort of like Wu Gang and the lunar tree, or to hit closer to home, the myth of Sisyphus. Well, except Wu Gang and Sisyphus are forced to perform their eternal labors, and I don’t know that the same holds true for Kallikantzaroi. Maybe they just get bored, and the tree happens to be there.

The creatures appear in the tale of Kallo and the Goblins, in which the titular girl avoids being eaten by making the goblins fetch her fancy clothes and accessories until the sun rose. It’s a more fashion-conscious version of Thor and Alviss, I suppose. I don’t think the term “Kallikantzaros” is specifically used in the story, but it’s obvious from the description that this is what they are. It’s interesting that the name of the heroine so closely resembles the beginning of the goblins’ name. And could there be a link with Kaliko, the Nome from the Oz books? He also lives underground, although he’s much less malicious (well, except in Rinkitink in Oz).

The Greek kalos means “beauty,” which would fit Kallo, but not so much the imps. Calico (the fabric and hence the pattern of cat colors), on the other hand, comes from its origin in Calicut, India, now officially called Kozhikode. I also don’t think there’s any connection to the Hindu goddess Kali, whose name is linked with words for “black” and “time.”

Posted in Characters, Christmas, Etymology, Fairy Tales, Greek Mythology, Holidays, Language, Monsters, Mythology, Oz, Slavic | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Performance with Merritt

The idea behind the Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir is that Stephin Merritt would write fifty songs, one for each year of his life. He’s actually fifty-one now, but these things take a while to coalesce. He’s premiering the songs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music over two nights, and I attended the first last night, where the band played the first twenty-five. I figured that was enough for now, although I certainly look forward to hearing the others once the album comes out in March. I just pre-ordered it, and current orders include a print of the album artwork. At the show, Stephin had brief, witty introductions for many but not all of the songs. There was also a projector that played videos for a few of them, and I’m hoping those are also released at some point. I’d seen the band once before, and they switched lead vocals quite a bit at that show. This time, Merritt sang lead on every one, apparently because they were autobiographical. He said that he generally doesn’t like writing autobiographical songs, but realized that such songs don’t necessarily have to be true. Subjects he covered included his unrequited love for a cat his family had as a kid, his admiration for New Wave musician John Foxx, and how he failed and eventually passed ethics class. One of my favorites so far, “No,” was apparently inspired when his mother hooked up with a guru, and expresses skepticism at supernatural beliefs. Another one that stood out for me, “The Blizzard of ’78,” was about he spent said blizzard in upstate Vermont and formed his first band there with two friends. One of the lyrics indicated that they made the Shaggs sound like Yes, and he accompanied the number with the guitar he owned back then, seemingly a bit out of tune. “The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo” marked the founding of the Magnetic Fields in that year, and how he wanted the band to maintain anonymity by wearing animal masks on stage. I don’t know that they ever actually did this, mind you. A lot of the music was electronic, but there were also plenty of live instruments involved, including some rare ones. As I’ve come to expect from Merritt, the songs incorporated interesting arrangements, a lot of humor mixed with some sadness and wistfulness, and unusual word choices.

After the show, the ushers gave out free five-song samplers, consisting of “No” and “How I Failed Ethics,” as well as three songs from the latter twenty-five. You can also hear those songs here.

I also purchased a copy of Merritt’s 2014 book (and so far his only one), 101 Two-Letter Words, a collection of very short poems about the two-letter words permitted in Scrabble and Words with Friends, with illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. The poems and drawings are funny and whimsical, and even include a few running gags, like the Vampire Dog. Merritt mentions Edward Gorey as an influence in the introduction, and there are hints of Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein as well. Here, you can see Merritt and Sam Davol perform musical versions of “Lo” and “La” in front of a rat terrier named Lola.

Posted in Book Reviews, Concerts, Humor, Music, Poetry, Stephin Merritt | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Growing Up Magical

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman – A twist on the concept of the feral child raised by animals instead tells about a kid raised by the spirits of the dead, with some help from a few other supernatural beings who hang around graveyards. After his parents are killed by an assassin, the boy is adopted by the Owenses and named Nobody, a play on the line “he’s only a pauper whom nobody owns” from a poem generally attributed to Thomas Noel. The line is also quoted in a Smiths song and as part of a nonsense poem on one of the color plates in The Emerald City of Oz.

Having the graveyard where Nobody lives date back to the Roman era allows him to interact with the dead from many different eras of English history, and various bits of folklore are incorporated. It seems that Gaiman has an obsession with secret societies of ruthless criminals, as seen here in the Jacks of All Trades, killers and practitioners of black magic who are all named (or at least nicknamed) after famous Jacks of folklore.

The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, by Jack Zipes – I believe I first heard of Zipes when I came across a collection of both ancient and modern fairy tales that he edited, including L. Frank Baum’s “The Queen of Quok.” A now-retired Professor of German, he has been a major proponent in the importance of fairy tales. This book touches on several different subjects, largely centering around how the fairy tale began as an oral tradition, and the old tales continue to evolve even long after they’ve been written down. He presents the fairy tale world as one that can be weird, but is inherently more fair than the real one. Some of the chapters highlight female themes in the genre, including women who told the tales, fairies and witches as important figures, downtrodden girls as protagonists, and the changing themes of the Bluebeard story. Zipes also argues against a few more recent theories about the development of fairy tales, but since I hadn’t read the works he was referring to, these parts were less interesting to me. Despite the description of the book insisting that it “presents a provocative new theory,” I don’t know that it really says anything particularly controversial. To me, it was mostly an interesting overview of the subject.

Earwig and the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones – I believe this is the last book to be written entirely by Jones (The Islands of Chaldea was completed by her sister). It’s a short tale based on the traditional fairy tale motif of a child successfully outwitting a wicked witch. The witch is even named Bella Yaga, an obvious nod to the ubiquitous figure from Russian folklore. Living with her are a talking cat familiar and a monster called the Mandrake who can summon demons to do his bidding. The illustrations, at least in the version I read, are by Paul O. Zelinsky, who’s done a lot of work on children’s books.

The Ogre of Oglefort, by Eva Ibbotson – Another last work by a fantasy author, as Ibbotson died only a few months before Jones did. I’ve only recently discovered her, and she has a style I enjoy, at least in the two books of hers I’ve read. It’s the tale of a kindly hag accompanied by a friendly troll, a reluctant wizard, and an orphan boy named Ivo who are tasked by the Norns with slaying an ogre and rescuing a princess. It turns out that the Norns have misinterpreted their vision, however; the princess is actually nagging the ogre to turn her into a bird, and he’s worn out and depressed from transforming people who requested it. The hag and her friends help to bring about a successful resolution for everyone involved. I actually wish there had been a little more about the life of the hag and her tenants in London before they came to Oglefort. The story plays on several fantasy stereotypes, sometimes in the obvious way of making beings that are normally thought of as nasty being helpful and friendly, but also in slightly more subtle ways as with the ogre himself and the rather ignorant Fates.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Diana Wynne Jones, Fairy Tales, Magic, Monsters, Mythology, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Art with Brains and Courage

After my post on books in Oz, Paul Dana suggested that I write one about the performing arts in that fairyland. It’s a good idea, but they aren’t really covered all that much in the books. I’ve looked previously at music in the series, and how L. Frank Baum used the live phonograph to mock the musical styles of his time. As I mentioned there, a lot of the songs that aren’t just impromptu are patriotic ones. In addition to “The Oz Spangled Banner” and “Ozma and Oz Forever,” we are given the words to the national anthems for the Middlings and the Illumi Nation. Also in Kabumpo in Oz, Ruggedo is said to be “playing the accordion and howling doleful snatches of the Gnome National Air.” And Gnome King reports that Scraps has been practicing the Grand March of Oz on Dorothy’s piano.

Other song titles mentioned in the books include “What Oz Is Without Ozma,” “There’s No Plate Like Tin,” and the Ozma Two-Step. An illustration refers to the latter as simply “Oz Two-Step,” or maybe that’s a different song entirely.

March Laumer provides lyrics for the Oz Two-Step in his Fairy Queen. The Shining Emperor Waltz was composed by the Wogglebug in honor of the Tin Woodman. The Scarecrow is said to have an hand-organ in his mansion, Snufferbux can play the accordion, and Jenny Jump says she can sing and play the piano.

In the original stage musical of The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman played the piccolo.

This was never incorporated into the books, and I kind of wonder how someone without breath could make a sound with a woodwind. This despite the fact that he talks, and that usually also involves breath. The members of his court play tin instruments, including trumpets, fiddles, drums, cymbals, flutes, and horns.

Dick Martin did drawings of the Scarecrow and Nick Chopper on various instruments, as well as an interpretation of a scene in Patchwork Girl where the Shaggy Man had a banjo.

Gina Wickwar’s short story “The Harvest Ball” has a long list of characters playing instruments at a party: the Scarecrow on piano, Percy on drums, the Lavender Bear on cymbals, Huffin Puffin on trumpet, Joe King on trombone, Shaggy on soprano sax, Herby on clarinet, Tik-Tok on French horn, Nick and Jellia Jamb on flutes, Jenny Jump on piccolo, Chick the Cherub on glockenspiel, the Soldier with Green Whiskers on the lyre, John Dough on tympani, Scraps on castanets, Woot the Wanderer on tambourine, Ann and Salye Soforth on violin, Tollydiggle on viola, the Frogman on bass, Jinjur on cello, and Handy Mandy on the harp.

One of the inhabitants of Oogaboo grows banjo trees. There’s a band in Tappy Town that plays shoe strings and horns. In Stratovania, bagpipes are popular, and a piper plays a dance tune called the Stratispho. Then there’s Tune Town in Gnome King, where the inhabitants sing and dance all the time, except during intermission.

Led by Queen Jazzma and Bandmaster Oompah, the town is made up of flats with steps that dance, with musical signs marking the streets and trees that bear music notes and play when the wind sweeps through them.

A man named Daddy Linn, with a fiddle body and bow legs, keeps the Viol Inn, which appears to serve only music rolls. The gate can be opened by playing the right chords on the piano, and singing out of tune will automatically take you out of town. Virginia and Robert Wauchope’s Invisible Inzi introduces another music-themed community, Musicton in the Munchkin Country, which seems to be more cacophonous than Tune Town.

And the Musicker, whose name is Allegro da Capo, makes music all the time. While Button-Bright likes his music, most others don’t, so he lives all alone.

According to Dennis Anfuso’s Astonishing Tale of the Gump, he has a son called Motto von Musicker, who didn’t inherit his father’s ability. Instead, Allegro traded with magicians so they would change parts of his son’s body into musical instruments.

The book that deals with the most heavily with theater is Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Rundelstone, which features a group of traveling performers called the Troopadours.

They put on a play called Prince Polygon’s Ball, a comedy in two acts about a prince who wants to marry a ballerina. One of the songs from it is called “The Jittery Jig.” About the only other play I can think of is the one that the foxes of Foxville perform in Road. It’s kind of odd that Baum, as an actor and playwright, wouldn’t have had more about theater in his books. We do know from both an Ozmapolitan issue and Eric Shanower’s “Balloon-Girl” that the Emerald City has an opera house. Jinjur apparently demonstrated military drilling there, but I don’t recall any actual Ozian operas being mentioned.

Posted in Art, Dennis Anfuso, Dick Martin, Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Eric Shanower, Gina Wickwar, John R. Neill, L. Frank Baum, Live Shows, March Laumer, Music, Oz, Oz Authors, Places, Plays, Ruth Plumly Thompson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Today You Are a Man

I knew about Tiresias being temporarily turned into a woman, but another sex change in the world of Greek mythology that I just recently found out about is that of Caenis of Thessaly. There are two different accounts of her parentage, one indicating that she was the daughter of Atrax, founder of the city of Atracia; and the other making her the child of the Lapith chieftain Elatus and his wife Hippeia. Some sources say she was a nymph, and Atrax was the son of a river god. Anyway, Poseidon raped her, and then felt kind of bad about it and offered to grant her anything she desired.

She asked him to turn her into a man so nothing like that would happen to her again. I’m sure men could and did get raped in ancient Greece, but the sex-changed Caenis also had invulnerable skin. Some versions of the myth suggest that the invulnerability was basically an extra that Poseidon tossed in, rather than something she specified. It’s interesting that this is a case of a mythological sex change that was done because it was what the person actually wanted, rather than as some kind of divine curse or experiment. Regardless, after changing her name to Caeneus, he became a great warrior, taking part in the hunt for the Calydonian Boar. It appears that Caeneus was mentioned in myths without the sex change story, which might have originated with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He is said to have had a son, Coronus, who is one of the Argonauts; but I don’t know who the mother was. I suppose it means his male hardware was intact, though. It’s also said that he became so arrogant about his skill in battle that he said his spear should be worshipped as a god. Zeus, who felt they had enough gods already without bringing metallic objects into the mix, was annoyed at this, and helped to orchestrate Caeneus’ downfall. When the centaurs got drunk at Pirithous’ wedding feast, he successfully fought them without their being able to harm him, until they had the idea to drive him into the ground with tree trunks and stones.

Some say he suffocated and fell into Tartarus, where his shade had his original female form. Others say he turned into a bird and flew away, one of the last-minute miraculous escapes from death that became associated with pretty much every Greek hero. I don’t know who would have worked the transformation into a bird, unless it was another side effect of Poseidon’s original change.

Posted in Gender, Greek Mythology, Mythology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Headliner We All Know for the Holy Halftime Show

Beth’s Uncle John gave me two new albums (well, new to me, anyway; and I do think they were both 2016 releases) for my birthday, so I figured I might as well say a bit about them.

Jack and Amanda Palmer, You Got Me Singing – There’s an explanation as to how this collaboration between Amanda and her father came about here. She didn’t see him much growing up, but became friendlier with him in her adult years. Jack plays guitar and sings with a low voice, somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Cash. The songs are all covers, tending toward folk and folk-adjacent. Leonard Cohen, Melanie (of “Brand New Key” fame), Richard Thompson, and Phil Ochs are all represented. So are some more recent artists Amanda admires, including Sinead O’Connor and Kimya Dawson. The Kimya song is from the point of view of an expectant mother, which I believe Amanda was at the time she recorded this. “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” is a children’s poem from the late nineteenth century. The tune was written by Carly Simon’s sister Lucy, but the Simons performed it in a more upbeat fashion, while this sounds more like an actual lullaby. “The Skye Boat Song” is a traditional Scottish number about the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the Isle of Skye after his unsuccessful Jacobite revolution. I don’t think I’d heard of John Grant, but I found the cover of his song “Glacier,” a sad song about dealing with homophobia, to be moving.

The Posies, Solid States – This is the band’s first record since the death of their drummer, Darius Minwalla, so it’s mostly just the duo of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. It makes heavy use of synthesizers and programmed drum beats, but it’s still very much in the same pop vein as most of their work. While the tone may be a little on the darker side for them, the tunes and vocals remain quite catchy and appealing. Not that much has particularly stood out for me as of my first two listens, but my favorite so far is probably “Squirrel vs. Snake.” It’s clever both musically and lyrically.

Posted in Albums, Amanda Palmer, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment