Friday, September 28, 2012

Beast and SuperBeast: Superman and Folktales part 2, East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon


Here's a story related to Cupid and Psyche. It's Norse, and it's called East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon.

A poor man had the prettiest daughter in all the land, but couldn't feed his family. So when a great white bear came to his cottage one day and offered to make him rich if he'd marry that daughter to the bear, the man agreed. The girl didn't want to go, but she had no choice. The bear took her to a castle where all her needs were met as if by magic. And every night a man came in the darkness to her bed and lay with her. Soon the girl missed her family, and the bear agreed to let her go if she agreed not to talk to her mother about what happens in the castle. She said yes, but at home her mother cornered her and got the whole story. The mother convinced her that she was married to a troll, and told her to take a candle to bed with her to find out the truth. The girl did so, but when she saw how handsome her husband really was, she couldn't resist kissing him. Leaning over, three drops of candle wax fell onto the man, and he awoke. Furious, he told her that his step-mother had cursed him to be a bear by day and man by night, and the spell would have been broken if they'd been married a year. But now he had to return home to the troll castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon to be married to a troll-witch with a frightfully long nose. Off he went.

The girl followed, and along the way got help from three old women, who gave her golden trinkets. And the four winds guided her to the troll castle. There, she gives the troll-witch with the long nose her trinkets for three nights with the bear. The bear is sleeping for the first two nights, but we soon learn that the trolls are in the habit of kidnapping Christians and keeping them in the castle. Some of these good folks hear what's going on, and they tell the bear. The bear realizes he's being drugged, and so avoids it on the third night. He and his true bride make a plan: the next day, when he is to be wed to the troll-witch, he will insist that he will only marry the woman who can clean his shirt with the candle wax stains. Apparently, this sort of thing can only be done by a good Christian. So the troll-witch and all her family fail, but the pretty girl succeeds, and the trolls burst from the anger of it all. The bear becomes a man again, and he and the girl are married. They and all the good Christians leave the troll castle behind forever.

I first encountered it in a collection of the same name edited by George Webbe Dasent, based on the collection of Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe.

This story has been rewritten for kids a lot.

So again, we've got the secret identity, the woman seeking the truth, but this time we've also got the transformation of the bear man. Cupid may have been invisible when he visited Psyche, but he didn't undergo a transformation. Some of the differences are interesting, such as the fact that the bear is cursed by a stepmother, will have to marry a troll, etc. Superman has sometimes been the target in a devious marriage plot, often by trollish women (aliens, if I'm recalling correctly...Maxima?). In this version, the bear prince is saved by the girl, whereas Cupid was never in any danger.

We need more stories where Lois saves Superman.

Pullman invents excellent names for his characters in this series.

You know, until I did an image search for East o' the Sun, I never once made the connection to a certain other popular story about a girl and a bear. The literary resonances are much more Milton than folktale, but it might be interesting to revisit this series with East o' the Sun in mind.

Anyway, East o' the Sun is one of my favorite folk tales. The similarities to Superman are less obvious than we saw in Cupid and Psyche, but they're interesting nonetheless. And I think Frank Quitely's Superman is something of a big bear.

And there's that image of the girl on the bear. It's not explicitly Superman flying with Lois Lane, but I think the same emotions underlie them both.

I love this picture, but can't find any indication who the artist is.
Here's a link to the previous post about Superman and Folktales, and next and the beast.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beast and Superbeast: Superman and Folktales part 1, Cupid and Psyche

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, by Antonio Canova

Well, this idea was going to be an academic article. But I realized that it didn't have any sort of argument. All I was saying was that the folk tale closest to the story of Superman is "Beauty and the Beast." That might be an interesting thing to think about for a few minutes, but it's not a terribly tasty academic subject. At least, not so far as I have been able to figure.

So, I'll put my thoughts on it in this blog. But not all at once. I'll begin by summarizing the relevant folk tales. The first one is from a long time ago.

I became interested in this connection when I was reading all the silver age Superman stories in which Lois incessantly tries to prove that Superman is Clark Kent. It reminded me of the ancient Roman novel The Golden Ass, by Apuleius. It's about a guy who does something to get a witch mad at him, so she turns him into a donkey, and he wanders around the Mediterranean trying to find a way to become human again. I like it ok.

Psyche at the throne of Apohrodite, by Edward Hale
In the midst of this story, the donkey man overhears an old woman telling a young woman the story of Cupid and Psyche. The young woman may or may not have been captured by brigands and was going to have to marry one of them or something. I haven't read the book in a long time. Anyway, the Psyche story goes something like this...

Psyche is beautiful, and this angers the goddess Venus because people are paying Psyche the homage due only the goddess of love. She sends her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a hobo or something, but Cupid falls in love with her. Interestingly, he doesn't just take her with him, but for some reason nobody wants to marry the prettiest girl in town. So her family consults an oracle, which tells them that she has to go up to the top of a mountain and marry a monster. Cupid has arranged an enchanted castle where Psyche can come live with her, but she's not allowed to see him. Every night, he visits her in bed, and because she can't see him in the dark she thinks he's a monster. She's allowed to go home to visit her sisters, who aren't exactly nice girls. They convince her that she has to get a look at him, so Psyche sneaks a lamp into bed. After Cupid falls asleep, she lights the lamp and sees his true beauty, but some lamp oil drips onto Cupid and he wakes up. Seeing what has happened, he spreads his white wings and flies away. The castle vanishes, and Psyche, pregnant with Cupid's child, returns to her sisters.  (The sisters, by the way, go to the mountain where the castle was and try to find them, but they fall off the mountain and die.) The story here becomes the tale of Psyche fulfilling tasks set by Venus, who forces her to sort a mound of grains (ants help her), collect wool from various sheep (a river god gives her advice), and journey to the underworld to ask Proserpina for a bit of her beauty (the complication here is that Psyche isn't supposed to look in the box, but she does, is put in a deep sleep, and is rescued by Cupid). Then Cupid petitions Jupiter to interceded on his behalf, and Jupiter convinces Venus to relent. Psyche drinks ambrosia and becomes Cupid's immortal bride.

Psyche opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse
I'm including that summary largely because of two things. First, the god who hides his identity (in this story, by arriving in the darkness) and second, the woman who tries to discover that identity. For lots of images of this story, and a lengthier summary, try here. Cupid's reasons for not revealing his face are fairly clear in Apuleius. He seems to want her to trust him. Cupid says things like, "I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god." And "Love cannot dwell with suspicion." Here's an online version of the whole story, by the way.

So, has there ever been a clearer precedent for Clark Kent's relationship with Lois Lane than the line "I would rather you love me as an equal than adore me as a god"?

Sure, it doesn't quite line up with the bumbling Kent that so many versions of the story give us, but it's pretty good as a statement of Superman's motivations in maintaining the Kent identity.

The mythological context here also reminds me that the mixture of humanity and divinity usually doesn't go so well for the human in the story. Take Semele, for instance. She was a human in whom Zeus took an interest. Zeus' wife Hera found out about it and, in disguise, persuaded the poor girl to ask Zeus to appear to her as he appeared when he makes love to his wife Hera. Semele got him to swear by the river Styx to grant her one favor, and she asked him to appear in all his heavenly glory, so to speak. Zeus had to do it, because swearing by the Styx is an unbreakable oath for the Olympians. When he revealed his true glory to her, she disintegrated.

Should I just link to Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" at this point?

Next time...we travel east of the sun, west of the moon. Followed by a visit with the beauty and the beast.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Own Worst Enemy now in Thriller Chiller

So the movie I wrote with Mike Judd, Own Worst Enemy, will be shown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as part of the Thriller! Chiller! Film Festival. It takes place October 18-20 at the Wealthy Theater in downtown GR. I'll be there.

The festival will showcase 14 feature length films from around the world as well as about 50 short films. It opens with a screening of Romero's Night of the Living Dead on the 18th. Thriller! Chiller! is a genre film festival, featuring horror, science fiction, suspense, and action movies.

I'm pretty excited about this. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


So, now there's this.

Yeah, that's a story about some people who wants to change the name of his town to Smallville. Based mostly on the details of the recent tv show of that name, I think. The town's in Kansas, so that fits the way the story's gone since the late 70's. They started a facebook page to make it happen.

Nobody's asking me, but I'll go ahead and say it anyway: Since the real town of Metropolis is only about 7000 people, I think that any real city called Smallville should have a population of at least 2 million. Cause I like irony.