Saturday, December 3, 2011

Chapter 66: In Which I (And A Cat) Welcome December

So I slept horribly on the morning of the first. Thanks to a combo of indigestion, insomnia, and an uncomfortable position on an uncomfortable mattress, I woke up feeling like my legs were stuck in my arm sockets and my arms stuck in my head sockets and my head stuck in...well, you get the idea. Sore all over. I literally crawled from my bunk to go take a hot shower.

I live in a hippie house. Since the summer, we have adopted an orange tabby. As far as I know, it was a gift of a man to his daughter, and the babymama had no desire to take care of it. We feed it, so it stays here all the time, and has grown quite fat. I walk in the bathroom and there it is, crouched on the toilet, its eyes shining like sequins. They're such creepy animals. Nocturnal, haughty, and even the smallest kitten has something of the predator. It was staring straight at me.

After showering, I went back to bed for part 2. I settled in, when all of a sudden I heard a tapping, as of someone gently rapping. The cat, trying to get in. Knocking on the door like a person. I thought no more of it, when I heard the door open a crack. A skinny arm, like a prop wielded by a puppeteer, slipped through and started moving up and down, widening the gap.

The cat was opening the door.

And I thought, "Goddamnit, this is Poe territory."

I watched this in fascination a minute before getting up and locking the door. The cat is welcome, of course, just not that morning. The thought of it perching on one of the bunks and saying "Nevermore" at me did nothing for my ability to sleep. I locked the door. The cat knocked harder, and meowed, and somehow managed to swat at the lock. Several minutes later it started screaming to get in. An appropriately creepy way to start December, the scariest of all months. The autumnal change that comes with October can't compete with the pure apocalyptic feel of the last month, when you stand on the brink of a new year, and the weather makes the simple act of going outside feel potentially lethal.

Hans Christian Andersen
Currently reading: "The Marsh King's Daughter." There's nothing better than discovering a piece from a familiar writer that leaves you as riveted as the first piece you read of theirs. "Marsh King's Daughter" is amazing, enchanting from beginning to end. There are familiar Andersen-isms: birds, a princess under a spell that makes her disagreeable, an old king who falls ill, heavy Christian symbolism, etc.

Yet the aging writer flips the script a bit. First off, it has an international feel where different cultures are allowed to coexist. The titular character is the daughter of an Egyptian princess and a marsh-spirit, and spends half her life in a grotesque amphibian form. Half of our world and half of the fairy world, she is raised by a Viking chieftess, comes to break her spell by the influence of a Christian priest, and is ultimately reunited with her North African mother. Their first goal as mother and daughter is to save her grandfather, the Pharoah. The story is held together by a family of storks, a bickering husband-wife combo who provide both the catalyst and denoument to the story. They are a sort of guardian angel to the imperiled princess and help her family without question. Andersen is not only doing cross-cultural, but cross-species collaboration. The humans even learn how to speak stork!

Though Christianity is lionized, as usual, Andersen affords respect to the pagan beliefs of the Vikings, his own ancestors' beliefs. The Viking chieftess is a loving person who gains comfort through her religion. It is both the pagan and the Christian that influence the princess in a positive manner. Though Christianity redeems in this story, Andersen adds an element to it that is very much in line with the Old Testament. His presentation of Christianity emphasizes the "awe" of God, the ability for religion to burn you.

There's some "Beauty and the Beast" here. The titular character spends half of her life as a perfectly kind and good amphibious monster, the other half as a beautiful, evil and vicious princess. Andersen completely subverts the beauty=goodness stereoptype. The human side of her is the side that is truly duplicitous. This play with binaries is something I would expect from Angela Carter, not one of her literary predecessors.

Andersen is a romantic, as in a main focus of his writing is romantic love. Childhood infatuation, unrequited love for women. Here, he puts emphasis on familial love: for daughters, for sons, for birth parents and foster parents. The ties between family are what ultimately move the story along and serve as its anchor. The storks even become a sort of surrogate family for the human characters. There's also his delightful fairy tale logic: characters don stork feathers to fly between fantasy versions of Denmark and Egypt. Baby girls are born from flowers, Thumbelina-style. "The Marsh King's Daughter" is a later story, a more thoughtful Andersen working with the tropes of his early work. And I would be remiss to not mention the writing style. His strength as a writer was bringing old fairy tales to life through description and characterization. This would not be half the story without the diaogue between the wise stork couple. The characters experience loss and longing, all of it heartfelt.

For all its rambling fairy tale language, "The Marsh King's Daughter" is very cohesive story, every digression leading back to the original plot, all of it coming to a twist ending I sure didn't see coming. Magic is dangerous and unpredictable, and Anderson knew this. Be careful what you wish for.

Good job, Hans.

“I can smell the Nile mud and the wet frogs,” said the stork-mamma, “and I begin to feel quite hungry. Yes, now you shall taste something nice, and you will see the marabout bird, and the ibis, and the crane. They all belong to our family, but they are not nearly so handsome as we are. They give themselves great airs, especially the ibis. The Egyptians have spoilt him. They make a mummy of him, and stuff him with spices. I would rather be stuffed with live frogs, and so would you, and so you shall. Better have something in your inside while you are alive, than to be made a parade of after you are dead. That is my opinion, and I am always right.”

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