Fairy Tales, Myths, and Religious Stories
Donna Jo NapoliI've been impressed by a number of things since I arrived here Sunday night. One of them is that I've heard many authors speak for thirty minutes straight and make sense. I'm a teacher as well as a writer, and I don't think I've ever talked for thirty minutes straight and made sense. So I'm going to talk a while and then read.
I wrote my talk last week and worked on it over and over, and polished up the timing on Sunday night in my hotel room. Then on Monday morning I heard Aidan Chambers speak and I threw out my talk and started fresh.
When I was invited to speak in this workshop under the rubric of "Exploding the Literary Canon," I didn't know what that meant. So, in my usual blundering way, I decided to ignore it and just talk about what I like to talk about - which is rules for writing - three rules that I think make sense if interpreted the right way. But Aidan Chambers explained the title of this workshop. He talked about growing up working class in England from coal mining people and at the age of sixteen looking around and finding that there was no one like him in the literary canon. He talked about being an outsider, then and now.
I grew up in a lower class Italian-American family and I felt like an outsider. But I believe that maybe one of the defining characteristics of adolescence is that for some significant period of time between the ages of twelve and eighteen most of us feel like outsiders. A lot of young adult literature today deals with this feeling. With experience and time, however, most of us realize that the variation in human behavior is wider than we might have thought, and we come to accept our own behavior and those of the people around us enough so that we eventually give up our identities as outsiders. We have friends and find our niche. Still, for some of us being an outsider is not just a certain perspective on life - it is not something that naturally changes with time - but, instead, is a lifelong characteristic. We are simply different.
I was an odd kid, as we all maybe are. And I might have grown quickly out of feeling like an outsider. But when I was thirteen, my father brought public humiliation and disgrace on my family, and the parents of my friends would no longer allow them to spend time with me. I was a pariah in a real sense. It wasn't my perspective - it wasn't something I could change by thinking about it and maturing. It was a situation I found myself in. I don't feel like a pariah anymore. I am definitely my father's daughter and I loved him. But I live in my own house now, and that part of my childhood is distant - it has little or nothing to do with my interactions with the people I meet today.
Nevertheless, that period in life made me recognize the existence of true outsiders and gave me a sense of what it feels like. I realized, after listening to Aidan Chambers, that I often write about true outsiders - and I put them in the very center of my story - where the reader must face them.
So maybe it is appropriate that I was invited to speak in this workshop, after all. I might not be exploding the literary canon - but I may be helping to jiggle loose some of the screws so that things can come apart more easily.
Much of my fiction is realistic - some of it historical. Other stories of mine are fantasy in a contemporary setting. Where these stories come from, I can't say. Stories jump into my head, and I grab for them and hold on before they can fly away.
But around half of my fiction is founded in stories whose sources are well known: fairy tales, myths, and religious stories. These sources are, arguably, the literary canon that has stood the test of time. And we can see why. In western culture, fairy tales often deal with the evil we know exists around us and in us. In western myths, we find explanations for daily phenomena - like the fact that the sun crosses the sky and that, when we say "hello" in a cave, we hear back "hello, hello" - phenomena that could otherwise seem magical, and hence frightening. Stories that belong to the western religions of today often confront the issue of whether or not our knowledge that physical life is mortal renders that life meaningless. So fairy tales, myths, and religious stories, to my way of thinking, deal with the very heart and soul of humanity. Perhaps that's why I've chosen to use them as the foundation for my stories about true outsiders. (I say "perhaps" because I certainly did not do it with forethought; it occurred to me only as I thought about Aidan Chambers' remarks.) If I can capture the enormous powers of this foundation, then I have a real chance of seducing my reader into caring enough about the true outsiders to walk around in their skin, with their flesh and their bones, for a while. That's my goal.
Being a true outsider has moments of triumph and moments of despair. Today I'll read an example of each.
The moment of triumph comes from my novel The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin. This is the frog prince story. But it begins at the moment he is turned into a frog and it ends when he is kissed and returns to his prince body. It is his life as a frog. And it's told from the point of view of the woman frog without whom he would have been snake meat fast. I'm reading a chapter from the middle - the only thing you need to know in order to understand what's going on is that, if you were turned into a frog right now, your tongue would be different. It would be much longer, and it would be attached at the very front of your mouth, right behind your bottom jawbone. So you would have a significant speech impediment.
Chapter Three: The Turtle
"What dat?" said Pin, leaping along the mud at the edge of the pond.
"That's a water sow bug," I said. "How can you ask what it is? Are you feeling all right?" I stared at him. "You know water sow bugs, Pin. You have to. You must have eaten hundreds of them in your life. Every pond frog has."
Pin swatted at the sow bug with his forefoot. It flew out of the shallow water onto the mud. I'd never seen a frog swat at something like that before. Pin stared at the seven pairs of thrashing legs on the turned-over sow bug. "Not bug," he said.
"Well, you're right. It's not a bug. It's a crustacean. But we call it a bug because it's so small."
"Tiny obteh," he said.
"Tiny cayfih," he said.
"Cayfih? Cayfih? Oh, crayfish. Yes. And obteh must be lobster. Yes." I looked at Pin with new interest. The water birds that stopped here every spring and fall talked sometimes about the sea creatures, and I had heard them describe lobsters. Most of the frogs I knew were too afraid of being eaten to do anything but dive underwater when the birds came. I didn't dive, though. I hid among the rocks and listened. The other frogs knew only about the pond they lived in. But I knew whatever I overheard the birds say. I knew about the huge wonderful world away from this pond. Pin must be a curious frog, like me. "Yes, yes," I said, leaping closer to Pin. "The sow bug is like a tiny lobster."
The sow bug righted itself. Pin swatted it onto its back again. "Obteh good to eat," said Pin.
"Who are you kidding? You've never tasted a lobster," I said.
"I have eaten obteh," said Pin. "Many time."
"What a story!" I said. "Lobsters live in salt water. Amphibians don't.
You've never been near a lobster." I shot out my tongue and ate the sow bug. "Don't give yourself airs. I'm impressed by your size alone. You don't need to make up silly stories about eating lobster."
"I have eaten obteh many time!" Pin drummed his forelegs in the mud. "Many time!"
At that moment the mud moved. I leaped for the grassy bank. "Leap, you crazy frog," I shouted. "Leap, leap!"
Pin stayed in his crouch, and the mud lifted up right under him.
"Oh, leap!" I hopped about in the grass wildly. I feared the worst. And my fear was right: It was the dreaded snapping turtle! Pin sat smack-dab in the middle of the back of the most hideous creature of the pond.
What was the matter with that frog? He acted like he hadn't felt the movement in the mud, but all frogs feel the slightest movement, even in dry ground. Pin should have recognized the danger instantly. He should have leaped for safety, like any sensible frog. Like me.
Instead, he sat there, looking around. Helpless. It was as though he didn't know the first thing about pond life. Oh, poor dead frog. And just when it was beginning to get interesting knowing him.
The turtle shook the mud off its face and lifted its horny head high.
"Who's that on my back?"
"Pin," said Pin.
"Pin? Who are you, Pin?" " Fawg," said Pin.
"Fawg?" The turtle twisted its neck so that it could see Pin sitting on the high ridge of its shell. "You're a frog."
"De Fawg Pin," Pin said.
"De Fawg Pin?" The turtle snapped at the air a few times. "Well, come on down here where I can eat you."
"I'm not dumb," said Pin. His tongue fell out. He pulled it back in. I had to admit he looked dumb when he did that.
"Hmmm," said the turtle. "You're on my back. You're pretty dumb."
"No," said Pin. "You under me. You petty dumb."
"You talk funny," said the turtle.
"Okay, wise guy," said the turtle. "Just try to get off of me. I'll snap you in half."
"Bad idea," said Pin.
The turtle took a few steps forward. "Did you fall off yet?"
"You dumb," said Pin. "Dumb, dumb, dumb."
"You're making me mad," said the turtle.
"You mad? I'm de one mad," said Pin. "I'm a fawg."
"What are you saying?" said the turtle. "What does being a frog have to do with being mad?"
"I'm mad at being a fawg. Oh, am I mad," said Pin.
"You're mad at being a frog?" said the turtle.
"Mad," said Pin. "You one dumb tuh-tuh, and I'm one mad fawg."
"You're going to be one dead fawg in a minute," said the turtle. He leaned way to the left.
Pin slid to the left.
The turtle snapped just as Pin managed to pull himself back up to the ridge of the shell.
The turtle leaned way to the right.
Pin slid to the right.
The turtle snapped again, and again Pin managed to get back to the high ridge just in time.
"You de king of dumb," said Pin. "You can't get me."
"Yes I can," said the turtle. He leaned way to the right, but Pin leaped up and landed right on the shell ridge. He leaned way to the left, but Pin leaped again.
"All right," shouted the turtle. "This is war." He leaned all the way to the right and flipped over just as Pin leaped onto the mud.
The turtle whipped around on its back and snapped. But Pin leaped again, into the tall grasses beside me. "Hi," he said.
I stared at him.
"I'll get you yet," shouted the turtle as he struggled to stick his saw-toothed tail down into the mud.
"You too dumb," Pin shouted back.
"You're the dumb one!"
"Den why you on back and I not in tummy?"
"Next time," screamed the turtle. His tail was now fully in the mud. He used it to flip himself back onto his feet. "Next time!"
Pin leaped back toward the turtle.
"Stop," I called after him. "Stay away from reptiles. He'll kill you."
Pin picked up a stick in his mouth. I'd never seen a frog with a stick in his mouth before. My jaw fell open, and my tongue lolled out. Right then I must have looked like him when his tongue fell out. I snapped my tongue back in my mouth. Pin looked at the turtle and spit the stick through the air.
The turtle snapped the stick in half.
Pin picked up a rock in his mouth and looked at me.
"You're very crazy," I said.
Pin spit the rock at the turtle.
The turtle snapped at the rock. "Owwwww!" he screamed. "That hurt!"
Pin leaped back beside me. "Dumb, dumb, dumb," he said.
The other excerpt is from my novel The Song of the Magdalene, a book that certainly ends in triumph - but which I'm using today to exemplify a moment of despair. This is the story of a girl from the age of ten to eighteen in the land we now call Israel. It takes place in the first century, a time of political and consequently religious upheaval. She is the daughter of a wealthy widower. As a young child she goes off alone to a part of the valley owned by her father. This very act marks her as different, since girls didn't go places alone, and she does it furtively. One day while she's in the valley, she has an epileptic seizure. In that time and place, illnesses of that sort were believed to be evidence that a devil had entered your body, invited there by an impurity of your soul. This girl, Miriam, realizes that if she tells about her seizure, she will never marry - never have children. She will be cast out of the most important parts of life, from her perspective. So she keeps her illness a secret. In her house lives a servant and the servant's son, Abraham. Abraham has cerebral palsy, with partial control over only one of his hands. The village of Magdala considers him an idiot, but he is able to talk well enough so that Miriam understands him and they become good friends. One day when they are alone, Miriam has a seizure and falls near the fireplace. Abraham manages to get her away so that only her hand is burned. When she comes to, she finds out that Abraham has told his mother that Miriam hit her head while bending over the fireplace and that's how she went unconscious. I'll read to you now the passage of Miriam and Abraham together alone for the first time after that seizure.
Excerpt from Chapter Four
I turned and faced Abraham. "Why did you lie?"
Abraham looked at me.
I got up, holding my wounded hand to my chest. I walked over slowly and sat beside him.
"It wasn't your first fit, was it?"
Abraham's eyes wandered from my face. "I saw a boy have a fit once. Years ago. I was with your father. He took me to visit a healer who lived in a hut on the plain of Genezareth." Abraham paused. "It was hot and oppressive." He stopped, almost as though the memory made him tired. Then he turned his eyes back to me. "But the land was rich, farming land, and the green helped to make the heat bearable. I was breathing that heat. And so was the boy who came to be healed. Just like me. And he went rigid, thrashing stiff arms and legs. And he shook fast." Abraham's eyes were unmoving. He licked his lips. "Just like you."
I sidled closer. I hadn't known that I thrashed and shook, but of course that's what made me feel so exhausted. "What happened to him?"
"He opened his mouth wide."
I put my hands to the corners of my mouth, which still ached from stretching. I had opened my mouth wide like a snake. There were many poisonous snakes in our land, the asp, the horned viper, the adder. Was I full of toxins, or was I merely a harmless colubrine that sneaked through the rocks and grasses? "What happened to him?"
"He spit and drooled. After that he made no more noise. His face turned blue, then dark purple. He stopped shaking." Abraham looked toward the fire. "He was dead."
I held my right hand, the burned hand, cupped in my left and rocked back and forth over it, my eyes closed. "Unclean."
I snapped my head up. "The boy was unclean. Unclean before death and unclean after."
"Why do you say that?"
"Why?" Was Abraham daft after all? "Everyone says that."
"Not everyone, only the stupid and thoughtless."
I stared at Abraham. "Where do you think illness comes from if not a lack of purity?"
"Are babies unclean, Miriam?"
"Babies? Of course not."
"I was born like this, Miriam. I was born with paralysis. I committed no sin."
But Abraham's father might have committed a sin and the sins of a father can be visited upon his child. Still, I couldn't say that to Abraham. In our household no one ever spoke of Abraham's father. "Job," I said slowly. "Maybe you are like Job. Maybe the Creator tests you."
"I have never questioned the Creator. I am not like Job." Abraham jerked his right hand out. "Look."
I took his hand and turned it over. "Teeth marks."
"Your teeth marks."
The marks were red and raw. I was mortified. "I bit you?"
"You foamed at the mouth and your teeth clenched. I remembered how the boy died years ago in Genezareth. I was afraid you'd stop breathing, like him. I was afraid you'd drown in your saliva. I pushed you until your head was sideways so that when your mouth opened again, the spit could pass. But my hand wasn't quick enough getting out of the way when you closed your jaws again. I believe I am lucky to have a hand at all."
I ran my fingers over the grooves in Abraham's hand. His words slowly began to make sense. "You helped me breathe."
"And you bit me." Abraham laughed. "Fine reward."
I dropped his hand and drew myself away from his laughter. What if I had really bitten his hand off - his right hand which was the only limb he controlled? These demons within me, these demons that could have stolen Abraham's one hold on the physical world, made me want to vomit - vomit and vomit until my retching turned me inside out and I was free of their evil. I was dangerous. And here Abraham was laughing. "But weren't you afraid of me? Weren't you afraid of the demons within me?"
Abraham laughed louder. "Demons. Is that who you're blaming for biting me?"
I shook my head hard. My eyes burned with the need to cry. "Don't you believe I'm a sinner? You may be one, too."
"Sinners?" Abraham sighed. "Oh, Miriam, I wish I could sin. But all I can do is watch."
I stared at him. "Envy," I said slowly.
"Yes." Abraham's voice was heavy and sad. "Envy is a sin. Coveting is a sin." His eyes wandered once more. "Yes, I'm a sinner. But you're not, Miriam."
"I went into the valley alone. Women don't go alone."
"You didn't sin, Miriam. You broke no law of Moses and Israel. You're not sick because you sinned, Miriam. I'm not sick because I sinned. If there's anything I've figured out in my life, it's that invalids aren't any more sinners than anyone else."
Abraham's words sounded heretical. I was glad no one else was around to hear them. Yet I was equally glad that I had heard them. If the Torah didn't say that invalids were evil, then it didn't have to be so. And surely babies were not evil. Abraham might be right. How I wanted him to be right.
Perhaps his palsy, perhaps my fits, were just accidents of the body, like stomach pains that came and went, only that much more exaggerated. Maybe healers were the answer, after all. It might just be a matter of finding the right medicine. Something to be gained with searching and luck. I thought of all the herbs Mother had taught me about. "Abraham, do you know hyssop?"
"Hyssop and bignonia and polygonum and -"
"We tried them, Miriam. Between my mother and Daniel, we tried every extract known. When I was small, I drank so many disgusting brews." Abraham's voice rose.
I couldn't bear it. I wouldn't bear it. There had to be something they hadn't tried. "Then a poultice - yes, a poultice of fish brine or..."
"The liver of a marten? Something simple." Abraham panted, as though out of breath. "Something simple, Miriam? Oh, no. There is nothing simple. Not for me, at least."
Nothing simple for Abraham. Nothing simple for me. No evil, yet still no escape. "Why?" The words came from deep in my throat, like a howl. "Why am I sick, Abraham? Why do I have fits?"
He looked at me.
I whispered, "Why us?"
"I don't know, Miriam. I don't think anyone knows but the Creator."
I moved still closer to Abraham, until our shoulders touched. We sat side by side and looked into the fire. "Is there no hope for us?"
"If you mean, will things turn out well, will we be healed, I cannot answer. I doubt it for me. I cannot guess for you. But if you mean, will things make sense, then maybe, Miriam."
"Sense," I said. Maybe my fits made sense. I looked around at the stone walls of our house and I couldn't imagine how any of this made sense.
The frog prince is like those around him in his frog body, but his heart and soul and mind are human. Miriam and Abraham are like those around them in their heart and soul and mind, but their bodies render them different. These are the ultimate outsiders.
But my outsiders do not grow embittered or wither. The frog prince learns to love the pond world and he infuses his spirit into those who come to know him. And Miriam, through harsh testing of her stamina and beliefs, comes to recognize her own strength and goes to help the great healer of her times, Joshua, the Jew that the Romans called Jesus. She is known in the New Testament by her Roman name Maria, or Mary Magdalene. These outsiders and all the outsiders I write about eventually wind up at the same point: no matter how much of an outsider we may be, our spirit is what defines us - it is the source of our solace - it is what ultimately binds all of us to those around us, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
Donna Jo Napoli, who teaches at Swarthmore College, spoke to the 1996 ALAN Workshop in Chicago.