The Mythology of Moana
I went to see Moana on Thanksgiving and enjoyed it very much, even though I wasn't expecting it to be particularly good. One thing I was particularly delighted with was that Disney finally used something that wasn't straight European, Grimm or Andersen. I don't think they've used mythology since Hercules, either.
In some ways it felt like a return to the princess musical formula, and in others it was a departure. The animation was beautiful and realistic.
It was also, like their recent adaptations such as Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, more inspired by the tales than a straight retelling.
(Some of the following may be spoilers.)
They reference Maui being thrown into the ocean by his mother Taranga and raised by the gods, raising the islands from the sea, raising the sky, and catching the sun (which is very similar to other stories I've written about). The story of him stealing the heart from the island goddess is reminiscent of the Maori tale where he tries to steal immortality for humans from the goddess Hine-nui-te-pō and dies in the attempt.
They left out Maui's multiple brothers, whose number varies by version, but all of whom are also named Maui.
He was apparently a miraculous birth. He was born premature and unformed, or miscarried. Some sources say he was miscarried or aborted. The result is that his mother threw him into the ocean, but there the seaweed wrapped around him to save him. A god found him and raised him. Maui eventually returned to his mother, proved his identity, and his family accepted him. There are many different versions. Edward Tregear's Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary lists quite a few of them.
Overall, I'd recommend this one. Disney's been making some good movies, but none of their films have wowed me like this for a while now.
Tom Thumb's Family
Fairytales don't often give side characters names, but Tom's parents have occasionally received monikers. Occasionally.
In R.I.'s 1621 version, Tom's father is Old Thomas of the Mountain, a humble plowman who longs for a son. (His mother seems less involved; she goes along with it, but when she thinks Tom is lost, grieves for about a minute before getting over it.)
In Tom Thumb's Folio: Or, a New Penny Play-Thing, for Little Giants (1810), Tom comes of nobler stock. His father is the more genteel-sounding Mr. Theophilus Thumb of Thumb Hall.
Thumb is likewise used as a surname in Henry Fielding's parodic play. Here, Tom's father Gaffer Thumb comes back as a ghost. (Gaffer just means old man.)
Charlotte Marie Yonge's History of Sir Thomas Thumb names his father Owen, but leaves his mother and crotchety old aunt unnamed.
In Louisa Mary Barwell's Novel Adventures of Tom Thumb the Great (1838), Mrs. Thumb is related to the Fingers, a very old and respectable family.
In Marianna Mayer's Adventures of Tom Thumb (2001), Tom's parents are Tim and Kate.
In 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Detroit Free Magazine both printed a comic titled "Make-Believe," by Jane Corby. Here, Tom has a sister named Dotty. They set out for a picnic lunch in a carriage drawn by a mouse, with spools for wheels, but a cat sets upon them and then everything just gets progressively worse.
In the Merrie Melodies short I Was a Teenaged Thumb (1963), the happy parents are "George Ebenezer Thumb and his wife Brunhilda."
In the 1941 short Tom Thumb's Brother, his brother is named Peewee.
In the 1958 film, Tom's parents are Jonathan and Anna, but this is really an adaptation of the Grimms' Thumbling.
So in the majority, only Tom's father is named, and his name is some variation on Thomas, Sr. or Mr. Thumb. His mother has to wait for later adaptations to get a name. Interestingly, Tom's mother, unlike the mothers in other thumbling tales, isn't really as important as his father.
In many thumbling tales, it's all about the mother's wish, her desire for companionship. The birth takes place independently of the father's involvement. The child is born in the kitchen, the mother's place of work, while the father is out and about farming; he may not even realize what's happened until his child brings him lunch in the field, and is puzzled to hear a voice calling him "Father." Sometimes, as in Thumbelina, there's no father at all.
However, in the original Tom Thumb, the emphasis is on Old Thomas of the Mountain's wish for a son. The cases where they share a name emphasize this; although we see Old Thomas very little after the introduction, and we mainly see Tom interact with his mother when he falls into pudding or is eaten by a cow, he carries on his father's name. That can be Thomas or, more commonly, Thumb. Using Thumb as their real surname is an element of parody, but really does emphasize the theme of sons carrying on the family name and continuing the dynasty.
Katanya is a Jewish tale from Turkey, collected in the Israel Folklore Archives and later published in English in a couple of books. It also recently inspired a music composition.
Although the story is sweet, it doesn't have much of substance. It is Thumbelina if you subtracted out the entire plot and skipped directly from Thumbelina's birth to her meeting the prince. I'm not a huge fan of what Thumbelina's plot is, but it exists.
The Thumbelina story is an episodic one, featuring multiple bridal kidnappings. The main character has little agency, and is used and judged by one group after another. Her mother and the mysterious fairy are non-entities who disappear quickly from the story. All the other women are negative forces. The female toad and mouse force her into marriage with kidnapping and physical threats (the mouse threatens to bite Thumbelina), and the female beetles brutally mock her appearance and reduce her to tears.
The plot of Katanya is basically "Old woman is sad because she has no children. Old woman gets everything she wants." And it's adorable and has positive depictions of women, but it's not particularly exciting.
Katanya starts out with the Prophet Elijah showing up to give some dates to a lonely, childless, old woman, and I have to stop here because the fact that it's Elijah is AWESOME. According to the notes, Elijah and King Solomon are the two most popular stock figures in Jewish folktales, and Elijah stories frequently feature him being sent by God to help people in need.
Katanya means "God's Little One" and sounds familiar because of another tiny character - K'tonton, whose name means "very little," first appearing in 1930 in short stories and books by Sadie Rose Weilerstein.
Like Thumbelina, Katanya is closely associated with sunlight. Thumbelina is born from a flower, loves the sunlight, and goes to live in a summery land of flowers. Katanya is born from a date after it sits in the sun for a while, and she is dressed in shining clothes the color of a rainbow.
Her story is very domestic, dwelling on food and chores such as cleaning the house and sewing dresses. It's a short story and the greater part of it is simply her and her mother doing things together. Katanya's two most memorable traits are her industriousness (one of the first things she does is make a broom for herself out of straw) and her singing, which brings joy to everyone who hears it. She is the model of a good daughter. The beautiful singing voice is a trait she shares with Thumbelina; their voices attract their mates to them.
Katanya's prince apparently doesn't care how small his wife is. As in Three-Inch, the tiny hero doesn't need to change. Unlike Three-Inch, Katanya's small size is barely even brought up as a possible problem and the prince mentions it only in passing. Contrast Thumbelina. The fairies are the closest to her "own" kind that she ever finds, but she must still go through a transformation to be with her husband, receiving wings and a new name.
Thumbelina goes away from her mother and likely never sees her again. A swallow carries her to a far-off country to meet her prince.
Katanya is never separated from her mother, who is, in fact, the one who carries her to the prince. Her mother implicitly blesses their marriage and lives with them in the palace. She has gone from being poor and alone to having a child who is now an adult and can care for her in her old age. Notably, neither heroine has any kind of father figure. Katanya's mother is a widow.
For all its flaws, Thumbelina has a more dynamic plot and is more interesting as a story. Katanya's narrative is less dramatic and puts no obstacles in the main characters' paths. It's about a woman and her young daughter and their everyday household life. It ends when the daughter becomes a woman herself and takes her now-elderly mother into her new household. It feels like an average life story, save for the detail of Katanya's size.
There are two or three fairy tales that took me months/years/??? to track down in their original languages. One was the Pakistani tale of Three-Inch, alternately known as Mr. One-finger-and-a-half, Little Finger, or Der Angule (দেড় আঙ্গুলে). Three-Inch is the name by which I first encountered the story.
As usual, it opens with a childless couple. After much prayer, they encounter the goddess Shashthi, disguised as an old woman. She gives them a cucumber, with instructions for the wife to eat it, stem and all, after seven days. As in many other stories, the wife does not follow these instructions. As a result, the child she bears is not much bigger than a finger and is hideously ugly, with very long hair.
He is harshly rejected for his appearance, which reflects on his whole family. In shame, his mother tries to drown herself and his father sells himself into slavery. Three-Inch, who has grown to maturity in minutes, stops his mother and sets out to free his father. He encounters the prince of the frogs and helps him rescue his wife, earning a magic healing green liquid. Betsy Bang's picture book version is the only one in English that explains why the frog's wife is locked up. She's the queen of the toads, and was imprisoned as punishment for the two marrying against their families' wishes. Bang also mentions that the "green liquid" from other versions is in fact toad spit.
While rescuing the frog's wife, Three-Inch also encounters a tiny blacksmith who's even shorter than he is and has an absurdly long beard that trails on the ground. All the versions give slightly different accounts of their meeting, but I find them all pretty funny. It seems to go roughly as: Three-Inch ties his hair to the guy's beard so they're stuck together, then introduces him as the blacksmith's new best friend; the blacksmith attempts murder; Three-Inch threatens legal action; best friends forever.
Three-Inch eventually proves himself by earning enough money to free his father, defeating an army of robbers, and curing the princess's blindness with that handy healing toad spit. He proves to be a formidable force as he rides around on a cat, commanding an army of bees and wasps.
The story has some interesting themes of disability and acceptance. The Thumbling story, as Ann Schmiesing points out, can be read as a narrative about someone with dwarfism. The hero usually doesn't marry - maybe because he remains a symbolic child, but also with his condition he is not a suitable romantic partner. In cases where Thumbling does get married, as in Issun-Boshi, he normally goes through a transformation and becomes normal. Three-Inch, however, throws that out the window. He gets married just the way he is; the transformation is that people learn to accept him. In Bradley-Birt's version, he even receives a new name, Pingal Kumara. Pingal means "respected sage" and Kumara means "son." A very different vibe than "One Finger and a Half Tall"!
However, it doesn't have the best treatment of female characters. The blind princess and the toad queen are both damsels in distress, and Three-Inch's mother is hasty and shallow. One synopsis of Bang's picture book ignores frog and robber subplots, instead emphasizing that Three-Inch's small size is because of his mother's actions. It adds that the hero "is eventually rewarded for helping those in need, while his mother leams to be patient and to follow instructions" (Khorana). This may say more about the reviewer than the book, bcause the actual book doesn't mention anything about the mother learning a lesson or having a character arc.
I like this story because it has a genuinely interesting plot. (Not all thumbling stories do. Some of them are severely gimmicky.) Three-Inch has a pretty miserable start to his life, but is still wonderfully determined to free his father and succeed in his ambitions, even though it looks hopeless. He's ready to fight anyone and I like the visuals, such as the moment where he thinks a cloud is passing overhead, but it turns out to be a frog jumping over him.
The story leaves many questions unanswered, like the reason behind the tiny, long-bearded blacksmith's existence. He is a seemingly unnecessary sidenote to the quest with the frog and toad, which is itself a sidenote in Three-Inch's adventure to free his father. The long-bearded miniature man shows up in many stories, as either a supernatural helper or villain. Khodra Khan is a tiny man in Islamic Indian tales who goes around avenging wrongs. Sir Buzz or Mîyân Bhûngâ appears in Steel's Tales of the Punjab in a story similar to Andersen’s “Tinder Box.” Mujichok-s-Kulachok, a fingernail-sized man with an arm-length beard, and similar figures pop up in Russian fairytales. Statu-Palmă-Barbă-Cot appears riding a rabbit in Romanian tales. In "One-Inch Two-Inch Man," a Kalkha tale from Mongolia, this character is the lead.
India has at least one other story that closely resembles Three-Inch - Bitaram, a tale from Mirzapur. The youngest of seven brothers is growing a fruit in his garden, and warns his sisters-in-law not to eat it, or they'll give birth to a child a span long. However, one of them does, and has the miniature child. He is named Bitaram - Bita is Santali for span, thus "Span Ram." Like the typical thumbling, he takes lunch to his father and uncles in the field and then helps plow. He then steals treasure from some thieves, but the story takes an atypical turn, with the police finding the treasure at his family's house. His male relatives are arrested and he and his mother are left as beggars.
Now Bitaram begins riding on a cat, carrying a basket in which he collects an army of bees. He approaches the home of the raja who imprisoned his family, fighting off the guards with his bow and arrows. Finally he releases the bees, who sting everyone until the raja surrenders. Bitaram's family is freed and he marries the princess and receives half the kingdom. The storyteller adds a further adventure of Bitaram, which is a variant of Aarne-Thompson type 1535, The Rich Peasant and the Poor Peasant. Type 1535 also appears in the stories of fellow Indian thumblings Bita (in "Spanling and His Uncles," from Santhal, Nepal) and Bittan (in "The Tricks of Hop o' my Thumb" from the Santal Parganas).
Every version of Three-Inch that I've found has been slightly different, but the basic story is probably among my top ten favorite thumblings. (There's an idea for a later post.)
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.