Journal of Mythic Arts Retrospective I: Personal Reflections
I was an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College when I first came across the amazing Journal of Mythic Arts. I was in a class about Experimental Writing that was ever expanding my ideas about what literature could be and for my final project I was inspired to look at retellings of my favorite fairy tale, "Sleeping Beauty," that could be considered experimental. I had always particularly loved folkloric retellings but this was my first opportunity to really study them seriously. I hadn't even realized that this was something I could do! I was thrilled with the idea and eager to see what already existed in the academic world I was only just beginning to discover.
I was searching the Internet for sources when I came across Midori Snyder's JoMA article on the panel that she, Terri Windling, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Elizabeth Matson, and Beth Plutchak had participated in on "Sleeping Beauty" at Wiscon 23. The article was about how the panelists, after initial disappointment in their assigned topic due to the overwhelmingly passive main character of "Sleeping Beauty," came to appreciate and be inspired by both the heroine and the story itself. I read the article with fascination and growing excitement – here were people who took fairy tales seriously and loved them as much as I did! Here were people who were passionate about the art of retelling these stories and had dedicated their lives to doing so and writing about and studying those who also did so. These were people like me – I couldn't imagine any job more perfect. After this first article, the Journal of Mythic Arts went on to introduce me to many more incredible fairy tale and other folklore related articles, books, short stories, poetry, websites, artwork, and more. After discovering JoMA, I realized that I could form all kinds of projects around my love of what I now knew to call mythic arts.
I am now in graduate school for folklore and literature, where my work concentrates on fairy tale, folklore, and myth retellings. I recently won the student paper award from the Women's Section of the American Folklore Society for another paper on a different aspect of "Sleeping Beauty" retellings – she, and Ms. Snyder's article, continue to frequently appear in my work! I am also a creative writer myself who often draws upon these tales. I credit the Journal of Mythic Arts for showing me my perfect path – the spark of recognition that that first article produced in me has grown into a fire that inspires me every day.
Having grown up in the 1990s, a period when Disney fairy tale rip-offs were at their peak, I was in for a rude awakening when I stumbled upon the Journal of Mythic Arts. What really stood out for me were the articles, particularly those explaining the origins and evolution of famous fairy tales. I learned that the Grimms’ fairy tales were in fact highly-scrutinized versions of very old stories not generally intended for children. Beloved “children’s” fairy tales were full of sexual imagery (“Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Red Riding Hood,”) as well as child abuse (“Cinderella”) and incest (“Donkeyskin/Allerleirauh”). Not what I originally had in mind when I first became familiar with fairy tales.
Bluebeard and the Bloody Chamber.” The “Bluebeard” story is bloody to the core. How much more bloody could you get than a man who chops up each new wife and stores them in a room, essentially setting bait for the next victim? In addition to the Perrault version, Windling discusses different versions of the tale from Germany, Italy, Ireland, Scandinavia, and even India (where the Bluebeard figure is a tiger!), showing how the tale has evolved to fit each culture. Since most of what I previously knew about fairy tales came from the Grimms and Disney, it was shocking to learn that fairy tales are not always German, static, or child-friendly.
The “Bluebeard” tale often appeared in times and places where arranged marriages were common, especially among the noble class. For young Americans like me, the historical context of this story is lost. This was a time and place when young girls could be forced into marriage to much older men, men who could easily be cruel and abusive (or wife-killers). As with all the articles on specific fairy tales, Windling shows how different writers have adapted these stories to fit modern times and use them as a form of social commentary, just as oral folk tales and literary fairy tales were used to teach morals or criticize existing norms.
In addition to fairy tales, JoMA articles deal with specific folklore motifs and personages, such as Animal Brides and Bridegrooms, Hungarian Fairies, and Fox Wives, or specific groups of stories, such as Russian fairy tales or the “Arabian Nights”. The non-fiction archive of the Journal of Mythic Arts has become a valuable resource for me as a reader of fairy tales and folklore and a developing writer who incorporates these elements into his stories.
It was evening, and likely autumn, and probably 2002 or 2003. I was seventeen or eighteen. I should have marked the date. I remember everything about the scene – the dark of after-midnight, the light of a lamp by my corner-desk, me sitting on the floor with my back against my bed, phone to my left ear, facing my bookshelf, seeking out The Wood Wife's spine while Terri's words tumbled into my life. From some three thousand miles away my dear friend Jess was reading me "The Night Journey" – only I think it was called "Invocation," then, and it was, for me: an invocation, an exhortation, leading me to a different understanding of poetry and what it could be.
Go by coombe, by candlelight,
by moonlight, starlight, stepping stone,
and step o'er bracken, branches, briars,
and go tonight, and go alone...
I'd grown up with poetry meaning certain easily recognisable things. Poetry existed in books, and was written by people long-dead; there was a sense in which poetry was magical to me specifically because it was old, of a time and place I had never seen, and yet could tell me things that were true about my here and now. I grew up loving rhyme, and loving best those poems that worked on me like a spell, that rooted themselves in the core of me, demanded to be memorised and recited, demanded a life off the page. I read Blake, and Keats, and Coleridge, and Tennyson, and early Yeats; I read Shakespeare's sonnets. I was guided by my father's fond memories of a 5th edition Norton Anthology and whatever Anne of Green Gables happened to like.
But the idea of contemporary poetry was lost on me until my late teens. Poetry in English was something you rooted about in library books to find, or turned up scraps of in novels, or heard sung by Loreena McKennitt on rainy evenings; it wasn't something anyone actually did anymore. I somehow managed to think this even as I certainly meant one day to Be a Poet. But Jess showed me otherwise. Into the absurd prejudice that I had against "modern" poetry – which was, to my extremely limited understanding, shorn of loveliness, wonder, and the capacity to enchant when it was shorn of rhyme – she read "The Night Journey." And to hear those rhythms slip in and out of each other, to hear whole poems in the individual words exhorting me to go now, tonight, was to feel my feet placed on a path they've never yet left. "The Night Journey" led me to The Endicott Studio, to the Journal of Mythic Arts, but most importantly to the Coffee House, where I read Jane Yolen's "The Fates" and Midori Snyder's "Donkey Skin" and Neil Gaiman's "Instructions," and came to understand that these people whose books I loved, who told me stories in a language of magic and marvel that I had adopted as my own, also wrote poetry. They were still writing poetry. And I could do the same.