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Let’s talk about princesses! In the toy industry where I used to work, emphasizing princesses is a way to sell pink plastic drek directly to little girls–and it works really well for that! So much so that a lot of the world’s best entertainment and toy properties are princesses. Yet, I always thought the idea was poorly explored—both its roots and its ramifications. Walt Disney, Charles Perrault, and all of the world’s toy executives just sort of decided that half of the world should share the same alter-ego protagonist and everybody blandly agreed with them. And things have stood thus for multiple generations.
This week, Ferrebeekeeper is going to talk about princesses because the concept is so extraordinarily powerful that we should all think about it and learn from it. At its heart the idea of princesshood is an exquisite and complicated fantasy juxtaposition. A princess represents near absolute power…but so seamlessly wrapped in the trappings of compassion, courtesy, and elegant refinement that the power is virtually invisible. The concept is a socio-political fantasy about the very best way to interact with other people: imagine if almost everyone was your social subordinate (!), but you were really kind and generous to them to such an extent that they didn’t mind. I would totally want to live that way—as a powerful person so lovable that I never had to exert my power! It makes you wonder why boys would ever want to be vampires, Godzilla, or Han Solo (although each of those entities also sort of embodies the same fantasy of being powerful without lots of lawyers, contracts, hired goons, and painful calls about money).
If you listen to NPR and read the New Yorker or suchlike journals, you might recall the “death of men” concept which was en vogue just before the disastrous 2016 election. This idea posited that women are actually more adept at today’s society than men. Nobody is mining things or fighting lions or hosting WWI style events–venues where men allegedly excel (when not being crushed, eaten, or blown up). Whereas women have the sort of soft but firm power which big offices desperately crave. Women are going to university at higher rates than men and rising higher in a society which is based on voluminous rules and carefully crafted double talk.
Nobody has been talking about that “Death of Men” idea lately for some reason. However, reactionary national politics aside, I thought there was something to the idea. Success in today’s world is indeed about PR and plotting rather that discovery and daring. I wonder if princess stories and dolls have something to do with this.
In reality, princesses were not always so genteel or compassionate…nor were they necessarily powerful, in some instances they were closer to the misogynist ideal of a submissive beautiful brood mare in gorgeous gems and finery. And, additionally, a princess who really rules is not an idealized fantasy figure. Somehow queens remain resolutely distant and scary (if not outright crazy and malevolent).
Of course there is another darker side to this. Little girls aren’t really being sold on becoming actual princesses (who are always beheading people and tricking inbred nobles) instead they are sold on being like fairytale princesses who spend lots of money on appearances, luxury goods, and dreams, while always being safely polite and waiting for a prince to come sweep them off their feet. Snow White was so passive that it was a miracle she wasn’t eaten by rabbits! That terrifying evil queen would totally have cut out her heart in the real world!
At any rate it is obvious that the concept of princesshood is absolutely jam packed with all sorts of insane cultural context and we are selling this to whole generations of little girls (and others) who will grow up to inherit the world, not because we have examined or thought about it, but because it sells. Let’s examine some of those stories and myths with a fresh eye and see what we can learn. I was a big fan of the idea that power comes from goodness (which is the moral wellspring of these myths). Come to think of it, I still am a fan of that concept. Maybe by thinking about this we can reawaken the good princess in everyone else’s heart too.
Thus far, there are four great classics of Chinese literature (or possibly 5 if you count the erotic masterpiece “The Plum in the Golden Vase”). Three of the four were written in the Ming dynasty. Of these three, Ferrebeekeeper has already talked about “The Journey to the West.” I have not yet read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which concerns the brutal nature of statecraft and the ghastly moral equivalence involved in controlling other people (maybe I don’t want to read that one).
This leaves us with “The Outlaws of the Marsh,” the tale of a group of Song dynasty heroes who are marginalized, framed, abused, or exiled by corrupt court officials. These convicts, bandits, rogues, and dark sorcerers join together in an inaccessible wilderness in Shandong and form a “chivalrous” brotherhood (although three of the outlaws are warrior women and witches). The bandit brotherhood fights off increasingly violent attempts by the state to subdue them while trying to deal with the anomie of the times and the vexatious problem of which outlaw will lead them.
There is a larger frame story to “Outlaws of the Marsh.” Since it is the first of 100 chapters I will spoil the book somewhat by relating it to you:
Plague is ravaging the capital and the emperor sends out Marshal Hong, a weak and corrupt court official, to find “the Divine Teacher” a great immortal magician who can stop the plague. At a local abbey, the chief monk tells Hong that, in order to find “the Divine Teacher”, he (Hong) must ride to the top of a foreboding mountain.
Hong precedes only a short way before he is scared by a white tiger and by a poisonous snake. He weakly decides to abort his mission when…supernatural events fully reveal the nature of his corruption (and the Divine Teacher intervenes with godlike insouciance).
In a black mood, marshal Hong rides back to the monastery and starts to torment the monks with edicts and highhanded behavior…which leads him to find that a group of demons have been imprisoned under a tortoise with a great stone on its back. With his trademark blend of bungling and arrogance, Hong destroys the magical prison to reveal a vast evil black pit a hundred thousand feet deep. Out of this pit leaps a roiling black cloud of spirits which tear the roof off of the monastery and fly into near space above China before breaking into one hundred and eight glowing stars which fall throughout the land.
Marshal Hong orders his flunkies to silence concerning this misadventure and rides back to the capital where he lies to the Emperor. Thus we are introduced to the thirty six heavenly spirits and the seventy-two earthly fiends (who are the outlaws of the marsh). It is one of the best lead-ins ever. A perfect beginning to this huge novel which is the father of China’s rollicking fung-fu tradition.
The book also gave us some of the most indelible characters of martial literature: Wu Song, Lu Zhishen (the flower monk!), the cunning Wu Yong, Black Whirlwind, and my favorite, “Panther Head” Lin Chong. Each character has a different personality..and a different lethal weapon. They are all matchless warrior trapped in nightmarish circumstances. There is no way out…only a way forward by means of red slaughter…
Speaking of which, Outlaws of the Marsh is a violent book. In fact it is so exceedingly violent that it would probably make George R. R. Martin fall down and start throwing up. However, it is also a funny book…and, like all Chinese literature, it is heartbreakingly sad. Even though the novel is set in the fictionalized Song Dynasty, it somehow describes the corruption endemic to JiaJing-era China, the corrupt Late-Ming era when it was penned by an anonymous author (probably Shi Nai’an, but nobody truly knows for sure).
I am also sad…I have not described what is so magical and dark and beautiful about this amazing epic tale of corruption, bravery, and friendship (and death). I guess there is only one way to find out for yourself… Coincidentally the translation by Sidney Shapiro was excellent.
According to ancient Chinese mythology, humankind was created by the benevolent snake-goddess Nüwa (who is one of my very favorite divinities in any pantheon, by the way). But keen readers wonder: where did Nüwa come from? Whence came the ocean and the earth and the sea and the winds and the heavens. Oh, there is a story behind that too, but it is strange and troubling—sad and incomplete and beautiful like so much of Chinese mythology and folklore.
In the beginning there was nothing except for the universe egg—a vast perfect egg which contained everything. Within the universe egg, yin and yang energies were mixed together so completely and perfectly that they were indistinguishable. Then, through some unknown means, the egg changed—mayhap it became fertilized—and a being began to grow within it. This was P’an Ku, the great primordial entity. The yin and yang energy began to separate and build complex forms. P’an Ku slowly grew and grew. He started as something infinitely small but gradually he became larger and larger until eventually his vast arms came up against the sides of the everything egg. The little embryo became a vast god. The walls of the egg became a prison.
Then P’an Ku grabbed an axe (which appeared from who knows where). Using all of his gargantuan might, he smashed a great blow through the shell of the egg, which exploded. He was born—as was the universe. Beside him, in the gushing yolk, the primordial magical beings came into being—the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix, and the quilin. These special creatures helped the first deity as he began to separate chaos into order. P’an Ku split the yin into darkness and the yang into light. He laid the foundation stones of the vault of the everlasting sky and filled the ocean with the waters of creation dripping from the shattered egg shell.
But as he built, a strange thing happened (though maybe not so strange to my fellow artists who can never quite craft their dreams into their works). The world he made became inimical to him. He aged. He suffered. His creation was unfinished…and he died. His breath became the clouds and the wind. His body became the mountains and the plains of China. His eyes became the sun and the moon. The hair of his body and head became the plants and trees.
It was in this corpse-world that the creator deities moved: Nüwa, a child born of P’an Ku’s genitals…or an alien outsider? Who knows? Who can say? What is important is that eggs are important. In Chinese myth they are the source of everything. The beginning of the universe.
Chinese mythology does not dwell on the end of the world quite the way other cosmologies do. Our world is sad and broken enough that we don’t need to think about its ending. But there are ethereal hints from before the Chin emperor’s great purges which suggest that time is circular like an egg. Somehow, as we all began, so we will end back there again in the homogenized grey yolk of chaos.
I love to bicycle! It is the perfect way to get around. Bicycling is fast, environmentally friendly, cheap, and good for you. From the saddle you can see nature and society up close with an intensity which hermetically sealed up car drivers will never know as they vroom past. And this brings us to the one problem with bicycling. I live in America, where laws, culture, and geography conspire to put everyone behind the wheel of a car. Traveling around by means of a giant steel death chariot driven by explosions is a crazy basis for society (the toxic explosive benzene is refined from the fossil leftovers of long-dead ecosystems!). Unless one is a tradesman or lives deep in the country, a car is just a giant lethal status symbol useful only for impressing shallow people and crushing good-hearted bicyclists and pedestrians. It makes one yearn for Europe, where drivers actually get in trouble for hitting bicyclists with their automobiles (in America, whenever you kill someone with your car the authorities give you a high-five and a sparkly sticker—if you collect five you get a free cheeseburger).
But today’s post is not really about bicycles or national transportation policy. I have no strong opinions about the abject idiocy of our slavish reliance on evil automobiles. Today’s post is instead about bicycle color! This is “celeste” a pale greenish turquoise color which is instantly identifiable with Bianchi bicycles. Pale greens are among my favorite colors, and celeste is particularly pretty (although, over time, the exact shade has varied according to taste and manufacturing circumstance).
Most trade colors have a story or myth associated with them and celeste is no exception. In fact there are three stories of how it came into being. The name itself (Italian for “celestial”) evokes crystal clear Mediterranean skies. The first story of “celeste” is that it is the color of the skies above Milan. I have never been to Milan, but I find it hard to believe the sky there is quite so green! The second (and best) story is that Edoardo Bianchi built a bicycle for a queen with pale green eyes and he became so enthralled with the color that he subsequently painted all of his bicycles that color. As with the sky story this tale requires a certain suspension of disbelief. I have never met a queen (or any other human being) with mint color eyes! But Eduardo lived in a different time and clearly had a closer relationship with royalty than I do.
The final story is the most believable but least poetic. Early on in the history of Bianchi bikes, they had some green paint and lots of white paint and they mixed them together to paint all of their bicycles the same color. That is certainly a story that anyone who has ever painted something can easily believe!
Personally I think celeste green was an aesthetic choice from the start. It is an extremely attractive and distinctive color. My only complaint with it is that I have never been able to afford a vintage Bianchi bike!
The most popular post in Ferrebeekeeper’s history was about leprechauns. Thanks to popular folklore (and marketing shenanigans), leprechauns are currently imagined as small drunk men in Kelly green frockcoats who sell sweetened cereal. Yet the silly little men come from a deep dark well of legends which reaches far into the pre-Christian era. The really ancient stories of Irish myth are ineffable and haunting: they stab into the heart like cold bronze knives.
Once there was a hero-bard, Oisín, who performed numerous deeds of valor and fought in many savage battles. Oisín was mortal and he lived in Ireland long before Christianity came with its doctrine of a blissful fantasy afterlife. To Oisín’s mind, to die was to cease being forever–except perhaps in songs and ambiguous stories. Yet some things are more important than death, and Oisín was always brave and loyal (although since he was also a poet he did tend to play moving laments upon his harp).
One day, as he hunted in the greenwood, Oisín was spied by Niamh. Some say she was the daughter of the queen of the ocean and others claim she was a fairy princess. Whatever the case, she was one of the Aes Sidhe, an immortal being who was merely passing through Ireland. When she saw Oisín, she recognized the endless sadness of mortalkind and the doom all men bear, but she also saw his noble heart, his loyalty, and his courage. Unlike the deathless men of fairykind his bravery was real. After all, what meaning does bravery have when there are no stakes?
Niamh revealed herself to Oisín: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. She had hair like dancing fire and eyes like emeralds and the stain of age was nowhere upon her since she was from a land beyond the shadow of decay. Niamh offered Oisín an apple and then she offered him more. The two fell in love.
Niamh had a white stallion who could gallop upon the waves of the Western Sea. Together the two mounted the horse and they rode upon the whitecaps into the sunset until they came to her homeland, Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young. There among the perfumed gardens and unearthly music, the lovers lived forever afterwards in perfect happiness…
Except that Oisín was not perfectly happy. His heart was loyal and even among the wonders of fairyland he began to pine for his family. For three years he stayed in Niamh’s lovely arms, but more and more he begged her to be allowed one last trip home. In the thrall of love’s enchantment he had left his family and his knights behind. He needed to say his farewells so that he could stay forever with Niamh without regrets.
Reluctantly Niamh lent her stallion to Oisín. As she bathed her lover in kisses, she made him promise that no matter what, he would not step off the horse. One day only would he tarry ahorse in Ireland to say his valedictions and explain himself, then he would ride the tireless steed back across the sea to Otherland and Niamh. Oisín rode east, but when he reached Eire, everything was strange: new villages had grown on the coast and peculiar priests passed among the people waving crosses. His town was alien and he knew no one. Among a field of hoary lichstones he remembered an ancient myth and realized the terrible truth—for every year he spent Tír na nÓg, a hundred had passed in the mortal realm. Everyone he knew was dead and gone. In a fit of horror and grief he tumbled from the white horse. As he hit the ground he immediately began to wither from the long years. The village folk were amazed at the howling old man who stumbled crying among them. As they watched, Oisín aged before their eyes into a wizened corpse and then into dust which blew away to the sea.
Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world. In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost). As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era. As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness. Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam). Coca-Cola did not first provide his signature red outfit–but they made it famous. Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.
The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole. All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa: he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus. Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics. A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.
Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife. Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).
Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding. He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt). Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.
A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist). Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts. The solutions—kindness, generosity, love–were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?
Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable. Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity. The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving: A Christmas miracle indeed.