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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Horcruxes in Fairy Tales

JK Rowlings invented the word (horcrux first made an appearance in the 5th book - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) but the concept is ancient; hiding in plain sight in folklore and fairy tales. In fact, there is a horcrux in Swan Lake...

A screen grab from The Swan Princess, which is based on Swan Lake

After The Black Swan, it seems natural to take a closer look at Swan Lake. The ballet by Tchaikovsky, is said to be based on Russian folktales, although the names of the major characters are German or French. The story begins with Prince Siegfried celebrating his coming of age by going on a hunt with his companions. He came across an enchantingly beautiful lake where swans are a swimming...

The prince asks his companions to leave him alone and as night falls he witnesses the swans transform into young maidens. The prince falls in love with the most beautiful of them all, Odette, the Swan Queen. Odette tells him, her story: she and all the other maidens are under the thrall of a sorcerer named Von Rothbart. They are cursed to spend the day in the form of swans, only changing into maidens after nightfall. Siegfried and Odette dance the night away until sunrise... The sorcerer appears on the scene and summons Odette to him. Odette is compelled to obey and changes into a swan as do all the other maidens... Odette manages to tell Siegfried that the only way to break the spell is to declare his love for her...

Odette and Prince Derek are reunited.
The Swan Princess has a happy ending, unlike Swan Lake

At his coming-of-age ball, Siegfried sees Von Rothbart with someone who is the spitting image of Odette - she is of course the Black Swan, Odile. They dance and Siegfried declares his love for her. But he sees the real Odette running away, realises that he made a terrible mistake and pursues her. But it is too late for him to break the curse. Odette forgives him but she can no longer live as a slave of Von Rothbart and decides to take her own life. In some versions of the story, she is killed accidentally. Her death not only frees her from the spell but destroys Von Rothbart. His death in turn breaks the spell on all the other maidens.

Why does Odette's death kill Von Rothbart? If you've read the Harry Potter books you will probably realise that Odette must be a horcrux for Von Rothbart, just as Harry Potter was for Lord Voldemort. Is Voldemort based on Von Rothbart? Hmm... never mind. Why would Von Rothbart chose a fragile vessel such as Odette as a horcrux? It must have been accidental but he knew that she carried his soul, otherwise he would not have been so maniacally possessive of the poor girl.

The seven horcruxes of Lord Voldemort: Tom Riddle's diary, Marvolo Gaunt's ring,
Salazar Sytherin's locket, Helga Hufflepuff's Cup, Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem,
Harry Potter and Nagini. 
In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort created six horcruxes intentionally and one unintentionally i.e. Harry Potter. It's possible that he did not know that Harry Potter carried a fragment of his soul. The transfer happened when Voldemort attacked baby Harry Potter with the Avada Kedavre curse. According to author JK Rowlings, this is an ancient spell in Aramaic meaning 'let the thing be destroyed.' But the curse was deflected and struck Voldemort himself. Perhaps his splintered soul decided to take refuge in the nearest living person i.e. Harry Potter in order to survive...

The Avada Kedavre curse can be used to create and also destroy a horcrux. The most important horcrux was of course Nagini, who incidentally was a shape-shifting naga, not just a serpent.

Moving on to Swan Lake again.

So which Russian folktale is Swan Lake based on? The experts may not agree but I think its the Frog Princess. Not the Disney version but the original Russian folktale, Tsarevna Lyagushka.

In this story, Princess Vassilisa enjoys a perfectly beautiful Spring day but she makes a comment which tempts fate. A powerful wind appears out of nowhere and she is swept away into a strange garden where she is confronted by a sorcerer called Kaschey the Deathless. Kaschey offers her all the wealth in the world and asks for her hand in marriage but Vassilisa laughs at him and calls him old and ugly. Kaschey summons his enchanted mirror and forces Vassilisa to look into it and she turns into an ugly frog. The only way to break the spell is for a someone to fall in love with her. Vassilisa is condemned to live in the swamp...

Prince Ivan's arrow lands in the swamp and the frog princess finds it. To keep his promise to his father, Prince Ivan must marry the frog. Even after the marriage, he never sees Vassilisa in human form. This could be a residual effect of the spell cast by Kaschey, because he falls asleep the moment Vassilisa transforms into a woman at nightfall.

Vassilisa is captured by Kaschey, but the fearless princess is not impressed
either by him or his garden, where everything is made of gold.
Image is from an old  and very fabulous Russian animated TV series.
But the interesting part is that Kaschey, like Von Rothbart and Voldemort, is deathless. Fortunately for the prince, Vassilisa is not a horcrux, which is probably why she was allowed to live alone in a swamp in the first place. When he finally sees Vassilisa as a woman at a ball, he falls in love with her but makes the mistake of burning her frog skin... Vassilisa is swept away by Kaschey again.

Vassilisa has magic of her own - she is collecting fireflies
to weave a carpet made from a moon beam. Moving image from giphy.gif 
Unlike Von Rothbart, Kaschey is diabolically clever. In the story, Ivan is told that Kaschey's life is 'at the point of a needle which is inside an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare which is inside a stone box located on top of an ancient oak tree." The only way to kill Kaschey is to break the tip of this needle... Fascinating!

Are there more fairy tales with horcruxes?  The most obvious one is Snow White. Is it the poisoned apple or the raven or perhaps even Snow White herself ? No, it's the magic mirror of course. But whose horcrux? Why the Evil Queen's of course.

Copyright belongs to Disney.
Did the queen know that the mirror contained a fragment of her soul? Most probably not, otherwise she would never have destroyed it and herself in the process. It was created unintentionally, probably when she spent so much time looking into, and talking to the mirror. The demon in the mirror may have stolen part of her soul. Such a potent magical artefact should not be trifled with and the queen may have fallen under its spell without realising it.

The fearsome all-knowing mirror which is always compelled to tell the truth.

Reverting again to Harry Potter, the Mirror of  Erised was supposed to have the ability to cast a spell on unsuspecting people who gazed too long into it... After all, there is an ancient superstition that looking too long into a mirror will result in your soul being trapped in the mirror... as in the case of the urban legend of Bloody Mary in the United States.

The concept of a horcrux definitely originated from the East. In fact, almost all the 'deathless' villains have horcruxes - the secret of their invincibility. There are a few references in the 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights. In Folktales from India, by  AK Ramanujan, there is a story from Kashmir called The Ogress Queen. A shapeshifting rakshashi took the form of a beautiful woman and married a king. The rakshashi successfully managed to get rid of the king's seven other wives by framing them as blood thirsty rakshashis (the king must not have been very bright as he was married to his seven wives far longer than he was to the real rakshashi...) Their fate was grim - they were cast into a salt mine. Anyway, the son of the youngest wife survived and tried to kill the rakshashi but to no avail. Finally he found out that her soul was hidden in a bird (a starling) which is kept in a cage hidden deep in the forest...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Khatak: The Black Swan

The fourth dance to be featured in the series is Khatak from India (the first dance to be featured was Ulek Mayang from Malaysia on 8/16/13). Khatak is one of the eight dance forms, acknowledged as Indian Classical Dance. It is supposed to originate from the nomadic bards of ancient Northern India. According to an article in Wikipedia the word Khatak is derived from the Sanskrit word 'khata,' which means 'story'. Classical Indian Khatak is normally performed by women.

Kathak exponent Manisha Gulyani. Pix taken from Wikipedia
But there is another form of dance also known as Katthak, which is a martial arts dance usually performed by men while carrying a shining sword and a red handkerchief... This dance is said to originate from the Khattak tribe among the Pashtuns; found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, according to an article in Wikipedia, the dance may have been brought to these countries by the army of Alexander the Great, from Bactria, Greece. While the dance may have died out in Greece, it has evolved and survived among the Pashtuns and other tribes. Looking at the picture below, even the costumes show some Greek influence.

Photo by Mazhar Faiz, taken during the Sarhad Cultural Festival in Haripur

I don't know if Khatak is derived from Khattak or if there are any connections between the two dance forms... In any case, the two dance forms were popular during the time of the Moghuls.

I was lucky to attend a performance of Khatak in Zagreb, by a group from India. The invitation came from the Embassy of India to Zagreb. It was however a modernised version of the dance, based on the Hollywood movie, The Black Swan, which starred Natalie Portman.

The dancer playing the White Swan slowly comes under the spell of the Black Swan

The dancer goes into a trance...

The White Swan is now the Black Swan

The movie is set in the high-strung world of the New York City Ballet. A beautiful and talented young dancer lands the role of Princess Odette, the White Swan, in the dance drama, Swan Lake. However, she becomes possessed by the Black Swan, Odile, and undergoes a strange transformation...

Are there similarities with Manohra? Perhaps. But Odette is under a curse while Manohra belongs to the race of Kinnara.

Strange predatory birds also come into the picture

All the dancers are now black swans...

The Khatak performance I witnessed involved quick, rhythmic footwork, dramatic poses and rapid spins. In some ways it reminded me of Spanish Flamenco and Irish line dance... The performance was lively and energetic but I felt the costumes could have done with some embellishment. After all, this is an Indian dance, where one expects nothing short of opulence...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Manohra: The Tale of the Kinnari

The marvelous Bunditpatanasilpa Institute's Dance Troupe from the Ministry of Culture of Thailand also put up a performance of Manohra on that night; only a vignette however as the full dance drama would take hours.

Manohra is a traditional dance drama popular in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia, but the folktale is also known in Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar (Burma). In Malaysia, the dance is performed only in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu but is gradually fading away, unfortunately. The title, Manohra, refers to the name of the main character, the youngest of seven Kinnari princesses.

Manohra, like all her sisters, is a chimera - a bird-human hybrid. A male of the race is known as a Kinnara or Kinnon in Thailand. The Kinnara is the archetypical lover, a celestial musician and dancer. The character of the Kinnara is illuminated in this passage from the Mahabharata (taken from Wikipedia):

       We are everlasting lover and beloved. We never separate.We are eternally husband and wife, never do
       we become mother and father. No offspring is seen in our lap. We are lover and beloved, ever
       embracing. In between us we do not permit any third creature demanding affection. Our life is a life of
       perpetual pleasure...        

Not surprisingly, the Kinnara is a symbol of enduring romantic love in Burmese culture. Although these lines are from the Mahabharata, the story of Manohra is not found there.

The Kinnari is depicted as having the torso of a woman and the lower half of a swan or a long-legged secretarybird in traditional Thai art and sculpture. In Burma, both Kinnara and Kinnari are depicted as humans with wings and fabulous tail feathers. There is no iconography of her in Malaysia, as far as I know. However, in my retelling of the story of Manohra in Eight Jewels of the Phoenix, she is basically a woman until she puts on her magical 'forest clothes' and is able to fly. This depiction of her is consistent with folklore as well as the dance. A Kinnari is not only able to fly, she can cross the boundary from this world to another mythical world called the Himaphan forest; the home of all the Kinnaris and Kinnaras.

In Thai culture, a Kinnari represents feminine beauty, grace and accomplishments, especially in dance, song and poetry.

A brief summary of the story: Every night of the full moon, Manohra and her sisters make it a ritual of visiting a beautiful pool in a secluded forest. One night, a hunter called Buntarik spots the seven Kinari sisters taking a bath and captures one of them. Manohra is taken to the Royal Court and offered as a gift to the crown prince, Phra Suthon. The hunter is of course well rewarded by the prince for such a fabulous gift. While she is in captivity, the palace handmaidens hide her magical forest clothes to prevent her from escaping.

Manohra's beauty and her grace as a dancer wins the love of the prince and he announces that he intends to marry her. This incurs the wrath of the royal priest and minister to the king, Brahmin Purohit. But the minister has to bide his time until a neighbouring kingdom (probably the Khmer Empire) declares war and Phra Suthon has to go to battle.When he is away, the king has a prophetic dream. Brahmin Purohit, the minister, warns him that the dream is a portend of great misfortune and the only way to avert it is to sacrifice Manohra by fire... In order to save Manohra, the handmaidens return to her her forest clothes and the Kinnari flies away to safety.  When Phra Suthon returns from war and finds Manohra gone, he is distraught and sets out to find her...

The story of Manohra is thought to be based on Indian folklore and the Jataka Tales, with plot twists added by ancient Thai-Malay culture. It could be the origin of stories such as Swan Lake. In India, Manohra is Manohara, Phra Suthon is Prince Sudhana and the Himaphan Forest is the Himavanta Forest. But the folklore and dance of Manohra achieved it's fullest expression in Southeast Asia and is relatively unknown in India.

 Different variations of this story of seven bird maidens (usually cranes in Japan, Korea and China) or sometimes seven fairies, taking a bath in a forest pool and the youngest one being captured by a hunter or a fisherman occur in folktales from Japan and Korea all the way to the Philippines and Borneo. However, the version of the story in these countries are simple folktales - the man steals the crane maiden's magical cloak and keeps her captive on Earth.

Kinnari and Kinnara in flight. The depiction, according to
Burmese tradition, is by Aung Min Min

The story of Manohra on the other hand is high drama - it has a captive princess who can fly, a valiant prince, a war, a scheming priest and court intrigues, a perilous quest and an enchanted forest... For more information, refer to my previous post Adapting Asian Folktales for Children's and YA Literature 5/31/13 .