What is the difference between an ogre and a troll? To begin with, ogres all are huge creatures, and trolls, though they are sometimes very big, are just as often very little, like dwarfs. The ogres usually live in castles; the trolls make their homes in caves, or in grassy mounds, and they live in the northern parts of the world, in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. You will not find a troll venturing south, nor will you find an ogre going very far north; for ogres and trolls never live in the same countries.
In search of The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, I recently wandered into a secluded section of the library that I’d never noticed before. This quiet corner hid a whole range of interesting tomes: there was an entire shelf devoted to the sociology of food, and I couldn’t resist picking up Absinthe: A History. My favourite discovery of the day was, as you might have guessed, A Book of Ogres and Trolls. The book features stories collected variously from Russia, Iceland, Italy, Denmark and Germany, and comes complete with grotesque illustrations by Robin Jacques.
I find it fascinating to see the same archetypes of character and plot appear and reappear in each story; these are tales which traversed across national boundaries in order to be told anew. I enjoyed, too, the distinctly fairy tale-ish language of the stories. They all share a kind of archaic speech which exists only in stories. For example, many tales feature ‘stalwart sons’, a word which originates from the 15th century. The enduring power of these stories is something to consider with awe; the tales collected in A Book of Ogres and Tales have travelled many miles and many years, yet they still have the power to captivate.
‘Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
We are men of science, gentlemen, students of nature. It is our purpose to tear down the veil of superstition, to pierce the very fabric of our living being and elucidate the nature of the force which animates these shells we call our bodies. And we will find it here, in this cold flesh. From these tissues we will divine the shadow of that force which drove the fuse within, which set his heart to flicker and beat. Call it a soul if you wish, yet I promise you it shall prove no more mysterious than this magnet’s power to bend these filings to its will.
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is one of my favourite books of 2013. Although it may only be February, I have no doubt that it will still be placed firmly within my top ten by the end of the year. The novel features a range of narrators, all belonging either to the generation of ‘the Mothers’ or the generation of ‘the Daughters’ (even though, strictly speaking, many of these daughters are actually mothers themselves). The novel attempts to bridge the chasm between the two groups. This generational gap is not the central focus of the novel, however: it also considers the broader issue of the trauma of the immigrant experience, of what it means to hold onto your own culture while simultaneously trying to adapt to a new way of life.
Divided into four sections, the novel is interlaced with fragments which read like haunting, modern-day fables. The first, ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ features a line which I thought perfectly encapsulated the conflicting fears and hopes of the Mothers:
Now the woman was old. And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.
The Mothers’ narratives explore the difficulties they face in helping their daughters to pursue the American dream without losing their own histories along the way. Despite their efforts, a sense of loss pervades their stories. The Mothers fear that their experiences of violence and upheaval (‘How much can you wish for a favourite warm coat that hangs in the closet of a house that burned down with your mother and father inside of it?’) will be forgotten by the future generations.
Granting a narrative voice to the Mothers allows the reader to witness first-hand stories the experiences of the past generation, experiences of which the Daughters themselves have little knowledge. This is the result of the misunderstandings which pepper the novel: a linguistic barrier has developed between the two groups, as one can only communicate in broken English, while the other was taught only stock-phrases in Chinese. A sense emerges that certain feelings or experiences belong to a single language, and cannot be expressed in other tongues. ‘It was one of those Chinese expressions’, says Jing-Mei Woo, more commonly known as June; ‘I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.’
The extent to which the novel manages to assuage the Mothers’ fears is left for the reader to decide. For me, the overall experience of the novel was uplifting; ultimately, the two generations will remain connected, even if their culture and language are forced to change and adapt.
All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way.
All the people in the camp wore the same clothes, those pyjamas and their striped cloth caps too; and all the people who wandered through his house (with the exception of Mother, Gretel and him) wore uniforms of varying quality and decoration and caps and helmets with bright red-and-black armbands and carried guns and always looked terribly stern, as if it was all very important really and no one should think otherwise.
What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pyjamas and which people wore the uniforms?
To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.