"When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for the storyteller."—The StoryTeller (John Hurt)
Once upon a time, there was a marvelous storyteller. He could conjure worlds of wonder for children, teach them joy (as well as their numbers and letters), make them laugh, and even sometimes make them cry. Surprisingly, he could do the same for grown-ups, entrancing them with puppet shows and puns, songs, and skits. He endeared himself to generations.
His name was Jim Henson.
This semester, I have been teaching a popular culture course I've called "Innocence Abroad." My students and I are exploring the world of children's literature—or at least literature that claims it is merely for children. When we tell one another "Don't be a child" or "Be a grown-up," we are never talking about biology, the physical changes of maturity. We are talking about behavior. To be a "child" is to be in a state of play (even if real children often find their world very serious stuff). To be a "child" is to be innocent.
And yet, so much children's literature is really about those complicated issues that adults are supposed to deal with. Take fairy tales, for example. How about "Hans My Hedgehog?"
The story goes something like this: a childless farm wife is so desperate for a baby that she even promises she will accept a child "as ugly as a hedgehog." And so, that is exactly what she gets. But Hans does not fit in, so when he is old enough, he rides off on a rooster to seek his fortune. Years later, a king comes upon a castle, and makes a hard bargain with the beast that lives there—an ill-tempered hedgehog—to marry off his daughter.
Oh, wait, what's that? This is a variation on "Beauty and the Beast," you say? Well, true: many familiar tales come back again and again. We keep telling these stories, changing only small bits, because something about these stories fulfills a need within us. For the peasants who passed fairy tales around, often as oral tradition, stories like "Hans My Hedgehog" were often about class consciousness. The poor could rise to power in such tales; the wealthy could suffer a few indignities. Love, moral integrity, friendship—these could all pay off in the form of justice, often through magical or divine means. Fairy tales were, like superheroes now, a way to vicariously escape the deprivations of poverty. You could question the wisdom of the king (fairy tales were a potent means of satire), interrogate social class (and gender—look at all the clever princesses), and preserve a sense of culture history.
Fairy tales were clearly not just kid's stuff.
Let's try another story. Once upon a time, Jim Henson came to NBC with an idea (based on a folklore class his daughter took in college) for a prime-time series adapting fairy tales with the help of Henson's legendary Creature Shop. Brian Froud, who designed Henson's original fairy tale The Dark Crystal, would handle production design. NBC agreed, then got very nervous when they saw the serious tone of the show. Quickly regrouping, they ran a few episodes of The StoryTeller solo, then packaged the rest as part of "The Jim Henson Hour," with the more audience-friendly Muppets Tonight. The StoryTeller vanished after only nine episodes.
But if you managed to catch it back in 1987, as I did, then you were likely stunned by the depth and sophistication of Henson's vision. Muppets done seriously? Some people still cannot wrap their heads around that (just look at the middling ratings for Farscape). But all you had to do was watch The StoryTeller, and you were convinced. In fact, all you had to do was watch one particular episode…
More on that in a moment. Anyway, Jim Henson may be long gone, unfortunately, but someone over at Jim Henson Home Entertainment apparently finally remembered The StoryTeller—because here it is, courtesy of Sony and with no extras whatsoever, out on DVD. All nine episodes on one disc. So let us have a look.
"Hans My Hedgehog": Right from the start, all the strengths and weaknesses of the series are apparent. Director Steve Barron gives the adventure a dreamy look, with lots of shadows and mist, but is occasionally hampered by cheap compositing effects. The Creature Shop picks up the slack though, with consistently amazing make-up and animatronics—okay, muppets. But the real secret of the show's success is twofold: witty scripts by Anthony Minghella (who would later go on to the overrated The English Patient and the underrated The Talented Mr. Ripley) and an eager and sharp-tongued performance by John Hurt as the eponymous StoryTeller. The StoryTeller, along with his chatty dog (Brian Henson) as audience surrogate, often pop in and out of the stories, relating the fantastic events in sincere and convincing fashion—but always with a little wink.
"Fearnot": A boy without fear—and without any direction in life—heads out on a "fool's errand" to learn how to shudder. Brigands, an underwater monster, and even a round of skull bowling do not faze him. Like most of the tales in this collection, the "moral lesson" that has become so much a part of the fairy tale form, is never very conspicuous. "True love conquers all" usually covers most of the stories, with the occasional message about friendship.
"A Story Short": The StoryTeller takes center stage in a tale about his own past. Once, he was a clever beggar who could make a fine pot of stone soup and wheedle his way into the king's court with a promise to tell a story every night—or lose his life. But what do you do when you run out of stories? This episode proves that Hurt's StoryTeller character was so vivid (unlike most anthology show hosts) that he could even carry a story himself.
"The Luck Child": A cruel king squares off against an evil (and weirdly dippy) griffin, an obvious cousin of The Dark Crystal's Skekses. A prophecy reveals the birth of a lucky peasant child destined to one day be king. You may think you can guess what happens next, but this episode takes a cue from the random nature of luck to throw plenty of witty twists and turns at the audience.
"The Soldier and Death": This is it. This is the episode that makes the entire collection, and may even be Jim Henson's masterpiece. Henson himself directs the tale of a likeable and generous Hussar who gambles with devils, performs miracle cures, and even traps the Grim Reaper. But without Death, the world can become a very strange and sad place…
Loosely based on the same Russian legends Igor Stravinsky used for his "A Soldier's Tale," "The Soldier and Death" works on all levels. It is funny and scary and poignant—all within 24 minutes. The frightening devils are a triumph of Creature Shop artistry: do not let your kids watch this one before bedtime. And the story carries remarkable emotional weight. If you buy The StoryTeller for one reason, this is it.
"The True Bride": Poor Anja is adopted by an abusive troll. But a magical white lion fixes all her problems, like Rumplestiltskin by way of Aslan. Look for Sean Bean as the requisite prince. Indeed, keep an eye out in the series for several familiar faces: Jonathan Pryce, Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Saunders, and others. The white lion is so successful an effect that Henson used the muppet as his sidekick when he filmed the host segments for "The Jim Henson Hour."
"The Three Ravens": A kingdom mourns its dead queen, except for the witch who plots to marry the widowed king and displace his four children. What follows is a suspenseful battle of wits between the sinister witch and the beset royal family, especially the resourceful princess who must rescue her enchanted brothers—and yes, her beloved prince boyfriend.
"Sapsorrow": A widowed king (apparently even royalty is not safe in fairy tales) searches for a wife to fit a particular ring. His two ugly daughters think it is a very bad idea. His good daughter Sapsorrow supports him—until the ring fits her finger. This variation on "Cinderella" features a far more proactive heroine (and the prince learns the moral lesson!) and a weird incest subplot that would make Freud nervous.
"The Heartless Giant": Henson directs the tale of, well, look at the title. An imprisoned giant makes friends with young prince Leo. But it is all a cruel trick. Can Leo turn the tables on the monster and save the kingdom? Do not expect a happy ending.
Indeed, do not expect a happy ending for The StoryTeller. The show tanked in its initial run, has languished almost forgotten for nearly a generation, and is likely to get overlooked on the crowded DVD shelves by better hyped, poorly-written, computer-enhanced hackwork. The lack of extras on this disc, along with a slightly grainy transfer and indifferent 2.0 audio, suggests that Sony considers this a back catalog title of little importance.
However, like a good story, The StoryTeller grows stronger through word of mouth. Tell your friends about this series. Show them "The Soldier and Death." Show it to your children (even the scary and sad episodes). Remind the Henson Company that this is the sort of material that defined their artistic mission. Pass these tales along. Future generations will thank you.
Sony and the Henson Company are sentenced be boiled in oil for undermarketing this beautiful collection of fairy tales for all ages. Jim Henson, we miss you.
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