Friday, September 23, 2011

The Adventures of Brer Rabbit

The stories of Brer Rabbit and his friends and enemies were originally written by Joel Chandler Harris, who attributed them to an old slave he invented named "Uncle Remus." Remus lived on a plantation in Georgia during the Post-Reconstruction period, just after the Civil War. He, like many freed slaves at that time, had no place to go after being emancipated, so he stayed on for the rest of his days. He didn't do much work anymore, mostly he would tell the children of the plantation owners stories about the animals he knew from that area to entertain and to teach. Harris drew the inspiration for the Uncle Remus stories from real folktales the slaves brought to America from Africa.

I realize that some of you may view these stories as somewhat controversial. True, there is some content in the Uncle Remus stories that might be construed as insensitive by today’s standards, but at heart they are just entertaining animal fables, and I don't think they should be ignored just because they were born out of a period in our shared history that we're (rightly) ashamed of. In the interest of keeping things pleasant, I have, shall we say, softened them a little and removed a certain word which, while a literal description of a plot element in the story, has since become a fairly horrendous racial slur.

Now, this story takes place once upon a time. Not your time, or my time, or any other time. But once upon a time. Back then, the people were closer to the animals, the animals were closer to each other, and you might say things were better all around. In fact, the animals were so friendly, they called each other “Brother.” “Good morning, brother dog,” they would say. “How do you do, brother cat?” But this story takes place way down south, in the southiest of the southlands, where the people (and the animals) talk in such a way that it comes out more like “Brer.” “G’morning, brer dog.” “How d’ya do, brer cat?” and so on.

There were lots of critters around in those days, but the craftiest, quickest and cleverest of all was Brer Rabbit. He was the slickest critter you’ve ever seen. He could get himself in and out of trouble just as easy as you could fall off a log. And most of that trouble came from a certain mean, nasty critter called Brer Fox, who was determined to catch and eat Brer Rabbit for his dinner.

But Brer Rabbit wasn’t worried about Brer Fox. He knew he’d always find a way to outsmart him. He didn’t even worry when Brer Fox put that fence up around his peanut crop. He just slid under it, helped himself to all the “goobers” he wanted and scurried on home before Brer Fox even knew what hit him. Well, finally, Brer Fox got fed up and laid a little trap for Brer Rabbit. And, sure enough, the very next night when Brer Rabbit came to get more goobers, he stepped in the snare trap and before he knew it, he was trussed up by his legs, hanging between the heaven and the earth. At first, he was scared he was gonna fall…then he was scared he wasn’t gonna fall! Because he knew it would only be a few hours before Brer Fox showed up and then he’d have himself a nice juicy rabbit for a meal!

Now, being small, Brer Rabbit knew it was better to use his head instead of his feet, so he started working on a plan to get himself out of this mess. Just then, who should come along on an evening stroll but Brer Bear. Brer Bear was big and tough, friendly enough, but a little shy on brains…which was perfect for Brer Rabbit.

“Howdy, Brer Bear!” he called out from the tree. “How ya come on?”

“Huh? Oh, howdy Brer Rabbit…what you doin’ way up there?”

“Me? Oh, I’m a scarecrow, Brer Bear. I’m keepin’ the crows outta the garden for Brer Fox. It’s a good job, too. I’m makin’ a dollar a minute!”

“A dollar a minute!” exclaimed Brer Bear. “That means you’re makin’…er…a lotta money!” As I said, not much on brains.

“Yeah, it’s a good job. Say, Brer Bear, would you like this job? I think you’d make a great scarecrow. No, I insist, I’ve got plenty of money already. Just help me down and you can take over for me.”

Well, you can imagine what Brer Fox thought when he came to check his trap the next morning and found Brer Bear hanging by his feet from the tree. And, after patiently explaining to Brer Bear that he was not making a dollar a minute, the two of them decided to team up to teach Brer Rabbit a lesson once and for all. Now, being a bear, Brer Bear had an ample supply of honey at his house. So taking this, a few sticks, an old hat and coat, and buttons for eyes, they shaped the honey into the shape of a little person, and sat it down on a log by the side of the road. Then they hid behind some bushes and waited for Brer Rabbit to come by.

He did, soon enough, and when he saw the "honeychild" sitting by the side of the road, he thought it was a real person, so he called out a friendly, “Howdy!” as he passed…but the honeychild didn’t say anything. Brer Rabbit thought maybe he hadn’t heard, so he said it again: “Howdy!” But the honeychild didn’t say anything. “Hey,” he yelled at the honeychild, starting to get annoyed, “didn’t you hear me? I said ‘Howdy!’” But the honeychild didn’t say anything. “Now look here,” said Brer Rabbit, “don’t you know it ain’t polite not to say ‘howdy’ when someone says ‘howdy?’ Now I’m gonna give you to the count of three, and if I don’t get a ‘howdy,’ I’m gonna punch you right in the mouth! One…two…three! Okay, you asked for it.” Brer Rabbit swung his paw back and punched the honeychild right in the mouth…and, of course, his fist got stuck. So he punched him with the other paw…and that one got stuck. Then he started to punch and kick as hard as he could at every part of the honeychild’s body. But the more he tried to get free the more deeply he got stuck in the honey, until he was so deep in the thick, sticky honey that he could scarecely open his eyes.

The next thing Brer Rabbit heard was laughter as Brer Fox and Brer Bear came out of their hiding place. “We got you, Brer Rabbit!” said Brer Bear. “Yeah, I sure did!” said Brer Fox, who’d been waiting for this moment all his life. “I finally caught you, Brer Rabbit. And now I’m gonna get rid of you once and for all!”

“How we gonna do it?” asked Brer Bear.

“I know!” said Brer Fox after thinking about it for a moment. “Let’s get some rope and hang ‘im! What do you think of that, Brer Rabbit? We’re gonna hang ya! I bet that scares you, doesn’t it?”

But just then, Brer Rabbit got perhaps the best idea of his entire life. “You can hang me up just as high as you like, Brer Fox. As long as you don’t throw me in that Briar Patch, I don’t mind.”

“Say,” said Brer Bear. “He don’t seem to be afraid of being hanged.”

“Yeah, I know. I got it! We won’t hang ‘im…we’ll tie him to a big rock, throw him in the lake and drown ‘im! Now that’s gotta scare you, doesn’t it Brer Rabbit?”

“Drown me just as deep as you like, Brer Fox. I won’t be afraid as long as you don’t throw me in that Briar Patch!”

“No, he’s not afraid of drowning either!” said Brer Bear.

“Okay, okay…” said Brer Fox, and he began to think again. “I got it this time! I’ll take my big, sharp knife…and skin ya alive! Now that has to make you scared, right, Brer Rabbit?”

“Skin me! Hang me! Drown me! Shoot me! Stab me! Roast me! Do whatever you want to me, Brer Fox. But whatever you do, please don’t throw me in that Briar Patch!

“Oh, this is hopeless!” said Brer Bear. “He ain’t scared of anything!”

“Wait!” said Brer Fox. “I know what he’s scared of! He’s scared of being thrown in the Briar Patch! Well, then…that’s just where he’s gonna go!” So Brer Fox and Brer Bear dragged Brer Rabbit to the edge of a mile wide thicket of sharp, dangerous briars and thorns. All the while, Brer Rabbit was begging for mercy, but they wouldn’t listen. They each took one end of Brer Rabbit and swung him back and forth between them…one…two…three! And they flung Brer Rabbit right into the middle of the Briar Patch!

Brer Fox and Brer Bear pricked up their ears to listen to the agonized, tormented screams of Brer Rabbit…imgaine their surprise when they heard laughter instead! You see, unbeknowst to the fox and the bear, Brer Rabbit had been born and raised in the Briar Patch! He knew every thorn like the back of his own paw. “I surely do appreciate you taking me home, boys!” cried Brer Rabbit playfully to his enemies as he laughed and sang in his comfortable home.

And so ends this adventure of Brer Rabbit, but there are plenty of others. Plenty of other times when Brer Rabbit got himself into trouble with Brer Fox or played a trick on Brer Bear or tried to help Brer Frog or Brer Turtle out of a jam. But no matter how much trouble Brer Rabbit gets himself into, you can be sure of one thing: He’ll get himself out again just as easy as you could fall off a log!


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Song of the South (1946) The only Disney movie to be unofficially “disowned” by the studio,it can still be seen quite easily through video torrents and websites. A live action film about a young white boy befriending Uncle Remus, interspersed with superb Disney animation. Basically the reason it’s not been released on video in this country is because of historical misunderstandings and the use of the word I alluded to earlier and substituted with “honeychild,” which just came to me as I was writing and I thought was pretty clever. Anyway, “Splash Mountain” is based on this movie, the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” comes from this movie, and if they can realease their wartime propoganda cartoons with a disclaimer from Leonard Maltin, I don’t see why they can’t do the same for this exceptional, multiple Oscar-winning movie, especially since they're still profiting from it.
  • The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (2006) I'm not the only person that thinks these stories need to be preserved. This direct-to-DVD release boasts a voice cast including Nick Cannon, Wayne Brady, Danny Glover, D. L. Hughley and Wanda Sykes.

NEXT WEEK: "The Sleeper Awakened"

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tom Thumb

This is the Brothers Grimm story often confused with Andersen’s “Thumbelina.” In fact, that’s the main reason it’s taken me so long to feature it in this collection. I had to make sure it was distinct enough from the other story. As a matter of fact, the Brothers wrote two stories, one called, simply “Tom Thumb” and the other called “Tom Thumb’s Travels.” Basically, they are the same story, with some slight differences here and there.

It is a dangerous thing to say “I don’t care” when you want something. Making a wish is dangerous enough; you never know who might be listening. But to say you don’t care when you wish it is more dangerous still. It doesn’t happen often, mind, maybe once in a week in a month in a year or more. But now and then, someone makes a wish, and someone else hears them. And it all comes to pass…but maybe not the way you might think.

There was once upon a time a farmer and his wife who were very much in want of a child. For years they tried all sort of tricks and tonics and voodoo and whodoo and howdydoo with nothing to show for it. The farmer had all but given up, but his wife said, “No! I want a baby! Any baby will do. I wouldn’t care if he were odd, or misshapen. I wouldn’t care if he were no bigger than my thumb. As long as he’s mine, I would love him to bits.”

And, sure enough, ears pricked up and eyes winked and things were set in motion, and one morning, the farmer and his wife awoke, and went to the kitchen for breakfast, only to find, right in the center of their dining table, a tiny thing. So small a thing that they might not have seen it at all, but they did. It was a tiny bassinet. So small, the wood it was made of might have come from a stick or a twig. And in the bassinet, sleeping like an angel, was a baby. The smallest baby you ever saw, but a baby nonetheless. And the farmer and his wife rejoiced, for now they had the child they’d always wanted. They named him Tom, after his father, but since he was only the size of his mother’s thumb, they always called him “Tom Thumb.”

Now, as any parent will tell you, taking care of a baby isn’t easy. And if that baby happens to be the size of your thumb, well, that makes it even harder! But love can be a most powerful magic in and of itself, and it helped the farmer and his wife rise to each challenge and overcome it. And Tom Thumb grew…not much, of course. In fact, when he was sixteen years old, he was still not much bigger than his father’s thumb. But he had a lot of spirit, far more than you’d think would even fit in a boy that size. For one thing, he didn’t like to feel useless and, despite his size, was always a great help to his parents. He helped his mother clean house by getting into the hard to reach places, he kept household pests to a minimum by fighting them off with a needle for a sword, and when his father needed to go into town, he even drove his livestock by sitting inside their ears and shouting orders. Tom Thumb was a wonder, all right, and his parents were very proud of him.

One day, Tom Thumb and his father were traveling through the woods when they passed two rogues. The rogues were astonished at what they saw: A horse and cart traveling through the forest with the driver fast asleep at the reins. “How does he drive his horse so well in his sleep?” one asked the other. Then as the cart passed, they spied the tiny figure of Tom Thumb, commanding the horse from inside the animal's ear. “Look at that tiny little fellow! I bet he’s no bigger than my thumb!” A moment later, the two villains had a plan and they began to follow the cart closely as it went along its way. By and by, the horse stopped by the side of the road to rest and as soon as the cart had stopped, the rogues ran to the horse and snatched Tom Thumb out of its ear. Poor Tom Thumb was so small that his sleeping father didn’t hear him cry for help. But it was too late now, and the villains were well away.

“Do not be afraid, little one,” they told him. “We have a job for you. We are professional thieves, you see, and we are planning to rob the patrician’s house. But if you could slip in and pass the money out to us, it would be much easier. And, of course, you’ll get a full share in the take…well, full for someone your size. As much gold as you can carry, let’s say.” The two criminals laughed amongst themselves. Of course, Tom Thumb didn’t want to rob anyone, but he had an idea to teach these two a lesson, so he agreed.

They took Tom Thumb to the home of the wealthy patrician (and I suggest you Google the word if you don’t know it, cuz I’m not wasting time telling you about it now) that very night. “Okay, little man,” they whispered as they held him up to a crack in the windowpane, “it’s easy. The patrician keeps lots of gold in there. All you have to do is go in, pass it to us through the window, and no one will ever suspect. Sound good?”

“Yeah,” said Tom Thumb, softly, “no problem.” And he slid into the room through the crack in the window. He took a good look around the room and was delighted by what he saw: A big, brown hound dog tied up in a corner of the room, clearly there to protect the patrician’s gold. That was all Tom Thumb needed to see, then he shouted back to the robbers, “OKAY! I’M INSIDE! NOW I’LL GET THE GOLD AND GIVE IT TO YOU!!”

“Not so loud!” cried the rogues, but it was too late. The dog's keen ear picked up on Tom's very small shouting and he was awake and howling. A moment later a serving maid came in to quiet the dog and the two rogues, defeated, ran away never to be seen again…by the characters in this story, of course. I mean, other people saw them, they didn’t just go to a cave and stay there forever. And even if they had, they’d still see each other, so…sorry, I’m getting off subject, here.

The point is, they were gone and that was good. The bad part was that Tom Thumb was now hopelessly lost and far from home. Poor Tom Thumb was so busy teaching those crooks a lesson, he hadn’t thought about this. He slid out the crack in the window and wandered aimlessly for a while until he found a nice big pile of hay. He lay down on it and went to sleep at once.

The next morning, Tom Thumb awoke in the pile of hay to an alarming discovery. It seems that his aimless wandering, which had taken about two hours, had only taken him as far as the patrician’s stable. After a moment he realized he was bedding down in the cow’s breakfast! Before he could get away, the hay he was lying in was taken by the dairymaid and fed to the cow. Miraculously, Tom Thumb was able to avoid the teeth and keep from getting swallowed, but then he saw another handful of hay on its way to the cow’s mouth and he knew he would be swept into the cow’s stomach! So, in desperation, he cried out “No more hay! Please, no more hay!”

Now, Tom Thumb’s voice was as small as the rest of him, even when he was shouting. But being inside the cow’s mouth caused his voice to resonate and amplify so that it was quite easy for the dairymaid to hear. Of course, being unable to see Tom Thumb inside the cow’s mouth, she naturally assumed that the cow was talking to her and, under the circumstances, reacted quite reasonably: She fainted dead away. Luckily, she fainted right on top of the hay she was feeding to the cow, so she was not hurt. Neither was Tom Thumb, who climbed out of the cow’s mouth, thanked her for the assist, and went along his way. He had only a general idea of which direction his home was, based on the position of the sun in the sky, and he knew it would be a long walk, so on he went, wondering if he would every see his parents again.

After walking for some time, he looked up into the sky. The sun was right above his head. Midday. He had been walking for about six hours. He looked over his shoulder and saw…the stable. Distant, but still in sight. He guessed that, at this rate, he would see home again when he was about fifty-six years old. Depressed and hopeless, he sat on a pebble and sighed. Just then, a large red fox loped into view and, thinking Tom Thumb was a tasty morsel, snapped him up in his jaws and swallowed…or at least he tried to. But being so very small, Tom Thumb had gotten very good at not being eaten, and he put out his arms and legs and got himself stuck in the fox’s throat. The fox choked and spit him out, growled angrily at him, then turned to go along his way.

With lightning reflexes, Tom Thumb grabbed hold of the fox’s tail and pulled himself up onto his back. Now he was going down the road on foxback and, as luck would have it, he was even headed in the right direction. It was a minute or two later that Tom Thumb realized it was hardly a coincidence. He had seen this fox before; trying to kill his father’s chickens! This fox was headed straight for Tom Thumb’s house! When it arrived there, Tom, Sr. was outraged and took out his shotgun, but before he could fire, he heard a tiny familiar voice say, “No, father! Don’t shoot! It’s me!”

And that’s how Tom Thumb came back home.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Tom Thumb (1958) Russ Tamblyn plays the title character in this lively, musical adaptation. Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas also appear.

NEXT WEEK: "The Adventures of Brer Rabbit" 

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Singing Bone

A slightly chilling tale from the Brothers Grimm.

It seems there was a savage boar rampaging the country, killing hunters, destroying crops, making life generally unbearable for the populace. The king therefore issued the following challenge: Anyone who can slay the beast (and bring back its head as proof) will get ten million gold coins, their own castle and half my kingdom. Of course, issuing challenges like this is a good way to get stupid people killed and lots of ambitious idiots died trying to slay the boar.

But then a couple of brothers went into the forest to try to kill the boar. The older brother, Terry, was brave, strong, clever and the best fighter in town. His younger brother, Buddy, was sort of dumpy, fat, not too bright, but had a good heart and wanted to help his brother get the reward which he knew he himself was not fit to earn for himself.

For three days they wandered the forest, without so much as a sign of the boar. Finally they saw it devouring the remains of a rabbit. Terry asked Buddy (very quietly) to pass him the crossbow so he could shoot the boar. But poor, foolish Buddy, dropped the crossbow and it went off, the arrow hitting a tree not three feet from the boar. The sound aroused the boar’s attention and it charged at the brothers. Panicked, Terry ran away, but Buddy stayed behind.

“You lousy pig!” he hollered at the charging boar. “I’ll teach you to scare my big brother!” And with that, he began swinging his brother’s sword wildly and by sheer chance, it sliced right through the boar’s neck. Neither one could believe it. The boar was dead. And it had been Buddy, not Terry, who had slain it. “I did it!” cried Buddy. “I actually did it! Say, does this mean I get the castle and the land and everything?”

“Yes, Buddy. Yes it does.” Terry was very disappointed. He wasn’t even happy for his brother, just mad that he wasn’t going to get the reward. The fact that it was his own fault for running away like a scared cockatoo and that his brave, loyal brother really did deserve it didn’t matter. He was Buddy! He was the dopey, stupid-looking one. But I’m Terry, he thought. I’m the handsome, strong son. I look like a hero, not Buddy!

They gathered up the boar's head and put it in a sack before returning to the kingdom to claim the prize. All the way there, Buddy was talking excitedly about how their lives were going to change. “I mean, I know, technically, I killed the boar, but I couldn’t have done it without you, Terry! We’ll share the prize, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll both live in the castle and rule over the half of the kingdom. I wonder if we get to pick which half? Anyway, we’ll be rich and prosperous and we’ll probably meet some nice girls and get married. It’ll be so much fun, huh, Terry? Terry, are you okay? You don’t look so good.”

Indeed, Terry was looking pretty awful. Between that and Buddy’s throat being dry from all the talking, they stopped to rest at a small pond. Buddy went down to the water to take a drink. As he knelt by the pond, bent over the water, an awful thought entered Terry’s mind. They were alone in the woods. Nobody for miles. No one actually saw what happened. I’ve got the sword and the head…he had made his decision. He took his hunting knife…crept up behind Buddy…and stabbed him in the heart. He buried his brother’s body right there, by the pond, under an elm tree. Then Terry returned to the kingdom alone to claim his prize.

Many years passed and by now, more people had moved to the kingdom, so the forest had to be pushed back to make room for more homes. The pond and the elm tree that marked Buddy’s grave were removed and a farmer was now living on that spot, plowing his land to plant some crops. His plow uncovered a bone which he threw to his dog without thinking. But when his son came to play with the dog and saw the bone in his mouth, he took it and looked at it more closely. Too big for a rabbit or any kind of bird, the boy thought. Maybe this is the bone of some great beast that lived in the forest before all this farmland was here. In any case, he thought it was neat and decided to hollow it out, carve some holes in it and turn it into a flute. But when he sat down to play it, instead of musical notes, words came out. The bone was singing, and what it sang was:

     Oh, little farmer’s son
     Listen to my tale
     I slew a boar so long ago
     My courage did not fail
     My wicked brother killed me then
     To claim my prize for his own
     He lay me ‘neath a tall elm tree
     Now I’m nothing but this bone

Needless to say the boy was horrified by what he had heard. He played it through a few more times and the words didn’t change. The bone was singing to the boy. He played it for his father, and then it sang “Oh, Farmer of this land” and he too was shocked. They went at once to the king and played it for him. But this time, it sang “Your majesty, my sovereign king…” The king sent for his longtime ally, Duke Terry and the truth was revealed. Now everyone knew that it was Buddy, and not Terry, who had slain the boar all those years ago. For his crimes, he was stripped of his title, his land and his castle and his gold was distributed among the poor. He was not thrown in prison, but rather forced to wander the earth for the rest of his life with the Singing Bone, as a constant reminder of his crimes and of the kind, gentle brother who only wanted to share his good fortune with the man he loved more than any other.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:

  • The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) In this version, Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett (see?) are a knight and his squire who are charged by a king to rid the land of a ferocious dragon. This was probably changed to add more traditional "fairy tale" elements to the movie. Also, in this version, the bone magically reconstitutes the squire who becomes master of the knight...but that's weird, so I didn't do it.

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