FAIRBANKS — This Wednesday week marks a rare opportunity: celebrating the fact that it’s 12/12/12 and the last Repetitive Festival of Coincidence in most of our lifetimes, for there is no 13th month.
Slate.com writer Konstantin Kakaes wrote an article about it last October, back when 10/11/12 happened, noting that besides repetitive and countdown dates occur, “they add a little sparkle to the calendar … When something you had no control over makes you just an infinitesimal amount more content (it’s a bit less significant than a traffic light turning green just in time, or a pretty stranger casually making eye contact), it usually happens to us as individuals. But on days like today, we all get to experience this same subtle uplift at once.”
That was uplifting, but then Kakaes pointed out that the U.S. and Belize are the only countries that follow the “month/day/year” ordering of dates. The rest of the world goes “day/month/year.” And watch out for the International Organization for Standardization, which is pushing us all to go along with a “year/month/day scheme.”
No matter how you slice it, the following week brings us the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the first 86 of the Grimm brothers’ 170 fairy tales. The Grimm collected folktales dating back to the turbulent late dark ages, times of famine, plague and constant warfare. They gathered tales from common people, as opposed to Charles Perrault, who wrote his French stories for sophisticated aristocrats.
Perrault’s Cinderella and fairy godmother were the Grimms’ Cinderfool and magic tree, according to noted fantasy writer A.S. Byatt in the introduction to “Annotated Brothers Grimm.”
And don’t get her started on Hans Christian Anderson, the “psychological terrorist” whose Little Mermaid ended up dancing on knives.
The Grimm tales have been polished up over time. Hansel and Gretel’s mother originally sent them into the woods to die, instead of a stepmother, and there was no witch to entrap the children with a gingerbread house, there was “a woman as old as the hills,” who was generally portrayed as a Semitic caricature. Indeed, the Grimms’ tales were often anti-Semitic and were consequently very popular with the Nazis.
Even modern translations, like Randall Jarrell’s excellent “Juniper Tree,” illustrated by the late, great Maurice Sendak, make for shocking reading. Though our first child didn’t come along for seven years, one of the very first books my impoverished wife and I bought was “Juniper Tree.” It was the mid-1970s and we’d become enamored with Sendak’s irreverent and deeply resonating books. As bawdy as Sendak could be, in regards to kiddie lit, anyway, we expected something far gentler than the unvarnished Grimm stories.
We didn’t share that one with our kids until they were less impressionable, but reading it as adults, we both found the stories hauntingly reminiscent of our first encounters with the scary, uncertain events in fairy tales. Any honest recollection of childhood is underscored by mystery and uncertainty, and the resolutions in fairy tales are sometimes most gratifying.
Perhaps that’s why William Berry’s Alaska Fairy Tale mural remains so popular. Berry died before it was completed, and famed children’s book illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, a friend of Berry’s, finished it. The work draws in all who take time to notice the amusing details, like Berry’s over-winter mosquito towing a fairy.
The children’s room at Noel Wien Library is called the Berry Room, in tribute to his life and art. It was originally going to be called the Gorman Room, in honor of Barbara and Dan Gorman, whose donation of 70,000 rare books to the fledgling Library Foundation has funded all sorts of library enhancements, from children’s furnishings, to art framing, to the current DVD repair machine. The ever-considerate Gormans insisted on the name change.
This month is prime for picking up holiday gifts from the Fairbanks Library Foundation, including posters and notecards drawn from “An Alaska Fairy Tale.” Stop by the library to become reacquainted with the mural and acquire wonderful stocking stuffers while improving the library, for every penny the Foundation raises directly benefits the library.
And if not this year, maybe the next. As C.S. Lewis said, “someday you will be old enough to read fairy tales again.”
Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.