Friday, April 29, 2005

Project Gutenberg

You gotta love Project Gutenberg. It archives out-of-copyright works, in text or html or zip format. This means Public Domain works, which may or may not be out of print. The Project's goal was to "give away ONE TRILLION e-text files by December 31, 2001." They're way, way ahead of that now. You can search by author.

Anyhow, I was able to collect the whole Andrew Lang-edited Coloured Fairy Books (Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, Grey, Violet, Crimson, Pink, Brown, Lilac, Orange)! As well as the Celtic, Dutch, English, Irish, Indian, Japanese and Welsh Fairy Tales books! And the complete L. Frank Baum "Oz" series books! These works may be available for sale at or at your friendly neighborhood bookstore, but thanks to Project Gutenberg, I can enjoy them now, for free. My sister is giving birth in October, there'll be fairy tales enough when the kid is born.

I'm so thrilled, because when I was growing up, I was reading The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Madame d'Aulnoy, the Comtesse de Segur, Howard Pyle, Hans Christian Andersen, Wanda Gag, Maurice Sendak... in short, the classics. We were fortunate that our elementary school library was rather well-stocked in those days.

Once, at work, ten years ago, my officemates and I were discussing the just-released Disney movie "The Little Mermaid". The original story was much, much better, I told them. They had never read it; I spent a fifteen-minute coffee break in the retelling. So much of it had been Disney-fied that the drama and the pathos, and the Christian morality behind the story was lost.

"What the little mermaid really wanted," I said, "was a soul. Mermaids lived for hundreds of years, but at the end of their lives, they turned into foam on the water. Humans had souls, even though their lives were much shorter. In order to gain a soul, the little mermaid had to become human, to walk on two legs, to meet a man and fall in love, to marry and live a human lifespan. Once, during a storm, she managed to save a Prince's life. She fell in love with him and hoped to gain her soul. She went to the Sea Witch for a potion that would turn her tail into legs. In exchange she had to give the Sea Witch the most precious thing she possessed -- her voice. So the Sea Witch tore out her tongue, and she could neither speak nor sing.

"The Prince discovered her one day, naked, near his castle. Alas, she couldn't talk and tell him about her love. The only way she could win his attention at court was to dance for him. He had no idea that every time she danced she had to suffer the pain of knives cutting into her feet. The Prince loved her for her grace, but he wasn't in love with her. He was actually in love with a princess that had found him washed up on the beach after the storm. He thought she was the one that had saved his life. And so he arranged to marry that princess.

"The night before the wedding, the little mermaid's sisters appeared near the shore, calling to her. All their long beautiful hair had been hacked off, to pay the Sea Witch in exchange for a dagger. The little mermaid was to kill the Prince with this dagger before dawn, so she could wipe her legs with his blood and turn back into a mermaid. The little mermaid loved the Prince so much, she couldn't kill him. So as the sun's rays began to hit her, she could feel herself turn into foam. But at that moment God took pity on her, and turned her into a Spirit of the Air so she could earn her soul, and thereby everlasting life." When I finished telling the tale, some of them wanted to look for a Hans Christian Andersen book immediately. I told them to look for one whose "Little Mermaid" text begins with a description of the sea being "a blue like that of cornflowers."

(transferred from the original Personal Geographic blog. I elected to lose the comments.)