‘Once Upon a Time’ course explores cultural influence of fairy tales

November 16, 2009

As the Native American tale “The End of the World” goes, there’s an old lady who has lived in a cave for hundreds of years with a dog. She’s weaving a buffalo robe out of porcupine quills. When she is finished, it is said, humanity will cease to exist.

Without her knowledge, the dog continually removes quills – and saves the world.

“In Native American tradition, they don’t want their old people to die because they are the sources of wisdom and the authorities in their culture,” Mohamed Esa, professor of Foreign Languages, explains to students in his First Year Seminar course, Once Upon a Time. “They are the most revered.”

Esa, who has taught a similar course to senior German majors, designed this course for first-year students as a way to delve into other cultures.

Freshman Christie Deblius said she has been intrigued to learn the imprints of various cultures on fairy and folk tales.

“It’s neat to see how all different cultures influence stories that come from them,” she said. “I’ve learned there are a whole bunch of Cinderella stories that vary based on the culture.”

There is no culture on earth that doesn’t have a folk or fairy tale tradition, Esa said. Folk and fairy tales are generally associated with German literature, especially with the Brothers Grimm, but there are strong traditions of tales in other cultures, he said.

For the course, Esa’s students have spent the semester reading, discussing and analyzing folk and fairy tales from cultures around the world, including China, Bangladesh, India and the Caribbean. They have explored tales from the deaf, African-American and feminist cultures.

They also have examined modern adaptations, such as through film, music and art, of various tales and considered the tales from various perspectives, including religious, sociological and psychoanalytic approaches.

Esa said the course is an ideal First Year Seminar course because it combines writing, speaking and reading.

“It’s also a class with different perspectives, such as literature, art, music, film, Sociology and Psychology,” he said.

First-year students at McDaniel are required to take a first-year seminar during their initial semester. The courses are designed to help students make the transition from high school to college. The courses, which include a focus on developing writing and research skills, also are devised with an eye toward encouraging students to work together. First-year seminars are limited to 15 students, and the professor serves as the students' academic advisor for the first-year.

During a recent classroom session, Esa’s students engaged in an exercise called making graffiti, something they frequently do in his class to help pull out their thoughts about what they have read. After they are done, they present their ideas to their classmates for further discussion.

“It’s a great way for them to work as a group in collaborative learning to put their ideas into words,” Esa said. “I’m amazed at how much they can talk once they put ideas on paper.”

With large sheets of white drawing paper and markers in hand, they broke into small groups and soon were scribbling their thoughts – some using words, others by drawing – about the Native American tales they had recently read.

Freshman Jake Zanostny was part of the group that worked on “The End of the World,” a tale that they found incredible for its suggestion that humans have the potential to end the world and it’s the animals that save it.

Zanostny said he has been impressed with the volume of critical literature that is available on the topic of fairy and folk tales.

“We tend to describe fairy tales as child’s play,” Zanostny said. “But they continue to influence our culture even today.”