Cinderella was little more than a slave, cooking and cleaning until she got gussied up in pretty clothes, and found a prince to marry her so she could live happily ever after. Snow White was so beautiful that she was forced to flee from a jealous queen/witch who threatened to kill her; she was saved by a huntsman, seven mining men for whom she cooked and cleaned, and a prince who married her so she could live happily ever after. Sleeping Beauty was put to sleep by a petty witch, but was saved by a strong and brave prince, who then married her so she could live happily ever after.
"Jack and the Flying Boat" seems like a break from the pattern -- Jack isn't a beautiful princess who needs rescuing.
But the story is about Jack rescuing a princess, and he wants to marry her when he and his band of manly men defeat the evil witch who's enchanted her.
Professional storyteller Ed Stivender told "Hardy Hardhead," an Appalachian version of "Jack and the Flying Boat," at a festival in Long Island, N.Y.
"This woman got to me at intermission and really laid into me, and said that I was being sexist. So I listened to her and, after intermission when I was back onstage, I honored her feelings by referring to the conversation as being a positive thing," Stivender said. "But it shook me up, really."
That's when Stivender found himself faced with the storyteller's dilemma: Should a traditional story be told the same way it always has been, or should it be changed to fit modern ideas?
That question will be discussed in "Jack Tales, Ph.D.: The Storyteller's Dilemma," a symposium that's part of Weber State University's Storytelling Festival. The symposium starts at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, in the Hetzel-Hoellein Room of the Stewart Library, on WSU's Ogden campus at 3848 Harrison Blvd.
The session is free and open to the public, but unlike most parts of the festival, which runs from Monday, Feb. 24, to Wednesday, Feb. 26, this hour is not storytelling that would appeal to children -- this is a scholarly exploration of a special topic.
Presenters will be Stivender, of Upper Darby, Pa., Rosemary Conover, WSU professor of anthropology, and Jean Andra Miller, a retired professor of French studies from WSU.
There may be plenty of sexist fairy tales, but the character under the microscope at the symposium is Jack -- as in "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Lazy Jack."
"The character Jack shows up in lot of our folklore," said Stivender.
In most stories, Jack is a young man living with his widowed mother, and he has older brothers named Will and Tom.
"He starts poor, goes out to seek his fortune, comes up against powers that are against him and overcomes those powers," Stivender said. "He does this either through luck or stupidity, foolishness, or clever wordplay, or creative actions."
Jack tales date back at least to 16th-century Europe, although some of the story motifs may be found in scriptures, said Stivender, who has master's degrees in religion and theology.
Scotch-Irish settlers brought stories about Jack with them to the Appalachians. Folklorist Richard Chase traveled the Appalachian region, collecting and publishing their versions of the Jack tales. The stories were also kept alive by Ray Hicks, a storyteller whose Scotch-Irish family passed Jack tales from generation to generation.
"Ray Hicks died in 2003," said Stivender, but his shy son continued the tradition. "Ted Hicks died a month ago. ... That's sort of the last of the Hicks tellers, so it could be a serious moment in the Jack tales history."
But the end of the famous Hicks family storytellers may not be as dangerous to Jack as the end of traditional gender roles.
Stivender is a professional storyteller who has been called the "Robin Williams of storytelling" by the Miami Herald. He was inducted into the National Storytelling Association's Circle of Excellence in 1996.
One of his specialties is Jack tales, and he was initially surprised when the audience member told him she didn't appreciate "Jack and the Flying Boat."
"That was quite an amazing moment, where the dilemma presented itself to me in full form," Stivender said. "Does the storyteller owe allegiance to tradition -- to the script or text as written by Richard Chase, or as delivered by Ray Hicks? Or does the storyteller owe allegiance to his society? Or does the storyteller owe allegiance to the audience he is presenting to at the moment?"
Or, adds Miller, is the storyteller's allegiance to his or her own values?
Miller says she understands the woman's complaint about sexist bias in the story and characters.
"You've got three women -- one is sort of a neutral character, his mother; one is evidently villainous, the witch; and there's one who needs to be rescued, the princess who is helpless," she said. "Then there's the hero, Jack ... who collects a whole hoard of men who are able to help."
A second dilemma, connected to the first, is what to do with traditional material that offends modern sensibilities.
"In this day and time, we really want to acknowledge that women are strong, creative people who can solve problems as well as men and boys," said Ann Ellis, chairwoman of WSU's storytelling festival. "Are we true to tradition, or do we reframe a story for our modern time?"
Miller will be telling a French version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" at WSU's festival. The original text contains negative stereotypes of women, she said, so her solution to the dilemma was to switch the gender of one character.
"I'll lose a female character, but replace a negative female character with a negative male character," she said, adding her opinion that storytellers have to use intuition and common sense to find balance when telling traditional tales.
"I kind of think that when you're telling to a younger audience, to kids, that it doesn't hurt to change things a little bit --to make the feminine characters stronger, or to remove them if they're completely negative," she said. "If I were teaching with college students, I would keep it intact, because I'm working from a respected written source."
Even the stereotypes would stay at the university level.
"It's something that's got to be unpacked, looked at, and dealt with," Miller said.
Rachel Hedman, a professional storyteller from Layton who is on the festival committee, doesn't think it's necessary to change a tale to make it "politically correct."
"With any traditional story, it should be understood that this comes from a different time and things could have been viewed in a different light," she said.
Several years ago, Hedman shared a traditional Scandinavian tale with an audience. Justice is a big theme in Scandinavian tales.
"At the end, the bad guy or villain has something happen to them -- usually death," she said.
In the tale she told that day, a rock fell off a mountain and killed the villain.
"I had one parent who said, 'Oh, that was a great story, and geared for children.' In the same session I had a parent who said, 'Oh, that Scandinavian story seems a little violent,' " she remembered. "No matter what, people will have their views on things, and it's OK if someone is offended."
If you have to change a story too much, she says, it's better to choose a different story.
"The storyteller's job is to bring the ones to the surface that are needed for society," she said, and let others fade away. "The stories that are most important are the ones we find today that have universal truths."
Ellis says exploring different versions of a story, such as a Jack tale from another country or with a female lead character, can be helpful.
"We can see things, and understand truths more, when we look at it from many perspectives," she said.
Ellis is interested in hearing Stivender's perspective on the dilemma, but she'll have to wait -- he's a master storyteller and is saving his conclusions for the symposium. "It's sort of funny," he said of the dilemma. "Storytelling sounds like something light and fairy-airy, and it shouldn't be worried about this problem, but it is."
Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.