Pokémon Go: Hag Stone for 21st Century Fairies

Long ago, when people believed in fairies, they longed for a way to see these supernatural creatures invisible to the naked eye. Maybe they were invisible because they were too tiny to see, as became the prevailing belief after Shakespeare, or maybe this was simply because the Fair Folk were supernatural, and as such they lived in an Otherworld that touched our own, but was not on our own plane of existence.
So there came the belief that with the aid of certain tools, ordinary humans could see fairies. One such tool was a stone that had a naturally-occurring hole in it. One would hold this stone up to one’s eye, and through the hole one could see through the veil into the Otherworld of fairies. In the last decade this bit of folklore has featured in the book and movie versions of The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008 film) / The Seeing Stone (2003 book) by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, as well as in Coraline (2009 film, 2002 book) by Neil Gaiman. According to Wikipedia (that most respected of easy research sites), names for the magical stone include adder stones, hag stones, witch stones, serpent’s eggs, snake’s eggs, Glain Neidr, milpreve, adderstanes, Gloine nan Druidh, and finally aggry or aggri.
Pokémon Go is the new method for seeing into the Otherworld. Pokémon Go is a computer program in our phones, of course, but the app functions in the same way as would have the fairy stone method. A player gives the app permission to use the phone’s camera function, and then when Pokémon appear on the game map, they pop up as cartoons against the real-life backdrop the camera sees on the other side of the phone’s screen. The game infuses a bit of magic and whimsey into everyday experience, much as seeing a fairy creature where one had previously seen only one’s home and deep dark woods would have done. (Admittedly, that experience probably would have brought a great deal more fear than glimpsing a Pokémon.)
An animated Pidgey Pokemon on a backdrop of real grass
Humans always feel a pull to experience more in the world around us. We may get our fix of enhanced reality from a traditional religion, or a more geographically-based folk belief, or a globally-shared phenomenon of capitalism. In our connection to gods or fairies or Pokémon, people can feel as though they are specially connected to the world around us, tied to something beyond the mundane world most other people know to be the extent of living.
Augmented reality is a different experience than virtual reality. Other augmented reality games exist, such as Zombies, Run!, a GPS-based running app. Augmented reality may be here to stay, but I don’t foresee it being as celebrated as speculators in the 1980s might have expected. Pokémon Go did not retain its massive popularity even for half a year after its release. The Google Glass experiment has ended, and the Harry Potter Go game announced a few months ago has been debunked as a fake. However, I have no doubt that the enhanced reality game will only evolve into new forms (much like Pokémon evolve into stronger forms). As long as people strive to take a hero’s journey, and they have the ability to do so without actually abandoning the progress they have made on their normal lives, then the magic of augmented reality will continue to enchant.

Real life “Pinocchio effect”

Science Daily reports that the “Pinocchio effect” has been confirmed. It has been shown that people’s noses do react strangely when people tell lies. They do not grow longer, however, but rather grow hotter in temperature. This reaction comes from anything that stimulates a stress response in the body, not just lying. As such, the tying of this physiological phenomenon to the fairy tale of “Pinocchio” is merely a strategy on the part of scientists (or science journalists?) to make an audience care about an otherwise seemingly small and unremarkable discovery through the connection to a story with which most people are familiar. This framing did stimulate my interest, admittedly, so I suppose it was not a bad marketing choice.

The abstract provided says:

When a person lies, he or she experiences a “Pinocchio effect”, which is an increase in the temperature around the nose and in the orbital muscle in the inner corner of the eye. In addition, when we perform a considerable mental effort our face temperature drops, and when we have an anxiety attack our face temperature rises, according to a pioneering study that has introduced new applications of thermography.

Work Cited:

University of Granada. “‘Pinocchio effect’ confirmed: When you lie, your nose temperature rises.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 December 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121203081834.htm>.

Pinocchio, the Washington Post fact-checker

A few weeks ago I saw an article proclaiming that a public statement had received a “three Pinocchios” rating. Intrigued, I clicked through and discovered a phenomenon I do not remember seeing before the 2016 election, with its “alternative facts” and “fake news.” The Washington Post has begun grading statements by elected officials according to their degree of falsehood, using a cute image of Pinocchio (click here to see). The news organization does not use a series of images with increasingly long noses to indicate worse falsehoods, but rather this image repeated 1-4 times. They also make use of a “Geppetto checkmark” for truths and an upside-down Pinocchio image for “flip-flops” on positions.

The linking of the titular character from an Italian children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, to lying comes straight from the book. The memorable visual of the growing nose was of course popularized in America by Walt Disney Company’s 1940 film version of the story.

The reference to Pinocchio here works precisely because of its connection to children’s literature. Everyone in the audience has had to learn not to lie, and the story of a young boy learning not to tell falsehoods highlights the fact that this is (at least constructed as) a simple task that young children can master. Facts are facts. “Alternative facts,” “fake news,” and anything “not intended to be a factual statement” are lies, pure and simple. The Pinocchio rating is The Washington Post‘s way of bolstering the public’s confidence in traditional news media.

The site’s clear statement of their criteria for judgment goes a long way toward building their credibility. They judge prepared statements more harshly than statements made off-the-cuff, and both of those are mitigated if the speaker later recants or qualifies any honest mistakes. The rating scale is, in brief, 1 Pinocchio) mostly true, 2 Pinocchios) significant omissions or exaggerations meant to mislead, 3 Pinocchios) factual error or interpretations grossly out of context, and 4 Pinocchios) “whoppers.” They acknowledge that these can be subjective and that they strive to explain any fence-straddlers.

An example of the Pinocchio rating scale comes in the article “Trump’s facile claim that his refugee policy is similar to Obama’s in 2011,” which states within that “The Pinocchio rating has been updated in light of new information.” The story now has a 3-Pinocchio rating.

Since this discovery, I have discovered several news articles using “Pinocchio” references to describe Donald Trump or other public figures related to him:

The fairy-tale reference is, of course, one that every reader should understand and connect to. The editors making these headlines as well as the Pinocchio scale understand that most Americans in their audience will understand the connection between Pinocchio and the lesson that lying leads to negative consequences. The implication here is that our elected officials have made such a habit of lying that they are now equated with the bad habit. “Pinocchio” is an adequate enough nickname for readers to understand who is under discussion. And that, we understand, makes the 70-year-old President as ripe for chastisement as a boy so young he was very recently an inanimate puppet.


Through my social media feed, several weeks ago I came across the name “Trumplethinskin.” The satiric portmanteau’s meaning is clear: President Donald Trump has thin skin. The phrase appears as a Twitter hashtagFacebook hashtag, and Facebook profile page under the category of “fictional character.” K. S. Wiswell has written a modern-day revision of “Rumplestiltskin,” casting Trump as the titular character, Congress as the ruler, and the American citizenry as the queen required to spin straw into gold. My favorite iteration of the trend comes in this (far more detailed than I am used to) political cartoon by Debbie Spafford:


I was delighted at the viral spread of political critique couched in the terms of a fairy tale reference. If nothing else, this gives me a contemporary parallel to consider when contextualizing my dissertation on Cold War fairy tales and the subtle political critiques I see within. I love how ripe the fairy tale genre is for political critique. Both politics and fairy tales are elements of popular culture. It is commonly accepted that “everyone” knows fairy tale references, so they easily connect readers to each other using a common mythology. Politics, too, is well-known to everyone. Even the percentage of the population who knows little to nothing about the wonkier aspects of political work knows who the President is and that he retaliates with angry, aggressive Tweets on Twitter when he feels that he has been insulted by others. (This, of course, is a symptom of having figuratively thin skin.)

But why connect Trump and Rumplestiltskin? It may be as simple as the fact that “thin skin” and “stiltskin” rhyme and so may easily be substituted, and the same goes for “Trump” and “Rump.” In fact, I think that this is the primary reason I have seen the phrase disseminated as widely as I have.

However, I immediately see connections between the Grimms’ fairy tale hypotext and the contemporary phrase that could indicate a deeper reason for the term’s resonance. Both the figure of Rumplestiltskin and the figure of Trump, archetypes as they are in the popular imagination, bring to mind deal-making, self-destructive behavior, and the power of the name.

Rumplestiltskin is the story of an imp who appears to a woman stuck in an impossible situation. She must spin straw into gold or else be murdered by her husband; Rumplestiltskin is able to perform this labor for her in exchange for her firstborn child. After the child comes, she begs for a chance to redeem her child, and he agrees on the condition that she guess his name. When she does name him and deny him her child, Rumplestiltskin tears his body down the middle and disappears.

Donald Trump has been in the public spotlight for decades. He has been such a well-known public figure, even before he became the 45th President of the United States, that his IMDB profile lists him appearing as himself in every one of his credited acting appearances (with the sole exception of his appearance in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, where he actually seems not to actually appear). This shows that he has attained status as the archetypal businessman, in order for these cameos to hold meaning for the audience. This business acumen is reinforced by the title of his personal growth book, Trump: The Art of the Deal. In this deal-making capacity, he makes sense as a Rumplestiltskin figure.

As President, Trump has behaved in certain ways to turn public opinion against him. 538 shows his approval rating as 45.5% approval/41.3% disapproval on his 4th day of office, 44.8% both approval and disapproval on day 14, and 50.2 disapproval and 42.9 approval on day 40–approval ratings are dropping while disapproval ratings are increasing. Gallup shows the same trend: approval and disapproval were both 45% on 1/22/17, but by 2/27/17 disapproval ratings are 54% while approval ratings are 42%. His executive decisions that seem to put “the swamp” in charge of the nation instead of cleaning it out has acted against his administration’s self interest. In this and the way his new position has affected his name brand, he is behaving self-destructively.

Ultimately, all of this has come to harm the Trump brand. In the beginning of February, The New York Times wrote that several major companies have been pulling away from Trump-branded products. This is in response to consumer trends; consumers do not want to support the Trump family as they rule the country. This continued nearly two weeks later, specifically with Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s brand. NPR, by contrast, reports that the brand name’s value has increased, but this is only within his core base. Either way, consumers are reacting to his branded properties according to how they feel about his performance as President because his name on those properties makes their private economic choices a political statement.

Because this moniker is so catchy and descriptive on its own, I expect this new nickname to become permanently attached to Donald Trump. With the added context of the “Rumplestiltskin” fairy tale as well, the nickname shows how fertile fairy-tale references are for political critique for an audience like America. We share very little in terms of a common mythology, and since we overwhelmingly want our commentary immediately understandable, fairy tale references are the best way to connect audience to argument with a generally-understood shorthand.

Fairy-Tale Advertisements

I’m going to start out with a commonplace: everyone in America has heard of fairy tales. Most people probably haven’t heard of “The Goose Girl” or Baba Yaga, and I certainly won’t claim most people are familiar with protagonists who don’t have a unique name, but everyone has heard of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. They permeate our culture too thoroughly for anyone to have escaped these references. The same few tales have been reinforced over and over, in endless retellings and allusions, from Disney movies to art works to political cartoons to advertisements. Most of the tales we are familiar with descend from the Grimm Brothers or from Hans Christian Andersen, thus reducing our common canon to a dozen or so literary fairy tales from Western Europe. This narrow knowledge base is much wider, of course, for those with more literary tastes, but my point remains that everyone in America, even those less knowledgeable on most fronts, has in their minds some version of the plots of these few fairy tales.

I’ve been teaching the analysis unit to my Writing 2 students. It’s a good way to begin the semester; the genre asks students only to use one source and whatever reasoning power is already in their heads. It’s not quite the confidence builder the personal narrative is for Writing 1 (since absolutely no one is as much an expert on their lives as they are themselves), but it is an appropriate easing-in assignment for a more advanced class.

Rather than having my students analyze some written text, I have made this a visual analysis unit specifically focusing on the advertisement. That means that I can show my students some of the many fairy-tale advertisements that have been uploaded to the internet over the years. The fairy-tale subject matter serves to give my students further confidence that they know enough to give an insightful analysis of how the ad works to appeal to an audience. The very term “folklore” should tell students that they cannot be excluded from the tradition as long as it exists; it exists for all of the folk. The students, after all, as I have claimed above, have grown up in the “cauldron of story” exposing them again and again to the same tales used in the ads. In fact, a lifetime of advertisements making use of fairy-tale motifs has reinforced the students’ understanding of the plots of these stories and what these tales mean to our culture.

After I hand out the analysis unit assignment sheet, I always project this advertisement making use of the Little Red Riding Hood imagery to argue for new gun laws onto the screen for my students to analyze as a class.


Student response can be summed up in two reactions of class consensus. First, students quietly identify significant images and words in the ad, telling me what it says. They decline to judge whether the ad is successful at appealing to an audience. Second, students loudly start reacting against the ad, claiming that the reasoning is faulty because “guns don’t kill people” and it’s wrong to imply that people who have guns would ever endanger a child by doing so. Perhaps I should expect the second reaction, since I do teach people who for the most part have grown up in rural Mississippi. The first reaction, however, surprises me. Students who do not show emotion regarding the right to bear arms also do not show emotion toward encountering the “low art” of a fairy tale in a college classroom? When I first prepared this lesson plan, I expected students to be more interested in seeing a familiar reference from their childhoods. I imagine that this image might go over better in a different area of the country, since the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and violent gun death seems to overwhelm their immediate analytical skills. I might refine my presentation to make this Powerpoint more effective. There are a great many ads that use fairy tales to sell their product, so I can use a more benign presentation first as a lead-up to this more shocking ad. Are there any fairy-tale advertisements you know of that you would suggest as examples for analysis? Do you have any suggestions for structuring this lesson?

To date, I have had my students find their own images about which to write an essay,  instructing them to focus on luxury ads or World War II propaganda, but I have never tasked my students with analyzing fairy-tale themed ads. Over the years I have amassed a large enough collection of fairy-tale ads to give my students a wide variety of choices, so the next time that I teach this unit I believe that this is how I will focus the assignment. I will link to the ones I know about below, and I would be grateful if my readers would contribute further ads in the comments. As well, do you know about any fairy-tale pedagogy that I should know before embarking upon a whole fairy-tale unit?

As you can see from the following links, the Fairy Tale News blog is a wonderful source for this sort of collection.

The Liminal Space Before a New Beginning

When I began my Master’s program, I started a blog to interact with my new English department classmates. Now that I am nearing the end of my PhD program, I have read back over my old blog posts feeling fond of my less-informed former self. Throughout my whole introductory post to that blog, I was circling around a sense of liminality, although I had never heard the term to use. If I were to write that entry now, after 8 years of graduate study, the word would be an obvious descriptor of the sense of potential that I then felt.

“Liminality” comes from the field of anthropology. Arnold van Gennep originated the term as one of several rites of passage within a society. In describing the concept of transition rites, he says, “I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world post-liminal rites” (21). The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary defines “liminal” as “[o]ccupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” That is exactly where I felt my life to be at the beginning of my MA program, and that is how I feel right now.

It is appropriate that I should have felt the resonance of this then-unknown concept because liminality comes from anthropology and the study of folklore, which is broadly my field of study. Realizing this, I feel affirmed in my choice of subject matter I have studied all these years. These last eight years I have read widely in the fairy-tale field, researching the Grimms, the changes in children’s lit in early America, and the development of criticism within the fairy-tale field itself. I have written seminar papers on fairy-tale references in Hurston, its absence in favor of myth in Faulkner, elf legends in medieval religious plays, and the connections between Shakespeare and Angela Carter. One of these seminar papers I edited into a published essay for the Eudora Welty Review. The fairy-tale field is a deep-set interest for me, not a dispassionate career choice. I keep circling back to the same broadly connected concerns in my personal as well as professional life, and I know I will always continue learning more about the constellation of fields touching folklore.

Once again, I feel a sense of potential in my life. I am about to make the change from being a graduate student to being a professional. I hope I am hired for a tenure-track job so that I can continue to teach reading and writing to college students for years to come. As long as I am able to get that daily affirmation from teaching that I have learned to love, and as long as I can occasionally publish my thoughts in thoroughly-researched essays, I will feel as though the years of work to get this PhD have been worth it.

I will end this entry where I began my first blog post so many years ago: with the liminal moment in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” that resonated with me years before I truly understood what it meant to study literature.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
After years of toil but before setting out on her final, fatal adventure, the woman in this moment makes her decision. She decides to leave behind all she knows in search of something more, in defiance of all prohibitive curses. I only hope I continually choose to have her bravery as I too set forth on a different life, one as a professional instructor of composition and literature and researcher of the fairy tale.

Work Cited

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Intro. Solon T. Kimball. Chicago: Phoenix–U of Chicago P, 1960. Print.