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SOS: Searching Out Information about Frankenstein
~~Advice/References - Storytellers, Teachers, Librarians


Advice, Discussion and References from Storytellers, Teachers and Librarians

(excerpts from Storytell posts plus original research)

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1) Query: Can anyone refresh my memory about the story behind the writing of Frankenstein? As I vaguely recall, there was some sort of contest between a few writers to come up with a scary story one weekend, and a very young (the only female in the bunch, too) Mary Shelley ended up writing the best story? Ring a bell for anyone?


a) Well, living as I do within 15 km of the Castle of Frankenstein, perhaps I should. A surprising number of the URLs Google gave me about Mary Shelley were broken, but this one has some of the basic information.

If you look, I am sure you will find some more. But to the castle itself. It is in Hesse just south of Darmstadt, where I live.

Mary Shelley seems to have toured the Rhine in 1814, and may well have seen the ruins of the castle. Moreover, she may have heard of a doctor and alchemist, Johann Conrad Dippel von Frankenstein, who was born there in 1673. There were rumours amongst the superstitious folk of the area that he experimented with body parts, virgin's blood, using his secret arts to create a new man.

The Grimms, researching the area for folktale, heard of these stories and sent them to Mary Shelley's future mother-in-law, Mary Jane Clairmont, who was translating their collection into English. Mary Jane Clairmont was also one of the group in Switzerland where the novel was begun (i.e. Mary Shelley was not the only woman). Lord Byron was also of the group there, together with his gay lover. Apparently sex, opium, drink and horror were the main ingredients of the summer.

The church at the foot of the castle, in the village of Nieder-Beerbach, contains the grave of an earlier Frankenstein, who died in 1531 from a fight with a lindworm. It finally managed to bite him in the left knee.

b) Yes, it was with her husband, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori. Her story was based on a nightmare she had.

c) Thre is only one response I've seen so far that questions whether Frankenstein is appropriate. Excuse me, but I taught 2nd grade for 4 years and would never dream of telling or reading the book to them. Am I I just out of the loop here? The themes are way over most (I did say most) of second graders. And it was the school that requested it?? Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" right? No way. Brinton Turkle's Do Not Open (Storytime), yes. So what are they going to hear in third...Dante's Inferno?

I thought I was the only one with this concern. I've taught second grade, too. Many of them are still in the very concrete stage of thinking. There are so many other stories that speak of compassion, and differences, and dealing with fear. That said, I saw and enjoyed the original Frankenstein movie when I was about that age, and I loved it. However, the images that were in my mind came from the screen and not my imagination. I think that it could have been very scary for me to see those imaginary images.

d) I am posting part of my paper on "Creation Mythology in Modern Literature" from a class with Howard Schwartz, and one of the most enjoyable efforts I ever undertook. Mary Garrett

"The mystery of the creation of the Golem, with important parts of the formula never fully revealed, has captured the imagination of later writers, including the scriptwriters of the Disney film An American Tale, which featured a cat Golem created to save the little immigrant mice from their bigger enemies. In more serious literature, Mary Shelley1s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, while acknowledging in the title its debt to Greek mythology, possibly derived some additional inspiration from the stories of the Golem. In Shelley1s preface to the work, dated September, 1817, she acknowledged the influence of the magnificent scenery of the Alps, the work of Charles Darwin, and some German ghost stories on her writing of the novel in 1816. Perhaps stories of the Golem were among those she referred to. The influence, if any, of the Golem legend on Mary Shelley1s novel, Frankenstein, has yet to be established, although several studies have attempted to find a link between the two2 (Schwartz, p. 380). Frankenstein1s creature was similar to the Golem in that it was larger than a human being, more powerful, and more able to withstand hardships. Its inspiration was, however, of science rather than religion, and it was brought to life with electricity rather than the Name of God. The novel gives few other details of its construction, in order, we are told, to prevent anyone else from falling into the trap of creating such a creature."

e) Well, since Frankenstein was written by a 19-year-old, you can tell the second graders what you expect of them in twelve years.
Response: Read them Langston Hughes' Rivers poem, too. I tell my high school juniors that he wrote that right after high school, then turned down his father's offer to send him to college to be . . . . an accountant! Good thing for all us fans, he turned Dad down.

f) How about the story of "The Belly Button Monster"? You'll find it in More Ready-To-Tell Tales from Around the World, edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney.

g) The Frankenstein story has other themes that kids can resonate with also -- such as the theme of personal creation. Most kids have tried their hand at building robots out of tinkertoys and creating imaginary friends with independent personality (heck, I remember *seriously* trying to build a robot at about age 6, but was sad I had no idea how to harness enough electricity to make it work...). It's a theme you see all over the place -- in stories of the 'Golem', Pygmalion, Prometheus (the alternate title of "Frankenstein"), stories about the gingerbread man, Tolkien ('Aule and Yavanna'), and even Star Wars! The themes may be over their heads, but the story probably isn't. Kids don't need to understand all the themes in order to enjoy the story. Most of the second graders have probably already seen a movie version anyway....

h) I would suggest that you ask each audience what they know about Frankenstein, before you begin telling. I think it would be a good move. I should say, I heard Frankenstein when I was in third grade, the movie that is, told to me by my seat mate on the school bus. He also told Dracula, and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This was the same "friend" who on another trip made me vomit by telling car-sick stories, thus introducing me to the visceral power of storytelling. In Harper Lee's book To Kill a Mockingbird, the young boy Dill (I think he was named Dill), modelled on the child Truman Capote, introduced himself to the Jim and Scout by telling them the movie Dracula.

i) About suitability for 2nd graders: you may be providing them with a really powerful, memorable experience. Years ago, I was amazed when my daughter's 2nd grade teacher asked me to tell the kids "The Odyssey." For 2nd graders??? But they were already accustomed to hearing stories (I had been practicing new material weekly on that class since kindergarten). We decided to sidestep fundamentalist objections by suggesting that the Greek gods were like Superheroes with magic powers. The teacher assured me that the hanky-panky would be familiar to those kids who watched Dallas on TV... We started in November and finished in February. I did not leave out episodes although I rearranged Homer's timeline to tell the story in chronological order, rather than in flashback as he originally framed it. Sometimes I felt as though the roof above us had vanished, and some great powers were watching while we traveled back into those times. After we finished the Odyssey, plain old folktales felt pretty tame. When they read it in 8th grade English class, it was a piece of cake. Those kids are turning 30 this year. When I run into them they still mention that experience with The Odyssey.

j) That's a fine example of the power of the classic stories brought back to life by storytelling. With so much dumbing down in school curricula and in English-speaking societies in general, it seems storytellers will have to fight to restore some of the qualities that are missing in modern education. I think it was Michael Moore's Stupid White Men: ...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! that decried the lack of knowledge of the Odyssey among American school children. An Irish friend felt that Americans shouldn't be expected to know the classics, as American literature is rich enough. But Homer is part of world heritage, and Americans are isolated enough -- dangerously so -- from the rest of the world.

k) I'm sending the Frankenstein ditty that Beverly C. sent to the list in 1998. It's sung the tune of "Darling Clementine" and is great fun. I use it every year to gather the group together for storytelling at our neighborhood party. I leave out the Dracula and Wolfman verses - and keep it Frankenstein - I think that would be better for 2nd graders too. Hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Thanks again to Beverly.

Beverly C.:
I want to share a Frankenstein Ditty my friend Carole M. from the Catskills of New York shared with me about 6 years ago. She learned it from a woman ( I don't know her name) that is a folklorist, teacher, scout leader & story sharer (her term) from the same region. Perhaps, you know the exact source.

Anyway, this is a fun ditty I've shared with children and adults. I have changed it a few ways from the original version of years ago. Perhaps, you'd like to adapt for a Halloween program. Enjoy!!


(tune of "My Darling Clementine")
Oh my darling, Oh my darling, Oh my darling Frankenstein.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Frankenstein.

I was working with some test tubes, in my laboratory fine.
Then one day I broke my glasses and created Frankenstein.

He was handsome, he was charming,
As I nailed his head on tight.
His teeth were sharp and they were pearly,
And his eyes popped out at night.

Oh Dracula came to help me,
But, from him I had to part.
He cooked my steak too tough for dinner,, I drove it through his heart.

Then the Wolfman came to help me,
I said, "What's that in your mouth?"
He said, "Fangs!!"
I said, "You're welcome!!!!"........and he still is heading south.

Frankenstein was in the kitchen,
We were mixing up a cake,
He fell in to the electric mixer,
And got mixed in by mistake!

Cooking nicely in the oven,
Oh, that cake it came out fine.
Told my friends those lumps were raisons,
But, those lumps were....... Frankenstein!

For young children, of course, I omit the part about driving a steak through the heart. I have done this even with all adult gatherings.....being enjoyed by all (even the listeners not partaking in the "witches brew.").

l) As far as Frankenstein goes, if you go back to the source material and stay away from the Hollywood retellings, the main difference that story has from other horror stories of the same period is that the Monster is a sad and (IMHO) sympathetic character -- he did not ask for the fate that he was given and once he learned how he was made, the knowledge became a curse to him, to learn that he was made and then cast aside by his maker. I always found the story both scary and very tragic as a very young kid (and still do). And the climactic scene in the Arctic can't be left out! The story of how it came to be written is a great story itself, might be a good way to introduce the story...

m) I think the main thing with Frankenstein is to make sure the kids feel sorry for the monster. He is a monster, he can't help being one, but it's not his fault. It's nobody's fault, really. It's a tragedy. Jim Trelease says, kids feel sorry for themselves all the time, it's not hard to make a kid cry for him or herself. But if you can make that child cry for somebody else, you are doing the world a great favor.

n) Just a thought -- the book has other dimensions besides a scary monster. Dr. F. wanted to defeat death (who hasn't wished for that???) The "monster" didn't start out evil, but was mistreated and hated because of his appearance. There was a wonderful poem in one of our texts about his encounter with the old blind man and how they became friends until seeing relatives interfered. I'm not sure it's really a good choice for children so young, but the original has much more human elements than all the movie versions. (and of course the original inspiration from the legend of the Golem is even better)

o) Try Do Not Open (Storytime) by Brinton Turkle. Keep the monsters funny. No matter how gross or evil they are, as long as the kids are laughing they won't be scared. It is NOT necessary to scare kids to successfully tell scary/monster/ghost stories. It does take skill though. Too often adults use "scaring the kids" to substitute for skill it telling the stories.

Created 2003; last update 6/21/09

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