The first week’s reading assignment for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World was Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Household Stories, as translated by Lucy Crane and illustrated by her brother Walter Crane in 1882. I found two complete versions online, the facsimile available on Open Library and the Project Gutenberg scan.
In addition, it looks like the English text of the very useful Grimm Stories online resource is preferentially from the Crane translation, although without the illustrations. The latter is very nice, though, because it allows one to look at the translation side-by-side with the original German text (or with another language).
Anyhow, I had jotted down many pages of reading notes on the stories, but class participants are limited to between 270 and 320 words for their essays, so one has to narrow the focus considerably. The intended reader is a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course; the essays must aim to enrich the reading of this peer. This means we get to skip the preliminaries (such as title, author and summary of the work reviewed) and go directly to insights on the readings.
With so many and so varied stories, I had to skim to only a few since I wanted the space to support my statement by pointing to the works. I concentrated on stories for which my notes converged on a single topic. Here is the essay, using every one of my allotted 320 words:
The tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm are fables, adventures, cautionary or morality tales, yarns meant to make an audience laugh, and re-tellings of older myths. Many deal with the “natural” order of the cosmos and society.
Although a commoner by birth is sometimes elevated to higher status because of the true nobility found in virtue and cleverness (Aschenputtel/Cinderella, The Brother and Sister, The Gallant Tailor), ambition and the desire to change one’s station are often discouraged (The Fisherman and his Wife, The Straw, the Coal and the Bean, The Vagabonds, The Wonderful Musician).
Several tales represent a pagan conception of the world, where natural forces must be propitiated to ensure that seasonal cycles continue. In Mother Hulda, we see a metaphor of spring’s return: the beautiful girl goes down the well, harvests the goods that are ready (bread and apples), spends a winter working hard, then returns covered in gold, like the sunrise announced by the crowing of a cock.
In The Frog Prince, the gold ball that falls in a well is a solar symbol. Again we need propitiation rituals to ensure solar cycle continues. Moreover, broken promises are a rupture in the proper, natural order. Here as in other cultures, the frog is symbol of metamorphosis and rebirth; indeed, the bride must transform her groom.
In Faithful John, on the other hand, we see a conversion from the worship of the solar deity to Christianity. A dying patriarchal figure puts the Perfect Servant in charge of protecting his offspring and kingdom; the forbidden room – like the Forbidden Fruit – represents dangerous knowledge; the queen’s gold palace represents the sun; a messianic figure repeatedly saves the day by sacrificing himself; and the rewarded sacrifice of one’s own children is reminiscent of Abraham and Isaac. The story promotes absolute, unquestioning faith. Full resolution comes when the formerly gold- (sun-)worshipping queen joins her husband’s trust in Faithful John.
I had many other thoughts, had I had the space, but fellow students must be grateful to have only short essays to peer-review! Still I wanted to point to one more story because I found it a little unexpected. It’s a fable, The Death of the Hen, and quite short. Like a lot of fables it presents the amusing adventures of talking animals to present a moral lesson; but the lesson was not one I expected.
In short, it tells us that to be useful, help must be both timely and appropriate. Help of the right kind withheld until the moment has passed is of no use; help given generously and promptly but of the wrong kind makes things worse.
- In the tale, the brook and the bride’s withholding of help delay their assistance until it is too late to save the hen; the result is the right kind of help, but too late. But the hen was already choking and so is no worse off – she would have died without the help, she dies with it as well.
- The straw and coal’s help was well-intentioned and timely, but was of the wrong kind so it caused others to die who did not have to.
- The stone’s help was timely and of the right kind, but all the other “helpers” – wolf, bear, stag, lion, and all the beasts in the wood – overwhelm the help which the stone can provide, and so all are lost.
Next assignment: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.