A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: October, 2013

008. The Marvelous Minstrel

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

Once upon a time there was a marvelous minstrel who walked through a forest all alone and thought about all kinds of things.

He thought about Shannon, first of all, and the t-shirts she wore that covered her whole chest, but that were too tight around the bust, making her breasts look like large, flat couch pillows. He thought about how she had offered to go down on him in instrument storage after practice, and he wished he’d taken her up on it instead of laughing and getting nervous. He wasn’t sure if she’d been serious or not. He wasn’t supposed to like Shannon, although they’d grown up as neighbors and played at each other’s houses for years before high school hit. He wasn’t supposed to like her, because she walked with her back hunched just slightly enough to make her look mannish, and she laughed too loudly at lunch, usually with something half-chewed still in her mouth. She wore nothing but t-shirts and jeans and sweatshirts from places her family had taken her on vacations—Fudrucker’s Miami, Dauphin Island, Universal Studios. The other boys in band called her the yeti. He wasn’t supposed to like her, but he should have let her go down on him—if she wasn’t joking, that is. He should have said sure, and planned to meet up later, in these woods, behind their street.

Then he thought about whether or not he’d tell anyone if it happened. It might help her, in the end. Knowing that she’d go to third base could change the way some of those guys, the guys in the band and at the lunch table, talked about her. She might still be a beast, but she’d be a beast with a secret, who did stuff that not everyone would do, or had ever experienced. The other boys would respect that, or at least he could imagine how they might. And if they didn’t, at least they’d respect him, and that was the best part. The only other one in his group who’d had a girl put her mouth on his junk was Brandon, and that was no big deal, because he and Katy had been dating for a whole six months.

The minstrel reached the end of the woods, and he walked through the backyard to his house. Entering, he set his backpack and his clarinet on a kitchen chair and opened the fridge. He poured himself a glass of juice, some sugary-sweet berry medley that advertised a whole serving of vegetables, but that tasted like a melted fruit popsicle.

There was nothing more to think about.

Cate Fricke
October 2013


Thoughts on “The Marvelous Minstrel”

Like “The Good Bargain,” but not nearly as politically incorrect, “The Marvelous Minstrel” is another tale from the Grimms’ ouvre that some argue is better forgotten. Though it’s a rather cynical story about a musician whose talent renders him neither likeable nor virtuous, I have to admit that the first few lines of the story had me entranced:

“Once upon a time there was a marvelous minstrel who walked through a forest all alone and thought about all kinds of things. When there was nothing more to think about, he said to himself, ‘I’m getting bored here in the forest, and I need to get myself a good companion.’”*

Reading such lines, you might expect an equally whimsical tale to follow, one that might reaffirm the bonds of brotherhood between fellow men, or even take a turn for the romantic. But the minstrel, for all his wide-reaching thoughts, quickly becomes defined by one repetitive distinction—that his ideal companion is not a beast of the forest. And with this in mind, he proceeds to become the unlikeable star of a short but frustratingly clunky story.

As he plays, a wolf and then a fox and finally a hare emerge from the trees and ask if he will teach them to play so beautifully. The minstrel, who has only just decided he needs a companion, isn’t interested in these animals, but he says yes anyway, only to lead them into a series of traps. When the animals free themselves and band together to get their revenge, they follow the minstrel into town, where the minstrel has just met and similarly taken up with a woodcutter, who threatens the animals with his axe. The animals run away in fright. The minstrel plays the woodcutter “one more tune” out of gratitude, then moves on his way alone again.

Many detractors of the tale focus on how mean the minstrel is to the animals, and this is more than fair. He’s downright sadistic, and a very aggravating trickster figure, since those he tricks don’t seem to deserve what they get at all. But I also wonder how many people read this tale as an ironic tragedy on the minstrel’s part—he is, after all, alone again in the end. I doubt this was the Grimms’ intention, as their fairy tales, like most fairy tales, don’t tend to dabble in either irony or vague endings. But I am drawn into this tale by the thoughtful whimsy of the first lines, and intrigued by the minstrel’s lonely state at the story’s close. The nonsense in between, well…chalk another one up to the tests of time, and ask yourself why “The Marvelous Minstrel” isn’t the first Grimm tale you think of.

Read my writing response here, and feel free to add your own freewrite in the comments. And read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu.

* The translation quoted above is Jack Zipes’, from his Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

007. The Good Bargain

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

Your mother brings a plant with her from the farmer’s market when she arrives, with purple leaves and angular, elbowed vines. “It’s a Wandering Jew,” she says, setting it on the kitchen counter.

“It’s not really called that,” you say quickly, though you know no other names for it because, to be honest, you know nothing about this plant. You say it because you want to rise above, to be more kind and fair to the world; so full of vague, inherited guilt that you would re-do all the hand-written signs at the Catskill Nursery’s booth if only they would hand you the pen.

“That’s what the man said,” is her answer. “It’s just a plant,” is what is hidden behind this response.

“Eight bucks, with the hanging planter included,” she continues. “That’s a good bargain if I do say so myself.”

As you suspend the Wandering Jew in the corner of the dining room which receives the most indirect light, you think to yourself about the strange insistence of time that first creates a myth and a crooked figure to inhabit it, then turns both into something so unremarkable as a houseplant. You hold this thought before you like a chipped marble you’ve found in the couch cushions, examine it, then tuck it away in a drawer. You water the plant along with all the rest, but each week a few more leaves from the top of the plant, closest to the roots, dry up and fall to the stained wooden floors like ash, or the first snowflakes of a storm.

You refuse to read too much into these dried leaves. The world does not feel any different, more healed, or more joyful, whether you find metaphorical meaning in a molting plant or not—and if you allow yourself to think so for even a moment, you’re a fool. You sweep the leaves up and into the trash bin before the cat can pounce on them, eat them with crunching glee, and regurgitate them on the front throw rug, as she is so eager, every time, to do.

Cate Fricke
October 2013

Thoughts on “The Good Bargain”

Well, readers, if anyone thought that this journey through the 242 tales in The Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm (ed. Zipes, 1987) was going to be all princesses and talking birds, that gentle time is over now. I said we’d be going in order, without skipping, and that means running into several unsavory aspects of not only the tales themselves, but the worldview that gave birth to those tales. We’ve reached “The Good Bargain”, the first of two tales that “feature anti-Semitism in its most virulent form,” according to Maria Tatar in The Annotated Brothers Grimm.

“The Good Bargain” is about a simple-minded farmer who, through his own ignorance, gives away the money he’s paid for a cow, and then the meat of another cow. When he goes to the king to complain, the king’s daughter laughs at his story, and the king offers to give her in marriage to the farmer because he makes her laugh. The farmer refuses, and says he’s already got a wife. The king, angry, attempts to trick the farmer again—he tells the farmer to return in three days’ time to receive “five hundred in full measure.”

Upon leaving the palace, the farmer makes a deal with a soldier and a money-changing Jew for them to receive the “five hundred” for him. When all three return to the palace, the soldier and the Jew are given five hundred lashes, divided between the two of them, and the king is amused enough by the farmer’s turn of fortune that he promises him as much treasure from his hold as he can carry.

In a nearby tavern, the Jew and the farmer cross paths again. The farmer complains that because he had to fill his own pockets, he doesn’t know how much money he has, and wishes that the king had doled the money out himself. The Jew tells the king what the farmer said, and the farmer is ordered to report.

When the Jew goes to the farmer to tell him this news, the farmer laments that his coat is not nice enough to wear in front of the king, and the Jew, wanting badly enough to see the farmer punished, gives him his own coat to hurry him along. Standing in front of the king, the farmer claims that the Jew has lied, and will say anything—even that he’s not wearing his own coat. The king finds this logic somehow sound enough to send the farmer away with his money and the Jew’s coat, and to give the Jew more lashings in the farmer’s place. The farmer, satisfied, remarks that he has finally made “a good bargain.”

In The Annotated Brothers Grimm (2012 edition), Maria Tatar has more to say about the later, and more violent anti-Semitic tale “The Jew in the Brambles”, than about “The Good Bargain”, but speaking to the inclusion of both of these tales, she does comment on their oddness in a book whose mission was to reflect “the ‘purity’ and ‘innocence’ of the folk.” “Nothing like these tales exists in the other major nineteenth-century collections of German fairy tales,” she writes, although Jewish stereotypes like this, as we know from other literary examples, had deep roots in European society.

Not only is this a glumly cynical tale and an uncomfortable look at prevailing anti-Semitism in nineteenth-century Germany, but, as blogger Helen Barry mentions on her site Gallimaufry, “the comedy has not worn well either.” All told, it’s a hard tale to draw a writing response from. Ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects of this tale is akin to cowardice. But how to handle such a subject in a ten-minute freewrite? In the end, my response ended up being more about my feelings that the tale and the stereotypes in it exist at all, rather than anything specific in the tale. What about you–when you run into a story that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, what thoughts go through your mind?

Read my writing response here, and feel free to add your own freewrite in the comments. And read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu.

illustration by Hermann Vogel

illustration by Hermann Vogel

006. Faithful Johannes

*This post is part of A Grimm Project, a series of short fiction pieces using each of the Brothers Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales as writing prompts. For more information about the project, click here. For more about the story which inspired this freewrite, click here.*

My sweet children, sit on this rock beside me, and together we will watch the waves tow their burdens into port. If you squint your precious eyes tightly until they are nearly closed, you may see the faint shadow of the land where I was born. It was across this sea that your two fathers brought me as a golden prize. In that land we cannot see from here, I was like a trinket. Here, I was happily made your mother.

You must forgive me, dear ones, for not saying I would save you. You must understand, we all knew how it would turn out. Me, and both your fathers—fathers, yes, for they have both given you life—understood how the story works, and for this understanding, we were rewarded with your lives.

My place in the story is to exist as the prize. The Princess of the Golden Roof is made to be won, and to acquiesce. The king’s love must have a voice, even if that love is not truly for me. I am here to distract, as precious metals always do. It was hard, at first, knowing that the king did not love me best—I knew it even before he did. But we are all very happy now. I have my own prize, do I not? My two darling children.

Are you not happy too? You, you lucky ducklings, have all three parents to love. And we do, my dears, despite how callous we might seem on the page. May you grow to be as open-minded as your mother, and as tender-hearted as your two fathers. Ah! Come and kiss me, and then let’s gaze at the gulls. My children! How dear you are with your heads back on.

Cate Fricke
October 2013

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane

Thoughts on “Faithful Johannes”

There’s so much that I love about this touching and also disturbing fairy tale, “Faithful Johannes.” When I do these freewrites, I’m not really asking myself a specific question for each tale like a prompt a teacher might give you in a Freshman Comp class (“Tell this story from the POV of the wicked stepsister,” etc.). Instead, I’m flying blind, starting from general questions:

What surprises or delights or disturbs me about this one?

Whose voice isn’t being heard in this story?

What is the egg of this story that I’d like most to crack open, and what kind of monster is gestating inside?

With Faithful Johannes, there are multiple answers to each of these questions, because in this story, there’s just SO MUCH. From the Bluebeard-esque command given at the beginning of the story (destined to be broken), to the portrait of the princess that is so beautiful that the doomed prince falls in love with her immediately; from Johannes’ sudden unexpected ability to understand birds (waved over as absolutely normal by the narrator), to his turning to stone when he confesses his devotion to the prince; and finally, the bizarre and disturbing request that in order to restore Johannes to life, the prince must cut off the heads of his own children, which he willingly does.

And this story also contains a gorgeous line, which the prince utters upon seeing the portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof: “if all the leaves on the all the trees were tongues, they could not express the fullness of my love.”

The prince is speaking of his love for the Princess of the Golden Roof, whom Johannes will court and kidnap on the prince’s behalf, but by the end of the tale, isn’t it clear that the truest love in this story is between the prince and Johannes? Maybe it’s just my modern sensibilities that want to read any “faithful servant” tale as homoerotic, but seriously. The Princess of the Golden Roof is painted as a bit of a vain fool, obsessed with golden trinkets and easily tricked into marriage. It’s Johannes who is the standard for selfless virtue throughout the tale, and in the end, when the prince sacrifices his own children to bring Johannes back from death (spoiler alert: the kids are fine, you know, magic), he has taken on Johannes’ selflessness as well as faithfulness, making this both a story about an exemplary servant and the character growth within the prince.

Click here to read my freewrite inspired by this tale, and click here to read the full text, courtesy of D.L. Ashlimann and Pitt.edu.

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane