A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: November, 2013

011. Brother & Sister

*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.*

Several months passed before the king noticed that his wife had begun acting strangely. At first, his joy at having her restored was too all-encompassing, too overpowering that there was no room in his notice for small details—such as her tendency to glance away from him, as if seeing something in the left corner of her eyes, while he was speaking to her. A year of happiness kept certain information from him, for instance, the fact that the baby had not yet spoken its first word, a miracle which was somewhat past due.

A year was enough to break the spell of the king’s satisfaction. Early in the autumn, some weeks after their son celebrated his first birthday, he caught his wife by her arm in the garden and attempted to embrace her. A hand on her back, the touch of his kiss on her cheek—she recoiled from both. She looked wildly to her left, as if afraid to be caught by someone walking past them. My love, he inquired, what ails you? Why do you cast such glances over your shoulder?

His lovely wife, trembling, placed her hand on his warm, beating heart. She did not look at him. Do not ask me again, she said. Then she turned away without speaking, gazing sorrowfully at the pebble-strewn ground. The king shuddered, touching the place where her fingers had pressed against his doublet.

After that, she did not meet his eyes—not over breakfast or the evening fire, not in the carriage to town or in their marital bed. Her words to him ceased. Even the fawn had passed from her realm of interest, which saddened the king to no end, for this was surely the widest reach of his wife’s sickness. It too began to lose the gift of language, its last tie to its humanness. But the babe—perhaps because it had been touched by her death, felt the brush of her fingers in her ghostly state—the babe she kept close, whispering secrets to him in the garden, secrets he would keep close all his silent life.

Cate Fricke
November 2013

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Thoughts on “Brother & Sister”

In the notes to his beautiful translation of this story, Philip Pullman calls “Brother and Sister” one of the few ‘ghost stories’ of the Grimms’, a distinction which makes me think, once again, about how closely fairy tales and horror stories are intertwined.

“Brother and Sister” begins similarly to “Hansel and Gretel”—two siblings escape a wicked stepmother and make their way into the woods. The brother, who is more foolhardy than his sister, drinks from an enchanted stream and transforms into a young deer. He is one day pursued by the king and his hunters, and through this encounter, the sister and the king meet and marry. But the stepmother—the very witch who cursed the stream—is jealous of their good fortune. Together with her one-eyed daughter, she waits until the young queen is weakened from childbirth, then kills her and puts the ugly daughter in her place. The ghost of the young queen comes at night into the nursery, where the nurse sees her and tells the king. When the king discovers his wife’s ghost, the spell is broken—the evil woman and her daughter are exposed, and the young queen is magically restored to life.

And I’ll just add that although here on A Grimm Project we’re deferring to Jack Zipes’ translation when it comes to titles and direct quotes, but Philip Pullman’s recent translations are truly something special. Pullman takes more than a little creative authorial license with many of the tales in his Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, with the aim of smoothing fractured narrative lines and weaving characters and themes in consistently throughout the stories, rather than relying on the Grimms’ jarring illogicality. In “Brother and Sister,” Pullman introduces the witch’s one-eyed daughter in the very first paragraph, and explains how the witch was able to hide the murdered queen’s body. He also makes significant edits to the ending of the tale, and the reveal of the queen’s murder.

One change Pullman makes that strays from the original Grimms also works to bolster the tale’s “ghost story” nature: instead of appearing each time as whole and healthy as she was when she was alive, the queen’s ghost first appears to be wet “as if she’d just come from the bath”; the second time, she appears “to be covered in little flames”, and the third and final time, she is “wreathed in thick black smoke.”

Many beautiful images and moving moments occur in the first half of the tale, when the focus is placed more on the brother and sister and their perils—the transformation of the brother, his eagerness to join the hunt despite his sister’s pleading, her insistence that she will never forsake him, no matter what form he takes. But despite Pullman’s notion that the story becomes less well-constructed in the second half (thus his many edits), I think the “ghost story” portion of the tale is where so many interesting questions lie, and offer opportunities to jump in and unfold even more of the story.

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 Maurice Sendak

illustration by Maurice Sendak

010. Riffraff

*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.*

The pin wasn’t interested in anything long term, not at first, though the needle was sure when they met that she’d found “the one.” He took some convincing, which was fine, because the needle knew how to be patient. Later, she would make terrible jokes about this. “I kept my cool those first six months,” she’d say. “I never needled you.” To which Jeremy, the pin, would reply with a groan. “Please give that one up,” he’d say. “It’s never been funny.”

The needle, whose name was Melinda, had pictured often during those first six months how it would go when Jeremy would finally tell her that he loved her. He couldn’t bend to one knee, which was okay because despite her hopes, she didn’t consider herself a sappy romantic. But he could only barely embrace her, which was cause for some small grief. She so wished to be embraced. The most Jeremy could muster when he was feeling affectionate was to knock the yellow plastic ball of his head against the lower curve of her eye in a brief but sweet attempt at a nuzzle. And sex—well, never mind. It was never going to be just like the movies.

Yes, she’d often imagined a moonlit night, perhaps on a long weekend out of town—and all this had come to pass most satisfactorily, until Jeremy had too much to drink at the charmingly rustic tavern and fell on the stone steps, sustaining a terrible bend about a third of his way down. He was so inebriated that they had to go hitching to find a ride back to the bed and breakfast, and that’s where things got downright embarrassing. They’d laugh about that night eventually, genuinely and with gratitude for all that had come to fruit for them since, but only after the passing of several years in which Melinda insisted they not speak of it, ever.

Cate Fricke
November 2013

Thoughts on “Riffraff”

D.L. Ashliman at Pitt.edu notes that no two English translations use the same title for this little story. Zipes uses “Riffraff,” so that’s what we’re going with, but here are some of the others out there:

  1. The Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet: How They Went to the Mountains to Eat Nuts (Edgar Taylor, 1823).
  2. The Pack of Ragamuffins (Margaret Hunt, 1884).
  3. The Vulgar Crew (Francis P. Magoun, Jr., and Alexander H. Krappe, 1960).
  4. A Pack of No-goods (Ralph Manheim, 1977).
  5. The Pack of Scoundrels (D. L. Ashliman, 2001).

The story is short and nonsensical, full of low humor and pratfalls. A hen and a rooster decide to steal a squirrel’s nuts from the top of a mountain. After eating their fill, they’re too tired to walk all the way home, so the rooster builds a little cart out of the discarded nutshells (a whimsical image that I love). But of course, neither of them wants to pull the cart. They harness a passing duck against her will, and pick up a pin and a needle who are too drunk to travel any further on the path. The entire pack stops at an inn overnight.

In the night, the rooster and hen eat the egg they’d promised to the innkeeper, toss the shells into the fireplace, then seize the pin and needle and stick them in the innkeeper’s towel and chair respectively before running off without paying their tab. The innkeeper wipes his face with his towel and is scraped by the pin. He starts his morning fire, and gets blasted in the face by eggshells. Then he sits down right on the needle. In his rage, he vows never to let “riffraff” in his inn again.

In most trickster tale traditions, the ruses played by the trickster are interwoven with philosophy about how the world was made, or how it fundamentally functions. In Grimm, however, many of the tales that feature trickster figures don’t share that complexity—or if they do attempt a philosophy, it’s rather bleak. Some people suck, get used to it, be on your guard. “Riffraff” has some charmingly humorous imagery—the nutshell carriage, the pin and the needle stumbling home after a night at the tavern—but as in “The Marvelous Minstrel,” it all adds up to very little in terms of overall narrative satisfaction. A pack of innocent characters have been mildly scalded (including an offstage squirrel, we can presume), and the perpetrators get off scot-free. The only one who can be said to have a happy, or at least just, ending is probably the duck, who gets to swim away under the cover of night after a real dog of a day.

What’s funny to me about this story, on a personal note, is that I’ve recently run into the word “riffraff” in a couple of different contexts, when really, who uses this word anymore? In a New York Times write-up on the opening of a new design store in Rhinebeck, the owner flippantly said that “only riff-raff go to Poughkeepsie.” Guess who has two thumbs and lives in Poughkeepsie? This gal. The shop owner has since apologized (personally, even, to me—that’s what comes of making a stink on social media), but that doesn’t diminish my amusement at seeing such an antiquated word crop up in an unexpected place. Riff-raff. Hilarious. Makes me want to hitch up the old nutshell carriage and go stick pins in some high-priced sofas.

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 Heinrich Lefler

illustration by Heinrich Lefler

009. The Twelve Brothers

*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.*

When you see the silent girl, approach her carefully. You will know yours when you see her, though the woods, the streets, the subways are full of them—reading their books, flipping through their phones, not speaking. Not to you.

Do not ask her what she’s seen, for it will be indescribable. If you ask her, she will imagine a human arm splintering into black feathers, mouths opening, stretching, hardening painfully into beaks. She will not be able to tell you this, and you will always wonder what it was that made her so lovely—trauma does this, prolonged contact with witches. Hold her when she dreams, for her dreams will be of flight. She will dream of her own wings wrenching themselves from her limbs, and of lift-off. Her dreams are different from yours. When you dream of flying, it’s through air as thick as soup, never getting very far. But she has brothers in the air whom she joins nightly. In her dreams, she flies swiftly, easily—until the curse is broken, and she falls. She wakes with a start, and it’s your job to not ask questions. Once you do, she becomes less and less yours, and you’ll begin to wonder whether you picked the right one—there were so many silent women in those trees, on those benches, in those bars. But here’s a secret, which I doubt you’ll understand: they all come with the same rules.

When you find your silent girl, be kind to her. Her lineage is long, and full of sorrow. Her children bear a mark, and climb the highest trees as soon as your back is turned, aching, always aching for the sky.

Cate Fricke
November 2013

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane

Thoughts on “The Twelve Brothers”

“The Twelve Brothers” is not only a lovely story on its own, but it’s part of a classification of tales—Aarne-Thompson type 451, “The Maiden Seeking Her Brothers” or “The Brothers Turned Into Birds”—that is especially evocative, delicate, epic, and beautiful. Other tales of this type from Grimm include “The Six Swans” and “The Seven Ravens”, and the Norwegian “The Twelve Wild Ducks” and Afanasyev’s “The Magic Geese”.

In these tales, a young woman goes out into the world to seek her lost brother or brothers, but once found, they are transformed into birds. She must endure a great trial or set of tasks to rescue them. In “The Twelve Brothers” in particular, the girl is a princess, born with a star on her forehead. Her brothers are sent away before her birth, because the king has vowed that if his queen bears a girl as their thirteenth child, he will kill the twelve older boys so that the girl will inherit the kingdom. It’s worth noting that in earlier drafts of the tale, the king is so distressed at the thought of a daughter that he makes this pledge to kill his sons, rather than have them in the company of an inferior girl. The boys make a home for themselves in the woods, and when the little princess grows up, she finds out about her brothers and goes into the woods to find them.

The brothers love her immediately, and allow her to live with them, much like Snow White’s dwarves—she learns to cook and clean for them, along with the youngest brother, Benjamin, who is the most sensitive of the group. One day, she finds twelve lilies growing in the garden and decides to pick them for the table. The moment she does, the twelve boys transform into twelve ravens and fly away. The cottage disappears, and the girl is alone. An old woman appears, and tells her that the only way to return her brothers to their human form is to stay silent for seven years—to neither speak nor laugh. If she does, then the brothers will be killed by that one utterance. The girl agrees, and becomes a mute in the woods, another familiar trope which we’ve seen already on A Grimm Project in “The Virgin Mary’s Child.” Like the girl of that tale, the princess is found in the woods by a young royal, who asks to marry her. He loves her, they have a family, but tongues wag—why is she so silent? The king’s mother poisons him with theories until he agrees to have the girl burned as a witch. In the final moments of the seven-year curse, the girl is tied to a stake and set alight. Finally the brothers appear and put out the flames with their wings before turning into young men, and the girl is set free to be with her family.

Naturally, the old queen dies a horrible, painful, snake-and-oil-barreled death.

We never quite know why the girl has a star on her forehead, and we never quite know what’s up with those lilies. Philip Pullman, in his recent translations of selected Grimm tales, introduces the witch who appears to the girl earlier—he has her welcome the boys when they first discover the cottage along with the twelve lilies, making her sudden appearance to the girl more balanced, and her presence in the story even more foreboding. For a writer, this tale has all sorts of little eggs to be cracked open, motives to be explained, imagery to be unfurled. Plus, it’s gorgeous. Let’s have at it.

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 John B. Gruelle

illustration by John B. Gruelle