A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Month: January, 2014

013. The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest

*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.*

Children know all about ceremonial garb. A blanket worn as a hood for invincibility and comfort—an old dress with holes in it for running away. Dresses made of old sheets, dresses made of paper, dresses made of the hammock net that broke the summer before. The very thing for searching out magic on the path of suffering. Children know about baskets, too, and what goes in them. The stories tell them to pack a bottle of wine and piece of cake for good days that will turn sour; a crust of bread and string of grisly meat for bad days that will transform into days of miracle. And a doll, of course, or that odd little souvenir statue you picked up on vacation in Hawaii—they’ll tuck these into their baskets without reading about them in a story, and you’ll watch them set out for the backyard and you’ll wonder, what’s that trinket for? Because you’ve forgotten about the three little men who delight in such treats, and what it was you offered them, when you foraged through the brush at the back corner of the yard, wearing a dress your mother had worn to a school dance many years before. Whatever it was you’d brought with you, you fashioned a shelf for it in the place where your back fence met the neighbor’s, and you placed it there, so carefully, for the three little men, who surely took it. Don’t ask me what it was—I cannot remember for you. But they took it, of that I am sure, and they adored it. They always do.

illustration by Hermann Vogel

illustration by Hermann Vogel

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Thoughts on “The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest”

This story begins as a basic lesson in etiquette: when your stepmother sends you out into the wintery forest in nothing but a paper dress, be kind to the strange little men who offer to let you warm up by their fire, and share what meager lunch has been given you. As a reward, you’ll not only be given the impossible thing your stepmother sent you out to fetch in the first place (strawberries in winter), but you’ll also grow more beautiful every day, have gold pieces fall from your mouth when you speak, and you’ll soon be married to a king. If you’re nasty and ill-tempered to the little men, like the stepmother’s own daughter, and won’t share your lunch of cake and meat, then you’ll be cursed with ever-increasing ugliness, toads will leap from your mouth whenever you open it, and you’ll be doomed to die a miserable death. Simple manners and common sense.

Of course, what starts out as an especially whimsical and cruel story of fairy tale child abuse (she’s so creative, this stepmother! A paper dress! Strawberries in the snow!) continues to spin its wheels, and we’re given a second half very similar to “Brother and Sister,” in which the stepmother and her now hideous daughter attempt to kill the first daughter, now made a queen, and pass the stepsister off in her place. The ghost of the queen appears three times to servants in the castle (in this story, as a little duck who swims past the castle) before she is brought to life again by her husband, and the stepmother and her daughter do indeed die a terrible death as punishment.

Having not read this tale is years, I’d forgotten all the stuff about the daughter becoming a queen, and then a ghost-duck. What I did remember, and what still delights me about this story, is the paper dress. Somehow that image, of the suffering little girl sent out into the snow in a paper dress to look for strawberries, seems more akin to the world of Hans Christian Andersen than it does the grim Grimms—it’s cruel, but also a little funny, and so unexpected. It seems less like a punishment a grown-up would think of (though I have absolutely no doubts as to its cruelty factor) than something a kid would imagine as both a game and a punishment—like “dressing up” in rags to play a pauper. Illustrations for this tale don’t shake that for me, either, especially Arthur Rackham’s depiction of an elaborate, multi-layered newsprint skirt and matching jacket. As a kid reading these stories, I would absolutely have tried to make myself a get-up like that, so I could go wander in the backyard and play at feeling lost, unwanted, and unloved—then, of course, come inside for dinner and bed as soon as I got tired.

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 Arthur Rackham

illustration by Arthur Rackham

012. Rapunzel

*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.*

I’d kept in contact with Rosemary’s birth mother for fifteen years—ever since the papers had been signed, and the nurse had placed a red-cheeked, slick-haired infant in my plastic-gloved arms. Every year on Rosemary’s birthday I’d written her a letter and include a recent picture or school snapshot, though in the last two years I’d struggled with how much, exactly, to tell her. Rosemary was willful. Her bedroom window got as much use as our front door, with her coming and going late nights and early mornings. At first she thought I didn’t know. Then, after the first fights and the storming out, she didn’t care that I knew. I smelled cigarette smoke in her hair when she’d come down in the mornings. I saw the rips in her jeans and leggings from the bent nail on the siding under her windowsill. She stopped bringing home report cards, and when I reached out to her teachers, the news was dismal.

I didn’t include any of this in my letters to her birth mother. Instead, I used words like “spirited” and “outgoing.” My letters became shorter and shorter.

And then Rosemary told me she was pregnant.

Well, she didn’t tell me, exactly. I saw it. Used to cleaning out the upstairs bathroom wastebasket, I noticed there hadn’t been any sanitary pads in what seemed like months. And then I saw her curling her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, her arms stretched over her head and her belly, small but round and firm, protruding outwards in a skin-tight baby-pink tank top.

“What are you looking at?” she asked, seeing my stare.

Rosie,” I said. I pointed at her belly. “Oh, Rosie, tell me that’s not true.”

She dropped her arms and released a spiraled curl from the iron. In that moment before she spoke, before she began protesting and then finally crying, I wasn’t thinking about her, or what we’d do with a child in the house. I was thinking of her birth mother. Kimberly Mathisen was her name—she’d be thirty now, maybe thirty-one. Rosie and Kimberly had the same soft, strawberry-blond hair, which Rosie wore loose and curled to her waist. I wondered what I’d say in that year’s letter, how to protect Kimberly, for whom I had once felt such kinship, pity, and gratitude, from the knowledge that her daughter had become just like her. Perhaps, I thought, I won’t write at all. Maybe the time for all that is done. But I felt a terrible pull around my abdomen, as if a long length of rope was tightened around me. Its ends cast out from my useless womb, tethering me to these girls and their strawberry-blond hair throughout time and space, tying me firmly to their woes. I would write. I had promised that I would.

Cate Fricke
January 2014

illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky

illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky

Thoughts on “Rapunzel”

A common reading of “Rapunzel” is that it’s about captivity and freedom—just look at Tangled, Disney’s recent adaptation. The film is about the girl getting out of her high tower and seeing the world on her own terms. But look more closely at the Grimms’ tale, and you’ll see that “Rapunzel” is also a story about motherhood, from start to finish. Three mothers inhabit the story—one nearly driven mad by cravings (enough to give up the child in her womb), an adoptive mother nearly driven mad by jealousy and covetousness, and finally Rapunzel herself, a young unwed mother driven out into the wilderness with her children. (Disney does away with the pesky issue of Rapunzel’s clothes getting a wee bit too tight after her trysts with the prince—but then again, so did the Grimms, in later versions of their tale. They chose to have the children mentioned at the end of the tale, without any physical clues as to how they came into being. Disney erases them from the story entirely.)

In his notes on the tale, Philip Pullman includes an interesting detail—that the plant craved by Rapunzel’s birth mother in an Italian version of the tale is actually parsley, which can be used to trigger menstruation in the early weeks of a pregnancy, thus ending the pregnancy (weird but true). One might wonder whether Rapunzel’s mother is actually trying to lose her child, through one set of means or the other. She and her husband very quickly give up the baby to the witch when this idea is posed. And so when the witch takes her and raises her as her own, her expectation of Rapunzel’s  gratitude is, at least in her mind, absolutely justified—after all, her own parents would just as well have induced a miscarriage. Logically, this doesn’t quite make sense—after all, the witch does give the plant to the mother, and it does not cause a miscarriage. But thematically, the elements of the story are turning our attention to pregnancy and motherhood, wanted and unwanted. The witch wants to be a mother, and the real mother, despite the story’s opening which insists that the couple desire a child, seemingly does not. And poor Rapunzel does not know what it means to be a mother—though she very quickly becomes one.

This is one of the few stories of the Grimms’ in which their strict notions of morality do not dictate who is rewarded and who is punished—for although Rapunzel must wander in the desert and have her hair shorn after her illegitimate pregnancy is revealed, she is rewarded in the end by being reunited with her prince, and having her family complete. She is a “ruined” woman by the story’s end, having very obviously had sex outside of marriage (though naturally the Grimms’ decorum bade them cover it up as much as they could). Yet the ending is a hopeful celebration—after less-than-stellar examples of motherhood have been shown throughout the story, Rapunzel is the one who ends up with a loving family which she and her prince have made. He loves her despite her shorn hair and castaway status, and she restores his sight. They’ve made children together, and suffered to find each other. In the end, it’s one of the most progressive and satisfying relationships in Grimm.

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 Paul O. Zelinksy

illustration by Paul O. Zelinksy