A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

Category: Thoughts On the Tales

Thoughts on “The Seven Ravens”

Another tale in the “brothers turned into birds” fairy tale sub-genre, “The Seven Ravens” is notable for its whimsical and frightening imagery, and the fact that it’s a rashly uttered curse, rather than a witch or a powerful wish, that turns the seven brothers in the tale into ravens.

As far as any fairy tale might have a moral, “The Seven Ravens” could well be interpreted as a warning again using harsh words which you’re sure to regret: in this story, when a man’s seven sons don’t return after he sends them to get fresh water for his ailing infant daughter, he angrily shouts, “I wish all those boys would all be turned into ravens!” Sure enough, they immediately are. (I’m indebted to this scene for the header illustration featured here on the blog, which is by Albert Weisgerber.)

But the story, like most “brothers turned into birds” tales, really belongs to the little sister who, upon learning that she once had brothers, sets out to find and rescue them. What I love about “The Seven Ravens” versus “The Twelve Brothers” and “The Six Swans” is that this particular  sister journeys to the literal ends of the earth to find her brothers. She meets the sun, who eats human flesh; the moon, who is terrifying and threatening; and the stars, who are described as very friendly, each sitting on its own little chair. She finds her brothers living inside of a glass mountain — to enter it, she must cut off her own little finger and use the bone as a key. The tale is so dreamlike, so evocative of a child’s darkest imaginings, that it lifts itself above the other tales of its ilk, for me, and sets my imagination spinning.

Read my freewrite response to this tale here, and read the Grimms’ original, translated by D. L. Ashliman, here.

Illustration by Felix Hoffman

Illustration by Felix Hoffman

 

Thoughts on “Mother Holle”

“Mother Holle,” like Charles Perrault’s “Diamonds and Toads,” is a tale about a kind girl and an unkind girl, and the consequences of their vastly different behavior. The kind girl in this tale is akin to Cinderella, in that she’s treated unkindly by her stepmother, but comes into good fortune. But her story is more similar, in fact, to the Russian tale of Vasilisa and the witch Baba Yaga. As in “Vasilisa the Beautiful” (or “Vasilisa the Brave,” depending), the girl is sent from her home to complete a task for her stepmother, and ends up crossing paths with a frightening, but ultimately benevolent, witch. When the girl returns home, laden with gold for her good behavior and domestic skills, the stepmother sends her own ugly daughter to find Mother Holle and be rewarded as well. But the ugly daughter is unkind and lazy, and instead of a shower of gold, she is showered in pitch.

Maria Tatar makes some comparisons in The Annotated Grimms’ Fairy Tales between “Mother Holle” and the Greek myth of Persephone, but with a layer of domestic didacticism: the girl finds Mother Holle after falling down a well after a lost spindle, and waking up in a mysterious meadow. She has, in a sense, journeyed to an underworld. One of the domestic tasks that she must perform in order to gain Mother Holle’s good graces is to shake the witch’s featherbed, so that snow will fall on Earth–a uncommonly mythological jump for a European fairy tale. What is decidedly European about “Mother Holle,” however, is its focus on domestic instruction. After all, beauty cannot be a woman’s only virtue.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and read my writing response here.

DBP_1967_540_Frau_Holle

 

Thoughts on “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage”

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage,” a fable-like tale similar to “The Companionship of the Cat and Mouse,” it’s that one ought to be content with what one has, especially when one’s situation is working well. But, as the line in this morbid tale goes, “those who lead the good life are always looking for ways to make it even better.” And according to this fable, that search can only end in disaster.

Because this isn’t a very well-known tale, here’s a brief summary:

A mouse, a bird, and a sausage live a good life together. The bird flies into the forest to get wood for the fire, the mouse lights the fire and brings water for the soup, and the sausage does the cooking, seasoning the food by ‘sliding’ through the soup just before mealtime. But one day, the bird meets another bird who, upon hearing about this well-organized arrangement, tells the first bird that he’s a dupe for doing the hardest task each day. The bird, incensed by this, demands that he and his fellows switch jobs. The sausage sets out to gather wood, the bird is charged to fetch water, and the mouse becomes responsible for the cooking and seasoning of the dish. As you may have guessed already, this new plan doesn’t go well. The sausage, having left the home to fetch wood, is eaten by a dog (who, when interrogated by the bird, claims he had every right to eat the sausage, as he’d found forged letters on the sausage’s person). The bird and the mouse intend to carry on, but after the fire is going and the water is boiling, the mouse tries to slide through the soup the way the sausage did, and is boiled alive. The bird, in his distraction, allows the fire to grow too hot, and when he goes to get more water to put out the flames, he drowns.

Philip Pullman points out that, unlike the Cat and Mouse, these companions “are not fundamentally ill-matched.” If it had not been for the bird’s sudden dissatisfaction, they could have continued to get along very well. And so the story intimates that this dissatisfaction can lead to ruin. A slightly more troubling read suggests that in order to avoid catastrophe, one should know one’s place, and not seek to change it.

Read my freewrite response to this tale here, and read the Grimms’ original, translated by D. L. Ashliman, here.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

Thoughts on “The Riddle”

The cruelest women in fairy tales, if you were to ask the Grimms, are not the witches, but the women who slay innocent men in order to avoid marriage. They live in the Aarne-Thompson type #851, “The Princess Who Cannot Solve a Riddle,” and have a lineage that reaches as far back as the Greek Atalanta, who challenged her would-be suitors to a foot race. If they lost, they died. If she lost, she would marry them. Similarly, in tales like “The Riddle,” the princesses who riddle ask that their would-be suitors pose a clever question: if she can guess the answer, the suitor will be executed. The first one to posit a riddle that stumps her will be her husband. In this particular tale, the unsolvable riddle is “One slew nobody, and yet slew twelve”—meaning a raven that died from eating poisoned horse meat, and the twelve people who died after eating the raven.

Despite setting the challenge and then being served her match, the riddling princess is not too keen on marrying the winner, in this or most any tale of the type. In “The Riddle,” the princess sends two servants, then sneaks herself into the suitor’s chamber at night to hear whether he will say in the answer in his sleep. Yep, the riddling princesses are women who really doesn’t want to get married. They are the Grimms’ versions of bra-burners, proto-feminazis. And I love them.

Of course, I always wonder why the heroes of these stories always end up marrying them anyway—you would think ordering the deaths of several men and then falling for a trick would turn most people off, but no. A hopeful part of me likes to think that our protagonists admire their brides’ independent spirits, but then, our protagonists are part of the cage around those spirits, in the end. In this day and age, when marriage by itself is not always a happy ending, one might wish for another ending beyond the final words—when the blushing bride flees the tower in the night, clutching a knife.

Read my freewrite response to this tale here, and read the Grimms’ original, translated by D. L. Ashliman, here.

Illustration by H.J. Ford

Illustration by H.J. Ford, found at https://chaztales.wordpress.com/tag/the-riddle/

 

Thoughts on “Cinderella”

I’ve said it before: it’s so hard to write a freewrite inspired by the most well-known tales. There’s so much already in people’s minds when they think of these stories, and you worry that you won’t tap into something that feels right without it already having been done. Well, we’ve reached the juggernaut — Cinderella.

What’s tempting is to expound on all the things that people “forget” about the Grimms’ version of the tale, thanks to more popular retellings and films. For example, the stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet to fit into the shoe, that’s one that folks like to point out a lot. Or the fact that it’s the ghost of Cinderella’s mother, housed in a hazel tree, who is responsible for her attending the ball in finery, and not a fairy godmother. Any of these things that were left out of more salient versions of the tale would clearly be good places to begin a freewrite — a paragraph from the point of view of the dead mother, for instance, or the stepsister as she foolishly (though somewhat bravely) chops off her big toe.

That’s not even to mention all that remains essential in every version, which is evocative enough: the suffering child in an abusive home, the pair of sisters so warped by their mother’s obsessions that they are as cruel and vain as she is. The prince, and why exactly it is that he can’t forget the one woman at the ball who was afraid to tell him her name. There’s so much, see? And though it might seem, from the way some people describe their weddings or their travels through life, that what makes “Cinderella” such an enduring and relatable tale is the romance, or even the rags to riches narrative, I suspect — I hope, anyway — that it’s something else. I like to think that for all the “Cinderella” weddings out there, what keeps people coming back to this story is actually how much of a portrait of suffering and perseverance it is. The lesson is not about finding true love, but about being able to see wonder in a twig, a mouse, or your own self, and allowing that wonder to carry you to a safer place.

For more thoughts on Cinderella, visit my other blog, Something to Read for the Train.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and read my writing response here.

cinderella vintageprintabledotcom

Thoughts on “The Brave Little Tailor”

In her introduction to this tale in The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar makes a distinction between traditional trickster figures (Anansi, Coyote, etc.) and what makes a trickster in Grimm. Tricksters from Asian and Greek traditions (as well as African and Native American, I’d add), Tatar says, are “master[s] of craft and deception” and have “fleet-footed energy and transformative vitality.” German tricksters, such as the brave little tailor of this tale, are not so quick-witted, fleet, or transcendent: they’re fools.

In the Grimms’ tales, the more naive and simple the hero, the more he will undoubtedly gain by the story’s end. We’ve seen this before in “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” in which the boy’s dim-wittedness means that he literally does not know how to be afraid. In “The Brave Little Tailor,” the tailor is so vain that when he kills seven flies with one swipe of fabric, he sets out to show the world his prowess. In both instances, the hero’s bravado makes them immune to fear or cowardice, and they end up besting far more terrifying foes than a gang of flies.

So what can we make of this irony? Is this an innately German trait, to value naivety, or are these tales simply meant to make the reader laugh? If that’s the case, then the joke’s on us, for the tailor ends up a king, and we simply move on to the next story.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and stay tuned for my writing response, to be posted soon!

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 

 

Thoughts on “The Fisherman and His Wife”

“The Fisherman and His Wife” sticks out for me, among the Grimm tales. Something about it is different, and I can’t quite put my finger on what that something could be.

Maybe it’s the ironic twist at the end that comes dangerously close to an explicit moral (which most tales don’t have). Maybe it’s the fact that the wife makes six requests of the enchanted flounder rather than the usual three, drawing this tale out into almost epic proportions. Maybe it’s the intensely colorful descriptions of the state of the sea throughout the tale, which lend it a tone closer to magical realism than straight, to-the-point, fairy tale.

In fact, I think that’s pretty close, at least on a personal level: when I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” it reminded me not only of the tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” but also of the John B. Gruelle illustration of the tale (below), of the fisherman standing on the rocky beach, his arms flung wide in amazement. This is a tale that relishes the visual more than most fairy tales — the descriptions of the increasingly-angry sea, as well as the ever-more-ornate descriptions of the fisherman’s changing abode support the growing dread of the story. In magical realism, the environment and the aesthetic details (scuttling crabs, cloudy skies) do similar work to set the tone, whereas in fairy tales, magical realism’s undoubted predecessors, tone is usually conveyed quickly and starkly, if at all. Here are some lines in the “The Fisherman and His Wife” that set it apart, in this respect:

“He then put the fish back into the clear water, and the flounder swam to the bottom, leaving behind a long streak of blood.”

“So he went back to the sea. When he got there, the sea was very green and yellow and no longer so clear.”

“The tables sagged under the weight of food and bottles of the very best wine.”

“When he got to the sea, it was completely gray and black, and the water was twisting and turning from below and smelled putrid.”

“In the distance, the fisherman could see ships firing guns in distress as they were tossed up and down by the waves.”

All culminating in the wife’s insistence that she won’t be satisfied until the flounder makes her God, so she can cause the sun and the moon to rise.

Fairy tales feel elemental to us, and there’s no doubt that nature is often a character unto herself — places and things like woods and rivers take on ominous or helpful qualities that help convey a larger power at work than man’s. But never is that so clear than in “The Fisherman and His Wife.”

And I also get a real kick out of the man and wife and their matter-of-fact attitude in regards to her social climbing, before it’s all stripped away:

“‘Wife,’ the man said as he looked at her carefully, ‘now you’re the pope, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Pope.'”

End scene.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and you can read my writing response here.

Illustration by John B. Gruelle

Illustration by John B. Gruelle

 

 

Thoughts on “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”

Another trickster tale akin to “Riffraff”, “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean” is pretty silly.

An old woman lights a fire, using straw as her kindling, to make a pot of beans for supper. One coal jumps out of the grate, one straw falls to the floor, and one bean spills from the pot. They chat briefly about how they all narrowly escaped certain death, and decide to make their way together in the world “like good comrades.”

Presently they come to a brook. The straw stretches itself across so the others can pass, and the coal is the first to walk over. But he gets frightened by the stream, stops, and burns through the straw. The straw snaps, sending them both into the water. The bean, still on shore, laughs and laughs until its sides split. “Now, it would have been all over for the bean were it not for a traveling tailor” who stitches the bean back up again with black thread. This, the Grimms tell us, is why beans have a black seam running up their middle.

It’s also, they imply, why one should never decide to be “good comrades” with anyone, because their empathy towards others and willingness to help (a la the straw laying itself across the brook) will only get you as good as dead. How German!

Seriously, what I find so funny about the comedic tales in Grimm is how they all seem to have the same message: help yourself, because being nice, unless it’s to little old ladies, will get you nowhere. Trickster tales in other cultures often end similarly to “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”, summing up the story as an explanation as to how something commonplace in the world came to be, as a result of some humorous happening. But in, say, Coyote or Anansi tales, the heroes may be tricksters, but they have worldly knowledge or some endearing quality, even if it’s their joy. But the bean, well. He’s just a dick.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu, and read my freewrite in response to this tale here.

illustration by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane

Thoughts on “The White Snake”

As in our last story, “The Three Snake Leaves,” a serpent is an agent of magical abilities in “The White Snake.” In “The Three Snake Leaves,” the power bestowed by the snake was the ability to bring something dead back to life; in “The White Snake,” a bite of the snake’s body gives one the ability to hear what animals say.

I only wish the servant who stumbles upon this magical ability didn’t waste it on such a petty princess. What makes “The White Snake” so unsatisfying, as a tale with a great set-up, is that it’s simply a vehicle for a man of low status to find a rich wife.

The tale begins with a king who eats a bite of the white snake every evening, and rules his kingdom with such power, it seems he knows what will happen in it before anyone possibly could. He’s our only glimpse into the larger implications of the power of the white snake—once the king’s servant discovers the secret, the story becomes all about the servant’s use of this power to gain wealth, stature, and a wife who is resistant to him, that it takes three tests before she gives in and marries him.

A shame, really.

But maybe the story’s pedestrian quality is the point—the Grimms were sentimental and a bit prudish, but one thing they didn’t soften for their readers was the hard fact that humans are often out for themselves, instead of for a greater good. To take that a little farther, in fact, it would often seem from reading the Grimms’ tales that one of the best things a man can do in this world is make good for himself rather than the world at large, and that by lifting his circumstances out of poverty, he makes himself deserving of respect. I know of many politicians who’d agree…and that’s probably why this tale doesn’t quite make my list of favorites.

Read my writing response here, and the full Brothers Grimm tale online here.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

Thoughts on “The Three Snake Leaves”

One trope in fairy tales that gets overshadowed by wicked stepmothers and orders not to unlock doors is folk medicine, and its ties to rebirth. So many fairy tales—especially in the Russian tradition—take advantage of some strange-sounding object or substance that will miraculously heal. The Water of Life, the Water of Death, Rapunzel’s tears, the blood of someone newly killed, which will restore both that person and others. This story uses one of the strangest and most mysterious modes of reviving a dead person: three leaves used by one snake to bring another back to life.

In the story, a beautiful princess has one requirement of her suitors: whoever marries her must shut himself up in her tomb with her if she dies first. A young soldier falls so in love with her that he’s willing to consent to this macabre request. Naturally, she dies soon afterwards, and he’s left alone with her body in the crypt. As he keeps watch, waiting for death, a snake crawls toward the princess’s body—the soldier cuts the snake into pieces before it can touch her. But as he watches, another snake emerges with three leaves in its mouth, which it lays on the three wounds of the first snake. The first snake becomes whole, and they both wriggle away, leaving the leaves behind. The soldier places the leaves on the eyes and mouth of his bride, and she becomes flush with life again, and sits up. Together they pound on the door to the tomb until her father, the king, joyfully releases them.

Here’s where the story takes a turn to the darkly realistic, a turn that sets “The Three Snake Leaves” apart, in my opinion. The couple have go on a sea voyage to visit the soldier’s father. The soldier has already noticed a change in his wife, as though she no longer cares for him. She begins an affair with the ship’s captain, and together the lovers plot to kill the soldier. They throw him overboard, and he drowns. But the soldier had been smart: he’d given the three snake leaves to a loyal servant, who rows out to sea and recovers him, and brings him back to life. The soldier returns home and exposes his wife’s betrayal. She and her captain are tied to the mast of a boat “peppered with holes”; they sink, and are never heard from again.

Philip Pullman draws his readers’ attention to the fact that this story is told in “two halves, the first half being magic and the second half romantic/realistic.” The language of the story clearly hints that we’re meant to root for the soldier, and condemn his wife:

“she gave in to her wicked passion for the ship’s captain”

“their shameful deed”

“she and her accomplice”

True, adultery and murder are not such pretty things—and yet I can’t help but be curious what the connection is between her change of heart and desperate state in the second half of the story with her death and revivification in the first half. Fairy tale logic is so often two-dimensional, but between the princess’s return to life and her “change” is where we can insert the knife, and dig out something deeper.

For a gorgeous take on this story showing both the soldier’s and the princess’s point of view, check out Emily Carroll’s webcomic “The 3 Snake Leaves”

Read my writing response here, and read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at Pitt.edu.

illustration by collective Le Gun

illustration by collective Le Gun