A Grimm Project

242 fairy tales, 242 writing prompts.

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.

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We’ve reached the second page of the table of contents. Up next: Cinderella!

020. The Brave Little Tailor

*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.*

We sisters met at nightfall, something our husbands had ever been too thick, or too puffed up with bravado, to consider. We giants’ wives do not enjoy showing off our bulk. And so it was in shadows that we whispered — what are we to do about the tailor?

I’ll rip his head off his lanky neck with my own hands, said Hattie. I don’t care if anyone else comes with me.

Hush now, counseled Bertha. He killed seven men with one blow, and our husbands with less than the same.

My husband cowers in his cave since the tailor’s visit, said Elspeth. He’s never been in such a fright.  And not a word of vengeance for his friends! The children shouldn’t see him like this, reduced to a whimpering babe. I wish I didn’t have to.

Bertha’s right, whispered Minnie. He’s too much for any one of us. But all the more reason we should unite.

Yes, it’s up to all of us now, we all agreed. If any one of us were to claim that we were unafraid, it would have been a falsehood. The tailor, it seemed, was in possession of a fearsomeness that mere strength, size, and blood lust could not contend with. He had clearly outwitted our men, and wit is the most fearsome weapon.

But here’s what most forget, about a giant’s wife: she is clever. A giant’s wife is the one who soothes her violent husband while an Englishman hides in the pantry baskets. She is enormous, with brains proportionate to her size, unlike her mate. And the tailor, god willing, had already played his tricks.

We changed into our husbands’ leathers and breastplates and, for good measure, nabbed their clubs and spears as well. All the doing would need, though, once the man was caught, was but a one of our heavy fists. It was the catching — yes, that was where Death waited for us, ready to take his chance should we be led astray by one of the tailor’s ploys. But we knew where the man slumbered. We were ready.

Cate Fricke
June 2014

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 

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

 

 

019. The Fisherman and His Wife

*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 Elerbon returned to the sea, he noticed that the long streak of blood still floated in the clear water. He sat on a rock, crossing his legs beneath him, and watched as the ribbon of red shimmered in the calm water, shuddering as the seawater lapped and bobbed in the pool.

He did not know how to call the fish, but was certain — and this made him sad — that the fish would appear nonetheless. Emilie had not always been so unhappy as to send him clamoring for wish-granting fish. Before their marriage, she had danced when the travelers played mountain songs in the pub, and this had made her happy enough to last for weeks. And even after they had exchanged vows, a festival with fresh fruit vendors selling oranges had lifted her spirits enough carry her smiles well into several months. A sunny day and the drifting sound of a neighbor child singing her favorite song gave Elerbon days of peace from Emilie, which he cherished more and more as they grew older. It was not until the same song only afforded her three minutes of happiness, which Elerbon felt passing away from them like spent coins at the grocer, that he knew she’d become like so many other women — mysteriously unhappy. Her face changed, and she laughed very little, but still he loved her. What else could he do?

The streak of blood had only just dissipated in the water. A tiny white crab the size of Elerbon’s fingernail was climbing bravely up the underside of a rock, then faltered and fell with a plop into the growing foam. Elerbon sighed. A sea wind met his sigh with salt and chill, and Elerbon stood. The fish was swimming toward him.

Cate Fricke
May 2014

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Illustration by Kay Nielsen

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

 

 

018. “The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean”

*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.*

There once was a poor old woman who lived in a village, and she had gathered a bunch of beans that she wanted to cook.

She set a pot to boil over a meager fire, and let the beans soak together in a crock of fresh water. Once the pot began a-bubbling, the old woman took her ladle from the wall and began spooning the beans, a few at a time for it’s all she could lift, into the warm pot.

Oh, how the beans screeched! Oh, how sorry she felt for them. They were kind little beans, like napping babies, and she felt ever so terrible for waking them, only to plunge them in the boiling sup. But what else could she do? She was old, and poor, and the beans had been made good payment for the stitching she’d done that week for the parson up the road. They belonged to her, to do with what was best.

Ach, if only her hands were not so weak, she’d have gotten it over and done with sooner. But a lilt of the spoon, a few beans at a time, was the most she could muster. She took some consolation in naming each bean as she ladled it into its doom.

This one is Ben, she crooned, Old Ben, for his chin looks much like my long-gone father’s.

This one is Terrence, like the neighbor’s little dog. See how it curls, like Terrence’s tail!

This one is Margaret, for I always liked that name, and ne’er had one to give it to.

It occurred to her, halfway through, that the naming of each bean only drew out its death ballet for longer, and that the beans may have already had their own names for themselves. Nonetheless, it brought her comfort, and so she kept along at it until the pot was full, and their sighs had quieted.

Cate Fricke
May 2014

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

017. The White Snake

*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 asked my dog today precisely what she thought of me. Be honest, I said. I won’t take offense.

I figured if anyone would tell me the truth, it would be her — am I generally a kind person? Do others appreciate my charisma, or am I simply annoying? A dog is an excellent judge of character. And as Ghandi said, you can tell a lot about a society by how they treat the weakest among them. As far as our society, me and the dog’s, she would probably be in a good position to let me know if I was on the right track, human-wise.

You smell like ham, she said.

Ok, I said. I’ll work on that.

No, I like that about you, she said, to clarify.

What else? I asked.

What else could there be? she retorted. Would you like me to sniff again?

No thanks, I said. I went outside. She didn’t follow me, and I remember thinking that she might regret that — a pair of squirrels were busy systematically investigating the fallen seed-pods in our yard, and the dog really has a thing for squirrels. I sat on the stoop and watched them. They seemed unconcerned by my presence. Maybe I could ask them, I thought. On the one hand, they didn’t really know me. But on the other, I’ve always been told that first impressions are the most important.

Hi there, I said to the squirrels.

They stopped their picking and stood straight up, bottle-brushed tails erect.

I’m Cate, I said.

They stared at me.

A bird hopped into the yard from the driveway and saw them, studied their stillness before looking to me.

You don’t really want to know what they have to say, the bird whispered.

I don’t? I asked.

The bird hopped closer. I held out my hand for it to alight, thinking at once both of Disney princesses, and bird mites.

They’re thinking that you smell like ham, the bird said, in a low, conspiratorial voice. And also that ham is delicious.

Cate Fricke
April 2014

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

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