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Reading Grimm: Don’t Follow the (Blue) Light} ?>
Making a deal with darkness never seems like a good idea, but in Grimm’s “The Blue Light,” the action is rewarded and even considered praiseworthy.
“The Blue Light” is a fairy tale about a soldier whose king releases him from service due to his “many wounds.” Unable to earn a living, the soldier requests lodging at the home of a witch. She agrees—if the soldier does as she wishes, giving the story a deal-with-the-devil spin reminiscent of Esau in the Bible, who sold his birthright for a meal.
The witch sends the soldier down a well to retrieve a magical blue light, intending to trap him there once he hands her the lantern. The soldier guesses her scheme, however, so the witch releases the rope and drops him into the well, light and all. The soldier, assuming his end has come, sulks for a while before deciding to smoke his pipe. He uses the witch’s lantern to light the pipe, again demonstrating his folly by using the resources of a witch.
In a strange twist of fate, his smoking summons a magical dwarf, much like a genie in a lamp. The dwarf tells him, “‘I must do everything you bid me,’” and the soldier doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation. Not only does he use the dwarf to escape from the well, but he also steals the witch’s gold and has the witch hung.
Fairy tale tradition might justify theft and revenge aimed at an evil person, but the soldier doesn’t stop there. Blaming the king for his problems, the soldier has the dwarf kidnap the king’s daughter while she’s asleep and makes her clean for him, thinking this will humiliate the king. This happens three times before the soldier is caught and condemned—“though he had done nothing wicked,” because apparently the Brothers Grimm didn’t consider theft, forced servitude, and revenge to be wicked. On the way to his execution, the soldier summons the dwarf, who kills the judge and frightens the king into giving the soldier both his kingdom and his daughter.
I’m a strong advocate of happy endings, but this one troubles me because the soldier is more villainous than heroic. His initial plight draws my sympathy, but he seeks a solution from the wrong source: a witch. Making a deal with darkness, no matter the reason, will always lead to wicked paths. The more the soldier relies on the witch’s magic, the more evil he becomes until, in the end, he’s no better than she was.
It’s implied that the soldier’s wicked actions are acceptable because he was once mistreated. But when heroes use evil methods to “pay back” the villains, the dividing line between hero and villain disappears and the story becomes nothing more than two characters trying to get what they want. Heroes are unrealistic if they don’t have flaws, but if they don’t also choose to be “good” even when it’s hard, can we call them heroes in the first place?
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