Reading Grimm: Marriage and Emotional Labour Jan26

Reading Grimm: Marriage and Emotional Labour...

All fairy tales have a lesson, but I’m not sure what the moral in “The Singing, Soaring Lark” is besides “be a good person.” This tale is not actually about a lark; it’s about a young woman (the youngest and favourite daughter) whose father is tricked into trading her to a lion for a lark. This, as you would imagine, radically changes her life. The lion, it turns out, is a prince cursed to be a lion by day; no light can touch him. He and the young woman marry, and they live happily together sleeping by day and being awake by night. But, one day, the lion is touched by a ray of light “about the breadth of a hair,” and he is transformed into a dove. He tells his wife that he must fly across the world for seven years and that she must follow him, but that every seventh step he will let fall a drop of blood and a white feather. So here we have our beloved tropes: a favourite child, the contrast of red and white, a curse, and someone transformed into an animal. For the rest of the story, the young woman is looking for the prince. She receives help from the Sun and the Moon, who give her gifts to use when she needs them most, and the Night Wind and the South Wind, who give her information about where to find her husband. After battling a dragon that turns out to be an enchanted princess and wandering the wilderness some more, she breaks the spell and they ride off on a griffin, living happily ever after until the end of their days. Emotional labour—the work of managing feelings and expressions—is often considered “woman’s work” and is,...

Reading Grimm: Redefining Family Jan12

Reading Grimm: Redefining Family...

When I first read “Brother and Sister,” I was struck by how many familiar elements it contained that I knew from other fairy tales: siblings who are forced out on their own (like “Hansel and Gretel”); a wicked stepmother (like “Cinderella”) who is also a witch (like “Snow White”); that wicked stepmother also tries to usurp her stepchildren’s position with her own children (again, like “Cinderella”). Add in a little therianthropy (humans transforming into animals) and this odd fairy tale is a weird hodgepodge of tropes. But of all the familiar elements, it’s the portrayal of the domestic that strikes me as the most interesting. As noted folklorist Jack Zipes commented, fairy tales were never the sole domain of children; however a key aspect of fairy tales is an attempt to understand the complexities of the world. Only a superficial reading of these stories would say that home is safe and the outside world is dangerous and full of predators. In “Brother and Sister,” we see the strength of the familial bond between the main characters, but their home life is not safe. To escape the tyranny of their wicked stepmother, Brother and Sister leave their home to make their way into the world and, in essence, find their place in the world. In the broad strokes of fairy tales, stepmothers represent a disruption to the family unit. It’s a wholly unfair portrayal that still has negatively coloured stepparents, but as a sort of literary shorthand, it shows a family that looks whole on the surface with dysfunction just beneath. In the absence of a caring, nurturing home life, Brother and Sister embark on a search to find family. What’s most interesting to me is that although Sister marries the King and has a...

Reading Grimm: Mental Illness and “The Juniper Tree” Dec29

Reading Grimm: Mental Illness and “The Juniper Tree”...

Baking your murder victim into a pudding may not be the best way to dispose of the evidence, but that’s what we get in Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree.” In this story, a rich man and his beautiful wife love each other deeply, but they have no children even though the wife prays for it everyday. One day, while she is peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in their courtyard, she cuts her finger and blood falls on the snow. She sighs, “if I had but a child, as red as blood and as white as snow.” The juniper tree fills her with a sense of joy and comfort, and she feels that her wish will come true. But, eight months later she eats some juniper berries and becomes ill. One month after that, she has a baby boy and dies because she is filled with so much joy at the sight of him. She is buried beneath the juniper tree. The man marries another woman and they have a daughter. There is an immediate contrast between the boy’s biological mother—who essentially died from her own “goodness”—and the stepmother, who beats the boy because he stands in the way of her daughter receiving an inheritance. In order to get him our of the way, she kills him, but frames her daughter for the murder and then bakes the boy into black puddings (something more akin to a cake, for those who are unfamiliar with British colloquialisms for desserts), which she serves to the father when he returns home. The little girl, however, is so distraught that she collects the boy’s bones, wraps them in her best handkerchief, and places them beneath the juniper tree. There, the bones are turned into a bird,...

Reading Grimm: Old Women are Evil Dec08

Reading Grimm: Old Women are Evil...

The evil queen in Snow White. The old woman in Hansel and Gretel. The witch in The Little Mermaid. Cinderella’s stepmother. Are old ladies ever decent people in fairy tales? In The Old Woman in the Wood, a poor servant-girl is traveling with the family she serves, and robbers attack. Everyone dies except her, and she takes refuge under a tree. A dove gives her keys that open the tree and she is provided with food, a bed, and riches. The dove asks for a favour in return: that she enter a cottage where an old woman lives and steal a ring. The word “witch” or “hag” is not used at this point, and yet warning bells still go off in my head. In the fairy tales I’ve read, the old women, the stepmothers, the queens—they’re always evil. And my suspicions are confirmed when she turns out to be a “wicked witch” who had transformed a prince into the very tree the serving girl had taken shelter under. So why are so many old women typecast as evil? Maybe because, historically, mothers have had more influence on their children than fathers, and twisting that influence results in horrifying villains; someone who should be a nurturing role model turned into a psychotic murderer is terrifying indeed. Or maybe because women of power were a frightening thought to the patriarchy. Maybe they still are. Consider how much influence these characters have—they’re usually queens, can use magic, or both. And yet they’ve become corrupt, often attacking the young protagonist in order to protect something they value, acting out of vanity or jealousy. Is that just what men expected to happen if a woman came to power without a prince by her side? Though in this story’s case, the witch...

Reading Grimm: It’s Always a Woman’s Fault Oct20

Reading Grimm: It’s Always a Woman’s Fault...

You’d think if you learned your father wanted to kill you, you’d be a little upset with him. But in the Grimms’ fairy tale, “The Twelve Brothers,” the boys aren’t mad at their dad when he builds twelve coffins in preparation for slaughtering his sons. For some reason, that’s what he decides to do if his thirteenth child is a girl, so that “her riches may be the greater, and the kingdom fall to her alone.” Since their mom isn’t completely behind this plan, she warns them of their sister’s birth and they flee to an enchanted house in the woods and live there for ten years. The misogyny is clear—since they love their father, they’d rather blame the sister for being born. In fact, they’d rather blame all women, saying, “Shall we suffer death because of a girl! We swear to be revenged; wherever we find a girl we will shed her blood.” The inequality doesn’t end there, though. After they meet her and let her live, her goodness is demonstrated through housekeeping and her ability to keep everything “beautifully white and clean” (if you remember from my last post on “The Maiden Without Hands,” cleanliness equals goodness). Then she decides to pick twelve lovely lilies to give to her brothers as presents, but upon plucking them her brothers are turned into ravens. Thus, their horrifying fate is her fault. Again. You’d think if you learned your father wanted to kill you, you’d be a little upset with him. In order to transform them back, she has to stay silent for seven years. In fairy tales, it’s always the women who have to stay silent and still (e.g. “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”). And it’s always the men who are turned into animals (e.g. “The Princess...

Reading Grimm: Goodness Heals Disability Oct06

Reading Grimm: Goodness Heals Disability...

In the Grimm fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands,” a miller makes a deal with an evil wizard, accidentally promising his daughter in exchange for great wealth. The daughter is described as a “modest and beautiful maiden, and lived in innocence and obedience to her parents for three years, until the day came on which the wicked wizard was to claim her.” Weirdly enough, the wizard is unable to take her because she has physically cleaned herself. The wizard (or the devil, on some versions), commands her father to keep water away from her so she cannot wash her hands, but because she cries over them, they are washed clean and the wizard has no power over her. Horrifyingly, he then tells her father to cut off his daughter’s hands, which he does (what?). But even that doesn’t help because “the poor girl had wept so bitterly over the stumps of her arms that they were as clean and white as ever.” This idea of clean hands comes from taking Psalm 24:3-4 quite literally—”Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” Goodness, innocence, and cleanliness seem to be lumped together here; the most interesting part if this tale is the notion that goodness should be rewarded, and those who are good will not remain disabled. Seriously. After some time wandering in the wilderness, the girl marries a king who makes her hands out of silver. Then there are a series of misunderstandings that cause her to flee for her life and live in a fairy’s cottage for many years, where she is...