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Reading Grimm: Selfishness begets Fear} ?> People in fairy tales really don’t trust each other.
Husbands assume their wives are lying and listen to the advice of murderous mothers-in-laws, a bird believes his housemates’ are overworking him, and a father plans to kill his sons for fear his daughter won’t be taken care of—just to name a few. Oftentimes, selfishness lies at the heart of this mistrust, and characters try to hold on to their desire so tightly they are constantly afraid of losing what they have.
In the fairy tale “The White Cat” (the Grimm version is known as “Cherry” or “The Frog Bride”), a king has three sons “so clever and brave” he is afraid they will take over his kingdom before he dies, so he gives them an impossible task to perform. Whoever succeeds will receive the crown.
I can’t help wondering why the king is so scared about losing his throne. If people in power are so constantly afraid of losing it that they spend all their time worrying, what’s the point? He’s actually inviting resentment from his sons by pitting them against each other, though they don’t seem troubled by his decree.
While the youngest son is on his quest, which is to find the smallest and most beautiful dog in the land, he stumbles upon an enchanted mansion in a forest and there he meets a talking white cat. He decides to stay with her because he likes spending time with her so much. When the year is almost up, she reminds him that he still has a task to complete, then provides him with a dog tiny enough to fit into an acorn. The son presents it to the king, who has nothing “to say against the beauty of the little dog.” But the king doesn’t want to give up the crown. He tells his sons they must prove their skills further, and sends them on a second quest. The youngest prince’s story repeats itself, and the cat grants him “a piece of linen so fine that it would pass through the eye of a needle” to please the king. But the king breaks his promise again.
The final task is (of course) finding the most beautiful princess to marry. When the youngest son tells the white cat about this task, she presents him with a sword and instructs him to cut off her head. The youngest son is appalled and doesn’t want to harm the cat, but eventually obeys and a beautiful princess sprouts out of the cat’s skin. The youngest son returns home and presents the princess to his father, who declares him the winner. The white cat—er, maiden—reveals she has six kingdoms of her own (plot twist) and she wouldn’t dare “take from you a throne you fill so worthily.” So she provides two kingdoms for the other brothers to rule, marries the youngest brother, and all of them live happily ever after.
Why is the king being rewarded for his distrust and fear of losing his position? The story doesn’t say, and as we’ve noticed in previous fairy tales, men’s selfish actions are considered perfectly proper or are not commented on at all (remember the king who almost burned his innocent wife at the stake? She was fine with it).
I wish Princess Leia was thrown into this story, because she would know just how to handle the king: “the more you tighten your grip . . . the more [kingdoms] will slip through your fingers.” Unlike the white cat, she would definitely question the king’s worthiness to rule.
I don’t expect selfish people who think they deserve wealth and royalty actually make good kings. But then, I don’t expect a cat to make a good queen either, so what do I know?
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