Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2014 The Two Brothers

Two Brothers Kay Neilsen Kay Nielsen

A Tale of Tails

“Here is a story you might enjoy,” I address Johannes. He sits at “his” spot on the window seat, decidedly not looking at me.  I encourage a response. “It has lots of talking animals.”


Silence follows. His tail twitches. “Any cats?”

“Ahhh—a lion.”

“A close relative, evolutionary-wise. I’ll listen.”

I read to him Grimms’ TheTwo Brothers.

There are two brothers, one rich and one poor. The poor brother captures a golden bird, which the rich brother buys from him, knowing its magical property of granting gold coins. However, it is the poor brother’s twin sons who accidently acquire the gift. Jealous, the rich brother advises the poor brother that his sons are in league with the devil and must be driven out.

Abandoned, the youths are taken in by a huntsman, who apprentices them in his trade. Eventually, as huntsmen, they venture into the world.

When they are about to shoot a hare, the creature pleads for it life promising them two of its offspring. The two bunnies are so cute, the huntsmen do not have the heart to kill them. The same thing happens with a fox, a wolf, a bear, and a lion.

Johannes purrs with satisfaction at the mention of the lion.

The brothers part ways, leaving a knife, given to them by the master huntsman, stuck into a tree, knowing that if one side or the other rusts, then that brother is in danger.

The story follows one of them and his half of the animal entourage. They come to a kingdom ravaged by a dragon that yearly demands a virgin as sacrifice. The last virgin left is the king’s own daughter.

Johannes grins. “I bet they marry young in that town.”

I ignore him.

On the hill where the princess is to be given over to the dragon, stands a church. In the church the huntsman finds three goblets of wine, and written instructions on where to find and use the sword to defeat the dragon. When the princess arrives, he secures her in the church. He and his animal companions face and defeat the seven-headed dragon. The huntsman cuts out the tongues and wraps them in the kerchief of the princess. Exhausted by battle, they all fall asleep.

A marshal, left behind to observe the proceedings, sneaks up, cuts off the huntsman’s head, terrorizes and carries off the princess, then declares to the king that he defeated the dragon.

The resourceful animals restore their master with a magic plant. Knowing nothing of the marshal, the huntsman assumes the princess betrayed him, and it is some time before he learns of the marshal’s treachery.

On the day of the wedding between the princess and the marshal, the huntsman returns to make his claim. The marshal has the seven dragon heads, but the huntsman has their tongues and the princess’s kerchief.

After the marriage, he is out hunting, when he is waylaid by a witch and turned into stone. His twin brother chances to check the knife and finds one side is rusted. He follows his brother’s path and is mistaken for him when he gets to the kingdom. He keeps the secret, hoping it will help in his search. That evening, retiring to bed with his brother’s wife, he lays his sword between them.

The next day he goes hunting and comes across the witch, but is not fooled by her. He forces her to restore his brother. However, the revived brother, upon hearing the other brother spent a night with his wife, without a thought, cuts off his head. Regretting his action, he allows the animals to heal the wounds with the same magical plant used on him.

Upon his returning to the castle that evening, his wife asks him why he laid a sword between them the night before. The husband now truly understands the faithfulness of his brother.

“Well, what do you think of that?” I ask.

Johannes has nodded off. Well, it is a long tale.

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2014 The Two Brothers


Why Two?

I lounge in the comfort of Augustus’ testing room, a space replete with properly-made comfy chairs. Augustus’ newest blend is made of two different types of Cavendish, a mixture he calls Gemini.

“You read The Two Brothers you say.” Augustus tamps his pipe and relights. “What did Thalia think of it?”

“Actually, I read it to her cat.”

Augustus smiles at my silliness. “And what did her cat think of it?”

“He fell asleep.”

“His loss. That story is a personal favorite.” Augustus settles into his overstuffed chair. “There is an oddity about it that I can’t quite put my finger on.”

“Something about the two brothers theme?” I suggest.

“Exactly. There are multiple sets of brothers: the rich brother and the poor brother, the twin brothers, then the animal sibling pairs of rabbits, foxes, wolves, bears and lions. That’s seven sets of brothers, if you’ll accept my assumption that the animals are all males. The story does not tell us that, but terms like lioness or vixen are not used.

“Which,” he contemplates, “makes the only females in the story a princess and a witch. Women are not fairly represented in this tale, but it is interesting that one is symbolic of good and the other of evil.”

Both our pipes have gone out, and the conversation ceases as we re-tamp. Augustus picks up his thread of thought as we settle in again.

“This is a story for and about men. ‘Brothers’—especially in its broader sense—is a term that resonates with us. Somehow, the incompatible notions of ‘camaraderie’ and ‘independence’ merge. The two brothers are devoted to each other, and yet part ways to pursue independent lives, leaving the knife stuck in the tree trunk to remain as their unbroken connection.

“The sibling animals are something of a masculine comic relief. After the battle with the seven-headed dragon, the huntsman needs to rest, and instructs the lion to stand guard. The lion, having done his part in the battle, also takes a nap, telling the bear to wake him up if something happens. The onus is passed from predator to predator to fall upon the rabbit, who is at the bottom of the food chain.

“When the marshal cuts off the huntsman’s head, the blame passes, in the same manner, onto the trembling shoulders of the rabbit. If that is not male thinking, then I don’t know my own sex.”

I chuckle, but look at my pipe, which has gone out again.

“Then,” pontificates Augustus, “there is the twin thing. Mark Twain identified our twin fascination, and used it in The Prince and the Pauper, as well as in Pudd’nhead Wilson.

“As a plot device, it is necessary in this fairy tale that the brothers are identical, but their identicalness is taken a step farther by their having the same set of animal companions. I am not sure what to make of that.”

“Did you look at the Grimms’ notes on TheTwo Brothers?” I ask.

“Yes, they are fairly extensive. What caught my attention is the number of variants they cite in which the twins have unusual births, sometime immaculate.  Hmmm. My pipe’s gone out too. I must have used too much rum extract as casing.”

That’s what I like about this blend! I think to myself.

“I suspect,” says Augustus, cleaning out his pipe, “the Grimms were fond of this tale too. They were, after all, brothers.”

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: August 2014 The Two Brothers

Sigmunds Schwert (1889) by Johannes GehrtsSigmunds Schwert by Johannes Gehrts

Something Borrowed

The mantel clock in my study strikes twelve as I light my second bowl of Gemini. Beside me is a large box of wooden matches, and in my lap is Johannes, a surprising turn of fortune. I must allow myself to feel honored.

My mind wanders to the sky as I look out the bay windows, searching for the Gemini constellation, its two primary stars being Castor and Pollux, the twin huntsmen of Greek mythology.

Zeus put them into the constellation when Castor died and Pollux wished to share his own immortality with his mortal twin. Relationships in Greek mythology can get confusing. The ancient sources are not consistent about the births of these twins. Some have them both as mortal born, others as both divine. In the most popular version Castor is the son of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, and Leda, who is seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan, giving birth to Pollux at the same time as her mortal son.  I ran across a reference to a runaway version in which the twins are born from eggs along with their twin sisters, Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Many of the fairy-tale storylines come out of Greek mythology. Cupid and Psyche have been reworked and reformulated any number of times, Beauty and the Beast, and A Sprig of Rosemary, being two examples that jump to my mind.

But storytellers have been democratic in their theft. Any mythology is fair game.  In the Völsunga saga, the hero Sigurðr falls in love with the shieldmaiden Brynhildr, but ends up marrying Gudrun, daughter of the sorceress Grimhild. Grimhild’s son, Gunnar, wishes to marry Brynhild, but cannot penetrate the ring of fire that surrounds her castle. It is Sigurðr, in the form of Gunnar, who accomplishes the task to claim Brynhildr for Gunnar. Sigurðr spends three nights in the castle with Brynhildr, but lays his sword between them. Sigurðr soon returns to his true form, and Brynhildr marries Gunnar.

It doesn’t turn out well when Brynhildr finds out the truth. In a love/hate rage, she tells Gunnar that Sigurðr did sleep with her. Gunnar causes Sigurðr’s death and Brynhildr throws herself on the hero’s funeral pyre.

Theft is not the only way to cobble together a story. Another method is intrusion, of which Christian thought is expert. The Grimms were Calvinists, and Wilhelm, in his revisions, would quickly replace pagan practices with Christian-themed devices. Angels appeared in later editions of the Grimm stories where mystical wisemen and wisewomen previously had a place.

However, in The Two Brothers, I sense the Christian intrusion comes from a more Catholic source. When the huntsman goes to the dragon’s mountain to save the princess, what should be there but a church. I know in my soul, some religious storyteller put that church on the dragon’s mountain.

There are three goblets on the altar, presumably filled with wine, and a note that says whoever drinks from the goblets will be the strongest man on earth, able to wield the sword buried under the threshold of the church.

Wilhelm, romantic that he was, intruded with divine beings. Here are the accouterments of ceremony. The goblets on the altar suggest the Communion wine, but three of them in connection with a sword? I suspect Catholic trappings are covering a pagan ritual.

Frankly, if I were to quaff three goblets of wine, I’d be feeling pretty invincible myself. I am thinking about some wine, but I have this cat in my lap. I would need to disturb Johannes to get a glass. Instead, I will content myself with tamping and relighting my pipe.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tales of the Month: July 2014 The Three Snake Leaves

Three Snake Leaves FordH. J. Ford


“What? Is that it?” Thalia is incredulous and indignant.

“Yes, I am afraid so.”

“I don’t like that story.” Thalia stalks off to bed with Teddy dragging behind.

I do like the story, but I shouldn’t expect a tale of infidelity to be a kid’s thing. What disturbs her is The Three Snake Leaves.

A poor, young soldier, through dint of senseless bravery, becomes the king’s favorite. More emotional than cautious, he falls in love with the king’s daughter.

The field for his pursuit is clear, given the princess’s declaration that she will marry no man who won’t agree to follow her to the grave, no matter when her death may occur, and she vows to do the same for her beloved.

He, she, and the king agree to the bargain, and the marriage soon follows. Her untimely death is not far behind.

Sitting in the crypt with his wife’s corpse, he stares at the four loaves of bread, four bottles of wine, and four candles provided to him. These he rations, but death slowly approaches.

As he sits, waiting for his demise, a snake slithers into the tomb, moving toward the body of his love. He leaps up, sword in hand, cutting the snake into pieces. Presently, another snake appears, departs, and returns with leaves in its mouth. These it places on the body of its companion, which wiggles out from under the leaves, and they slither away together.

The youth takes the leaves and puts them on the eyes and mouth of his wife, and she begins to breathe.

Returned to life, his wife unaccountably loses her love for her husband. On a sea voyage, she develops a passion for the ship’s captain. Together, they throw her husband overboard to his death.

His faithful servant lowers a small boat, retrieves his master’s body, and restores him to life with the snake leaves. Together they row for home, returning before the faithless wife.

The king gives his daughter enough time to incriminate herself, then sends her off with her captain-lover, in a boat bored with holes, to sink beneath the waves.

No surprise that Thalia is not enamored of this story, but not all stories collected by the Grimms were told for a youthful audience. The tales were as often told among women for women. This one, I will guess, was told as a cautionary tale.

Not for the first time, I sense a feminine mind behind a story, challenging my masculine outlook. The hero of this tale is not in charge of his fate. First, he throws himself at the feet of valor. Soon, through passion, he places himself at the behest of his wife’s will. He triumphs, through luck, only to be murdered at the hand of the one he saved, then saved himself by a servant. In the end, the king, not our hero, decides everyone’s fate.

Had the story reversed the role of the sexes, had a heroine agreed to her husband’s demand to follow him to the grave, had she saved him only to have him be ungrateful and pursue another woman, we would nod our heads, identifying a familiar theme.

With The Three Snake Leaves I am a little stunned at the princess’s boldness, and ultimately, the passive nature of the hero.

Plus, where have I heard this tale before? I think a conversation with Augustus is in order.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2014 The Three Snake Leaves

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Arion_on_a_Sea_Horse_(1855)William Adolphe Bouguereau


I stand at the door of Augustus’ shop, my hand on the latch, but my eyes on the sign that reads, “Closed. On Vacation.” My fingers, disbelieving, try the lock anyway. He goes on vacation this time every year and every year at this time I forget.

Deflated, I linger on the sidewalk. Across the street, in bold lettering on a plate-glass window I see, “Serious Books, New and Used, Melissa Serious, Proprietor.”

I have purpose again. As i enter the shop, a young red-haired woman, sitting behind the counter, gives me a pleasant nod and returns to her reading. I browse, noting the rather strange arrangement. The new books are not up front and the old in back, but are intermixed by subject. Simple handwritten signs list the subject headings: Literature (by far the largest section), Philosophy, Science, Religion, etcetera, but no signs for Romance, Mystery, or Self-help.

“No Self-help?” I query aloud from the back of the store.

“I don’t cater to the helpless,” she calls back, not looking up.

I come to the counter, “And no Romance. I’ll take it you’re not romantic.”

“Oh, I can be very romantic, as long as the subject is nineteenth-century Romantics.

“Excellent,” I say. “Have you Margaret Hunt’s translation of Grimm with the notes?”

“Oh, hard to come by. I can do a search. I am tenacious and can locate most titles within a month.”

“Good. Please do so.”

“That work is also available through Internet Archive,” she suggests.

“My dear, you’re not going to sell books by referring customers to the web.”

She fixes me with her green eyes. “You are the sort who wants a book in hand.”

She has me pegged.

As she takes my information for the book search, I notice she is reading a Penguin edition of Herodotus’ The Histories. The page is propped open with a glass paperweight to the section on the musician Arion. That’s where I heard the story before.

Melissa notices my wonderment.

“I am standing here,” I explain, pointing to her book, “realizing the story of Arion is the last half of The Three Snake Leaves.”

“Oh?” She picks up her book and reads aloud. Her contralto voice transports me. In this tale, Arion, a  musician at the court of King Periander, the ancient Greek tyrant ruler of Corinth, is robbed by the sailors on the ship that is carrying him home. He is given the choice of burial at sea or burial on land. Stalling, he offers them a song. The music attracts a dolphin, which, when Arion casts himself into the sea, carries him off. The sailors believe Arion has drowned. Arion returns to Corinth before the sailors appear, and King Periander lets the sailors falsely declare they buried Arion, revealing their deceit.

Melissa then goes to her Literature section and returns with Jack Zipes’ translation of Grimm.

“You don’t have a Children’s section, either,” I comment.

“I have plenty of children’s books, they are all under Literature.” She reads aloud The Three Snake Leaves much to my enjoyment.

“Yes,” she contemplates when she finishes reading. “The difference is the role of a woman—and not a woman to serve as a role model I must add—which put a different light on the moral. Instead of dealing with dishonesty, we witness unfaithfulness.

“Nonetheless, I feel sympathy for her. The woman she is at the start of the story is not the woman she is by the end. The princess suffers a loss of morals in her resurrection, assuring her return to death’s grip.”

I remain quiet as Melissa thinks, her hand to her chin.

“The hero,” she continues, “also is brought back to life by the snake leaves, but we hear nothing of a change in him. Nor do we hear a word from, nor do we really see, the captain.

“No, this story is not about the protagonist, the young man, it is about her.”

“Then, it is a woman’s story,” I conclude.

Melissa’s green eyes flicker. “Yes, yes it is.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2014 The Three Snake Leaves

Rod_of_Asclepius2Rod of Asclepius


I can see the light of the moon washing over the enchanted forest through the bay windows of my study, prompting me to engage in an evening of late night-researching.

The two snakes in The Three Snake Leaves bring to mind the caduceus, the staff entwined with two snakes, carried by Hermes. Commentators state that the wand could wake the sleeping and put the awakened to sleep. Placed round the dying, death would be gentle; around the dead, the wand would return them to life. But the same commentators warn that the caduceus is confused with the Rod of Asclepius, which is one snake curled around a staff, the emblem of the Greek god Asclepius, the deity associated with healing and medicine. These two items make a suggestive muddle.

I follow Melissa’s suggestion and go online to find Margaret Hunt’s translation of the Grimms’ notes, although I look forward to having the Hunt translation on my shelf.

The notes mention two German sources from which the Grimms drew the tale, but speak more about its possible Greek origin, the story of Polyeidos and Glaucus. The seer Polyeidos (from Cornith just like Arion interestingly enough) is commanded by King Minos of Crete to return the youthful prince Glaucus to life. The young Glaucus has been found dead by Polyeidos, under extremely strange circumstances, in a barrel of honey down in the King’s wine cellar.

Minos imprisons the seer with the body of his son in the wine cellar until the seer can conduct a miracle. A snake crawls into the cellar and Polyeidos kills it. The companion snake appears, disappears, and returns with an herb to restore the deceased snake. Polyeidos uses the herb to restore the child.

The notes go on to cite the Norse saga of Asmund and Aswit, in which two friends swear to be as brothers and to follow each other to the grave. Aswit takes ill, dies, and Asmund holds to his promise, but takes provisions with him into the tomb.

What the Grimms don’t mention is that Asmund ends up wrestling with Aswit’s vampire-like ghost every night until Swedish grave robbers inadvertently release him. I find this not unlike the princess’s turn of nature after her passing through death, to become something of a monster.

I light my pipe and turn my comfy chair to look out the bay window at the forest, ghostly illuminated in moonbeams. What is this process of cobbling together pieces of other myths and legends, to come up with a story recreated by its teller?

Or, am I trying to give authorship to fairy tales? Likely there is no one author. Maybe these stories are not assembled by one teller, but rather are an accretion, added to by many tellers. That makes them the creation of a group mind. What do these tales then say about us? Have we created them in our own image?

This story, The Three Snake Leaves, draws from the stories of Arion, Polyeidos and Glaucus, Asmund and Aswit, or perhaps the variants they generated—sources in which the feminine aspect is missing. But in this tale, the princess’s will pushes the story forward. I can hear the mind of a single soul, lost somewhere in time, imbuing the plot with angst, a personal fear, projecting it forward, into my present. There is a She speaking to me.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2014 Old Woman in the Wood



I creep on tiptoe down the hall, returning from the linen closet with a fresh towel for my evening bath. Passing Thalia’s room I hear her piping voice. From its cadence I know she is reading aloud, obviously to Teddy.

If I am not mistaken, she reads The Old Woman in the Wood. I haven’t thought of that tale for a long time, and listen with my ear to the door to recall how it goes.

A poor serving girl travels with her masters into the depths of a large forest, where they are set upon by robbers. Jumping from the carriage, she saves herself while all the others are murdered. Friendless and helpless, she sits under a tree and awaits her fate.

A white dove appears with a golden key in its beak, telling her to open the lock on a certain tree. More keys and other trees provide the girl with all her needs.

The girl lives a contented and quiet life, until the bird makes a request. The girl is to go into the hut of the Woman of the Wood. The old woman will address her, but the girl is not to answer, but rather go into the next room where there is a table piled with ornate rings. She is to find a plain band and return with it.

She does as the bird instructs, and the old woman is powerless to stop her, but  the girl cannot find a plain band among all the elaborate rings on the table. Catching the old woman creeping from the room carrying a bird cage, the girl gives chase, snatching away the cage. In it is a bird with a plain band in its beak.

With the band, she returns to her forest bower where one of the trees wraps it limbs around her and transforms into a handsome prince. Other trees turn into the prince’s entourage. The prince explains the witch turned him and his men into trees, but that he could also be a dove. They all go off to his kingdom where the girl and the prince will be married.

“I like the golden keys that open the tree trunks,” I hear Thalia say. “What about you?”

A little voice answers, “I like the table of rings.”

That can’t be Teddy, can it?

On my knees, I peek through the keyhole. Framed by the aperture, there is Thalia and, in front of her, the fairy.

“Oh,” Thalia claps her hands. “When the tree hugs her, I like that too.”

The fairy turns her head, her black hair floating about, and peers directly at me, her eyebrow raised. Seeing myself through her eyes, I am embarrassed. Peeking through a keyhole upon two innocents—whatever am I doing?

In the bath, I put aside my shame, and let the story images return to me.

What of the golden keys to the locks in the trees?

Why does not speaking to the old woman deny her power over the girl?

What of the table covered with rings?

What is the significance of the birds?

I may need to visit Augustus.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2014 Old Woman in the Wood

Old Woman in the WoodArthur Rackham

Trees and Keys

Ah yes, Old Woman in the Wood,” says Augustus of my inquiry. “A personal favorite and one that has not gotten the recognition it deserves.”

The whitish smoke and rich vanilla odor of “Fairy’s Favorite” fills the air of his testing room, replete with comfy chairs, where he induces customers to try new blends. I can tell by the sparkle in his eyes I need only sit back and let him carry on.

“It is,” he says, “one of the most charming tales in the Grimm collection.”

“Charm?” I am taken back. “Her companions are all murdered in the opening scene.”

“Technically, yes. Symbolically, no.”

I rotate my hand to indicate he needs to explain this one.

“You, of course, recall Hansel and Gretel, in which the evil stepmother casts out the children who fall under the control of the evil witch. When they destroy the evil witch, they return home to find the evil stepmother has died too.

“The same symbolic connection is here in this story between the entourage that is murdered by the robbers at the start and the entourage the serving girl restores at the end.”

I am left nodding approval. “What about the trees and the golden keys?”

“Aren’t they a lovely combination?” Augustus re-tamps his pipe and lights it again.

“A striking image,” I agree.

“Trees have a mysterious appeal. Norse mythology has Yggdrasil, the world tree. Magical baobab trees turn up in African tales. Tolkien took advantage of our fascination with tree mythos when he put the Ents into his trilogy,

The Old Woman in the Wood takes place deep in a forest, a place outside of the norm. Here resides enchantment. In this story the prince can transform into a dove for a short time each day. The trees magically provide the girl all of her needs. Enchanted beings have powers of  enchantment they did not have as humans, not unlike the flounder in The Fisherman and his Wife, who was also an enchanted prince. He had the power to grant wishes.”

“I hadn’t truly noticed that,” I confess. “And the golden keys?”

“Although trees and keys are associated in this story, they are of two different orders. Trees are living entities. Keys are inanimate and instrumental. A key never transforms into a prince. It remains a key.

“The keys given to the girl unlock the trees to provide her with food, clothes, and shelter. The image of tree trunks equipped with keylocks waiting to be opened, I find appealing. More often, keys unlock a forbidden room or box, and dire events follow.”

Augustus considers for a moment. “On the other hand there is The Golden Key.”

“I haven’t heard that one.”

“It’s deep in the book, tale number 200. It’s about a boy who finds a golden key on the forest floor. He reasons that where there is a key there might be a lock. He soon discovers a little iron chest. He puts the key into the lock, and the story ends with:

…he began turning it, and now we must wait until he unlocks the casket completely and lifts the cover. That’s when we’ll learn what wonderful things he found.”

Other customers enter the shop and Augustus rises to serve them. I must bide my time to ask the other questions.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2014 Old Woman in the Wood


Bird with Ring


The veil of “Fairy’s Favorite” rises up around Augustus and me once again as we relight our pipes.

I speak first, “The dove asks the girl to bring him a ring from the hut of the woman in the wood. Quite clearly he instructs her not to speak to the witch. I sense there is something to that, which is not explained until we see the witch cannot stop her.”

“Rules of the game.”

“Rules of the game?” He is confusing me again.

“Fairy tales will often telegraph the action of their story by having a ‘helper’ explain the ‘rules of the game,’ as I like to call it, to the main character. For example, in The Twelve Dancing Princesses the old woman of the wood (of that story not ours) explains to the kind old soldier how to use the magic cloak to spy on the princesses and also warns him not to drink the wine offered by the eldest princess. The listener follows the old soldier and, with satisfaction, watches him act out the advice and succeed.

“In The Golden Bird the fox tells the young prince what he will see and what he must do at each of the castles they encounter. Unfortunately, the young prince is not good at playing by the rules and the listener sees the consequences, which are his continuing sorrows.

“It may be redundant to have the action that will happen predicted, but the interest for the listener comes in when the protagonist goes beyond what was instructed, such as the old soldier having to use his wits after following the princesses underground, or what follows when the protagonist neglects the rules, as happens between the fox and the prince.”

Another customer comes into the store, but Augustus is too intent on pursuing his point to acknowledge him.

“In our story, the girl, like the old soldier, does as she is told, but cannot find the ring. The dove’s instructions have failed her. However, she is clever enough to recognize that the witch is trying to sneak off with the prize.”

“What do you make of the bird in the cage with the ring in its beak?” I know I only have moments before the mercantile side of Augustus’s brain takes over.

“Birds are always fair game in these wonder tales. Look at some of the titles: The Raven, The Seven Ravens, The Six Swans, The Golden Bird, The Golden Goose.

“The image of the bird in the cage with the plain band in its beak is haunting, asking us to read significance into it. Is this bird the soul of the prince the witch captured and by returning the ring is the girl returning the soul to the prince?

“That explanation is tempting, but why then did the dove expect the ring to be on the table, hidden among other rings?

“Reading into these stories a clear set of symbols—logically organized, which by understanding we lift the shroud to see the secret code underlying the tale—is in itself a fairy tale.

“Trust me, these images are meant to convey only a sense, however surreal, of connections between elements in the story. To convey a sense, not to make sense of … What can I do for you, sir!”

I am sure there is more intended symbolism in not speaking to the witch, the table of rings, and the bird in the cage than Augustus is allowing. I’ll keep looking, even if it is through keyholes.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2014 Virgin Mary’s Child

Marys-child2 Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Good Heavens

This evening Wilhelm appeared in my study again. He does from time to time. Tonight he is content to ignore me, which is not unusual. His biography leads me to understand both he and his brother Jacob were diligent scholars, not easily distracted.

Wilhelm busies himself at my table, writing and occasionally staring off into the interior of the room. Thalia’s cat, Faithful Johannes, curls up at the end of the table.

Feigning to need a book from the shelves behind Wilhelm, I steal a glance over his shoulder. At the top of the manuscript he works on, I see the title Marienkind. Beside that lies the 1857 edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, open to the same story. Hasn’t he worked that one to death?

The English translation of the title is The Virgin Mary’s Child. The ever-misfortunate woodcutter is approached by the Virgin Mary, who offers to lift from him the burden of his young daughter. The girl is given over to her without a question. The child grows up in heaven with little angels as her playmates. When the child reaches the age of fourteen, Mary entrusts her with the keys to the thirteen doors of heaven. Allowed to enter twelve of the rooms, in each of which she finds an apostle, the thirteenth room she is forbidden to enter. As with all forbidden rooms in fairy tales it must be opened. She barely puts the key in the lock, when it flings open, terrifying the girl with the sight of the Holy Trinity.

Noting her fear, the Virgin Mary asks if she has entered the forbidden room. The girl denies this three times. Mary takes away her power of speech, and casts her from heaven, to be imprisoned in a forest wilderness. The girl lives in a hollow tree, surviving on roots, nuts, and berries. Piece by piece, clothing falls away, leaving her cloaked in her own hair.

After some years, a king finds this remarkable maiden, takes her from the forest prison, and marries her. On the birth of their child, the Virgin Mary reappears to the girl, now a queen, asking that she repent of her sin. When the queen refuses, Mary departs with the child. The pattern repeats itself for two more births, the queen refusing to confess. The people believe the queen has eaten her own children. Since she cannot speak in her own defense, she is condemned to be burned at the stake.

Only as the flames rise around her, does she repent. Mary appears in a blaze of glory, returns the children, loosens the queen’s tongue, and declares, “Whoever repents a sin and confesses it will be forgiven.”

As I watch Wilhelm scribbling away, I can’t help but suspect he has tampered with this tale rather than simply recordingjjn it. When there is a Christian gloss on the Grimms’ tales it can often be traced back to Wilhelm—to whom Jacob gave primary responsibility for the collection after the first edition—and is not a product of the teller of the source tale.

A self-evident example appears in the Grimms’ two versions of The Girl Without Hands. In the 1812 edition the hands are restored when the heroine wraps her arms around a certain tree. By 1857, the heroine is being attended to by an angel, during which time her hands grow back.

I need to keep in mind that the Grimms were, in their scholarship as well as in their worldview, romantics of the German Romantic Movement. The science of folklore study had only begun to develop. In addition, the Grimms were appealing to a larger audience than fellow scholars. They needed to make the stories acceptable to children, according to the standards of the time. Heavy-handed Christianity was acceptable.

I see Faithful Johannes curled up on the table, but Wilhelm has disappeared. I wonder where he goes when he isn’t here. I’ll suppose the deceased can be reclusive, and certainly they are free to make their own schedule.

Your thoughts?


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