Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes

Fathful John Crane Walter Crane


I am reading Faithful Johannes to Thalia this evening in honor of her new cat of the same name. She said Johannes followed her home from kindergarten, but I think he “followed” in her arms. I saw her carrying him into the house. Thalia and Teddy are in my lap, of course; Johannes has taken to the window seat overlooking the enchanted forest.

In Faithful Johannes the king, on his deathbed, calls for his faithful servant and puts upon him the onus of counseling the unreliable prince. The king gives Faithful Johannes the castle keys with the injunction not to let the prince into one particular room. In this room is a portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof. If the prince sees the portrait he will fall in love and no good will likely come of it.

“Oh, oh,” says Thalia. We all see it coming.

After the king dies, Johannes gives the new king a tour of the castle and all its wealth, avoiding the chamber with the portrait. Unfortunately, the new king notices and demands to see what is there. Faithful Johannes tries to dissuade him, but must relent. The king sees the portrait and falls in love as the old king predicted.

“Oh, oh,” says Thalia. Johannes on the window seat blinks. Teddy, stuffed between Thalia and me, stares button-eyed.

The king entreats Faithful Johannes to come up with a plan to win the princess. Disguised as merchants, they sail to her home and trick her into boarding the ship to see their wonderful golden wares. As she marvels at golden merchandise, they cast off, abducting her. The king reveals his identity and his love for her, and she agrees to marry him.

On the return trip Johannes listens to three ravens flying about and learns from them that the king must avoid three traps if he wishes to enjoy his life with his bride. The king must not ride the red horse waiting for him on the shore when they arrive home; he must not wear the wedding clothes laid out for him; and when his queen suddenly falls down and appears to be dead, someone must suck three drops of blood from her right breast. Further, if Johannes speaks of these things he will turn to stone.

Johannes shoots the red horse and burns the wedding clothes, giving no explanation. But it is too much for the king when Johannes sucks the blood from the queen’s breast. Johannes is condemned to death.

Before he is to be hung on the gallows, Johannes redeems himself by telling the king of the ravens’ words and promptly turns to stone. Full of remorse the king keeps the statue in the royal bedroom.

One day, after twin boys have been born to the king, the statue speaks, telling the king he can restore Johannes by rubbing the statue with the blood of the twin boys’ severed heads.

Thalia squirms in my lap as the king kills his sons to restore his faithful servant. Johannes rewards the king’s faithfulness by restoring the boys to life.

“Whew,” says Thalia.

When she and Teddy wander off to bed followed by the four-footed Johannes, I reflect on the tale. Why was the portrait in the room? Who set the three traps? What is the significance of rubbing the statue with blood?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tales of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes


The Cat

While I ponder, weak and weary, over many a quaint and the curious volume of forgotten lore, Johannes returns to the study. He jumps up onto the edge of a table and strikes the pose of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet I have seen in statues. We regard each other for some minutes.

“You can talk, can’t you?” I inquire.

“Of course,” he responds.

“How delightful! What did you think of your namesake’s story?”

“Rather little.”


“I am indebted to Thalia for recognizing my worth and bringing me up to my proper social standing, leaving behind me the alley. But as to the name she chose to call me, I must object.”


“If I were to change Faithful Johannes into an animal he would be a dog.” He stretches out the word “dooog.” “Not someone after whom I wish to be named.”

“What is Johannes’s failing?”

“His unwarranted faithfulness; neither the old nor the new king shows any reason for him to be faithful other than their ownership of him.

“He’s a working dog too. First the old king gives him the task of minding the unruly new king. The new king burdens him with devising a plan to get the girl, which leads Johannes to saving the new king three times, ending with his temporary demise at the hands of the king.”

“But,” I object, “Johannes’ faithfulness is repaid when the king willingly sacrifices his sons to bring back the servant he wronged.”

“Perhaps. A fairly cheap price to pay. The king could always have another litter.”

Johannes licks the back of his paw and draws it across his face. I continue.

“Consider the story’s context, being told at a time when there existed a large serving class. Everyone understood the master/servant relationship and I doubt many questioned it. To tell a story where the servant bests the master might seem a little seditious.”

“Doesn’t make Faithful Johannes any less a dog. I’ll grant he did have magical powers that the kings did not.”

“Yes, I thought that unusual. Typically it is royalty who occupy the magical corner in the story.”

“And he listened to the advice of creatures.”

“Ah, the ravens. Thalia has an affinity for ravens. They come up in a number of stories in which they provide hidden secrets for the ears of those who need to hear them. I suspect the folk memory of their mystical significance goes back to shamanistic origins. What is your take on the ravens?”

“I’d eat them if I could catch them.”

“I meant their part in the story.”

“Well, besides acting like a dog, Johannes is also an eavesdropper. He overheard the ravens talking; the ravens weren’t talking to him, but rather among themselves.”

“You’re being hard on the poor man. I sensed he was a player in a struggle between unseen forces. A beneficial force led the ravens to him to warn of the traps being set by a malicious force. There is an undercurrent beneath the story’s inexplicable events.

“Take the portrait in the…”

Johannes jumps from the table, landing soft-pawed on the rug, and struts out the study door. Whether he heard the clatter of a dish, bringing to mind the possibility of food, or he felt himself finished with our conversation, I don’t know. Talking to him will be, I surmise, difficult. A raven might be a better conversationalist.

Your thoughts?

PS. My thanks and apologies to Edgar Allan Poe for the opening line.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2014 Faithful Johannes




I amble today in the enchanted forest, my mind wandering further than my legs carry me, though never far from Faithful Johannes. Three questions float about like the smoke from my pipe.

First: Why was the portrait in the room? Why did the old king give over a chamber to house a portrait of a princess he knew might waylay his son? These are obvious, logical questions, not answered in the story, nor should they be answered. They are the wrong questions.

The trick word is “logical.” Fairy tale logic is not the real-world logic of Aristotle, but its own poetic logic. Poetic logic makes the same surreal connections as dreams do until we wake up and the sense of it vanishes.

My questions are better served if I start with the forbidden room, which appears in many stories. The contents of the room take two forms. In one form the room holds a horror beyond endurance, often rotting, severed body parts. Good fare for Halloween.

In the other form we find a portrait, a book, or another item of interest¸ in itself not distressing, but having a profound effect on someone in the story. In our case, finding the portrait in the forbidden room is the inciting incident. The portrait points to the king’s destiny.

The story assumes the girl in the portrait is alive, well, and still looks like her picture. Real-world logic would question the age of this art work. This is not necessary with poetic logic.

I cross the stepping stones of the rivulet that flows quietly through the forest.

My second question: Who set the three traps for the king? Again, the story does not expect us to ask what fiend sent the red horse, laid out the wedding clothes, or caused the queen to collapse.

I want to surmise unseen forces afoot, beneficial and malignant beings using the people in Johannes’s world like pieces on a chessboard. We have kings and a queen, and Johannes could be a pawn. But the story does not beg an explanation.

That Johannes overhears the ravens and just happens to understand animal speech is far too convenient until we put the event in the context of poetic logic.

I sit on a fallen log; tap out, and refill my pipe. Question three: What is the significance of rubbing the statue with blood? The motif appears in a variant cited by the Grimms in their notes to Children’s and Household Tales, beside the version they collected from Dorothea Viehmann. (One must be cautious with the Grimms; they were not above inventing things for the sake of a good story, but this is not one of them.)

I want to think this a remembrance of a violent pagan ritual from far back in the dense mist of time. With a little research I found the mist not so thick. We need go no further back than 1087.

That is the year the pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden was destroyed. Until then it housed the statues of Thor, Odin, and Freyr, to whom both animal and human sacrifices were made. Specifically, every nine years there were nine days of sacrificing of nine males of nine species. Horses and dogs were among the species and so were men. The bodies hung from the branches of trees near the temple. That sort of thing is not easily forgotten and bound to come up in folklore.

The enchanted forest always brings to me notions that do not come to me in my study. There’s magic for you.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2014 The Glass Coffin

Glass coffin two H J Ford

A Visit

I have a strange visitor in my study tonight. Earlier Thalia fell asleep quickly as I read to her. We’d been out most of the day—in the cold—feeding the tower ravens. I’d carried her off to bed, returned to the study, and settled down with my pipe, before realizing her battered copy of Grimm’s still lay on my table. I was considering returning it to her bedroom when my visitor flew in, landing on the table.

“There you are,” she said to the book.

She now stands at the foot of the open volume, her translucent wings catching the moonlight coming through the bay window, her fine, wild black hair moving about, blown by a draft I can’t feel. She reads aloud to herself.

“Let no one ever say that a poor tailor cannot advance far in the world and achieve great honors. He need only to hit upon the right person and, most important, to have good luck.”

She is reading The Glass Coffin.

In this tale, a poor tailor, lost in a forest, takes refuge in the hut of an old, cranky man. The next morning the tailor is awakened by a black bull and a stag battling outside. When the stag is victorious, it scoops the tailor up in its antlers and carries him off to a subterranean hall. A disembodied voice instructs him.

“Step upon the stone that lies in the middle of the hall,” my visitor, with both hands, turns a page. “Your great fortune awaits you.”

The tailor does, and the stone sinks down to a deeper level. There the tailor sees stacked along the walls, glass vases filled with colored vapors, and two glass coffins. In one is a miniature kingdom with a castle, farmhouses, barns, and stables.

In the other is a beautiful, sleeping girl who awakes as he watches her.

“Good heavens!” my fey reads, “I shall soon be free. Quick, quick, help me out of my prison. If you push back the bolt of this glass coffin, I’ll be saved.”

The tailor does this easily. Freed, she tells him her story.

She is the daughter of a rich count, raised by her brother after their parents’ death. Devoted to each other, they decide neither should marry.

One day they give shelter to a traveler. To their misfortune, he is a magician, who falls in love with her and tries to seduce her through his art. She repulses him and he takes his revenge by turning her brother into a stag, her people and servants into vapor, the kingdom into a miniature, putting it and her into glass coffins.

She bids the tailor help her move the glass coffin containing the kingdom onto the stone, which carries them to the upper world. When the coffin is opened, the kingdom grows into its proper size. From the glass vases, they release the vapors that turn back into the living. The brother, who in the form of the stag killed the magician in the form of the black bull, returns to his human shape.

As reward, the tailor marries the girl.

“By the breath of Oberon!” declares my petite guest. “That’s being in the right place at the right time.”

She struggles to close the heavy cover and pages until it makes the “plunk” that only a book can make, then flitters off without a glance at me.

I am taken aback by my conceit. I assumed fairy tales were created for the likes of me. I had noticed there are precious few fairies in fairy tales, and now see that the tales were never about fairies. These books should be printed in a much smaller form for their true, intended audience.

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2014 The Glass Coffin

nielsen_snowdrop Kay Nielsen


I enter Augustus’ tobacco shop to the familiar ring of the bell above the door and the heavy odors in the air.

“Morning,” says Augustus.

“Morning. I know what I want today. Fairies’ Delight.”

“Oh?” Augustus is frowning. “That’s not your usual blend. It’s got a preponderance of Virginia.”

“I’m feeling ‘Arial’ today.”

As Augustus weighs out a few ounces, I pose my question.

“What is the role of coffins in fairy tales?”

“Hmmm. Good question. What prompted you to ask?”

“I listened to The Glass Coffin last night.”

“You listened? Is Thalia reading to you now?”

“Not exactly. I know I have run into coffins before in Grimm’s.”

“Of course you have, Snow White to start with. She too inhabited a glass coffin.”

Augustus pauses, weighing out my order on his scale.

The Twelve Brothers and The Three Snake Leaves come to mind. If memory serves, in The Twelve Brothers the king has twelve sons. His queen is pregnant and he declares—inexplicably—that if she has a girl he will prefer her and put his sons to death.

“He goes so far as to have twelve coffins made. The queen, to save her children, shows the coffins to her youngest son. They devise a plan to counter the king’s intent. A daughter is born, but her brothers are able to escape.

“Years later the sister is shown the twelve coffins by her mother. The girl vows to find her brothers and the story goes on without further mention of the coffins.”

Augustus weighs out the Fairies’ Delight.

“In the case of The Three Snake Leaves our protagonist accompanies his wife’s coffin into the sepulcher, to die beside her.

“A snake crawls into the chamber, which he kills with three strikes of his sword. Another snake appears with three green leaves to put upon the wounds. The dead snake returns to life and the two serpents slither off.

“The young man uses the snake leaves to restore his wife, and the story goes on, somewhat tragically.”

I watch him pour the Fairies’ Delight into a plastic bag.

“I can tell you are driving toward a point,” I say, “but I do not see it.”

Augustus flashes a smile. “When coffins appear in a story as a significant element, they signify the defiance of death.

“The twelve brothers escape their deaths, and the coffins remain empty.

“The snake leaves are used to bring the occupant of the coffin back from the dead.

“In the case of Snow White, she is not really dead, but under a spell, which the stumbling servants of the prince inadvertently break, jolting the bite of poison apple from her throat.

“Coffins appearing as a defiance of death is not restricted to fairy tales. Where does the vampire sleep? He is not dead.”

“You are edging into the macabre, but I guess that will happen if coffins are the subject.”

“Quite.” He hands me my tobacco.

As I pay, I ask, “By the way, do you believe in fairies?”

He gives a hardy guffaw. “Of course not.”

“Right,” I say. “Just checking.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2014 The Glass Coffin

stratton_snowdrop2 Helen Stratton

Wishful Thinking

The fairy had a point when she said, “That’s being in the right place at the right time.”

The tailor’s progress through the events of the story struck me as a series of conveniences. Perhaps being scooped up in the stag’s antlers and carried about can be seen as harrowing, but he came to no harm. After the wild ride he simply followed instructions that promised rewards. For what good deed does he get to marry the rich and beautiful girl? He pulled back the bolt on the glass coffin. Not exactly derring-do.

The Grimms culled this one from a romance, laboriously titled Polidor’s Strange and Most Amusing Life at School and the University, by Sylvano, and not through their usual contacts with acquaintances, friends, and family. Nonetheless, the Grimms heard enough authentic folk voice in the story to include it in their collection.

One of the wishful thoughts of the long-ago listener, which this story satisfies, is the act of a peasant rising above his class. This is a disturbingly popular theme, given the reality that peasants rising above the station to which they were born was pretty hopeless right into the mid-nineteenth century.

The Grimms were keenly aware of the rising middle class in Germany, which embodied the spirit of German nationalism. The Grimms’ books were published in the context of Germans being ruled over by the Holy Roman Empire. During the Grimms’ lifetime, Germany, as a country, had not come into existence. That did not happen until 1871 with the formation of the German Empire, eight years after Jacob Grimm’s death, Wilhelm having died earlier.

I am going to get out of hand. I intend to make wild and unsubstantiated statements, and blame it on my “Arial” attitude and the Fairies’ Delight I am smoking.

The Glass Coffin appealed to the Grimms because they saw it as emblematic of their own people’s struggle and hope.

In this story the brother, transformed from his true nature into a stag, represents the suppressed German people. The black bull would then be representing the aristocracy, members of the Holy Roman Empire’s upper class, who ruled over the better part of Europe with a heavy hand. In the struggle witnessed by the tailor, the stag defeats the black bull, symbolizing the Germans’ triumph over their oppressors.

The sister of the stag represents the Germanic spirit that the aristocracy would contain.

Germany is the miniature kingdom that is released from its coffin to expand to its proper size.

The people in the vases are the folk, who are released from their vaporous state.

Our tailor represents the middle class, who, in the Grimms’ view, deserve what good fortune comes their way. The marriage is between them and the Germanic spirit.

What could be more clear, except for my suspicion that I am dead wrong and the Grimms’ never thought anything of the sort.

But conjecture is so much fun! I could be right. I now believe in fairies; should I not believe in my own winged notions?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2014 The Golden Bird

Golden Bird Walter Crane


Thalia and her Teddy sit on my lap, she carefully paging through the familiar, battered copy of Grimms’. Her finger rises into the air and lands on a picture of a young prince riding on the tail of a fox. I turn the pages back to the beginning of the tale as Thalia nestles into the crook of my arm, and I read The Golden Bird.

The king, upset that golden apples from his tree in the pleasure garden are being stolen, one by one, each night, sets his sons to guard the tree. The eldest son stands guard the first night, the middle son the second, but it is the youngest on the third night who sees a golden bird take an apple.

The king sends out his eldest, into the wide world, to capture the golden bird. He is met by a fox, who advises him not to spend the night at the brightly-lit inn he will encounter, but rather stay at the dismal one across the street. The eldest is attracted to the merry sounds coming out of the better inn, and does not heed the fox.

The middle son soon joins his brother, also dismissing the fox’s counsel. The youngest prince is more attentive and spends the night in the dismal inn.

The fox joins him the next morning, carrying the prince on his tail to the castle of the Golden Bird. At the castle, all are asleep. The fox warns against using the golden cage at hand, but the prince, thinking so glorious a bird should not be in a wooden cage, puts the Golden Bird in the golden cage. The bird squawks, awakening the castle, leading to the prince’s capture and the condemnation of death.

However, the king of this castle gives the prince the opportunity to save himself and get the Golden Bird as a reward, if he will bring to the king the Golden Horse. Again the fox helps the prince, warning him against putting a golden saddle on the Golden Horse. The prince manages to awaken this castle too, and is condemned to death. Unless…

The king of the Golden Horse wants the princess of the Golden Castle. Ever faithful, if scolding, the fox helps. When the hapless prince is condemned to death for the third time, he still has a chance to win the princess if he can remove a mountain in eight days. He digs for a week with little result. The fox appears and sends him off to bed. The next morning the mountain is gone.

The prince, finally attuned to listening to the fox’s instructions, is able to trick everyone on his return trip, and ends up with the princess, the Golden Horse, and the Golden Bird. Plus, he rescues his brothers from being hanged. His brothers repay him by throwing him down a well, about which the fox had warned the young prince.

The two brothers return home in glory with their bounty as the fox helps the young prince out of the well. In disguise, the prince sneaks into the castle, and all is soon revealed, with the two brothers finally put to their proper deaths.

The fox reappears, asking the prince to shoot him, and cut off his head and paws. Reluctantly, the prince does so, and the fox is transformed into the brother of the princess of the Golden Castle. All live happily ever after.

Thalia shifts in my arms uneasily. “I’m going to ask mommy for a sister. I don’t like brothers.”

I am sure she is right.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2014 The Golden Bird

Joseph Bibllical Joseph sold by his Brethren, Gustave Doré


I know the clock on my mantle is chiming midnight, but I am standing in a Gothic cathedral. I am not sure to what age I have been transported, now or then. What I see are moonbeams struggling to illuminate a lead-glass window. Such stained-glass windows are and were great storytellers for the illiterate.

In the center of the tall, narrow, pointed arched window, the mosaic of colored glass depicts Cain about to kill Abel. A cloud covers the moon and the image fades.

In The Golden Bird two wayward brothers dispose of their younger brother by throwing him down a well, raising to my mind’s eye the form of the biblical Joseph. He, too, was cast into a well by his jealous brothers before being sold into slavery.

Tellers knew this biblical tale, if only from seeing it pictured in glass, but other models may have served as an inspiration. The histories of the royal families of Europe are filled with the deaths of heirs and possible heirs at the hands of family members in ongoing power struggles.

But not all the brotherly relationships in fairy tales end in dire ways. In The Queen Bee the younger brother releases his two brothers from servitude when they tarry at an inn too long and beyond their means. His siblings misbehave even further, but never turn on him, and are rewarded with princesses as brides in the end.

Nonetheless, a pattern emerges from stories that have three brothers in them. The younger brother is named Simpleton, or is thought little of by his family, or is laughed at by his older brothers. Tasks to be performed are attempted first by the eldest, then by the second eldest, and at last by the third, who succeeds through kindness and/or generosity, with magical gifts, or by promises fulfilled by those he helped. If all the brothers succeed in some way, then the youngest clearly succeeds the most.

With humor, let me note the above applies when there are three brothers. If the story has two brothers, then one of them must save the other, unless one is rich and the other is poor, in which case their fortunes are reversed. If there are six, seven, or twelve brothers, likely they are turned into swans or ravens. Are these numbers significant?

Not really. Although there are patterns, we should not look too closely at these patterns to find meaning. We need to step back and look at the whole of these stories. We see stories with our mind’s eye, but need to filter them though our hearts.

The moonlight has returned, and again I see Cain creeping up behind Abel, a crime forever about to be committed, set in glass. Not only crime but also harassment, defamation, and deception directed against our brothers has been widely committed since that original act, boding ill for the future. Born to see ourselves as the center of our universe, we slowly learn to reckon where we are in the greater context. A task taken on by the fairy-tale genre is to help us visualize how our selfish acts affect all of us, no matter the number of brothers involved. And to see redemption when the hero sets self aside.

Cain looms over me as I light a candle and say a prayer for my brothers’ safety.


Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2014 The Golden Bird

Goody Two Shoes From The History of Little Goody Two Shoes


“Well, what sort of unhealthy literature are you reading to Thalia these days?” There is a devilish glint in Duckworth’s eyes and I know I am being baited, but I take it gladly.

“Unhealthy? How can you cast a fairy tale as unhealthy?”

Duckworth and I are usually rowing partners out on the Isis, but the weather is too cold, and we have opted for a continuous ramble around the quad.

“Well, let’s take for example what you are reading to The Girl right now.”

I relate to him the bones of The Golden Bird. I see Duckworth scowl with a touch of animation at certain points.

“How can a boy ride on a fox’s tail?”

“Duckworth, it’s a fairy tale. No pun intended.

“Well, what about his inability to follow the fox’s directions? There is hardly anything admirable in that. Aren’t fairy tales supposed to instruct?”

“Fairy tales can and do instruct, but that is not their sole purpose. However, for our argument, I will say, yes, they do instruct, but not by Goody Two Shoes examples of good behavior that the listener is expected to admire.”

“Who from a State of Rags and Care,” Duckworth recited,

“And having Shoes but half a Pair;

Their Fortune and their Fame would fix,

And gallop in a Coach and Six.

You know, The History of Little Goody Two Shoes is the only kid’s book my mother ever read to me.

“There’s your problem.”

“What problem?” Duckworth smiled, then points. “Let’s sit awhile on the bench over there.”

We cut across the quad and commandeered a wooden bench.

“You know,” I say, “we walked by a sign that read, ‘Do not walk on the grass.’”

“I saw it,” Duckworth looks heavenward, “and enjoyed getting away with it. Neither you, your prince, nor I can follow instructions.” He waves his index finger dramatically, “Is this story then teaching defiance of authority?”

“You overstate,” I answer. “My take: The story speaks of honoring and dishonoring.”

Duckworth sits back, folds his hands, and is content to listen.

“Notice when the prince listens to the fox and when he does not. When the fox tells him to stay in the dismal inn, the prince does. There is no honor involved.

“The fox tells him not to use the golden cage or the golden saddle, and not to let the princess say goodbye to her parents. In the prince’s mind to leave the Golden Bird in the wooden cage is to dishonor the bird. To put the wooden saddle on the Golden Horse is to dishonor the horse. Not to let the princess say goodbye to her parents is to dishonor the girl. He can’t do it.

“On his return trip he allows himself to trick those who dishonored him through manipulation under threat of death.

“Nor can he dishonor his brothers by allowing them to be hanged, and this, again, to his disadvantage.

“In the end, he reluctantly kills the fox, torn between honoring his helper’s request, and honoring his helper’s life. The prince is not being stupid when he can’t follow the fox’s advice, he is following his code of honor.

“And please note, no judgment is made about the nature of honor. The story simply illustrates honor’s pitfalls and triumphs.”

Duckworth applauds, “Ably defended.”



Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2013 The Snow Queen

Snow Quenn Honor Appleton Honor Appleton

Death by Definition

It is fair to say Frozen draws its inspiration from The Snow Queen, if only at the start of the movie project. Walt Disney himself considered animating Andersen’s story back in the 1940s. The project was picked up, rewritten, and dropped a few times before coming to fruition.

Both the Andersen story and the Disney production are considered to be fairy tales, but are they? What is a fairy tale?

Often the fairy tale is seen as a subcategory of folktales, its identifying element being magic. Whether I accept fairy tales as a subcategory or not, in either case the tale should not have a known author.

Stories that fulfill the above definition are solidly fairy tales, but these restrictions eliminate the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales. With a little historical investigation I find, in many cases, the Grimm stories were inspired by older fairy tales, but rewritten, sometimes changing substantially between editions, to appeal to their contemporary audience. Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose is of the same ilk, rewritten for his audience, the French court of the1690s. This is to say, both these works are authored.

But have not all storytellers put their marks on the stories they told, creating for us the variants to be collected by folklorists?  Is the only difference that they did not write their versions down and put their names on them?

Obviously, I need to expand my definition to include the works of Perrault and
Grimm, or I would look silly and out of step with literate society. I need only qualify and label such works as literary fairy tales.

When I come to Hans Christian Andersen, I hesitate. Are his works literary fairy tales? His stories, too, are inspired by fairy tales, but he takes them far beyond their usual form. He gives voice to inanimate objects such as tin soldiers and fir trees, he will start stories with dialog, and at times not include magic as an element.

If I accept Andersen as a writer of fairy tales (and I must or suffer well-deserved stares of incredulity), I feel obliged to create a subcategory to my subcategory. Grimm and Perrault drew from a reservoir of tales; Andersen included into the flow his own imagination. I will call his works überliterary fairy tales.

Not all of Andersen’s stories begin with “Once upon a time” or “Once there was.” Many are contemporary in setting. For us that was a long time ago, but not when they were written. Can there be modern fairy tales, a twenty-first century fairy tale?

I need to accept that a fairy tale can still be written. As proof, sitting on the table in my study is a copy of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Disney’s Frozen is further proof.

I can solve my dilemma by creating a new sub-sub-subcategory. I now witness the neo-überliterary fairy tale.

What comes to my mind is the Ukrainian folktale The Mitten. A boy loses his mitten on the coldest day of the year. A mouse takes up residence along with every other animal that comes down the trail. By the end, the mouse, a frog, an owl, a rabbit, a fox, a wolf, and a boar have squeezed themselves into the warm mitten that creaks, groans, and stretches, with its seams popping. Over the rise comes a bear.

My attempt at a definition for my beloved fairy tales now lies in pieces as the mitten did in the snow.

Your thoughts?


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