Although I count myself a fan of the Grimms, with certain tales I am left unsatisfied. My criticism may sound odd because I am dealing with the magical world of fairy tales, where anything can happen, yet some of the stories feel nonetheless contrived. (This is not a problem exclusive to the Grimms, but for my immediate purposes let me pick on them.)
Grimms’ Brother and Sister is one of these less-than-satisfying tales. The construction of the story is partly to blame. As events flow along I sense the narrator saying, “Oh, by the way…” and filling in information pulled out of his hat.
The story starts with a lengthy declaration by the brother to his sister that their life is unbearable under the blows dealt to them by their stepmother, and they would be better off “in the wide world.” They travel into the forest, spending the night in a hollow log.
Oh, by the way, the stepmother is a witch, and when she sees the children are gone, she follows, putting a curse on all the springs in the forest. Upon waking, the brother is possessed by thirst and leads them toward the sound of a spring. The sister hears the spring say whoever drinks of it will turn into a tiger. She dissuades her brother from drinking. The next spring threatened to turn him into a wolf, and the third spring into a deer. Overcome by thirst, the brother drinks from the third spring, becoming a fawn.
The sister weaves a rope out of rushes and uses her golden garter as a collar. Why the stepmother, who hates the children, allows her to wear gold goes without explanation. They find an unoccupied cottage and move in. All is well for some time until the king and his men appear in the forest to hunt. The fawn, hearing the hunting horns, cannot be satisfied until he joins the hunt. For three days the king chases him, and by the third day they discover the cottage and the sister. Immediately the king proposes marriage
When the stepmother/witch hears of the children’s good fortune, she makes her plans to end it.
Oh, by the way, the stepmother/witch has an ugly daughter with only one eye. On the day of the sister/queen giving birth to her son, the witch and daughter, changing their appearance to be that of servants, take the queen to her bath, overheat the water and lock her in to suffocate.
The witch casts a glamour over her daughter, giving her the appearance of the queen, but there is nothing she can do about the missing eye, a defect that they need to keep hidden from the king.
However, the real queen’s ghost reappears nightly to nurse the child and pet the fawn. When the king discovers this, he breaks the spell, returning his true queen to life, consigning the ugly daughter to be torn apart by wild beasts, and the witch to be burnt. After the witch is reduced to ashes, the brother returns to his human form.
Amateur that I am, I defer to my betters on matters of perspective. I know no one better than my good friend Augustus. Armed with encyclopedic knowledge and undeniable artistic taste, Augustus is my mentor when I wander into the fairy realm. I will go see him. Besides, I need tobacco.
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2013 Brother and Sister – Part Two
The bell above the door triggers a familiar ring as I enter Augustus’ store. He already stands behind the counter, expecting me. Oak, glass, the street noise silenced when I close the door, heavy odors that baffle my senses; this is Augustus’ Tobacco Shop.
We enter into our ritual greetings. “Good day,” he says.
“Good day to you. What do you suggest for today’s purchase?”
“That, of course, depends on what you are reading.”
“Grimms’ Brother and Sister.”
A frown clouds his demeanor for a moment. “We can do better.”
Augustus walks down the row of glass canisters. He passes by Elfish Gold, Leprechaun Gold, Old Rinkrank, Cobbler’s Delight, and Black Dwarf. He pauses at Evening Star, but settles on Pleiades’ Pleasure. He puts some in a silver bowl, sniffs it, and adds a little dark, shriveled Perique. He and I take to the overstuffed chairs at the back of the store; fill, tamp, and light our pipes.
“Are you familiar,” Augustus asks, “with Dawkins’ The Little Boy and His Elder Sister, from his work Modern Greek Folktales? Pleiad, our heroine, has lost her mother, the queen. The new queen, having no love for Pleiad, convinces her husband that they should sell his daughter. She is locked in a room and fed nuts, figs, and sweets to fatten her up a little.
“The new queen’s son, Star of Dawn, who is fond of Pleiad, discovers his mother’s ill intent. Following the advice of a wise woman, when his mother brings Pleiad out to braid ribbons into her hair before selling her, he steals the ribbons and the comb, as if in playful jest. Pleiad, knowing her stepbrother’s plan, chases after him. When out of sight of their mother, they flee in earnest.”
Augustus pauses to relight his pipe.
“The mother soon understands the ruse and chases after them. As she is about to catch them, Star of Dawn throws down the ribbons, which turn into a wide plain, the mother at the far end. When she catches up to them again, he throws down the comb, which turns into a dense forest. Still she gains on the children. Star of Dawn throws down the small bag of salt given to him by the wise woman. It turns into a sea that the mother cannot cross.
“Now exhausted, Star of Dawn craves water and is about to drink some that has settled into the hoof print of a calf. Pleiad stops him, saying, if he drinks, he will turn into a calf. They come across the hoof print of a lamb. Again Star of Dawn is warned, but he gives in to thirst.
“Star of Dawn, now a lamb, and Pleiad travel all day until they come to the fountain of the king. There, after quenching their thirst, Pleiad climbs into a cypress tree growing over the fountain, while the lamb grazes.”
Tobacco smoke surrounds us, swirling, creating our story space.
“The king’s men come to water their horses, but the horses will not drink, seeing Pleiad’s reflection. The king himself comes and pleads with her to come down, but she will not. They all leave, but the king sends back his son, an old woman, and a pig. The old women sits under the tree, trying to knead her dough on an overturned trough with the pig stealing bits of it. Pleiad climbs down to rescue the old woman from her foolishness; the prince seizes Pleiad, and rides off to make her his bride. At her pleading, the lamb is brought into the castle garden.
“Pleiad is hated by her mother-in-law, who pushes her into the garden fountain and orders the lamb prepared for the evening meal. Pleiad prays to God to release her from the fountain, but she is too late to prevent the blade from being drawn across her lamb’s throat.
“After her husband and in-laws feast upon the lamb, Pleiad gathers his bones and plants them in the garden. In the morning there stands an orange tree bearing one orange. The branches move about preventing anyone from picking it except Pleiad. When she grasps the fruit the branch rises, sending her and the orange into the sky where she becomes part of the constellation Pleiades and he the Star of Dawn.”
Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2013 Brother and Sister – Part Three
“Have you ever considered the role of slavery in fairy tales?”
Augustus shatters my image of Pleiad being propelled into the heavens.
“Pardon? Where did that question come from?”
The smoke has cleared. Augustus smiles, recognizing he has set me off center.
“Pleiad was being sold into slavery. That brought the topic to mind.”
“Aesop was a slave. Many assume he authored the stories, but might he have been drawing from a tradition? Might he have been transmitting tales, creating his own variants?”
“Possibly.” I feel Augustus entering speculative territory—his favorite place.
“Countless times poor souls have been enslaved, taken from their homes with the clothing on their backs and whatever they carried in their heads. How many of those were taken to distant lands, ending up tending the children of their masters, drawing on their stories to entertain the little ones?
“Look to the Uncle Remus tales taken down by Joel Chandler Harris. In Africa the rabbit is the trickster, come to America as Brer Rabbit, inspiring the Warner Brothers’ entourage to come up with Bugs Bunny. Oh, the studio never acknowledged Brer Rabbit as Bugs Bunny’s predecessor, but I’ll bet my best meerschaum on it.
“Present day, we don’t think of England as a source of slaves, but before the Norman invasion, Irish raiders regularly plundered the British Isles capturing its inhabitants to sell into slavery; Saint Patrick as a youth being one of the unfortunates, by the way. Later it was the Vikings, and after them the Barbary Pirates. Those pirates did not just pick on England, but Ireland, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain as well, taking their booty to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. No wonder Scheherazade had a thousand and one stories.”
“But,” I get a word in, “slavery is not the only means of story migration.”
“Certainly not. The Jack tales came to America carried by the English and Scottish; mind you though, some of them were indentured servants. But, let me argue, willing immigrants tend to embrace their new home, leaving behind associations with their old home. Slaves will hang onto their former culture, making what adaptations and disguises they must to placate their masters.
“I suspect that The Little Boy and His Elder Sister drew from Greek mythology, but could not Pleiad’s plight appeal to, or be created by, a slave? The disguise of making Pleiad a princess, instead of a commoner, does not fit well to my mind. I imagine a slave teller using this disguise to imply the story is not about her people, but about another class. However, when does a princess get sold into slavery with the argument that the king and queen can’t afford to keep her. Later on in the story, Pleiad is afraid to come down out of the tree even after the king pleads with her and makes promises. Of what is she afraid? She is a princess being offered shelter by another member of royalty. Unless in the undisguised version she is not a princess, but a runaway slave. In the end, she is captured and carried off by the king’s son, or is she being recaptured?”
“Augustus,” I say, “you’re going a bit too far on shreds of evidence. You would have Hansel and Gretel in enslavement next.” I see him consider this. “No, no, that story is about childhood fears of abandonment.”
“That’s what Bettelheim would have you think.”
I sigh and relight my pipe. The bell above the door rings and Augustus is up to please another customer.