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

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.

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

marys-child Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

In the Eye of the Cat

“Johannes,” I say, “Come here. I want to read you something.”

Faithful Johannes opens one eye, then closes it again. I reconsider my wording.

“Might it please you to hear a story? I value your opinion.”

Johannes slowly rises from his spot on the table, stretches, licks a paw, rubs an ear. Defining the word “gradually,” he makes his way over, and sits down beside me on the couch. I read to him The Virgin Mary’s Child.”

“I liked her until the end,” he says.

“Well, she had to save herself, didn’t she?”

“She showed weakness of character; gave in to confessing.”

“She would have died otherwise.”

“Don’t martyrs allow themselves to be killed?”

“She wasn’t a martyr.”

“Wasn’t she?” Johannes curls up again.

I am inclined to tell him that is nonsense, but I know better than to be glib with a cat. Besides, he has picked up on a sense of martyrdom coming from Mary’s child.

When the girl denies she opened the forbidden door, she is fearful, immature, and naïve.  After being cast from heaven, she suffers grievously in the wilderness for years. A king delivers her from her wretched life and together they have a child.

When the Virgin Mary reappears, the girl is now a queen and a mother. She has no secret to keep from the Virgin Mary, and knows Mary will take her child if she persists in her sin. Though she has nothing to gain, she does not repent.

Mary refers to her stubbornness and the narrator to her pride. Nowhere else in the tale does she show these traits. The story tells us the king marries her because she is so sweet and beautiful. The queen does not repent her state of sin at great cost, almost losing her life.

In the end, when she does confess to the obvious, I feel no satisfaction. Mary states, “Whoever repents a sin and confesses it will be forgiven,” which is both gracious and dogmatic.

I return my attention to Johannes. “OK, let’s go with our heroine as a martyr. What is her cause? She has sinned, after all, by lying.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire; yes, she has. How dear to you humans is one foolish act? No harm comes to others from her deed, yet it alters the course of her life.

“Her cause,” Johannes continues, “is undue retribution. She witnesses the core of Christianity’s philosophy behind the thirteenth door. Should that be punishable?”

“And what would you have done had the Virgin Mary given you the keys?”

“I would have returned the twelve keys, taken the thirteenth, and told her to wait for me, I’d be right back.”

“That sounds rather brash!”

“No cat would have allowed themselves to be so duped. The forbidden door is no different than the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, which led to the fall of man. In a cat’s eye that was the original setup. That curiosity can kill is better applied to you humans than to us felines.”

I pondered this a moment.

“You are ungracious, you know,” I scowl.

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

Marys-child5  Heinrich Lefler and Joseph Urban

Up In Smoke

My eyes rest on a canister of “Angel’s Glory,” while Augustus goes through the familiar routine of weighing out four ounces of “Elfish Gold” with a stainless steel scoop. Not taking his eyes from the scale he asks, “And what story have you been contemplating lately?”

The Virgin Mary’s Child.”

“Oh? No one bothers with that story; quite unpopular.”

“I agree, but I wonder why. While its moralizing makes me a little uncomfortable, I would think for others it is a safe story. It carries a clear message about the hazards of lying, and could be the basis for a Sunday school lesson, but I have never heard of it being used that way.”

“I share your misgivings.” Augustus empties the weighing bowl of “Elfish Gold” into a plastic baggie. “It feels contrived to me, which is an odd thing to say about a fairy tale, but this one goes beyond the norm.”

“In what ways, do you think?” I look for my wallet.

“Most striking to me is the way the forbidden-door motif is used. Within the Grimms’ collection, the motif comes up in Blue Beard and The Fitcher’s Bird. In both cases it is a despotic, evil character who sets the conditions and deals out mortal punishment when the inevitable happens. To put the Virgin Mary in that role, traditionally held by villains, strikes me as odd.”

I see Augustus lean against the counter behind him and fold his arms, as he slips into lecture mode.

“In the Grimms’ own notes they point to a variant in which the antagonist is a woman dressed in black, traveling in a black coach, and living in a black castle. Nor is this woman averse to a little violence. When the heroine peeks into the forbidden room, the woman in black slaps her on the face so hard the blood flows and the voice is lost.”

Augustus contemplates for a moment. “However, in fairness, I must say the Grimms also cited a Nordic version in which the antagonist, a wealthy woman, reveals her true identity at the end of the story as the Virgin Mary.”

“Ah!” I say raising my forefinger, “I’ll bet that is where Wilhelm drew inspiration for his version.”

“No,” says Augustus cautiously, “The notes say their version is from Hesse, but they explain nothing more.” Augustus knits his brow, “You think Wilhelm wrote this story?”

“I am sure of it.” My stance is firm.

“I am going to disagree. The tale adheres to Roman Catholic thinking. The Virgin Mary looms large in the popular Catholic consciousness to the extent of being a cult figure. Take note, there are more sightings of her than there are of Jesus. The confessional, where believers confess their sins, is as regular a part of their lives as the Holy Mass. The Virgin Mary’s Child is about the Virgin Mary and the confessing of sin.

“The Grimms were not Catholic. They were Calvinist. Given the political climate of the time, and the long-standing animosity between the Roman Catholic Church and all Protestant groups, it is not likely that Wilhelm would have been warm to reflecting Catholic norms in anything of his own creation.”

I hadn’t thought of that. “You are never kind to my pet theories, I’ll have you know.”

“Sorry. You can always ignore my criticisms if you like.”

“I’ll tell you what, sell me an ounce of ‘Angel’s Glory,’ and I will ponder what you have said while I smoke it.”

“Fair enough.”

Your thoughts?

One thought on “Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2014 Virgin Mary’s Child – Part One

  1. mary grace ketner says:

    Charles, I am so grateful each month to find that you have done so much of the important groundwork toward understanding a given story. I had never thought about the Grimms’ religious views, for one example, but it now seems critical to understanding how this story fits into the cannon.

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