unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through




sense of dissatisfaction went with reading this tale. It wasn’t uninteresting. And it was about as troubling as good fairy tale should be. I felt like I’d seen a bad portrait of a good friend—oh, yes, that’s Caleb, all right. But he—well—it’s just—naw, it’s fine. (Exit awkwardly.)

The tale begins—as so many of the Grimms’ tales do begin—with the hardships and harshness of peasant life. A wood-cutter and his wife have a little girl, and no way to feed her. As the wood-cutter is cutting wood, the Blessed Virgin appears to him. She offers to take the little girl to heaven, ‘and be her mother, and care for her.’ The wood-cutter brings Virgin Mary his child, and she takes the little girl to heaven.  There, says the teller of tales, the little girl ‘fared well, ate sugar-cakes, and drank sweet milk, and her clothes were of
gold, and the little angels played with her.’

I like the gesture of this storybook Mary. Her offer to be the child’s mother in same way she was the mother of Christ is touching. It recalls Stanley Hauerwas’s discussion of Mary in Cross Shattered Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), that Christ’s command to the church was ‘Son, behold your mother.’

But suggestion that Mary will be the child’s mother in heaven—ahm, isn’t heaven where you go when you die? It seems that, for some unfathomable reason, this storybook Mary makes a modest proposal that the little girl die young. A proposal to which the father quickly agrees.

Where’s the little girl’s real mother in all this? For that matter, what happens to the father? They are fairy tale parents of the most unsatisfactory kind—they appear just long enough to give a nod-wink-wink explanation for where the protagonist must have come from, wave good-bye or worse, and that’s it. No concern for their immortal souls, they just walked out of the book.

The story continues to frustrate. This storybook Mary turns out to be a sort of celestial Bluebeard. When the little girl turns fourteen, Storybook Mary (I’ll call her that to avoid confusion with the real Mary, and avoid any appearance of disrespect) gives the little girl thirteen keys. These keys open the thirteen doors of heaven, Mary says, and you can open all of them but not that one.

Then Storybook Mary leaves on a long trip.

You try telling something like that to a fourteen-year-old, I don’t care what gender, and then leave the house. Unless you have the most exceptional fourteen-year-old in ten thousand years of continual parenting, you know exactly what will happen. If you don’t know—ehhh, never mind. You’ll find out.

In this version, though, it’s all okay. Behind each door sits an apostle. And behind the thirteenth door (look, do I really have to explain this?) is the Beatific Vision, ‘the Trinity sitting in fire and splendour.’ The girl sees in truth what the Knights of the Round Table died in hope of seeing in symbol, what the most virtuous among them saw afar off and hidden.

She gets in trouble, of course. She even lies to Storybook Mary, insisting that, no, she didn’t open the door and receive the beatific vision. Storybook Mary guesses correctly that the girl is lying—and banishes her to earth and to silence. The girl lives in a hollow tree like a squirrel, until a passing king falls in love with her.

Storybook Mary isn’t done yet. When the girl, now Silent Queen, has a baby, Storybook Mary appears with an offer she can’t refuse. Admit you were lying, or I’ll take your baby to heaven, where it can eat sugar cakes and cream puffs. If you didn’t think the little girl’s ‘going to heaven’ was a euphemism before, now you know.

Silent Queen is proud as anything, and won’t admit to beholding the Trinity in spendour and fire. So Storybook Mary takes the baby. The next day there’s public outcry, and Fox News reports the obvious, without bias. Silent Queen ate the  baby.

This happens three times.

When Silent Queen is tied to the stake and about to be burned, she decides, oh heck, why not, and says, ‘OK, OK, I opened the stupid door and saw the Blessed Trinity, I’m sorry.’ Whoosh, Storybook Mary appears with the three precious bundles of princiness in tow—presumably grossly obese and malnourished from eating nothing but sugar cakes, and everyone lives happily ever after.

All these elements are in other tales. The second half of “Marienkind”, for instance, is also in “The Three Ravens”, or Seven, or Twelve, or whatever number. That tale had, I think, it’s finest telling in Padraic Colum’s neglected masterpiece The King of Ireland’s Son (1916). The first part of the tale has, as I said, its most famous—if not it’s best—telling as Bluebeard. “Marienkind” strikes me as two separate tales some ingenious storyteller stuck together, using Storybook Mary as the glue.

It’s a story about growing up, of course—the keys and doors are given when the girl is fourteen, in the shaky and uncertain crossing from childhood to adulthood. Sexual awareness is part of that, of course. But it’s reductionist to assume that every story about wise choices and growing up and adolescence and  learning hard lessons is just about sex. Storybook Mary’s warning, ‘Beware of opening it, or thou wilt bring misery on thyself,’ is in the best fairy tale tradition. Arguably every tale involves some sort of violation of this sort of inviolable principle.

The second tale—that of the Silent Queen—is a story about grief and oppression and true love and darkness and murder and true love, and even in this odd form, told in a way so inferior to Colum’s telling, it’s breathtaking.

But what’s Mary doing in here, Storybook or otherwise? She takes a beautifully troubling tale and makes it a moral lesson: ‘Don’t tell a lie, or children will die.’ Which is just disturbing. And what are the apostles and the beatific vision doing in this tale? It just doesn’t fit.

It was a relief to find another version in the notes. There’s no Mary, no apostles, no beatific vision. The wood-cutter has gone into the woods to hang himself, and nearly does, when ‘a beautiful maiden dressed in black’ appears in a black carriage drawn by black horses, and promises him wealth and happiness in exchange for something hidden in his house. Agreed, the wood-cutter says, and finds to his horror that what’s ‘hidden’ is his not-yet-born daughter.

The maiden in black is moved by the mother’s pleas, however (way to go, mom!), and doesn’t take the child to the black castle for twelve years. When the girl, as a sixteen-year-old opens the fourth door, she sees four other maidens in black busy writing. Apparently that’s bad. Don’t interrupt us emo writing types. The story proceeds as scripted above.

Except Storybook Mary doesn’t garnishee the children—the king’s wicked stepmother throws them in the river and sprinkles blood on the (weirdly—I’d be awake and there’d be hell to pay) sleeping queen. This starts a whisper that rises to a roar that goes something like: ‘The Queen is foreign, Foreigners do strange things, Eating babies is strange, The Queen eats babies.’

Silent Queen is about to burn when the maidens in black appear—with the three babies safe in tow, but that seems like the redactors afterthought—and give her back her speech. She tells the tale of The Really Awful Stepmother-in-Law.

So Silent Queen is acquitted, and the Really Awful Stepmother-in-Law ‘is put into a barrel filled with snakes and poisonous adders, and rolled down a hill.’

Ah. Now that’s better.

One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. For some reason, Grimm’s religious-themed tales are usually among their, um, grimmest (and I have to admit I’m hoping at some point this tour will make a stop by the downright gruesome “Das junggeglühte Männlein”!). I think you’re onto something with your analogy of seeing a picture of an old friend that doesn’t look quite right. Mary didn’t do that.

    It seems that perhaps the saints and apostles got in to replace somebodies from older tales. Which makes me wonder what was originally behind the 13th door.

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