unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-throughillus-051



his is a story about genocide, anguish, justice, and revenge. A straightforward reading leaves us with a pleasant, diverting tale with the general moral that ‘Mummy Knows Best,’ and probably, ‘Never Trust a Politician.’ A deeper reading challenges our assumptions about ethics and grief, probing and deconstructing our response to anguish. The world is cruel, and the world is just. Yet justice, also, can be cruel.

The story proceeds blithely enough. Nanny Goat has seven kids. Nanny Goat goes out shopping in the forest, and ‘Don’t open the door to anyone!’ says she. Especially not the wolf. You’ll know when it’s the wolf at the door (says Nanny) because he has a rough voice and black paws.

Ha (says I, the reader). One could easily deconstruct this morality tale, I thought, and write an anti-fairytale where the wolf has white paws and a pleasant voice—and a very large dinner. No sooner thought, no sooner read. That’s how the story goes.

The wolf knocks once, it’s Nanny come home me darlings, and she’s forgotten the key. ‘What a rough voice you have, mummy—wait a minute!’ The wolf swallows chalk to soften his voice. ‘What black paws you have mummy—waaaait a minute!’ The wolf wraps his feet in dough and dusts them with meal. ‘Oh, it really is you this time, mu—’

Nanny returns from the forest. ‘What a sight she saw there!’ it’s not the sight you’d expect. At this point in the story, I was remembering gutted, burned out houses I’ve seen in former Yugoslavia, monuments with the faces and the names of the children who died inside as the tanks shelled their homes.

Nanny sees untidy beds, and dirty dishes, and upset chairs. Frankly, with seven unsupervised kids, I think Nanny would have seen this anyway, wolf or no wolf. This is an important detail, actually, for a reading of the story.

One kid remained uneaten, hidden in the clock-case. They chase after the wolf, find him asleep and bloated from his meal. So Nanny goes woodsman on him, cutting open his stomach, and there are the other six kids, alive and well and no worse for wear, ‘for in his greediness the monster had swallowed them down whole.’ They fill the wolf with seven large rocks, and run off to a happy ever after.

The wolf, meanwhile, meets a suitably grim ending when he tries to drink from a well, and ‘he had to drown miserably.’

The Wolf at the Door

When I was little, I used to read books  about animals—all and any sort of animal. I read all about wolves. I learned, for instance, that they are actually comparatively docile for predators, and wolf parents can be quite affectionate with their young.

I also learned how a wolf pack chases down and kills their prey. If you’re deaded by a wolf pack, you’re deaded real good. (Actually, I think I learned that from Jack London.) Wolves don’t swallow anything whole.

One wolf—presumably a young male who hasn’t found a pack yet—would probably only kill one or two young goats. He certainly wouldn’t swallow six kids at once, without at least chewing.

So what’s going on with this story?

The events of the story are at one remove from human experience. By putting this as a beast tale, we are allowed to experience the thrill of fear without feeling personal danger. We fear for the kids, but not for ourselves. We shake our heads in sadness at the disarray of the house (still not sure whether the wolf did that, or the kids), and laugh gleefully when Nanny tears open Wolf’s tummy and kids caper out.

In other words, we can be comfortable in a rhythm of a story we feel we know, without the burden of knowledge.

This sort of thing does happen in real life. The wolf could symbolize an abuser or a killing squad—it doesn’t matter, really. The point is the same. The world is cruel, with cruel people in it. Cruel, senseless things happen. All through history, the wolves of the world have ravaged and devoured, pretending perhaps to be parents or friend, protectors or liberators. But these are freedom fighters and law enforcement agents with chalked throats and doughy hands.


The domestic disorder the nanny finds instead of the gruesome horror we’d expect from a wolf attack underscores the awful interconnection of life and suffering. ‘The horror, the horror’ is part of daily life, the same way untidy bedclothes and dirty dishes are. The question is not whether we will face suffering, the tale seems to argue. The question is how we will respond.

The nanny and her kid seek revenge. We relate to that, I think, all ethical considerations aside. The grotesqueness of the wolf’s execution is the rage of an oppressed people tearing out the bloated entrails of their oppressor. The revolt is the act of taking back from the oppressor the gain from their oppression, their inhumanity.

Yet here the story—for me, at any rate—fell short. We do not see how to deal with grief, even grief after revenge. We’re just handed a neat ending that catapults us back to the surface story—‘Ding dong, the wolf is dead! Which old wolf? The wicked wolf!’

Suffering, however, has turned Nanny into a predator, and the viciousness of her revenge is troubling to us. She, in the end, is the unspoken—and in this tell, the only lasting—victim to the wolf. To defeat the wolf, she becomes wolf-like. Though the wolf is dead, wolfishness remains. The happy ending is incomplete.

The Miller and the Moral

If the story has a moral, it is a comfortless one. When flouring his hands, the wolf goes to get meal from the miller. In order to perpetrate his brutality, he needs assistance. Dictators seldom rise to power on their own steam. A holocaust is not possible without an army. The miller, sensing foul play, refuses to supply the wolf with flour. The wolf threatens to eat him. So he gives the wolf the flour, and the wolf goes and eats the kids. The miller becomes complicit in an act of violence and brutality—and he knew it. He lets his fear turn him into a sort of wolf himself.

‘Truly,’ says the narrator, ‘men are like that.’

I take ‘men’ to mean ‘people’, though I suppose if the narrator were female this could be a gendered comment. Regardless, the bleak narrative is clear. People care more about themselves than others. It’s easier to find an accomplice than a champion.

It’s fair to say this story confronts us with the absurd. In its senseless brutality, its even more irrational revenge, and above all in the miller’s fearful pliancy with the oppressive cruelty of the wolf, reveals a stricken, anguished world. It warps and distorts ordinary days and ordinary people. It leaves itself shattered and empty. It seems as if this is a world without hope.

And yet, at the end, the kids are dancing with joy.

There’s a moral there, too.



4 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Wow – what a tale! But is it revenge for Nanny? That made me think. At first glance – I thought not. Nanny had to rescue her kids – no ambiguous morality there. If it takes ripping open a stomach to get them – ok, so be it. The wolf ate them for goodness sake. But this is where it gets interesting – she could have sewn up the stomach of the wolf after retracting her progeny and leave it at that – an ethical problem in that she becomes complicit in his next act of violence. Just as guilty as the miller. She could have not sewn up the stomach – and just left the wolf there to die with his entrails out. Who would blame her? Well, the wolf’s life is a life – and if we are going to be consistant… So – no. That would be murder. She does C: sews him back up – but with rocks in his belly. What were rocks used for? Making fences that protect livestock and anchors. She basically cripples the wolf. He (and I’m assuming it’s a he) can’t chase down prey anymore. Those rocks slow his pace to the point of him being an inefficient hunter. Is it a death sentence? Not really. Just avoid deep wells and become a vegetarian and you’re alive. So – the Nanny actually did the most moral act – she disabled the opportunity for murder for the wolf – and she saved her kids.

    I think perhaps this is an anti-death sentence stand. Of course, the wolf winds up dying anyhow – but at his own paw or ignorance.

    Although – maybe the wolf didn’t know he had rocks in his belly. Which is like placing a timebomb in his stomach – which would be technically manslaughter in the first degree. So did the wolf know he had stones in his belly? Was he awake during the procedure? Was he informed?

  2. Interesting. In some versions of Red Riding Hood– the versions where she doesn’t get eaten outright, or (Thurber) see through the disguise instantly and shoot the wolf with a .45– the rock-filled wolf survives until he wakes up and tries to run away, at which point the ballast does him in. In this case the stones seem to be a getaway tactic so you won’t have to kill him directly or have a hungry wolf coming back after you.

    Of course, knowing that they could have just killed him flat–they had motive, opportunity, scissors–and didn’t, does argue for Joivre’s anti-death-sentence reading.

    Wikipedia, in an unexpectedly informative twist, reveals the following rather more sensible rendition: “In Richard Scarry’s version of the story, the wolf does not eat the kids when he gets into their house. Instead, he puts them into a large sack and tries to take it back to his cave. The mother goat cuts the sack open and frees the kids. She then fills it with stones. When the wolf returns home and finds he’s been tricked, he vows to return, but a police officer arrives to interrogate him about his earlier thieveries. He goes out to his well to ditch the stones, but ends up falling down the well with them. “

  3. Joivre–the wolf did not know he was being ripped open, and only gradually realized he had stones in his belly. Interestingly, Grimm credits the stones for making him thirsty–so, because he has stones in his belly, he goes to the well for a drink. But just to complicate matters, he realizes he’s ballasted before he tries to drink.

    A straightforward reading does, I think, simply show Nanny getting one over on the wolf–an ingenious ‘Take that!’ Grimms’ heroes never just do anything as obvious as using the scissors–it’s red hot shoes and barrels of snakes. Which make for cracking good tales, but moral ambivalence.

    I really like the anti-death sentence reading. It’s not exactly in tone with the rest of Grimm, but it’s certainly an appropriate retrospective. I also like the sense of Mom-Power we get in Nanny–she’s a very strong character, very strong mother.

    Yet the tale, I think, falls short in dealing with grief and even the moral complexity, because we don’t actually get to see someone dealing with loss because–surprise!–wolf played boa and swallered ’em up whole. At that point, our tether to reality is out the window, and nothing really makes sense. (Why does the wolf sing a song about there being rocks in his belly, and then go fall in a well?) So perhaps Richard Scarry has the best solution…

  4. Pingback: Weekly Digest for August 5th | Eric Pazdziora

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