Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through
his tale is not about me. Really. It’s not a tale I want to be about me, either. Oh, the title’s OK, the title’s cool. But the tale isn’t the sort of thing you want to happen to anyone.
That’s not exactly correct. It’s sort of the sort of thing that does happen. But not exactly.
There are probably two or three possible tales layered within this tale. ‘Faithful John’ can be read as an icon for fidelity and redemption, a psychological analogy for sexual exploitation and gender conflict, or a grim cultural memory of cabbalistic ritual, ordeal, and sacrifice.
Perhaps most correctly, it can be read as all three.
That’s part of the beautiful, crazy experience of being human.
‘Der treue Johannes’ tells the tale of the title character, Johann, faithful retainer of an old and dying king. The king makes Faithful John promise to be just as faithful to the prince, now the new king. More specifically, the old king makes Faithful John promise to show the new king around all the rooms in the castle but not that one! Do I really need to tell what happens.
When the King formerly known as the Prince goes into the forbidden room, he discovers a portrait of the Golden Princess of Far Away, and swoons right there. When he comes to, he drags Faithful John and dozens of other retainers off to wherever Far Away is, in an attempt to—ah, meet—the compellingly beautiful princess.
Faithful John concocts a scheme that styles the King formerly known as the Prince as a gold merchant. Read the story if you want all the intrigue, read the story. Suffice it to say it winds up with the king and the princess going below deck to ‘behold the treasures’ of the gold merchant. When, several hours later, the princess realizes they’re sailing away—well, they’ve sailed away.
The king reveals his true identity, insisting that ‘if I have carried thee away with subtlety, that has come to pass because of my exceeding great love for thee.’ Because that makes it all better.
In this tale it does, and they’re off to happy afters, until Faithful John overhears three ravens—possibly a cameo from some other tale—chatting about what’s about to happen. The king will see a horse he wants to ride, which will kill him if he rides it. The horse must be shot if they’re to get to happy afters.
Then the king will find a seamless bridal garment he’ll want to wear, which will burn him if he wears it. The garment itself must be burned, or that’s it for kingy.
Then the queen formerly known as princess will faint away at the reception dance. If there’s to be a happy after, the three ravens agree, someone will need to draw three drops of blood from her right breast. And spit them out.
Oh, the catch to this is—if you know about it, and if you tell someone, you turn to stone.
What’s a Faithful John to do?
At length, however, he said to himself, “I will save my master, even if it bring destruction on myself.”
The king’s not too upset about the horse, or the garment, but the drops of blood thing was a bit much. So Faithful John breaks down and tells him that he saved his life three times. And turns to stone.
Time goes on, the king and the queen have a few kids. The king’s taking to talking occasionally to the statue of Faithful John, and one day the statue answers.
“If thou wilt will cut off the heads of thy two children with thine own hand, and sprinkle me with their blood, I shall be restored to life.”
What’s a King formerly known as Prince to do?
There’s a lot that’s troubling in this tale. From one angle, we see Christian imagery of virtue, redemption. Faithful John is faithful even unto death. His love for the king is selfless and sacrificial. He saves the king from numerous scrapes, and saves the live of the king’s true love through risking his own. He’s misunderstood and rejected, but continues steadfastly with what he’s determined to do. Three times, Faithful John gives his life in exchange for his master’s. In the ends, the blood of the king’s son can redeem Faithful John from death. The story ends with eucastastrophe, the sudden joyous turn, resurrection.
That works. But that doesn’t take into consideration the darker aspects of the story. Misogyny, for instance, or lookism. The voyeuristic king pursues and seduces a secluded girl. The courtship and marriage scenes can be read as filled with sexual symbolism and innuendo. It’s the princess’s intense desire, according to the tale teller, that convinces her to leave the cloister of the castle and have her encounter with the king. She exchanges one prison for another. The tale is a one of sexual repression and abuse, told from a patriarchal, misogynist perspective, with the message that femininity must be exploited and ravaged to preserve masculine identity.
Yet if we lay aside either a Christian or a feminist criticism of this tale, and try to get inside the perspective of the actually teller, the symbolism is no less troubling. As I read the story, I sensed a latent order in the symbolism. Three ravens. Golden castle. Seamless garment. Child sacrifice. This tale could perhaps be cultural memory of ancient, gruesome ritual, ordeal-based tribal religion. The symbolism and suggestion of the story may then be mostly lost, or potentially recoverable.
In the end, it can be all of these things without contradiction. By and large, the European cultures that gave birth to this story were Christianized. Many Christian legends—‘Marienkind,’ for instance, or arguably the Grail legends—are in fact pre-Christian with Christian meanings tacked over pagan symbolism. In much of this culture—in direct opposition to the actual teachings of Christ, I might add—women were oppressed and exploited beneath a brutal, patriarchal system.
This tale is rich with symbolism, allusion, and implication. Hours and pages of writing could explore and elaborate all these things. The beauty of Story is that the tale can embrace all these things, yet be none of them. These, fascinating as they are, do not make the story. I almost want to suggest that they’re expendable. To dwell on this frame, if you will, as I’ve intentionally done here, is to nearly miss the point.
The details of the tale distress us, and rightly so. But we find the story strangely comforting. The theology of the story could change. The cultural assumptions of the story could (should) change. The iconography of the story could change.
Faithful John never would. Never.
And that tale is beautiful.
I wouldn’t mind having that tale about me.