unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-throughillus-078

Little brother took his little sister by the hand and said,
Since our mother died we have had no happiness; our step-mother beats us every day, and if we come near her she kicks us away with her foot.

May Heaven pity us. If our mother only knew!

Come, we will go forth together into the wide world.

Little Brother, Little Sisterillus-078t

his is a tale of wonder. Above the clatter and chatter of the coffee shop where I’m typing this, beyond the stress and responsibility I’ve emerged from to read this, and will shortly descend back into, I found myself breathless, caught for a moment transcendent with a glimpse of movement within the shadows.

A chance crossing of the ways, a meeting brief but never forgotten. I stood for a moment at the pathway and looked long into the darksome woods of Faerie. The way is dark and getting darker, said the Jack ‘o Lent. I wish you luck. You’ll need it.

This is a story about death and grief, and the healing power of imagination and dreams. This is a story about fidelity and love, about loyalty and resurrection. Christian imagery winds strangely among pagan symbolism, haunting us with meanings we almost seem to grasp but don’t, not quite. This is a story of grotesques, of changes and haunting, wake and ritual, malice and burning.

To put it another way, this story is a fairy tale.

The story begins with a missing father. Little Brother and Little Sister flee the child abuse of their home, and their cruel and vindictive stepmother, who beats them and starves them. But if there’s a stepmother, there must have been a father who remarried—where’s he? Not eating them, thankfully, but not defending them and certainly not parenting them. It could, in fact, be suggested (here’s a hint: I’m suggesting it) that the father’s persistence absence is the inciting incident of the tale, that the flight into the forest is a sort of search to find him.

Little Brother and Little Sister begin in sunlit meadows, picking wildflowers and enjoying the breeze. But by nightfall, they have come to the Wild Woods, to shadows thick with rustling and whispers, to hidden ways that need words to find them, and obvious ways that aren’t ways at all.

The woods, as Manlove has suggested, hint at imagination, the dreaming mind. They are places of wonder and peril, irrationality and freedom. As soon as the children enter the woods, their stepmother has become a witch, ever stream a babbling peril, lapping the banks with her curse.

If you’ve ever stood by a gurgling stream and listened to it, you know that our minds quickly listen for words in that restless, relentless sound. We hear our names, perhaps, or random phrases. In a nearly Lovecraftian moment in this tale, Little Sister hears the streams whispering, ‘who drinks of me will be a tiger; who drinks of me will be a tiger.’ The stalking malevolence emerges slowly, the deathly presence of their persistent grief. Even in the play-world of imagination, they cannot escape the malevolence of their caretaker, or the grief for their mother. The woods they fled to for refuge becomes itself a danger.

Little Brother drinks, and becomes a roe. This is his death. For the rest of the tale, Little Sister is alone—with a pet talking deer, but still alone. The roe, the return of Little Brother to nature, remains as an echo, a comforting memory that gives her courage. As Little Brother continues in his beast-form, he becomes less like a man and more a roe; the memory fades and grows more distant, while Little Sister becomes more resourceful.

The story continues with her sexual maturation, and the appearance in the imaginative woods of the amorous Hunter King. His appearance increases the animal nature of the roe, as the sister’s affection for him lessens her need for memory of her brother. Fraternal, guarding love is replaced with spousal, pursuing love. When the Hunter King appears at the door of the maiden’s cottage, instead of the roe, the change is complete, and she passes from Little Sister into Queen.

The malevolence of her emotional wounds, however, dogs her. The witch-mother follows her to the castle. When the Queen has a child, the witch-mother masquerades as a thoughtful nurse who prepares a nice, hot bath, then locks the Queen in it and stokes the fire inordinately. The Grimms, with surprising delicacy, say that the Queen ‘suffocated.’ The witch-mother’s natural daughter, bewitched to look like Little Sister, assumes the Queen’s place in bed.

This story is surprisingly harsh, and if it ended here would be gruesome beyond horrible. But it doesn’t. The theme of the story is the persistence of grief, the memory of love as powerful as the memory of abuse and trauma. So the Queen’s spirit has power to return to nurse her child and to tend to the roe.

The Hunter King learns of these ghostly visitations, and stays up to watch the phenomenon. Overwhelmed with emotion. He calls to the ghost, You can be none other than my dear wife. Yes, she says, I am.

And she comes back to life.

When the king confronts grief and loss, when he looks at the image of death and admits his bereavement, the process of healing—of resurrection—can begin. This is the first time in the story where no one is fleeing from death, where no one is denying grief. You can’t outrun it, really, you can’t shout it down with good feelings. It is the willingness to embrace grief, the tale seems to say, that allows reconciliation and healing. Loss can be restored, and love made whole, even on the other side of death.

There is hope in the imagination, there is beauty in the Wild Wood. But it cannot be found with fear of weeping.

The ending is suitably happy. The witch-mother and her evil daughter meet delightfully horrid ends, in fire and in woods. At the witch-mother’s death, the roe becomes a man again. The resurrection is complete, the lost restored. Fear and abuse are destroyed in the imagination they once haunted. When grief is acknowledged, the tale tells us, wonder can overcome peril, revealing the triumph of love.

Do the children find their father? Perhaps. Perhaps not. They find wonder, they find love. They find life and they find a caring family restored. They found a home like one a good father would give them.

Perhaps their father helped them find it.

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4 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. I think this is your best one yet. It makes me wonder how George MacDonald would have retold this tale–or did he? I feel shades of Curdie and Tangle not far off.

  2. Grief is strange. It has a mind of it’s own. It does persist – whether you want it to or not. You can put it out of your mind forcefully, with intelligence and on purpose – but it is like an insidious vapor. The more your fan it out the door – the more it curls back and you inhale it back into your body. I never knew it was so formidable. One is forced to respect it’s power.

    I guess you need to acknowledge it to be healed. The problem is – it feels like a poison.

  3. Thanks, Eric. I’m of course starting a doctoral dissertation suggesting that nearly every tale GMD wrote grappled with these themes, so don’t get me started! 🙂 In other news, some study may be in order to examine fairy tales as antidotes to spiritual abuse.

    Joivre–grief is a strange and terrible taskmaster. I think sometimes these stories help us understand it. Imagination can help us heal, I think.

    Other days, it’s hard to think that. Grief can be poison, it can kill. But I almost think it’s ‘good poison.’ Like a fever–burning because it’s trying to heal us. We’d lose too, too much if we couldn’t grieve, even years later.

    That helps it make sense for me. It doesn’t make it easier. But it helps.

  4. Good grief, Charlie Brown! (In fact there’s a whole chapter on that in The Gospel According to Peanuts.)

    What’s very interesting to me, and of course this is entirely subjective, but I mentally picture the cottage in this story exactly the same way I picture the cottage in The Golden Key, except abandoned and without Aeranths.

    Fairy Tales and Spiritual Abuse make an interesting juxtaposition. I could practically write a whole paper just on Dolores Umbridge that way, but then you see the other connections to the Wicked (Step)mother archetype and the Big Bad Wolf, to say nothing of Pratchett (the simply inspired nursery scenes in Hogfather)…

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