unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through

illus-091The Three Little Men in the Wood 


he story is familiar. A widower with a daughter marries a widow with a daughter. Then he vanishes. The stepmother and the stepdaughter torment the natural daughter, posing her impossible tasks which prove their own undoing.

Because, all physical loveliness aside, the poor, abused girl is good and sweet and kind, and has pity on someone who is old, ugly, or sick—is willing for a moment to lay aside her own worries and show compassion with someone else. The moral of these tales is clear. Kindness and cruelty will have their rewards, and little old men are not always what they seem.

The trope, as I said, is familiar enough. Evil stepmother sets a task for the good daughter. The good daughter does it, because she’s kind to the good folk—in this instance, the Three Little Men.* Touched by her kindness, the good folk reward her. Her beauty shall grow ever greater, gold will pop out of her mouth whenever she opens it, and she’ll marry a king. That all happens.

So the envious and furious stepmother sends bad daughter to the same task. She snubs the good folk, gets three curses. She’ll get uglier every day. Toads will come out of her mouth. And she’ll die in a particularly nasty way. That all happens, too.

This particular telling has a few flourishes that make it noteworthy and, I’d say, my favourite story of its type. First, consider this cryptic passage:. Superstition? Clearly. Yet I think that superstitions are often cultural memories of taboo and ordeal:

The man said, “What shall I do? Marriage is a joy and also a torment.” At length, as he could come to no decision, he pulled off his boot, and said, “Take this boot, it has a hole in the sole of it. Go with it up to the loft, hang it on the big nail, and then pour water into it. If it hold the water, then I will again take a wife, but if it run through, I will not.” The girl did as she was ordered, but the water drew the hole together, and the boot became full to the top.

Enter the evil stepmother. Who, second, has bribed the man’s daughter to want her for a mum, promising her a luxury and pampering. The girl is immature and trusting enough to believe it. That’s seriously disturbing stuff, really. The abuser poses as friend, even a doting friend, but as soon as the favour is granted out come the claws. This can be in a family relationship, as here, a romantic relationship, or a pastoral/ministerial relationship. The world is full of evil stepmothers of all stripes, really.

Third, the impossible task itself. The girl must wear a paper dress and gather strawberries, in midwinter. Why? She wants to know, and so do we. There’s no explanation, only a strangely vindictive stepmother trying to get her to freeze to death. But the image itself—and the events that flow from it—is surreal , dreamlike. It’s haunting in its frivolity and its poignancy. A paper sundress in winter. Red strawberries on white snow. And then the little cottage in the forest, a simple act of kindness—and the world of dreams has burst out of the wild woods into the wide world. The imagination, left to run riot, turns the pain to beauty, and heals the world.

The story ends with a swap trope. Ugly daughter is put in the king’s bed just after the beautiful daughter has given birth. The king doesn’t notice until a duck tells him (although, in his defence, he hasn’t actually seen his wife since the birth, and was admittedly suspicious when he saw all the toads.) The beautiful daughter is reborn from the water, changed out of duck shape. And the stepmother gets to write her own happily ever after, or not.

“What does a person deserve who drags another out of bed and throws him in the water?” “The wretch deserves nothing better,” answered the old woman, “than to be taken and put in a barrel stuck full of nails, and rolled down hill into the water.” “Then,” said the King, “Thou hast pronounced thine own sentence;” and he ordered such a barrel to be brought, and the old woman to be put into it with her daughter, and then the top was hammered on, and the barrel rolled down hill until it went into the river.

Not really bright, considering that she’d thrown someone in the water a few days before. A sort of repressed self-loathing, perhaps? The fabled murder’s conscience?

Does the tale have a moral? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think most fitting what Neil Gaiman wrote:

Do not be jealous of your sister.

Know that diamonds and roses

are as uncomfortable when they tumble from

one’s lips as toads and frogs:

colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

It’s hard to describe succinctly, or at all, the effect of this story. It’s simple, it’s familiar, and it lingers. Here is wonder that will entrance and delight you, images and ideas that will settle slowly in your mind, that will captivate your imagination and not let it go. This is one of the Great Tales. Not in the sense of a High Tale, a tale of the elves or of elvenhome, nor in the sense of a tale of Heroes and Dooms. But this may well be, perhaps, what everyday life would be for common folk in the days when heroes wrought deeds remembered in song.

*They later went on to perform music with rocks in, receiving much critical acclaim.


One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. I remember this fairy tale. I had book as a child that had a version of it with illustrations that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. All I can remember is pearls coming out of the mouth of the good girl and toads out of the bad girl. The moral is be a good girl. Oh yes – and I remember the good girl was blonde and the bad girl was raven-haired. I was a little dismayed with my black hair after that.

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