unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through


Die drei Spinnerinnen [The Three Spinning Women] illus-097t

ales exist apart from their tellers. I get more convinced of this the more I read tales like this one. There are two tales here. Or rather, one tale beneath the other, struggling to break through and tell itself. But I’m at a loss to decipher whether it’s the tale itself or my own reading of it that I like.

To put it rather dully, this tale is dichotic. To put it more engagingly, this is a tale at war with itself. Is it the story of how to be a good repressed girl, a glib reiteration capitalistic propaganda—a story to be lauded in the darkest moments of Thatcherism? Or is it a radical restructuring of values and appearances, a manifesto for the promise of the other, a cry for welcome to the stranger, an insistence on solidarity and freedom?

Is it somehow both?

It’s the story of a maiden who refuses to spin flax into thread—won’t do an ounce of work, and seems to work less the more her mother yells at her. I’m guess she’s about fifteen. That’s the easy part of the reading.

Who should come along but a queen in a coach, and Why are you saying  Those Sorts of Words at your daughter, she asks? Well, says the mother—embarrassed to think that royalty should see her failing at parenting class—she’s just that industrious I don’t know what to do with her. Won’t stop spinning all my flax into thread no matter how much I shout. As if I had the means to keep her in flax, I don’t think! Oho, says the queen, we are much amused. I’ll take your daughter and here’s twenty pounds besides. I like to see industry in the young.

I don’t usually flinch when the Grimms dismember their villains in nasty ways, but this exchange made me shudder:

Then answered the Queen, “There is nothing that I like better to hear than spinning, and I am never happier than when the wheels are humming. Let me have your daughter with me in the palace. I have flax enough, and there she shall spin as much as she likes.” The mother was heartily satisfied with this, and the Queen took the girl with her.

Wait—what? Because, in the twisted nature of her heart the mother thought, when the queen finds out my daughter is a lazy bum, she’ll chop her head off quick as thinking. After the queen had gone, the mother took her remaining daughters and wend and married a wealthy, ailing widower with a daughter he called Cindy but she called–

I mean, really. Why have the Grimms got it in for mothers? Any suggestions? And please don’t say anything Oedipal or I’ll shoot a sphinx.

The queen takes the maiden to the castle, and gives her three rooms full of flax. Spin this all into thread, she says.

“Now spin me this flax,” said she, “and when thou hast done it, thou shalt have my eldest son for a husband, even if thou art poor. I care not for that, thy indefatigable industry is dowry enough.”

Of course, the hapless maiden can’t do anything other than freak out, which she does for three days. And then three strangers appear beneath her window.

So far, so obnoxious. What’s the moral? Indefatigable industry is money. Work hard and you will succeed. The surest way to riches is to be industrious. Stop your whining and work. Ain’t no one going to do you no favours. Working class people aren’t desirable until they know their place and work. If you’re not working, it’s your own problem. The un-working should be executed. Good little girls are only worth something if they’re productive in menial labour.

What an annoying fable of Victorian values.

And that may be the fable the Grimms intended. But there’s something darker here, something older and wilder surging beneath the service. For the three strangers are the three hags who spin endlessly, one to turn the wheel, one to measure the thread, and the third—the faceless one—to cut. Is it Death herself outside the maiden’s window? The earth has bubbles, bursting up from the deep places, and such are these.

Three old hideous women wait to help the beautiful maiden. We shall spin for you, we shall win your prince for you, we shall weave your fortune for you—only—only you must promise. You must promise one thing.

What is it, the maiden asks?

Do not be ashamed of us.

Invite us to your wedding to sit at your table. Sit and dine with us. Call us your aunts, the sisters of your mother. Call us your family. Welcome us, honour us. Do not cast us out, do not look away.

Do not be ashamed of us.

We are other, we are outcast, we are flotsam and jetsam in this world and the next. Yet we are part of you, we are where you have come from and where you may, someday, return. Without us, you cannot be yourself. Welcome us, honour us. Do not look away.

Do not be ashamed of us.

Befriend the widow, the orphan. Welcome the stranger, the outcast. Give shelter to the alien within your gates. This is the Old Way. This is Pure Religion. This—other, strange, subversive, ridiculous—this way—this is the way that leads to Eternal Life. This is the way the world spins.

Do not be ashamed.

Is there a happy ending? Yes, of course. Because, like many lazy and obnoxious teenagers, the maiden is really good and kind and brave, and only wants occasion to realize it. She does. The old ladies spin the flax, she invites them to the wedding—insists that they sit at the table— declares them to be her family. She tells everyone what amazing spinners her ugly aunts are.

And in a delightful subversion of the prim queen’s capitalistic ethic, the new prince cries, “I don’t want you looking like that! I ban you from spinning ever again!”

The girl’s fortune is made in (for her) a most satisfactory fashion. And I did laugh when I read it. That was the kindly, cunning plan of these three loathly ladies—that was their reward. In the face of the queen’s insistence on indefatigable industry, the three hideous aunts give to the girl’s needs, according to their ability. Because she was brave and good and kind. Because she was not ashamed of the other, the stranger.

Do you see what I mean about dichotomy? This is a tale that destroys itself. It untells itself with the telling. As to what the story really is—I can’t say.

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