unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-ThroughThe White Snake  

read-through of Grimm’s fairytales is an interesting discipline after spending the day reading Zipes. This isn’t the proper forum to really discuss all of the man’s remarkable ideas—certainly he’s an outstanding critic by any standard—but a quick summary might help patrons of Paradoxes not already familiar with his work.

Essentially, in his watershed monograph, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (Second Edition, Routledge, 2006),  Zipes attempts a socio-critical reading of the Western fairy tale tradition, particularly looking at the uses and misuses of the fairy tale as a socializing or civilising text. He sees the Brothers Grimm as presenting an aggressively bourgeois system of Victorian values, with an emphasis on female submission in the home and male wealth accumulation in the capitalist marketplace, promoting patriarchy and presenting a narrow, anti-subversion morality.

For the most part, I’d say he seems to be right. And I read ‘The White Snake’ with his superb analysis ringing in my mind.

Only—only—only—I couldn’t see how it fit. I couldn’t make it fit, as hard as I tried. Please understand, I’m not trying to refute Zipes through a simple blog post. That would require an academic study as least as exhaustive as his, that is, a dedicated lifetime of persistent study of fairy tales. But I’m at a genuine loss to work ‘The White Snake’ into the particulars of his critique.

Anyone else out there see how it works?

I see the broad categories—the vigorous male who climbs the social hierarchy and accumulates wealth, the crafty female who learns that true happiness and wisdom equals submission to a man. That’s there, and that glosses nicely. But the negative reading seems tagged on, as if the Grimms drew out certain features to make a point, as they almost certainly did. It takes very little imagination to shift the tale back to an older telling, with the princess a powerful and resourceful enchantress and the ‘faithful retainer’ a war-captain or knight errant.

The mythic core of the tale, which I argue transcends the Grimms’ small-minded bourgeoisie, would remain unchanged.

The core is simply this: a faithful servant—perhaps I should say, a plucky and cunning trickster of a servant—eats the flesh of the White Snake, and learns the language of animals. When he’s accused of theft, he’s able to find and convict the duck who did the dastardly deed. He is given knighthood, and sets off on errantry. He listens to the animals as they go, and takes compassion on them. He saves the life of three land-bound fished, of a nest of ants, of three ravens. Each say the same thing: You have done us a service we shall never forget. We shall repay it if we can.

The knight (for so I see him) comes at length to a castle, where a king’s daughters is in need of a husband to settle her down, say the Grimms. (I say he comes to a kingdom ruled by a powerful and hard-hearted enchantress, but who listens to a frog?) He falls madly in love, according to custom, and promises to undertake the impossible tasks. And they are impossible—the princess really doesn’t want to get married, or something. Bad princess, say the Grimms, (You go, girl, says the frog. You don’t need to catch a man to make you important.)

And the tasks are impossible. Who but a fish could bring the gold ring from the depths of the sea? Who but an ant could gather all the ears of grain together in a single night? Who but a raven could fly beyond the limits of dream to bring back an apple from the tree of life?

As Loremaster Gaiman has taught us:

When you come back, return the way you came.

Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.

The knight cut the apple of life in two, gave half to the enchantress, and they ate it together. And then they saw what they had not seen before, the pathway of sorrow and the wandering of joy, the pattern of a knot and the meaning of a star.

“Now I am your knight most truly,” said the youth.

“And I am your true lady,” she answered.

They turned to one another then and held each other, their faces wet with tears.

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3 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Is Zipes (who is on my long list of “books I’m overdue to read”) differentiating between “what the Brothers Grimm present” and “Story” in C. S. Lewis’s sense (the pattern of events that affects us)?

  2. Zipes doesn’t make that distinction overtly in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, no. What’s the best source for Lewis’s concept? I’ll be researching that soon.

    Zipes is really worth a read if you have the chance, or make one.

  3. On Stories (the title essay and several of the other ones, particularly the one on Rider Haggard) is probably the best, though if memory serves he gets into it in the Experiment in Criticism as well. The chapter On Myth is probably the one I was thinking of.

    “The man who first learns what is to him a great myth through a verbal account which is baldly or vulgarly or cacophonously written, discounts and ignores the bad writing and attends solely to the myth. He hardly minds about the writing. He is glad to have the myth on any terms.”

    Also check out Gaiman’s evocative introduction to “Stories.” What makes a Story? Just four words…

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