unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through

The Valiant Little Tailor

ften enough with these tales, it seems that the telling is not the tale itself—that there is a tale beneath richer and cleverer, more wondrous, more magical, than the text. Part of that, of course, may have to do with the texture of the translations; part of it may also have to do with the structure of the telling itself, whether it’s adhering to folk origins or bourgeois morality or any of that sort of things. Yet despite these tellings, the tale itself gleams through, so that, in this instance, we encounter one of the finest tales and one of the most winsome heroes in fairy tale literature.

‘The Brave Wee Tailor’ (if I can so cavalierly translate ‘Das tapfere Schneiderlein’)—aside from being one of my continually favourite fairy tales—is an exemplary trickster story. The tailor is a comitragic figure, with the adroitness and suppleness to bewilder everyone, including himself. The central, internal struggle of the tale is his relation to his own press releases. Will he believe them, or not? Does it matter whether he does or doesn’t? Are they, for that matter, even true?

We see him first haggling with an old woman over the purchase of jam. He attacks the sale with the enthusiasm of a connoisseur, as he ‘inspected all of them, lifted them up, put his nose to them’ to catch their bouquet, see how they catch the light. And then he buys all of a half a cup of jam—presumably because of his poverty. The old woman, who expected the self-styled jam expert to buy her stock, leaves in high dudgeon. The tailor seems not to notice.

The plot continues with a Waiting for Godot incoherence, and finds the tailor battling flies for rights to the jam. When, by sheer luck, he kills seven flies at one blow (they must have been stuck to the jam—do have any idea how hard it is to hit one fly out of seven blows?) he makes himself a girdle and sets off into the wide world, so that everyone can know he killed Seven at One Blow. This claim will repeatedly be misunderstood by just about everybody. Again, the tailor seems not to notice.

That, in fact, is his peculiar genius. He seems not to notice. In fact, he’s terribly shrewd, as these tricksters are. He plays instead the clueless idiot, at once laughing at himself and at everyone else, while managing to take nothing seriously and inadvertently winding out on top. If they made a movie of this tale, they couldn’t go wrong for this character by casting Ricky Gervais.

Come to think of it—they have made a movie. Walt Disney may be in some circles—and in some instances—the veritable Antichrist of fairy tale retellings, but I’ve always found a lot of pleasure in this vintage Mickey Mouse short (1938). Mickey the Tailor’s sudden fit of sheer terror when he realizes he’s thought to have killed seven giants is a bit of storytelling brilliance. True, it lacks the trickster-noir effect of the original tale, but as a retelling it’s memorable in its own right (for instance, replacing the Grimm’s assertion of social progress as the tailor’s motivations with Mickey’s doe-eyed love-at-first-sight for Princess Minnie).

The tailor in this tale is clever—but not that clever. He can outwit a giant, but who can’t? He traps a pig in a shed, but that’s not too hard either. His greatest trick, in fact, is posing as being so clever and so talented—the exquisite jam connoisseur, the great warrior, the mighty man of valour—while knowing he’s just a tailor.

Does he come to believe his own mythology? The Grimms suggest he does; Disney suggests he doesn’t. But the tailor himself remains elusive, cunning, and clever. In the end, you’re not sure whether he’s walked through the borders of the Perilous Realm and returned transformed, or if he’s had a huge joke at your expense.

Or both.

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2 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Jam and Waiting For Godot — what a riff! But it totally works. Great post. By the way, every time I read about Waiting for Godot, I think “love.” My husband and I met in a class called “Literature of the Absurd,” while reading Waiting for Godot. Twenty-seven years later, we’re still doing great — but we haven’t actually read Beckett since then. Or maybe I have.

  2. Are you going to comment here later to tell me you didn’t comment here before? 🙂

    I think a Beckett-inspired retelling of this tale would be wonderful, actually. And I love the unpredictable associations literature and lectures can oftentimes develop. My wife and I, for instance, get misty over abstract grammar and pamphlets advertising opportunities to Go to Africa as A Foreign Missionary. Really, really long story.

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