Household Tales: Reading the Grimms
his tale reveals my bias, I’m afraid. I’ve always been partial to tales of knighthood and errantry, and while ‘The Riddle’ is packaged with the rest of the Grimms’ stories, it’s really not a fairy tale. At least not quite in that way—not by Tolkien’s definition, to be more specific. And not yet.
This is a tale of errantry, simply and utterly. A king’s son and his faithful retainer go off into the wide world. Read: a knight and his squire set forth on errantry. As a fairy tale, its a bit odd; as a knight-errant tale, it works quite well. There’s echoes of Sir Gawain here, and Sir Lionel, and Samson—well, heck. There’s echoes of the whole genre.
Consider the opening:
There was once a King’s son who was seized with a desire to travel about the world, and took no one with him but a faithful servant. One day he came to a great forest, and when darkness overtook him he could find no shelter, and knew not where to pass the night. Then he saw a girl who was going towards a small house, and when he came nearer, he saw that the maiden was young and beautiful. He spoke to her, and said, “Dear child, can I and my servant find shelter for the night in the little house?” “Oh, yes,” said the girl in a sad voice, “that you certainly can, but I do not advise you to venture it. Do not go in.”
You can’t get anymore conventional than that, unless you’re William Morris that passes for a joke among antiquarians—if you don’t get it, don’t worry too much just now). The story continues with a vague nod toward the usual Grimm fare. Turns out the damozel’s step-mother is a wicked witch:
The old woman was sitting in an armchair by the fire, and looked at the stranger with her red eyes. “Good evening,” growled she, and pretended to be quite friendly.
‘Gramercy, gentle mistress,’ quoth the knight, ‘what big eyes thou hath!’
The tale, however, proceeds on the usual lines—the wicked witch might just as well be an evil enchanter, without even having to give up the alliteration. The events unfold without seeming cause, save the general moment of the knight and squire riding from place to place, meeting various maidens. The title comes in when the knight falls in courtly love with an unattainable princess, and undertakes a Dread Task to win her hand. That is, at her command he asks her a riddle. If she can’t guess, she has to marry him.
She’s very good a riddles.
So is he.
The resulting story—if we ignore some cruel sexist prejudice interruptions on the part of the Grimms, which is more than a little frustrating—rivals, as I said, Sir Gawain in complexity and intrigue. Secrets are betrayed by the heart and the tongue, and if you’re spying on someone don’t leave your cloak behind.
The ending of the tale strikes with suddenness and poignancy. OK, on one level it’s your basic Happy After—but, it’s not. Not quite. The imagery is strange—a cloak of gray mist. Weave it with silver and gold and it shall be thy wedding train. Is this another task? Or is it a hint of the purification the chivalric love of knight and lady must undergo? Is this the beginning of an alchemical arch—gray cloak, woven with silver and gold?
We leave the tale satisfied—and yet, and yet. I can’t quite shake the feeling that this is only
the beginning of the tale.