unsettling wonder

Kinder- und Hausmarchen: A Grimm Read-Through


 Frau Holle


‘unsettling wonder’ has returned, and what a tale to return to. This deserves a long introduction.

My friend and colleague Kate Wolford has put up a soul-searching post that captures much of my intention in writing ‘unsettling wonder.’ Now, Kate is a regular here at Paradoxes, and she just accepted an article of mine for publication (more on that later), so right now I’m inclined to think anything she does is wonderful. But all katew fandom aside, she’s really hit the mark with this one. Go read it. Then come back here to read this.

I’ll wait.

As you just read, Kate notes the depressing fact that ‘it’s amazing how much Disney, fairy tales, and weddings are linked in people’s minds, even when writers and readers try to rebel against the Disney themes and messages about fairy tales and weddings.’ And she makes the shrewd observation that even when we’re most anti-Disney in retelling fairy tales, we wind up ‘so drenched in NOT BEING DISNEY, that it feels Disney.’

Because,I think, we’re making the same assumptions that this is what the tales are about. That this is what the tales are for. That ‘happily ever after’ = ‘unmitigated marital bliss,’ and nothing more. We’re defending villains, maybe, or liberating heroines, perhaps—but those are ideological, philosophical questions (postmodernism and feminism respectively, if you’re interested). We’re challenging what we see as the ‘moral’ or, if you’re from a certain subset of America, the ‘worldview’ behind the tale. As if we know what that is at a glance.

But we’re not asking questions of the tale, trying to get into it and behind it. And, more importantly, we’re not letting the tales ask questions of us.

Some tales—I’m thinking The Little Mermaid—have been so Disneyfied, it seems like it’ll take another 50 years of patient blogging (the horror, the horror!) before anyone recognizes that there’s a difference here.

This isn’t one of those tales.

This the tale of Frau Holle—and she’ll keep a good hold of it, thank you.

illus-146A woman has two daughters—her own, and her stepdaughter. The stepdaughter has to sit by the well and spin cloth until her fingers bleed. When the spindles is covered with blood, she tries to wash it in the well, but drops it. Hysterical with panic, she jumps after it.

And lands in the World Beyond.

There’s bread in the oven. Take us out, they cry, we’re burning, we’re burning!

So the girl does.

The apple tree is weeping. Shake us, shake us, maiden, for we are ripe and are ready to fall.

So the girl does.

An old woman comes out of the house, a woman with stooped shoulders and keen eyes, a woman with long teeth and a kind smile. You are a good, kind girl, she says. You may live here with me, if you like. But make sure you do the sweeping—and the mopping—and the dishes—and shake out the quilt. Be sure to shake out the quilt, girl. Shake it till the feathers fly.

And then the snow will fall in the world above. Because, you see–

I am Frau Holle.

So the girl does that, too. She shakes the duvet until the feathers fly about the room and the snow falls on the world above. And she stays with Frau Holle until she grows weary of the World Beyond, and wants to go home.

And Frau Holle smiles.

Of course you miss your home, she says. Go along, on with you then—just out this door, please.

So the girl does, and her clothes are covered with gold, and her pockets and apron and hands are filled with gold, and she goes home, where the birds greet her with their singing.

Question for you: how do you want to read ‘Frau Holle’? Do you want to read it as a moral tale, telling little girls to always do their chores and never be cross? You can read it that way, if you like.

Because the stepdaughter is envious. She throws her spindle in the well and jumps after, into the World Beyond. Help us! cries the bread, but she doesn’t. Help us! cries the apple tree, but she doesn’t. Remember to shake the duvet, says Frau Holle, but she doesn’t, and won’t, and sulks, and gripes, and wants to go home.

Of course go home! snaps Frau Holle. But go out that door, would you.

And she does.

But instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.

And the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.

There’s our moral tale—pre-packaged and preapproved. We can guess that the Golden Girl married Colin Firth’s twin brother, and that the Pitch [girl] had to get a job as an administrative assistant, and never managed to break the glass ceiling.

Or can we?

There’s a moral to this tale, sure. But the view of ‘fairy tale’ equalling ‘moral tale’ is as fallacious as ‘happily ever after’ equalling ‘perpetual marital felicity.’ It’s a construct of the Victorian bourgeois, including the Grimms, to silence the unsettling voices of the past, to block out pre-Enlightenment memories.

I’m not so sure we can just rush the tale into a pigeonhole so quickly. Because who, then, is Frau Holle? What is the place, this World Beyond? Why do spindles bleed and wells lead to worlds beyond? I don’t think we have a set answer. The symbols linger in our mind and act on us long after lectures on Doing Chores have faded away into twinges of guilt.

The chores are a ruse, a device. For people like Frau Holle, it’s never just about chores. They’re just there to point to something larger, and older, and deeper. The chores are a disguise—as perhaps the bread is a disguise, and the apple-tree, and the feathers. Is the gold a disguise, perhaps? Is the pitch? If we take the tale—not as a text to be categorised and deconstructed, not as an artefact to be disseminated—if we take it as itself, and let it sit with us, and listen to it—

—what does it say?

Once there was an old woman who lived in the land at the bottom of the well. And every day when the winter came, she shook out her quilt till the feathers flew. And whenever the feathers flew, the snow fell in the world above.

Because, you see, she was Frau Holle…


One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. Yes, Frau Holle is such a great story. It’s dark — really, it’s a lot like Diamonds and Toads. How do we know if the “good,” favored daughter really does live happily? Do we know that the pitch-covered girl didn’t end up a star attraction in a circus and end up married a reptile-man?

    I think you are spot on about fairy tales not necessarily being really about chores or happily ever after. The magic they bring, the spells they cast, poke holes in the walls we erect between ourselves and confusion also comfort us, because we peek through the holes and survive.

    Or maybe it’s all just about juicy family issues.

    Thank you for your very kind words. The post about weddings was so hard to write.
    (That’s a picture of my daughter, by the way, in the post. Yeah, I admit it, I am proud of her. Also, those wedding photos cost and arm and a leg, and I intend to keep getting mileage out of them any way I can.)

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