unsettling wonder

Kinder- und Hausmarchen: A Grimm Read-Through

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  The Seven Ravensillus-037t

his is one of the Great Tales. Everything in this tale is, I would argue, what a fairy tale should be. Tales like this catch our breath—in both the physical and spiritual meaning of that word. Physically, our breath is quickened or held back as we experience the emotion and danger and thrills of this determined young heroine as she rescues her brothers. Spiritually, in the sense that spirit is breath, it refreshes and awakens the imagination, giving clearer imagination and the apotheosis that comes with a grail-glimpse of beauty.

Note that I’m referring specifically to the Story itself—the mythic centre, what C. S. Lewis called the pattern of events that effects us. I’m not referring to the Grimms’ words. For stories of this sort, words tend to serve as a vehicle to rouse the imagination. It is not a story that I’ve heard told particularly well—in that the words and the tale are inseparable. But it is a story, and I realise the more I read it, that affects me deeply, and always has.

Telling fairy tales, still more re-telling them, is always a tricky business. It is too easy to assume a familiarity with the story that one does not necessarily possess. The Great Tales in particular are far more than, say, a plot about a young woman who rescues her brothers from a curse. There is a flavour—an aroma—an atmosphere—a feel—something completely indefinable, because it seems sensory but acts on none of the seven senses with which we are familiar—that is necessary to catch and understand before any telling can begin to approach success.

It is this complexity, by the way, and the liminal possibilities of that feel which makes publications like Enchanted Conversation so exciting. It is possible—however improbable our cynicism makes it  appear—that in any given issue there may be ten or twelve retellings which capture the feel of that aroma in a fresh vision (a metaphor which is shaken, not stirred). Even if one such telling is found every three issues, it seems to make the whole attempt worth it.

Moreover, to keep with the same example, Enchanted Conversation (for good or for ill) is a publication which squarely addresses the Great Tales. A look at their submission guidelines shows that the themes for upcoming issues include ‘Rumplestiltskin,’ ‘Snow White,’ and ‘Cinderella.’ These are tales told and retold endlessly, but seldom, I think, told really well. This, then, may be a chance to discover new tellings.

[DISCLAIMER: No, Enchanted Conversation didn’t pay me to write this. But they might!]

Because stories like ‘The Seven Brothers’ make us want to revisit this Perilous Realm of story and wonder—whether by telling, retelling, or just reading and reading. Beside this tale, fussy criticisms of Victorian Values and anti-feminist messages and escapism—valid as they may be beside other tales—fade away, and we are lost at the foot of the mountain of glass, lost in a world where words echo truths, where the sun and the moon are hostile and terrible though the stars are friendly, where a brave young girl can unwork the riddle of words and right a terrible wrong.

Reader, I dare not say more. I lay aside my pen. Go—read the tale yourself. Here are beauties that cut like with a joy like grief, terrors that linger long after the story has ended…

Hastily she ran away, and ran to the moon, but it was far too cold,
and also awful and malicious, and when it saw the child, it said,

“I smell, I smell the flesh of men.”

Perhaps, after reading, you’ll want to write your own. I did. Tales, after all, are worth the telling of them—words we never quite remember, but can never forget.

Fearing that the girl would die without being baptized, he cried out in anger, "I wish that those boys would all turn into ravens."

He had hardly spoken these words when he heard a whirring sound above his head, and looking up, he saw seven coal-black ravens flying up and away.

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