unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Read-Through

The Singing Bone


fter a while, fairy tales can seem monochromatic. You get lulled into accepting the patterns and expectations of the genre. You start using words like genre, structure, and monomyth. You grouse about portrayals of women and family and society—often enough justly. All fairy tales, say the people who know about such matters, are really the same. They are hegemonic, and bourgeois, and didactic. And maybe they are.

But then—this.

The Grimms, of course, prettified the tale. Really, you nearly have to admire them. They try so hard to make it a moral fable about the Inadvisability of Doing Wrong. But it just doesn’t work. Not quite.

What is ‘The Singing Bone’? I find it difficult to answer that question. The trappings of fairy tale are here—the king, the quest, the youngest daughter, the two or three brothers, the simpleton. But there are older things, and darker—if there can be said to be anything older than a fairy tale.

There is the Fisher-King, the Waste Land—the wound in the land needing to be heeled. There is the Beast, whose death brings healing to the land, the black spear that kills it. There is the little man—his presence completely unaccounted for—who appears just long enough to ensure the death of the Beast. There is the story of Cain and Abel.

And there is the Singing Bone.

The tale possesses a strange coherence and internal logic that defies description and categorization. Even admirable collections of similar tale-types, such as D. L. Ashliman’s Folktexts entry (which I urge you all to read), do little more than hallmark its feel of the uncanny, the unfamiliar. It’s a logic that seems to linger in the world, residue from the dawn days. One gets the sense that things happen because they must—there are laws at work here as inviolable as any Code of Physics.

The tale offers none of the modern, glitzy Dark, as in ‘Dark is the new Cool.’ It can hardly be said to be ‘dark’ at all, in that sense. But it disturbs us with a haunting, incoherent realism that we prefer to find only in dreams.

The bone sings to identify its victim. ‘Long have I lain beside the waterside. Do not let me go, hold me fast. My brother he killed me, my father he ate me. Do not let me go.’

After five attempts at writing a close reading of this text, I give up. It defies scholarly embrace—defies rationalization and explanation. I do not know what it is. It has shown me, I think, what the world can be. Shown me the dark dreams and corners that we would rather forget and can never fully explain.

‘The Singing Bone’ is a tale of the unquiet dead, of unhallowed ancestors, of restless ghosts. It’s a story about fratricide and envy, about justice and healing.

Sort of. Mostly, it’s about itself.

Reader—I leave it to you. You tell me this tale, and unriddle its meaning.


We close the book, then, and walk away into the sensible world we’d rather confront. We forget what we read and what we saw—take comfort that some things are stories and we’re not as foolish as Those People.

But the world has changed for all that.

Note: The video is a clip from the 1962 movie The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which I know nothing about except this clip. It’s a wonderful example of the gaudy, silly, ostentatious, and wonderful tradition of campy fairy tale films, really. It manages to be chilling without taking itself at all seriously, as if it works in spite of itself. Which brings to my mind the observation that there’s not been enough study done of fairy tale films.

And that the tale may be a sort that tells itself…

(I think former reincarnation of John Linnell wrote and sang the bone-song.)


One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. The singing bone itself reminds me very vaguely of one of the stories of King Midas– the time when his barber whispered the secret that Midas had donkey’s ears into the ground, then the reeds grew and began to whisper the secret as well. Very vaguely.

    There’s also some echoes of “The Juniper Tree”…

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