unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Read-Through of the Brothers Grimm

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs


e all know about fairy tales. They’re simple. They’re straightforward. If we’re mostly familiar with the Disneyfied versions of the tales, we’re pretty sure they’re harmless, perhaps slightly banal, little stories to keep the kids busy so we can actually talk. If we’ve read a little more closely, we’re thrilled by the tales and their variants, delighted at their magical landscapes and enchanted ethics. If we’ve read academically, then chances are we’ve learned that they’re bourgeois, and that there’s only two thousand of them, or four, or one—depending on how you count.

Regardless, we’re reasonably sure that we understand fairy tales. There’s not much left they can throw at us anymore.

There was once a poor woman who gave birth to a little son; and as he came into the world with a caul on, it was predicted that in his fourteenth year he would have the King’s daughter for his wife.

We remain vaguely aware and generally content that there were origins to the tales—Perrault, for instance, and Grimms. And, again, if you’re an academic, you’ve looked at the variants and how the relate or don’t. We know know the tale types and the social implications.

The King said in a passion, “You shall not have everything quite so much your own way; whosoever marries my daughter must fetch me from hell three golden hairs from the head of the devil; bring me what I want, and you shall keep my daughter.” In this way the King hoped to be rid of him for ever. But the luck-child answered, “I will fetch the golden hairs, I am not afraid of the Devil;” thereupon he took leave of them and began his journey.

And it’s all true, of course. Fairy tales are banal; they are safe and unpredictable. They encourage Victorian values hopelessly irrelevant to the modern and postmodern worlds. They show the world as a safe and orderly place, with concrete dangers—a suitable world for children. We, grown-ups that we are, know the world is full of contradictions and surprises. But of a manageable sort.

When he had crossed the water he found the entrance to Hell. It was black and sooty within, and the Devil was not at home, but his grandmother was sitting in a large arm-chair.

There is a modern angst that the fairy tale seems unsuitable for. The angst of, say, knowing how the economy is going to behave in a year or six months (its finance—strange stuff). The tension and backlog of projects at work. The day-to-day trials and troubles of the modern world. Personal trauma and painful life circumstances Fairy tales offer modern, humanist, happily-ever-after solutions that really benefit no one. The answer to everything in those tales is marriage, isn’t it?

“I dreamed that a fountain in a market-place from which wine once flowed was dried up, and not even water would flow out of it; what is the cause of it?”

“Oh, ho! if they did but know it,” answered the devil; “there is a toad sitting under a stone in the well; if they killed it, the wine would flow again.”

Only occasionally, when we look too hard at the tales, there’s bits and glimmers that disturb us. What is a luck-child? Why does the king want to kill him? How does a toad beside a well change anything? These matters could just be fairy tale logic—but they’re written of as if they make sense in ours.

The tales seem strange, then, and other—as if for a moment an echo of laughter died away in a silent chamber where no laughter should be. Things unsettle our postmodern sensibilities; visions of vanished worlds and forgotten ways give us pause.

We have the hold of something larger, then, something stranger—like the restless vision-lands we inhabit at night. The dreams skitter teasingly on the edge of our consciousness, and for a moment we’re unsure—did we really show up for that exam six years late and not wearing trousers? Did we really fight a dragon with a magical teaspoon, while flying on a scooter? Because it all made sense, once…

“Ha! what are you doing?” cried the devil angrily.

“Do not take it ill,” said she, “I did it in a dream.”

Of course we didn’t, we tell ourselves. We’re secure in the world as we perceive it. We forget what we dreamed and leave the tales for the children, and go on with the safety of our lives.

Perhaps he is ferrying still? If he is, it is because no one has taken the oar from him.

5 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Im occasionally bewildered and disturbed by Childrens stories as well John. Your right that the “matter of fact” way that things are written seem to stretch our sense of reality, sucking us into a frame of mind that “unsettle our postmodern sensibilities”.

    I think we touched on this slightly with our little talk on Coraline didnt we?

    Are modern fairy tales looking for this kind of “strange” intentionally and if not do you think it is a style of writing worth pursuing?

  2. I think it depends on the fairy tale, Matt. Some certainly are: Coraline is a great example. Others certainly are not: so Disney’s The Frog Princess. But even when this sort of pursuit succeeds, as in Gaiman’s case generally, it still emerges from that place of postmodern sensibility. There are cultural structures and patterns in the old tales that are taboo and unthinkable to most Western readers these days–marrying at fourteen, for instance, or the cabbalistic power of a frog or other fetish over a well. These were probably just part of life when the old tales were being written and told–probably the fountain of wine was more remarkable than the presence of a certain animal damming it. Nowadays, these things have shock value or curiosity factor; they’ve become alien to the West.

    That said, I do think it’s a style worth pursuing. I think an understanding and the exploration–even the fanciful speculation–of the roots of these tales are beneficial to the telling of them. But invariably, we’ll be looking at these elements from outside–an etic view, if you will. I suspect most great new tales will be less ritualistic and more eldritch and unexplained.

    Not sure if that explains anything?

  3. I’ve heard the term “Beige Prose” (as in the opposite of “Purple Prose”) used occasionally. It seems to serve.

    I think it depends on the sort of story it is and the effect the storyteller wants. A story like “Sindbad the Sailor” would be simply pointless without rich opulent overblown descriptions of every little thing. (“They came into a cave. There was a Roc there. It was a big evil bird. They fought with it and killed it.”)

    On the other hand, something bizarre described matter-of-factly can have a marvelous chilling or even awe-inspiring effect on the reader. “Instead of eyes, she had black buttons.”

    Robert Heinlein (I’ve heard) tried to do this artificially to create a futuristic setting that would seem commonplace to its inhabitants by offhandedly giving descriptions such as “The door dilated.”

  4. I love this tale, I have told it aloud to school children. Telling aloud makes a big difference to a tale, and they were all once told aloud, you know. The kids understand the story very well, the humour and the irony and the sheer chutzpah of the boy who lets nothing at all bother him…

  5. Pingback: a metamorphic announcement | The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

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