unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms

The Three Languages


oday is different. For one thing, it’s the last day of the West of the Moon giveaway, and I’ve changed the rules ever-so-slightly. Here’s how:

If it’s still Monday 18 April where you are, you can comment either on this post or on the link above, and you’re in. If you comment on the link above, you’re in automatically. If you comment on this post, leave a number between 6 and 47 at the end of the post, so I know you want to be entered in the giveaway. I’ll announce the winner tomorrow sometime, on the comment thread at the link above.

Today is also, to move from the absurd to the sublime, caught up in Sacred Time. I’d be remiss not to you Chag Sameach Pesach, or Blessed Eastertide, or both.  So I do.

And today is sort of an experiment. Although I don’t have any books to give away (yet), I really enjoyed the conversation on “Clever Hans” last week (again, see the link above), when I just threw the story at you and let you talk about it. So let me try that again. This week’s story is called ‘The Three Languages.’ You can read it here.

If you want something a little more standard, there are a few feeder questions and haphazard observations below the jump, which you can read or not, as you desire.

‘The Three Languages’ is a story I’d never read before. And the first time through, it struck me as a story that didn’t quite work. I liked the beginning, as the father sends the foolish youth off to three different sensei, growing increasingly frustrated as he learns no trade but only how to communicate with Nature. I liked the middle—I mean, a terribly enchanted tower full of wild dogs that howl horribly all night and demand a man to eat every month or so? What’s not to like?

The ending surprised me. It seemed silly. I mean—the Pope? The simpleton who can speak to birds becomes the Pope?

Then I made myself reconsider. Is it any less silly than being made king? Well, no, not really. Kings are just more common in fairy tales than popes. The Grimms further confounded me by commenting in their pedantic way how this tale coincided with folklore traditions surrounding at least two popes, and reminding me that popes are depicted iconographically with a dove on their shoulder.

This didn’t make the piece any easier—in fact, in some ways it makes it more complex. Less literary, perhaps, and more folkloric. Fairy tales never really cease to confound us, and it’s the out-of-the-way tales, the ones that haven’t been Disneyfied and Bowdlerised, that often surprise us most.

So, what do you think? Did the pope at the end bother you? Did something else, or nothing else, about the tale bother you?

Would it be a subtle form of Bowdlerization to retell this tale and leave the pope out of it? Or would it just be needed improvement?

Is there are serious message here? About nature? About parenting? About religion? About education? About any of the above, or something else?

Have you read this story or a story like it before? (Please tell the ‘story like it’ if you have.)

What questions do you have for the tale?


3 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. From a narrative standpoint, what it needs is at least one more episode like the Dog Tower– The youth meets a problem that confounds everyone, but that he can solve because he knows frog language, to great acclaim. Then the doves/pope denoument would follow more sensibly, I think. Though from a religious standpoint, the idea of a Pope whose only qualification is that he knows bird-talk is a bit bothersome. (Still, better him than Rodrigo Borgia.)

    Otherwise, I’m hearing echoes of another of the simpleton tales in which the oaf misinterprets the croaking of the frogs–“Eight? Eight? Eight?” Only in this case, “Pope, Pope, Pope?” And perhaps Dick Whittington and his Cat, roundabout.

  2. I like it. I agree with Eric that you’d expect more parallel structures in the tale – like the Devil with the Three Golden Hairs – but I like it, and I like the ending – the dream that you might have a Pope so innocent and holy that doves would teach him the mass. Sort of a holy fool, or St Francis.

    And it reminds me of a story I learnt many years ago, when my children were little. We were living in France at the time, so the moral was highly acceptable. It’s about Mrs Mouse, who had so many children she hardly knew how to look after them or keep them amused, so one day she took them all for a walk in the woods and met a cat. A big cat. A hungry cat. Mrs Mouse was so small and defenceless – how could she save her children from the jaws of the monster? But being brave and resourceful, she looked that cat in the eye, and she growled. And then she barked – ‘Woof, woof! Woof!’ She barked so well, in fact, that the cat was terrified, really believing a dog was near. It turned tail and fled –

    “And that,” said Mrs Mouse, turning to her awed and frightened children, “that, my dears, is the advantage of speaking two languages.”

  3. Ohh… well, I really liked it. 🙂 Of course, I read your entire post and the comments before reading the story, so there’s no knowing how the surprise would have taken me. But as a Catholic, I enjoyed watching the simple, humble lad become Pope and learn his Mass from the doves. The innocent contact with nature rather than having skill in the ways of the world, as Katherine noted, does bear some resemblance to St. Francis of Assisi.

    On the other hand, it is surprising to find Rome and Catholicism suddenly in a fairy tale. I guess I’d usually pictured fairy tales as being situated in a world rather out of contact with ours, which obviously means I never gave the matter much thought.

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