unsettling wonder

Household Tales: Reading the Grimm Brothers


Clever Elsie


ime for another fairy tale. I just heard one like this the other day, actually—not told as a fairy tale, but actually and an elaborate joke leading to a painfully unfunny pun. Which was the point. And which made me think—not for the first time but perhaps with more vigour—we run the risk of taking these too seriously.

Not long ago we suffered ‘Clever Hans,’ which, after my folktale experience this weekend, is a tale I hope to return to for discussion. For different reasons than you might expect—different reasons than I expected, at least. But today we have Clever Elsie—does she fare any better under the tale tellers scorn than Hans?

Read the tale here to find out. What do you think?

My think is below the jump.

Do read the story aloud, if you haven’t already. That’s how it’s meant to be told. And, par for the course, Hans needs a good clout on the ear.

But I have to say, I find tales like this immensely entertaining, and usually quite funny. The more I consider it, the more I like it. In fact I like it a great deal more than when I first read it, and more even than when I started writing. It’s not a sort of story we’re used to, but that’s not to say it’s not any good.

This tale pleased me more than other variants of the type I’ve read, because the joke went on to include Hans as well. One version I read, the suitor gallantly took the pickaxe down from the wall (becoming thus the family hero). Another he laughed at everyone’s worries, and left them sitting there. And there should be at least one version where the axe really does fall—on Hans, just after he starts laughing.

The point is that it’s a quick stab, a sudden twist. It’s a gag, basically. I don’t know the textual background of this tale well enough to say whether Hans’s actions are bowdlerization or a comic twist on the other endings above. Certainly, though, when properly told, there’s a lot of laughs to be had.

The second part of the tale, after the wedding, seems a bit crueller. Certainly it doesn’t satisfy our urging for a happy ending. But it’s reminiscent of a technique A. A. Milne uses in one of the Pooh stories when Pooh rings his own doorbell and becomes perturbed when he doesn’t answer.

The tale teller in Clever Elsie relentlessly pursues the idiocy of cleverness. Elsie, through her continual conundrums, her philosophising of every mundane decision, brings her at last with comedic panic to the Cartesian Quandary: ‘Is it I, or is it not I?’

That she decides empirically it is ‘not I,’ and that the world in general seems to agree with her, is unsettling no only to our sense of tidy narrative, but to our sense of self. Elsie’s cleverness effectively reduces her to a wandering wraith, an bell-ringing haunt without clear existence. In a way, it mythologizes her, and the only refuge from the absence of selfhood is in story—passing beyond the knowledge of mankind.

This of course, is putting a great deal of strain on a folktale. There is humour here—riotous humour if well told. There is also sadness and loss as she vanishes, the way stories do. And it does, really, leave us hardly daring to ask the same questions ourselves—to ponder who we are and what we do, for fear that we’ll discover we’re nothing but bells jangling on the wind.


One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. It feels like one of those movies where they started out with a script by Mel Brooks, but then they brought in Franz Kafka for a last-minute rewrite on the ending. Actually, I guess there aren’t any movies like that.

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