unsettling wonder

Grimms’ Household Tales: A Read-Through


The Tailor in Heaven


nyone wishing to write a theology of fairy tales would be remiss not to take this tale into account. This seems to be a saint’s tale that became a fairy tale, but who knows, really? What we do have is a remarkable example of comic theology. Which we probably need a bit more of. The more I think about this story, I think, the more I’m starting to like it.

The story starts like this:

One very fine day, it came to pass that the good God wished to enjoy himself in the heavenly garden, and took all the apostles and saints with him, so that no one stayed in heaven but Saint Peter. The Lord had commanded him to let no one in during his absence, so Peter stood by the door and kept watch. Before long some one knocked.

God’s stepped out of heaven for a bit. What could possibly go wrong?

The knock on the door is a lame tailor, though there are suggestions that he is either the devil or an unrighteous man with, as the Grimms put it, ‘inimical intent.’ What makes the story somewhat fascinating is the dialectic between St Peter, who—heaven’s gatekeeper notwithstanding—has a compassionate nature, and the tailor, who seems in many ways like a fairy tale hero who’s blundered into the wrong mythology.

Not only does the tailor manage to call on heaven when God and the saints have stepped out for a bit, he has a tale of woe that suits a hero: he is lame from the length and toil of his quest. And his behaviour once in heaven matches the dimmest-witted Prince Charming that ever forfeited a chance at eternal happiness. ‘Full of curiosity, went round about into every corner of heaven, and inspected the arrangement of every place.’

The tailor happily explores the uttermost limits of unimaginable eternity. No hidden chamber here, though—the God’s Throne is in plain sight. And the tailor, espying from his lofty vantage a thief stealing clothes, chucks the Lord’s golden footstool at the blackguard.

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the tailor just chucked the whole earth at the earth. But that’s another story.

In this one,  the use of the chair and the misuse of the footstool are discovered. St Peter is in trouble, of course, and so is the tailor:

“Oh, thou knave,” said the Lord, “were I to judge as thou judgest, how dost thou think thou couldst have escaped so long? I should long ago have had no chairs, benches, seats, nay, not even an oven-fork, but should have thrown everything down at the sinners. Henceforth thou canst stay no longer in heaven, but must go outside the door again. Then go where thou wilt.”

The image of the heavenly furniture being flung willy-nilly on the earth is an admittedly fascinating one. God, in this tale, is presented as a harried but just feudal lord. Only a supreme act of patience, it seems, has kept him from smashing the furniture about—indeed, keeps him from flinging the pots and pans at the tailor.

Oh—I should mention that St Peter’s initial objection to the tailor is fairly straightforward. The tailor has been known to steal clothes.

Very much like the old woman he flung the footstool at.

If there’s a moral in here, it seems to be a good one.

Is this poetry? Theology? Sublimity? Or what? Is the tailor kicked out for judging when only God should judge? For throwing the furniture about? For condemning the sin of another while excusing his own sin? Or was it just because he snuck in uninvited?

As the narrator dances around a wilderness of howling theologians, the tailor:

took a stick in his hand, and went to “Wait-a-bit,” where the good soldiers sit and make merry.

Kicked out of heaven, the tailor makes his way to Valhalla. What happened to him there, we’re not told. He doesn’t seem to the sort of guy a Valkyrie would go for. Does he ever find his proper mythology? Well, does anyone?

One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. I just discovered your blog and enjoyed this post. In perhaps the same way you can’t quite put your finger on the message of the fairytale, I can’t quite put mine on why this so charmed me. I do like the image of the tailor, a la goldilocks trying out the furniture–and I love the image of all the things flying down at the sinners.
    I look forward to reading more.

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