unsettling wonder

Reading through Grimm’s Household Tales

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Mrs Fox’s Wedding illus-186t 

his story isn’t strictly a fairy tale. It’s what Tolkien classified as a beast tale, and as such is demonstrates the beast tale’s function of social satire and scorn of humankind. The tale seems innocuous enough when it’s about foxes. When, however, it’s told simply as a human tale, as in the version by Synge and Bierce, it stings bitterly—makes us shudder and flinch. At least it does me.

And why shouldn’t it?

But the beast tale gets behind our defences, presenting our own deficiencies in ways that linger in the mind with perhaps a different grain of truth than the haunting and murderous folktale collected by Synge, or the stinging social deconstruction of Bierce. There’s something ludicrous in an animal in clothes—a ludicrousness that Lewis Carroll, for instance, recognised and used to great effect.

The foxes in this story fulfil their archetypal role: they are crafty, they are treacherous, they are sly. The old fox with nine tails feigns death to test his wife’s fidelity; Mrs Fox refuses all suitors till another fox with nine tails shows up. When the wedding bells begin to ring, Mr Fox leaps up and chases everyone out of town.

The potential for humour here, either of the pub variety or the elegance of a classic French conte, is enormous. It’s domestic comedy, a riotous burlesque, complete with enough bawdiness to give the story several interesting subtexts. Mrs Fox’s maid, Mrs Cat, chats up every suitor that comes calling, before reluctantly sending them upstairs. And, as D. H. Ashliman stoically remarks, ‘The German word for tail, Schwanz, has a well-known obscene secondary meaning that turns the […] story above into a suggestive jest.’

It would be too easy to read it—as perhaps Synge’s story could be read, say—as a chastisement of Unfaithful Women. Widows are maligned in many cultures, and the stories of a culture reflect its bias. In a story like Synge’s collected tale, the aggrieved husband is the hero, inflicting judgment where judgment is due.

Yet the tale here, it seems, has perhaps a harsher meaning than gender bigotry. As with Bierce’s prose epigram, we’re left feeling that something’s just wrong everywhere. The whole of society is off-kilter, suitor and widow and husband alike. No one winds up looking good in this tale—everyone, in fact, winds up ludicrous.

Even the not-quite-late Mr Fox, we learn, is a greedy and suspicious old miser. The ridiculous ordeal that he sets up seems hardly to prove anything but that he’s inordinately suspicious about everything. In the second version that the Grimms present, the old fox is really dead, and it’s other animals that come calling. Mrs Fox understandably says no until the suitor is a strapping young fox. Then she declares:

Cat, sweep out the kitchen,
And throw the old fox out the window.
He brought home many a big fat mouse,
But he ate them all alone,
And never gave me a one.

The death of her husband has been, in no uncertain terms, a change for the better. And in this version—wait for it—Mrs Fox and her suitor get married and live happily ever after. Nor does this seem to be a Bowdlerisation of the first version, as we might be tempted to think. The Grimms published both together in all the editions of their stories (and note the nine tails in the illustration above—taken from a Victorian children’s edition). In their notes, they off the intriguing report that the tale:

[i]s told in many forms in Hesse and the Maine district: we here give the two most important variations, the others turn on the fact of the old fox being really dead, or only apparently so (as in the old French poem), and whether foxes only, or other animals as well, come to woo the widow.

Folktales are meant to help us pattern the world, and ultimately, this is a story about the ways we reorder society after a death. The tale presumes that confronting tragedy reveals true character—does it? Is death a tragedy and cessation of grief a terrible thing? Is death a relief and cause for rejoicing? What and when is a suitable suitor? I can’t give the moral because there isn’t one. As with all great folktales, the tale itself is its own moral. We are left with our discomfort and laughter, and find ourselves facing ourselves in the story and its silent questions.

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