unsettling wonder

Reading the Brothers Grimm 


The Robber Bridegroom


his is a tremendous and chilling story. It emerges from the diabolic end of the fairy tale spectrum, the hideous and the grotesque, with serial killing and cannibalism only a part of the macabre scenery. The horrible, the abject, the uncouth, and the repulsive seethe to the surface of our waking minds as nightmares and devilish visions take on tangible form and action.

That form, in keeping with the fairy tale style, is a handsome and charming prince.

Anyone one says that fairy tales aren’t realistic, point to this suave and appealing Chick Lit hero. Our friend Mr Fox is the original ladykiller. You can read all about him here and here.

There’s a lot to be said about this tale, of course. And it needs mention that it appears in uncomfortable juxtaposition with the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (I-IV). But here at Paradoxes, we’ve already hosted a lively discussion about this particular tale type, and for today I really must repeat what Katherine Langrish has already written:

Next day when Mr Fox arrives at her town house to pay his court, Lady Mary accuses him of the murders by the method of retelling the entire story as a dream. As the tension builds, Mr Fox continually denies the truth: ‘It is not so and it was not so. And God forbid it should be so!’ – until she flings the finger in his face with the words, ‘It is so and it was so! Here’s the finger and ring I have to show!’ Upon this signal, her father and brothers rise ‘and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces’—not Lady Mary’s rescuers, but her agents.

‘Mr Fox’ is a story I’ve told aloud on many occasions to schoolchildren, and it never fails to grip. I love the way Lady Mary is completely in control of herself and her narrative. Her curiosity and suspicion – going to find the castle – saves her, rather than endangers her. She rescues herself. And gets her revenge in one of the neatest reversals of any fairytale I’ve ever read. For me, this is a much stronger anti-tale than [Angela] Carter’s ‘Bloody Chamber’. And yet it is a traditional fairytale.

You can read her whole guest article here. And Katherine is quite right—for all it’s hideousness, the story fascinates and enthrals. It’s not cheap voyeurism, crudely depicting violence to give us a salacious and sanctimonious high. The horror holds a different appeal; we know what not to be, what love is not, and what we must never become.

I have some ideas of my own, but let’s hear yours: why does this story resonate? Why do we find it suitable to tell children (the illustration above is from a stodgy Victorian anthology!)? Don’t try to find a moral but consider—what does this story achieve that perhaps couldn’t be achieved a different way?

Let me know what you think; I’ll look forward to reading your comments.

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