Reading the Grimms
his story should seem familiar to those who know the ‘Bluebeard’ tales, and the story of ‘Mr Fox’. But, the striking title aside, this is a variant worth getting to know. I link to Hunt’s translation here, but it’s also worth hunting around for newer texts.
This variant features, not the grim and mysterious nobleman, but a ragged beggar that steals girls away from their homes. There could of course be all sorts of xenophobic reasons for this, and all sorts of pedagogical ‘Don’t Talk to Smelly Strangers’ reasons. And in fact most of the rationales of that sort are probably still embedded in our society today. There’s also a temptation—I admit, I study the Victorians—to see Fitchter, ragged beggar-wizard as a type of Odin or Zeus, the disguised, rapacious deity that the hero of the tale must overcome. In that sense the story serves a mythological function. Here, again, the violent and oppressive tendencies of the oppression of the male over the female, the functions of patriarchy and arrogance, are externalised.
What strikes me most about this tale is the sheer courage and indomitable pluck of the heroine. Anyone disgruntled with namby-pamby Snow Whites and horribly demure Sleeping Beauties should really consider Fitcher’s Bird. Despite the Grimm’s obvious efforts to constrain it, its a wonderful and bitterly delightful deconstruction of patriarchy and oppression. The two older sisters (in the way of these things) enter the bloody chamber and are hacked to bits for it. The younger sister enters it as well, but manages to resuscitate her dismembered sisters by reassembling them. She is a sort of counter-storyteller, and anti-teller if you will, who rewrites the narrative.
As in ‘Mr Fox’, she gets a cruel vengeance on her would be lover/killer, and gets to carry it out herself. Whereas Mr Fox is battered to death by the father and brothers of his betrothed—something that could have actually happened in early English or Viking society—the younger sister takes into her own hands. She burdens Fitcher with a prohibition of her own; he must carry the basket a her parents but never once stop to rest. She will be watching from afar. Of course, the basket contains her sisters, who scold him with her voice whenever he slows his pace. One can see the hunted, panicked look in Fitcher’s eyes as he arrives, harried and exhausted, at journey’s end.
Also unlike Mr Fox, he gets to return home—blissfully unaware that hell awaits in the arms of the vengeful dead.