unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms  

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Fitcher’s Bird 

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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.

unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms

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 illus-202t Thumbling as Journeyman

his story is like unto this story, which you and I have discussed before. But it’s different, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you like it better. I did.

What if a trickster is three inches high? In a world of giant, absent-minded grown-ups, of kings and cattle and criminals? Of people ready either to take advantage or simply ignore someone as small as a miniscule trickster?

You get this story, that’s what. If this isn’t a variant of the tale you’re familiar with, I urge you to go and read it.

The story draws much of its humour from the inconsistencies and perils that the world holds for the small. In a burlesque katabasis, Thumbling gets swallowed by a cow and remains mostly unharmed, although ‘[d]own below […] it pleased him ill, for it was quite dark, neither was any candle burning.’ He eventually comes out the other end (more or less), in a welter of what seem to be puns. And when, in the great tableau of the trickster tale, he falls in with a gang of thieves, they greet saying, ‘Thou giant Goliath, wilt thou go to the treasure-chamber with us?’ The humour and ribaldry of this scene progresses as Thumbling manages to rob the king’s treasury without disturbing the locks, bolts, or sentries. He goes on to confound the guards by shouting from corners of the room, convincing them they’re being robbed by a disembodied voice.

The nameless protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch (Vertigo, 1994) says of his childhood: ‘I lived in a land of giants in those days. All children do.’ If ‘Thumbling as Journeyman’ can be said to be about anything, then it’s about that. Thumbling is the grotesque child, reduced in smallness to the point of Otherness; he is at one point mistaken for a spider. The feelings of affection that small children usually elicit are inverted into revulsion. Similarly, his decrease in stature increases his wits. Rather than an innocent child-hero, he becomes the trickster and Master Thief, outwitting or avoiding both justice and natural laws.

In this sense, it seems that this is a story perhaps not about being a child, but remembering childhood, about trying to understand and perhaps explain growing up. There’s something of a parent’s wistfulness and wonder and heartache, and the eternal transience of childhood, in the most poignant moment in the tale, when physical law and magic are blur as Thumbling sets off:

“Mother, what is there to eat to-day?” “See for thyself,” said his mother. So Thumbling jumped on to the hearth, and peeped into the dish, but as he stretched his neck in too far the steam from the food caught hold of him, and carried him up the chimney. He rode about in the air on the steam for a while, until at length he sank down to the ground again. Now the little tailor was outside in the wide world…

unsettling tuesday

It’s raining in Scotland. I’m in Scotland, sitting in a coffee shop partly because I got tired of sitting in my office but mostly because I read an article offering a paean of enthusiasm for espresso. I have an espresso beside me, savouring the article’s description of it as exquisite wine anyone can afford. Out my window, I see the rain, the fog, and the sea.*

Life could be a whole lot worse.

You’re here, presumably, because you like to read about fairy tales. I have one for you this week. Not on Monday, so this will be a little different. The story is called ‘The Godfather’. No, it has nothing to do with Marlon Brando. It’s much older than he is, in fact, and it starts like this:

A poor man had so many children that he had already asked everyone in the world to be godfather, and when still another child was born, no one else was left whom he could ask. He did not know what to do, and, in his sorrow, he lay down and fell asleep. Then he dreamed that he should go outside the gate and ask the first person he met to be godfather. When he awoke he decided to obey his dream, and he went outside the gate and asked the first person who came his way to be godfather.

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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.

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unsettling wonder

Reading Grimms’ Household Talesillus-179

Thumblingillus-179t

his tale is perhaps better known in other versions. Joseph Jacobs collected it as ‘Tom Thumb’ in English Fairy Tales. He drew from the same English tale that Fielding used for his play of the same title. Hans Christian Anderson transmuted it to ‘Thumbelina’, demonstrating (if proof were needed) his fondness for female protagonists. Perrault called it ‘Hop o’ My Thumb’. And here we have the Grimms’ ‘Daumesdick’, or ‘Thumbthick’.

The tale itself is really delightful. You can read it here. It balances two disparate and striking elements which may be essential to the fairy tale as a genre. I’m not entirely sure on this point—it’s a concept I’m working with—but the harmony or dissonance or dialectic or call it what you will seems to be a continual thread through most of these tales: the tension between threat and play.

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