unsettling wonder

Reading Grimm’s Household Tales


Table-Be-Set, Gold-Donkey, and Cudgel-out-of-the-Sack


his tale may embody what a fairy tale should be, while being what we think a fairy tale probably isn’t. You’ll find no princesses, gender-politics, or heroic quests here. This is the tale of a malicious goat, a foolish tailor, three fine sons who can’t stay out of trouble, and the miracle of domestic implements.

This tale is ribald and ridiculous story. Everyone is the fool and the world is beset by irrational circumstances, address with all the solemnity of sober history. Hard work will get you places, the storyteller assures us, but not really. To really get somewhere, you need a magical implement that defies the any known or unknown laws of reason, and then make sure you’re not so stupid you go and lose it.

You can read it here. Please do. And then come back and tell me what you think.

It starts like this:

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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?

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unsettling wonder

Household Tales: Reading the Grimm Brothers


Clever Elsie


ime for another fairy tale. I just heard one like this the other day, actually—not told as a fairy tale, but actually and an elaborate joke leading to a painfully unfunny pun. Which was the point. And which made me think—not for the first time but perhaps with more vigour—we run the risk of taking these too seriously.

Not long ago we suffered ‘Clever Hans,’ which, after my folktale experience this weekend, is a tale I hope to return to for discussion. For different reasons than you might expect—different reasons than I expected, at least. But today we have Clever Elsie—does she fare any better under the tale tellers scorn than Hans?

Read the tale here to find out. What do you think?

My think is below the jump.

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unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms

The Three Languages


oday is different. For one thing, it’s the last day of the West of the Moon giveaway, and I’ve changed the rules ever-so-slightly. Here’s how:

If it’s still Monday 18 April where you are, you can comment either on this post or on the link above, and you’re in. If you comment on the link above, you’re in automatically. If you comment on this post, leave a number between 6 and 47 at the end of the post, so I know you want to be entered in the giveaway. I’ll announce the winner tomorrow sometime, on the comment thread at the link above.

Today is also, to move from the absurd to the sublime, caught up in Sacred Time. I’d be remiss not to you Chag Sameach Pesach, or Blessed Eastertide, or both.  So I do.

And today is sort of an experiment. Although I don’t have any books to give away (yet), I really enjoyed the conversation on “Clever Hans” last week (again, see the link above), when I just threw the story at you and let you talk about it. So let me try that again. This week’s story is called ‘The Three Languages.’ You can read it here.

If you want something a little more standard, there are a few feeder questions and haphazard observations below the jump, which you can read or not, as you desire.

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this is not an anti-post

Here’s your cheerful reminder that we have a giveaway going on. It involves a wonderful signed copy of West of the Moon, and a folktale called ‘Clever Hans.’ Those of you who have read and commented on the tale tend to be universally bewildered by it. I don’t blame you. If this is a fairy tale, then we’re miles away from charming princesses and happy endings.

It’s not a fairy tale, not really. Folktale, yes. Fairy tale, if we follow Tolkien’s stringent definition, no. There’s no interfacing with another world, no brush of the eldritch, only a clueless duffer who can’t figure out how he’s supposed to act around girls and so ends up dismembering a bunch of sheep. Yes, it’s that weird.

In fact, it’s very much like another folktale that we’re all more or less familiar with: ‘The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.’ I have a particular revulsion for that song, I confess, whilst adoring it as a cracking good time. An illustrated copy of the lyrics was available in the classroom library when I was a first year. I read it, delighted with the illustrations—a bewildered goat, a terrified cat. And then the song ended:

She’s dead, of course.

It was my first encounter with a non-Bowdlerised tale. I was appalled. It didn’t help that all the animals she had eaten were standing round her like mourners at a funeral. But, come to think of it, what else is supposed to happen when you swallow a horse? It seemed logical then. It still seems logical now.

I didn’t read it again. I preferred happy endings as a child. I still do, although I have a much broader definition of happy. In fact, there could be a certain degree of ‘happy’ in the death of the old lady—she’s rapaciously devoured the natural world from insect to mammal, and finally it rises up and crushes her. That’s eco-criticism begging to happen. That’s also thinking like an academic and not a child.

Which is the whole point, really.

I’m not going to say that I learned to really like un-Bowdlerised versions of ‘The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly,’ and how much better they are. Everyone knows the old lady died—that’s the point. The whole song becomes a sort of ritual to see who can Bowdlerise the tale with the greatest aplomb.The best versions are the ones that creatively avoid or deny it—‘Perhaps she’ll die, but—she’s alive and well, of course!’ Here the happy ending is an inversion, a distortion. It’s amazing how subversive a good happy ending can be.   I’m not sure where that fits into any pattern of retelling. But a happy-ending itself may be a form of anti-tale. This seems at least in Tolkien’s term for such things: ‘eucatastrophe.’

The book did help me understand that these stories change. They’re different every telling, depending not only on the teller but on the moment, the audience, the illustrator, the lighting. In some abstract sense the tale exists, we know it an can recall it from some atemporal sphere. In a concrete sense, it’s a patter of words and sounds, horses and flies, that exists only once, only in the telling of it.

Did ‘The Old Lady and the Fly’ teach me how to behave in society, as I believe ‘Clever  Hans’ is able to? No, not really. Mister Rogers did that. Stories work differently these days. But it did teach me to respect the stories and their tellings, that no ending and no character in these tales is sacrosanct, and that sometimes no version is more shocking than the original.

Folktales are alive and well, of course.