unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-Through

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nti-tales are understudied, as I’ve mentioned before. But what seems evident is that anti-tales do not simply arise in reaction to tales. Anti-tales are, by definition, contained in the tales themselves. A tale holds its own anti-tale, and sometimes subverts itself with the telling.

Tales in the grand tradition—that is, those tales most commonly retold—are more commonly presented in the pure tale. There is a happily ever after. Good conquers Evil. Love conquers All. These tales invite subversion, anti-telling, and deconstruction, because so many of the retellings are so obnoxiously smug.

The older tales and lesser known tellings startle with the prominence of the anti-tale already in the text. The darker, more disturbing Grimm tales fit in this category. Something unsettles us, we wonder uneasily why the neat world presented in the tale seems to frail just in the telling of the story. We haven’t even had a chance to apply postwar trauma or suburban angst to it, and it already frightens us.

So it’s doubly surprising, and more than a little freakish, to discover a retelling of such an anti-tale that emphasizes the anti-tale coloring.

‘Katz und Maus in Gesellschaft’ is such a tale. James Thurber’s ‘The Birds and the Foxes’ (1940) is such a retelling. In Thurber’s tale, the foxes are interested in promoting ‘civilization’ among birds. When a fence goes up to enclose an oriole sanctuary, the foxes protest, calling it ‘an arbitrary and unnatural boundary’, and insist ‘there had once been foxes in the sanctuary but that they had been driven out.’

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