Child-Sized Mythology: The Brothers Grimm
This morning I chanced upon Joan Acocella’s article on the Brothers Grimm, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale,” in The New Yorker. It will surprise no reader of this blog to hear that I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Grimm – you can see a translation I did of “Mary’s Child” here. I was interested to read Acocella’s piece and think through some of the questions that she raises.
She lays out a brief biographical and historical sketch of the folklorists and their work, and puzzles through some of the interpretive dilemmas posed by the fairy tales. They are childish in their brevity and narrative simplicity, but often include gruesome acts of violence, with starving parents abandoning children to die in the woods with startling frequency.
Once upon a time, the story begins, a young bride prayed and prayed for a child, but to no avail.
One fine winter’s day, while peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in the courtyard, she cut her hand, and when she saw the drops of blood on the snow, she sighed, “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.”
Well, time went by and the snows began to fade, and the world returned to flower, and as it did, the woman also became fruitful, and when the new growth of the woods came to surround them, she became great with child. And when the juniper tree bore fruit, she ate of it ravenously, and becomes sickened.
In the ninth month following her wistful prayer, she bore a beautiful little boy, and told her husband that when she dies, she is to be buried beneath the tree. And so she did pass away, brought to her death by the life-giving tree.
Time passed, and the boy grew with lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. His father took a new wife, and had with her a daughter, called Marlene.
Unfortunately, his new wife hated the beautiful little boy, and one day, moved by the spirit of evil, she invited him to take an apple from the bin. When he reached inside, she clapped it shut and knocked his head clean off!
The evil stepmother then covered the boy’s head with a white scarf and fastened it back to his body. Marlene found him an uncooperative playmate, though, and complained to her mother that the boy would not speak. The stepmother told her “Then go box his ears!”
The daughter soon did, and immediately raced back in terror, crying “His head has come off!”
The evil stepmother told her they must keep it a secret. To dispose of the body, she said, she will cook the boy into a stew. She served it to his father to eat, and he found it so delicious that he insisted he should eat it all, as he was filled with the sense that it was somehow intended just for him.
Well, the daughter was horrified by all this, naturally, and she gathered her half-brother’s bones in her silk scarf and buried them beneath the juniper tree. It was only once they were interred that her anguish subsided.
Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive.
And so the boy was reborn as a glorious bird with a beautiful song, and he set about making matters right.
It’s really quite a spectacular story – I highly recommend having a look at the whole thing. But what is significant for our purposes here is that Acocella found it to be very disturbing, saying “Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.”
So we have a dilemma, posed by the co-occurrence of a childish narrative style with dark and shocking material. To make sense of this problem, Acocella reviews several scholarly interpretations of fairy tales, ranging from the Freudian readings of Bruno Bettelheim to the comparative approach of Jack Zipes.
Unfortunately, she neglects to consult the author who represents, in my opinion, the strongest interpretation of the Grimm Brothers stories, Joseph Campbell. His approach makes short work of the apparent dilemma.
Campbell articulated his general approach to the Grimm Brothers’ stories in his magisterial essay “The Works of the Brothers Grimm,” written as an introduction to a translation of the tales, and also published in his book Flight of the Wild Gander. In this essay, Campbell interprets many fairy tales as reductions or remnants of very old myths. They contain the same content and quality as the great narratives of the world’s religions. Time and wear, for a variety of reasons, have pared the stories down to their bare bones, and as such, they appear child-like at a glance.
If we evaluate “The Juniper Tree” not as a didactic fable for children but as a myth, we immediately recognize all of the principle elements of the story: the miraculous birth, the association of death and rebirth with a tree or evergreen, the murder of an innocent, and the ritual consumption of the body. This is a myth of immense geographical distribution, as we’ve known since Frazer first published The Golden Bough.
It amuses me greatly to see Acocella recoil from this story, since every one of its basic elements can be found in the Gospels.
We can also see a link between the apple and the pains of childbirth, which echoes the story of the Fall. And there exists, of course, a very old allegorical tradition that links the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden to the Tree of Eternal Life, i.e., the cross. The former is seen as the beginning of history, and the latter is seen as its completion.
We are not dealing with a pedagogical morality tale here, we have a myth – a story which renders an image of basic facts of life. We have a narrative image of the cycle of life and death in which we all must participate, and to which, ultimately, we must all surrender ourselves, for the cycle of killing and being eaten in turn both gives life and brings us back to the root. And the fairy tale, like the myth, presents this problem without judgment or advice.
People preserve these stories for millennia because they disclose something that the audience recognizes to be true. The best place to start, then, is to ask what that might be.