No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

2012/33: Household Stories -- Brothers Grimm

"Shall we suffer death because of a girl! we swear to be revenged; wherever we find a girl we will shed her blood." ['The Twelve Brothers']

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 1).

I'm familiar with many of these stories -- often in bowdlerised or Disneyfied form -- but I don't believe I've ever read through all of them in a short time.

The Brothers Grimm have a lot to answer for. There are some truly nasty and nightmarish punishments here; also, some utterly surreal characters. (Three drops of blood, who are quite talkative; a pin and a needle, who are active enough to hitch a ride but passive enough to be put to use as instruments of punishment; and a sausage, which comes to regret its houseshare with a mouse and a bird.) There are pairs of stories with identical plot; there are stories which have the discursive, rambling feel of oral histories; there are plenty of feisty heroines and a plethora of bad parents (usually mothers).

I was struck by some of the resonances with myth and folklore, and by the universality of the tales. Hence my Coursera essay, below, in which the phrase 'serial numbers filed off' does not appear.

The characters in these tales seldom have names. There is Rapunzel, whose name is part of the chant "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair"; there is Rumpelstiltskin, who keeps his name a secret. In 'Sleeping Beauty', the princess suddenly acquires a name halfway through: "the beautiful sleeping Rosamond, for so was the princess called" (p. 206).

But most of the tales are populated by nameless, interchangeable figures: the wise woman or witch, the wicked stepmother, the ugly sister, the huntsman, the prince, the king. (One must read carefully, in tales such as 'The Six Swans', to understand that the king's daughter is not marrying her father but another king.) The tales are full of animals -- the fox, the wolf, the goat -- who, naturally, have no names. (A notable exception is the horse Falada in 'The Goose Girl'.)

Why are the characters nameless? One explanation is that these are ancient stories, told many times before they were ever written down: the details have been worn away. There are echoes of the Bible in 'The White Snake', where a servant samples the king's special dish and, like King Solomon, learns to hear the language of birds and animals. Some of the tales have an 'Arabian Nights' feel to them (for instance, 'The Fisherman and his Wife'); others are more European in flavour, such as 'The Six Swans'.

Or perhaps the people in these stories are not characters at all, but archetypes. They are like a series of masks that the audience can apply to themselves and to people they know. The wicked stepmother may become, in a child's mind, his own mother. The notion of the ugly sister may crystallise a young girl's feelings of sibling rivalry. And children want to be the brave prince, the beautiful princess, the cunning tailor. These tales are deeply symbolic, and naming the protagonists would detract from the universality of them.

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