Always Look on the Grimm Side of Life

I’ve recently been re-reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the unabridged version, and I’m inclined to go stick my head in the oven, now.

I do not wish to shoot messengers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, here. They clearly did their best to faithfully preserve the rich folktale tradition of their native heath. My question, after re-reading this fine old classic of my childhood — during which its utter lack of suitability for anyone under about age 35 is becoming steadily clearer — is why they thought this was a good idea? Or, perhaps more to the point, just what the hell was going on in those parts, back then?

These classic ‘children’s stories’ are in fact stuffed to a giant’s ceilings with imagery that’d keep Jeffrey Dahmer awake nights:

The Juniper Tree

It was my mother who murdered me

It was my father who ate of me

It was my sister Marjorie

Who all my bones in pieces found

Them in her handkerchief she bound

and laid them under the juniper tree

Kywhitt, kywhitt, kywhitt I cry;

Oh, what a beautiful bird am I!

Just another adorable bedtime story making the rounds in the Rhineland, apparently. So what I really want to know is, was everyone in mediaeval Germany frankly psychotic? Or just the Brothers Grimm?

OK, yes, I do understand about the stories being really for adults, and life being tough, cheap and short back then. It’s hard to look on the bright side when your neighbors succumb to a mass of plague-related sores, I get it.

Thing is, the only moral being taught here is that the next time a plague hits, humanity is a complete writeoff, ’cause the only difference is now we have bigger guns. There’s a kind of extravagant cynicism running through these medieval coping mechanisms that just screams ‘Therapy!’ (or possibly ‘Monty Python!”) above and beyond the context.

(Aaaaaand in the course of writing this very piece, I discover that Terry Gilliam was in fact inspired to produce The Brothers Grimm in 2005. Starring Heath Leger. Life makes sense once more.)

Blood runs like a river, deus ex machinas rule the day, people are just as likely to be rewarded for selfish acts as selfless ones, and the main difference between good and evil is that Good is a whole lot cleverer. In one story, Our Hero – possibly played by Michael Palin — makes off with a fast horse and an invisibility cloak by convincing their owners to, I kid you not, let him try them on to see if they work. And the owners — who are, but of course, giants — do. Such gullibility is repeated in the Grimm tales over and over again.

Net result: numerous stories wherein people end up apprenticing themselves out to the Devil — but not, in a touch I really like, before asking “OK, but you promise this isn’t going to mess up my shot at salvation?” On the other hand, this is a belief system in which God routinely hands over enchanted packs of cards to gambling addicts, and sorceresses cease to be a problem the instant they’re touched with enchanted flowers revealed in dreams, so I just don’t know. I would love to hear the scholarly sociological explanations behind that last one, though. Or possibly the pharmaceutical one.

Oddly enough — or maybe not so odd, come to think of it — this kind of haphazard ‘do what you want and the magicks will deal with it’ vibe worked fine when I was 12-years-old. Although I do recall being a trifle disturbed by the violence even then; it’s so random, that’s what always got me. Stuff like a sequence in one story where the hero gets his head chopped off, but his loyal animals have a magic salve, but they’re in such a rush they put his head on backwards, so the lion tears his head off again and fixes it.

Nota bene, this isn’t the climax of the tale; this is a quick, pointless Whoops! moment. In another of the Grimms’ tales, the brave adventurer gets ahold of an enchanted sword, which whenever he waves it and says ‘All heads off but mine!’… well, you get the picture.

Again, the people being punished in this way aren’t usually monsters; they’re just people who’re getting in the way of the ‘hero’. I guess it was a marginally more meaningful death than getting whacked in the head and tossed onto a cart pulled by Eric Idle, but not by much.

Given the expected childish logic at that tender age, I was bemused by a peculiar habit these heroes have of…walking off the job, is the best way I can describe it. They go on the adventure and rescue the princess — and then they leave, with no explanation. Sometimes they take tokens as proof before going — in one typical case, snagging a dainty slipper and a piece of silken coverlet right off the bed on which the beauty lies — but they never do anything with them until the princess gets all sad and vows to find her rescuer and years later the hero just happens to hear about it and oh, yup, I’m the guy you want, and here’s that thing I stole from you.

Does anybody else see anything wrong with this picture?

Mind, it wasn’t all bad for the fairer sex back then. In one tale, when a daughter is born, her 12 brothers are hidden by their mother to escape their father, who wanted them all dead so the little girl can have a larger dowry. Seriously, he had little coffins made, and the boys find them, that’s how they figure it out.

Finally, there’s the one story, ‘The Wild Swans’ in which the heroine’s 12 little brothers get changed into waterfowl, and in order to free them she is assigned a Test of Goodness in which she can’t speak until she finishes weaving 12 little shirts out of stinging nettles. In the meantime, though, she’s discovered by a King (always capitalised under these circs) and carted off to be his Queen. But mom-in-law is understandably a little suspicious of this mute nettle-knitting freak (who, as we’ll learn, keeps it up all the way to the gallows).

So she frames the Queen on charges of giving birth to a dog — still not making this up! — and the girl’s about to be hanged when hurray, her brothers fly to the rescue! She tosses the shirts over the swans, the spell is broken, and she can tell the King all about it. The mad mom-in-law is disposed of in typically gruesome fashion, and they all lived happily ever after. Yay!

…Except that the shirts weren’t quite finished. One was still missing a sleeve. So everybody’s OK, except the youngest, who still has a wing in place of a right arm.

Think about that for a sec; lord knows I did, when I was 12-years-old. That poor little dude is doomed to wear a wing for the rest of his life. We know this, because the Virgin Mary does not descend and say something like ‘In reward for your fidelity, I grant you this last wish’, and fix it all up, as is usual. It’s just…they just…

Well, I guess that story is better than the one where she gives birth to a hedgehog.