Brothers GrimmJune 8, 2007
Fairy tales have always been intriguing food for thought. I like how they meld simplicity with the strange. In certain ways fairy tales work as moral tales, but their irregular logic and imagery capture a mentality that is alive and mysterious, while often disobeying traditional rules of what is moral. For this annotation I am working with the collection of The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. I am usually drawn to any sort of fable or oral tradition story, but was struck by how this collection is extremely 19th century. Most fairy tales are reworkings of earlier stories cobbled together with elements from different time periods. With the Brothers Grimm, a strong vein of Christianity has been inserted. In certain ways it limits the tales in a similar way to how stories are sanitized to be politically correct in current times, but at the same time it works as an amazing cultural artifact of the 19th century. Where these stories most come alive is in their odd attention to detail and the fancy of their meandering narratives.
In The Cat Who Married A Mouse, a cat and a mouse fall in love and are married. The story starts with the pairing of mortal enemies. The mouse is described as a “clever little thing” (4), while the cat is prone to deceitfulness. Like most fairy tales, there is virtually no back-story. The reader isn’t told the circumstances where a cat and a mouse might’ve met and somehow fallen in love. The mouse wasn’t invited by an acquaintance to a party, where she had a little too much to drink and found herself dancing the night away with the cat. The back-story is irrelevant. Any back-story the reader might have, would be from the fairy tale’s use of set characters who are then inserted into new adventures.
With this story I was interested in the fact that the cat and mouse choose to hide their jar of meat and fat underneath a church alter. I have suspicions that this may be a story that has been reworked, but wonder at the implied message. The cat states, “I don’t know a better place than the church—no one will think of robbing a church” (4). This is true, but is it intended to underscore the immoral nature of the cat’s subsequent behavior? One of the elements that appeals to me about this story is the outcome. The clever mouse realizes that the cat hasn’t been going to the christening of various relatives, but instead has been sneaking off to eat the hidden store of meat. When the mouse confronts the cat, the cat eats her mid-accusation. Right doesn’t win out in the end. What I like about this is that even though this appears to be a fairly straight forward moral tale, I’m still not absolutely sure of what the moral is that I’m supposed to walk away with. Is the story highlighting the fact that the mouse shouldn’t have been self righteous in her accusation, or that she should’ve been more circumspect in speaking her suspicions, or maybe it is a tale about the outcome of marriage partners that are mismatched? All of those elements are in there in various degrees, and I have an appreciation for this relative ambiguity. Maybe the moral is simply that bad things can happen to people even when they are right.
More than the moral tales that they house, what is truly beautiful about these stories is the way they transform straight forward elements into things that are strange and far away. In The Youth Who Could Not Shiver and Shake there is a description of a gallows as “a tree where seven men have been married with the rope maker’s daughter, and have learnt how to swing” (13). In this same story the main character encounters several black cats in a haunted house that cry because they are cold. He invites the cats to sit around his fire, and they ask him to join them at playing cards. After seeing their claws he declines and kills them. The cats then become numerous and fill up his room as they attempt to smother his fire. These descriptions capture the reader’s imagination and add to the world each story inhabits. These tales are filled with severe cause and effect scenarios that lead to outlandish escalations and outcomes. This is the language of dreams, fantasies, and fears that I would like to capture in my own writing.