A few weeks ago I checked out Coursera, the website that grants access to free online classes in a range of topics led by professors at top universities. Pretty good deal, right? Several of the imminent classes sounded interesting: Introduction to Sustainability, for instance, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. However, knowing nothing about either of these subjects I decided to sign up for a class that I have some background in: a literature course called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. After signing up, though, I realized I didn’t really have an extra 10+ hours a week necessary for all the readings, lectures, and essays.

In fact, the main reason I was interested in the class was the first reading, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and thus I decided to just read them on my own.

As you might expect, the tales are odd. We know some of the famous ones–Hansel and Grethel, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella (called Aschenputtel in German, a decidedly unattractive name). And while there are several tales of beautiful maidens being rescued from evil stepmothers by kings, there are many more with talking animals and and lies that are not always punished. Most of the stories, really, seem written by children, with a child’s wandering logic and miscellaneous details and rules.

In the woods

Children’s tales are generally fashioned to teach lessons, but Grimm’s lessons are often puzzling. In Hansel and Grethel the poor father is loathe to leave his children in the forest, but agrees with his cruel wife. When his children reappear at the house after Hansel’s flint stones lead them back, the father is overjoyed yet must agree once more with his wife to bring them out into the woods. For, as the story asserts, “he who says A must say B too, and when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.”

In some stories, young girls who make promises are forced to make good on them (such as in The Frog Prince). Yet, in other instances, cruelty is rewarded. Cat and Mouse in Partnership tells the story of a cat and mouse who save a pot of fat to tide them through the upcoming winter. The cat can’t wait to eat it and steals away three times to eat it by himself. When the winter finally falls and the mouse discovers the cat’s duplicity, the cat eats the mouse. The final sentence of the story simply reads: “And that is the way of the world.” Hardly comforting. Likewise, in The Wolf and Seven Goslings, a wolf asks a baker to cover him in flour so that he might disguise himself and eat the eponymous goslings. The baker at first refuses, not wanting to collude with the evil wolf, but finally agrees. The story gives us this wisdom: “And that just shows what men are.”

Perhaps the strangest two stories I read, though, were The Death of the Hen and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. In the first, a hen dies choking and several animals join in to carry her body to a burial site. While crossing a stream, though, they all drown. Her husband remains, buries her, and then buries himself alongside because he’s so filled with grief.

In the second story, a straw, a coal, and a bean escape a woman’s stovetop and set out together on a journey. They, too, come to a stream and the straws lays himself across it so that his new friends might pass over. The coal stops in the middle of the straw out of fear, but the coal’s heat burns the straw and they both fall in the water and…die? Can we say that about a coal and a straw? Meanwhile, the bean finds his friends’ demise so hilarious that she literally bursts with laughter. A kind tailer sews her up with black thread. So, Grimms, what are we to make of it all? Only this: “All beans since then have a black seam.”

Ah yes, an important lesson to teach the children.

 

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