Grimm and grimmer

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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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How to live in a fairy tale

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What you’ll need: fairy godmother, magical animal friends

Songlist: When you wish upon a star

Further reading: Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm

Beauty and her Beast

I have a confession: I spent three hours last night watching the finale of The Bachelorette, in which the lovely Emily Maynard got engaged to her Prince Charming. The man she chose as her fiancé had previously said of her, “Emily gives me the feeling that people write fairy tales about.”

The Bachelor franchise has an obsession with fairy tale endings. Contestants often speak in fairy tale terms as they describe their dates of dining in castles or swimming with dolphins in the world’s most gorgeous places (actually, they more often speak in ridiculous metaphors such as “Today we jumped off a helicopter together into the ocean, because, you know, love is a leap of faith”). It’s a natural comparison to make because fairy tale endings are romantic, simplistic, and, oh, they don’t last.

On Saturday night I went to a brilliant performance of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to their happily ever afters…and beyond. For the initiate, intermission is confusing since the characters have each already accomplished all they set out to do–what more do we need to see? In the second half, though, we find out that while Cinderella has stopped running, her prince hasn’t given up chasing. Jack slew a giant, but now the giant’s wife is hungry for vengeance. And characters start dying. After a frivolous first half, the second half is surprisingly sobering.

Which is like that time I watched the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid and found out the original Ariel committed suicide to spare her beloved prince. Ouch.

Fairy tales are not particularly happy places to live in. Sure, a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales end in marriage, but first there are deals with the devil, murders, severing of limbs, and disowning of family members. In one particularly gruesome story, a stepmother feeds her stepson to her husband so that her daughter may be the only heir. And then, of course, a magical bird drops a millstone on the evil stepmother and the son is returned to the father, happy and whole.

Moral of the story: don’t try to live in a fairy tale unless you’re really good at communicating with birds. Emily Maynard, start working on your songs.

How to be a princess

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What you’ll need: royal bloodline and/or royal boyfriend, tiara

Songlist: I Wanna Be Your Lover by Prince, ABBA’s Dancing Queen

Further reading: Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries

The American Dream, as marketed to little girls

Ah, the irony of American girlhood. We are born into a capitalist democracy without need for actual princesses, yet our only role models are fictional Disney princesses. Cinderella and Belle, a maid and a bookish daughter of a poor inventor, respectively, are our paragons of upward mobility. The American Dream is strong in the hearts of young girls: we believe in the possibility of wild prosperity and success, just so long as the right prince falls in love with us.

I had a princess birthday party when I turned 6. My friends wore their princess dresses (we all had them), we watched “Sleeping Beauty,” and we played the board game Pretty Pretty Princess. The princess impulse continued through junior high: at 13 I wore my mother’s lovely, poofy-shouldered bridesmaid’s dress for Halloween and had a raging crush on Prince William.

When I confessed this crush to a friend, she sneered. You’re a commoner, she told me. And you’re American. Prince William has to marry a royal British girl (she was almost right). I was devastated at this news, but kept up hope: didn’t Disney movies teach me that love could overcome obstacles? A kinder friend of mine assured me that if things didn’t work out with Wills he would propose marriage: his family is from Palau and he is something like tenth in line for the Palauan throne.

My future Prince Charming

That friend and I have fallen out of touch (and Facebook tells me he’s got a seven-year-old daughter), Prince William is getting married on Friday, and Prince Harry is a royal cad, but maybe all hope is not yet lost. The Gloss has a helpful guide to still-eligible princes of the world and I must say that Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum looks like a real catch. He’s the next Emir of Dubai and he’s a poet. Now that I think about it, Jasmine is the only Disney princess with a tiger for a best friend. So long American Dream, hello Arabian Dream.