Fables by Aesop
Although they're grouped together in this volume as
Folklore and Fable,
the fables attributed to Aesop, the folk-tales collected by Jacob and
Wilhelm Grimm, and the tales of Hans Christian Andersen are widely
divergent forms. Aesop's fables -- whose origin and development are as
tangled as that of the Arabian Nights in the previous volume -- are
extremely compact, and their meanings fairly easy to parse. In many
cases, in fact, the meaning is made explicit at the end of the work.
The Man and the Wood is a typical example:
A man came into a Wood one day with an axe in his hand, and begged all the Trees to give him a small branch which he wanted for a particular purpose. The Trees were good-natured and gave him one of their branches. What did the Man do but fix it into the axe head, and soon set to work cutting down tree after tree. Then the Trees saw how foolish they had been in giving their enemy the means of destroying themselves.
This isn't even a parable so much as a figure, a metaphor that might
as easily be absorbed into a larger argument as stand alone. One can
easily see a modern politician using this paragraph verbatim in a
speech about, say, civil liberties and the war on terror. In fact, one
of these fables --
the Belly and the Members, about the other
organs rebelling because the belly got all the food, only to find that
he had been feeding them in turn -- showed up earlier in the Classics,
in a speech by Cicero about misguided resentment towards the Roman
We use these Fables now more or less as they've always been used, as simple, direct metaphors. Some of Andersen's tales --
The Ugly Duckling,
The Emperor's New Clothes -- have obvious
but they are above all wonderful stories with literary value quite
separate from their didactic content. On the other hand, when you
speaks of someone being a
wolf in sheep's clothing, you have in those four words the entirety of that fable's content.
Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
The very name of the Brother's Grimm -- with its archaic transposition of noun and adjective, the too-perfect resonance of the family name -- suggest men as old and mysterious as the tales they collected. So it's worth reminding readers that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were 19th century German philologists and librarians. Their efforts to preserve traditional German tales call to mind both modern students of mythology like Jung and Joseph Campbell and musicologists like Harry Smith who worked to preserve American folk traditions. The point being that they were well educated men seeking to preserve a tradition of which they were in some ways already no longer a part. As soon as an inherited tale gets written down, codified, it becomes something different. the very need to preserve these tales in this way suggests that the oral tradition in which they grew was fading away.
Regardless, we must all recognize how successful the brothers were as preservationists. These tales remain central to our common culture. Who doesn't know about Rapunzel's letting down her long hair to let her lover climb up to her? Or Hansel and Gretel and the trail of breadcrumbs that helped them home? Or Snow White's stepmother being forced to dance in red hot shoes until she dies?
Well, maybe not that last one. Let's try again. There's always Cinderella. Who could forget the way the birds who came to rest on the hazel tree that has granted all of Cinderella's wishes come back in the end to peck out her step-sisters' eyes?
Okay, so it seems we don't know these tales as well as we thought.
(Right about here it seems more or less obligatory to provide a
lament on the Disneyfication of these stories. And such a lament would
be sincere. These tales are far stranger, darker, more interesting than
the cartoons that now overshadow them. It is a great shame in many ways
that we can no longer read about the seven dwarves, for example,
without thinking of names like Sleepy and Dopey. Or that we think that
Cinderella had a
fairy godmother, when the story of a hazel
branch planted at her mother's grave and watered by her tears is so
much more beautiful. But of course, these tales didn't belong to the
Grimms, and they certainly evolved in the years before the brothers
recorded them. What is sad is that they seem now to have stopped
evolving: the ersatz version has somehow become definitive. At any
rate, this line of argument ought to lead us back where we belong, with
the work itself.)
The most striking difference between these tales as they read
on the page and these tales as I knew them as a child is how terrifying
the former are. I don't mean birds pecking out the eyes Cinderella's
sisters, or Snow White's step mother's dancing until she drops dead
(which, after all, are part of the happy endings of their respective
tales). I mean the constant, grinding threat of starvation and economic
hardship. Hansel and Gretel, for example, are sent out into the woods
because their family can't afford to feed them. In these stories, the
dream of meeting and marrying a prince represents more than a Freudian
family romance of returning to your
real life. Marrying up is
often a matter of life and death. In this way, these tales sometime
strangely reminded me of Jane Austin's novels, where courtship is a
matter of both romance and avoiding the poorhouse. I realize only as I
write this that Austen's novels are another case where the economic
terror has been sanded away in modern cinematic versions, leaving only
the anodyne romance behind.
Tales by Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen is a different case than the Grimm brothers.
While Andersen was influenced by traditional folk-tales, he was a
writer, not a compiler, and these fairy tales were only a small portion
of his total literary output. That these tales were the original work
of a writer who lived around the same time as Tolstoy and Flaubert
makes it all the more remarkable that many of them --
The Emperor's New Clothes,
The Ugly Duckling
-- have as much cultural currency as Aesop's tortoise and hare or the
Grimms' Rumpelstiltskin. But despite their inclusion with these other
works, Andersen's stories seem to me very much modern literary efforts.
the tale, as a literary genre, in much the
way his compatriot Isak Dinesen did a century later. (I'm sure there is
more to made of the fact that the greatest Danish writers of the 19th
and 20th centuries both mastered this particular form, but I'm not the
one to make it.)
Whether for good or for ill, I've never seen Disney's Little Mermaid
movie. Nor, before this week, had I ever read the tale -- translated
The Little Sea-Maid -- on which the movie is based. I
had long been told, however, that Andersen's sea-maid dies at the end
of his tale, and that the movie's happy ending is one of the many
travesties such adaptations commit against their sources. But I wasn't
at all prepared for the moment in the original when the sea-maid turns
to foam. It is the kind of moment, I think, that can't be passed down
orally and transcribed by an anthropologist, that rather can only be
created bya single man or woman of literary genius:
Now the sun rose up out of the sea. The rays fell mild and warm upon the cold sea-foam, and the little Sea-maid felt nothing of death. She saw the bright sun, and over her head sailed hundreds of glorious ethereal beings--she could see them through the white sails of the ship and the red clouds of the sky; their speech was melody, but of such a spiritual kind that no human ear could hear it, just as no human eye could see them; without wings they floated through the air. The little Sea-maid found that she had a frame like these, and was rising more and more out of the foam.
Whither am I going?she asked; and her voice sounded like that of other beings, so spiritual, that no earthly music could be compared to it.
To the daughters of the air!replied the others.A sea-maid has no immortal soul, and can never gain one, except she win the love of a mortal. Her eternal existence depends upon the power of another. The daughters of the air have likewise no immortal soul, but they can make themselves one through good deeds. We fly to the hot countries, where the close, pestilent air kills men, and there we bring coolness. We disperse the fragrance of the flowers through the air, and spread refreshment and health. After we have striven for three hundred years to accomplish all the good we can bring about, we receive an immortal soul, and take part in the eternal happiness of men. You, poor little Sea-maid, have striven with your whole heart after the goal we pursue; you have suffered and endured; you have by good works raised yourself to the world of spirits, and can gain an immortal soul after three hundred years.
And the little Sea-maid lifted her glorified eyes toward God�s sun, and for the first time she felt them fill with tears. On the ship there was again life and noise. She saw the Prince and his bride searching for her; then they looked mournfully at the pearly foam, as if they knew that she had thrown herself into the waves. Invisible, she kissed the forehead of the bride, fanned the Prince, and mounted with the other children of the air on the rosy cloud which floated through the ether. After three hundred years we shall thus float into Paradise!
--CRB, May 17, 2007