Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Stardress and the Fiery Head

As a child reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales, an unsettling feeling of both enchantment and horror would possess me. Elements of impossible beauty and thrillingly happy endings alternated with pure evil and terrifying examples of revenge and torture. Rereading some of these classic stories as an adult, I have the same lurching physical reactions: teeth and stomach clenched at the description of monstrous creatures, then the wild sigh of satisfaction at the escape of a victim or the wedding of a perfectly, magically matched couple.

Who wouldn’t love it when a poor, beautiful stepdaughter, given cruel, impossible tasks by her evil stepmother -- such as emptying a pond using a spoon with holes in it -- is visited by a benevolent old woman who not only empties the pond for her, but builds her a magic castle? In “The True Bride,” the young woman even got to wear a “stardress which sparkled at every step she took.” And that ending! “The horses hurried away to the magic castle as if the wind had been harnessed to the carriage. The illuminated windows already shone in the distance. When they drove past the lime tree, countless glow-worms were swarming about it. It shook its branches, and sent forth their fragrance. On the long steps flowers were blooming, and the rooms echoed with the song of strange birds….” I can quietly drift right into that harmonious scene, even now. I’m there among the blossoms, birdsong, and flickering phosphorescence.

By contrast, what a harsh lesson for the child reading “The Old Witch,” where a little girl, one “who was very obstinate and willful,” (uh-oh) took off on an adventure, against her parents’ wishes, to visit the old woman with “many marvelous things in her house.” You knew something incredibly ugly was about to take place. The silly girl admitted to the woman that she had peeped through the window and saw not a woman, but “a creature with a fiery head.” And yet she stayed. The witch said she had “long waited” for the girl, and “now you shall give me light.” She turned the girl into a block of wood, threw it into the fire, then sat on the hearth, warming herself. She said, “Ah, now for once it burns brightly!” Creepy. See what happens when you don’t obey?

In “The White Snake,” a king had incredible wisdom, “as if knowledge of hidden things was brought to him in the air.” Actually, he was getting it from a secret covered dish he received after every dinner, once he was alone. After a while, the curious servant who brought the king this dish finally stole a look inside, only to discover – of course! – a white snake. (I know.) The servant “could not resist the desire to taste it, and so he cut off a small piece and put it in his mouth.” Okay, that’s going a bit too far. Even if he could then hear “the sparrows talking together” about everything they’ve seen in the world. He now had the “power to understand the speech of animals.” From that point on, the tale goes wild, filled with ravens, an ant-king, and an apple from the tree of life.

Some of the stories were surreal, seemingly just odd lists of bizarre happenings. For instance, in “The Ditmarsch Tale of Wonders,” the narrator saw “two roasted fowls flying” with “their breasts turned to Heaven and their backs to Hell.” “An anvil and a mill-stone swam across the Rhine prettily, slowly and gently.” And, naturally, “in that country the flies are as big as the goats are here.” You had to love the sense of play, the carnival mirror worlds of experimentation.

When my children were small, I used to make up stories to tell them, evolving tales of fantasy created on the spot. I remember being surprised – and secretly thrilled – when my older daughter began to state her unvarying request for the type of story she wanted told: “Make it sad or bad or mean.” Still a toddler, she knew what elements guaranteed interest. (No, no, I didn’t tell them Grimm-like tales of violence and gore.)

Looking at Grimm’s Fairy Tales as an adult, I’m surprised by how frightening and grotesque some of the stories are. (It’s like the shock of watching the old Disney film version of “Snow White” with your children. That witch!) Maybe I was somewhat traumatized by Grimm’s Fairy Tales in my childhood, but the works were unforgettable; they widened my imagination. I certainly gathered vivid images and a love for the magical, for wild fantasy. It was scary and wonderful reading. Even just the story titles in the collection had such strange, dark allure: “The Devil’s Sooty Brother,” “The Devil’s Three Gold Hairs,” “The Glass Coffin,” “The Three Snake-Leaves,” “The Flail from Heaven,” “The Poor Boy in the Grave,” and “The Spirit in the Bottle.” What child could resist? What adult can resist? Just lift the lid of that secret, gleaming, covered dish….

The photograph was taken in my living room on 7/6/08. The mask was a gift from my younger brother.


Annecy Baez said...


I was just visiting your blog and immersing myself (as usual) in your virtual world and when I went back to mine, I noticed you had paid me a visit. Thanks for your kind remarks. Your blog continues to be a wonderful dream filled with imagery, symbols and profound thoughts.

Christine said...

Thanks so much, Annecy! I'm delighted that you visit and dream.