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Back in the Black Forest: Revisiting the Grimms


Sixty Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm, 1979 (translated by Mrs. Edgar Lucas, illustrated by Arthur Rackham)

I’ve returned to my old stomping grounds: the classic fairy tales. Rereading has always been a happy pastime for me. I was one of those kids—ready to start over with Once upon a time as soon as I’d heard The End. It’s comforting to revisit a story, to be delighted again by characters and ideas, even when you know what’s going to happen at the end.

Under the guidance of some master storytellers and interpreters of the form (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, Angela Carter, and others), I’ve learned that rereading can uncover new things, too. Especially if I’m willing to pull back traditional interpretations to search with fresh eyes, or if I’m ready to examine gaps and silences instead of just leaping straight over them. This time through the Brothers Grimm, I’m looking around the corners in the stories, mining fissures to find what may be hiding there. I’m also trying to peer back into the eyes of the storytellers to see if they have anything else they might like to say. Here’s an example…

Remember The Frog Prince? (A princess drops her golden ball in a well, a frog offers to retrieve it—for a price. She agrees, but as soon as her favorite toy is recovered, she runs off, leaving the frog in the lurch.) Conventional analyses of this story tend to focus on the importance of integrity and keeping your promises. In the story, when the king hears the details, he makes his daughter fulfill her obligations. So, Froggy gets to eat from her plate and she even has to carry him up to her room. There’s nothing wrong with learning to keep your word, but I can’t stop thinking about what happens next…

Detail from Rackham illustration: “So she seized him with two fingers, and carried him upstairs.”

When the frog tries to crawl into her pretty, silken bed, the princess slams him against the wall. Now, for the record, I do not condone violence against animals—it’s just the princess’s anger here that fascinates me. There’s a line she can’t cross, even to please the king. She made this bargain in haste without really considering the consequences, and when payment comes due, it’s too much. So, she gets mad.

Here’s the funny thing—the pothole in the story that I’ve always been encouraged to skate past—her anger IS the necessary catalyst required for transformation.

After Froggy hits the wall, he pops back into his original, charming prince form—no kissing required! It seems like the original storyteller here understood that keeping your word is important, but protecting your boundaries when you’ve entered into a bad bargain might be even more rewarding. That little facet of this story really holds up—in fact, it seems made for readers today.

There are a host of reasons why teachers and mentors and gurus have used stories to pass their wisdom down. Stories are easier to remember, for one thing. But they can also be elastic—they can grow and bend and twist with us. Narratologists have noted that fairy tales were likely never meant (just) for the children gathered around the fire, but told for the benefit and entertainment of everyone listening.

For me, all of this means that I never have to outgrow these tales—but I know if I return, I might discover that my allegiances have changed. I’m sure I’ll always want to see Hansel and Grethel escape the cannibalistic witch, but I’m less excited to see a damsel in distress get rescued and married off to her champion before she’s had a chance to grow up properly, to rescue herself, or to see the world. It’s likely that the endings might change for me too; I expect them to feel a bit more ambiguous. The sense of justice in happily ever after or they all got what they deserved depends entirely on who we’re cheering for.

Increasingly, I’m much more intrigued by the wish-granters and the catalysts now—those enigmatic figures lurking at the edge of the forest or in the bends of the path, offering help and advice and resources to the worthy and the curious. I confess I’m also sympathizing more and more with the solitary crone—minding her business, growing herbs in the forest— who’ll defend her territory if she has to, even though she might much rather just be left in peace. I must be entering a new phase.

I know of readers who reject the notion of going over old ground, but some books seem to be worthy of a return trip. I’m often tempted to seek out a good story again and again so I can see it from all sides, examine its facets, and imagine myself in each one of its thousand little worlds. And, as a writer, it’s one of my goals to make stories that are worthy of a second look—to create books with capacious themes, and ideas that bloom, and characters that hold new gifts in their hands every time a reader comes around.

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Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author. Illustrations in photos by Arthur Rackham.