I took a free online course on Coursera recently–read some good old books. For each selection, students were required to write a brief, 350-word essay that was then distributed to five random classmates for peer review. The following dreck was my first offering, which was modestly reviewed–two of my five peers, one English and another American, complained that I used “too many big words.” Another American was appalled that I abandoned the accepted 5-paragraph essay form by editing out both conclusive (reiterative, it seems to me) paragraph and let the little essay dangled there from the edge of it’s own cliff. The content, of course, was mostly stream of consciousness bullshit–I was going for sound as well as substance, but it was still an interesting exercise both in making a succinct and intelligible response and in observing that unlike most of our mass art today, the Grimm folk tales are almost anti-moralistic. I haven’t taken another Coursera class, but the experience was certainly worthwhile.
Ubiquitous in western culture, the tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are most familiar to modern readers as homogenized “Disney-fied” fantasies of plucky, rosy-cheeked protagonists set upon by, and ultimately prevailing over, evil—often psychotically so—villains. In a modern reality defined by the expectations of Hollywood accountants, the innocent victims—preferably princesses—prevail despite the devilry and magic summoned against them by armies of jealous Queens, cackling witches, and sociopathic stepmothers. Justice is delivered and all is set right in the world.
Interestingly, the Grimm stories as translated by Lucy Crane present a much different and arbitrary chain of action between villain (where there is one), victim, and resolution. One might presume that social and cultural changes, specifically the conditions of a largely agrarian, pre-industrial society and the greater exposure to and familiarity with the often capricious forces of nature, result in a more nuanced, grittier and often less formulaic depiction of good, evil, and justice.
In the very first selection, The Rabbit’s Bride, it is difficult to even discern which character is villain and which is the victim: the lonely Rabbit, raiding the cabbage patch and seducing the maiden, or the maiden who allows herself to be seduced and betrothed before betraying her suitor and breaking his heart? We see this unconventional approach again and again, from the bloodbath that is The Death of The Hen to The Straw, The Coal, and The Bean and on. There is no justice in these sad tales, and the only possible moral is that tragedy and terror are only a few heartbeats away.
Even a seemingly traditional tale like Rumplestiltskin delivers questionable justice. However unfavorable the heroine’s condition, she strikes a deal with the odd little man and spends her time seeking a way to renege her contract. The story seems almost unfair, but justice in the Grimms’ stories often has less to do with right and wrong, or good and bad, than it does with elevating wit over stupidity. Time and time again, the wily character prevails and the idiot suffers—whether that idiot is a dolt like Hans In Luck or Prudent Hans, or an inept villain like the Red Riding Hood wolf or the Hansel and Grethel witch.