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From the June, 2002 issue of Touchstone


Unpacking Grimms by Dale Nelson

Unpacking Grimms

The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales
by G. Ronald Murphy
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
(189 pages; $29.95, cloth)

reviewed by Dale Nelson

The author’s intention is indicated in his subtitle, but one’s confidence in his capacity as explicator of the stories’ Christian significance, as opposed to some kind of “religious” meaning, is not strong.

One finds phrases such as “the ‘Incarnation’ of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, as the breath of Adam and ‘the lord and giver of life’ of all living creatures” and a reading of John 1:4 as referring to the Spirit rather than to the Son, the Word; or “the Holy Spirit as the divine awareness of human events,” or “the source of revelation is the goodness of the human heart”; or a reference to Luke 2:14 as being the angels’ address to “all men of good will.” “It is from the soul of the good person that religion’s spirit originates,” he writes. He applies “ecumenical” to encompass relationships between Christians, Muslims, and “other religions.”

One’s misgivings about the author are further prompted by his ready resort to conjecture. For example, an appended essay makes connections between the Norse cosmic tree of Yggdrasil, Scandinavian burial practices and stave churches, pine-box coffins, the pointed style of Gothic architecture, and Christmas trees. Murphy’s confidence in all these links exceeds that of this reader.

More central to the argument of the book is Murphy’s confidence that several dozen passages in a Greek New Testament were marked by Wilhelm Grimm as especially cherished texts. Presumably the markings are his; presumably one can infer from them the spirituality that Murphy adduces; presumably this spirituality colored Wilhelm’s renderings of the tales (throughout the many years that he worked on them and revised them?). Also, Murphy wants Wilhelm to have found in the old Saxon Heliand and in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival works that “may well have been” models for his work on the tales, models that “reimagin[ed] the Christian story and accept[ed] ‘pagan’ religious values.” True, Wilhelm knew both of these works. They might have influenced his storytelling (from the beginning? The first edition of the Marchen was 1812/15). It does seem, though, that the reader is asked to presume quite a bit. Some readers will become fatigued by the effort eventually required to remember so many distinct conjectures—suppositions that must be true if Murphy’s readings are to be confirmed.

Many readers will approve of Murphy’s stated appreciation of the stories as the Grimms gave them to us. He says that “it is the stories as rewritten by Wilhelm (and Jacob) in their final versions which are the works of art that charm us all with [their] magic.” It was Wilhelm, Murphy asserts, who “kissed these sleeping gems back into life,” like a fairy-tale prince himself.

And yet much of Murphy’s discussion of five well-known stories—“Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Sleeping Beauty”—amounts to source studies of two types: (1) literary, naming various Classical, Germanic, Christian, and modern European analogues or originals, some of which the Grimms identified, and some of which Murphy proposes; and (2) psychoanalytical, depending especially on Bruno Bettelheim.

A writer whom Murphy appears to have overlooked—J. R. R. Tolkien—sets one thinking on other lines in his seminal lecture “On Fairy-Stories,” which everyone who cares about the matter should ponder. Murphy does not share Tolkien’s distaste (expressed in his preface to The Lord of the Rings) for allegory. In his reading, “The frog [in “Sleeping Beauty”] is Germanic and Christian, he is both magic and Christ’s Holy Spirit.” The father, in the same story, has all the spindles in the kingdom burnt in order to try to head off the prophecy that one day the princess would prick herself with one and die. Murphy suggests that the father’s action signifies parents’ efforts to keep sex and the knowledge of death secret from their children. Probably Tolkien would not care for such an interpretation. However, Murphy seems more attuned than was Tolkien in his essay to the affections that are, indeed, important in many of the Grimms’ tales. He elicits notes of romantic love, love of home life, of loyalty, courage, and faith, and the exposure of jealousy and greed.

He says well: “The reason for telling fairy tales was to awaken the thoughts and feelings of the heart.” Coleridge, living at the same time as the Grimms, remembered starlight walks with his father and his explanation of celestial orbits. “I heard him with a profound delight & admiration; but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii &c &c—my mind had been habituated to the Vast—& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. . . . Should children be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii?—I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative.—I know no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’ & ‘the Whole’” (from a letter to Thomas Poole of October 1797).

Parents who think Coleridge is on to something will want to enjoy fairy tales with their children—perhaps reading them by candlelight, or telling them extemporaneously after dark, at bedtime; and they will protect their young ones from a characteristic modern approach to the tales that does not, indeed, pretty them up and make them moralistic fables, as in former times, but rather has to skew them, has to be sophisticated, streetwise, satirical, or just goofy “fun.” Such detestable guying of the stories used to be the order of the day, I believe, on Sesame Street. I believe that, though he might not quite know what to do with them, Murphy does love the stories. If his book encourages otherwise ignorant or careless adults to respect them, too, then that is, so far, a good thing.  

Dale Nelson is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.

“Unpacking Grimms” first appeared in the June 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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