Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin “Turnip Cleaner”
Of Turnips and Princesses
The fairy tale world is all aflutter with the news coming to us via The Guardian (UK) that five hundred fairy tales have awakened from a one hundred and fifty year slumber in their castle surrounded by a thorn thicket.
OK, they were in thirty some boxes collecting dust in a municipal archive in Regensburg, Germany. The prince who slashed his way through the thorn thicket … ahem, the researcher who slashed her way through the thorn thicket was the scholar Erika Eichenseer. That happened around 2008. In 2010 she published a book, Prinz Roßwifl, (in German) with selections from this archive, a work apparently now out of print. We (English speakers) belatedly heard about it because of the Guardian article that has a link to one of the tales, “The Turnip Princess,” translated into English.
In this raw and disjointed tale, a lost prince takes shelter in a cave, where he is entrapped by a witch. With the witch are a bear and a dog. The dog disappears entirely from the tale, but the bear is central. He tells the prince to pull a rusty nail from the cave wall to break the spell over the bear and then to place the nail under a turnip, thereby finding a bride.
Alas, a monster (whom we never hear of again either after its first appearance) frightens the prince out of the turnip field. The nail is lost and the prince falls into a deep, long slumber. Upon awakening, the prince seeks the nail, eventually finding it one morning in the shell of a turnip he had pierced with a blackthorn branch the evening before. He sees, imprinted on the inside of the turnip shell, the shape of a beautiful girl.
Returning to the cave, he reinserts the nail into the wall, evoking the witch and the bear. The witch turns out to be the beautiful girl from the turnip and the bear the prince’s father. The nail disappears in a burst of flame.
OK, then. Who collected this one? Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (this link is in German. If you are using Google Cromo it will offer to translate). And who was he? An avid collector of Bavarian folk tales, legends, traditions, and customs. The Grimms had high regard for Von Schönwerth. Jacob reportedly told King Maximilian II of Bavaria that only Von Schönwerth could replace him and his brother given Von Schönwerth’s accuracy, thoroughness, and sensitivity. This was not a recommendation, but rather an observation. The King knew Von Schönwerth very well. Von Schönwerth had been his private secretary before the King’s accession, then his cabinet chief, and later a councilor in the Financial Ministry. Cushy jobs apparently, allowing Von Schönwerth to wander around the countryside collecting thirty boxes worth of notes on peasant life. He put some of it into three volumes called Aus der Oberpfalz — Sitten und Sagen (available as a free Kindle book on Amazon). It slipped quickly into obscurity despite the Grimms’ enthusiasm for his work.
If the fairy dust raised by all the recent fuss made about these tales has settled on you, as it has on me, you will want to know more. Maria Tatar has something to say about it in her blog on the New Yorker site and Jack Zipes has weighed in from Sussex. Both of these are informative reads.
In the Spirit of Wilhelm
This tale seems raw because it does not adhere to literary rules. The events in the story do not segue neatly, nor logically, from one to the other. Unnecessary and confusing details appear while other details go missing, creating a plotline that feels disjointed and surreal. Had Von Schönwerth’s informant been relating a dream, I would not be surprised.
Perhaps our view of this tale as “raw” comes from our expectations. There are familiar literary forms we want all stories to follow. At the very least, we want the storyline to make sense. That doesn’t seem too much to ask, but is it a requirement for nonliterary tellers and listeners? Might they be as comfortable with “dream logic,” having dreamt, but never having read a book?
Be that as it may, we literates do have our requirements. Wilhelm agrees with me. He is here in my study as I take my first stabs at making sense of “The Turnip Princess.”
Taking my pen in hand, I suggest, “Once upon a time …?” Wilhelm, pacing back and forth in front of the bay window, makes a noncommittal gesture.
“Once there was a prince,” I propose. Wilhelm raises his forefinger in the air approvingly.
“Right then,” I say. “The prince is lost, but why? The story gives no reason. Is he out hunting and became separated from his party?” Wilhelm looks thoughtfully out the bay window. I continue. “Is he on some sort of quest… Ahh, I’ve got it!”
Wilhelm looks at me quizzically, as I continue triumphantly. “At the end of the story it seems that the bear has changed, unaccountably, into the prince’s father. Why not have the prince on a quest to find his father, who has disappeared many years ago. That lends the story a traditional circular structure. The prince starts out to find his father—the king—and in the end not only finds his father but his bride as well through his persistence.” Wilhelm silently applauds.
“Good then. When he wakes up in the cave there is a witch, a bear, and a dog, but the dog has no role in the story.” Wilhelm draws his finger across his neck.
“Right,” I say. “We kill the dog. The reader will never know.” By Wilhelm, I think to myself, This is beginning to shape up!
Avenue of Chestnut Trees
The Language Divide
I feel that Jack Zipes, well known among folklore scholars, has the advantage of a panoramic view of the fairy-tale forest. He leaves me disgruntled with my realization I’ve been staring at a fairy tree.
In his note on the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy site, Professor Zipes presents me with a laundry list of other early collectors, whom he prefers over Von Schönwerth, a list of names that rings not a single bell in my head. These authors are German and French, and their works written in those languages. I am one of those wimpy Americans who hasn’t bothered to learn another language. Well, a lot of us aren’t near any borders and have been told that English is a universal language. Why make the effort?
Not knowing other languages, I find myself in a deep, dark forest and a little depressed to discover I cannot comprehend its myriad paths. But I do have a candle and there is a signpost with many arrows. How many miles to Babylon?
To guide me through tales from other languages there are good translations of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes’ being one of them. Charles Perrault’s versions of many fairy tales that he wrote for the French court are well covered in translation. Then there is the Decameron of Boccaccio for tales from Italy. (Actually, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Old English sounds rather foreign to most of us.) Celtic and Gaelic stories are easily available via Joseph Jacobs, Jeremiah Curtain, Thomas Croker, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Lady Wilde, Sir George Douglas and others.
Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books contain a wide range of tales from all over the world. Sir Richard Burton’s (not the actor) One Thousand and One Nights is a classic of Arabian tales not to be overlooked. Far less known, but a favorite of mine, is R. M. Dawkins’ Modern Greek Folktales and More Greek Folktales. Dawkins’ works are examples of books out of print, but not in the public domain, which makes them expensive and hard to find.
Public domain books are another matter. We used to depend on Dover Publications for these titles, but no longer. Dover puts out a number of fairy tale collections in trade-paper format. However, if you make the techno-leap to electronic books there are numerous titles of all genres for free, including many cultural folklore collections. The big three for free books in the public domain are Amazon, Google Books and The Gutenberg Project. These free books come in many different formats that may or may not work on your devices. There are conversion programs out there, such as Calibre, that are free. Kindle will read PDFs, but the type is small and cannot take advantage of most of Kindle’s features. Calibre can convert PDFs to MOBIs (a Kindle-readable format), but I have had variable success. Free is not necessarily easy.
With all these translations, we must stay conscious of “fakelore,” against which Eliot Singer has warned us. A certain amount of cultural bias cannot help but creep into translations. In a conversation with Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason, I asked about nonnative Americans telling those stories that do not “belong” to them. She replied, “If I were to tell a Polish tale, it would have a Lakota spin on it.”
I am sure I have missed some authors/collectors worthy of mention, but having written the above, I think I see some light filtering through the dark canopy of the fairy-tale forest above my head.
John Constable The Mill
A little rain must fall
I am walking down a muddy path. I have been avoiding it for at least a year. Turn from it, though I have, the path remains and will not disappear until I have walked it. It’s the same path taken by “The Maiden Without Hands” so long ago. Who put us on this path? Wilhelm Grimm.
The bones of “The Maiden Without Hands” are these: A miller, unwittingly, makes a pact with the devil to give him what stands behind the mill in exchange for wealth. The miller thinks it is the old apple tree, but the devil is thinking of the miller’s daughter, who at the time of their pact is cleaning the yard around the apple tree.
To thwart the devil, the maiden cleanses herself and stands in a circle drawn on the ground. Furious, the devil demands that the miller not allow his daughter to wash. On the second day she has washed her hands with her tears. The devil demands the miller cut off her hands, which he does out of fear of the devil. Tears, again, are sufficient to clean the stumps of her arms, and the devil departs.
The maiden leaves her father, wandering out into the greater world, where she is helped by an angel to find food—a pear from a tree in the king’s garden. There the king discovers her and they are soon married
She bears him a son while the king is in a distant land, and the exchange of letters between the king’s mother and the king are intercepted by the devil. This ends with the king’s mother thinking her son wants the queen and the child killed. Instead she allows them to escape. The angel reappears and gives them shelter.
Upon return, the king discovers the mistakes and goes off on a penitential search for seven years, declaring he will not eat or drink until he finds his queen. God preserves him and he comes eventually to the angel’s shelter, where the queen and his son, Sorrowful, await him.
Now comes a sharp turn in the muddy path I wander down. The above description is of the 1857 version of this Grimm tale. Their own 1812 version is quite different. It starts out the same, but in the 1812 version there is no angel. The maiden comes to the king’s garden, bangs her body against an apple tree to knock down fruit and eats it off the ground. Captured by the guards, she is thrown into prison, but the king’s son suggests she be employed to feed the chickens. (How she does this without hands is not explained.) The prince is, of course, in love with her and talks the king into letting him marry her.
From here the versions are similar, with the devil intercepting letters, but the king’s mother is absent from the 1812 version, and the queen and her son are simply banished. She is now helped by an old man and her hands restored by wrapping her arms around a tree three times, rather than being re-grown in the presence of the angel. Her husband, when he realizes what has happened, goes off with a servant to find her. The old man has sheltered the queen and her son in a house no one can enter until they ask three times “for God’s sake”. This is the only Christian reference in the 1812 version. After the king, queen, and their son are reunited and they return to their kingdom, the house of the old man vanishes.
Jack Zipes, in “The Brothers Grimm, From Enchanted Forest to the Modern World,” attributes the changes to Wilhelm, and I’ll assume with Jacob’s consent. But why the changes?
Because the Grimms were bourgeois. That term carries a negative feel in modern-day parlance, but back in their day the Grimms struggled for the ascendancy of the bourgeois. And they had an agenda. They were in the forefront of rising German nationalism against the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire. The bourgeoisie composed the rising middle class, democratic in leaning. The Grimms had to flee at times to avoid being arrested for their stand against monarchy.
The Grimms wrote and re-wrote the fairy tales to reflect the values of their radical audience and not the minds of earlier serfs and peasants. Between the 1812 and 1857 editions the revolutions of 1848 swept through Europe, carrying the Grimms in their wake. I will forgive Wilhelm for mudding the path. A lot of rain fell in his day.
Leonardo da Vinci Study of Hands
Musings on violence
What attracts my attention to “The Maiden Without Hands” is its title. The faint-hearted know better than to read such a story, but curiosity draws in the rest of us.
The faint-hearted prove correct in their suspicions, for we meet with wantonness brutality at the start of the story. But the actual violence ends there. Threatened violence occurs when the devil’s altered letters call for the queen and son’s destruction, but they are allowed to escape unharmed.
We, the reader, understand that the violence is not gratuitous. It has meaning. We read on, wanting to discover at least a hint of that meaning. We sense that the violence is code for something worse. In our case, the violence of amputation is a replacement for incest between father and daughter.
To prove this assertion I could safely stand on the shoulders of a number of scholars, Jack Zipes and Alan Dundes to name two. Or I could site the variants of this story that depict the incestuous elements more obviously. Instead I am going to look only at the internal evidence that the abuse heaped upon the maiden is code for incest.When reading fairy tales, particularly Grimm, the first clue that we are dealing with code is when the story does not quite make sense. The father, after making a bad pact with the devil, is accused by his wife of betraying their daughter. The miller’s wife now disappears from the story. She is not there in a supportive role at the daughter’s time of need. Neither is the father supportive. If we see through the code, that makes sense, because the father is the problem.
After the maiden has gone through her ordeal with the devil, the father offers to provide for her material comfort. Hardly in any shape to take care of herself, she decides to leave home. On the face of the story and logically, this is a really bad idea. Looking again, deciphering the code, the maiden has to leave home to get away from her father’s abuse. Although she escapes, she leaves as a damaged person, handless, helpless, her healing still to take place.
In considering this “replacement code,” two points jump to mind. First, is incest less obnoxious than chopping off the maiden’s hands? Apparently so, at least in the Grimm’s time and in the Victorian mindset, vestiges of which still survive in American culture. This mindset holds what I consider to be an odd acceptance of blatant violence while blanching at sexual content. For example, commercial television will air scenes of death by horrific violence as long as none of the perpetrators or victims says the “F word.”
The second point, and more on topic than my first, concerns replacements and the psyche of the child who hears them used in stories. Bruno Bettelheim explains this notion with the example of the evil stepmother as a stand-in for the real mother, allowing a child to vent and defuse subliminal anger toward their own mother by directing it against the one-step-removed mother of the story.
There were far fewer stepmothers in fairy tales before the Grimms than afterwards; the Grimms all but invented character and situation replacement. They quickly saw its value in disguising harsh topics from children and making the story compatible with bourgeois sensibilities.Your thoughts?
Carl Larsson "Brtia as Iduna"
Apple of my eye.
In “The Maiden Without Hands” there is an old apple tree growing behind the mill. If there is a fruit in a Grimm story it is an apple—OK, sometimes a pear. I don’t recall a peach anywhere (that’s French). Forget the apricot. Oranges, kumquats—nada.
Given that apples grow about everywhere and are easy to preserve, their favored status is no surprise. If not the first fruit to be cultivated by us, it is among the earliest. Genus-wise, the apple is in the rose family, which I find rather charming. Its medical properties are established in the popular culture. I grew up on “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
What I find the most fun about this compact, solid, shiny bit of fruit is all the symbolic baggage it has picked up during its travels through time and place.
The ancient Greeks certainly took to the apple. The goddess Eris, when not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, shows up anyway to cause trouble. (That scenario sounds familiar.) Into the midst of the wedding party she throws the apple of discord. It’s a clever design. She has written on it “for the most beautiful one.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each assume that title is theirs. Hence the discord.
What better way to solve such a dispute than to bring in a mortal? They appoint Paris of Troy to be their victim—I mean judge. Well, these contacts between mortals and immortals rarely go well, and when Aphrodite bribes Paris with the most beautiful mortal woman, Helen, the specter of war between Troy and Sparta is not far behind. However, it made for a heck of a good story.
Christianity has its take on the apple, as it appears in the Garden of Eden, though technically it really doesn’t. The Bible speaks of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life. Genesis never mentions an apple and scholars differ regarding which fruit is meant. However, returning to the Greeks, Hercules had the task of getting the three apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the three daughters of Atlas. These apples grow on the Tree of Life. For the newly Christianized pagans it might have been easy to conflate the Garden of Hesperides and the Garden of Eden’s fruit.
Moving up into the cold lands, the apple comes up again in the VÖlsunga saga. The goddess Frigg, wife of Odin, sends King Rerir an apple for his wife to eat and become pregnant. The apple is delivered to the king by a giantess in the form of a crow, who drops the apple in his lap.
That image of the crow dropping the apple in a lap is similar to a scene in the Grimms’ tale “The White Snake” when the hero is seeking an apple from the Tree of Life, which is given to him by three ravens whose lives he had saved. To say the Grimms were well versed in these mythic images would be an understatement given Jacob’s exhaustive work, Deutsche Mythologie (Teutonic Mythology). Whether the Grimms improved that particular scene or if the stolen images were already there, hardly matters. As soon as a story evokes the apple, all of its symbolic baggage is available to be plundered.
My above ramblings are a mere sampling of the near countless mythic, legendary, and story references to apples. By the way, the sound track you hear in the background (you hear it don’t you?) is the William Tell Overture. I thought it appropriate. (Well, it’s been running through my head.)
Marriage and parentheticals
A rather disproportionate number of fairy tales end in marriage. (Divorce never comes up.) On occasion “false brides” are cast aside (or worse), and mothers die to be replaced by stepmothers. (Are there ever any stepfathers in these tales?) But the marriage that dominates fairy tales is one that ends in bliss.
My wife points out that these fairy-tale marriages are usually between someone poor and someone rich. That, she claims, is why they are called fairy tales. (She married someone poor who stayed that way.)
Why the consuming interest in marriage? Why is it the focus of such popular tales as “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”?
Our fairy tale of the month falls into the same category as “Sprig of Rosemary” and “Beauty and the Beast.” (In the Aarne-Thompson fairy tale index this is type 425A, the search for the lost husband.) I mention two examples above, but could entirely fill this blog post with the titles of others. They all harken back to “Cupid and Psyche.”
(We think of “Cupid and Psyche” as one of the Greek myths. Actually, it is a good canidate for the first literary fairy tale, written by Lucius Apuleius in the second century AD, told in the context of another story.)
The events of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” are typical of the pattern of the Animal Bridegrooms. In this pattern, the father gives/surrrenders/loses the youngest/only daughter. (In our story a white bear promises her father riches.) The girl goes willingly (an important character attribute). She is well treated (our heroine rings a bell to get all her wants) and is surrounded by wealth. She need only adhere to one promise (the white bear tells her not to listen to her mother’s advice), which is invariable broken. (I am not sure not listening to your mother is a good message.) The bridegroom (under some sort of enchantment) is whisked away to marry someone else (a troll with a nose three yards long in our tale). The abandoned bride must now go through an ordeal to reclaim her husband (what I called in an eariler post “the marriage test”). (The best known of these animal bridegrooms is the beast in “Beauty and the Beast”, although it does not exactly follow the usual pattern.) (Probably because it’s very literary and introspective.) (And French.)
I return to my question: why the interest in marriage? Or, am I asking the wrong question? Are these tales about marriage? I am going to suggest that these marriages are being used as a device (the McGuffin if you will) for illustrating a different dilemma. I am thinking of loss and recovery.
A much more common experience than having to find a husband who has suffered magical memory loss (the cause of distracted husbands has nothing to do with magic, as my wife will tell you), is the experience, or better yet, feeling, of something being lost: a long-ago friend, an irreplaceable book you once had, a time and place gone by. Tales like “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” hold out the hope (even if in vain) we too can recover what is lost: hold again in our hands the hand of another, feel the weight and open up the pages of that book, or grasp that feeling we once felt in that almost forgotten place.
There exists a thoughtless habit, to which we may easily fall victim: The assumption. I call it thoughtless because if we thought about if for a moment we would see the error.
How many of us assume Elvis Presley wrote “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog”? How many of us have heard of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who actually wrote it, or “Big Mama” Thornton, who first recorded it?
How many of us thought Kay Nielsen wrote and illustrated “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”? I for one.
Illustrate it, he did. Kay Nielsen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1886, of theatrical parents, studied art in Paris from 1904 to 1911. A good part of his career he spent designing and painting stage scenery. In 1914 he produced twenty-five color plates and twenty-one monotones for “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, generally recognized as his most popular accomplishment and one of the great gift books of the early twentieth century.
I quote here from Wikipedia: “Gift books, literary annuals or a keepsake, were 19th century books, often lavishly decorated, which collected essays, short fiction, and poetry. They were primarily published in the autumn, in time for the holiday season and were intended to be given away rather than read by the purchaser.”
Classed along side of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, Nielsen’s rise to fame was cut short by the advent of World War I, during which the gift book industry devolved, never to recover. While Dulac and Rackham were the kings of the gift book illustrators, Nielsen was only the heir apparent.
1936 found Nielsen working for Walt Disney. The mark he left behind can be seen in the sequences “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” in “Fantasia”, one of Disney’s early feature-length animated films. The film did not do too well when first released in 1940, partly because of the outbreak of World War II. Nielsen left Disney in 1941.
By the end of World War II, art nouveau had run its course, and Nielsen’s style was no longer in demand. He and his wife took up chicken farming, unsuccessfully. He died in poverty in 1957. It would be another twenty years before his work would again be recognized for its worth.
For me, Nielsen’s illustrations told me the story, but, in truth, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” was collected by Peter Christen AsbjØrnsen (1812-1885) and JØrgen Engebretsen Moe (1813-1882). Professionally, AsbjØrnsen was a zoologist, and Moe a theologian, but they both held a lifelong abiding interest in Nordic folklore. They were, as well as boyhood friends, Norway’s “Brothers Grimm”. Unlike the Grimms, they both actually wandered out into the hinterlands and collected stories from the folk.
The names Peter Christen AsbjØrnsen and JØrgen Engebretsen Moe do not trip off the tongue like the Three Billy Goats Gruff tripping over the bridge. How many times have we read and listen to that folktale without an acknowledgement of AsbjØrnsen and Moe?
The companion of false attribution is no attribution. With no attribution given, we assume “it has always been there”. These foktales have “always been there” through the efforts of the Brothers Grimm, AsbjØrnsen and Moe, Joseph Jacobs, Andrew Lang, Jeremiah Curtain, Thomas Crofton Croker, W.B. Yeats, Lady Wilde, Sir George Douglas, R. M. Dawkins… I could fill up another blog entry with names. There is a legion of writers and illustrators who have helped to keep these stories alive in words and images. They have my undying gratitude, even if I conflate, confuse and forget who they are.
Unlike other literature, the fairy tale is allowed to be downright sloppy in matters of internal logic and in character development and motivation. And no one cares.
I’ll take the bear in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” to task. Don’t worry; I’ll keep my distance. Is he a bear, a man or a troll? Clearly, he appears to be a bear as the story starts, but we quickly learn the white bear can throw off his bear shape at night and take on the shape of a man.
Against the bear’s warnings, the heroine lights a candle and looks upon a prince lying in their bed. The logic of the story starts to unwind with this scene. How does a sleeping prince look different than a run-of-the-mill handsome man? We are not told how she knows him to be a prince.
Further, upon waking, the prince declares she has ruined their happiness. He has been under an enchantment put on him by his stepmother, and now he must return to her and marry a long-nosed princess.
Let’s look at this from the stepmother’s point of view. One day she says to her stepson, “Look, I’m going to change you into a bear by day and a man by night. If you can get someone to sleep with you for a year and not look on your man-shape, I’ll let you go. Otherwise, you must come back here and marry Long Nose.” Why would she say that? What is her motive for this strange arrangement? Why not say, “Marry Long Nose or I’ll change you into a newt."
Toward the end of the tale we learn that the stepmother and the long-nosed princess are trolls. If the prince’s stepmother is a troll, was his father a troll? Everyone else in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, outside of captive Christians, are trolls. If he, too, is a troll, then the heroine’s mother’s fear has come true.
Here is the important point: It doesn’t matter. Nothing I have stated above matters to the fairy tale. And more, everything I have written these past months doesn’t matter to the fairy tale. I am holding up the wrong measure. Willingly and knowingly I have done so and will continue to do so from time to time, but to the fairy tale itself…
Although we have what are called literary fairy tales, these tales are not literature in my view. The literary writer spends 80,000—90,000—100,000 words to get the reader to see, hear and feel what the author wants the reader to sense and understand. Characters need to be developed: have names, have clear motives, and follow long, logical, exciting, interesting progressions. The reader is allowed into the heads of the characters and experiences the progressions with them.
Fairy tales are short, compact, and sketchy on details. We never get inside the hero or heroine’s head; we may not even know their names. We see them on the surface. Motivations and logic are optional.
If we are to measure the fairy tale as an artistic form—not that it cares—we would do better to use the terms we use to describe paintings. What are the images? What does it say to us? What is the atmosphere of the work? What memories does it evoke? What is the impression it leaves behind?
For me, a fairy tale is more like a still life than a novel.