FAIRY TALES DO COME TRUE
Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian, The Mysteries of Life In Children's Literature (Long Prairie, MN: The Neumann Press, 2000) 145 Pages, $18, Hardcover, ISBN: 0-911845-99-2.
G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: the Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 189 Pages, $25, Hardcover, ISBN: 0-19-513607
Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.
Although we define childhood chronologically, something is wrong if we fully outgrow it. Indeed, unless we become like little children, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Only after I had several children, did I begin to appreciate the enchantment and depth of stories that I had thought were only for children.
Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian and G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., are also grown men captivated by children's tales. Fr. Murphy's delight isn't hidden as he thanks his "family and friends, who have lived through my enthusiastic discussions of the Grimms' tales over the years with great patience," searches Germany and the United States for original source material, discerns the Grimm brothers' intentions from their handwritten notations, and is captivated as century old flowers fall from pages of their books. Nor does Dr. Kalpakgian stifle his glee over stumbling providentially into the study of children's literature: "Dr. [Dennis] Quinn was teaching a class called 'Literature for Children' ... All of my spare time that semester was spent reading books that I had never before encountered in my childhood or in my undergraduate and graduate education. What enchantment! ... Here I was, a forty-four-year-old man and professor of English, auditing an undergraduate class and marvelling at the breadth and depth of Dr. Quinn's extraordinary teaching. ... I have been teaching it and loving it ever since, and, like everything playful that we do and enjoy for its own sake, for the pure fun of it, 'it overflows' as Cardinal Newman says of liberal education."
Accepting Bruno Bettelheim's challenge that the deeper layer of religious meaning of the Grimms' tales deserved serious attention, Fr. Murphy, a professor of German at Georgetown, examines Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty "as the poetic expression of what the brothers Grimm thought they were - fragments of ancient faith." Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, professors and librarians, collected oral stories, and reworked and retold the fairy tales in writing, editing them in successive editions. Erudite but highly readable, The Owl, The Raven, and The Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales delves into the Germanic, Classical, and Christian influences discernible in the Grimms' versions of the tales, contrasting them with other versions of the same or similar stories, to reveal the Grimm's intent to display ancient pagan faith blossoming into Christian fullness: "Religious wisdom is to be conscious that nature is aware of us, and to be in awe of the parcae: the owl of Athena. Another form of religious awareness is to feel reverence for human thought and memory as divine phenomena, like twin birds perched on the shoulders: the ravens of Woden. Another form of religious consciousness is to be touched by the phenomenon of love when it occurs between us, or hovers between us and the world of nature: the dove from heaven."
Fr. Murphy turns to two autobiographies written by the brothers, and the copy of the New Testament Wilhelm read each morning, to help him view the tales through their eyes: "it seems very important to determine as clearly as possible just what the religious outlook of the brothers was and to apply it to the reading of the final versions of the Grimms' tales." In their autobiographies he finds echos of the fairy tales as well as a strong Reformed faith. His description, though, of finding Wilhelm's New Testament captures both Fr. Murphy's childlike enthusiasm and his scholarly insight:
"As I later sat in Berlin at the Humboldt University Library, I watched the librarian approaching me with a full cart load of books from the Grimms' private library, I knew immediately the modest volume I had been looking for. I deliberately looked at a couple of other books first. And then I picked it up. A strange feeling came over me about looking into another person's private religious thoughts, feelings which had occurred a hundred and fifty years ago. Then I opened it, and a small shower of dark dried flower petals, color long gone, fell into my lap, along with bits and pieces of small leaves, and whole sprigs of rue, still green. It was Wilhelm's own copy of the Greek New Testament – of course Wilhelm Grimm would read the New Testament in the original, he believed in continuity with origins. ... [O]ver time [he] had underlined seventy-one passages in the text. The importance of the discovery of these passages for an insight into the Christian spirituality of the poet of the final version of the Grimms' fairy tales is simply unparalleled.
"Among the surprises: first, there is almost no trace of interest in the fatalism or predestination that might be presumed from Wilhelm's Calvinist Reformed forbears. Second, there are no markings reflecting a moralism, neither Pauline strictures that might support the Protestant work ethic nor any on sin and judgment, ... . Third, there are no markings to be found in any of the Pauline letters nor in the Book of Revelation. ... Wilhelm's obvious predilection is for the teachings of Jesus in the gospel story and, within that context, for those teachings in the mystical form given in John's Gospel and in the humane-social form of Luke-Acts. Love, in its many biblical manifestations, the Spirit of God, divine providence, love of God and of neighbor, faithful confidence, ecumenical acceptance of other faiths, the Resurrection to eternal life, is the common thread among the themes that moved him most in the pages of the New Testament."
The five tales are so familiar that they seem part of American culture, perhaps because of Disney animation, but the versions we've come to know aren't always those of the Grimms. Disney's "rendition of the ending with the sleeping Snow White surrounded by the kneeling dwarfs, a candle placed on either side of her glass casket, music changed to solemnly religious, and the slowly paced entry of the prince into what is unmistakably a church atmosphere, captures well Wilhelm Grimm's religious spirit. It occurs to no one viewing the film to think that Germanic elves are out of place amidst the candles and organ music of Christian piety, and that is the style and achievement of the brothers Grimm, well depicted by Disney." But Disney's Cinderella is based on the French version of the tale. No pumpkin, no clock striking midnight, no fairy godmother, in the Grimms' tale. Instead, we find Germanic and Christian symbols, such as a dove that clothes Cinderella from the branches of a tree on her mother's grave. Fr. Murphy does not leave the reader at a loss, but instead provides complete translations of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood for those unfamiliar with the Grimms' versions.
Little Thorn Rose or Little Briar Rose, the Grimms' version of the sleeping beauty tale, is, I believe, their masterpiece among masterpieces. It "is the obverse of Cinderella. In Cinderella, the spiritual problem was which of the sisters is the 'right' bride? Which human being is the right human being for the love of the King's Son? Whom does the slipper fit?" says Fr. Murphy. "In Sleeping Beauty, however, the question is turned around: which prince is the right prince? Which suitor is the right suitor? The interwoven criteria from the poetry of the three religions are simple enough: he will be the one who comes in the fulness of time, 100 years, he will find his own way through the maze of thorns, and nature will recognize and make way for him, as the birds did for Cinderella. The deadly thorn hedge will open up of itself."
Fr. Murphy convincingly presents the five Grimm fairy tales as stories of baptism and redemption, suffused with Christian symbolism and meaning complemented by Germanic and Classical allusions that support the Christian message. "The identity of the prince within the stories I have often interpreted as a blend of the rescuing hero from three traditions with Christ being the dominant figure," he writes. "If, however, one looks at the tales in the initially bland and fragmentary form in which many of them first came to the Grimms, and if one considers their remarkable transformation into stories with powers of enchantment, then it is clear that in a creative artistic sense it is Wilhelm Grimm who is the prince. He is the one who kissed these sleeping gems back to life." Fr. Murphy's analysis is itself complemented by charming illustrations by professional artist Laurence Selim usually from sketches by Ludwig Emil Grimm, younger brother of Jacob and Wilhelm, which help the reader "see" the points Fr. Murphy makes in his text.
Dr. Kalpakgian's approach is less scholarly and more eclectic than that of Fr. Murphy. He does not focus in depth on a few stories, opting instead to celebrate "the true, the good, and the beautiful" as found in the classics of children's literature. Dr. Kalpakgian presents Aesop's Fables, Grimms' tales, Little Women, At the Back of the North Wind, Tom Brown's School Days, The Wind in the Willows, and many others as a "treasury of the world's perennial wisdom" that "portrays a sacramental view of the world in which natural events and ordinary things signify supernatural realities" and that "restores the lucid meaning of good and evil, beautiful and ugly, and normal and abnormal in categorical terms: 'The king is naked!'"
Dr. Kalpakgian's presentation, too, is complemented by illustrations, primarily reproductions from early editions of works he discusses. Dr. Kalpakgian organizes his chapters around the "mysteries of life" such as the mystery of wishes, the mystery of truth, the mystery of play, the mystery of home, and the mystery of nature, and it is in those contexts that he discusses children's literature, for example: "A common theme in much of children's literature is the subject of wishes, especially the story in which a main character is entitled to three wishes. These wishes often reflect the deepest longings of the heart and exemplify true wishes - normal, natural, healthy desires associated with genuine human happiness, for example, Aschenputtel's (Cinderella's) desire to attend the king's festival, the Little Mermaid longing for the love of the prince, a woman yearning for a child. In desiring a child, Tom Thumb's mother remarks, 'It would, indeed, be having our heart's desire.' The wishes in folk tales and myths, however, often assume the form of fantasies - excessive pride, the worship of money, and self delusion. For example, Hawthorne's version of the King Midas tale depicts him lamenting the curse of the golden touch after he turns his beloved daughter Marygold into metal and loses the greatest joy of his life. ... Children's literature also depicts another kind of wishing that leads to misery, the foolish whim motivated by the love of novelty, change for the sake of change."
Dr. Kalpakgian's enthrallment with children's literature sometimes causes him to become aptly poetic: "Beauty is everywhere, and there is no end or limit to it as it appears and reappears in the song of Rapunzel and the music of the nightingale, in the color and perfume of the rose, and in the splendor of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. The power and energy of beauty are never spent as beauty constantly renews and restores itself, for Sleeping Beauty and Snow White never die as they awaken from their sleep and illumine the world around them. Like fire and lightning, beauty is a dynamic energy which erupts, explodes, and bursts in the same wild, untamed spirit of the nightingale whose song can never be forced, controlled, or predicted."
Dr. Kalpakgian has prompted me to seek out several works I've not read previously, which, I believe, is as high a compliment as can be paid to his book. You too will be enchanted as you experience the enchantment that Dr. Kalpakgian has experienced and manages to convey in The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature.
Dr. Kalpakgian and Fr. Murphy have each written a delightful, meaningful, and highly enjoyable book. Be swept up in a fairy tale and discover within yourself the enthusiasm of the little child as you savor their works.
James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.
This review was published in the December, 2000 issue of Culture Wars.
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