In the beginning was the forest. And the forest was no place to get lost at night, because after sundown it was hard to discern shapes in the moonlight, and find one’s way home. At night, the forest was anything but silent. A strange spine-chilling music flooded in from every direction: the wind whispering among the leaves and stirring the branches of giant trees till they groaned; the faltering footsteps of … presences … that stopped a moment to listen, then continued making their way through the gloom; invisible animals calling out to one another, and sometimes shrieking in terror as they were brought down and devoured by marauding packs of wolves.
The leitmotiv of the forest runs through many of the fairy/fantasy stories collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century. These stories are often based on oral traditions in Germany dating back hundreds if not thousands of years, but in some cases have been borrowed from Persian, Italian and other traditions.
The Grimm fairy/fantasy tales – “once upon a time” – “and they lived happily ever after” – don’t have connections to real people, places or actual events.
For the Brothers Grimm, fear is one of the great themes of the folk traditions they document – fear of the forest, but also fear of what the forest represents. The forest is a theatre of horror, full of dark secrets, brooding evil, and hidden creatures both natural and supernatural, a place where the imagination looms large. The main events in these tales happen at night – the night of all fears.
Each region of the world is inhabited by its own fears.
In La Peur en Occident (a book on the role of fear in the Western world), the French historian of mentalities Jean Delumeau identifies the sea as the one great overwhelming primeval fear to have pervaded medieval and early modern European civilization. But then Delumeau, whom I interviewed a fear years ago at the Collège de France in Paris, hailed from Britanny, a French region literally bathed in the sea.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy story The Snow Queen, fear of ice plays a dominant role, but then Andersen was Danish, and familiar with the sovereignty of ice.
The Grimm fairy/fantasy tales also have a fantastical element – magic – the use of mysterious or supernatural powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible. All Nature is animate – animals, plants and objects are able to talk and interact; rocks, sand, mud and the roots of trees can throw themselves at people; pools of water and streams are portals between the living and the dead, or water leads to some terrifying, vital truth the heroine discovers; forbidden doors (with keys) and mirrors lead to other dimensions; knowledge never comes easily and has to be earned by daring and cunning.
And if the forest inspires fear, it is the fear of young people disappearing without trace, of being engulfed in the depths of Nature, of dying a miserable, cruel, forgotten death there. Overcoming this fear of disappearance is thus one of the key driving forces of the Grimm fairy/fantasy tales.
Metaphors (in the sense of transference from/transformation of one being or thing into another) govern the story line. In fairy tales, the main character (hero/heroine) is generally transformed, although the transformation may simply be his/her greater understanding of the world. Most of the protagonists in fairy tales are poor young men, whether peasants or apprentices learning trades, living in a world of poverty and arbitrary power, and their reward is a beautiful maiden, often a princess. There is generally a moral to the story – and in the case of the Brothers Grimm, some characters die horribly. But others magically come back to life, escaping the clutches of evil, defying death.
Evil is thus another feature of the Grimm fairy/fantasy tales. Witches, cannibals, lost souls, gnomes, brigands and other violent characters are jealous, spiteful, greedy, lustful, sadistic, violent. The stepmother is often witch-like. Consider the opening passage from The True Bride:
There was once on a time a girl who was young and beautiful, but she had lost her mother when she was quite a child, and her step-mother did all she could to make the girl’s life wretched. Whenever this woman gave her anything to do, she worked at it indefatigably, and did everything that lay in her power. Still she could not touch the heart of the wicked woman by that; she was never satisfied; it was never enough. The harder the girl worked, the more work was put upon her, and all that the woman thought of was how to weigh her down with still heavier burdens, and make her life still more miserable.
In fairy tales, innocent young people sometimes die miserably because they are too naive or proud or simply unlucky. The all-too-curious pay the price of gaining forbidden knowledge. Punishments include evil people having their eyes torn out, or being sewn into sacks and thrown into the sea, or being placed in barrels full of nails and rolled downhill, or being placed in barrels of boiling pitch. In one Grimm tale, The Goose Girl, the false bride (a wicked woman) is “stripped entirely naked, and put in a barrel which is studded inside with pointed nails, and two white horses are harnessed to it, which will drag her along through one street after another, till she is dead.” Torture, whether physical or psychological, is ever-present. Let children listening to these tales beware! Strange women are just as dangerous as strange men. And the Brothers Grimm describe in macabre graphic detail the dangers these strange men and women represent.
If there are happy endings in these tales, it is usually because justice itself comes about magically – which is a way of saying, for the people telling fairy tales/fantasy stories, that injustice is the norm: justice is hard to come by in real life. Characters are released from enchantment, as if in a dream. Virtue is not its own reward: the common people earn rewards – a secure life without toil, good health, often a princely status because of their personal courage and success in surviving trials by ordeal. Kings and queens and princes have tremendous arbitrary power over the common people, and sometimes magically and benevolently share it. But they can also be cruel and destructive towards the common people, and some fairy tales contain incidents of incest. (Fairy tales by other authors also involve incest: one has only to think of Charles Perrault’s Peau d’âne.)
Fairy/fantasy stories thus present arbitrary magic as a remedy to arbitrary power, but in fairy tales not everyone lives happily ever after. One Grimm Brothers tale ends with “then everyone was dead.”