Tag Archives: fairy tales

Grimm tales

Mark,

As you did, I found Far Far Away to be a very compelling read. In fact, it drew me in more than just about any book I’ve read this year. I liked the warmth and humor that permeated it, even when it turned truly, well, grim. I just opened the book at random, and found this:

“Yes, yes, all is well in Blixville,” said the baker, who seemed amused not just by the question but by all things, and why not? He was beloved in the town, and his shop was a pocket of warm benignity, as Jeremy could now see for himself. The glass-and-cherrywood cases were filled with a beautiful variety of breads and cakes, two small tables were brightened by vases of flowers, and the rich scents of baked dough, sugar, coffee, and chocolate made me yearn for my mortal sense of taste.” (p. 16)

Now, I admit that this paragraph is particularly poignant when you’ve read the whole book and know that the shop is far from a “pocket of warm benignity,” (and I just love that phrase!) but even so, there’s much to notice here: Ginger’s habit of asking “how are things in [Blixville, Conkville, Jeremyland, etc.]?; Jeremy’s (and Jacob’s)  immediate trust in Blix; Jacob’s position as omniscient but not omnipotent narrator–I thought it was a nice touch that he could smell, but not taste; and Blix’s self-satisfaction.

In many ways, the story is set up much like many of the tales themselves: beginning in the ordinary and everyday, and then moving into the evil and bizarre. Is it Bettelheim or someone else who talks about that fact that although the settings of the tales are “far far away” and exotic to us, they were normal to the original tellers of the tales: villages, cottages, woodcutters, bakers, etc.? Anyway, as you and Lauren mention in the comments, the whole  point of the opening is to build up to Sten Blix and his dungeon and how, to quote Michael Gruber again, Jeremy is “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.” So I don’t think your analysis of McNeal’s conception of a fairy tale (good protagonist/evil antagonist/happy ending) is entirely fair. I think he’s trying to do something a little more complicated here in the format of the story.

I do agree that the “Uncommon Knowledge” program was disappointing. I would have loved to have seen them use some of the less common Grimm tales, but, of course, there was no other way that McNeal was going to be able to have Jeremy fail, because Jacob would have known all the answers. And clearly, he had to have Jeremy fail in order to demonstrate his integrity–both for not using the answer that was being fed to him by the producers, and for realizing that even using Jacob’s knowledge was not quite fair play.

Actually, I think my biggest issue with the book is whether it is really a YA book. Even things like focusing on the more familiar Grimm tales says to me that McNeal was thinking of a younger audience. And the use of the Disney allusion was part of that–it was something they would know. Not that teens would necessarily know more about the Grimms and the original tales, but if the book were aimed at a more sophisticated audience, he might have done more hinting and less telling. Admittedly, the last third of the book was a bit intense, but I wouldn’t have any hesitation recommending it to an 11- or 12-year-old, especially one who was a fairy tale fan.

So, as you can see, although I liked the book enormously, I agree that it has flaws (I did give it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads!). But I can definitely see why the National Book Award people are considering it, and I think the Newbery Committee might look at it as well as the Printz Committee. I think the flaws are enough to keep it off either of the latter two lists, but who knows?

– Mom

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Some Thoughts on Rumpelstiltskin

Mom,

A few weeks ago, you were talking about Liesl Shurtliff’s new novel Rump and you made some comments about “Rumpelstiltskin” that I wanted to comment on, but I had planned on reading Rump first to make my comments more relevant. Now, with my to-read pile getting precariously high, I find that I’m abandoning the idea of reading Rump, but I still want to address the fairy tale, so, since this is our blog and we can talk about whatever we want, here are some thoughts on not a new novel, but a very old story.

First, here’s what you had to say:

I think the thing that makes Rumpelstiltskin ripe for retelling is that the supposed protagonist of the tale, the miller’s daughter, is such an unappealing character. She’s a whiner, she’s lazy, she’s entitled, and–for crying out loud–she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold! So it’s very easy, and intriguing, to do as Shurtliff does, and turn Rumpelstiltskin into the hero instead of the villain.

And on a similar note, Michael Gruber, whose The Witch’s Boy you mentioned as among the recent adaptations of the tale, said this:

“Rumpelstiltskin” is the only major fairy tale in the canon that does not have a “good” protagonist, a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces. The king in the tale is a cruel miser, the miller is a venal con man, the miller’s daughter is an airhead and a liar, and the eponymous little man is the villain of the piece.

Obviously you and Gruber have picked up on something similar, so there must be something there, but I have to say that I find this interpretation exceedingly strange. Let’s look at the charges you and Gruber make against the Miller’s Daughter:

  • she’s a whiner
  • she’s lazy
  • she’s entitled
  • she agrees to give away her child for the sake of some gold
  • she’s an airhead
  • she’s a liar

A number of these are simply incorrect. The Miller’s Daughter is not “a liar” in any traditional sense. She never claims to be able to spin straw into gold–that’s her father.  And if Gruber had in mind that she goes back on her word to Rumpelstiltskin, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. I also see no evidence that she is “an airhead”, or “entitled.” If you see something I’m not, let me know.

I’m having trouble with her being “a whiner” as well.  Here’s the crucial piece, in the 1857 Grimm version:

When the girl was brought to him he led her into a room that was entirely filled with straw. Giving her a spinning wheel and a reel, he said, “Get to work now. Spin all night, and if by morning you have not spun this straw into gold, then you will have to die.” Then he himself locked the room, and she was there all alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat there, and for her life she did not know what to do. She had no idea how to spin straw into gold. She became more and more afraid, and finally began to cry.

Um – who wouldn’t cry in this situation? Or beg anyone who came along to help.

Which brings us to the next point.  I would argue that she does not “agree[] to give away her child for the sake of some gold”–she agrees to give away her child in exchange for her life.  It is true that on the third night the king omits the threat of death, but I would argue that the death threat is still implied. My evidence is in the original 1812 edition of Grimm–when Rumpelstiltskin makes his bargain, the narrator says “In her distress she made the promise”.  What is “her distress” if not fear for her life? Certainly, it is not her lust for gold or the king that causes her to make the deal.  If it makes a difference, the classic 1857 version is similar: “‘Who knows what will happen,’ thought the miller’s daughter, and not knowing what else to do, she promised the little man what he demanded.” I grant that “who knows what will happen” is a little glib, but “not knowing what else to do” is pretty clear that she is in desperate straits.

My main argument in this first half of the tale is that the situation for the Miller’s Daughter is impossible–she is passed off like a piece of property from one man (her father) to another (the king), and then threatened with death for something that she cannot possibly do.  So she makes a series of promises to Rumpelstiltskin to save her life.  I would say that qualifies as “a young person who, by pluck and luck, overcomes malign forces.”

Then we get to the second half of the tale, in which Rumpelstiltskin returns to collect his half of the deal.  Here, the Miller’s Daughter shows even more gumption. Gruber might think going back on her word makes her a liar, but I would say 1) her word was given under duress, and 2) being a liar is better than being a monster.  And again we see that she is not greedy or entitled in the least. Confronted with the idea of giving up her child, she is horrified and “beg[s] him to let her keep the child, offering him great riches in its place” (in the 1812 version), or even more poignantly in the 1857, “The queen took fright and offered the little man all the wealth of the kingdom if he would let her keep the child.” Finally, though she doesn’t do it herself, she certainly initiates the intense, kingdom-wide search for the man’s name, rather than meekly allowing him to take her child.

So, again, we have a character confronted with an impossible situation who convinces the antagonist to take pity on her, then uses that small advantage to win the day.

I know this is all very academic, but I find it worth going over precisely because the interpretation(s) of fairy tales are so important to so much contemporary literature. Frankly, as much as I love The Witch’s Boy, I find Gruber’s attitude towards the Miller’s Daughter (which shows up in the novel as well) to mar the story and give far too much sympathy to a character who is in fact preying on a helpless girl in a terrible situation. As I said, I very much doubt I’ll be getting to Rump any time soon, so I don’t know if this post has any relevance for that novel, but let me know what you think of my interpretation.

– Mark

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