Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Talking Animals in the Grimms' Fairy Tales

I'm taking right now a massive open online course (MOOC) offered by the Univ. of Michigan using the Coursera support software. The course title is Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. The first unit dealt with the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, and each student had to submit a 270-320-word "essay" (more realistically, a few paragraphs that do not amount to anything deserving the name "essay"). Anyway, we're talking about two famous Krauts, and I'm showing below my submission (expanded by a few words beyond the 320 word limit).
A distinct feature of the Grimm tales (and folk tales in general) are repetitive narrative patterns and recurring motives. Among these, talking animals are particularly prominent. I am drawn to such stories because I like animals. More importantly, I’m intrigued by tales with talking animals because many of them can be viewed as little morality plays, not in the sense that they have a pat moral, but in the sense that a moral issue is at stake, if in a playful manner. For example, trust and the betrayal of trust are at the heart of Cat and Mouse in Partnership.

A subclass of the talking animal stories deals with farm animals. I know from my own experience (I lived for four years in a small rural village) that these animals often have a hard life, and it must have been even harder at the time the Grimm tales were told. When an animal was no longer useful, it was disposed of unceremoniously—beaten to death, or drowned, or beheaded and eaten, as the dog, the cat, and the rooster, respectively, lament in The Bremen Town Musicians. In the latter story, and in Old Sultan and, to a lesser degree, The House in the Forest, these exploited creatures receive a voice and are allowed to take their fate into their own hands. By teaming up, they manage to outwit their masters. The loyalty the animals show among each other contrasts with the disloyalty exhibited by humans—the animals prove, in the end, to be the “better people.”

A further appeal of these stories is that the moral lesson, if there is one, is not treated in a heavy-handed manner. There is much humor in them—Old Sultan, in fact, ends in a burlesque as the toothless dog of the title and a three-legged cat manage to win a duel against a wolf and a wild boar, both perfectly healthy, who turn out to be veritable cowards. And The Bremen Town Musicians is distinguished by a humorous tone sustained throughout.
BTW The image is by my favorite Grimms illustrator, Otto Ubbelohde, who deserves a separate post.


Marlene said...

What a perfectly wonderful illustration. I'm not an especially visual person--and hate the term visual learner--but the illustration you posted pulled me right in enough so that I went and read the stories. Your analysis of "The Bremen Town Musicians" along with "The House in the Forest," is great, convincing and clear. Maybe consider periodically review German poems or other fairy tales? You have a knack for it.

Clare Law said...

I was really interested in the way a lot of the stories start with an animal no longer useful. I wrote about servants, and one of the thesises that I considered and then rejected was that these animals were standing for loyal servants coming to the end of their career.

I suppose every good story starts with a major upheaval, and there are few more major than redundancy.

Ulrich said...

@Marlene: My post on Ubbelohde will appear soon--if not today, then tomorrow.

@Clare: If the deconstructivists told us anything lasting, it's that a piece of literature has not a single 'correct' interpretation. I find it perfectly legitimate to read the stories I'm talking about as fables about master-servant relations--the animals are stand-ins for people.

But one can also read them as expressions of sympathy with the animals as animals. That's how they struck me--the older I get, the more distraught I'm getting about the horrible fate animals are still subjected to all over the world--I can't even open the PETA magazine I'm getting every month...