February 5, 2008

Evolving a Relationship to Fairy Tales (Part I)

(This is the first in a series of postings on various ways of looking at, and working with, fairy tales. Instalments will be published every two to three days.)

The material that makes up the following series of postings was originally written without any references to myself or to my own experiences, but after getting about half way through the project, it became apparent that the essay wasn't really jelling properly. I began to suspect that it needed the context of how my perspective has shifted over time in order to give it focus and direction. So, I went back through and inserted the personal aspect as delicately as possible, and only as much as needed. It's not that my perspective is so important, or any more important than anyone else's. It was just necessary to give the reader a pair of eyeballs to see this subject through. It was Hellibrarian's comment on my last posting about a fairy tale gave me the angle I was after by mentioning "the field of fairy tales as literature."

This story begins when, at the age of eighteen, I rediscovered a lovely cloth-covered hardback German-language edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales on a shelf in my parents' house. The beautiful beige volume with watercolor illustrations stirred memories of childhood, at which time I couldn't read German yet, but often leafed through it looking at the paintings. I began to read the rediscovered treasure, and noticed that there was a different pleasure in reading the tales as an adult than as a child. Part of my new perspective came from being a student of mysticism and the occult. There was a man twelve years my senior who played the role of spiritual mentor in my youth. He owned a vast library including " many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore", to which I had full access. From this perspective I saw the fairy tales as magic universes full of secret coded messages that could only be unlocked with the proper key. I analyzed the stories (as well as I could) pseudo-kabbalistically, and semi-Freudianly (We all know a little Freud, after all. It's in the food we eat.) But as charming as that all was, I knew there had to be more. There must be more one can get out of them.

A few years later I was studying German as an undergraduate. That's where I got exposed to fairy-tales-as-literature. To many people's minds, the phrase fairy-tales-as-literature seems to ennoble what are commonly thought of as "merely" children's' stories. After all, literature is part of what we regard as "high culture." The Grimm’s tales are associated with those towering figures of philological scholarship, the Brothers Grimm, who dedicated their lives to the documentation of the German language in the Deutsches Woerterbuch (The German Dictionary). The dictionary was a nationalistic project, meant to support the various efforts being made at that time to somehow weave the dozens of principalities from the defunct Holy Roman Empire back into some semblance of unity. The Grimms thought that could be achieved through cultivation of the common language.

Because the prime motivation for collecting these "German" fairy tales was actually a political/linguistic project, this left its stamp on how they were regarded in the 19th century. Indeed, the Grimms were not the only scholars collecting fairy tales and myths (i.e. folklore) in the German-speaking realm during that period. Dozens of collections were published by as many collectors. Much of the early scholarship and commentary on fairy tales retained this focus on fairy-tales-as-folklore. The commentaries dealt with geographical origins, and ethnic heritages. If there were similarities between tales collected in disparate locations, the question was how the oral tradition had travelled, and which cultures communicated with which others. Regarded as folklore, fairy tales were seen as “memes” passed from one generation to the next, like the best way to skin a deer, or the most efficient way to build a house.

Let me tell you an anecdote that sheds a little light on the limitations of fairy-tales-as-literature or folklore, that is, the academic approach. While a graduate student at UC Davis, I attended a seminar in German Romantic literature. Four of us met weekly in the professor's office. As we discussed fictional works of such writers as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Clemens Brentanno and Novalis, it became obvious to me that I saw things in some of these stories that the other students (or the professor, for that matter) didn't see, due to my background in esoteric literature. Most of the time I would keep this to myself, but at other times, when they were getting all wrapped up in (i.e. sidetracked by) some theoretical approach, I would reveal to them which legend or mystical doctrine was being referred to in a story that shed light on the author's intentions. On one occasion the conversation had taken some pretty absurd turns before I decided to inform them that the reference to mandrake root in one story had to do with the fact that European lore says the mandrake root has magical powers due to its being shaped like the human body. I further told them it was believed the root screams when it is pulled out of the ground, and it is fatal to hear this scream. For this reason they harvested it by tying a rope to it and getting some beast of burden to pull it out while the humans jammed their ears shut. After relating this information, there was a short silence. Then Brigitte, one of my fellow students squinted at me and asked, "Where the hell do you know these things from?"

My point is that scholars of Romantic literature often fail to understand that there's a dimension of that literature you can't understand unless you take the authors' obsessions with certain metaphysical ideas seriously, and not smile indulgently at their quaint superstitions. Novalis, for instance, made an intensive study of the works of Jakob Boehme. How can you grasp what's going on in Novalis's works without understanding his mystical view of the world? The same goes for fairy tales. The academic approach often leaves something to be desired. The mystical side of me was left dissatisfied.

The discipline of folklore studies has its uses, but fairy tales are much more than folklore. And as flattering a designation as "literature" is, fairy tales are also much more than that.


Henitsirk said...

I feel that way about art history. You just can't really understand art (or folklore, or literature) without understanding the entire milieu -- how many of the tales the Grimms collected didn't make it into their collection, or were selectively edited to further their nationalistic aims?

I think you can approach fairy tales as literature, as folklore, or as esoteric mystical texts, but each approach necessarily excludes the others and therefore limits the possibility of meaning.

Obviously your graduate seminar on Novalis was held prior to Harry Potter learning about mandrakes in herbology class! And clearly your fellow students hadn't studied Donne's "Get with child a mandrake root..."

Theo Huffman said...

Indeed, that seminar was long before Master Potter was even a twinkle in J. K. Rowling's eye.

Though, to a certain extent, I agree with the proposition that one must keep an open mind about how to view fairy tales, just you wait until I whip out the stuff Steiner and Werner Zurfluh have to say on the subject, and I don't think you'll ever be able to see things the same way again. Bwa-ha-ha!

Actually, because of their methods, the Grimms didn't do much editing. They took pains to render the tales in the same German dialects they heard them in, with all the bizarre details. It was only later that various state and church authorities put pressure on them to put out cleaned up versions. And it was even later that they were all translated into standard High German.

Henitsirk said...

I enjoy reading the Steinerific analyses of fairy tales (e.g., Meyer's The Wisdom of Fairy Tales), but I found Heuscher's A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales a little dry last time I looked at it. I might have something directly from Steiner on the topic down in the basement, but my shelves are bursting up here as it is -- so I'll wait for your next post instead!

Speaking of bizarre German dialects, my dear departed German grandmother had some very odd words for things. (I have no idea how they were spelled, perhaps they were spoken only. I'll be phonetic.) When we sneezed, she would say "Ahbcheeka!" and if I pestered her about what she was cooking for dinner she would say "Callteh-nonchen-knuckle-dardeez!" Probably complete gobbledygook from her odd mind or too much schapps, but I'll never know unless someone else recognizes these words.

vero said...

"Abcheeka" :D
Isn"t this like when we say "hapcika" in Hungarian, Theo?
Like acknowledging the sneeze or even sympathizing?

vero said...

I mean sympathizing with the sneezer...

Theo Huffman said...

Talk about off topic!

Anywho: Hattsi! is the German manner of imitating a sneeze, and is indeed an anternative to Gesundheit! Hungarian adopted this from German. My grandmother extending it out to Hattsi mein Schatzy.

As for the other thing your Oma (Omi?) said, the only word I can make out is kalte for cold. She must have been a scream. I'll bet she made killer pastries and cakes.

Henitsirk said...

Wow, that Hungarian word is very like! She was from Rogowo originally, so depending on what year you're looking at, she might have been considered Polish...not sure if they have a word like this too.

My Oma was an interesting person indeed. She and her sister were the only survivors of the Holocaust in her family. Her sister became a fairly bitter, lonely person while Gramma was full of humor and life. Of course, Gramma escaped to Shanghai, while her sister was in 6 different camps including Auschwitz.

But in any case, Gramma did enjoy a good dose of naughtiness and an even better dose of schnapps after dinner. I don't recall many pastries, sadly, but she made killer chicken soup and stuffed cabbage!

OK, back on topic now.

vero said...

"Hattsi mein Schatzy" That's sweet

"Of course, Gramma escaped to Shanghai, while her sister was in 6 different camps including Auschwitz.
Oh, dear! :(