I expected that sooner or later I would come across a Grimm tale that might sump me or leave me feeling less than inspired. What I hadn’t counted on with this one was how boring it was, how much a chore it felt to get through.
It’s a Norwegian Fairy Tale, and perhaps that is its problem, that it loses something in the translation or the cultural exchange. Maybe the original has a poetic lilt to it, or perhaps Wilhelm added some Germanic embellishments to it that have made it leaden. I was preparing to concede defeat this week when I started the story one more time and found the hitch.
The story begins, as many fairy tales do, in the house of a powerful man in a faraway man. And by powerful we must assume he has money to weadle influence over others, for he is not called a king and yet he has a court full of servants. This becomes the necessary fantasy element that the storybearer desires, a place that causes the mind to fill in the missing details with tapestries and banquets and a life of leisure where hands remain soft and pink and uncalloused. Naturally this man has a daughter whose beauty is known throughout the land. And why not? Can not the most powerful man demand the attention of the finest beauties from which to select as a breeding mate? Note that I did not say wife, for she is not mentioned in this story and chances are she has been disposed of out of convenience, to either the storybearer or the man himself, makes no difference.
This girl, this beauty, her name is Aslaug. Daily only the wealthiest and most handsome men come courting, looking to do as her father has done in finding and joining with a young woman whose looks matter most of all. Ah, now I begin to see an entry to the story’s deeper meaning, for she rejects one suitor after another which makes her father increasingly mad. Finally, Aslaug’s father has had enough of this.
“I have given you freedom of choice,” her father bellows, “but you have rejected every single man as if they are not good enough for you. Now I must put down my foot and submit an artificial deadline for you to make a selection or I will force you to marry a man of my choosing!”
Now we’re getting somewhere.
At this perilous moment the listener shall want reassurance that Aslaug has been operating from a set of principles her father does not understand. Surely she has fallen in love with someone her father would not approve of, a young man of the court who while certainly handsome is without wealth, someone her father would suspect as being a parasite. With a deadline approaching the young lovers would have no other recourse but to run off to a faraway land until Aslaug’s father had cooled to the idea. And along the way there would be a land of enchantment, a place of magic, with giants and mysterious old women who give vague warnings and extract promises and…
Running away is no answer, nor is inventing a mystical island with mythical underground creatures to provide our young lovers with a background for learning lessons about sacrifice and obedience. The real story here avoids the most basic question: what does Aslaug really want, what is she truly running away from?
Aslaug wants a girlfriend.
Nowhere in these tales do we see women or girls in each other’s company. They have no friends, and often no mothers, and when they have sisters they tend to be in competition in the attentions of another. If they have brothers they may be equals and may be clever but it is assumed they will one day grow to be married off. These young women are starved for conversation, for bonding, and perhaps even for a love that dare not speak its name in fairy tales. Theirs is a zero-percent world of acceptance and understanding. A love for anything less than “pure” or accepted is simply not discussed. It would be better that these children, these girls, yearning for something beyond the realm if their entrapments find themselves at the whims of crones and giants and other creatures beyond the safety of our imagining.
And so, to finish the story off right, once her father has issued his ultimatum Aslaug says her peace.
“Father, you have boon good and kind to me these many years, and I do not wish to enrage you or cause you grief, but I simply cannot accept your terms. You have often been too busy with your finances and your power to notice me and while I could fault you your blindness I instead assume you have meant well for us both. It will most likely pain to provide details, though I do not wish you pain, but I have found a love and wish to be with them. It should not concern you who I love or why, only that they make me happy and that if there is anything of mine set aside in your fortunes I should like to use it to begin my own life with my love. If you insist I shall tell you in more detail as a condition of your blessing I will once again warn you that you will probably not approve, seeing as you do not know me well enough yet continue to offer one fresh-faced young man after another as a partner. Should my happiness mean anything to you, you will at least let me go without incident and we shall agree to reconcile our differences in the future. If, however, you truly love me and cannot imagine yourself in objection to anything I desire we may end this discussion amiably…
“And you will not be forced to make up some silly tale about my running off with a chamber boy and living on an island of underground creatures as a measure to save face among your people.”
The New Grimmoire is my weekly exercise in examining and reinterpreting the tales of the Brothers Grimm as found in the complete collection translated and introduced by Jack Zipes. For those keeping score at home, this is tale 261.