Tuesday, April 3

Grimmoire 13: The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest

There's wisdom in them thar tales. This from the second paragraph:
What shall I do? Marriage is both a joy and a torture.

Apparently, the men in Grimm tales understand the perils of what will happen when they are widowed.

Here's a classic blended family. Both parents enter with daughters (no mention of how the wife was widowed, but since we all know stepmothers are evil, foul play was probably involved) and the wife makes all kinds of motions about how her hubby's girl will be the favored one. It's all about who gets to wash with milk and drink wine and who gets nothing but water and the shorthand is a bit confusing at first. Once married, hubby's daughter (the prettier one) is treated like dirt and made to bend to the whims of her nasty stepmother, that's what it comes down to.

It's winter, and to satisfy the stepmother's urges she sends her stepdaughter out in the snow in a paper dress with a half loaf of stale bread to gather strawberries. The girl protests but does as she's told. Who knows why her father doesn't protest, perhaps he's already locked in the basement.

The girl finds a cottage in the forest, the home of three gnomes. She greets them kindly, shares her bread with them and they let her into their house out of the cold. She tells them why she's out in the snow and they send her out to sweep the back porch while they decide what to do with her. Each of the gnomes bestows upon the girl a gift; one gives her the gift of beauty that grows each day; one gives the gift of coins dropping out of her mouth each time she speaks; the third gives her the gift of a king coming to take her for a wife.

Because wandering kings need strange coin-spewing waifs to take for a wife. Like they don't have enough money.

Meanwhile, as she sweeps the snow she uncovers dozens of ripe red strawberries. She collects them, thanks the gnomes for the hospitality, then trundles home to let her family knows what has happened. Of course, stepmama had assumed she was sending the girl to her death, not have her come home spitting gold so she was double-plus furious. The girls' stepsister was so envious that she begged her mother to go to the gnomes and have them bestow the same gifts on her, wearing her mother down until she agrees.

But instead of a paper dress she sews up a neat fur coat for her daughter. And instead of being pleasant she is rude and demanding when she finds the gnomes. And when she refuses to sweep the snow the gnomes know just what gifts she deserves: she will grow uglier by the day; she will spew toads when she speaks; and her last gift is to die a miserable death. How delightful!

Stepmother is even more furious and sends the girl down to the frozen pond to rinse some yarn. A king spots her and la la-la la-la. Yet this is only one of those false happy endings.

Flash forward a year. The girl is now queen and has given birth to a boy. One day while the king is away the stepmother and her daughter come and toss the girl out the window and into the river, in the misguided hope that the toad-spewer can take her place without the king noticing. There is no logic to why they would think this and their efforts could be easily found out.

But no. The queen assumes the shape of a duck and visits a kitchen boy. After a series of rhymed questions she resumes her former shape (but as a ghost) and calls for the king. The king waves his sword over her and she returns to the world of the living. Now, how to deal with the usurpers?

The king asks the stepmother What does a person deserve who drags someone out of his bed and throws him into the water? The stepmother replies: The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel studded with nails on the inside, and then he should be rolled down the hill into the water. Sort of a crude Iron Maiden, if you will. Now there's a lovely image to give children.

But not one mention of the ugly girl, the one who was supposed to die a painful, hideous death. I mean, if that's what her mother got, what could have been waiting for her beyond the edges of the story? Too gruesome to include in the original tale itself, or just a flaw in the ointment?

I get the idea of the story being a lesson in good behavior paying off rich dividends, but once you get to the part where the queen is tossed in the river, transformed into a duck, then a ghost, just so the king can exact a retribution, that's where I feel things get excessive. Do we really need that part of the story? The stepmother's daughter is spouting toads already, we don't need a revenge plot added to the mix. Why didn't the witchy stepmother go and try to mess with the trolls if the story was looking for balance? I'd have much preferred to see those guys bestow a few gifts onto her and leave the queen alone. For once.

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