Jorinda and Joringel: a fairytale from The Brothers Grimm

The witch as an owl by Arthur Rackham

The witch as an owl by Arthur Rackham

I have seen Jorinda and Joringel (sometimes spelled Jorindel) in many folklore collections, but I always passed it by.  A cursory glance led me to think it was much like Hansel and Gretel, not one of my favorite tales.  I’m not alone in skipping it:  I’ve never seen it discussed or analyzed by any of the writers on folklore I read.

I picked it up recently, intending to read myself to sleep, but stayed awake instead.  Jorinda and Joringel is a scary story with unexpected depths as well as features found in other celebrated stories.  One key image strikingly parallels a central symbol from India, which raises other questions.  Here is a summary of the tale:

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Synopsis of “Jorinda and Joringel” in The Annotated Brothers Grimm

Once there was a witch who lived in a castle in the depths of a thick forest.  By day she took the shape of a cat or and owl, but at night she appeared as an old woman whose nose curved down to touch her chin.  She would kill and eat any bird or animal that ventured near.  If any human came within 100 feet of the castle, she would freeze them on the spot; they’d be unable to move until she released them.  She turned innocent girls into songbirds and keep them in cages inside the castle; she had 7000 birds and counting.

A beautiful maiden named Jorinda was betrothed to a youth named Joringel.  They enjoyed nothing more than spending time together, and one day they decided to walk in the woods.  “We just have to stay away from the castle,” Joringel said.

As the sun began to set, they heard the plaintive song of a turtledove. Jorinda began to weep while Jorindel sighed and felt oppressed with sadness. He noticed the wall of a nearby castle, but before he could utter a warning, Jorinda was turned into a nightingale. An owl with flashing eyes flew around them thrice and Joringel was frozen in place, a living statue unable to move.

The owl flew into a bush and a moment later an old woman emerged to carry Jorinda into the castle.  When she returned, she freed Joringel from the spell.  He fell to his knees and begged the witch to return his beloved, but she only said, “You will never see her again,” and departed.

Joringel wandered aimlessly in great despair.  He came to an unknown village where he worked for a long time tending sheep.  Sometimes he would circle the castle there but never too closely.

One night he dreamed of a blood-red flower with a beautiful pearl inside.  In the dream, he was back at the witch’s castle, and everything he touched with the flower was disenchanted.  When he woke in the morning, he started to search for the flower.  For nine days he roamed wilderness and village, and at last he found a blood-red flower with a large drop of dew inside that was as bright as any pearl.

He returned to the witch’s castle, boldly strode up, and touched the gate with the flower.  It flew open.  He found the room where the sorceress was feeding her birds.  When she saw Joringel, she was filled with rage, but she couldn’t come within two feet of him.  There were several hundred nightingales – how would Joringel find the right one?  Then he noticed the witch sneaking toward the door with a single cage.

Joringel ran to touch both her and the cage with the flower.  In an instant, Jorinda stood beside him and the witch lost her magical powers forever.  After freeing the other birds, Jorinda and Joringel departed.  They were married and lived with great happiness for a very long time.

*** 

After reading the story several times, I jotted down a few of the questions that came to mind:

  1. Why are Jorinda and Jorigel depicted as being so young?  In several translations, they are called “girl” and “boy” rather than “maiden” and “youth.”  Of the three illustrations I found, one depicts them as children.  Why?
  2. People are frozen or turned to stone in stories all over the world.  I thought of The Water of Life which I discussed here, as well as the ice queen in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  What does it mean to be frozen like that?
  3. Why were the girls turned into songbirds?  Enchanted fairytale people usually wind up in far less appealing shapes.
  4. Another widespread motif is doing menial work for a very long time.   Here it is tending sheep.  More often it’s kitchen work.  Cinderella worked in the ashes for as long as it took a hazel twig, watered with her tears, to grow into a large tree.  Fairytale heroes and heroines wind up doing menial work when they are stuck or stalled in their quest.  If they do it well and for long enough, they find solutions.  Can this tell us anything useful?
  5. My final question concerned the pearl in the blood-red flower.  In western stories, such flowers are always roses; in the east, it would be a lotus.  Om Mani Padme Hum, is probably the world’s best known mantra and is usually (though incorrectly) translated as, “The jewel is in the lotus.”  Are the parallel images merely coincidence?  Or diffusion of stories?  Or the collective unconscious, or what?

These are the kind of things I always wonder about in stories like this.  I hunted and found a reference that doesn’t discuss this particular tale but casts light on these issues.  I’ll discuss them next time.  Meanwhile, if the story raised other questions for you, please post them.  Maybe someone here or a songbird in the tree outside will have an answer for you.

To Be Continued

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10 Responses to Jorinda and Joringel: a fairytale from The Brothers Grimm

  1. calmgrove says:

    Jorinda and Jorindel (yes, that’s the spelling I was expecting) is a tale I’ve read but never really given much attention to, so thanks for the synopsis but I still barely remember it. The first motif, The Babes in the Wood, is best known in the Hansel and Gretel version as you rightly say, but it’s the development that poses the questions you raise. I would only add the query ‘Motivation?’ to your five points. Why would the witch draw attention to herself so obviously by taking Jorinda’s cage off? Is this another example of the Grimms manipulating the folk tale for moralistic ends?

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    • Good catch. It’s like something from a silent film, isn’t it? Exaggerated. Perhaps appropriate for the medium in both cases?

      One premise I firmly believe is that fairytale people are not people in the sense of the movie or novel characters we’re used to.

      After posting the piece one other question came to me – why free Joringel from stasis? Of course with this setup, the story ends right there if she doesn’t, but beyond the obvious, I wondered if the “gentle” way the witch is treated in the end doesn’t parallel the gentle way she treats the young man. In most Grimm stories the witch would die – here she only loses her powers.

      Clearly our modern notions of plot and motivation are not the optimum tools for imagining ourselves into these stories.

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      • calmgrove says:

        You’re right of course about plot and motivation not being key considerations in these 19th-century retellings (as much as in their originals, no doubt). Plot, as structuralists like Propp have demonstrated, can be very fluid (apart from beginning, middle and end), and character development is minimal or non-existent compared with, say, the Grimms’ near contemporary Austen (whom I’m only now discovering for myself and really enjoying).

        Instead, fairytales in particular seem to have a very dreamlike feel about them, as no end of commentators have pointed out, many of them appearing to rise out of subconscious fears (as with the witch) and hopes (as in the denouement, including the freeing from stasis). Almost like myths, but on a more domestic scale.

        Looking forward now to Part Deux!

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      • I always think of Marie-Louise Von Franz’s statement that she looks to fairytales more than any other source in order to study the collective psyche. More so than the great myths and sagas, she says, because they have been shaped by poets and priests and other creative individuals. In her opinion, fairytales come from that dream-like strata with less manipulation than other forms.

        That said, it is clear that the Grimms edited their tales. Some scholars have objected to this, but the Annotated edition shows a copy of a verbatim transcript from one of their informants, and it’s almost impossible to read.

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  2. Echo says:

    THANK YOU!
    I’ve been trying to remember the name of this story for years and kept searching for things like “magic pearl flower” or “crystal dew drop” because that was the only part I remembered for certain.

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  3. Rosi says:

    I’ve never been much of a fairy tale reader, but I always enjoy the stories you discuss and your analysis. This is no exception. Thanks for another interesting post.

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  4. 1) Makes a better contrast between innocence of the couple and the evil witch.
    2) Unchanging hard stone is the opposite of flesh and blood life but nevertheless a permanent reminder of what they used to be and therefore a warning to others.
    3) The evil witch somehow gets energy from the beauty of their song.
    4) Menial work used to be seen as demeaning so it’s a fitting punishment. However the starkness of the change in fortune can also force a change of thinking.
    5) In classical mythology bright red was a symbol of resurrection or death. In this case the children are resurrected and the witch dies or loses her powers.

    Just my half penny worth.

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    • Thanks, Malcolm. There are no definitive answers in this realm, just numbers of possibilities. Nothing is more satisfying after a post like this than hearing of others who give their attention and consideration to these old stories.

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