The Devil’s Sooty Brothers

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett

“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.

Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.

Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down?  Maybe…

These stories have elements in common:

  1. The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
  2. They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
  3. They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.

I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life.  If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell. Continue reading

Help wanted, heroes and heroines: must be civil and adroit

This unusual job description comes from the opening lines of a Grimm’s fairy tale I recently read for the first time.  Fairy tale characters never get more than a word or two of description, and most of the time, tags like “clever fox” and “evil stepmother” are so familiar they don’t make us stop and think.  The opening of “The Glass Coffin,” was different enough to catch my attention:

“A civil, adroit tailor’s apprentice once went out traveling, and came into a great forest, and as he did not know the way, he lost himself.”

Civil and adroit are good terms for key attributes of successful folklore protagonists.  Though the words may sound quaint to us now, the traits they describe are as relevant to our own world as they are to travelers in Faerie.

The Glass Coffin

The Glass Coffin

The virtue of civility:

Some of the Grimm Brothers’ stories seem to locate these attributes along gender lines, implying a world of civil females and adroit males.  But if we review a number of tales, much of the time we find both characteristic needed by men and women alike.

Girls who are rude or mean may wind up dead or have their eyes pecked out like Cinderella’s step sisters.  Toads may jump from their mouths when they try to speak.  Feminists point to such story features as efforts to domesticate young women and make them docile.  Yet for many youngest sons, success also hinges on civility, often to seemingly insignificant creatures.  It’s a dwarf who offers council in  The Water of Life.  When the worldly-wise older brothers mouth off to the little man, they end up imprisoned in stone.  The youngest brother, who is respectful and heeds (most of) the dwarf’s advice, wins his heart’s desire and more.

In many of these stories, motives are greater than simple expediency.  The hero of The White Snake shows genuine compassion.

The White Snake by Arthur Rackham

The White Snake by Arthur Rackham

Through a bit of (adroit) trickery, a king’s servant gains the power to understand the speech of animals. He goes traveling and saves three different kinds of “lowly” creatures – fish, ants, and baby ravens.  Kind heartedness rather than self-interest drives him, for though the creatures promise to help him, they only do so after he sets them free.  There were no strings attached to his generosity.

The story is not just a simple call to spare the lives of all creatures, for the servant kills his horse to feed the ravens.  It would take another post to explore this detail, but to the extent that these stories dwell on  compassion, their theme is both ancient and timely.  The Dalai Lama put it in simple terms:  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The virtue of being adroit:  

The dictionary defines adroit as “skillful in a physical or mental way; clever; expert.”  In fairy tales, this sometimes means knowing when to kill your horse to feed the ravens.  At other times, it means cunning, trickery, and lies.  In stories, we often imagine these as men’s attributes, perhaps because traditional full time tricksters, from Hermes to Coyote, are usually male.  Yet in Grimm’s stories, young women need to understand and master deceit as often as men.  In Bluebeard-type tales, and notably a frightening story called “Fitcher’s Bird,” it’s a matter of life and death.

Part of being adroit is the intuitive sense of when someone or something feels wrong; when civility is not in order.  In fairy tales, women often do this better than men.  Typically, in three-brother stories, the youngest prince will trust his older brothers, even after the dwarf has warned him not to.  Cinderella and girls like her know better than to be fooled by older siblings.

Instinctively knowing when something is off has new relevance in the 21st century.  Interviews with 9/11 survivors adds to research suggesting our brains are not very good at processing radical changes or threats.  People on the upper floors of the South Tower had just over 16 minutes before the second airplane hit; those who left survived and those who waited did not.  On average, people took 1o minutes to choose.  In times of radical change, we need that cunning, adroit part of our ourselves to cut through the illusion that things will right themselves and return to “normal.”  It can be a matter of life or death.


Few things in fairy tales are certain, and the first story in the Grimm’s collection, The Frog King, is an exception that proves the rule proposed by this post.  The princess is neither civil nor adroit.  She’s a petulant brat, who gets what she wants by hurling the frog against a wall (the kiss only comes in later versions).  To our sensibilities, she doesn’t deserve the prince who appears when her act of violence breaks the spell.

There’s an irony in the original “Frog King,” however.  When the transformed prince reunites with his faithful servant, Heinrich, he almost seems more delighted than he is with his new bride.  At least one illustrator, Walter Crane (1845-1915) implies that the princess won’t have everything to her liking.  Who does the prince have eyes for in the closing scene, and how does the princess appear to react?  Does this story end with a twist that the Brother’s Grimm shied away from?

The princess, the prince, and Heinrich in Walter Crane's 1874 illustration.

The princess, the prince, and Heinrich in Walter Crane’s 1874 illustration.

Experienced explorers warn us that the way through Faerie is perilous.  Trails may shift beneath our feet, and hard-and-fast rules don’t apply.  As Joseph Campbell observed, everyone must find their own way through the forest.

My latest exploration leads me to wonder if “adroit” is another word for “street smarts,” something we need in our own world as well as in dark imaginal forests and castles frozen in time.  And isn’t “civil” an attitude that understands that our own wellbeing, even in the most practical terms, must include the welfare of others?

The old stories may offer no certain answers, but with careful reading, they can always lead us to ask interesting questions.

Jorinda and Joringel, Part 2

Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain

Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain

This post continues my discussion of Jorinda and Joringel, a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm.  If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you do so.  What follows will make more sense.  Here is a summary of the story:

A young couple, betrothed to be married, stray too close to the castle of a witch in a dense forest.  The witch freezes the young man, Joringel, on the spot and turns the young woman, Jorinda, into a nightingale.  She cages Jorinda and carries her into the castle where she keeps thousands of other girl-songbirds.  

The witch then frees Joringel, who wanders to a strange town and works as a shepherd for a long time.  At last he dreams of a red flower enclosing a jewel which overcomes all enchantments.  After searching for nine days, he finds such a flower with a large drop of dew inside.  He uses the flower to free Jorinda and the other girls, and strip the witch of her magical powers.  Jorinda and Joringel marry and live happily for many years.

I have referred before to the writings of Marie-Louise Von Franz, Carl Jung’s closest associate, who wrote several books on folklore from a Jungian perspective.  In approaching this story, I reread parts of her Individuation in Fairy Tales (1977).

Individuation was  Jung’s central concept.  He used the term for the ultimate goal of inner-work, the lifelong struggle to realize the Self – not the ego-self but our unique totality, the union of all our tendencies, good, bad, and ugly.  This psychic wholeness can free us from the prison of neurosis.  

Jung and Von Franz listed numerous symbols for the Self:  the divine figures of all religions; the wise old man or wise old woman; the divine child, the helpful animal, mandalas, flowers, jewels, birds, golden balls, circular towers, and almost anything else that implies wholeness or completeness in itself. 

Rose windows in the cathedrals are well known western mandalas, symbols of unity in the cosmos, while our fairytale rose, which breaks all enchantments and hides a pearl, has a similar meaning for the lovers in this story.

English stained glass by William Wailes, ca 1865. Photo by TTaylor, 2006. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jorinda and Joringel, when they finally marry, embody another symbol of the Self in the Jungian view, the divine pair.  The mystery of the male-female union of opposites was often illustrated as a hermaphrodite in the alchemical texts that Jung studied, a western equivalent of the yin-yang symbol.

Fairytales don’t feature hermaphrodites, just normal weird being like giants and dragons, but I think we can look for this theme of “higher union” whenever a folktale ends with a wedding.  But before the happy ending, Jorinda and Joringel have to experience loss and getting stuck.

At the start of the story, they seem very young.  Young people don’t know the dark regions in the forest.  They play with golden balls, their original wholeness, but that is destined to go.  In folklore and in life, innocence makes a fall inevitable.

Everyone goes through stuck times. – the unsatisfactory job or relationship.  What once sustained us loses its flavor.  Marie-Louise Von Franz gave the example of one of her patients – a 43 year old unmarried man who lived at home and took care of his mother.  She had spells of illness whenever he talked of getting a place of his own.

Jorinda is caught in a different but similar trap.  Her transformation into a songbird is unique in my experience.  I haven’t come across this motif in any other tale.  A songbird is a pretty, entertaining, and unthreatening creature – perhaps what our culture wishes for young women and girls.  Yet to interpret the story like that amounts to projecting our modern sensibility onto earlier generations who shared this story around their hearths for hundreds of years – a risky proposition at best.

The witch is old.  Freezing people and caging them as songbirds can be seen as similar strategies for stopping time.  If we want to read this psychologically, we can imagine the witch as those places within that hate change, that cling to youth and beauty as if grasping will prevent them from slipping away.  It’s interesting that the healing flower contains a drop of dew, one of life’s more ephemeral things.

As happens when people are truly stuck, the solution doesn’t come from the characters’ ego selves – it comes from a transpersonal source, a “big dream” that leads Joringel to the magical flower.  And it doesn’t come immediately, but only after this one-time golden boy labors for a long time as a lowly shepherd.  Robert Bly has written in detail about the sobering quality of menial work in folklore.  Von Franz wrote about the value of work in helping the flighty, “eternal youth” in us get grounded.

The historical Saint Patrick was captured at 16 by Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  He worked for six years herding sheep.  He learned to pray in the wilderness and found his way to Christianity.  When the time was right, he heard a voice tell him his ship was ready, so he made his rather miraculous escape.  According to Jung and Von Franz, our inner center, the Self, does things like that.

To me, there is a beauty in these stories that equals scripture.  Faith, trust, kindness, belief in oneself and in the goodness of life, are implicit.  The heroes and heroines have to learn timing and instinct, when to trust and when to be wary, when to speak and when to be still.  They generally learn things the hard way (like us) after taking a fall – if their attention doesn’t falter in the forest, they wind up with a stepmother.  But those who listen to birds, to their own hearts, and to the voices in the wind, find a way to keep going and chose the right path.


I don’t have any definitive answers about what the stories mean – the paths through the otherworld shift too fast for that.  I’m not sure that folklore meanings have that much meaning – I offer the ideas of Jung, Von Franz, and others as maps of where other explorers have gone.  In the end, I think it is living with these stories that matters most.  And then, as Joseph Campbell, another great explorer said, we enter the forest at the point that seems best us and watch for the birds or small creatures beside the road who can guide us.

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:


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

Tales of the Dummling

Many of Grimm’s fairytales begin with three sisters or three brothers who have a critical task to perform.  Invariably, the youngest succeeds.    In her introduction to a story called “The Golden Bird,” Maria Tatar, editor of the recently published bicentennial collection says: “If the female protagonists of fairy tales are often as good as they are beautiful, their male counterparts often appear to be as young and naive as they are stupid.”

“The Golden Bird” illustrates the point.  The youngest son is so hopeless that even his animal guide, a fox, grows frustrated, yet in the end, the boy wins “complete happiness.”

Not all youngest sons are so dense, and sometimes the stories have great depth, like “The Water of Life,” which I discussed here last March ( and

According to Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung’s closest colleague and author of five books on fairytales, the Brothers Grimm published  50-60 stories of dumb youngest sons.  Von Franz thought these stories were so important, individually and culturally, that she started her first book on folklore, The Interpretation of Fairytales 1970, with a detailed study of one Dummling tale, “The Three Feathers.”  The story is one of the better known Grimm stories, present in the new annotated edition as well.  What follows is a brief synopsis.  The tale isn’t long and those who wish can read it on Project Gutenberg:

“The Three Feathers” from the Project Gutenberg ebook edition of Grimm’s fairytales.

*** Synopsis of The Three Feathers ***

Once an aging king had three sons. Two were clever, but the third didn’t say much and was considered dim-witted.  People called him Dummling [or “Dummy” depending on the translation].  The king decided to test the boys to determine who should rule his kingdom when he was gone.   He told them whoever returned with the most beautiful carpet would inherit the kingdom.  Then he took them outside, blew three feathers into the air and told his sons the feathers would determine which way they should go.

One son’s feather flew east and another’s west, but Dummling’s feather flew straight ahead a few paces and fell to the ground.  The other brothers laughed and set out, but Dummling just sat down by the feather and waited.  Eventually he noticed a trapdoor nearby.  It opened onto a staircase descending into the earth.  The boy followed the stairs down to another door on which he knocked.  From inside a voice called:

“Maiden, fairest, come to me,
Make haste to ope the door,
A mortal surely you will see,
From the world above is he,
We’ll help him from our store.”

Inside was a fat toad, surrounded by many smaller toads.  The boy said he needed the world’s most beautiful carpet.  The toad called out to the younger ones to “bring the box for the boy at the door.”  Inside was a beautiful carpet.  Dummling carried it home, his father was astonished, and declared that he should be the next king.

“The Three Feathers” from the Project Gutenberg ebook edition of Grimm’s fairytales.

The two other brothers, who had simply bought pieces of linen from the first peasant women they met on the road, protested so loudly that the king decreed another test.  He sent his sons out to find the most beautiful ring.  Again one feather blew east, another west, and Dummling’s by the trapdoor.  The fat frog called for a box in which the boy found a beautiful gold ring.  The brothers brought rings they had made from  nails they had taken from cart wheels.

Again the king declared Dummling the winner, and again the older brothers protested.  The king’s third test was to bring home the most beautiful wife.  Dummling won a toad bride who became a beautiful human woman after he took her home.  The brothers, who had married the first peasant women they met, complained again so the king ordered a fourth test.  The brides were ordered to jump through a hoop suspended in air.  Naturally, Dummling’s wife, who had been a toad, easily won.  Dummling received the crown and he ruled “with great wisdom” for many years.

Jumping through the hoop by Arthur Rackham

Jumping through the hoop by Arthur Rackham


In The Interpretation of Fairytales, Marie-Louise von Franz devoted three chapters to an in depth analysis of this tale.  She believed Dummling stories reflect the situation of individuals, cultures, and institutions that get stuck when certain rigid patterns and ideas cut them off from sources of renewal.

The first thing she notes is that all the Dummling tales begin with a father and three sons but no wife or sisters.  The feminine element is missing and regardless of what he sets out to do, the most important achievement of the younger son will be to bring home a bride.  In abstract terms, that is bringing Eros into a situation overweighted with Logos.  Von Franz cites cultural examples like the importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the medieval Catholic church.  She also says that third-son stories:

“compensate the conscious attitude of a society in which patriarchal schemes and oughts and shoulds dominate.  It is ruled by rigid principles because of which the irrational, spontaneous adaptation to events is lost.  It is typical that Dummling stories are statistically more frequent in the white man’s society than in others, and it is obvious why that is so.”

Once you start thinking along these lines, many characters spring to mind from history as well as the arts.  Saint Francis, who called himself “God’s Fool,” brought flexibility and Eros to the medieval church.  A classic movie example from recent times is  Forest Gump 1994.  Tom Hanks’ Dummling character succeeded where the smart people failed.  Gump, who lived in the moment and was close to his emotions, reacted to things as they happened rather than to his own fixed ideas.  Remember the movie’s opening shot of a feather?  If nothing else, that convinces me that Forest Gump’s creators knew the Dummling stories in detail.

Tom Hanks as a modern Dummling

Tom Hanks as a modern Dummling

Von Franz amplifies the detail of the feather, saying it was a common medieval practice in many countries.  “If someone did not know where to go, if they were lost at a crossroads or had no special plan, he would take a feather, blow on it and walk in which ever direction the wind took it.  That was a very common kind of oracle by which you could be guided.”

It isn’t as apparent in this Dummling tale as it is many others that the older brothers are modern A-types.  They don’t have time to fuss with insignificant creatures like frogs, or dwarves, or old ladies, or any of those helpful beings who guide the youngest brothers on their way.  Youngest brothers have time to listen because their calendars are clear.  They sit by their feathers or walk through the forest, paying attention and waiting for new ideas to arrive.

Von Franz used the feather analogy in discussing her method of therapy.  She said when her patients were stuck, she would listen to their dreams to see which way the winds of the psyche were blowing.  When I studied psychology, one of my teachers spoke in the same vein, of the importance of listening to the little impulse, the small thoughts that are easy to ignore, like “Oh, that looks interesting,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice to take a few hours off for a walk beside the river?”  Smart older brothers, working on their MBA’s, don’t have time for things like that, which is how they get into therapy in the first place.

I’ve heard that when he was president, Harry Truman once said, “We’re going to try X, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”  Our government might not be so stuck if politicians dared to admit that sometimes they don’t know the answers and need to see which way their feathers blow.

Sometimes being “smart” is a greater hindrance than being “dumb,” for the key thing is to be teachable.

I came upon the Dummling stories years ago, and they often come to mind when things are stuck in my own life or in what I observe around me.  “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing,” is a common and useful bit of advice.  I sometimes restate it and say, “When you don’t know what to do, sit by your feather and pay attention.”

More on the Brothers Grimm bicentennial

Earlier this month, I posted a piece on the 200th anniversary of first edition of the Brothers Grimm’s collection of German fairytales:

Yesterday the Sacramento Bee printed an article on this treasure trove of folklore and some of the worldwide activities the bicentennial has inspired (“The Grimm brothers from many angles,” by Jan Ferris Heenan,

Of particular interest is the publication of a new collection, The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Harvard professor, Maria Tatar. At $35, it’s not cheap, but since I don’t do Playstation and Christmas is coming up…

In the 45 years after 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published six more editions which were eventually translated into more than 160 languages. In the Bee article, Jan Heenan explains that the Grimm brother’s motivation was partly political – Napoleon had conquered the German states and the Grimms sought to preserve something “authentically German.” They also understood the irreversible changes taking place because of industrialization. Farms, towns, and forests, the birthplace of traditional tales for millennia, were emptying out as economic change drove people into cities and factories.

“These stories were the television and pornography of an earlier age,” said author John Updike, and the summaries of earlier versions of the tales makes this clear. Rapunzel got pregnant, the stepmother wanted to eat Snow White’s liver and lungs, and in some versions, Red Riding Hood disrobes for the wolf. Not the stuff of Disney, but according to Maria Tartar, the originals offer something more important for adults:

“These are stories that show you no matter how bad it is…if you use your wit and have courage, you can get back home again. Even if we know in the real world that you don’t always survive, these are the stories that tell you…you do have a chance.”

Tartar’s book is the new number one on my wish list.

Two hundred years of The Brothers Grimm

Statue of The Brother’s Grimm, Hanau Germany, by Syrius Eberle, 1895-96. CC-by-SA-3.0

In honor of the bicentennial of Children’s Household Tales (1812) by the Brothers Grimm, the University of Florida presents Grimmfest this month and next.  The university is home to the Baldwin Collection of Historical Children’s Literature, which features 2500 digitized children’s texts and a virtual exhibition of 19th century children’s book covers.

The Grimmfest page,, has links to other fairytale resources, including related contemporary books and movies.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1865 cover. Public domain.

“Traditional fairy tales have their roots in our oldest stories, in myths and legends, in those primal tales that were formed when human beings first began to speak…However we may wish to define fairy tales, they remain an inescapable part of our psyches and our cultures.  They are why we celebrate the underdog, and secretly acknowledge “The Ugly Duckling” as our own autobiography.  Through their flights of fantasy, fairy tales set us free to seek our happiness, to follow our bliss — if only for the few minutes we are enfolded in a particular tale.”

This is a marvelous resource for anyone wishing to delve into the roots of the stories we love.

The Water of Life, Part 2

If you have not already done so, please read the first part of this article in the preceding post.

The Water of Life by Rogasky and Hyman, 1991.

Marie-Louise von Franz, a close colleague of Carl Jung, wrote extensively of fairytales.  She believed that these “simple” stories reveal the core of the psyche better than the great myths and sagas, shaped by poets and spiritual thinkers.  Reading these tales with the same respect the young brother shows the dwarf can reward us with nuggets of wisdom shaped by generations of storytellers sitting beside the hearth fire.

The opening of The Water of Life reminds us that when we don’t know the way, it pays to admit it, at least to ourselves.  We need to pay attention to everything, listen to everything, for we don’t know the shape of the messenger who may show us how to proceed.  Here is the rest of the story:

The dwarf told the third son where to find the castle where The Water of Life flowed.  He gave the prince an iron wand to open the gates, and two loaves of bread to appease the lions who guarded the entrance.

The third son throws the loaves to the lions

In the great hall, he found men turned into stone.  As he left the hall, he spotted a sword and another loaf of bread and picked them up.  Venturing on, he met a beautiful woman who welcomed him.  She said he had set her free. “This realm will be yours and all the enchantments broken if you return in a year to marry me.”

The woman directed him to the Fountain of Life and urged him to leave with the water before the clock struck noon, when the gates would close again. The young man hurried on until he came to a room with a freshly made bed.  Realizing how tired he was, he settled down for a nap.  He woke at quarter to twelve, and just had time to find the fountain, fill a cup with The Water of Life, and race back to the gate.  As it swung closed, it sliced off a piece of his heel.

The dwarf was waiting and told him the sword would defeat any army, and the loaf would feed any multitude and never be diminished.  The young prince then begged the dwarf to free his brothers.  The little man said to forget them, his brothers would only betray him, but he gave in at last to the younger brother’s pleading.

On the way home, the brothers passed through three kingdoms plagued by war and famine, and the youngest used his sword and loaf to save them.  At the same time, he told his older brothers about his success and his betrothal to the Lady of the Fountain.  Before he could give his father the Water of Life, the older brothers swapped it for sea water, which made the king worse.  The older pair then gave the king the true healing draught and claimed the young brother had given him poison.  The king ordered a huntsman to kill his youngest son in the forest, but the huntsman could not bring himself to do it.

The kingdoms the young prince had saved sent riches by way of thanks, and the king began to reconsider.  As the year drew to a close, the Lady of the Water had the road to her castle paved with gold.  She ordered her servants to chase off anyone who walked up the side of the road but welcome the one who strode up the center.  The two older brothers, anxious not to scuff the precious metal, walked beside it and were driven away.  The young prince, able to think of nothing but his love, had no care for gold and walked up the middle of the road.  

The Lady of the Fountain. Detail of an English tapestry

The Lady ran out to meet him.  He became Lord of her realm, freed all the frozen men, and reconciled with his father.  The two older brothers sailed away and were never seen again.


If the start of the tale presents a fairly clear dynamic, what follows is more obscure.  The question of how and when to interpret folklore goes far beyond the scope of one or two blog posts.  Folktales may be more primal than myths, as Marie-Louise von Franz suggests, but they leave more open questions.  I tend to follow James Hillman’s advice – “stick with the image.”  When scenes in movies and books, or events in our lives leave us puzzled, we may turn them over in memory and imagination for years without rushing to ask what they “mean.”  In doing so, we let them nourish us without draining their power by settling for simple answers.

For instance, the Lady of the Water of Life gives the youngest son clear instructions to find what he came for and get back through the gates before noon.  So what does he do?  Hits the sack when he spots a bed.  Strange behavior for a lad who has gotten as far as he has through doing what he’s been told.

I’ve come to believe the bed is another trial on the way to the Water of Life.  It took warrior courage and dwarf tricks to get by the lions guarding the gates.  Here the trial is staying awake – not always easy in life.  At the wrong time, if you “look neither right nor left,” you miss the chance of renewal.  At the right time, it’s essential.  If the prince hadn’t made it out by noon, I believe he would have turned to stone like the others in the courtyard.  There is nothing in this text to support this a view; my opinions are based on other stories.  One is a fuller account of stone people in a tale from The Arabian Nights.  The other is a trial-by-bed that Sir Gawain undergoes on a mysterious “Isle of Women.”  When he succeeds, he too becomes the champion of the Otherworld queen.

Such hunches are tentative and subject to change.  It isn’t answers but wrestling with the questions that draws my imagination again and again to this kind of story.


Two decades have passed since I found The Water of Life, and since then, “Look for the dwarf by the side of the road,” has become something I tell myself every time I’m stuck.  Such renewal is open to everyone – it’s our birthright, though certain attitudes, embodied in the older brothers, will chase inspiration away.  Older brothers pretty much run the world:  they are the movers and shakers, the ones who get things done, which means they keep going even as the walls close in.

That’s one reason I love blogging.  It’s an excuse to discover and celebrate people who talk with dwarves:  those who build little libraries.  Those who buck the trend and open small bookstores.  Those who publish their own books, in the grand tradition of Walt Whitman, who initially sold his poems door-to-door.  People, in other words, who try to occupy their own lives, which is what this story is really about.

A world where the Water of Life flows is filled with individual acts of courage.  A world where the waters are choked off looks very different, for as Michael Meade observes:

“There is something incurable in this world that makes the soul long for the healing and beauty of the otherworld.  Each visit to the other realm requires stopping the business and busy-ness of the daily world in order to listen to the questions being asked from the inner-under-other sides of life…Unless the inner voice and the little people are heard from again, the world will continue to drain of meaning and will keep turning a cold heart to the immensity of human suffering.”