How to Read a Folk Tale

Under the pretext of gathering ideas for something else I’m writing, I spent the other day reading some Grimm’s fairy tales. As a child, I loved folk and fairy tales of all kinds—from Chinese and Norse myths to the collections of Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm.

I have found that I still like these stories as much as ever. So why do I look for pretexts to read them? Probably for the same reason that the texts of fairy tales have been relegated to mythology classes in English and anthropology departments, in which students study the history of the tales and the psychology of the tale tellers.

The difference between children who like fairy tales and adults like me is that we think there must be a good reason for enjoying a story—i.e. it must have good form, good character development, historical significance, or at least a good message. We think we must justify the story and our enjoyment of it. This is why folk tales have become something to “study” in academic departments.

The Märchen by the brothers Grimm, written down from oral tradition and then re-molded into several revised editions, certainly hold plenty of interest for historians. They also contain treasures for the anthropologist and the Jungian psychologist. But I don’t read them for their historical, anthropological, or psychological value, and those are not the reasons I will introduce them to my children. If I do read them, it will be because I find them charming and beneficial in their own right.

But what do these stories have in their favor besides their nostalgic value and socio-historic interest? And how can I explain this value to anyone else, least of all the anthropologists?

Like a good English major, I’ll give it a shot. I think little German folk-tales continue to appeal to children, and to adults like me, because of their simplicity. We like to see evil folk fooled by wise fools or crafty youngsters, and we like to see simple innocents rescued. We enjoy reading about simple lives and simple objects, like rings, milk cows, cabbages, cottages, and woodcutters. Most of all, we love imagining fanciful things like magic boots and gingerbread houses that could only be believable in a children’s tale. In Hansel and Gretel, for example . . .

But the tricky thing is that, as soon as you begin to view a story as an object in order to describe its form and explain its appeal, you head in the same direction as the historian and anthropologist who ignore the tale and look only at its context. When you examine any piece of art critically, you remove yourself from the experience of it, like a photographer peering through a lens at the landscape he wants to preserve. And in the process you lose something essential. Critical work may be fun and interesting; it might help you understand the author, the language, and the audience better; but it is unlikely to improve your experience of the art, because that is not its purpose. Folk tales, like all works of art, are meant primarily to be enjoyed, and only secondarily to be studied.

Beyond my conjectures about the pleasures of simple tales dealing with good and evil, I cannot tell you why I find Hansel and Gretel delightful. I only know that I like it, and that I want you to read it and enjoy it too. Then you should read it to your children, so that they can smile when the clever Hansel outwits his stepmother, feel their mouths water when Gretel eats the candy window pane, and open their eyes wide in horror and relief when she pushes the old witch into the oven.

To argue any more about archetypes or character or allegory or, worst of all, classifications (these categorized folk tales remind me of toys condemned to closets)–is to risk giving you not the real thing but a copy, as a doll is a copy of a person. It is to give you an abstraction, my own creation built upon the story.

In my college English classes, I had plenty of fun building critical creations upon novels and poems. Those exercises were good experiments in different ways of thinking and reading. But it would be a healthy (and humbling) experience for every English student, art critic, and anthropologist to admit that you can’t bottle a work of art. In this case, you’ll just have to take my word that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are worth a read. If you try them and don’t fancy them yourself, there’s no harm done.

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