There’s no escaping the Brothers Grimm. Their masterwork, Kinderund Hausmarchen (1812-1822), usually translated as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, still reigns unchallenged as the greatest folk tale collection of them all. Millions of children have listened, spellbound, as parent or schoolteacher initiates them into its primeval mysteries of baked witches and shape-changing wolves, of gallant princes and dreaming damsels. Thousands more have been initiated through Disney’s sweetened (but still, to a tot, terrifying) film adaptations.
The 210 tales in the canon have wielded their power upon a number of disciplines, including literary theory, anthropology, cultural history, and, most notably, psychology, with Freud, Jung, and Bettelheim numbering among the devotees. Even as you read this review, industrious scholars are spewing out, in unconscious pantomime of the Grimms’ own hardworking dwarves, truckloads of Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, you-name-it analyses of the tales and their authors. The Grimms have left their stamp on twentieth-century literature as well, as a visit to the elf-and-warlock-ridden fantasy shelves of your local bookstore will confirm.
There is good reason for this massive influence. One can argue, with some justification, that the greatest of the Grimms’ tales—known as the Zaubermarchen or magical tales—have become such cultural landmarks that they have settled permanently into the human psyche, where they help to shape our response to many of life’s mysterious realms, especially the time between waking and sleeping, between dusk and dark, and between childhood innocence and adult duplicity.
Tales with such an impact, one could reasonably think, might well be religious at core, and yet Grimm’s fairy stories have almost never been considered from this perspective. The only exception is Bettelheim, who in The Uses of Enchantment hinted that the stories had hidden spiritual depths but who remained content to construct neo-Freudian sandcastles in their oedipal shallows.
Then along comes G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., professor of German at Georgetown University, taking the plunge into the deeps. The Grimm fairy tales, he tells us in The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove, are profound religious tales suffused with “a diachronic ecumenical spirituality woven around love and faith.” As such, they reflect in particular the religious interests of Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859), the frailer and more romantic of the brothers. The titles of Wilhelm’s other works, On German Runes (1821) and The German Heroic Legend (1829), reveal a man actively in search of the spiritual meaning of his German literary heritage; Jacob, by contrast, turned to philology and became a pioneering spelunker in the labyrinthine depths of the German language. It is Wilhelm upon whom Murphy showers his attention, and it is Wilhelm who provides us with the keys to the Grimms’ religious views.
According to Murphy, Wilhelm held that fairy tales are “fragments of ancient faith whose purpose was to awaken the feelings of the human heart.” Where these fragments originated is a complicated matter; it is nearly impossible to trace a fairy tale to its source. The Grimms gathered their stories from oral traditions, but this does not mean that the stories emerged in pristine form from the Ur-soil of German myth; some circulated as long ago as ancient Egypt, while others made their way to Germany via the elegant French tales of Charles Perrault. The “ancient faith,” then, is not a matter of a single, unadulterated heritage, but rather a blend of three religious streams: classical Greco-Roman (with traces of Pharaonic Egypt), Nordic-German, and medieval Christian, represented in turn by the three animals of Murphy’s title—the owl of Athena, the raven of Woden, and the dove of the Holy Spirit.
How Wilhelm gathered these three heraldic animals into a single, coherent vision is a literary as well as a religious puzzle of the first order. Murphy’s resolution of this problem comes by way of a neat bit of literary detective work. Scholars have long known about the Grimms’ devotion to Christianity, the product in part of a strict Calvinistic Reformed Church upbringing. Murphy wished, however, to fill in the many gaps in the picture. He therefore tracked down the relics of Wilhelm’s religious life: his two Bibles and a number of other books, theological and mythological, “which seemed not to have been opened for extensive examination since the hand of Wilhelm Grimm last closed them.” Murphy’s account of his most spectacular discovery is worth quoting at length, as it captures beautifully the frisson of successful literary archaelogy.
As I . . . sat in Berlin at the Humboldt University Library, I watched the librarian approaching me with a full cart load of books from the Grimms’ private library. I knew immediately the modest volume I had been looking for. I deliberately looked at a couple of other books first. And then I picked it up. A strange feeling came over me about looking into another person’s private religious thoughts, feelings which had occurred a hundred and fifty years ago. Then I opened it, and a small shower of dark dried flower petals, color long gone, fell into my lap, along with bits and pieces of small leaves, and whole sprigs of rue, still green. It was Wilhelm’s own copy of the Greek New Testament . . . and over time [he] had underlined seventy-one passages in the text.
With admirable diligence Murphy scrutinized and categorized the seventy-one passages into four themes: “The Holy Spirit,” “Christ and Resurrection,” “Love One Another,” and “Humble Faith.” Together, they establish Wilhelm as an ardent Christian of Johannine leanings, a mystic rather than a theologian, and an ecumenist who saw much of value in pagan religions insofar as they reflect in some way the light of Christ and the primacy of love.
Wilhelm’s vocation thus became clear: to rewrite these tales, of mixed provenance and program, in order to bring out their Christian meaning without doing violence to the pagan content. He succeeded by writing stories in which doctrine is subordinated to feeling; in so doing he followed Luther, who, as Murphy points out, the Grimms quote at approbatory length in the entry on faith in the massive German dictionary, Deutsches Worterbuch, which they compiled:
[Faith] is not just a type of acknowledgment in which I hold everything which God has revealed to us in His word to be true, but it is also a trust that comes from the heart which the Holy Spirit works up in me through the gospel . . . . Faith is a firm, unwavering, unshaking position taken by the heart.
It was this position of the heart, this faith rooted in feeling as well as intellect, that Wilhelm sought to awaken and proclaim in the fairy tales. In his own words: “Children’s fairy tales are told so that in the pure and gentle light of these stories the first thoughts and powers of the heart may awaken and grow.”
Wilhelm’s decision to baptize these tales through rewriting has outraged a few critics and led to John M. Ellis’ memorable claim that the Grimms produced “fakelore” rather than folklore. Murphy disposes of Ellis efficiently, demonstrating that the notion of an unvarnished oral folktale tradition is itself a fiction—literary invention is part of the mix as far back as we can see—and, more importantly, that contrary to Ellis’ belief that the Grimms diluted the tales through rewriting, these stories, when first recorded by the Grimms, were often little more than ungainly skeletons. It was Wilhelm’s literary genius that clothed them in beauty and the power to enchant.
He succeeded, in large measure, by judiciously inserting into each tale’s pagan matrix a host of Christian imagery: water crossings that symbolize baptism, Christ in the form of noble princes, helpful doves that symbolize the Holy Spirit. Much of The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove consists of Murphy’s reading of these symbols as they appear in five of the Grimms’ most familiar tales.
Thus in Hansel and Gretel, after identifying elements of Ariadne’s Thread, Yggdasil, and Ragnarok, Murphy shows how “between 1810 and 1857 Wilhelm worked and meditated on this story until he made it a classical parable of the journey of the human soul from infancy to spiritual awareness of right and wrong, the journey of human salvation,” a feat accomplished largely by introducing baptismal and pneumatic imagery. In Little Red Riding Hood, the three great oak trees visible from the Grandmother’s house bind into one image the Christian Trinity and old German myths in which the sacred oak is the place of sacrifice to Woden. Cinderella depends for its power upon the idea of the communion of saints, in which the heroine, her deceased mother, and those ubiquitous doves (ants in Apuleius’ pagan original) unite in love and charity. Snow White comes back to life through the agency of the prince, Christ in camouflage, while Sleeping Beauty contains both the Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection, as the Christ-Prince breaks through the thorn barrier that surrounds the enchanted castle and kisses the princess into life in a scene that Murphy calls “almost an alleluia of waking up on the part of all creation.”
This summary can only hint at the sparkling intelligence on display in Murphy’s reading of the texts. Not all his interpretations convince—that the bread and wine (bread and butter in Perrault) that Little Red Riding Hood carries to her grandmother is the viaticum rings true; that her red cap reflects the red of Pentecost seems a stretch. Overall, however, Murphy has added several dazzling layers of meaning to the tales.
One nagging worry remains—whether the Grimms’ mix of pagan and Christian is tantamount to syncretism. Murphy thinks not:
The concern of Wilhelm is with the amazing continuity over time of the act of belief, hope, and love, the goodness of the human heart and its perversity, expressed in religious poetry. Such religious feelings and poetry are older than any credal formulation, and what Wilhelm makes us realize is that they have been with us for millennia and deserve continuing reverence from Christian believers . . . . I do not think one need speak, except perhaps with reverence, of a syncretism of the feelings of the heart.
This suggests a critical distinction between theological and literary contexts, between explicit and implicit Christianity. If one enters a Christian church and finds there statues of Woden and Athena alongside Christ, one might rightly protest. But if one enters a fairy tale and finds there a raven and an owl alongside a dove, one has discovered multivalent symbols that may, if skillfully depicted by a Christian artist, retain their pagan ancestry and yet be thoroughly Christian in their literary effect. As for the Christian insertions—water, prince, dove, and the like—in crudely polemical hands such things would be the ruin of the tale, but as accomplished by Wilhelm, master literary craftsman, they breathe life—and even that life “that was the light of men”into these “fragments of ancient faith.” One can only respond with gratitude.
Philip Zaleski is lecturer in religion at Smith College and the editor of the annual Best Spiritual Writing series (Harper SanFrancisco).