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The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm
The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm
Wilhelm K. Grimm; Jacob Grimm
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), 2003
352 pp., 41.07

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David Marshall


How the Brothers Grimm Overthrew the Evil Empire

A fairy tale.

It is rumored that, due to the cumulative effect of small atmospheric variations, downdraft from a butterfly's wings on one side of the world may cause a typhoon on the other. Similarly, Ray Bradbury told how a tourist traveled in time to the Jurassic Era and stepped on a butterfly. He returned to the 20th century to find tyranny had replaced democracy. The Butterfly Effect, as it is called, thus refers to "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," in particular the spell cast by small causes on large events at a distance.

What good is a fairy? In an era when fantasy was under suspicion, Bruno Bettelheim wrote an ingenious and fruitful book with a title, Uses of Enchantment, that justified Tinkerbell in just such utilitarian terms. Bettelheim argued that fairy tales not only entertain, but "enlighten (a child) about himself" and help him "find meaning in life." J. R. R. Tolkien had already pointed out that fairy tales teach children the wonder of simple things. If we lend credence to the Butterfly Effect, we may add a further use of enchantment: Grimm fairy tales helped win the Cold War.

What did Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm have in mind when they gathered, edited, and rewrote their collection of Central European folk tales? Bettelheim hinted at spiritual dynamics beneath his own gently Freudian reading of the Grimms. In The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimm's Magic Fairy Tales, Jesuit scholar Ronald Murphy explored those depths.1 Within the gingerbread of beloved tales—"Hansel and Gretel," "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood"—he detected strangely familiar dogmatic latticework. Most obviously, perhaps, in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves":

Once it was the middle of winter, and the snowflakes fell from the sky like feathers. At a window with a frame of ebony a queen sat and sewed. And as she sewed and looked out at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell in the snow. And in the white snow the red looked so beautiful that she thought to herself: "If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in the window frame!" … When the child was born, the queen died.

Snow symbolizes purity, and Snow White the young, innocent but vulnerable soul. The drops of blood from the queen's finger are Trinitarian: her death hints at divine purpose in suffering.

Like a traveler admiring a mountain stream, one can attend to the surface flow of the story or focus on the spiritual bedrock over which it pours. Snow White finds refuge among seven dwarves with seven candles (the church, which exists to warn and protect lost travelers). She undergoes a series of temptations, the first two—"Pretty things for sale!" "Now, for once, I'll comb your hair properly"—appealing to the vanity that ensnared her stepmother. Giving in, she falls down "as if dead," only to be revived by the dwarves. The third temptation involves an apple. Like Eve, Snow White falls, not "as if dead," this time, but "dead, and she remained dead." The dwarves anoint her with water and wine, but cannot revive her. They place her in a glass coffin on a hill, where owl, raven, and dove watch over her still form.

Scanning the Greek New Testament that Wilhelm Grimm read in morning devotions, Murphy found themes from the Grimm fairyland in the passages Wilhelm underlined: "The Spirit of God, divine providence, love of God and of neighbor, faithful confidence, ecumenical acceptance of other faiths, the Resurrection to eternal life."

One passage Wilhelm highlighted was the "Mars Hill" narrative in which Paul quoted Greek poets about a God who transcended culture: "As even some of your poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.'"

At first glance the owl, raven, and dove by Snow White's grave may seem as ornamental—and even more incidental to the story—as Flower the skunk to Bambi or the English sheep dog to Disney's Little Mermaid. But in fact their presence carries deep theological meaning. By them, the Grimms symbolically address the great question that confronted Paul in Athens, and confronts us today: How do the religions of the world fit together? Should we simply reject other beliefs and (with Karl Marx) "abolish all eternal truths?" Should we welcome all beliefs to an undifferentiated and indifferent parliament of sectarian fowls?

The Grimm birds bring three spiritual civilizations to the grave of Snow White: Greek (owl), German (raven), and Hebrew (dove), the traditions on which the brothers drew for their stories. The cultures of the world, this scene implies, are beautiful, and can lead (like the white duck that carried Hansel and Gretel home) toward truth.

Yet in the end, salvation itself comes from another source: "A king's son happened to come into the forest and went to the dwarves' house to spend the night." The Prince, Lord of the seven churches, brings Snow White to life. (Wilhelm also marked the Johannian phrase, "en auto zoe en … phos ton anthropon": "in him was life, and the life was the light of men.") Confessing his love, the Prince took Snow White to his "father's palace" as wife. The evil stepmother put on "red hot slippers" and danced till she dropped dead.

The Brothers Grimm thus hint at what Paul Tillich called a "universalism" that "did not mix" but subjected other beliefs to "an ultimate criterion." That criterion is Christ, the King's Son (who appears in various guises in many of their most popular tales). Not only Jewish Scripture and Greco-Roman philosophy and poetry but also German folk tales could serve as "tutors to Christ," in Justin's famous formulation. And the stories do not fail to note the fate of wicked stepmothers, because Christian tradition is a free, therefore perilous, universalism: the cross stretches in all directions, yet still crucifies.

Adults who keep a foot in Never-Neverland continue to enjoy the simple narrative flow of these childhood stories. We may also sense their psychological depths. But before Murphy's detective work, few I think recognized the spiritual bedrock over which the stories flowed. Yet this quietly redemptive Grimm subtext set in motion a chain of events, like dwarfish dominos, or an avalanche released by the tread of leprechauns across powder snow, that ultimately toppled the castle of one of the most wicked philosophical "stepmothers" of our day.

Domino one. In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton explained how fairy tales brought him to Christian faith. "The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now," he confessed in a chapter called "Ethics of Elfland," "are the things called fairy tales." Chesterton tipped his hat to "the fine collection of Andrew Lang," senior romantic at the Illustrated London News.2 But his examples were mainly drawn from the Brothers Grimm: "That giants should be killed because they are gigantic." "The terrible allegory of Sleeping Beauty … how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death, and how death also may perhaps be softened to sleep." Beyond specific lessons, the air of Fairy awoke in Chesterton a childlike wonder at the elementary phenomena of nature. "These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."

Fairy tales led Chesterton to five theological conclusions: "This world does not explain itself"; "There was something personal in the world"; "This purpose is beautiful in its old design, in spite of defects, such as dragons"; "The proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint"; and "All good was a remnant."

Just as owl, raven, and dove perched by the coffin of Snow White but could not save her, so Chesterton argued, in Everlasting Man, that mythology, while beautiful, had by the birth of Christ been "drained to the dregs." "Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep." Christ himself gathered enchantment into the fold of redemptive history.

Domino two. J. R. R. Tolkien's understanding of fairy tales and their relation to faith owed much to Chesterton. In his essay "On Fairy-Stories," he mentioned Chesterton several times, and (in a passage that could almost serve to list the material assets of Hobbiton) echoed "Ethics of Elfland": "It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; trees and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

"Snow White"'s happy denouement suggested a conclusion even beyond the magic of nature. This Tolkien christened the "eucatastrophe," the good disaster. Fairy tales not only breathe the magic of renewed sight into earthly beauty, but hint that God will breathe life into mankind again:

It has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt-making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories … But this story has entered History and the primary world … The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.

Domino three. Reprieved from trench warfare in France, C. S. Lewis read Everlasting Man and "for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history" in a form that made sense. Echoing New Testament passages that Wilhelm Grimm underlined, Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy:

The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, "Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?"

When Lewis returned to postwar Oxford, he fell in with "Tollers," and it was Tolkien who helped him see Christ as the answer to that question. (Phantastes, a "Fairie Romance" by another Grimm disciple, George Macdonald, also played a role.)

Domino four. Charles Colson is the first person in the lineage I am tracing to hold political power. He read Lewis' Mere Christianity just as he lost that power—the very moment students of Fairyland know to anticipate great things. In Born Again, Colson described the transforming impact of his conversion to Christ at that moment when he had hit bottom.

Domino five. A few years later, an imprisoned Filipino senator, Benigno Aquino, read Born Again and experienced spiritual renewal. Exiled to the United States, Aquino heard sociologist Tony Campolo speak on "Authority and Power in Social Change." Campolo argued that God redeems society through love, not force. (Without, however, specifically mentioning the prince's kiss in "Sleeping Beauty.") After the lecture, Aquino told Campolo he was "willing to die" for truth: "You have given me hope," Aquino said. "I know that when I return to my homeland I will be powerless: but you have helped me to see that I will have authority." Recounting their conversation in his book The Power Delusion, Campolo reflected, "I will be anxiously waiting to see how this once powerful leader affects the people in his native country."

Neither anxiety nor hope were misplaced. Aquino was shot to death at Manila International Airport. (Now named in his honor.) When the dictatorial President Ferdinand Marcos attempted to steal the subsequent election from Aquino's widow, millions of citizens poured into the streets and gave birth to what was called "People Power." Like the huntsman in "Snow White," Marcos' soldiers refused to fire on the demonstrators, and their king and queen (known, by the way, for her collection of slippers) danced off the archipelago to political doom.

Copy-cat revolutions erupted soon afterward in Burma and China and were suppressed. Then, on the turn of an autumn tide, the masses of Eastern Europe, inspired by People Power revolts, toppled statues of Lenin and smashed the Berlin Wall, fragments of which were sold in Western department stores to stuff stockings on Christmas 1989.

Redemptive history moves in mysterious ways. Events set in flow by the Incarnation touch individual lives, but the full causal pattern is (as Paul hinted) greater than those lives, and ultimately beyond human comprehension. Now and then, some small part of that great pattern comes to light.

"The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road," Chesterton whimsically informed us. The line of causation I have traced may appear (as his poem put it) to "ramble round the Shire." But in the company of such as Tolkien and Grimm, what better place to wander? As that great Shire rambler, Bilbo Baggins himself, remarked, "Step into the Road, and … there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." If you follow my hobbit logic, it may be that a spell cast on the world by the Greek Prometheus (to whom Marx and Engels were in thrall) was broken by the angelic wings of German fairies, beating in tune to the canonical, and still useful, multiculturalism of St. Paul.

David Marshall is director of Kuai Mu Institute for Christianity and World Cultures. His newest book is entitled Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could: A Populist Defense of the Gospels (Kuai Mu Press).

1. Ronald Murphy, The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

2. Aside from his famous "color" collections of fairy tales, which remain popular with children, it was also Andrew Lang who cast doubts on two standard anti-Christian arguments of his day: Edward Tyler's theory of the evolution of religions, and James Frazer's theory that the gospels belonged to a common mythological pattern of "dying and rising gods."


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