A beastly tale of life and death

Josephine Southon reflects on the animals and beasts in Grimms' fairy tales

IMAGE: Wikimedia

A foreboding wooded labyrinth where destinies are altered and lives transformed… Sound familiar? Like something from a dream? Or perhaps a nightmare? For many children, the Grimms’ forested fairytale world allows imaginations to roam free, uninhibited by the restrictions of daily life. But don’t be fooled. In fairytales, nothing is as seems.

To cross the threshold into the old German forest, to wander along its mysterious snaking paths, amongst enchanted towering trees, is to succumb to its remorseless authority. In the face of imminent peril, the Grimms present Man’s contradictory, and often brutal, relationship with nature as a paradigm for the ruthlessness and vulnerability of human life.

Take a fairytale character’s interaction with the forest animals. At times they are feared by man, as in The Skilled Hunter – “when evening came he seated himself in a high tree in order to escape from the wild beasts”. At others they fear man, as in Strong Hans – “wherever they went the wild beasts were terrified, and ran away from them”. Others still, they are comforted by his presence, as in Snow White and Rose Red – “no beasts did them any harm, but came close to them”.

But for the Grimms, an amicable encounter with a woodland creature is hardly sufficient grounds for heroic triumph. In primitive territory, the protagonist is stripped of basic necessities in the ultimate test of survival, often through means of hunger: “In his madness he ran into the forest and must have died there of hunger, for no one has ever either seen him or heard of him again” (The Two Travellers); “They always got deeper into the forest, and if help did not come soon, they would die of hunger and weariness” (Hansel and Gretel).

The Grimms’ ultimate message is that, if death is at the heart of nature, then it resides at the core of human life also. The tales were not an escape from reality but rather a reflection of it, this battleground of beast against beast in a brutal test of survival paralleling the rampant individualism of capitalism, and the world in which the Grimms lived.

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So next time you decide to take a jolly-old stroll through a German forest, think about the consequences. Or take a map.

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