Friday, October 26, 2012

About a Man a Span Long

In Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz compares the Grimms' story Snow White and Rose Red to a related German tale, "About a Man a Span Long". The tale is as follows:

"There once was a poor girl who had lost her father and mother and had no home. She did not know where to live, so she set out to find a place as a servant. While walking in the woods she lost her way. Night came on, and to her great joy, just when darkness fell, she saw a tiny little house in the woods, and she thought she might go there to find shelter. The whole house was in an awful mess and disorder, so she started to tidy things up, washing the pans and putting up the towels, and so forth. Suddenly the door opened and a tiny little man came in, a dwarf with an immense beard. He looked around and cleared this throat, and when he saw the girl sitting in the corner he said,

I am the little man who is a span long.
I have a beard three ells long!
Girl, what do  you want?

The girl asked if she could stay the night, and the man answered her again in verse and told her to make his bed. She did that, and then he told her to get a bath ready for him. She did that, too, and gave him a good bath, and he became quite nice-looking. She cut off some of his beard, and the little man thanked her very much, saying she had redeemed him and he would reward her. He gave her his beard and disappeared.

The next day the girl took the beard with her and started spinning with it. While she was spinning, it turned into pure gold. Naturally everybody wanted to have this golden yarn. So she became very rich and married, and if she hasn't died, she is still alive."

Franz sees this story as a direct contrast to Snow White and Rose Red. In this story, a girl is kind to a dwarf and is rewarded with gold-a very simple and direct moralistic story. Snow White and Rose Red, however, attempt to be kind to a dwarf several times, but the dwarf is never grateful, he only increases in his spite. Franz goes so far as to say the girls are "wrongly and sentimentally charitable to this dwarf."

Franz discusses the importance of maintaining a balance in morals-having integrity, yet avoiding naivety. She refers to the Christian principle of becoming like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven-which does not mean being childish and ignorant, but being innocent, "coupled with a certain amount of wisdom." I love the verse from Matthew 10 that tells us to be "shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves."

But Franz is almost coming from the perspective that we can expect fairy tales to be some sort of guide to life and morals-which is not always the case. Various authors have tried to insert morals into a tale, especially in the Victorian period, but we can't look to fairy tales to be a code of ethics-they are more primarily a reflection of the culture that created them.

Although, this is an issue to consider, for many fairy tales do tend to have a straightforward "moral" in them, as in the tale shared here-the Diamonds and Toads tales are probably the most obvious example of this, but many tales feature a kind and innocent protagonist who remains pure through many trials and are rewarded in the end. How do we defend this kind of simplistic view of the world? Even in Snow White and Rose Red, although the dwarf is rude to them, in the end they are rewarded anway.

In a way I think it's entirely appropriate to have a genre of stories where the world is viewed in black and white-I think there are times when our own lives may be so chaotic and situations may be so complicated that it's a comfort to read a story where things are predictable and the good is rewarded and the evil punished. I find that the messier my own life is, I crave simpler and happier entertainment. Also, I think the message "be kind to others and you will be rewarded" is true in a way-it obviously can't be applied to every single situation, but in general, the kinder you are, the more people will like you, and that's usually not a bad thing.

Discussion welcome in the comments!

Illustrations of "Snow White and Rose Red" by Jennie Harbour

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