Monday, June 2, 2014

Schonwerth's Fairy Tales: Witches

The region from which Schonwerth collected his fairy tales was one where many witch trials were held and women were found guilty and burned. Although most of these trials were held during the 1500s and 1600s, they continued into the 18th century. The last woman to be sentenced to death as a witch in Bavaria was Anna Schwegelin in 1775. Really not that far back in history, relatively, especially when you consider that Schonwerth was born only 35 years later in 1810, and the first edition of the Grimms collection was published only 2 years later, in 1812.
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," A.H. Watson

So that really affects how we read many fairy tales that feature witches, especially from Schonwerth's collections. Many of them were passed down from generations ago when belief in/fear of witches was widespread, and these fairy tales were often told as histories or warnings. They seem to me like letting people know what attributes to be on the lookout for to identify people as witches.

Another interesting thing about the stories in this collection is that they are challenging my perception of concluding that the outcome of a fairy tale is either a reward or a punishment for the actions that preceded it. Scholars and bloggers alike use thinking along these lines all the time-we bemoan the fact that females like Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard's wife are punished for being curious while male protagonists are rewarded, etc. (and in many versions, that moral is clearly spelled out, even if it wasn't necessarily intended in folklore). But this collection presents groups of stories with similar plots but opposite outcomes.
John Batten, "Johnnie and Grizzle" (a Hansel and Gretel tale)

For example, there are two stories that begin almost identically. An innocent woman comes to the house of a person who, unbeknownst to her, is really a witch. She is disturbed to see objects and tools moving around on their own, under enchantments, hardly believing her eyes at first. Finally she reaches the witch, spotting her holding her head in her hands (in the other version the witch is wearing a skull instead of a head). The woman asks the witch about all the strange things she saw-pitchforks fighting, doorbell pulls that are snakes, etc. The witch claims that those were natural things, as if the woman was just imagining things. But when the woman reveals that she also saw the witch herself either holding her head or with a skull for a head, the witch becomes angry, and threatens to rip her apart.

The first version ends suddenly-the witch does exactly as she says and rips her apart. My initial thought was that the story was a warning against either approaching a witch's house if you see enchanted objects, or to not be foolish enough to reveal to the witch that you know what she is. But in the second version, the woman is rescued at the last minute (alas, by three male hunstmen), who shoot the witch, and the servants who had been turned into pitchforks were released. So in that version, if the woman hadn't come and revealed the witch's true nature the servants would still be under a spell.
Anne Andersen, "Rapunzel"

So maybe folktales and fairy tales aren't meant to be a guide for life as many people have thought-they simply represent the fact that you never know what's going to happen, just as in life you can never be sure of the outcome of your actions. Over time we as a culture have pretty much weeded out any folklore that doesn't end happily and we have a skewed version of what fairy tales promise (only happily ever afters) or how to go about thinking about what they mean (that the one version we know as "standard" is the true meaning and that we are meant to learn the same lessons as the main character).

Arthur Rackham, "The Thirteenth Fairy" from "Briar Rose"

By the way, AdamYJ of Fairy Tale Fandom sent me a couple of links in the comments to two of the Schonwerth stories translated into English by storyteller Margaret French, and I wanted to make sure you all got a chance to check them out too. Even if you own/plan on owning this book I've been referencing, I don't believe these are in it (the book contains only a fraction of the total tales Schonwerth collected). You can read Belt and Necklace, another mermaid tale, and The Flying Little Box-a princess in a tower tale somewhat similar to Rapunzel, but also has the Cinderella element of identification by a shoe-only this time to identify the prince.

Also, The Turnip Princess was floating around the internet back when the Schonwerth collection was initially rediscovered, but as long as I'm compiling a link list I thought I'd throw it in.


  1. I was reading "The Turnip Princess" story, and I found it interesting because elements of it reminded me of Howl's Moving Castle (the movie version, not the book), where there's a girl cursed in the form of an old woman and a character called "Turnip-Head." Total coincidence, but I thought it was kind of funny. :)

    And on challenging a fairy tale's morality: perhaps we're so used to the idea that a fairy tale has to have a moral or lesson that we're just automatically bent on finding a lesson when reading one? It definitely isn't unheard of in other forms of literature, where we find lessons that the author didn't intent to include. I admit it's difficult to think otherwise about fairy tales where I was told had a clear moral.

    1. You're right! I hadn't connected Turnip Princess to Howl, but I wonder if the creators of the story were influenced by the fairy tale? Some of these stories were available before but not very accessible...

      And it's true. Even though I've read, multiple times, about how most morals were inserted into the tales in the Victorian era and not integral to the story before, I still find myself talking in terms of a certain outcome being a reward or punishment for the character's actions. It's been so ingrained in us to search for a message, in fairy tales as well as other literature, as you point out.

  2. Oh thank you for posting this! I'll probably be wanting to get a copy of that book sometime, even though it doesn't have all the new fairy tales in the book.

    1. It's definitely worth it! (And pretty affordable compared to a lot of academic fairy tale books!)

    2. I looked at the book on Amazon but was sad that there were no book reviews for it. Then I found it on Goodreads and no one had reviewed it or even rated it there either! Maybe you could put up a review in those places once you've finished reading the book, just so that there will be a public review somewhere and maybe help more people become aware of it. It would be so sad if no one became interested in the stories, and mirror what happened when they first came out.

  3. Fascinating! I love the idea that fairy tales can represent life in that you never know what's going to happen. Sometimes we get too caught up in analysing them and assigning meanings to tales that overlook the fact that they're stories and are open to any interpretation.

    Thanks for the links, too. I'll definitely be having a read of these stories.

    1. We also tend to forget that there are multiple versions of each story available, it's hard to step outside of our knowledge of the traditional endings! And you're welcome for the link!