Fairy Tales

Something I wrote long ago. 

In the Complete Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm many of the stories tend to follow seemingly prescribed formulas, and while many of them differ in their plot or theme, many of the character types also seem to follow set formulas. Women, in particular, tend to have very stereotypical roles throughout many of the tales. The evil step-mother, the innocent girl, and the witch or hag are often present as one-dimensional characters who seem to follow a prescribed formula for the particular story. In many stories, however, a great deal of deviation and change is allowed for these characters to become more individualized, yet this individualization only takes place when the story the character is placed in calls for it, or rather needs it.

If you look at the tales that include an evil step-mother, you will find very little of this individualization. In “The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Cinderella”, and “The Juniper Tree” an evil step-mother is definitely present, and in each of these stories any of the stepmothers could be replaced by one of the others without affecting the story in any way. The step-mother is considered evil, for she wants to do away with the children for some reason or another. Be it because of lack of food as in “Hansel and Gretel”, or jealousy as in “The Three Gnomes in the Forest” and “Cinderella”, the step-mother seeks to either make her step-children’s lives miserable or to just to kill them. While the evil step-mother does not always act alone, (she often has a child or two of her own who help) she is always the instigator or ringleader of actions directed against her step-child.

So now the obvious question is why is the step-mother always so despicable. I think that a main reason for their wicked legend is simply because of that little pre-fix. These women, no matter what, are not the persecuted child’s true mother, who, in stories like “The Juniper Tree”, is an idealized vision of mother-hood, loving both her husband and child. Even in other stories like “Snow White and Rose Red” or “The Little Shroud” the birth-mothers are considered very loving and devoted–quite the opposite from their replacements. Which leads to the actual basis for the existence of the step-mother, for her role is to replace, or supplant the child’s real mother. Thus, they are unnatural and during the time these stories evolved most things that were unnatural were also considered evil. Not only are the step-mothers in the tales evil, but they also are very static. They never repent for their sins and transgressions, but are fated to be rolled down hills in barrels studded with nails on the inside or pounced upon and eaten by large birds. 

In “Brother and Sister” instead of any altering to this stereotype it is combined with that of the witch or hag who then casts spells against the children. So we have very evil, unchanging women who is bent upon destroying her step-children, but why? What did the step-child or children ever do to the step-mother? In “The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest” and “Cinderella”, as in many of the other stories the step-mother has a child of her own who is usually ugly as sin and often stupid. The step-mother is then jealously bent upon making the usually innocent and often beautiful step-child’s life hell, and so the child becomes another stereotyped character. 

Unlike the step-mothers, however, the innocents can be classified into three groups simply by the amount of nerve or assertiveness they show. In “Cinderella”, for example, the title character shows absolutely no spunk and is constantly seeking her step-mother’s permission or approval. She never seems to realize the faster she gets those birds to pick lentils out of the ashes the more her step-mother will dislike her. On the opposite end of the scale we could consider the step-daughter in “The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest”. She actually stands up to her new mom when she is told to go outside in a paper dress to search for strawberries in the snow. Her outburst of rebellion soon ends, but it reappears at the end of the story when, after she is killed by her step-mother she comes back to life, and, with the aid of her husband, punishes her murderer. Besides these two extremes there is also a middle of the road innocent who exhibits only a very small amount of nerve, or rebellion. Two-Eyes in “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes”, the sister in “Brother and Sister” as well as Marlene in “The Juniper Tree” tend to exert only a tiny amount of initiative. Rolling a few apples out from under a barrel, begging a brother not to drink from a stream or burying the bones of a murdered step-brother could all be thought of as very simple acts, yet they could also be considered acts of rebellion, for the child is indirectly or quietly acting against the will of the step-mother.

What purpose do these roles then serve? No matter what, the innocent, obedient, beautiful, and basically perfect child will come out on top by the end of the story, but this idea goes even deeper when you consider the reward system that is included in the stories. A girl who constantly mis-treated by her step-mother or step-sister’s will marry a nobleman or a full-fledged prince while a maiden who is killed by them will usually return to life and see their murder(s) severely punished. This whole archetype tends to perpetuate the idea that the meek will inherit the earth while the almost capitalistic step-mommy-dearest is punished for exploiting and misusing the innocent child–but all of that is a pretty basic theme.

In contrast with this simple idea lies the role of the witch or hag. A witch is not always evil like the step-mother in “Brother and Sister” or Mother Trudy. Often they are simply want to cook and eat children as in “Hansel and Gretel” of “Foundling”, or they make the children work for them as in “The Water Nixie”. Witches often help people by giving them gifts such as the sweet porridge pot, or a magnificent carpet. In “The Three Feathers” the almighty toad even provides a beautiful maiden for the young simpleton to marry. In “The Poor Miller’s Apprentice and the Cat” this helpfulness is extends even further when the cat commissions the young Hans to work for her for seven years only to reappear at the end of the tale as a princess who whisks him off to her castle to live in idle richness ever after. Yet another instance of beneficial witches or hags are the old woman and the Devil’s grandmother in “The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs”. While the elderly woman in the robber’s den aids the young man, the Devil’s grandmother manages to pluck the three hairs from the Devil’s head and harvest the answers fortune’s favorite needs. 

All of these witches are different and cannot really be placed into one proposed stereotype, for unlike the step-mothers and the innocents these characters are often the variables. This is because each story’s structure, while very similar to that of the others’ is also very different. When the evil step-mother is missing the witches often appear in with the same aspects, or as in the “Hansel and Gretel”, they amplify the somewhat timid actions of the step-mother. (This occurred when the step-mother was content with simple abandonment of the children so that she would have enough food while the witch was going to eat the kids.) In other tales the protagonists received aid from them, while in others they even married them. The role the witch will play thus really depends upon the constraints of the story she is placed in. If the constant of the innocent, well-meaning individual is present along with the constant of the eternally evil step-mother or some other obstructing character , the witch or hag will most likely be helpful and usually pleasant. If, on the other hand, no such second constant is present the witch will fill the role and the protagonists will be left to muddle their own way out of the situation.

This all means that individualization of these three character types actually occurs only in the case of the witches. Step-mothers and the innocents maidens are regulated to fairly stiff formula roles while the witches or hags are able to vary according to the particular tale. I admit, however, that after reading so many stories that continually end happily ever after I found myself rooting for the evil step-mom or witch, for at least they show some promise of changing an over-moralized world. But the formulas are set and the characters and stories follow them, and no matter how boring over two-hundred tales extolling innocence, duty and meekness are, no unhappy endings exist. The best thing I can compare this disappointment to is watching the Coyote and Road-Runner cartoons. I always hope to see Wyle E. grab that meeping bird by the neck and triumphantly sauté it, but who am I kidding, that and step-mother’s living happily ever after just never happens.

Notice a typo or other issue? Feel free to let me know.