For Christmas I gave Paul a copy of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers' Grimm: The Complete First Edition, which Princeton University Press has just released. The edition includes amazingly beautiful paper-cut illustrations and is altogether delightful, and finally I couldn't resist anymore and have started reading it myself.
One thing I love about fairy tales is the complete lack of back story and character development. People make strange decisions and meet strange people. Classes mix with impunity. Punishments are dire but matter-of-fact. Yet there's so much to learn about the human mind.
Take "The Carnation," the story I read over breakfast. It's a very short tale, no more than a page and a half long, and here's the plot synopsis: A king didn't want to get married. Then he laid eyes on a good-looking woman and decided to get married after all. He sent for the woman and told her she had to marry him and she agreed. A year later she gave birth to a prince. The king, who seems to have had no friends, decided to choose the first person he met to be the child's godfather. Fortunately the poor little old man had secret powers, and he gave the prince "the gift of realizing everything he wished for."
An "evil gardener" overheard this blessing and decided to steal the prince. "So one day when the queen went for a walk and carried the child in her arm, the gardener tore it away from her, smeared her mouth with the blood of a slaughtered chicken, and accused her of killing and eating her child." Naturally the king believed this story and threw his wife in jail. Meanwhile, the gardener sent the baby off to live with a forester and the forester's beautiful daughter, Lisa. As "the two children became very fond of one another," Lisa told him about his secret powers.
So when the evil gardener showed up again, the prince was prepared. "He immediately wished the gardener to become a poodle, and his dear Lisa, a carnation." Then he took them both to the palace, got a job as a huntsman, left Lisa the Carnation sitting on a windowsill all day in a glass of water, and then at night turned her back into his girlfriend. Eventually the king got wind of the situation, the prince revealed his true identity, the king let his wife out of jail, the prince and Lisa got married, and "the godless gardener was compelled to remain a poodle for the rest of his life and was often kicked by the servants when he lay under the table." The End.
Lessons to be learned:
1. When a king tells you to marry him, you have to marry him.
2. If anyone says mean stuff about your wife, you should believe him.
3. Girls have nothing to do when men aren't looking at them, so they might as well spend the whole day sitting in a glass of water.
4. Even though you don't believe your wife when she tells you she didn't eat your child, you do believe the story of a strange young man who shows up at your palace with a poodle and a carnation and tells you that he's your long-lost son.
5. No one wants to spend the rest of his life as a poodle.