This is Tales for Willful Readers, a new column by Cate Fricke on the lasting power of folk and fairy tales, how they have influenced us individually and collectively, and the lessons they offer for modern life.
Once upon a time there was a miller who had a beautiful daughter, and when she was grown-up, he wanted to see her well provided for and well married. If the right suitor comes along and asks to marry her, he thought, I shall give her to him.
It was not long before a suitor appeared who seemed to be very rich, and since the miller found nothing wrong with him, he promised him his daughter. The maiden, however, did not love him the way a bride-to-be should love her bridegroom, nor did she trust him. Whenever she looked at him or thought about him, her heart shuddered with dread. One day he said to her, “You’re my bride-to-be, and yet, you’ve never visited me.” — from a translation by Jack Zipes, published in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 3rd edition
Illustration by Walter Crane, from Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm (1886)
The Brothers Grimm published the story of “The Robber Bridegroom” one hundred and sixty years ago. Imagine the unwilling bride, shivering with fear as she goes to her mysterious bridegroom. She follows a path of ashes through the dark woods to his house, which is strangely empty except for a caged bird and an old woman in the cellar. They inform the bride that she has stumbled into a den of murderers, and that her bridegroom plans to kill her that very night. The old woman hides the bride behind a barrel, where she witnesses her husband-to-be and his band of robbers assault and murder another young woman who they’ve captured on the road, forcing her to drink wine until her heart bursts in two. When one of the robbers notices a fancy ring on the dead girl’s finger, he cuts it off with a hatchet. The finger with the ring flies across the room and lands in the hidden bride’s lap before she escapes with the old woman. Later, at her wedding feast, she tells the story to the guests and pulls out the finger—the ring still on it—as proof of her groom’s misdeeds. He and his fellow murderers are seized, tried, and executed for their crimes.
We’re not meant to pick apart the details in fairy tales; their brevity and just-so-ness makes the minutiae that we expect from, say, literary realism, feel out of place. Still, I like to imagine just how the bride carried that finger with her; how it must have dampened the pocket of her gown with blood. When she pulled it out to show to the guests, was it red, or cold and white as bone? What color was the stone in the dead woman’s ring? And who was she, the lost victim whose name we never learn?
There are no handsome princes or fairy godmothers in this story. The monsters are as realistic as they come. Still, “The Robber Bridegroom” is indisputably a fairy tale. It has the ending we crave from all tales of its type—a just and happy one—and I’ve thought of it often in recent weeks while watching the parade of powerful men brought down by allegations of abuse and sexual assault.
Once upon a time, I worked at an office where the staff members, most of us women, were all close. We cracked each other up in meetings; we ate takeout pho and massaman curry in the break room; we were excited about what we were creating together.
Then the company was sold to a man with lots of money and perfectly coiffed hair. We wanted to like him, but it didn’t take long for unease to creep into our days. We didn’t trust him. And when we learned of an incident between him and another colleague, our fears were confirmed. The warning to those of us who heard her story was clear: Don’t be caught alone with him.
I was low on the ladder; there was no reason he’d ever talk directly to me. But one day, when my supervisor was out of town, he poked his head into my workspace and asked me to come to his office. When I asked what I could help him with, he said, “We just haven’t had a chance to chat.”
My skin prickled all over. He could fire me in a second, so I went. I remember thinking that at least his office had a window facing the other cubicles.
He did not assault or proposition me. He asked questions. Where did I live? What about my husband? How long had we been together? When I told him we’d been married only a few months, he asked how I was adjusting to married life. Eager to end the conversation, I said it was no different than the past years that we’d lived together. His face changed; an eyebrow raised, and both his smile and the tenor of his voice dropped.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “You were giving it away for free.”
Then as quickly as a cloud had seemed to darken his voice, it lifted and he became suave again, the perfect salesman. He changed the subject, mentioned a project he wanted my help with. But I could hardly listen. All I could think was that I’d just been called a slut in my boss’s office, behind a closed door, and I’d said nothing.
He circled the room while I kept my hands clasped in my lap. I know what you did, I thought, over and over, remembering my colleague and the story I’d heard. I know what you did. But I didn’t feel I could say anything. It wasn’t my story to tell.
The term “fairy tale,” in popular culture and casual parlance, denotes magical wish fulfillment or perfect love. But the tales themselves, even when they end happily, are laden with horror. They are dark places for women, threats of violence and abuse on every other page. The persecuted, mutilated, even murdered female is on exhibition in stories as beloved as “Cinderella,” as macabre as “Bluebeard,” and many, many more in between. In “Thousand-Furs” and its many variants, a young girl must escape the amorous advances of her own father; in “The Virgin Mary’s Child,” a mute woman is framed for infanticide and nearly burned at the stake, unable to plead her own case. Stepdaughters are sent to freeze barefoot in snow-thick forests, wives are suffocated by false brides wanting to take their place, princesses and their maids are shut up in towers like trafficked prisoners.
It might be easy, then, to write fairy tales off as misogynistic. After all, critics and scholars have written much about male-created violence against women in other mediums; how it is often used for shock value and titillation. Where would Game of Thrones or all nineteen seasons of Law and Order: SVU be without it? What crime novels would we read, what films would we watch, what mysteries would we unravel without the naked, silent dead girl hiding her secrets in the trunk of a car, in her blood-spattered bedroom, or on the stony shores of the local lake? Easy, perhaps, to relegate yet another set of tales featuring violence and subjugation of women and girls to the heap of stories told from men’s perspective. Easy, but not entirely fair.
The Brothers Grimm did collect this story and publish it; they even made a number of significant revisions to the tale between editions. But historians tell us that it was women who gave them these tales, complete with all the sordid details of terror inflicted on their own sex. “The Robber Bridegroom” was shared with the Grimms by a young woman named Marie Hassenpflug, who, according to Jack Zipes in Grimm Legacies, had a special talent for telling tales in which female heroines find victorious ends.
As rife with violence as they are, fairy tales are in fact women’s stories, and always have been. Found in so many of these so-called “old wives’ tales” are women who, like the bride in “The Robber Bridegroom,” bring misdeeds to light and save themselves.
In the past few months, as the “Weinstein effect” has taken root, we’ve all had to reckon with the burden of untold stories. Every woman has one, and every woman carries around with her the stories of others. Maybe one reason fairy tales like “The Robber Bridegroom” exist is because men like Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Donald Trump, and the man in the corner office have always been among us, and if we cannot literally point the finger at every one of them and see justice done, then we can at least tell the story.
I’ve been both elated and depressed at the growing list of men who’ve been exposed and shunned because of their misconduct; happy because I feel as though I’m watching the end of the fairy tale at last, when the bridegroom and all his fellow criminals are brought to justice. Sad, because I know that for every story told, there are so many we’ll never hear. When Uma Thurman posts on Instagram that she has one to tell, we wait with bated breath—not only because we want to know, but because we hope that this time, just maybe, the power that comes from telling the story will be strong enough to bring about the justice we crave; to make up for all of those who felt it wasn’t safe to come forward.
We want to protect the storytellers. The women coming forward now may not have that bloody piece of proof to hold aloft; they’re exposing themselves to doubt and derision in a world that has, for hundreds of years, been conditioned to hear the stories of women as mere fables.
I have always sought to understand why fairy tales mean so much to me; why it is that I am always comforted when I recognize them in the world in their myriad forms. What I consistently return to is the idea that fairy tales are not, as so many believe, shiny pieces of wish fulfillment from a time and place very different from our own. Rather, they hold a mirror to the world as it is and has always been, reflecting both its darkness and its light. Nothing is new, the tales tell us.
In the case of “The Robber Bridegroom” in particular, I cannot help but think of the women who first came together to tell this and other such stories. Just like us, they must have known how it felt to carry the burden of their own stories with them. Their stories became warnings of what men are capable of; even sources of catharsis in a world in which comeuppance was scarce, and an antidote to the dismissal and ridicule of real-world violence inflicted against women. Fairy tales acknowledge that violence and assault can occur at any time, but they also remind us that justice can be done when women and their stories are truly heard.