Point the Finger: Listening to Women and Seeking Justice in the Violent World of Fairy Tales
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.
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
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.
I know what you did,I know what you did.
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The long and fluid history of fairy tales shows us that men who want to control, dehumanize, and violate women have always existed.