Once Upon a Time: The Lure of the Fairy Tale and Really Violent Stories That Scare Us to Death
In Grimms’ Fairy Tales there is a story called “The Stubborn Child” that is only one paragraph long. Here it is, in a translation by the fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes:
Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.
This story, with its unvarnished prose, should be clear, but it isn’t. Was the child buried alive? The unconsenting arm looks more like a symbol. And what about the mother? Didn’t it trouble her to whip that arm? Then we are told that the youngster, after this beating, rested in peace. Really? When, before, he had seemed to beg for life? But the worst thing in the story is that, beyond disobedience, it gives us not a single piece of information about the child. No name, no age, no pretty or ugly. We don’t even know if it is a boy or a girl. (The Grimms used ein Kind, the neuter word for “child.” Zipes decided that the child was a boy.) And so the tale, without details to attach it to anything in particular, becomes universal. Whatever happened there, we all deserve it. A. S. Byatt has written that this is the real terror of the story: “It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.” That is true of very many of the Grimms’ tales, even those with happy endings.