“It was the middle of winter, and the snow-flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, and a queen sat at her window working, and her embroidery-frame was of ebony. And as she worked, gazing at times out on the snow, she pricked her finger, and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow. And when she saw how bright and red it looked, she said to herself, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!”
-Brothers Grimm, “Snow White”
The Dover edition of the Grimm folk tales entitled Household Stories and illustrated by Walter Crane captures both in word and picture the magical but real, natural but mysterious world of the classic folk tales gleaned from an ancient oral tradition filled with proverbial wisdom. In these stories the appearance of fairies and elves appears as normal as the sight of dogs and cats as the supernatural and natural blend and mix, the marvelous inhering in the common and the human touching the divine. The frog is not only an ugly toad but the frog-prince. The goose girl is not just a farm hand but the beautiful daughter of the queen. The hidden gold and the beautiful princess shine out through the plain clothing just as goodness, truth, and beauty appear in simple attire in these tales.
As the apt title suggests, these tales depict the ordinary life of the domestic world: cleaning house, cooking the meals, tending the animals, caring for children, and going to market. This common life, however, is never humdrum, drab, or monotonous despite its humble simplicity. Folk tales constantly depict household life as full of laughter, surprises, love, luck, and providential events that lead ordinary people to discover many astonishing truths and strange paradoxes: wise fools are often more fortunate than the worldly wise as the story of “Hans in Luck” illustrates; dreams come true as the tale of Aschenputtel (Cinderella) testifies; the old, the weak, and the simple possess extraordinary gifts and powers never imagined by the important personages who scorn them as “The Bremen Town Musicians” calls to mind. In the plainness of daily life camouflaged among the humble work of the day and the simple folk who live honest lives abound rich stores of laughter, treasures of goodness, and splendors of beauty.
Wonderful things happen to these simple people doing their duty, raising their families, and managing their households. Tom Thumb brings more joy and excitement into the life of his parents than they had ever guessed possible when they lamented, “how dull it is without any children about us; our house is so quiet, and other people’s houses so noisy and merry!” Aschenputtel’s deepest longing of the heart comes true when the prince chooses the modest maid “among the cinders” as “the beautiful maid that had danced with him.” The sister who never complains and does the housework—taking out the bread, shaking the apples, and making the bed—receives showers of gold from Mother Hulda: “All this is yours, because you have been so industrious.” Domestic life is never menial housework or dull routine in these stories but the place of honest, humble work that inspires heavenly surprises.
How does one explain the proverbial luck of the fool when simple Hans who traded and lost his lump of gold, his horse, his cow, his goose, and his grindstone returns home after his journey to announce, “I am the luckiest man under the sun?” How does one make practical sense of a little tailor who comically boasted “Seven at one blow!” when he swatted the flies with his belt and then—on the reputation of his vaunted bravery– outwitted giants, captured a unicorn, trapped a boar, and became a king? How does a simple favor like fetching a ball from the well and the keeping of a promise to an ugly toad relate to the mystery of romance and marriage as “The Frog Prince” illuminates? How does an invitation to a wedding to three old, ugly spinsters amazingly free the bride from the spinning wheel she cannot master for her life? In these stories of surprising endings the last become first, the weak overcome the strong, the plain become rich, and little things achieve great deeds. As folk tales show, the mysterious structure of reality can never be reduced, calculated, or controlled by man’s reckoning mind that always overlooks the providential and the lucky.
In the world of fairy tales one can never underestimate the significance of a kind deed, a friendly favor, the integrity of a promise, or hard work. In the “White Snake” a servant puts three dying fish in the water, avoids crushing an ant hill, and feeds starving ravens—all animals who gratefully proclaim “We will remember and reward thee!” and reciprocate later in the servant’s life when he must pass difficult tests to win the king’s daughter in marriage. In “Three Little Men in the Wood” an abandoned step-daughter with a hard crust of bread greets three men with cheerful friendliness, responds “Willingly” when they request some of the bread, and gladly sweeps the snow from the door when asked. These ordinary virtues of daily life, however, are appreciated and cherished by those who receive the favors and repay them ten-fold out of the gladness of a grateful heart. In the realm of fairy tales the little things are the great things. The simple goodness of a pure heart is remembered forever and rewarded beyond expectation. In these stories goodness is never complex, theoretical, or abstruse but always amazing, adventuresome, and fruitful.
The household, then, is not merely the place where one cooks, cleans, and works in the course of the ordinary duties of life but a rich kingdom, a heavenly world, a realm of mystery and strange laws, a drama of lucky turns and surprising endings, a holy place where the divine realities of joy, beauty, goodness, and mirth find a dwelling place in the homely humility of domestic life where fairies and folks feel equally at home and perfectly at peace.
Readers who would like to examine the edition of the Household Stories mentioned by Dr. Kalpagkian, may look over the text and the many fine illustrations by Walter Crane thanks to this entry at Project Gutenburg. Dover Books continues to reproduce the Crane translation, as well as a splendid edition with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.