Back to our story-telling thread. Why not take some of the most obviously great story-tellers in history and think about what made their stories so great? I think the most obvious two must be the Brüder Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. Perhaps I’m thinking of them first because I am re-reading them aloud a lot, in the original German, to my daughter these days.
They did not invent the stories they told. They collected and selected the folk tales that they heard all around them, rather as Homer narrated the legends that he grew up hearing. And that is the first interesting point about them. You don’t need to invent something completely new; instead, you need to tell something timeless in a new way. Indeed, if Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are right, then you can’t invent anything new, because there only are a few stories, or monomyths, which we tell again and again in different forms.
So what makes Schneewittchen (Snow White), Hänsel und Gretel, Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood), and the countless others–all of them with a Disney character, it seems–so enduring?
I’m going to try to answer that question, for the Grimm brothers and other story-tellers we’ll talk about, by using some of the ideas we’ve already tried on for size. If that doesn’t work in future posts, fine, we’ll adjust the framework. The point is to test these ideas.
By now you know that I consider simplicity the root of all genius and all beauty, whether we’re talking about Einstein or Brancusi or story-tellers. And the Grimm Märchen (fairy tales) are very simple. (But not simplistic.)
The stories also all have have the kind of trajectory that Ira Glass describes. Recall that Glass talks about “portraying people at exactly human scale.” Well, Hänsel and Gretel are at extremely human scale–vulnerable, exposed, afraid, desperate. Like all of us, only more obviously so.
Glass then said that we immediately need a feeling that “something is about to occur”, that “things are heading in a direction”, that we “can’t get out” because we are trapped not with our “reason but emotion”. We know the wicked stepmother wants to get rid of them, by leaving them stranded in the dark forest. We see Hänsel’s first attempt to get back to safety, by dropping little pebbles, failing; we know that his second attempt, dropping bread crumbs which the birds will steal, is doomed. We’re along for the ride. We are now stranded in the dark forest.
And then the house: We know that the ginger bread and sugar windows are snares. Stay away! But they don’t. Then the witch. Now Hänsel is in the cage, to be fattened for the slaughter, with little Gretel to do the fattening….
But remember that Glass said that action for its own sake is not enough for a good story. It must be “action, action, action … and then thought!” There must be a recognition of the universal, otherwise the story is banal and loses us.
What is universal here? Quite a lot. In Jungian terms again, the characters are archetypes–that is, we already know them from our dreams and lives. The anima of the stepmother and witch; the Hero and Heroine who heed their call to adventure (Campbell’s terms), travel the road of trials, achieve the boon and self-knowledge, then return to the ordinary world in order to apply the boon.
Or, to put it in Glass’s terms, what is the thought? Is it that the world is full of people who can’t be trusted? I would call that the backdrop, the premise, the scene. But if that were all, my daughter and girls like her everywhere in all eras would not be glued to the story. No, the thought is that …
… Gretel discovers who she is!
The witch gets fed up and fires up the oven to roast Hänsel, and tells terrified Gretel to climb in to test that the heat is right for her brother. ‘I don’t know how to get in,’ says Gretel. ‘You stupid girl,’ croaks the witch, ‘you get in like this’–and climbs in herself. The ruse has worked. Gretel slams the oven door shut. Now it is the witch who is roasting.
Gretel, little red-cheeked Gretel, is the one to win the boon! She is her brother’s savior! She was clever, decisive and strong.
The “thought” is her sangfroid in the name of love, her savviness in overcoming. My daughter gets it. That’s why this is a great story. It is, as Isabelle Allende says, “truer than truth”.