“There once was a miller who had a beautiful daughter, and when she was grown up he became anxious that she should be well married and taken care of; so he thought, ‘If a decent sort of man comes and asks her in marriage, I will give her to him.'”
In The Robber Bridegroom, the miller’s daughter is sent to her future-bridegroom’s home, and on her way, she leaves peas and lentils to mark the path through the woods. Upon arriving at the home, she takes a look around and in the cellar finds a woman who warns her about the true nature of her bridegroom and his “friends”: they are cannibals. Luckily the woman helps her escape and get back to her father’s house (thanks to those peas), and on the day of the wedding the miller’s daughter exposes her bridegroom to the entire party. The bridegroom and his companions are executed.
The Robber Bridegroom is the nineteenth fairy tale in the Grimm’s collection. While my enjoyment of round, even numbers is tugging at me, I cannot go on without talking about the character that turns up time and time again in these tales: the forest.
This is not the first time a character is forced to go to the forest, AKA face something along the lines of doom, and it’s certainly not the first time a female character is forced to do so – in fact, the male characters seem to feel invited by the forest and go willingly [in the tales I’ve read so far]. This is an important distinction, but first, the forest in general.
The villages or homesteads in which these stories take place are quite community driven. The lack [and intolerance] of diversity, the humble professions, and the continuing of tradition are all quite consistent, as consistent as thievery, crimes, cunning, and wit. Therefore, it’s certainly not surprising that the forest is shrouded in mystery, danger, wonder, and almost always magic. Being surrounded by trees and the natural world is quite different than being surrounded by people and farm animals; in the case of the fairy tale, it’s so different that it’s otherworldly. It presents dangers and confrontations not found in the “civil” world on the edge of the trees.
For women in fairy tales, the forest is commonly a place of kidnapping, forced marriage, murder, and in The Robber Bridegroom, cannibalism. For men, the forest is a playground. For villainous men, it’s a place to kidnap, murder, etc. For better men, it’s a triumph to overpower, overcome, or use to their advantage. Only nineteen stories into this collection, and yet this pattern has shown itself again and again. I’m interested in reading more about the forest, about its use as a literary device, but my feelings towards the expectant gender roles are far less hopeful.
- When Climate Change Comes for the Fairy Tale Forest
- Adaptations include Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom; Norman Partridge’s “Mr. Fox”‘; Neil Gaiman’s story The White Road which is based on “Mr. Fox”; Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (hey, I have this book!); and Helen Oyeyemi’s character Mr. Fox in her novel Mr. Fox is named after the same character listed here.