Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Glass Coffin
“Let no one ever say that a poor tailor cannot do great things and win high honors; all that is needed is that he should go to the right smithy, and what is of most consequence, that he should have good luck.”
The theme of luck envelopes this entire fairy tale, which means I’ve spent most of my post-reading time thinking about chance and opportunity, choice, fate, and destiny. What The Glass Coffin does well is throw all of these concepts together in a complementary way; through the use of the fantastic, of course.
The tailor from the introduction is out traveling in a forest, when it grows dark and his fear of beasts begins to overwhelm him. Fortunately, he sees a hint of light a short distance away and goes towards it. He knocks on the door and a man wearing “a coat made of bits of colored stuff sewn together” opens it up, and tells the tailor he wants nothing to do with him. The tailor pleads and grasps at the man, who ends up giving in (he “was not so ill-natured as he wished to appear”). Thus, the tailor has food and a bed for the night.
In the morning, the tailor is woken up “by a great noise. A violent sound of screaming and roaring forced its way through the thin walls of the hut.” Outside, a big bull and stag are violently struggling with each other, and continue to do so for some time, before the stag thrusts his horns into the bull. The stag then runs up to the tailor, and before the tailor can do anything, scoops up the man in his horns and takes off running. The tailor is thinking only the worst is yet to come, when the stag drops him in front of a rock wall and pushes against a hidden door, which quickly opens.
What follows next is a quick series of minute tests, and finally the tailor finds himself in a large hall, lined with transparent glass vases full of colorful liquid and vapor, as well as large glass chests, each holding an intricate tableau of village buildings, barns and a castle. Turning around the room, the tailor lays eyes on another chest in which a maiden looks to be sleeping.
Suddenly, the maiden’s eyes snap open, and she expresses her excitement at the sight of the tailor by asking that he open the glass chest in which she is constrained. He does, and the maiden tells him her story. It’s much better in her words – so I recommend reading them here – but basically she is the daughter of a rich count who (along with her mother) died, leaving her brother to raise her. One night at their castle, a stranger comes to visit, and after a rejection of romance from the maiden, he vows to get revenge. The stranger turns the brother into a stag and then casts a spell in front of the maiden. She goes unconscious, and when she wakes she is in the glass coffin. The magician appears and tells her he has shrunk her kingdom and shuttered it away in the chests and glass vases, and he will only open it all up if she agrees to his demands of love. She refuses and then falls into a deep sleep.
Until of course, our lucky tailor comes along and releases her. They go around the hall opening vases and allowing the kingdom and its people to take their true forms. The stag returns to its human form as well, and it is disclosed that the bull was actually the evil magician, now dead. The maiden and the tailor thus live happily ever after.
What’s especially interesting to me about this fairy tale is that while luck plays a big part, the tailor is practical, witty, and opportunistic. In other words, he does what he can in the situations he’s put in, and does what he needs to do in order to move forward. Luck gives this tale its whimsy and excitement, but the power of personal choice gives it soulful support.
- Aarne-Thompson Classification – 410: Sleeping Beauty
- The Glass Coffin appears as The Crystal Coffin The Green Fairy Book in by Andrew Lang
- “On The Glass Coffin by the Brothers Grimm and A. S. Byatt” by Celine Low for BookRiot