Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Owl
“Two or three hundred years ago, when people were far from being so crafty and cunning as they are now-a-day, an extraordinary event took place in a little town.”
The first thing about this fairy tale that I want to critique is the use of the words “crafty” and “cunning” in that first sentence. “Intelligence” or “harmless curiosity” would fit better in the context of the story, because I don’t think craftiness and cunning behavior are what the people in this little town were missing during the “extraordinary event.”
But word mincing aside (for a moment), this fairy tale is quite a simple one, although it is also gruesome. To continue, “By some mischance one of the great owls, called horned owls, had come from the neighboring woods into the barn of one of the townsfolk in the night-time, and when day broke did not dare to venture forth again from her retreat, for fear of the other birds, which raised a terribly outcry whenever she appeared.” This great horned owl is discovered that very morning by a manservant, who is absolutely frightened by the sight of it. This manservant runs to his master to tell him about the “monster”, and said master goes to the barn and is equally frightened by the owl. This becomes a pattern, repeating until everyone in the town is involved. Finally, “a great strong man who was famous for his warlike deeds” comes along and it is he who gets closest to the owl, but alas, he too is afraid of it. Nobody seems to know what to do, until the burgomaster (mayor or chief magistrate of a German town, city, or rural commune) says the town must purchase the barn and everything inside of it in order to “indemnify the owner”, then burn it to the ground. This plan is set into motion, and with the barn “the owl was miserably burnt.” The omniscient narrator then challenges “any one who will not believe it, go thither and inquire for himself.”
The Owl is a great example of mankind’s tendency to view something unknown or unexplained as a threat, and the negative impact of blindly following leadership or the masses (none of the townspeople question the owl’s given label of “monster”). There’s also the inclusion of fear or apprehension as a female trait: “‘You will not drive away the monster by merely looking at him; we must be in earnest here, but I see that you have all turned into women, and not one of you dares to encounter the animal,'” which isn’t a moral lesson so much as it is another example of how misogyny plays a role in fairy tales (and the society/storytellers from which they came).
- Aarne-Thompson classification system – 1281: Burning the Barn to Destroy an Unknown Animal (ANECDOTES AND JOKES, Stories About a Fool)
The poor owl. But it was a different time, thus the odd wording. I don’t recall children being afraid of owls though because of the story, unlike the fear of wolves that continues to this day.
Kelsey @ There's Something About KM
That is a great observation. My simple take on this is that there are far more tales in which wolves are portrayed as cunning, deceiving, and scary – there is more ~folkloric evidence~ to support the fear of them.