Honors World Literature
4 April 2014
Authors of a Different Relm
Roald Dahl and the Grimm brothers grew up relatively poor, but well educated. Their families valued education and faith in God. However, after the tragic loss of their fathers at such young ages, they grew up quickly and felt the need to care for their mothers and the rest of their family. Living with and fighting in the wars of each of their times gave each of them a distinct perspective on life. Both the Grimm brothers and Roald Dahl lived, fought, and saw the devastation from the wars of their time, whether it involved national revolution or the entire world. Their stories took us away from the death and sadness and instead inspired children’s imaginations, taking them to amazing and fantastic places. Since both Roald Dahl and the brothers Grimm lived in times of war, sustained tragic family losses, and knew of Christianity in their childhoods, they, therefore, wrote stories that include the motif of why the witch must die, symbolism of the colors red, black, and white, and the theme of all children must grow up someday.
At the time of writing the Fairy Tales, during the early 1800s, the region where the German Grimm family lived started to enjoy a period of peace and the typical German home was simple and warm. In the romantic period, or between the 18th and early 19th centuries, creativity arose best with free imagination. Artists used lands of fantasy and the past to escape the present. Stories like this helped to restore German pride (Quackenbush 22). On October of 1806, a city named Kassell and the rest of Germany fell to the French, which Jerome Bonaparte then ruled (Quackenbush 10). Years later, Germany now dispersed into miniscule chunks, grew on the threshold of becoming the new united Reich (Michaelis-Jena 7). Even though the regions of Prussia and Germany had previously enjoyed an era of peace and German homes were simple and warm, their neighbors, the French, had experienced their Revolution, fighting for liberty, equality, and fraternity, but also having exterminated much of their leadership, leaving much of the nation in chaos. Seizing the opportunity, the visionary Napoleon rose from that disorder and began to build an empire as the emperor of the French regime through war and conquest, ending this era of peace for Germany and the Grimm Brothers.
Despite this newfound age of war, the brothers Grimm brought these stories of the exaggeratedly distant past to life and paper. Born into a small family that quickly grew to a group of nine, the eldest siblings, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, always had their father for support during their childhood beginnings. Unfortunately, their father died during their early youth, and as such they forced themselves to be father figures to their younger siblings, who needed them. While busy with family duties, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm found time to study law at the University of Marburg from 1802-1806, following the path of their lawyer father (“Wilhelm Grimm”). In their free time at Marburg, they also studied literature and language.
Since Mother Grimm did not have the ability to function as both mother and father for nine children in the absence of her husband, as aforementioned, the two Grimm brothers took it upon themselves to be fatherly to the children, compiling an archive of German folk tales originally passed down orally to obtain extra income for support of their mother. “They regarded their work as part of a social effort to foster a sense of justice among the German people and to create pride in folk tradition,” (Zipes 32). They later made a second volume of these folk tales as well as began to create the first definitive German dictionary, which they failed to complete in their lifetime. “Their major accomplishment in publishing their two volumes of 156 tales all together in 1812 and 1815 was to create an ideal type for the literary fairy tale, one that sought to be as close to the oral tradition as possible, while incorporating stylistic, formal, and substantial thematic changes to appeal to a growing-middle-class audience,” (Zipes 31). Interestingly enough, the last word they had written down being “fruit,” which shows their efforts did not grow to be vain.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm edited Snow White, first titled Sneewittchen in 1812, to English in 1823, (Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm).The familiar story of Snow White begins with the “perfect setting”: a peaceful place with not a care in the world. A woman worked at things that women in that era did—sewing and embroidering. Readers immediately relate to a “good” woman working busily. Queen Mother “White” describes her wish for a daughter white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame. White symbolically represents purity, beauty and peace. “In medieval literature, white skin was considered to be very desirable as a sign of great, and aristocratic, beauty,” (Murphy). Red usually represents love or blood. “So a child red as blood could mean a child made completely of love. Blood globally represents life itself, as the element of divine life that functions within the human body,” (K, J.M.). Black usually symbolizes death and sadness. Queen Mother receives her wish. Unfortunately for Snow White, her mother, the Queen, dies giving birth to Snow—something easily avoided during the modern era. After the king remarries, the reader finds the step mother as proud, arrogant, and beautiful. Now the Queen of Jealousy lived in the house of royals. Several times in the story, the queen vainly asks the magic mirror, “Who is the fairest one of all? The mirror answered, “Queen, thou art the fairest in this hall. But Snow White’s fairer than us all.” (Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm 5). The Queen’s reaction was of horror! She became enraged with jealousy. Vanity, jealousy, and greed, are unattractive characteristics. These feelings sometimes lead ordinary people to do terrible, evil things, the evil queen included. She orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her Snow’s heart. The huntsman, who owes obedience to the King and Queen, wanted to keep his job, but instead he brings back the heart of a deer, instead of Snow’s, tricking the evil queen. Historically, people have obeyed leaders like Hitler and will kill or murder others even when they know the immorality of the evil act, so this scenario of the Queen asking the huntsman to kill seems realistic. After the Huntsman allows her to leave, Snow White escapes into the woods. The authors seem to assume that people of all cultures have a fear of dark places in common as well as fear of the unknown and fear of strange noises. As such, the reader can relate to Snow White’s fear. Her encounter with the dwarfs’ cottage relieves her, even though this dwelling could have some strange people in it—but she does not seem afraid. This symbolizes a refuge, sanctuary, or safety. The lost one finds a home. As a reader, one can feel her relief. Nothing relieved the queen, however, when she asks again, “Who is the fairest one of all?” and the mirror answers, “Snow White is still alive and well, and there is none so fair as she.” The queen realizing the deception, becomes furious. Real people deceive real rulers as well. During WWII when the Nazis asked people if any Jews were hiding at their homes, many answered untruthfully. This brand of deception saved many lives.
While living with the dwarfs, the young Snow White discovers a world of responsibility for which she thought she had no time. Taking care of seven emotionally unstable dwarfs obviously felt like no easy ask for her. Just a teenager, she does the dishes and washes clothes for strangers she met in a forest after being banished by an evil witch that killed her mother. This theme that all children must grow up is shown through the hard work Snow White endures.
The story of Snow White employs some key imagery as well. “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” (Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm 1). The colors red, white, and black appear prominent in both the heroine’s and villain’s descriptions. There is irony in that the Queen’s desires concerning color were purely physical, while Snow herself was the symbolism. The child’s birthmother desired a white (pure) child with contrasting dark hair. While Snow White fit this description, she was “white” as snow, because of her childlike innocence and purity, which contrasts with the Queen’s lust for power like the black hair contrasts with fair white skin. The Queen desired a child who had lips as red as blood. Snow White was exactly this child and, ironically, at the end of the story the blood was on the Queen. The red apple with a white center likens to Satan, who appears as an angel of light. The red-hot iron shoes worn by the evil queen represent the scorching flames in Hell that the wicked must suffer for eternity. This utilizes double symbolism, considering that the flames of Hell actually mean that the people will regret their eternal life with the absence of God, is so terrible that it feels just like being on fire with anger.
The original tale of Snow White gives three accounts of the witch trying to kill Snow White. In the third account she used a poisoned red apple, symbolic of lies and death since the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Snow White bites the apple and “dies,” but looks alive. So the dwarfs place her in a glass coffin. When the prince sees her, he persuades the dwarfs to let him keep her. The dwarfs let him take her and as she is carried, the servants stumble and the piece of apple gets knocked out from her throat. The prince tells her that he loves her and asks her to marry him. This symbolically reminds readers of the reality of our death and resurrection based on the love and self-sacrifice of God. Finally, everyone is invited to their wedding including the evil step-mother, who arrives to find that the princess is none other than Snow White herself. They punished the step mother by heating iron slippers and forcing her to dance in them until she died. She suffers just as unbelievers of Christ will suffer.
Lastly, the witch must die—as evil witches must! This motif deeply roots itself into a large portion of Christianity. The “witch” in this story simply takes the role of the melodramatic villain out to get the main hero or heroine of the story. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ case, the witch is simply a witch that also happens to be the new Queen. “Bruno Bettelheim famously promoted the therapeutic value of the Grimms’ stories, calling fairy tales the “great comforters.” By confronting fears and phobias, symbolized by witches, heartless stepmothers, and hungry wolves, children find they can master their anxieties,” (O’Neill). Children always want to know that evil perishes. Looking back at the brothers Grimms’ lives, it would be easy to assume that their lives, full of war and violence, led to them to adding this witch motif to the story, but they did not create the ending. In fact, some speculate quite the opposite. They propose that the war and violence led the brothers Grimm to engage with these types of fairy tales in the first place. The brothers Grimm always loved a good story with a good ending. By compiling an archive of these stories, they could feel nostalgic about their fantasy world with a father still with them.
While Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not create the stories, they did add several accounts of motifs and symbolism to make the stories flow. Passed down orally, most of the versions had in common the simple, clear-cut story of Snow White without some of the underlying themes added by the Grimms. In the midst of their fairy tales and stories, the brothers Grimm wrote down a particular tale that eventually became a Disney box office hit: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Of course, neither Disney corporation, nor Walt Disney himself existed at the time the Grimms immortalized the tale. That said, “Storytellers knew that to place characters in a dark trackless woods would stir up associations of danger and suspense” and “The forest was not seen as a safe place. Townspeople would avoid it,” (O’Neill). The forest had outlaws, illegal hunters, and other spooky creatures like wolves.
In addition to the other symbols and motifs, the Grimms also added Christian motifs, accented the child-rearing lessons of the tales, and emphasized gender roles. The Grimms, as well, wrote the story in a universal style. “You have no concrete descriptions of the land, or the clothes, or the forest, or the castles. It makes the stories timeless and placeless,” (O’Neill). Moreover, in the story of Snow White, even evil recognizes beauty. The Grimm tales’ adaptability into other culture labels them timeless and placeless, allowing each culture to see their “utopian longings” in the stories. “They show a striving for happiness that none of us knows, but that we sense is possible. We can identify with the heroes of the tales and become in our mind the masters and mistresses of our own destinies,” (O’Neill). This also entails in the motif of why the witch must die.
After a hundred years or so after the Grimms, it was Napoleon all over again where World Wars seemed to erupt all over the place. Earth did not seem like a beneficial planet on which to live, economically or otherwise. In 1914, World War I officially begins when Germany declares war on Russia after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (EHistory). Many people lost their lives in the war. After this, the League of Nations blamed Germany for the war, causing Germany to suffer. This resulted in the German people electing Adolf Hitler as chancellor soon afterwards and World War II soon after that. The Second World War only “officially” ended when America dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. In review, the people living during most of the twentieth century suffered great risks of loss and evil in their lives, affecting their economies and prosperity. They only hoped for a brighter future.
Great evil occurred throughout the first half of 1900s. After the Second Great War, many political aspects changed. Safety and peace were established as well as Disneyland, The Cold War, the Space Race, and the construction of the Berlin Wall, all of which happened within a ten year span of each other after the end of World War II (EHistory). All these events affected the British and American people, orienting the pre- and post-war sufferers towards progress and a brighter future. Roald Dahl, the author of The Minpins, was one of these pre- and post-war middle earth dwellers.
Growing up in Wales, England in the 1900s, Roald Dahl did not act like a boy everyone loved. Though he used his wonderfully imaginative mind for adventure, he frequently misbehaved in the classroom. In sum, he lacked the control of his imagination, and any rules were out of the question. This applied to games as well as dreams and stories. “He was good at games. He admitted he was not to be trusted. ‘I did not like the rules. I was unpredictable,’” (Dahl, Boy: Tales of Childhood 146). He felt simply miserable at all of the schools that he attended. At Repton, the headmaster decided it to be reasonable to flog the students, yet he preached about compassion and mercy on Sunday School. He sometimes had doubts about religion and God due to this (Dahl, Boy: Tales of Childhood 121). When he was away from home, he wrote letters to his mother. He continued to write her through adulthood and until his death.
Unfortunately, similarly to the Grimms, his father had died early in his childhood. After high school, he dreamed of travelling across the world, and that he did. He worked for an oil company in western Africa and used his adventures to write for magazines to tell his stories. (Kelley 65). He eventually became a part of the Royal Air Force in Kenya as an international fighter pilot. In 1940, sadly, he suffered head injuries in a plane crash near Egypt (“Roald Dahl”). He did not gravely injure himself, but he easily might have died. This time, however, a few soldiers rescued him, to whom he felt eternally grateful. Thankfully, Roald Dahl deeply rooted his life and stories in Christianity (Murphy). As a result, he lived as a fluent reader, student, and storyteller as a devout Christian believer. Later, he worked in Intelligence in Washington DC at the British Embassy.
The Minpins, a lesser known children’s fictional novel by Roald Dahl, is one of Dahl’s only works for children in which humor does not play a major role. It is a serious story with motifs of the lure of danger, the bravery of a young boy, and the magical secrets of a forbidding forest. It includes a few funny scenes, but they are restrained and do not dispel the story’s mystical quality. In a letter written a few months before his death, Dahl referred to his last children’s book, The Minpins, as a fairy tale. Since he did not refer to his other works for children as fairy tales, his use of the term to describe The Minpins suggests that he saw it as being significantly different from the rest (West).
The Minpins introduces Little Billy, an obedient small boy that strongly desires to go into the woods and find out what goes on in there. His mother, however, has different plans for him. She says that the woods are much too dangerous and that grown men have never once emerged alive from those parts due to a giant black monster that lives there. Billy is very obedient, so he does as he is told and stares out the window from inside his lonely house. Strangely enough, Satan starts talking to him, telling him to go into the woods and find out what is inside. This symbolizes the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, leading to original sin. Like Eve, taking the bait, Billy climbs out the window and heads to the forest, but finds himself to be much lonelier without his mother than before. He later discovers that the rumors about the giant dark creature are true, and it also breathes fire with billowing smoke. He escapes the monster by climbing up a tree, only to meet the eyes of a miniature old man known as a “Minpin” living in a tree hole designed like a normal house. He works with the Minpins to destroy the evil monster they call the “Gruncher” and becomes their hero. The Minpins eventually help him find a large white swan to fly him home, with whom he has many other amazing adventures.
Additionally, the characters and setting contain further spiritual symbolism that add to the themes and motifs. Many of the main characters represent persons of the Trinity; for example, the protagonist, Little Billy, represents Eve before the fall on Earth and possibly the Son, while the white swan is most likely the Holy Spirit, as it is quite similar to a white dove who also brings peace. Similarly, the mother symbolizes God the Father, attempting to protect Eve from “The Forest of Sin.” The Minpins themselves are humans because the Savior came to live among them and save them from the evil force. Although Little Billy and the swan cannot speak to each other, they form a loving relationship. Little Billy relates to the swan on an almost spiritual level (West).
Little Billy discovered not only how to learn for himself, but also how to take advice from older, wiser people because growing up is not simply being independent, but also making wise decisions and seeking the truth. It is sometimes better to take risks and search the unknown than to be locked away with no freedom to make one’s own decisions. Unfortunately for Little Billy, he is still a kid. Although he realizes this aspect early on, he was not mature enough to know that he could not survive in the woods at that age. After his adventure with the Minpins, he was mature enough acknowledge his mistake—if one does not count running away from a giant fire-breathing monster as an acknowledgement on its own—and seeks help from more experienced people, despite their stature.
Roald Dahl also incorporated Christian themes in his symbolism of red, black, and white into the storybook. “Colors hold significance for people around the world. Not only do colors influence emotion, but they also hold meaning in religion and various cultures,” (“Color Symoblism and Culture”). For the purposes of analysis, this part regards the dark monster known as the “Gruncher” as black. The dark “Gruncher” represents the dark and unknown that Little Billy foolishly believed he could handle. Unfortunately for Billy, the immensity of the unknown at a young age is far larger than a child expects. It also represents sin that darkens the heart when one is led astray. These Christian motifs also explain why the witch must die, the witch, in this case, being the Gruncher. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together as one (as the three persons of the Trinity actually are the same God) to defeat the evil force. Red symbolizes speed, power, heat, strength, violence, or even war (“Color Symbolism and Culture”). Later on, the red fire represents the destruction of the dreams a child once thought possible. A child might want to grow up to be an astronaut, the President of the United States, or speak an unknown language. While these are great ideas to hold onto, if that person does not peak in physical capability, or is incapable of thinking logically in various situations, these dreams become unattainable; they must therefore filter out the inaccessible options. Lastly, the white swan symbolizes curiosity being satisfied and the sin being wiped clean, while the evil and unknown represented in the dark monster being slain.
Children’s literature as written by these authors usually contains a moral to the story, including a message to the youth and sometimes to the parent reading to the child. Both the Grimm brothers and Roald Dahl lived, fought, and saw the devastation from the wars of their time. Their stories took the audience and the authors themselves away from death and sadness and instead inspired children’s imaginations, taking them to amazing and fantastic places. These authors used their education and experiences to change forever how parents, children and nations value storytelling.
What these authors did not know is how influential their lives are to their stories, in turn, how influential their stories are to other people’s lives. In a certain manner of speaking, all authors’ life stories tend to have striking similarities to the circumstances in their storybooks. Motifs, themes, and symbolisms somehow always connect themselves in a web of ideas amalgamated in history. Concerning Roald Dahl and the brothers Grimm, evil always ends in failure, while the hero reaches the impossible. Running away to the forest and finding old, short people is typically not the suggested lifestyle for young people, however, the stories depict this scenario as a highly advantageous position in life.
Finally, the authors visualize moods and colors in a way to which an average reader might likely relate on a deep, emotional level. Utilizing the set morals found in the novels and the reasoning associated with them, these stories teach child readers that one day they must grow up and take up responsibility for their lives. This connection with reason and morality is not simply coincidental. The personal spiritual and character growth of the authors gained through their era of life truly showed God’s plan for their lives and the plan of God to have these authors teach generations of kids that they can believe in a world that is simultaneously supernatural, moral, and reasonable where the good, the true, and the beautiful triumphs over the evil, the false and the ugly things of the world.
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