'My Dear, I Must Have Been Dreaming All This'

In this post, I mentioned I've been working my way through a collection of Grimm's fairy tales. Well, I'm still working my way through, but I'm stuck on obsessed with one in particular right now: The Robber Bridegroom.

Do you know this story? I confess, I don't think I ever read it as a child. It's one of those stories the scholars of fairy tales would group under stories told to help people deal with "courtship anxieties": a young girl visits the home of her betrothed only to discover he's one of a band of murderers. She is hidden behind a barrel by an old woman, apparently in the employ of the band of murderers, who says they'll escape together after the murderers fall asleep.  "I've been waiting a long time for this moment," she says. The murderers come home. They have taken a young maiden prisoner. They force her to drink three glasses of wine: one white, one red, one yellow. She dies. They chop her into pieces and sprinkle her with salt (yes, it's the old woman's job to cook her; yes, it's a reasonable courtship anxiety to wonder if you will be devoured by married life). One of the murderers sees a gold ring on one of the dead maiden's fingers and can't get it off, so chops the finger off to get at the ring. It flies across the room and lands in the lap of the girl who's hiding, the one engaged to one of the murderers.

The old woman and the young girl escape after the murderers fall asleep, and the girl does indeed marry the murderous man to whom she was engaged. But at the wedding feast, everyone is asked to tell a story.  Guess what story the bride tells? Yes: the story of going to her betrothed's house and all that happened there. As she moves through the plot, she keeps repeating, "My dear, I must have been dreaming all this." I won't tell you how it ends in case you want to scurry off to the library and read it for yourself.

I am fascinated by this story. For one thing, I'm a sucker for repeating lines. But I think what I'm most interested in are all the stories within its bounds that aren't told. Who is this old woman? How did she come to be the cook at the murderer's den? Why did she wait until now, until this young maiden arrived, to try to escape? Who is this bride-to-be? How did she get connected to her betrothed? Why would she allow the wedding to go on after learning what she learned?

Just think of all the stories we know and love, and think of all the stories within those stories that have never been told. I confess, I feel like this is part of my job as a writer: to mine the old stories and tell the ones that are just there waiting, but that haven't been told yet.

In the Jewish tradition there is a set of stories like this called the Midrashim. They are sacred texts. And for good reason: we learn so much about the stories we already know when the untold stories are told.

So, I admit I'm hoping some of the untold stories in The Robber Bridegroom will make their way into a poem or two.

And speaking of fairy tales, I just have to share a link to this beautiful book I saw over the weekend.  It's a new illustrated version of Little Red Riding Hood. Hoping it finds its way onto my bookshelf one of these days. All the better to read you with, my dear!


Gerry said...

I found one translation of the text of the Grimm fairy tales on Project Gutenberg:


No illustrations, but I was always afraid of illustrated Grimm anyway.

I don't know why the old woman didn't escape until the maiden arrived. I can never figure out why the teenaged babysitters always go up to the attic either. Something there is in us that likes to scare ourselves half to death. Now I have something to keep me awake tonight.

My favorite Margaret Atwood is The Robber Bride. Or Cat's Eye, depending on my mood.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Wow, Molly. We're on parallel tracks. I've just started the Grimm collection and I'm sort of stunned by all the holes in the stories, all the unexplained connections.

Looking forward to whatever comes from your journey.

Molly said...

Gerry, I'll have to read the translation on Gutenberg and see if there are any differences. Differences in translation are also intriguing, no? I haven't read Margaret Atwood's Robber Bride or Cat's Eye, but her Blind Assassin had me spellbound and haunts me still.

Sandy, I'm interested to see if the Grimm tales influence the cautionary tale poems you've been working on. Enjoy the stories, holes and all.

Ms. WK said...

I have never read this! Thanks for the "book worm" that will need to be finished.

Molly said...

Ms. W-K, get yourself a copy of the Grimm tales. You will not regret it! You may even find things to teach... can you see your students writing modern-day fairy tales? Thanks for reading.