The Grimms at their Grimmest?

A lot’s been said about how the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are sometimes darker and more twisted than the sanitised versions consumed by today’s children. We all know about the mutilations that happen in the Grimms’ version of Cinderella, and some of us have dug deeper and found such oddities as Hans-My-Hedgehog or The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage. And yes, we’ve all made thunderingly obvious puns involving “Grimm” and “grim”. Myself included, in the title of this very post, because I’m that lazy.

But there’s one story in particular I’d like to bring up; one I’ve never heard anyone talk about in the context of freaky fairy tales. That surprises me as it contains what must surely be the single most twisted moment in the entire Grimm canon. It’s called Cherry, or the Frog Bride.

At first, it looks like a typically innocuous fairy tale. A king wants to pass his kingdom on to one of his three sons, so he sets them three tasks to find out who deserves the honour.

The king’s first task is to find “one hundred ells of cloth, so fine that I can draw it through my golden ring.” Two of the brothers scour the land for suitable material, but the third appears to be out of luck — until he meets a talking frog (actually a girl named Cherry under a curse) who gives him a bit of dirty linen. The three brothers meet their father, and lo and behold, the third brother’s linen is the only piece of cloth that goes through the king’s ring.

The father gives his son a hug, and orders the other brothers’ linen to be chucked into the sea. Bear that detail in mind, as it’ll become relevant later…

The next task is to find a dog so small that it will fit into a nutshell; exactly what bearing this test has on ability to govern is unclear, but there we go. Anyway, the results are the same deal: the first two brothers travel far and wide and assemble a menagerie of small dogs, but the third brother seems to be the loser — until Cherry Frog steps in, and gives him a dog so tiny that it’s already inside a nutshell. Here’s how the task is concluded:

His brothers had reached home first, and brought with them a great many very pretty little dogs. The old king willing to help them all he could, sent for a large walnut-shell and tried it with every one of the little dogs; but one stuck fast with the hind-foot out, and another with the head, and a third with the fore-foot, and a fourth with its tail,—in short, some one way and some another; but none were at all likely to sit easily in this new kind of kennel.

When all had been tried, the youngest made his father a dutiful bow, and gave him the hazel-nut, begging him to crack it very carefully: the moment this was done out ran a beautiful little white dog upon the king’s hand, wagged its tail, fondled his new master, and soon turned about and barked at the other little beasts in the most graceful manner, to the delight of the whole court. The joy of every one was great; the old king again embraced his lucky son, told his people to drown all the other dogs in the sea…

Let’s take another look at that last bit:

…the old king… told his people to drown all the other dogs in the sea…

Yikes.

But okay — historically, people didn’t always sentimentalise animals the way we do today. So, the king’s casual mass-drowning of dogs he ordered brought to his court can perhaps be filed away as “of its time”. Moving on…

The king sets his sons the third and final task: to find the most beautiful woman in the land. Once again, the first two brothers find a good share of likely candidates, while the third falls back on that handy talking frog for help. The frog travels to the king’s court in a Cinderella-esque pumpkin coach, and along the way transforms back into the beautiful girl named Cherry. She’s so lovely that she becomes the undoubted winner of the contest:

They soon came to his father’s city, where his brothers also came with trains of fair ladies; but as soon as Cherry was seen, all the court gave her with one voice the crown of beauty.

And so comes the happy ending:

The delighted father embraced his son, and named him the heir to his crown, and ordered all the other ladies to be thrown like the little dogs into the sea and drowned.

…wait, what? Let’s run that by again:

The delighted father… ordered all the other ladies to be thrown like the little dogs into the sea and drowned.

Want more context? Well, here’s the final paragraph in its entirety:

They soon came to his father’s city, where his brothers also came with trains of fair ladies; but as soon as Cherry was seen, all the court gave her with one voice the crown of beauty. The delighted father embraced his son, and named him the heir to his crown, and ordered all the other ladies to be thrown like the little dogs into the sea and drowned. Then the prince married Cherry, and lived long and happily with her, and indeed lives with her still—if he be not dead.

So, a bunch of women get executed by drowning because they lost a beauty contest, literally one sentence before the “happily ever after”, and the reader apparently isn’t meant to care a hoot. That’s… cold, Grimms. Cold.

I notice there’s an alternate translation where the women are “sent to keep company with the little dogs”. But as that version also states that the dogs were ordered to be thrown into the sea, it’s still pretty clear what happened to the women. If anything, the coyness makes it all the more sinister: “keeping company with the little dogs” is something like “sleeping with the fishies” when you think about it.

Think of the artists who were given the job of illustrating this piece of work. “Hmm, I wonder which scene I should draw? The frog in her little pumpkin coach? Maybe the tiny dog running out of the hazelnut? Or perhaps the bit where a bunch of innocent women are cruelly drowned right after the hero is named heir?”

Or the children who ended up with this as their bedtime story. “And then the jolly king ordered a mass execution of innocents by drowning. But don’t worry about that, because two members of the royal family lived happily ever after, and that’s all you care about isn’t it, you elitist little lump of congealed loin-fruit, you?”

I can only imagine a Disney cartoon of this story. Perhaps the drowning could be a musical number. Right now I’m picturing credits rolling over a shot of the women’s fish-bitten corpses as they sway lifelessly amongst the seaweed, accompanied by upbeat pop music. They’ll be devoting full time to floating under the sea, indeed.

Actually, scratch that. If they made a film out of this story it should be dystopian sci-fi. A brutal Miss Universe contest of the future where the losers are drowned at the behest of some demented autocrat who thinks the ability to cram puppies into confined spaces is a defining trait of good statesmanship.

I first read Cherry, or the Frog-Bride (or, as I prefer to think of it, The Brothers Grimm’s Merry Tale of Woman-Drowning) as a teenager. I remember searching for web pages about it, and being surprised at the complete lack of online commentary on how utterly messed-up it is. Well, it took me a good few years, but I’ve finally rectified that situation, dangnabbit.

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3 thoughts on “The Grimms at their Grimmest?”

  1. I definitely remember this story from my childhood (and yes, I had Grimm’s fairy tales read and sometimes even told to me in full grisly detail), though I don’t remember the mass drowning nor do I remember the story has particularly gruesome. There are certainly others which stand out more such as “The Goose Girl”, in which the bad princess is dragged to death in a nail-spiked barrel (and my edition had a mercifully sanitzed illustration of that) or “The Juniper Tree” in which the requisite evil stepmother (TM) kills and cooks her stepson, complete with gruesome beheading, or “Mary’s Child”, in which the Virgin Mary (!) kidnaps a young woman’s newborn babies and frames her for child murder until the young woman is almost burned at the stake, all because the young woman was rude to her.

    I’d reread the original to see if the mass drowning is as bad as it sounds, except that I don’t recall the German title, though it’s not a literal translation of the English title.

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    1. I did go looking for the German original, but had trouble finding it. FWIW Andrew Lang has a version called Puddocky, and there’s also a version called The White Cat (with a transformed cat rather than frog, and no drownings)

      The Juniper Tree is probably the go-to choice for macabre Grimm stories. With the drowning in this tale, though, it’s not so much the method of death itself (there’s much worse to be found in folklore) as the weirdly casual way it’s slipped into the end of the narrative. I imagine it was meant as an off-colour joke.

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      1. The cruelty is quite often casual in Grimm’s fairy tales – the mutilation of Cinderella’s stepsisters and the dragging to death of the evil princess in “The Goose Girl” also happen literally a sentence before the happily ever after ending. Though this story stand out not just for its casual cruelty, but because it literally celebrates a wedding with a mass execution of total innocents.

        As for “The Juniper Tree”, it’s often skipped in readings and my mother certainly skipped it (which made me want to read it all the more), but not so much because of the lurid cruelty, but because it’s one of a handful of Grimm’s fairy tales written in quite heavy dialect, which makes it difficult for modern readers to read and understand. I come from the area where a variation of that dialect is spoken and I still had difficulties with it, particularly as a young person.

        BTW, when I was kid, I read a German kids’ magazine called Bussi Bär (Kissy Bear), which contained a mix of comics, stories, short factual articles and beautifully illustrated fairy tales. The language of the fairy tales had been somewhat modernised, but the often lurid cruelty was still included and sometimes even illustrated. And this was in the 1980s. The magazine still exists, though I have no idea if they still print unsanitised fairy tales.

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