Holy Enchantment!

The Owl, the Raven, and the Doveby G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.Oxford Univ. Press 189p $25

In 1976 Bruno Bettelheim caused a stir with The Uses of Enchantment, arguing that Grimms’ fairy tales could be read as Freudian fables of adolescence, identity and sexual maturation. After some initial shock, the consensus was that Bettelheim had a point. Now another partisan intellectual, the Rev. G. Ronald Murphy, professor of German at Georgetown, has come up with a very different analysis. Limiting himself to the five most familiar Kinder-und Hausmärchen, Murphy finds them full of heart-warming Christian symbolism. Seeing them not so much as timeless archetypal myths, but as artifacts of the highly devout and erudite imagination of Wilhelm Grimm, he traces in them familiar religious themes of sin and redemption, human failure and divine grace, nature as creation and the triumph over death. At once less daring and more ecumenical than Bettelheim, he relies on meticulous scholarship rather than genial intuition, while generously leaving room for divergent interpretations. In the end, the overall critical response to Murphy’s work will likely be the same as with Bettelheim: he definitely has a point.

Murphy’s title is, inevitably, multivalent. An owl, a raven and a dove come to mourn the apparently dead Snow White. Tradition also associates the owl with Athena, the raven with Woden (Odin) and the dove, of course, with the Christian Spirit; and Grimm was happy to incorporate elements from classical antiquity and German mythology (he was expert in both fields) into his tales. All three are birds of the spirit, with the owl symbolizing wisdom, the raven memory and consciousness (after Woden’s two ravens Hugin and Munin) and the dove love and unifying harmony. The birds not accidentally form a trinity, and they even mirror the three colors of Snow White (red, black and white)or perhaps she mirrors them.


The five magic fairy tales (Zaubermärchen) Murphy addresses are Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; and, as with all good literary criticism, by the time he rests his case, the reader wonders, How did I miss that? For instance, there are distinct echoes of eating the forbidden fruit when Hansel and Gretel nibble from the witch’s house (and then lie about it) and when Snow White eats the poisoned apple proffered by her stepmother. Little Red Riding Hood’s encounter with the Wolf in the forest likewise has clear implications of the Fall, even as the cake and wine she is bringing to Grandmother are eucharistic. The Princes who marry Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty strongly suggest Christ the Bridegroom and Savior, as does the Hunter in Little Red Riding Hood.

Significant details could be multiplied almost endlessly. The broad water Hansel and Gretel cannot cross by themselves reminds us of the Red Sea and the Exodus (even as the children are laden with the spoils of their enemies). Little Red Riding Hood’s eyes are opened, like Eve’s, as she wanders through the forest, following the Wolf’s (Satan’s) advice. Cinderella sits in the ashes like Job (and Odysseus). The wicked queen in Snow White is Luciferian, and the marriage feast for Sleeping Beauty and the king’s son is an eschatological motif.

Of course, these stories are also rife with pagan symbols, as Murphy gladly acknowledges. He has no objection to Bettelheim’s reading of Little Red Riding Hood’s outfit as a sign of sexual maturity, or the glass slipper in Cinderella as a vagina, or Sleeping Beauty’s pricking her finger as the menarcheso long as such possibilities don’t exclude the others. In any case, Murphy gives short shrift to critics, like Heinz Rölleke, who would like to make Grimms’ fairy tales an expression of pre-Christian Germanic animism, brushed over with a few belated Christian allusions. Wilhelm Grimm relied less on primitive folklore than on written sources, especially Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault, (one of his key informants, Dorothea Viehmann, was an educated French Huguenot), which he then altered by making them, among other things, emphatically religious.

Murphy, it must be admitted, is not exactly a scintillating writer. His stylistic repertoire includes Germanisms (salon-amusing conceit, pre-right-and-wrong), lumpy prose (there is hardly any person of religious faith who cannot but feel moved by this seemingly so simple tale) and editorial nods (an unfaithful husband cuckolds his wife, Chaucer’s ditsy Prioress is called a wise nun). And the drawings, by Laurence Selim, that he chose to illustrate his book are often feeble. But these are only minor lapses. More seriously, Murphy says nothing at all about what seems to be the rigid patriarchalism of the tales, with their omnipresent vicious stepmothers, jealous sisters and murderous witches. Perhaps he can come to grips with that if he moves on to survey the entire Grimm corpus (210 tales).

In any case this is a solid work of scholarship, and lively enough to reach the interested lay person. Even that mistrustful genius and control-freak Walt Disney (Murphy’s a fan) might have perked up at this study, because Murphy has uncovered a new (old) layer in one of our culture’s most beloved palimpsests.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019

“Anyone can do any amount of work,” wrote the American humorist Robert Benchley, “provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Procrastination is an act of will, the choice to postpone what needs to be done.

Nick Ripatrazone January 10, 2019
The stories of Andre Dubus delve into loneliness, the ferocity of parental love, adultery, retribution and sex that is a stay against loneliness.
Kevin SpinaleJanuary 03, 2019