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Fairy tales’ deeper story of faith

By G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.
Oxford University Press, 189 pages, $25


There is an immutable magic to fairy tales. Seemingly simplistic story lines and predictable outcomes aside, these stories gratify something within. In The Owl, the Raven and the Dove, Jesuit Fr. G. Ronald Murphy contends that the Brothers Grimm intentionally wrote their versions of these fairy tales with religious truths in mind. That their magic has enchanted reading audiences of all ages is testimony to the spirituality we instantly intuit in the Grimms’ fairy tales.

Murphy relies on his vast and painstaking scrutiny of documents from the Grimms’ personal library, German archives, the Grimm Museum, Wilhelm Grimm’s personal Bible and teaching texts as well as other academic treatments of the Grimms and their works. At times, Murphy’s writing is so didactic, so drenched in academic language, the reader feels left out.

However, The Owl, the Raven and the Dove is largely accessible. Murphy skillfully shows the marriage of the Grimms’ religious upbringing with their scholarly passion for etymology and lore to produce stories that speak to the soul’s imagination.

For Wilhelm Grimm, the chief storyteller, these tales were an opportunity to integrate the pre-Christian truths of classical Greco-Roman and Norse-German traditions with Biblical truth. The brothers viewed Christianity as within the stream of religious consciousness, not as a replacement of preexisting beliefs. The brothers were ecumenical in their approach, attempting to communicate a spiritual reality that would resonate with all hearts.

The Grimms’ beliefs informed their recounting of fairy tales with three religious precepts. First, Wilhelm related the Holy Spirit to the ancient belief of animism, which holds that all creatures are part of the universal Spirit. A guiding presence that is other is embedded in many of the stories.

The mandate to love one another is also imperative to the “happily ever after” outcome and even transcends the bounds of death. Finally, humble faith is a saving characteristic of each of the heroes and heroines in the tales.

Murphy vividly illustrates the integration of the Grimms’ religious ideas in the story of Hansel and Gretel. The Grimms saw Hansel and Gretel as, “a classical parable of the journey of the human soul from infancy to spiritual awareness of right and wrong.”

In the story, the tree that shelters them through night is the Germanic Yggdrassil, or tree of life, the predecessor of the Christmas tree. Nowhere in the original tales with which the Grimms worked is a tree present. The tree is more than a dramatic prop. The principal setting of the forest draws on the long ago belief of Germanic tribes: trees as dwelling places for gods.

At noon of the third day, reminiscent of the Resurrection, the children are led away from the tree by a white dove. With subtle artistry, the Grimms shift from Germanic to Christian symbols without abandoning or confusing either. The children are then challenged by the perennial test of forbidden food. It is the very test of Persephone, Adam and Eve and indeed, every sentient being that must come to terms with his or her selfish and self-serving nature. Those who do not are quite conspicuous in the Grimms’ tales: Think of the consequences that befall Cinderella’s stepsisters or Snow White’s stepmother.

Despite sinning by partaking of the forbidden fruit, Hansel and Gretel free themselves through the self-sacrificing love between brother and sister, the steadfast belief in God’s ability to protect, and the benevolent animism of the sheltering tree and white dove. Nonetheless, something was amiss for Wilhelm and he wrestled with this story for almost 50 years.

Hansel and Gretel could not find their way home based solely on the Grimms’ three religious precepts. If they could, then there would be no need for a Savior or salvation. Therefore, Grimm introduces the river to be crossed on the way out of the forest. Just as the Magi returned home by a different route, the children cannot return the way they have come because they have been transformed in the forest. They must be carried across the water by a dual-natured bird, at home both in air and on water. The baptismal water not only cleanses from sin, but also signifies their adoption into a communion of believers, borne on the back of the one who was both human and divine.

The Owl, the Raven and the Dove is an edifying medium to the other, deeper story in the Grimms’ work. The book is a tale of rustling leaves and soil, water rippling and wings flapping in absolute stillness, delicate rose petals, then thorns that catch one unawares. The tale takes on the features of lurking wolves, dutiful dwarves, scarlet lips against white skin, gingerbread houses and shiny pebbles that show the way. And thus even deeper, these tales take us into the forest where our spirits wait, poised for release.

Mary Silwance teaches English at Bishop Miege High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan. Her e-mail address is silwance@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000