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Minding the Matter in Fairy Tales



Dana and Tim by the Pied Piper statue in Hamelin

To lengthen our list of Latin American fairy tales, I (Dana) considered including the Tradiciones peruanas (Peruvian Traditions) of Ricardo Palma, but it seemed that the specific names and dates in these stories disqualify them as fairy tales. Then Tim reminded me that the Grimm Brothers’ “The Children of Hameln (The Pied Piper)” opens with a specific location and date: “In the year 1284 a mysterious man appeared in Hameln.” This rekindled my rumination about defining the fairy tale and about how easily generic criteria can be challenged (for example, there are many significant exceptions to the criterion that fairy tales must end happily). Serendipitously, the question of how history and fairy tale relate connected to some things I’d been reading by Kafka scholar and health blogger Emily Troscianko, who encourages “enactive” and “embodied” ways of reading. Like the fairy tale, Kafka’s work has developed the reputation of containing deeper or metaphorical meanings, which discourages readers from experiencing the literal level of his work and enjoying it as they would memoir or historical fiction. So rather than trying to reconcile the Brothers Grimm and Ricardo Palma, this post will challenge the tendency to associate fairy tale with mind and history with matter.


Because the fairy tale is strongly associated with morality and psychology, this predisposes readers to miss what a fairy tale can offer on the literal level. When Tim and I visited Hamelin in October, I felt how my own response to the Pied Piper story changed when I learned about the theories of what really happened there in 1284. The prevailing theory is that a recruiter convinced young people to move east to newly-acquired German territories (now Poland), and the evidence is that names related to Hamelin can be found in Polish telephone books today. This changed my feeling about the story. It took away the pressure I felt to find the story’s deeper meaning, and it brought up in me my own experiences of having to move, along with my family and a small community, to a different country when I was ten. In other words, the historical matter in the Pied Piper freed me from the urge to find the deeper meaning in the story and allowed me to connect it to my own life experience. Perhaps minding the matter in a story and simply allowing oneself to feel what the characters in a fairy tale are experiencing can engage the heart.

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