By In Culture, Theology

The Wilderness of the Brothers Grimm


In a previous post, I laid out my thesis for City-Wilderness typology in Scripture, and now intend to trace that same typology through the works of several non-biblical authors. To equip ourselves for that endeavor, let’s quickly examine evidence of these City-Wilderness themes in Scripture. Scripture already draws direct contrast between the wilderness and city, garden, and Eden itself:

Until the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is considered a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness; and righteousness will remain in the fruitful field (Is. 32:15-16).

I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers (2 Cor. 11:26).

I saw, and behold, the fruitful field was a wilderness, and all its cities were broken down at the presence of Yahweh, and before his fierce anger (Jer. 4:26).

For Yahweh has comforted Zion; he has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody (Is. 51:3).

City is Eden and Eden is objectively good, but when the City is corrupt, righteousness is found in the Wilderness. History is full of falls: time and time again, the Serpent makes his way back into the City, and corruption results, driving the faithful into the wild. Consider Israel in Egypt. They prosper while a Godly man rules over them, but eventually the pharaohs grow wicked and forget Joseph. The city becomes a place of death for Israel, and city-building is even made into a punishment. This kind of perversion is a red flag, but they cannot escape until their redeemer comes to them from the Wilderness. The city is so evil, the only place left for goodness and deliverance to dwell is the desert. That is where Moses comes from, and where he takes them to in order that they might enter into covenant with God.

Skipping ahead to another prominent example, Ezekiel’s prophecy depicts the glory cloud of God departing from the corrupt Jerusalem and going out into the Wilderness to be with His people. Jerusalem and the Temple at Zion—God’s holy hill!—were once the center of the world, and intended by God to bring life to the world. This is confirmed explicitly, and in Edenic language, when the New Temple is described at the end of Ezekiel’s prophecy:

“Then said he unto me, These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed.  And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.” (Ezek. 47:8-9)

However, they have become a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9), and they produce only polluted waters that bring death. Even the Temple has turned from an Edenic City-Garden into a wilderness of poisonous stings and polluted springs.

That same water is measured out for Jesus Christ, and He drains the cup. The true Adam, Jesus did more than defend the City against Satan, He went out into the wilderness and thwarted Him there in that dark realm. Traditionally, the priests of Israel would select scapegoats to bear the sins of the people out of the holy city and into the darkness of the wilderness. But when the City had fallen into that darkness, Christ the true scapegoat was sacrificed outside of the camp, changing the essential nature of Wilderness.

If I were going create a metaphor for the work I have done so far, fleshing out the nature and function of the Wilderness in Scripture, I would liken it to building a telescope. It is a highly technical task with little practical connection to astronomy, requiring more knowledge of optics than of constellations, but the end result is a tool necessary for anyone wishing to study the heavens. Having some understanding of the Biblical scheme of Wilderness as it relates to the City, we are prepared to analyze non-biblical works of literature in light of that scheme in an attempt to fill out and test it. So, to the stars.

Let us return, first, to Dante and his dark wood. It is important to note that the poet cannot recall exactly how he came to be in that forest wilderness.

How I entered there I cannot truly say,
I had become so sleepy at the moment
when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.

One scholar argues that Dante’s wood has not only negative but positive allegorical connotations as well. This is especially so when you interpret his wilderness in light of his city. Dante was a Florentine, and medieval Florence had descended into a decades-long civil war in which the Church was seen largely as a means to greater political power. In 1301, Dante was exiled from Florence—sent outside the camp. But now we know that when the City is in arrears, the wilderness represents an opportunity for salvation.


The Brothers Grimm:   

In the fairy tales collected and adapted by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm the Wilderness appears unusually sinister and its relationship to the City is often difficult to identify because the manifestations of culture and measured out human habitation in the tales are less like typical, modern cities and more often take the form of small villages or solitary dwellings. The Brothers Grimm compiled their stories from a number of sources and varying oral traditions, most with their origins in the peasant classes of Germany and France. The tales were created and passed on by people too poor or agricultural by trade to live in or around cities—people prone to believe or invent any number of superstitions about their wild, rustic surroundings. This is a likely explanation for the more isolated manifestations of human cultivation and stewardship, as well as the apparent exaggerations about the dangers of the woods and wilderness.

I want to downplay the notions of superstition and exaggeration in the Grimm fairy tales, however. I cannot argue that the picture painted by the Grimms isn’t as bleak as it appears, nor do I want to. They tell some truly gruesome and horrifying tales, most of which cast a deep shadow on the wilderness environments they are dealing with. But that is a critical point: they tell the stories. Jacob and Wilhelm, both devout Christians and renowned intellects, adapted and presented their material in such a way that it communicated what they intended it to. Grimms scholar, Jack Zipes, argues that

They were convinced that their tales possessed essential truths about the origins of civilization, and they selected and revised those tales that would best express these truths. They did this in the name of humanity and Kultur: the Grimms were German idealists who believed that historical knowledge of customs, mores, and laws would increase self-understanding and social enlightenment. Their book is not so much a book of magic as it is a manual for education that seeks to go beyond the irrational.

Given this notion, we are free, if not required, to read a significant level of intention into all major elements of the Grimms’ fairy tales. And this makes it easier to interpret what I consider to be the greatest difficulty in the Grimm tales.

While most of the works I will analyze illustrate more explicitly the reality of Wilderness and City concealed in Scripture, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm bear a greater similarity to the Bible in that they display the greatest appearance of ambiguity and ambivalence toward the Wilderness. The difficulty, however, is not locating the wilderness geographically. Surprisingly enough, the physical boundaries between City and Wilderness are marked out with all the precision of the French guillotine. The Grimms lay out archetypical examples of the landschaft, creating stark, easily imagined contrasts between the small cottages, farms, solitary castles, or clustered structures and the “unimproved forest or marsh” that encircles them. The civilized human dwellings in the tales are often at the very “edge of the forest,” but there is never confusion between the two. The reader can sense the dark, stifling closeness of the woods and feel the freedom and safety of the sunlit open spaces. The difficulty arises when trying to locate good or evil in one environment or the other.
When one enters the forest of the Brothers Grimm, things quickly get murky and distinctions that were clear under the sun become greyer. Good and evil do not polarize inside and outside the camp: in the “city” wicked mothers and step-mothers live under the same roofs as kind and good fathers, while the wilderness is a stone soup of evil wolves and witches masquerading as nice old ladies, deceptive creatures and paths that mislead and disorient, and benevolent princes and woodsmen disguised as anything from fish and frogs to bears and trees. Is this muddling of categories contrary to the themes of Scripture and, if not, how is it reconciled?

Remember that the Grimms are attempting to communicate “essential truths about the origins of civilization.” Within Scripture, the periods immediately following the Fall and God’s judgment of Babel are both episodes dealing with the “origins of civilization,” and both bear a strong resemblance to the spiritual world of these German brothers. Though their Wilderness and their City are easily distinguished geographically, morally Wilderness is everywhere. When Eden is closed off and again when the Tower-city crumbles, man is thrust into an awkward circumstance where he must live among the darkness, beasts, murderers, and sin that he fears until he can again manage to cordon off and cultivate a place for himself. The citizens of the Grimm world are in that same circumstance. Many of them have begun to cultivate physical realms at the edge of the forest, but their stewardship is incomplete as long as they cannot discern City and Wilderness in the hearts of other creatures. The fairy tales are an exhortation and an education in spotting the difference between the City and the Wilderness—a creative tutorial on how to be a good surveyor in the forest primeval.  This theme is present, at the very least, in all of the brothers’ tales of mistaken identity.

The Frog King is the story of a young princess who ventures into a “great dark forest” near the king’s castle and is helped by a talking frog she meets in a well. She makes a pact to let the helpful beast eat and sleep with her in the castle. She is disgusted by the frog and does not intend to keep her word, but the king finds out about her promise and insists that she, being a princess, must keep her vow. This makes the princess so furious that she snatches the frog up and throws him against the wall with all her might.

“Now you can have your rest, you nasty frog!”
However, when he fell to the ground, he was no longer a frog but a prince with kind and beautiful eyes. So, in keeping with her father’s wishes, she accepted him as her dear companion and husband, whereupon the prince told her that a wicked witch had cast a spell over him and no one could have got him out of the well except her, and now he intended to take her to his kingdom the next day.

While the premise is admittedly simplistic, the lesson is there: appearances may be deceiving; a true citizen of the City may nevertheless look, sound, or live like something or someone that belongs in the Wilderness, and vice versa.

The principle is reiterated and augmented in another tale about—fancy that—Adam and Eve.

When Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise, they were compelled to build a house on unfertile soil and to earn their food by the sweat of their brow. Adam plowed the field, and Eve spun wool. Every year Eve gave birth to a child, but the children were not alike. Some were beautiful, some ugly. After a considerable amount of time had passed, God sent an angel to Adam and Eve to inform them that he was coming to look at their household. Eve, delighted that the Lord was so gracious, cleaned the house diligently, decorated it with flowers, and spread rushes on the stone floor. Then she gathered her children around her, but only the most handsome. She washed and bathed them, combed their hair, put newly washed shirts on them, and warned them to behave decently and properly in the presence of the Lord.…However, the ugly children were told to keep out of sight. Eve hid one of them under the hay, another under the roof, the third in the straw, the fourth in the oven, the fifth in the cellar, the sixth under a tub, the seventh under the wine barrel, the eighth under an old fur, etc….
The Heavenly Father entered and saw the handsome children standing in a row. He placed his hands on the first one and said, “You shall become a powerful king.” Likewise, to the second, “You shall become a prince,” etc. until he had bestowed all his rich blessings on them.

When Eve saw the Lord’s kindness and mercy, she fetched her misshapen children, hoping he might bestow blessings on them as well. “The Lord smiled, looked at all of them, and said, ‘I shall bless these children too.’” The Lord blessed Eve’s children because the Lord does not see like Eve saw. Here is the kernel of the Grimms’ lesson about appearances. How can a man tell the difference between City and Wilderness, between Eden and the wasteland? He must learn to see like God sees. In Scripture this power of vision is usually associated with kingly authority. To learn the kind of Godly discernment required and taught by the characters and situations in Grimms’ is an equipping to practice dominion and stewardship—a necessary step in unmaking Wilderness.

Of course, the Grimms compiled and edited hundreds of stories, and not all of them are so full of thematic ambiguity or purely didactic material. The Biblical pattern plays out clearly in well known fairy tales including Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as lesser known ones like The Juniper Tree. Hansel and Gretel centers on a poor family living “on the edge of a large forest.” No surprise there. A woodcutter by trade, their father struggles to provide food for his family and they begin to starve.

Then he sighed and said to his wife, “What’s to become of us? How can we feed our poor children when we don’t even have enough for ourselves?”
“I’ll tell you what,” answered his wife. “Early tomorrow morning we’ll take the children out into the forest where it’s most dense. We’ll build a fire and give them each a piece of bread. Then we’ll go about our work and leave them alone. They won’t find their way back home, and we’ll be rid of them.”
“No, wife,” the man said. “I won’t do this. I don’t have the heart to leave my children in the forest. The wild beasts would soon come and tear them apart.”
“Oh, you fool!” she said. “Then all four of us will have to starve to death. You’d better start planing the boards for our coffins!” She continued to harp on this until he finally agreed to do what she suggested.
“But still, I feel sorry for the poor children,” he said.

There is something rotten in this tiny kingdom. The “city”—their little landschaft—has been GrimmHanselGretelWitchinfiltrated by a serpent. By the time we meet the stepmother she has ceased to be an Eve, if she was ever one to begin with, and she is counseling an Adamic figure to commit a great sin. Even the “you-shall-not-surely-die” formula is present, though inverted. There is a possible connection, too, between the father’s vulnerability and some kind of lapse in stewardship. He is a woodcutter living on the edge of a great forest; he should have plenty of work, but seems to have lost dominion over the woods and lost the ability to protect his family and his Eden.

Regardless of the circumstances, what the stepmother wants is to send the children into exile and she succeeds. The city has been corrupted and the wilderness becomes a place of refuge for the children, but one must see with God’s eyes to fully understand how that is the case. Hansel and Gretel encounter a great deal of danger and evil in the woods. They wander about and are terribly afraid. The forest itself works against them: its trees blocking out the sun and its birds and beasts devouring the crumbs left to mark the path back home. Finally, in the heart of the forest, the children confront an even greater evil than the one they faced at home. While their stepmother simply did not wish to share her food with the children, the witch in the gingerbread cottage wanted to feed on the children. However, the “godless” hag is thwarted in her attempt to dine on baked boy and girly garnish, killed by her own infernal machinations. In the end, the witch succeeds in doing the opposite of what she intended, and the children leave her home well-fed and positively plump. Their exile has been a blessing after all.

Not only do Hansel and Gretel get fed, overcome wickedness, and find their way home to safety, but the wilderness begins to yield to them. First, a duck answers their calls and obeys their request to be ferried over a large river, and

when they had walked on for some time, the forest became more and more familiar to them, and finally they caught sight of their father’s house from afar. They began to run at once, and soon rushed into the house and threw themselves around their father’s neck. The man had not had a single happy hour since he had abandoned his children in the forest, and in the meantime his wife had died. Gretel opened and shook out her apron so that the pearls and jewels bounced about the room, and Hansel added to this by throwing one handful after another from his pocket. Now all their troubles were over and they lived together in utmost joy.

Returning home, the children are objectively better off than they were before; their exile has been a deliverance. Like the nation of Israel which entered Egypt in a time of famine and came out rich and full, Hansel and Gretel are better fed in the witch’s house than they would ever have been in their own home; they manage to find life-saving food “on the face of the wilderness.” And like David wandering in the land of the Philistines or Mary and Joseph taking refuge in Egypt, the siblings come back from their exile to find that their enemy and persecutor has died, and they are truly safe again. In spite of the danger the children encountered in the Wilderness, it was ultimately a place of deliverance for them.

While Hansel and Gretel is a tale of a wicked City, Little Red Riding Hood is one of good City-dwellers making war on the evil that lurks in the Wilderness. Little Red Riding Hood lives in GrimmWoodsmansafety outside of the woods, but she must travel through them to reach her grandmother’s house and deliver a basket of bread and wine. (At this point, you may allow your imagination to begin making connections with sacraments and holy war.) Inside the wilderness, Little Red meets one of its residents, the Wolf. First, he deceives Little Red through speech, but eventually devours her along with her grandmother. In some versions of the story, that’s the end, but not for the Christian Grimm Brothers. Instead, a huntsman appears, performs a Little-Red-ectomy on the sleeping wolf, killing the beast and rescuing both of its victims. The huntsman is not on a random, lackadaisical stroll when he just happens to stumble upon this gruesome scene. What does he say when he arrives? “So I’ve found you at last, you old sinner. I’ve been looking for you for a long time.” This man went into the wilderness, armed with a gun and a knife, to seek out and destroy evil creatures there. The huntsman is performing a kingly function. When the City is in order, good men go marching forth to make war on the Wilderness and make it safe by unmaking it, one victory at a time.

[In part 3, I’ll trace this City-Wilderness trope through the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, before concluding in Part 4 with a treatment of The Lord of the Rings.]

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One Response to The Wilderness of the Brothers Grimm

  1. […] entry into Jerusalem, my series of comments on the nature of Biblical wilderness [see part 1 and part 2] reaches its discussion of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, and its titular hero, who also emerges […]

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