Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Nature Romanticism and the Grimms' Tales: An Ecocritical Approach to Günter Grass's the Flounder and the Rat

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Nature Romanticism and the Grimms' Tales: An Ecocritical Approach to Günter Grass's the Flounder and the Rat

Article excerpt

Ever since his debut with The Tin Drum in 1959, Günter Grass has referred to fairy tales in his texts, using motifs such as the phrase "once upon a time" in what one might call his magical realist prose.1 His mid-career novels The Bounder (1977) and The Rat (1986) target issues that preoccupied Germans in the postwar decades: the battle between the sexes, ecological devastation, and nuclear armament. In particular, Grass draws on the Grimms' tales that depict human dealings with the natural world. Fairy tales and their characters come to stand as representatives of nature in a struggle against the potential destruction of the earth. The Flounder and The Rat arrived on a "Märchenwelle" (Castein 97) published in the 1970s and 1980s in West Germany This wave of modern tales took an irreverent look at the Grimms' collection, opposing previous tendencies to search in fairy tales for "redemption from the past" after 1945 (Zipes, "Struggle" 170-74). Like the Grimms before him, Grass appropriates tradition and reinterprets it on his own terms. Although he draws attention to the problematic ideological underpinnings of the romantics' work with folklore, he shares with them the common desire to use tales as repositories for dreams and better lives.2

The Flounder depicts the return to a maternal Eden that was lost when patriarchal history began, while The Rat imagines the nuclear and ecological destruction of the world and its repopulation by rats. Various narrative strands feature feminist ecologists, genetically modified rat-humans called WatsonCricks, and scenes of a fairy-tale forest in which the Grimms' characters become endangered species of sorts. The Rat protests a one-sided, rationalist interpretation of enlightenment philosophy: "Das ist für mich die Sackgasse der europäischen Aufklärung. Die Verkürzung des Vernunftbegriffs auf das Technische. . . . Ein Fortschrittsbegriff, der nur noch auf Zuwachs hin orientiert war, hat uns dazu gebracht, zum Beispiel unsere Träume nicht mehr ernst zu nehmen" ("To me, this is the dead-end of the European enlightenment. ... By reducing the concept of reason to technology, we have been led, for instance, to stop taking our dreams seriously"; Grass, "Mir träumte" 348). As Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have argued, enlightenment rationalism became implicated under Nazism. Grass critiques the alienation of individuals under twentieth-century conditions and counters the lack of dreams by spinning variants of the Grimms' tales.

The Flounder and The Rat urgently express concerns about a world endangered by pollution and modern warfare. By merging classic fairy tales with images of a destroyed environment, Grass reveals an inherent connection between nature romanticism and the yearnings for unity and harmony visible in the ecology and peace movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Images of modern man's problematic relations with nature arise from a rewriting of the Grimms' tales, notably "The Fisherman and His Wife," "Hansel and Gretel," "The Maiden without Hands," and "Brier Rose." The following comparison between the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (KHM) and Grass's novels, however, reveals striking differences in the approach to the natural world. In the Grimms' tales, nature is an ambivalent realm: the woods and fauna at times protect and at other times persecute man. Grass's twentieth-century fairy tales take an altogether more reverent approach to the natural world, which reflects their environmentalist context. His novels demonstrate a new awareness of the interdependence between humans, cultures, and their environments. Although The Flounder and The Rat have been seen as part of a tendency for "catastrophism" and apocalypse in postwar German literature (Goodbody 159), the intertextuality with fairy tales has yet to be examined within the framework of romanticism, ecology, and national identity. After a brief introduction to ecocriticism, this discussion turns to maternal and moral images of nature in The Flounder, to fairy tales and human-nature interactions in The Rat, and ends by examining the forest motif in literature, environmentalism, and the politics of German identity. …

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