Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Violence of the Lambs

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Violence of the Lambs

Article excerpt


Fairy tales are violent. In most tales still told or read today, the violence is punitive, as Maria Tatar and others have shown us. Violence in the tales (with its obverse, a system of rewards) often educates and "disciplines" children in what Tatar calls a "pedagogy of fear" in one of her chapter titles. For example, the Grimms love to end their Marchen with violent retribution for the wicked deeds of their anti-heroes and, particularly, anti-heroines: the wicked stepmother in "Snow White," who must dance in red-hot iron shoes; the wicked stepsisters in "Aschenputtel" or "Cinderella," whose eyes are pecked out by doves; the wicked stepmother in "The Jumper Tree," who is squashed by a falling millstone; the witch shoved into the oven in "Hansel and Gretel," who, in Anne Sexton's sardonic version,

turned as red

as the Jap flag.

Her blood began to boil up

like Coca-Cola.

Her eyes began to melt.

She was done for.

Altogether a memorable incident. (105)

Sexton's description of the witch's punishment oozes violence itself: the fizzing blood, the melting eyes. In many fairy tales, the bad get the violence they deserve, or even more than they deserve-most spectacularly in Disney versions, but even in Tom Davenports sensitive films based on classic tales. (In Willa, his 1996 film based on "Snow White" set in rural Virginia in the 1920s, for example, the wicked stepmother burns to death in front of a flickering film of Willa's sinuous dance.)

Punitive or disciplinary violence, however-designed to caution children or to give the world a moral spin-is not the only form of violence we see in fairy tales. In some there is a pervasive, almost random violence: inanimate objects become malicious, animals turn hostile. (One critic, James Twitchell, has called this "preposterous violence" because of its unmotivated, ritual character.) In some there is a kind of insidious, coercive violence often designed to force young girls into submission. (Think here of fathers' attempts to maneuver their daughters into incestuous relationships in tales like "The Maiden without Hands" or "Catskin.")

Recently I've become interested in another, rather unusual kind of fairytale violence, the violence I'm calling "The Violence of the Lambs." It usually occurs in tales of metamorphosis or transformation from beast to human form. The motif of shape-shifting has of course been crucial in European myth and fantasy from the very beginning: the Circe episode in the Odyssey, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Apuleius's Golden Ass are just a few early examples.1 But in the tales I'm worrying over here, a previously innocent and gentle character must commit an act of sacrificial violence in order to help restore a beloved animal to its human shape. This kind of return to human form and this kind of violence do not seem to occur in classical myth at all. (In Homer, Odysseus's crew remain pigs after Circe has cast her spell.2 Ovid's characters never resume their human forms. Lucius in Apuleius's Golden Ass does regain his human shape at the end, but in a mystical, nonviolent process that involves no other character as an agent of transformation.) This violent return may have roots in medieval ballads like "Tarn Lin," where the heroine must hold the hero as he goes through a series of transformations-from ice to fire to an adder to a snake to a swan to a "red-hot glaive"-until he can become a "mother-naked man" again (Jacobs 297).3 In the fairy tales I'm considering, however, restoration to human form depends on sudden and innocent violence, often decapitation.

In the well-known Grimm tale "The Frog Prince," sometimes known as "Iron Heinrich" (KHM 1), the petulant princess, in a fit of pique (or perhaps sexual angst), throws the frog against the wall and (to quote Anne Sexton again):


Like a genie coming out of a samovar,

a handsome prince arose in the

corner of her royal bedroom. …

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