The Stories of the Brothers Grimm
The brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, collected their well-known stories from the oral tradition of the Germanic people. Their work went through many revisions before becoming the text we know today as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When the brothers lived, their books were quite popular. Their compatriots bought almost as many of them as they did the Bible. Like the Bible, some of the stories are violent and crude, containing antisemitism and assumptions about gender roles and social stratification that we, in twenty-first-century America, may find offensive.
This is true of folklore around the world. The oral history of a culture does not shrink from life’s harshness, nor is it always exemplary. Yet the stories say much about the human condition, about how we cope in the face of hardship and despair. They tend to affirm values of generosity, hard work, kindness, persistence, and obedience. In these tales, the poor are often more virtuous than the wealthy; children more selfless than their elders. We see this, for instance, in the tale of “The Seven Ravens.”
The Cup Falls into the Well
Once upon a time, a couple had seven sons, and though they felt blessed, the husband longed for a daughter. Finally, his wife gave birth to a little girl, and they were filled with joy. Yet, she was sickly. They feared she would die. Wanting her to be baptized immediately, the father sent one of the boys to the well to bring back water. The other six followed and, each wanting to be first to get that sacred liquid, they fought over the cup, and it fell to the bottom of the well.
It’s not surprising that the brothers would fight among themselves that way. Each wanted his father to reward him, even if only with a pat on the head or a smile. They wanted to know he saw them, that he knew them, that he believed they were enough just as they were. When you’re one of seven, that probably doesn’t happen very often. When your father wishes you were a girl instead of the rambunctious and unruly boy you so obviously are, it doubtless happens even less. Each child longed to be first in his father’s sight, yet they each turned out to be last.
Well, with the cup gone, the boys didn’t know what to do. They didn’t dare go home. Apparently, they did not expect their father to understand.
Turning Into Ravens
Of course, doing nothing didn’t help. The father fretted and thought the worst of them. He suspected they had forgotten their task and run off to play. In his anger, he cried out, “I wish the boys were all turned to ravens.”
As soon as the father finished speaking, the boys transformed into ravens and winged away over the house.
What a terrible thing. Had he been able to, the father would have revoked his curse, but that isn’t how life works. What is done is done. We must live with the consequences of our hasty and imperfect actions.
So the family lost their sons, yet the girl survived. Indeed, she grew stronger and more beautiful with each passing year and was a great comfort to her parents. Though they mourned in private, they never spoke to her of the boys. She didn’t even know she had siblings until she overheard a neighbor saying that she “was to blame for the misfortune that had befallen her brothers.” 
Gossip and Our Flawed Natures
Obviously, this is a plot device. The girl must learn the truth, or we have no story.
Still, did she have to learn it in such a painful way? After all, who would hold a powerless infant responsible for the folly of her brothers and the impetuous anger of her father?
Unfortunately, we often cast blame on the innocent and seek a scapegoat when bad things happen. It makes us feel better. It helps us forget how frightening life can be.
So the neighbor’s meanness shouldn’t surprise us. If we’re going to accept the vagaries of life without lashing out, we must be able to acknowledge our suffering, live through the pain of it, and compassionately honor our imperfections. That’s not easy.
Surely the neighbor didn’t know how to do any of that. She was just trying to feel better in a disagreeable world, so she did what she’d been taught and blamed someone else. Unfortunately, any relief she gained from her gossiping would have been temporary. That is the way with blame. It hurts others and doesn’t help us.
Nor does it remain private. Gossip will reach the object of its scorn. Not that the neighbor knew the girl could hear her, but surely she wasn’t so naive as to think her words would not one day meet their target. Gossip is a hurtful thing.
At the same time, the girl needed to learn the truth. Keeping secrets doesn’t go well. If we’re going to blame the neighbor, we could also blame the parents who couldn’t face their own tragedy.
Yet as we have seen, blame is counterproductive, so let us cease from it, for we are all flawed, and we do the best we can, even if at times our best is not so great.
The Girl Sets Off on a Quest
Having learned about brothers, the girl went to ask her parents to explain what the neighbor was talking about. Realizing they could no longer hide the truth, they told her.
When they finished, they assured her, as good parents would, that she had not caused her brother’s loss. It was, rather, “the will of Heaven.” That theology has its own problems, for it raises the question of what kind of god would desire seven boys to be turned into ravens, but we’ll leave that for another day. For now, let us follow the girl as she broods over what she has learned.
Indeed, the girl could not get the story out of her mind. How terrible thing to be turned into ravens, and for what? A simple mistake? It was intolerable. She would have to find her brothers and free them, no matter the cost.
So she set off on a quest, bringing “nothing with her but a little ring belonging to her parents as a keepsake, a loaf of bread against hunger, a little pitcher of water against thirst, and a little chair as a provision against weariness.”
The Sun, Moon, and Stars
The girl walked and walked, all the way to the end of the world. There she found the sun, but the sun “was too hot and terrible, and it devoured little children,” so she ran away to the moon.
The moon was no better. It “was far too cold, and also awful and malicious.” In a threatening voice, it said, “I smell the flesh of men.” Terrified, the girl ran from the moon, as well.
At last, she came to the stars who were kind and good. Like her, they each had a little chair to sit on. All these little, innocent, good things. Our heroine is no fallen angel, nor is she a shameful Eve. She is a child as virtuous as the stars, and as bright. The Christianity of the Grimm brothers’ day may have been judgmental and condemning, but a pure woman can redeem herself. We see such purity in this self-sacrificing child.
One of the stars stood up and handed the girl a chicken drumstick. “If thou hast not that drumstick thou canst not open the Glass mountain, and in the Glass mountain are thy brothers,” the star told her.
So the girl took the drumstick and, without saying anything of thanks or good-bye, she wrapped it up, and headed for the Glass mountain.
Obstacles on the Journey
How did she know where to go? She didn’t ask for directions, nor did the stars offer any. Yet she got there without mishap. Indeed, how did she find the sun and the moon in the first place, or reach the stars? Did God intervene or did some inner sense guide her? Did she benefit from providence, luck, ingenuity?
A quest had rules. For instance, we must take our own initiative, make our own effort. The girl had to carry her ring, her bread, her pitcher, and her chair by herself. No one could do that for her.
At the same time, we are not alone. Guides, like stars, appear before us. Helpers offer gifts, information, and encouragement. We cannot blossom into our true selves without a wise soul to point the way. So who pointed the way for the girl? Or are there some things we just know?
Fairy tales don’t attempt to answer such questions. All that matters in the story is that she got where she was going. Once there, she found a door locked tight, but when she went to take out the drumstick to use as a key, it was not there. She had lost it.
Had she affronted the stars by not thanking them, and this was their revenge? Does this highlight our carelessness, the way we take things for granted? Or was the bone meant to disappear, one more obstacle in life’s journey?
The reason didn’t matter. She had to figure out a solution. She had to open the door. So what did she do? “The good sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, put it in the door, and succeeded in opening it.” Then she walked through the doorway and was met by a dwarf.
Making Our Own Sacrifices
If we’re looking for a logical storyline with normal human responses, we shouldn’t read a fairy tale. After all, we know stars can’t talk and the moon is not unkind. It’s not even sentient. But consider.
First, the girl never brought a knife with her. Should we assume she carried one so she could cut her bread? Surely not. It’s easy enough to tear off a hunk from a loaf and eat it from one’s hand.
The omission of the knife could have been an oversight, but it could also be part of the logic of fairy tales. When you have a need, and you are good and valiant, what you need will appear. It’s like magic or like God answering our prayers. When the girl needed a knife, she had one.
Still, if she had not been ready to make such a sacrifice, she could have prayed all day and no knife would have appeared. That’s how stories work. If in the past, she was thoughtless, such as when she accepted the star’s gift without offering gratitude, or if she had been careless–for how else does one lose a vital gift–she was not like that anymore. She had learned something about who she was. She had grown up.
Which may be why she had to lose the drumstick in the first place. To live into our future, to become who we are meant to be, we must let go of the past. Some things do not belong to us, not even gifts. Just as we must travel our own road, carrying our own supplies, we must also make our own sacrifices.
Props on the Journey
Yet, the way the authors describe it, the loss of her finger doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. The girl doesn’t scream or double over in pain. There’s not even any blood. She might have sheared off a lock of hair for all the difference it made to her. Does that mean the gesture was meaningless?
I suspect it means the sacrifice was not physical. On our life journey, we must give up old parts of ourselves that no longer serve, jettison bits that aren’t true to our nature. What we thought was essential, like our wealth, we discover is not. A particular job or career or even a baby daughter are only props. Not that we should throw away our children, but it is interesting that what the girl thinks she will need, she never uses. We never see her eat or sit on her chair. Yet what she does need, she cannot bring. She has to trust that when the time is right, it will appear.
So what do we need to give up? Our pride, confidence, arrogance, success? Riches and security? If we let go of those things, will chaos or will wisdom await us? Can we always tell the difference? Finally, can we move forward with nothing, trusting that what we need will come to us when we are ready?
If so, then perhaps we, too, will be able to slice off our little finger without a qualm.
Finding the Brothers
Once inside the mountain, the girl learned that her brothers did indeed live there. The “lord ravens,” as the dwarf called them, were not at home. So she waited, and she watched the dwarf set out seven plates with food and seven glasses with drink.
When the dwarf left, she took a bite from each plate and a sip from each glass. In the last one, she dropped her parents’ ring. Obviously, she had thought this through. She figured out how to be noticed and recognized for who, and what, she was.
Just as she finished, she heard a whirring sound and turned to see seven ravens winging home. Hurriedly, she hid behind the door and watched as her brothers came back for dinner. They sat in their seats and sniffed at their food, and they could tell someone had eaten from their plates. Who would dare?
Then the last raven discovered the ring. They all remembered it as the one their father wore.
The raven holding the ring made a small prayer that his sister really be there, for if she were, they would be set free. When the sister heard her brother’s wish, she stepped out from behind the door, and all the ravens became human once more. With great joy, they embraced and kissed, and together they went home again. 
And all was right with the world.
But all is not right with the world. Not today, and not during the time of the Grimms. So what is the point? Why bother to tell fairy tales? Soldiers are dying in Ukraine, women in Iran are being killed, and the floods and fires of global warming are getting worse, and that’s a fraction of the misery and threat that exists today. Does a story like “The Seven Ravens” matter in the face of true hell?
Stories have always mattered. Many of the people who listened to this story, or read it in a book, felt desperate, afraid, uncertain. Some were starving. Others had means, but had lost their heart along the way. Despair is rampant in our world.
Yet when we have nothing left, we still have stories. Not only do stories bring us comfort, but they also give us power. They unite us, reminding us of our common humanity. They keep us going and make us bold. Folk tales guide us back to our true selves, the part of us that connects with the holy, that understands the beauty and passion and emptiness of the world, yet continues on the journey, regardless. For better or for worse, we fight for our homeland. We clean up the messes made by storms we cannot control. At some point, when things get bad enough, we stand up against tyranny. We find our brothers, and we make whatever sacrifice we must to bring them home.
Tales like this do not claim we are perfect. Storytellers know that war turns us into beasts, that when we feel threatened, we can lash out with an entitled rage. Like the father, we may wish we could take back what we have wrought. That almost never works.
First, We Must Be Broken
We do what we must to survive. Are we so different from the frightened boys who dared not return to the house to admit their failure, even though their act endangered their sister? Perhaps we are like the father who immediately thought the worst of his sons rather than going outside to discover for himself.
In our fear and frustration, we create problems for ourselves, but problems are not always disasters. Sometimes we need a little challenge, maybe even some suffering. Stories like this are about what we must do to become whole. To find wholeness, we must first experience brokenness.
Thus the brothers had to be banished and forced to live inside a mountain. They felt like they were in prison, but a servant cared for their needs, and they could come and go through the window as they chose. Their life could have been far worse. Yet their quarters were sterile, cold, even harsh, and they could not go home. They could not reflect their full selves.
You could say they were trapped in the classic masculine stereotype, all head and no heart. Of course, they had hearts. They cared about their baby sister and wanted to do what was right, but they didn’t know how to show their affection. Their sister, the feminine one, the intuitive who could make her way to their prison without instructions, had to show them how.
Yet even she could not break her brothers out of prison and remain whole. The price of admission is sacrifice. There are no shortcuts. Picking the lock was impossible. Only the ravens could fly in and out the window. For the sister to enter, she had to offer part of herself. To reunite her family, she had to be willing to break.
Passing on the Torch
It would have been nice, perhaps, if the girl’s parents had found the boys themselves and brought them home. After all, it was more their responsibility than hers.
But neither fairy tales nor life work that way. Children suffer because of their parents’ choices. Future generations clean up their ancestors’ mess. Not all societies or cultures have contributed equally to climate change, for instance. This is true because some societies aren’t wealthy enough to pollute that much, but also because some cultures understand better how to live in right-relationship with our planet than we Westerners do. Some cultures consider future generations when they make decisions.
The problems our world is facing now have been many years in the making. Though some of us tried to turn the destructive tide, we failed. The world is as it is. We curse our sons, and they turn into ravens, and the only one who thinks to bring them home is our daughter. The next generation is left holding the torch.
It will always be thus because there will always be problems that cannot be solved by one person or one generation. Also, we resist change. Until things become bad enough, we won’t give up the lifestyle we have chosen, especially since some of us don’t feel the brunt of the consequences, even if we contributed to them. The father in the story surely missed his sons, but they were imprisoned, not he.
Yet even when we decide to make a change, our solutions can cause more problems than they solve. We jump from one unhealthy relationship to another because we don’t want to make the effort to heal our inner child, and we become a “dry drunk” because we think the issue is alcohol when actually it’s our attitude toward life. Discomfort and pain scare us, so we shrink from the structural and internal work true change requires.
Granted, it’s not easy to dig deep, to feel our sorrow, to learn to love ourselves, or to love others, as the case may be. Healing our inner being, like fixing our agricultural, political, economic, or cultural systems, is complicated. Not only must we figure out a plan, but real results take time to show themselves, and we are so impatient. Besides, true healing can initially make us feel worse. Therapy is like that, as are detox, some cancer treatments and life-saving operations, and many economic solutions.
So, instead of repairing what we have destroyed, we try one quick fix after another, and, though we might feel better for a day or two, in the long run, the damage gets worse. Then the older generations die out, and the younger ones are left with yet another mess. The sister does what she must, setting off to save the soul of her brothers, but when does it end? Or does it ever end?
I wish I had more faith that the younger generations would do better than we have done. They are wonderful and brilliant and enthusiastic, and they are justifiably angry and scared, and they will do their best. But everything we do has unintended consequences, and things may get better for a while, and some people will feel better, and others will feel disenfranchised, and people will make wise choices and foolish ones, and the world will go round, and things will fall apart and get better and fall apart again, because wholeness seems to require brokenness to be truly whole. This is true of individuals and of cultures. We rebuild only to dismantle, and we do it over and over again.
How many times have I heard from people, “But I already worked on that issue”? How many times have I said it myself? The answer is, a lot.
We are never done. Repeatedly, life cracks us open so we might become something greater. It’s the hero’s quest, and it sucks.
This is not an excuse for doing nothing, nor for leaving the world in such a state. We can seek to solve the underlying problems, and we should. Solutions exist that could heal society’s heart rather than put a bandage on it, though I doubt the world would accept them.
Saving What We Can
In the meantime, young people rush on. They stop not. They fight wars, they learn to hate, and they raise their fists in protest, but they also succeed in bringing their brothers home where their elders might not.
Perhaps the older generation can be like the stars, offering the bone, drawing the map. The suffering I see in young people today is heartbreaking. It is not fair that anyone should have to live through the cycle of destruction that seems to always be a part of becoming whole again.
Folk tales teach us that our lives are a quest. We’re to find our real family, our place in the order of things, our true essence. On the way, we must sacrifice a piece of who we are, cut off our finger, for instance. We must live as one broken. Otherwise, we will never be reunited, not with our loved ones, nor with ourselves.
Our task is not so much to save the world, though that would be nice. Eden is appealing, in its way. Instead, our task is to save what we can, like the seven ravens or our own heart or one starving child or one plot of ground. Whenever we create rather than destroy, we stave off entropy. Though we cannot do everything, we can do something. And what we do, matters.
In faith and fondness,
- Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Household Tales, trans. Margaret Hunt, London: George Bell, 1884, https://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Brothers_Grimm/Margaret_Hunt/The_Seven_Ravens.html#gsc.tab=0, accessed October 8, 2022.]
Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.