The Allure and Peril of the Big Bad Forest
“The forest provides them with all they will need, if they know how to interpret the signs.” (Zipes 89)
Poetic justice is a powerful tool. Our desire to see the wicked punished and the good rewarded is invariably satisfied by most fairy tales, especially those collected and edited by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early nineteenth century. In part because audiences typically assume that fairy tales are “just” for children, we rarely stop to ponder how the writer, adapter, or teller of these stories necessarily shapes the moral landscape of them. For scholars of fairy tale literature, however, the interpretive possibilities of this genre are vast, ranging from psychological (with an emphasis on Freudian and Jungian theories) to Marxist to feminist and even eco-critical. Within this impressive scope, the sustained relevancy of the fairy tale genre continues to build upon the scaffolding of poetic justice: namely, how the author and/or teller defines good and bad behavior.
In the case of the Brothers Grimm, who are commonly acknowledged “as pioneers in the field of folklore research,” most of the tales attributed to them were shared by learned female peers who visited the Grimms’ home to perform the stories for them (O’Neill 107). While these privileged women might be understood as the Grimms’ research assistants, it was generally the peasant classes who “were predominately attracted to the tale and became its prime carriers.” Thus, it is not surprising that “power and oppression [are] the key concerns of the folktales” within the oral tradition (Zipes, Fairy 7). As the brothers edited the anthology that would become their famous repository of this research (Children’s and Household Tales, first published in 1812), they altered the rewards and punishments of poetic justice to favor the civilizing force of the patriarchal bourgeois class. To say so is not to “distort the basic facts,” as Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz claims “many current sociological and feminist theories” do, but rather to analyze the values that may have led to the changes Wilhelm made in the forty-five year period during which their anthology underwent seven editions (20). From her thorough analysis of transgression in the Grimms’ tales, literary critic Ruth Bottigheimer isolates a pervasive “witch-burning notion of eradicating (general female) evil [that] coexists within an indulgent tolerance of (generally male) malefaction” (94). Connecting this value system biblically to Eve’s original sin, Bottigheimer convincingly argues that the poetic justice meted out in Grimms’ world punishes girls while forgiving boys, an observation all the more compelling with the recognition that in Germany the only book that surpasses the popularity of Children’s and Household Tales is the Bible.
And yet, to suggest only worldly/material relevance would be to miss the forest for the trees—literally. As the title of this production indicates, adaptor John Gentile selected and arranged these tales and poems for their relevance to the “energy, magic, mystery, beauty, and danger” that the forest symbolizes (Gentile). For the Grimms, the forests evoked (however paradoxically) both nostalgia and terror: a yearning for the unspoiled lush woodlands of Germany’s heritage, along with the fear of getting lost or attacked within them. As eco-critic Nicole Thesz demonstrates, “the woods of nineteenth-century tales contain supernatural powers that reflect the unnamable dangers of a precarious life” (109). Carl Jung considered the forest representative of the unconscious itself. “The forest, dark and impenetrable to the eye, like deep water and the sea, is the container of the unknown and the mysterious” (194). Gentile’s addition of the Green Man, a pre-Christian god of vegetation and plant life, highlights the numinous potential of the Grimms’ forest and helps unify the “multiplicity of voices” in his unique script. As he shared in an interview for the production’s dramaturgical website, “Dark Forest does not follow the typical dramatic structure of a play. Its structure is more like a musical composition with its use of counterpoint; the different stories create the script’s forward movement and its emotional rhythm” (Gentile). As a kind of master of ceremonies, the Green Man (played by TPS alumnus and guest artist Andrew Crigler) welcomes us into the liminal arena of the forest—a place that “allows for enchantment and disenchantment, for it is the place where society’s conventions no longer hold true” (Zipes Brothers 67). Therein, we might decide that we prefer civilization to the sort of poetic justice that abounds in Grimms’ world. But for many of us, the terrifying freedom of the dark forest might be where we’d prefer to live, happily ever after.
--Jane Barnette, Resident Dramaturg
Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales. New
Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Print.
Franz, Marie-Louise von. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.
Gentile, John. “Entering the Dark Forest: On Adapting and Staging Tales and Poemsfrom the Brothers
Grimm.” Interview by Jane Barnette. Dark Forest Companion Website. College of the Arts, Kennesaw
State University. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.
Jung, C.G. Alchemical Studies. Trans. R.F. C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Eds. Read, Fordham,
Adler, et al. Vol. 13 Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. Print.
O’Neill, Thomas. “Guardians of the Fairy Tale: The Brothers Grimm.” National Geographic (Dec. 1999):
Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987. Print.
Thesz, Nicole. “Nature Romanticism and the Grimms’ Tales: An Ecocritical Approach to Gunter Grass’s The
Flounder and The Rat.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. 25.1 (2011): 96-116. Project
MUSE. Web. 26 Sept. 2011.
Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. 2nd ed. New York:
Palgrave, 2002. Print.
---. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
1. The author wishes to thank adaptor and co-director John Gentile for his guidance on early drafts of this essay, as well as his suggestions for further research.
2. After the initial publication of Children’s and Household Tales, Jacob pursued other interests, while Wilhelm became the primary steward of the anthology; thus, most editorial decisions can be safely attributed to his hand alone. For more on this account, see Siegfried Neumann, “The Brothers Grimm as Collectors and Editors of German Folktales,” in The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, edited by Donald Haase (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1993): 24-40.
“Isolation in the Grimms’ tales, like silence, has a female face, and it is most frequently seen in the forest.”
- Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys (111).