I’ve started a course on Coursera on Science Fiction. Each week we are to read a book, then write a short essay (270-320 words) on what we read. I’ve decided to include my essays as posts here. The first week we read Grimm’s fairy tales. My essay:
Grimms’ tales show the importance of animals to the society at the time by casting animals in key roles. Often the fate of a protagonist is directly linked to his treatment or consideration of animals, where positive treatment results in great gifts being bestowed, and poor treatment resulting in defeat.
Many stories show characters benefitting from their positive treatment of animals. In The Goose Girl, The Raven, The White Snake, and The Golden Bird, the main characters are all rewarded for their kind treatment of animals, usually resulting in riches and marriage into royalty. The Vagabonds, Mr. Korbes, Dog and Sparrow, and the Death of Hen all show characters punished by mistreating animals, often to the point of death. The Fisherman and His Wife takes both approaches, initially rewarding the fisherman’s help, then ultimately punishing the wife’s overreaching greed.
Some stories reverse or otherwise contradict the overall pattern. In The Table, The Ass, and The Stick, the pattern is reversed in that the animal (a goat) is punished by other animals (a wolf, bear, and bee) because the goat did not properly give credit for the treatment it received by three brothers – claiming to be ill-fed when in fact fed well. The Frog Prince is also unusual since the main character consistently mistreats the frog (contrary to the King’s instructions), yet still is rewarded when the frog turns into a prince and marries her. The Wonderful Musician initially follows the overall pattern, as the animals conspire to punish the musician who mistreated him. However the musician escapes punishment by befriending a woodcutter who protects him.
Collectively these stories reinforce the necessity of living well with animals at the time, when wild animals more common and dangerous, and with more people directly interacting with animals than people do today since life in agriculture was the norm.