In a 2009 production of Madama Butterfly by the Metropolitan Opera, the role of the child—the progeny of the American navy man Pinkerton and of his Japanese wife, Butterfly, whom Pinkerton has abandoned—was performed not by an actor, but by a puppet. A team of three puppeteers garbed in black and draped in veils operated the doll using handles on its head, hands, and feet.
With a blank expression on its face and visible hinges on its feet and hands, the doll does not resemble any specific child but, rather, stands in for any child. The doll’s movements—the winsome way it hurls its hands up to be carried, the trepidation it displays as it lays a hand on its mother’s shoulder as she cries—are emotionally gripping and, maybe more surprisingly, they are convincing. Powered by the wit and skill of a team of adult performers, the marionette achieves a sophistication that might have been impossible for a child actor.
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Fred Amrine articulates the paradox of the puppet’s performance, explaining that “no real child could have been so perfectly childlike as this puppet.” It is the puppet’s obvious falseness that allows it to communicate, Amrine says, an important kind of truth. It is the same with fairy tales, which Amrine developed a very popular course about.
“We start the class by talking about ‘Rumpenstunzchen,’” Amrine says, referring to a very early version of the tale “Rumplestiltskin.” “In the story, the woman is sad because she can only spin gold from straw. So, as a result of this situation, she goes and sits on the roof for three days. Then a man comes by and tells her, ‘Don’t worry! A handsome prince will come, and he’ll ask you to marry him, and you’ll say yes. All you have to do is give me your firstborn son.’ And the woman says yes to this!
“I break off the story here and don’t finish it,” Amrine says, “and instead I point out that actually no part of that story makes any sense whatsoever.
"Spinning straw into gold isn’t a problem, is it? And even if it were a problem, how would going up on the roof solve it? Then a lone man comes by who knows your future and tells you that you have to give him your firstborn son, and you say yes? How does any of that make any sense?”
Here, again, Amrine says, is the paradox. How can a story so baldly illogical survive centuries of retellings? How does a story so simple manage to successfully trigger our sympathies and fears? What is it about a cursed dwarf and spun gold that continues, 200 years later, to command our attention?
Glass Mountains and Golden Keys
Many volumes of European folk and fairy tales were published to great popularity during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose collected stories from the popular and oral storytelling traditions in France in the 1690s. In Denmark, the author Hans Christian Andersen added his own take on many long-surviving folk stories, such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Little Mermaid,” in his volume Fairy Tales (1835). And in Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm created one of the most popular books of fairy tales ever published in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (literally, Children’s and House Tales), which saw numerous volumes and editions throughout the early and mid-1800s. The rest is history.
The Brothers Grimm, as they are now known all over the world, collected stories from soldiers and peasants as well as from written sources, combining these into a project they hoped would record the stories for posterity and provide a cultural education for people of all ages. While the first edition included some stories with French or Italian origins, the last edition included only those stories that could be traced to regional German sources.
But while the stories were first copied down at a particular place and time, students in the German fairy tales class are able to move across a much larger canvas. They tease out the ancient origins of tales in Greek and Roman mythology and examine later critical and psychological interpretations of fairy tale plots and characters, using the tales as a way to make connections and track transformations in thought across time.
“We do a tremendous range of material,” Amrine says. “We do Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ingmar Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute and Goethe. The students study feminism and Marxism, and they do a tremendous amount with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, partly because Freud and Jung both wrote explicitly about fairy tales but also because fairy tales are so dreamlike.
“If you dig past the surface of these tales, you can even find remnants of very, very old material like shamanism and Buddhism,” Amrine says. “It's really quite extraordinary how much each contains.”
Walled Gardens and Talking Frogs
As a chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures from 1995 to 2004, Amrine oversaw a significant change in the department and in the field of German studies. The field had expanded beyond literary scholarship and language study to become highly interdisciplinary. A series of joint appointments between German and linguistics; German, film, and architecture; and German and sociology, among others, cemented LSA’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures as a leader in an academic model known as “radical interdisciplinarity” that examined topics in German studies from a multitude of perspectives and scholarly fields.
That same interdisciplinarity is on full display on Amrine’s syllabus for the German fairy tales class, where the “Epic of Gilgamesh” bumps up against Cinderella, and where Karl Marx shares class time with Little Red Cap. (We can only imagine Marx’s approval of the siblings Hansel and Gretel as they seized the means of production.)
Each fairy tale becomes a kind of archeological dig, Amrine says, in which each layer and connection across time and space are examined and reflected upon by students, such as the links between the French tale “Beauty and the Beast” and the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche.
The class’s popularity, Amrine says, is partly due to this interdisciplinary approach and partly due to the timeless quality of the fairy tales themselves. Like the doll child from Madama Butterfly, fairy tales enjoy a universal quality despite—and because of—the paradoxical appeal of stories that happily move back and forth between the miraculous, the brutal, and the mundane.
“These tales are true on an unconscious level, and they’re true on an archetypal level,” Amrine says. “But they aren’t true at the level of everyday occurrences. Art—real art—is like that. It often feels realer than real.”