Recently I started working on a poem that deals with the Grimm’s fairy tale, “Fitcher’s Bird,” which is one of my favorites. (If you are unfamiliar you should read it here.) “Fitcher’s Bird” is considered a variation on “The Bluebeard” tale, where a woman is told by the man of the house to not open a door. She invariably does, to discover the dead bodies of all the curious women who came before her.
However, “Fitcher’s Bird” is very different in some very important ways. Firstly, the wizard, the murderous Bluebeard type, disguises himself as beggar to kidnap women. This means that his victims are all charitable and were captured because they were willing to give bread to a beggar. Secondly, the story focuses on three sisters. The first sister is given an egg by the wizard to keep safe and with her at all times while he is away. Also, he forbids her to open that one door. If she succeeds, he will marry her. She—and presumably every women before her—opens the door discovering the remains of all of the wizard’s victims. In her terror, she drops the egg and can’t clean off the blood. The wizard punishes her with death. The same thing happens to the second sister. The third sister, as soon as the wizard leaves, disobeys and puts the eggs in a safe place while she explores. She finds the room, resurrects her sisters, has them hide in bags of gold, which she then has the wizard—who is delighted to see the clean egg—carry back to her home. Meanwhile she disguises herself as bird and escapes. (I’m leaving out a lot of wonderful details, if you haven’t read it yet).
What I like about the story is that it’s clear the victims are not deserving of the their fate. Also, the third sister uses her wits to survive—no waiting on brothers to rescue her. In fact, she rescues her two sister, which I always thought was wonderful. Here is story about women working together to overcome a violent threat.
A few years ago I had my students analyze fairy tales. I assigned them “The Brave Little Tailor,” “Vasilia The Priest’s Daughter,” and “Fitcher’s Bird.” However, “Fitcher’s Bird” confused some of them. They wondered why the third sister rescued her two sisters—those two were obviously bad since they opened the door. They also wondered why the third sister gave up the happy ending—marrying the wealthy wizard and living in a castle. I was shocked by this reading—how could they think the serial killing wizard was good and the two sisters were bad.
It seems that we often look for tropes rather than read deeply. My students had been raised on Disney cartoons and bad romantic comedies. In most fairy tales still told to children in the West, when there is more than one woman it often means that the women are enemies: Snow White and the Queen, Cinderella and her stepmother and step sisters, Sleeping Beauty and the evil fairy. We still see this dichotomy in lesser known fairy tales such as “Maid Maleen” or “Diamonds and Toads.” True there is the occasional fairy godmother, but otherwise women are usually enemies. My students recognized the trope that the youngest child in fairy tales is usually the hero and assumed that because the two older siblings were women they must also be competition.
As much as it saddens me that many of my students jumped to the conclusion that the two older sisters were antagonist regardless of their action, it truly bothered me that they saw the wizard as the love interest. When the wizard disguises himself as beggar to trap women, I read it as being similar to the very violent scene in The Silence of the Lambs where the Buffalo Bill captures his latest victim by posing as man in an arm-cast trying to move furniture. However, I’m a horror fan, so I’m more familiar with the tropes of horror.
Many of my student, though, were steeped in the tradition of romance and the romantic comedy, and were more familiar with the abductions is love trope, where kidnapping can just be part of the rocky road to true love and happiness. After all, that is what happens in films such as Bandits or The Chase. Here is nice little list of films where kidnapping is simply the part of getting a girl to fall in love. When I first read it, I was a little bit ashamed to realize just how many of these films I liked.
Now admittedly, many people have noticed and discussed the abduction is love trope before (it seems that across the internet Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is known as Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical). However, when I read the papers of several students and discovered that they think the man who kidnaps and kills women is the romantic interest, I couldn’t help but worry a little. After all when they go out into the world and meet people, they will use the stories they’ve read and watched to help them decide how to behave. Who will they trust because they see that type of behavior as romantic? How will they react to a woman who isn’t what they consider well-behaved?
Maybe that is why I love “Fitcher’s Bird” so much. Unlike so many of the currently popular fairy tales, it tells girls that sometimes the best thing to do is disobey that disobedience can save lives. While I know there are other fairy tales that deal with clever rebellious characters, I don’t think they get told nearly often enough.