(Illustration by Kay Nielsen from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925; from here.)
Like ‘The Pack of No-good, Low-life Ruffians’, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ opens by plunging immediately into a conversation:
Little Brother took his Little Sister by the hand and said: ‘Ever since our mother died, we have not had one good hour; our stepmother beats us every day, and when we go to her she kicks us away. The hard leftover crusts of bread are our food, and the little dog under the table is better off than we are: at least she sometimes throws him a tasty bit to eat. God have mercy, if only our mother knew! Come, let us go out into the wide world together.’
No messing about: off they go. It rains, they are sad, they enter a forest and sleep there. But their wicked stepmother follows them and enchants all the streams in the forest. Next morning they are thirsty and search for a brook; when they find one, Little Sister hears it murmuring, ‘Whoever drinks from me will turn into a tiger’ and warns her brother to restrain himself. This happens three times; the third time Little Brother disregards his sister and drinks. He is instantly transformed into a (talking) fawn. (This is lucky for Little Sister: roe deer, unlike tigers and wolves, don’t tend to gobble up little girls for breakfast.) Little Sister weeps, but then she makes him a collar from her golden garter and plaits a rope of rushes with which she leads him further into the forest. They find an abandoned house and begin a rustic existence sustained by nuts, berries, roots etc.
Back at their old home, the wicked stepmother is incandescent at their good fortune. She still wants to harm the siblings, and her own daughter, who is ‘as ugly as night and ha[s] only one eye’, nags away at her and complains that she should have been queen. So the stepmother comes up with a plan. When the new queen has just given birth to a baby boy, the stepmother assumes the form of her waiting-woman, draws a bath for the queen and helps her to the bathroom – then she and the ugly stepdaughter slam and lock the door. ‘[I]n the bath-room they had built such a hellfire that the lovely young queen was soon bound to suffocate.’ Then the stepmother magics her daughter into the form of the queen and shoves her into the bed. But. The stepmother cannot do anything about her daughter’s missing eye. When the king pops in for a visit, the false bride lies on her side while her mother squawks at him to keep the curtains drawn because the queen is still too fragile to look at the light.
That night a nurse is sitting awake by the baby’s cradle. In comes the real queen. She lifts the baby from the cradle and nurses him and cuddles him, strokes the fawn who shares his room and leaves. The nurse is too frightened to tell anyone. For many nights the visits continue, until the queen speaks:
How fares my child? How fares my roe?
I’ll come but twice, and then no more.
Although the nurse doesn’t reply, she does go the next morning and tell the king, who keeps watch with her the next night but is also afraid to reply to the ghostly queen. On the third night and her last visit he finally cries, ‘You cannot be anyone but my dear wife’. ‘And at that moment, by God’s grace, she received her life again; she was rosy, fresh, and well.’ The stepdaughter is taken to the forest where she is torn to pieces by wild animals and the stepmother is burnt. (These are both fates that the stepmother had envisaged for Little Sister.) With her death, Little Brother is released from the spell and becomes human again.
There are several tropes in this story which recur in fairy tales. The ‘false bride’ is, Joyce Crick writes, also a feature of ‘Three Little Men in the Forest’; the wicked mother-in-law who claims the new bride is a witch and demands her burning (‘The Twelve Brothers’, ‘The Six Swans’) is surely related. So are the wicked stepmother and horrible stepsister from ‘Mother Holle’. Important events – the encounters with streams, the hunts, the visits of the ghostly queen – come in threes – three sets of threes, in fact. The cottage in the forest is a benign version of the gingerbread house, offering protection instead of danger.
Many, many fairy tales concern themselves with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers; as Marina Warner notes, in From the Beast to the Blonde, ‘bad’ motherhood is often split off from the real mother into the character of the stepmother, because the cruelty of a birth mother is so very shocking and ‘unnatural’ to us, even now. This splitting is sometimes very deliberate: Wilhelm Grimm altered ‘Snow White’ to turn the jealous mother into a stepmother. In ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’, Joyce Crick sees the maternal splitting as being between not the ‘good’ dead mother and the ‘bad’ stepmother, but between the nurturing sister, who cares for the fawn and returns from the dead to nurse her baby, and the malignant stepmother. But this is a tale open to many readings: Ellen Steiber interprets it as concerned with the survival of childhood abuse, and for her the splitting is of the girl figure into the half-blind imposter bride, who has ‘shut down’, and the ‘real’, suppressed, ghost. (You can read her essay in the Journal of Mythic Arts, spring 2007.)
(Illustration by Arthur Rackham from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales By the Brothers Grimm; London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1917; from here.)
The story certainly does seem interested in identity. Little Brother loses his to the witchy stepmother and it is only restored when she is removed. The king knows Little Sister as the woman he wants to marry as soon as he claps eyes on her, yet after the birth of their son is unable to see that she’s been replaced by a monster/is alienated from herself. (Postnatal depression?) When at last he recognises her true self, she returns to life.
Next time (I won’t say next week because ! But you never know): Rapunzel.
(Uncredited illustrations: colour illustration by Paul Meyerheim from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 1889; from here. Black-and-white illustration by Walter Crane from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane. London: Macmillan & Co., 1882; from here.)