Sunday, June 09, 2019

Grimm Fairy Tales: The Star Talers

"Illustration of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale 'The Star Money'" (1862)
by Ludwig Richter (1803-1884)
via Wikimedia Commons

GROWING UP amongst the dark firs and bristling blackberry bushes, fragrant lilacs and apple trees, and the distant rushing of the wind in the hill where my family lived in Canada, I became immersed in the world of Grimm fairy tales. I would sit in the attic, where my siblings and I slept like contented nestlings as the nightlight shone from underneath the window, and imagine a fairy tale in old Europe with the help of Ludwig Richter's illustrations (frogs, ancient leafy trees, wells and courts and birds whose species were unfamiliar beyond the Atlantic) from the early 1860s. We had an expurgated edition that did not have all of the tales and was in modern High German, no regional German dialects as far as I recall.

I read, for example, The Star Money, "Die Sterntaler." It is as brief and as simply-cut as its heroine's shirt, because the Grimm brother who wrote it down was sketching a mere memory of the tale's plot.

It presents a main character and nameless wayfarers: a parentless figure who wanders through the world, who sees the woes of fellow-travellers and has the means to 'fix' them — so she does.

Es war einmal ein armes, kleines Mädchen, dem war Vater und Mutter gestorben, es hatte kein Haus mehr in dem es wohnen, und kein Bett mehr, in dem es schlafen konnte, und nichts mehr auf der Welt, als die Kleider, die es auf dem Leib trug, und ein Stückchen Brod in der Hand, das ihm ein Mitleidiger geschenkt hatte; es war aber gar fromm und gut. Da ging es hinaus, und unterwegs begegnete ihm ein armer Mann, der bat es so sehr um etwas zu essen, da gab es ihm das Stück Brod; dann ging es weiter, da kam ein Kind, und sagte: „es friert mich so an meinem Kopf, schenk mir doch etwas, das ich darum binde,“ da thät es seine Mütze ab und gab sie dem Kind. Und als es noch ein bischen gegangen war, da kam wieder ein Kind, und hatte kein Leibchen an, da gab es ihm seins; und noch weiter, da bat eins um ein Röcklein, das gab es auch von sich hin, endlich kam es in Wald, und es war schon dunkel geworden, da kam noch eins und bat um ein Hemdlein, und das fromme Mädchen dachte: es ist dunkele Nacht, da kannst du wohl dein Hemd weggeben, und gab es hin. Da fielen auf einmal die Sterne vom Himmel und waren lauter harte, blanke Thaler, und ob es gleich sein Hemdlein weggegeben, hatte es doch eins an, aber vom allerfeinsten Linnen, da sammelte es sich die Thaler hinein und ward reich für sein Lebtag.
THE FAIRY TALE is read as an allegory about the Christian's notion of charitable deeds.*

* See "Allegorie" in the Wikipedia article here.

It is a tale that, to my leftist mind, epitomizes the absurdity of the world before modern social security, where a girl could be abandoned by society and yet be forced by her conscience to rectify the world's inequality out of her slender means.

To the proto-feminist part of my mind, it is impressive that the tale's reward for kindness is financial independence at nobody else's expense rather than, let's say, a husband.

But I have to add: from a non-cynical, religious standpoint, the insistence that a kind gesture to meet the needs of others is never in vain and never unappreciated by God is touching, although it is implausible and difficult to realize.


There was once a poor, little girl. Her father and mother had died, she had no house left to live in, no bed to sleep in, and nothing in the world other than the clothes she wore on her body and a piece of bread in her hand, which a pitying person had given her. But she was pious and good. She went away then, and along the way she met a poor man who begged so much for something to eat that she gave him the piece of bread. Then she went further, and a child came, and it said, "I am so cold where my head is, please give me something that I can bind around it." So she took off her cap and gave it to the child. And when she had gone a little further, a child came again and had no jacket, so she gave it hers; and still further, a child begged for a frock and she also gave it hers. Finally she reached a forest, and it had already become dark. Another child came and begged her for a shirt, and the pious girl thought: 'It is dark night, so you may as well give your shirt,' and so she gave it. All at once the stars fell from the sky and were many hard, shining coins. And although she had given away her shirt, she had one on after all but this time it was made of the finest linen. So she gathered all of her coins into it and was wealthy for the rest of her life.
(Free translation, based in part on Margaret Hunt's version.)

"Das arme Mädchen (1812)" [Wikisource - in German]
"Grimm's Household Tales, Volume 2/The Star Money" [Wikisource]
"Die Sterntaler" [Wikipedia - in German]
"Star Money" [Wikipedia]

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