The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Fairy Tales
by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.
Oxford University Press, 2000
189 pages
ISBN 0-19-513607-1 (hardcover)
0-19-5151690 (paperback)


So why does Wilhelm Grimm end Cinderella by having two doves peck out the eyes of the wicked stepsisters? After all, in his earlier version of the same story, the prince rode off with the bride to the approving chant of doves, amen. And Perrault, from whom the story had originally come, saw Cinderella forgive the sisters and everyone lived happily ever after.

G. Ronald Murphy's The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: the Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales was inspired by a Bruno Bettelheim statement in The Uses of Enchantment, the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Murphy reports that Bettelheim "repeatedly makes reference to his feeling that the tales have unexplored religious significance." This inspiration also came as a challenge, since Murphy sensed that "Bettelheim got carried away" in consistently maintaining "a Freudian-Oedipal approach throughout the book and forcefully [defending] the therapeutic usefulness of the stories in raising children" (p. 17). Bettelheim complained, for example, about the Grimms' version of Sleeping Beauty, because the malevolent fairy was not punished, which Murphy attributes to the natural consequence of Bettelheim's less-than-satisfactory interpretation of that particular tale (p. 134).

The richness of The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove is the fruit of Murphy's research into the lives and work of the Grimm Brothers, especially Wilhelm, in book's the quite convincing chapter three, "The Spirituality of Wilhelm Grimm." The librarian in the Humbolt University Library in Berlin had brought him a cart load of books from the Grimms' private library, one volume of which was Wilhelm's own copy of the Greek New Testament. The book had 71 passages from the text underlined by Wilhelm's quill. As Murphy affirmed, "[t]he importance of the discovery of these passages for an insight into the Christian spirituality of the poet of the final version of the Grimms' fairy tales is simply unparalleled" (p. 38).

Murphy points out that "[p]assages connected with the holy spirit are the ones most frequently underlined by Wilhelm" (p. 39). The intervention of the dove at a variety of points in Cinderella, besides bringing justice to the wicked stepsisters, is thus easily explained, especially when no previous version of this tale involved the bird. (There had been two ravens on Woden's shoulders in another story from Germanic mythology.)

Murphy proceeds to an examination and discussion of five of the best known tales (Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty), with his interpretations of the religious significance of a variety of details in each. In almost all cases, his assertions and suppositions are cogent. I was less than convinced at the suggestion that the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood was killed (his belly filled with stones) by "the weight of the material world which he makes his prey," or by the assertion that Little Red and Grandma were "resurrected... from the death that comes through succumbing to temptation, sin" (p. 82). After all, grandma's only error seemed to be one of excessive innocence, not locking her door. And Red's dawdling to look at the beauty of the forest was not the reason for her ultimately being swallowed. She was going to get eaten regardless. It is thus innocence and unwariness that allows the evil of the world to swallow the two women up, thus setting the stage for their later deliverance by the Christ figure woodsman.

The points on which I was less than convinced, however, are few and far between in this enlightening, compelling text. The substitution of Perrault's bread and butter as a gift for the grandmother by the Grimms' gift of "bread and wine which can revive the sick" (p. 76), for example, and numerous other observations of the sort, make Murphy's work a thought-provoking study and valuable asset to the study of religion is literature. Some students resent teachers who "always read something into" the text at hand. What is nice about the Brothers Grimm is that we have precursors to their tales, and in many cases they alter a story from one of their versions to the next. The addition to Hansel and Gretel, between the 1810 and the 1857 versions, of a white dove guiding the children is but one example of such developments. This addition, inserted by a Christian story teller who underlined passages about the Holy Spirit in his New Testament, is seemingly incontrovertible evidence that something, indeed, can and should be read into it.

Also noteworthy in Murphy's book is an appendix that is almost beside the point but is a fascinating study both as a companion piece and in its own right: Appendix C, "Yggdrasil, the Cross, and the Christmas Tree," which deals with issues of Christmas customs, church architecture, and burial practices.

Murphy's work is a treasure-trove of examples for a unit on the role of religion in folk literature.

reviw ©2000 by David Streight and RSiSS

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