The Contrasting Forms of Curiosity in The Grimm’s Fairy Tales
One major theme prevalent in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales is that of curiosity. It plays a very significant role in determining where the story will go. There are namely two different outcomes that can result from an act of curiosity. The first is that of good fortune. This could be a marriage, a rich reward, or some other form of success. The other result is that of punishment. This could be getting a limb chopped off, being banished from one’s home, or death. The evaluation of curiosity and how it is rewarded or punished is dependent on several variables, gender being the biggest one. Both ““The White Snake”” and The “Fitcher’s Bird” of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales exemplify the importance of curiosity as a theme in such tales.
““The White Snake”” details a wise king who eats a covered dish alone every night. A servant boy becomes curious and after retrieving the dish one evening, uncovers it to discover a white snake. The servant boy takes a bite then discovers the ability to talk with animals. Shortly after this, the servant is accused of stealing the Queens ring and is given one day to prove his innocence. After accepting his defeat, the servant boy overhears a goose complaining about a ring stuck in its throat. He has the chef cut the goose open and finds the missing ring. The King apologizes and offers the boy riches and land. However, the boy just takes a horse and a little gold to go and journey through the countryside (WS 98-99).
““The White Snake”” represents a fairy tale in which curiosity is rewarded. After eating the Kings dish, the boy inherits extraordinary powers that lead him to wealth, good fortune, and eventually the marriage to a princess (WS 101). Eating the King’s food in any other context would be considered a treasonous act, punishable by death. However, this is not the case in The Grimm’s Fairytale. After proving his innocence of stealing the ring, the King even apologized to the servant boy, then “allowed him to ask a favor, and promised him the best place in the court that he could wish for” (WS 99). He suffered no consequences. Instead, he was benefited immensely by his new gift.
“Fitcher’s Bird” offers a different perspective on the role of curiosity. This tale begins with a wizard who would dress up as a beggar to kidnap women to be his brides. He does this to the eldest of three sisters, takes her back to his home and assures her that she would be happy with him. Eventually, the wizard has to leave and entrusts the girl with the keys to all of the rooms in the house and an egg that she was to look after at all times. He forbids her from going into one room only, under the penalty of death. All is well until the girl’s curiosity drives her to look into the forbidden room. Here, she discovers a basin full of blood and dismembered body parts. Mortified, she drops the egg and stains it with blood. When the wizard returns home, he immediately notices the bloodied egg. As promised, he chops her up and adds her to the basin in the center of the room. This is repeated with the second sister of that family, who also disobeys and consequently has her body chopped up and added to the basin (FB 216-217).
“Fitcher’s Bird” provides an instance where curiosity is punished. These tales portray the idea that curiosity is evil, and must be punished. In the case of “Fitcher’s Bird,” curiosity is carried out by the sisters who can’t help but go into the forbidden room. The Brothers depict curiosity as an unseen force, saying how “she came to the forbidden door; she wished to pass it by, but curiosity let her have no rest” (FB 217). They are then punished in the most disturbing way: murdered, their bodies dismembered then thrown into a bloody basin with all of the other girls who failed to obey the wizard. Disturbing for a child’s tale, stories like these are meant to scare the audience into obedience.
In both of these tales, curiosity is a tool used to push the story along. When a character comes across something they do not know, curiosity drives their actions towards figuring out what that “something” may be. It drives the servant boy in “The White Snake” to eat the Kings dish, and it leads the sisters in “Fitcher’s Bird” to explore the forbidden room. This thirst or desire for knowledge is a powerful motivational force that pushes characters to make a decision. In both of these fairy tales, the action carried out due to the character’s curiosity moves the story onward. In “Fitcher’s Bird,” it is an event that then leads to the central conflict: the wizard murdering his brides for entering the forbidden room. In “The White Snake,” it is an event that spurs a resolution and a new tale: after finding the Queens missing ring, the servant journeys to a new city is faced with three trials to complete for the princess’s hand.
Of course, a common pattern seen throughout fairy tales, especially those of the Grimm’s Brothers, is that more times than not, boys are rewarded for their curiosity while girls are punished. The latter is due to how women were perceived during this period. The bourgeois people were still influenced by Christian ethics, and through these all women were defined by Eve. Therefore, it was asserted that the female race inherently embodied her sins. It can be argued that the Grimm’s did internalize these Christian teachings, as they were conditioned to do so, by growing up in this era of belief. This then led to them presenting curiosity exclusively as a female sin in their tales, much like other authors who lived during that time. In “Fitcher’s Bird,” the sisters who are caught in their curiosity are murdered brutally. This is aiming to teach a lesson to the females of that time: disobedience will not be tolerated. In contrast to this, male curiosity is often encouraged in the tales. It translates to courage or determination, good traits in that time. Boys were taught to be bold and inquisitive because this then leads to rewards such as wealth or a promoted social status. For example, in “The White Snake,” the servant boy inherits a wondrous power to speak to animals after eating the King’s dish, which then allows him to climb the social ladder and marry a princess; this gives him both class and wealth.
Ultimately, curiosity is an active mechanism in many fairy tales and is especially prevalent in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It serves a significant purpose of motivating the characters towards some action in quest of the unknown; therefore, moving the story along. The act of curiosity is either rewarded or punished, and this is typically associated with the sex of the curious perpetrator. In “The White Snake” and “Fitcher’s Bird,” two tales where curiosity is paramount to the story, one can see exactly how the characters are tempted by their curiosity and the outcomes of their indulgence.