Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast
Birds can represent the fluttering, darting thoughts of intuition. This is why little birds helped Cinderella help herself.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cinderella #3 Ash Maiden. Germany 1812, catalogued by The Brothers Grimm

Zenaida macroura 
Bombycilla cedrorum
☛Note: Contains violence. Once upon a time in Germany there lived a rich man whose wife fell sick. Just before she died she called their little daughter to  her and told her to "always be good and pious and then the dear God will always protect you and I will look down on you. " Then she closed her eyes and died. The girl did as her mother asked and a year passed. Her father took a new wife with two daughters who were "fair of face but vile of heart". The immediately put the little daughter to work with the hardest, dirtiest tasks. Smudged as she was, they called her Ash Maiden.  The child did all they asked. One day, her father announced that he was going to the

fair, and offered to bring trinkets back for all
three girls. The stepsisters, greedy as they were, asked for pearls and jewels. Ash Maiden requested "the first branch which knocks against your hat on the way home." This he did, and when he presented the hazel twig to his child she planted it in the garden. Thoughts of her mother filled her mind and tears flowed from her eyes, down her cheeks and sprinkled onto the hazel. This took root and began to grow, as she and her sisters grew to young womanhood. A little white bird roosted in the tree and now, when Ash Maiden came to pray, that which she wished for was thrown down to her. One day the king announced that he would give a feast which was to last 3 days. The fair but vile stepsisters worked little Ash Maiden to the bone with their demands that she dress their hair, stitch their clothes and clean their shoes. When she asked if she might be allowed to go as well, the sisters and their horrid mother mocked her, making rude faces and holding their noses as though she stank. Yet she continued to implore, and so the mother, in cruel disrespect, tossed a bowl of tiny dried lentils into the fireplace ashes. "If you can pick them out in two hours, you shall go with us." she said. So Ash Maiden went through the back door and called, " Tame pigeons, turtledoves and all you birds beneath the sky, come and help me to pick  THE GOOD INTO THE POT, THE BAD INTO THE CROP! And birds began to gather, first by ones and then by dozens until hundreds swirled and picked and the job was done. But the stepmother, like many cruel people, was dishonest and failed to keep her promise. Instead, she threw two bowls of lentils into the ashes and ordered Ash Maiden to piek them out out in 1 hour if she wished to go to the feast. And the girl repeated her bird calling and they helped once again, and the task was done. And again the step mother betrays the girl. Snickering and sneering, the step mother and her daughters make fun of the notion of the smudgy girl at a feast. They leave her sobbing and alone. Now Ash Maiden goes to the little tree and cries, then calls, "Shiver and quiver Little Tree, silver and gold throw over me!" So the bird throws down a gold and silver dress and " slippers embroidered with silk and silver."  So she puts them on and runs to the feast. Once there, no one recognizes her. They think she is a foreign princess! The king's son has eyes for no one else. Alas, when he insists on escorting her home she runs away, hiding in the pigeon house until he is gone. But he has gone to get the man of the house, and when he returns, she hears her father outside with an ax. As he chops the pigeon house down she scuttles out the back and runs away. The teasing stepsisters keep her working the next day, Ash Maiden gets a new outfit from the little white bird, and the second night of the feast is much like the first, except that this time she hides in a pear tree, "clambering up it like a squirrel."  On the third day, the family continues the feast day pattern of bickering and picking on Ash Maiden, and this time the dress given by the bird is ABFAB! And she finally gets the golden slippers! The feasting and dancing are better than ever, and Ash Maiden, with two nights practice, escapes nimbly once again. But: the king's son has wised up and made a sticky-trap to catch the girl. He does not catch her because she is clever enough to step out of the shoe! But now she limps home with one barefoot. Of course the prince is bereft, and declares that he will have the shoe tried on the feet of every maiden in the land. The trials begin and, when the golden slipper reaches our unhappy little home, the step mother pushes her girls to try it on. But oh my! The first sister's big toe will not fit! So the mother brings a knife and says, " Cut the toe off! When you are queen, you will have no more need to go on foot." So the daughter does, and so well does she hide her pain that the prince is fooled! He boosts her onto his horse and they are off to get married. And wouldn't you know? As they pass the grave of Ash Maiden's mom, 2 pigeons sing out "Turn and peep! Turn and peep! There's blood within the shoe. The shoe it is too small for her, the true bride waits for you." Seeing the blood streaming from his false brides foot, he takes her home and makes the other sister try on the bloody shoe,though her mother draws her into the kitchen to do it. This girl's heel is too long. Fortunately, there is a knife handy so the mother advises her to "Cut a bit off. " Who needs heels when you are princess? The heel is sliced, the foot is squeezed into the shoe and once again the prince is fooled. But wouldn't you know? The pigeons chant the little rhyme again, same one about peeping at the blood filling the shoe. So the prince takes this sister home too and demands to see the "stunted little kitchen girl" he had observed earlier. Despite the protests of her family Ash Maiden " drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe and put it into the slipper, which fitted like a glove. So off goes the prince and the kitchen girl, leaving the other ladies to stew in their own juices. They are, however, invited to the wedding. Alas, an accident befalls them on the way there. Two little white pigeons swoop down from the sky and peck out one eye from each sister. Dabbing their sockets, they witness the ceremony and try to return home. Unfortunately, the pigeons are lying in wait. Working in tandem, they each pick out the other eye of the cruel sisters , and "thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived. "
(Grimm's Fairy Tales, ed. Frances Clarke Sayers, 1967. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company. Library of Congress Catalog # 68-10477.The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)

This is the German version of Cinderella, which Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm grew up hearing from their nannies and cooks in the big  Amsthaus in Steinau, Germany where they grew up. Theirs seems to have been a glorious childhood filled with roamings in the nearby forests and endless games and delightful lessons from their father and tutors. Sadly, their father died when they were 10 and 11 years old. Soon the boys were sent away to school. Lonely and far from home they kept one another company and told the stories they remembered. As they grew older and separated for study and work they continued to write letters, exchanging stories all the while. As college students they fell in with professors whose love for literature whetted their desire to record the stories they had heard all their lives. More about these two men and their devoted brotherly love for one another can be read in The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy.( Hettinga, D. 2001. New York: Clarion Books)

The helper animal in this version of the story are birds, specifically pigeons and turtledoves Pigeons are in the order Columbiformes in which there are more than 300 species. They are among the most common birds in urban environments, making them an excellent choice to include on a list of birds to spot for beginners, especially elementary school children. Pigeons and doves have deep symbolic significance.

A beautiful and historic book to link with this story would be one recommended by Dr. Ginger K. McKenzie of Xavier University, Ohio. That is The Creation, a poem picture book written in 1919 by the African American Columbia University graduate James Weldon Johnson.
The Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson (Modern Library Classics)  A heartfelt telling of the seven days of creation, the book instills a deep respect for nature through the illustrations. Birds are metaphors for emotion, as in The Bluebird of Happiness. They also have an historically violent role in many ancient children's rhymes, such as this Mother Goose rhyme:  Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, 4 and 20 blackbirds were baked in a pie, when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king? Tthe king was in his counting house, counting out his money, the queen was in the garden, eating bread and honey. The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes-  when down came a blackbird and snapped off her nose!"Mother Goose: A Collection of Classic Nursery Rhymes

This is jarring violence for a children's rhyme, but then history is full of violence, against children in many cases. The ugly bloodletting between the step mother and daughters is shocking, and while most children would of course agree that the stepmother in Cinderella stories is "supposed" to be bad, this one is really beyond the pale! It is not a version I would share with children under the age of 12 for this reason. The ending of this story, in which the vile hearted sisters are punished with the pain of having their eyes pecked out and suffering blindness, is graphic and satisfying. We know that hitting back is wrong, and that two wrongs don't make a right. But it sure can feel right. If you want to see vengeance, watch Hailee Steinfeld play 14 year old Mattie Ross as she tracks, then kills, the man who shot her pa in True Grit.

Final thoughts on fairy tale birds: It is noteworthy that the bird from the Song of Sixpence who pecks the maid's  nose off, and thus is surely a "bad bird", is black. It is also worth noting that the birds who peck out the eyes of the stepsisters are described as "little white birds" or turtle doves, also white birds. So there can be violence perpetrated by white birds as well...but it is indisputable that there are too many instances of the color black = bad in certain genres of literature. This is harmful for young children to hear, in the same way that children's literature which portrays women in only traditional occupations is harmful. If little girls don't see pictures of women doing all kinds of work, how can they imagine themselves in different roles? And if children see that the one who matches their color seems to always be the bad guy...well, that's not a good feeling. Another pick by Dr. Ginger McKenzie can couneract this and is appropriate for  elementary and preschool children of all ages and colors. See  Holman, S.L. Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?(1999)