The Wedding of Mrs. Fox — that didn’t Actually Happen

Mr. Fox lived with his wife in the old city. He insisted Mrs. Fox do all that was required of a good wife, but he was a lousy husband. He spent his time drinking, gambling, and trolling the streets of the city with his friend Mr. Wolf. The two thought of one another as friends, but they generally didn’t trust one another for a second.
One day, Mr. Fox decided to play a trick on his wife. He suspected her of cheating, and he was determined to catch her in the act. Coming home from a night of carousing with Mr. Wolf, Mr. Fox lay as though dead on the couch in the front room. And he waited.
Mrs. Fox came down at her usual time to make the coffee and set the bread to rise for the second time. She spotted her husband lying as though dead on the couch—tongue lulling and eyes half closed. What is he up to, she thought.
She stepped up to the couch and looked down. “Oh mercy,” she cried. “My poor husband is dead! What will become of me?”
She cried and wailed and wailed and cried until the ruckus brought Mrs. Mole scurrying from next door. “What is it, Mrs. Fox,” asked the alarmed neighbour.
“Oh mercy,” cried Mrs. Fox. “My husband is dead! And he has left me without a penny in the world. I suppose now all I can do is throw myself on the mercy of Mr. Toad.”
Ha! thought Mr. Fox to himself. She is seeing that villainous old Mr. Toad, it seems. Mr. Fox occasionally worked for Mr. Toad, one of the crime bosses in the old city. He didn’t have the backbone to take revenge upon Mr. Toad, but he could certainly teach his wife a lesson.
“All we can do is get the body ready for burial,” said Mrs. Fox. “You can help me, Mrs. Mole.” And she fetched a sheet with which to cover the supine Mr. Fox.
Burial, thought Mr. Fox. We’ll see about that.
Word spread quickly in the old city, and soon a line was forming outside Mrs. Fox’s front door. They weren’t creditors—those would come later. They were suitors. A number of seedy characters knew that Mr. Fox had a tidy bit hidden away, and they thought if they could marry his widow, they might get their hands on his gold.
“Someone here to see you Mrs. Fox,” called Mrs. Mole up the stairs.
“Invite them into the kitchen,” called back Mrs. Fox. “I’ll be down directly.”
Soon the kitchen was full of suitors, and Mrs. Mole poured out coffee and handed round fresh biscuits. One by one, the suitors crept into the living room to have a peak at the deceased Mr. Fox. He looked very dead. But the crafty fox wasn’t dead, of course; he was just asleep. His night of carousing had left him more tired than he thought.
Mrs. Mole went up the stairs to check on her friend, and she found the clever Mrs. Fox packed and ready to leave. Tucked into her purse and about her person was Mr. Fox’s gold, which he thought he had kept well hidden.
“I’m off to a new life in the new city,” Mrs. Fox said to her friend and neighbour. “Take this gold piece and buy yourself and your children something nice.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Fox. And bless you.” Then Mrs. Mole hurried out of the front door, telling the impatient suitors to wait just another five minutes for Mrs. Fox.
They waited, and they waited. But Mrs. Fox was long gone. She was in a cab on her way to a new life in the new city.
When Mr. Fox suddenly gave a grunting snore, the suitors came piling into the living room and tore away the sheet.
“Why the scoundrel is alive!” they cried. And they gave Mr. Fox the beating of his life—mostly out of disappointment. It was many days before Mr. Fox was able to be up and about. He had lost his wife, his gold, and whatever pride he had left, and he spent his days and nights complaining about his misfortunes to anyone who would listen. Most didn’t.
As for Mrs. Fox, she had enough to set herself up in the new city. Eventually, she opened an orphanage that made its mission the rescue of parentless children from the old city. Mrs. Fox taught her children how to read and write and how to behave, and she sent them out into the wide world to do some good. “For the world,” she was often heard to say, “doesn’t need any more like my old reprobate of a husband.”

The Elves, or What to do when You Get an Invitation from the Fairies

Once upon a time in the old city lived a young girl, who was serving maid to a family. The family wasn’t exactly poor, but the serving maid had nothing. Her name was Elsa, and she slept in a little garret room at the top of the house. The family was miserly and secretive, and they didn’t like Elsa much, but they kept her anyway. Even in the old city, having a servant girl was a sign of wealth.
One day, Elsa was sweeping the floor, and she spied a letter sitting in the hearth. Elsa couldn’t read, so she took the letter to her mistress, who received it rather suspiciously.
“Why,” said her mistress, sweetly, “it’s an invitation to attend the Queen of the Fairies on the christening of her child.”
Elsa’s mistress was no fool, and she watched Elsa expectantly. It was a fine thing to have a serving maid, but Elsa insisted on being fed—and so often. This was her chance to get rid of the girl.
But Elsa was no fool either—even if she couldn’t read. She knew the fairies were trouble. They lived in the suburbs of the old city, and they were constantly stealing children or trying to lure people into their mounds.
“But anything is better than this drudgery,” thought Elsa to herself. And she got her heavy coat, and she left the house in search of the mound of the Fairy Queen.
It wasn’t long before Elsa was met by three fairies, all dressed in jeans and black leather jackets. One had spiked blue hair, the second had a pink Mohawk, and the third was a skinhead. Tough looking characters.
They led Elsa to the suburbs of the old city, where the roads were split and crumbling, and the houses were falling apart or entirely collapsed. They brought Elsa to what seemed the most ruinous of all the houses, but inside, weirdly enough, was a wide hall, hung with tapestries of gold, and at the far end the Fairy Queen herself, a beautiful lady, wearing rich robes of silver and green, and holding in her arms a fairy baby.
“Welcome, Elsa,” said the Fairy Queen, with a dazzling smile. “Let the ceremony begin.”
Things got under way, while Elsa held the baby. The fairies didn’t look so scary in their own hall, and after the christening, Elsa laughed and danced and ate to her heart’s content. The fairies certainly knew how to have fun.
After what she thought was three days, Elsa told the fairies: “It’s time for me to go—back to my life in the old city.”
The Queen filled Elsa’s pockets with gold, and sent her on her way. The same three fairies guided Elsa back to the old city, but Elsa had a bad feeling. She didn’t like the way the one with the pink Mohawk was smirking at her.
She got back to her own mistress’s front door, but when she turned to thank the fairies, they were gone. Sighing a little, Elsa went into the house. She caught up the broom and began to sweep.
“Where did that chair come from?” she said to herself, as she swept. “And I certainly don’t remember that at all,” she said, looking at a dark-wood bureau, stacked with elegant china dishes and plates.
“What are you doing in my house?” cried a voice behind her.
Elsa whirled to see a woman standing in the kitchen door. She was definitely not Elsa’s mistress.
And then she knew. She hadn’t been three days with the fairies; it could have been years. “What’s the date?” asked Elsa.
The woman was so taken aback by the question, she answered at once.
“Oh dear,” said Elsa. “Seven years, for sure.”
Elsa explained to the woman what had happened—how she had gone to visit the fairies on account of the letter. It turned out Elsa’s old master and mistress had died in the meantime, which Elsa found she couldn’t be too sad about.
“But you can come and work for me,” said the woman, looking Elsa up and down.
But Elsa remembered the days of drudgery, and she thought of the gold in her pocket that the fairies had given her. “You know,” said Elsa. “I think I’m good.”
Elsa left the house, and she set up on her own, not in the old city, but in the new town. She bought a condo overlooking the river, and she went to school. “Reading and writing could come in handy,” she said to herself. She didn’t stop there. She went on to university and got a degree. Then she set up her own consulting business, and she specialized in advising people who received letters from the fairies. She lived very happily, but Elsa could never bring herself to hire a maid.

Mr. Fox and the Geese

Mr. Fox liked to walk along the edge of the old city. One spring evening, he was strolling along, and he happened upon a marshy place where a flock of geese were gathered, splashing and gabbling in the swampy water.
“What do we have here?” he said, eyeing the fat geese, as he leaned on his walking cane. “Looks like dinner.”
The geese were terrified, and they honked and cried for mercy.
“Mercy,” laughed Mr. Fox. “You will find no mercy here. I’m interested in some dinner. Now you just line yourselves up in a row, and I will wring your pretty necks one by one, and then take your carcases back to my house in the city.”
But there was one old goose who was at least as cunning as Mr. Fox. She was a grand dam of the flock, and she peered up at Mr. Fox.
“Mr. Fox,” she said, bobbing her head, “since you are going to eat us anyway, I don’t suppose you would mind if I told my children and grandchildren one more story?”
Now, if Mr. Fox had a weakness, besides a greedy desire for fresh goose, it was for a good story. “Oh, very well,” he said, petulantly. “Tell your story. But when you are done, I expect you to lineup like good little geese so I can pick out the fattest for my table.”
The old goose began her story. She gabbled and honked, telling of faraway places, of all the things she had seen on her travels, of the lives of people and animals, of strange and secret things only seen by moonlight and starlight. And before she was finished, she was joined by one of her children, and together, they gabbled and grumbled and honked of the places they had seen together. They were join by the others, one by one, until soon the whole flock was gabbling the story of their travels, from the hot countries of the South to the wide spaces of the North.
The sun slowly set, and Mr. Fox listened, forgetting about everything else as he was swept away to places he had never known.
Did Mr. Fox ever get his dinner? Who can say, for the geese are still telling their story to this day. And if you stop to listen, in the spring and the fall, you can hear it too—the gabbling of traveler’s tales upon the air.

Snow Wite and Who? How Not to Read a Folktale

This term, I’m teaching a course in the folktale. We’re looking at stories by Grimm, as well as young adult novels that make use of folktales in interesting ways. Michael Buckley’s The Sister’s Grimm, Thomas Wharton’s The Shadow of Malabran, and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart are three of the novels we’re looking at later in the term.
Talking about folktales can be tricky—even in the classroom—because people have such different ways of looking at these old stories. It’s been more than two hundred years since the first publication of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Children and Household Tales, but these stories continue to get told, retold, and reimagined in print and film. Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella, directed—no less—by Kenneth Branagh, is due for release in March of this year.
More and more often, clever commentators want to read these stories realistically—with  a touch of irony. The underlying joke seems to be that a postmodern culture is too smart to be suckered by stories about princes and princesses who get themselves into all sorts of trouble, and who invariably live happily ever after. The sophisticated reader is expected to get the joke. Who, after all, could be taken in by such ridiculous stories? Funnily enough, Disney has made billions from reimagining these stories on screen, and endless numbers of parents and children alike have given up their time and money to watch them again and again.
Reading folktales is challenging, and I sometimes fall into the trap of reading them realistically—against my better judgement. It’s always best to remind myself these are stories—stories to be told and heard, stories that speak to some fundamental human desires and anxieties, and, most of all, stories to be enjoyed. Here’s what happens if you try to read a folktale such as “Snow White” realistically.
Excerpt from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by the Brothers Grimm:
But Snow-White kept growing, and kept growing more beautiful, and when she was seven years old, she was as beautiful as the bright day, and more beautiful than the Queen herself. Once when she asked her mirror:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is fairest of us all?”
It answered:
 “Queen, thou art the fairest in this hall,
But Snow-White’s fairer than us all.”
Then the Queen was horrified, and grew yellow and green with envy. From that hour on, whenever she saw Snow-White the heart in her body would turn over, she hated the girl so. And envy and pride, like weeds, kept growing higher and higher in her heart, so that day and night she had no peace. Then she called a huntsman and said: “Take the child out into the forest. I don’t want to lay eyes on her again. You kill her, and bring me her lung and liver as a token.”
How not to read this folktale:
This is a story about a little girl, and it mostly seems to be about abuse. It clearly identifies Snow White as seven years-old. Is it her fault she’s beautiful? The queen is nothing short of psychotic for wanting to kill Snow White and then eat her liver and lungs. Being jealous of a child is weird enough, but this queen is clearly a narcissistic psychopath.
Snow White isn’t killed by the huntsman (as instructed by our psychotic queen), but she is abandoned in the forest, where she eventually finds seven strange little men living together in a little house. Not only do these little men not contact the authorities about this lost child, they agree to let her stay as long as she will work as their house slave, doing all the cooking and cleaning. This is like trading one form of abuse for another.
I’m also getting confused—is Snow White still seven years-old? She has to be. The story doesn’t say anything about years passing, or Snow White getting older
And then the crazy queen hunts Snow White down. This kid is either completely stupid, or she just doesn’t learn from people wanting to kill and enslave her. The queen arrives at the house of the little men. First, she convinces Snow White to try on some strangling lace, then to wear a poisoned comb, and finally to eat a poisoned apple. This kid does not get it.
Snow White apparently dies twice, but the little men revive her. The third time she’s really dead—or at least mostly dead. The little men set her up in a glass coffin, where she lies on a hillside for a long, long time. This is where things get really disturbing. Presumably Snow White doesn’t age, as she’s mostly dead. This prince fellow comes along and falls in love with her—with a mostly dead child in a glass coffin. This prince is more psychotic than the queen. That’s it—I’m not reading anymore.