The forgotten Brothers Grimm fairytale about Our Lady

The Virgin in Prayer, by Sassoferrato (The National Gallery, London/Wikimedia)

I blogged recently about the Russian writer, Vasily Grossman’s sight of Raphael’s painting of The Sistine Madonna for the first time at an exhibition in Moscow in 1955, and how deeply this timeless depiction of maternal tenderness affected him; indeed, he linked it to all the suffering and wretchedness he had witnessed as a war correspondent, as he struggled to make sense of human misery from an artistic but non-religious perspective.

Our Lady has just made an entrance again into what I am reading. It so happened that, idling away an hour in a charity shop I discovered the complete illustrated Fairy Tales of The Brothers Grimm (Wordsworth editions) at a ridiculously low price. I bought it partly out of nostalgia for childhood reading and partly because the illustrations were by Arthur Rackham. To my surprise, I discovered among the 200 tales, including well-known stories such as Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, one that I never recall reading before: Our Lady’s Child.

Clearly Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm had tapped into an ancient Catholic feature of German folklore as they went about collecting their fairy tales. The story, only four pages, combines all the usual characteristics of the tales, such as a forest, a woodcutter, a beautiful girl, a test, a temptation, banishment and a king who comes to the rescue, along with particularly Catholic themes: a vision of the Virgin Mary, a fall from grace, the pain of exile, followed by repentance and reparation. Our Lady’s role is vital in this micro-drama of salvation; at the end she says, “He who repents his sin and acknowledges it, is forgiven.” As you can guess, everyone lived happily ever after.

That is what happens in fairy tales and it is quite enough for children to absorb. There is time enough to grow up, to experience more, and more serious, falls from grace and to understand a little of what Vasily Grossman meditated on as he gazed at The Sistine Madonna.

At the back of this fat volume there is a short section called “The Children’s Legends”; they include “St Joseph in the Forest”, “The Twelve Apostles” and “Poverty and Humility lead to Heaven” among the ten legends listed. I wonder what it was like when literature such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with their deep roots in the Judaeo-Christian civilisation, held sway over children’s imaginations – a time before Walt Disney decided to modernise and update them.