I have recently been employed to create a new series of workshops around literature. Normally I work in history but this has been a welcome change and has drawn upon other skill sets as well as engaging other well practiced competencies, such as quickly mastering a sphere of knowledge and then working out how to present it in an interesting and exciting way. One day I was learning about Hansel and Gretal, the next I was doing Anansi and telling my wife the stories that made me chuckle so much I spilled my Earl Gray!
As I engaged with these stories I began to see links with other stories that I had been enchanted by as a child. I remembered Brer Rabbit escaping from Brer Fox in the Uncle Remus stories getting the Fox to throw him into the brambles where he can escape, tricking the fox into thinking its the worst thing possible.
“Oh no please do anything to me but don’t throw me into the brambles, anything but that..”
Uncle Remus and Anansi are linked because they both emerge from the slaves held in America and the Indies. They come from people living in a society of power and cruelty who are disempowered. Another slave who used his intelligence and wit to make his life bearable was the Greek Asop who was kept by his master to amuse his friends at dinner parties with his tales. Asops fables deal with power, cunning and observations of the real world. If the horse lets the man harness and ride him so that the horse might be victorious against the ox then the horse will be domesticated are used forever by the man, if the fox helps the lion hunt they will bring down prey but “you might share in the labours of the mighty but not in the spoils.” Asop, Uncle Remus and Anansi use their wits to survive in the world with no pretence that it is anything other than what it is, very dangerous, hostile and unfair.
A dangerous, hostile and unfair world equally describes the Middle Ages especially where the King was failing in his duty. Reynard the Fox is a perfect example of the stories that mirror Uncle Remus and Anansi. Reynard lives in the Kingdom of Beasts which is ruled by a stupid Lion who is led into evil by councillors. Reynard survives not by force but by his wits, his enemies stupidity and their vices. Where Brer Fox captures Brer Rabbit with the tar baby and Brer Rabbits demand to be respected, Raynard tricks the greedy bear, Bruin, with honey and the cat, Tybert (used in Shakesperes Romeo and Juliet) with the promise of a cart load of mice in a priests house. Tybert does not get the mice but springs a trap set by the Priest for Reynard himself. Reynard watches with glee as the cat escapes the trap and runs up the priests cassock to escape the priests wife who is trying to broom him. The son tells his mum to broom the cat, the cat makes it clear that if he gets broomed he will bite the Priests testicle off, the Priest makes it clear that his wife shouldn’t broom the cat but in the chaos… the cat gets broomed. As the Priest sinks to the floor in a world of pain the cat escapes and the wife laments potential the loss of saucy thrills. Raynard then delivers the best line in literature.
“… worry not Dame, for there are many churches where only half the bells are rung…”
Raynard escapes by being one step ahead of his enemies and so does the trickster spider Anansi. When wolf is stuck in a pit he encourages the wolf to escape and when he has climbed half way up the pit he tells the wolf to put his hands together to pray.
These are stories where might isn’t right and the victory does not go to the strongest. They remind me of Loki stories where the god escapes from dwarves by tricky legal definitions or Jesus’ story about the servant who knows he is going to be dismissed by his employer so lets his employers debtors off so that when he is dismissed he will have friends who will employ him. The same kind of world that produced Brer Rabbit and Reynard the Fox produced clever Vikings who could think and talk their way out of trouble with superior enemies and fight their way into trouble with weaker foes.
Grimms fairy stories follow the same pattern. Its the clever and the intelligent who prosper, the stupid and ignorant are punished often by their own vices. But why is this important? It is important because this is our inheritance. Some of Grimms stories have their roots in the Bronze Age, if not earlier, and so have passed the test of time. Power and the struggle between group is fundamental to the human condition and endemic. These stories show themes that have been passed on and have emerged across ages and civilisations. The key lesson I take from this is that even if you are without power, you are not disarmed and you still have your wits.