Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Mother Holle | Summary

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Summary

A widow has an ugly, lazy daughter and a beautiful, hardworking stepdaughter. The widow loves her own daughter but treats her stepdaughter cruelly.

The beautiful girl must daily sit by a well near the road and spin until her fingers start to bleed. One day her spindle becomes so blood-drenched that she tries to rinse it off in the well. The bloody spindle falls into the water and sinks to the bottom of the well. When the widow hears about this, she orders the beautiful stepdaughter to retrieve the spindle.

There's no way the girl can reach the spindle without jumping into the well, so at last that's what she does. When she reaches the bottom, she passes out—and when she wakes from her faint, she's lying in a lovely meadow.

In the middle of the meadow, the girl finds an oven full of bread. The bread calls, "Take me out, otherwise I'll burn." The girl obliges. Next, she finds an apple tree covered with apples. The tree also speaks to her. "Shake me, shake me, all of my apples are ripe and ready." Again the girl obliges.

The girl finally arrives at a little house. An old woman with terrifyingly big teeth is sitting at the window. The woman tells the girl not to be afraid. "Stay with me," she says, "and if you're good about doing the household chores, you won't be sorry." She adds that the girl must be extra-careful about shaking her feather mattress. "Shake the eiderdown until the feathers start to fly. That's how you get snow on earth."

The old woman is named Mother Holle. She's a kind and gentle mistress, and the beautiful girl works hard to please her. After a while, though, the girl becomes inexplicably homesick. She tells Mother Holle, "I know that I'm better off here than back there, but I just can't stay any longer."

Mother Holle receives this news in good humor and offers to take the girl back herself. Taking the girl's hand, she leads her to a gate. When Mother Holle opens the gate, gold rains down on the girl until she's completely covered. "That's your reward for working so well," says Mother Holle, and returns the girl's spindle.

The gate closes, and suddenly the girl is back home. Since she's covered with gold, her stepmother and stepsister receive her kindly. When she describes her adventures, the widow resolves that her own daughter should be just as lucky. She orders the ugly daughter to sit and spin by the well. Next she should prick her finger and paint the spindle with her blood. Finally, she should throw the spindle into the well and jump down after it.

Like her stepsister, the ugly girl wanders the meadow until she sees the bread-filled oven. But when the bread speaks to her, the girl snaps, "Do you really think I want to get all dirty doing that?" She continues on her way until she reaches the apple tree, which begs, "Shake me, shake me!" The girl asks, "Why would I want to get hit on the head?" and walks away.

At length the ugly girl arrives at Mother Holle's house, where he old woman makes the same offer as before. For the first day, the ugly girl works hard. After all, there's gold at the end of the adventure! But on subsequent days, she becomes lazier and lazier and even forgets to shake the eiderdown mattress.

Mother Holle is not pleased. She fires the ugly girl, who's glad to leave. Mother Holle brings her through the big gate—but this time, instead of being showered with gold, the girl is covered with tar. "That's your reward for your service," says Mother Holle.

The tar never washes off.

Analysis

"Mother Holle" uses some familiar Grimm plotlines. There's the evil stepmother; the good, beautiful daughter and the bad, ugly one; the fairy godmother; and the endless spinning. Obedience is rewarded, disobedience punished—all fairly run of the mill.

But why is there is there so much spinning in the Grimm oeuvre? "Briar Rose" and "Rumpelstiltskin" are famous, but other Grimm tales are called "The Tale About the Nasty Spinning of Wax," "The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle," "The Lazy Spinner," and "The Three Spinners."

It's not known when "Mother Holle" was first told, but we do know that spinning was an important undertaking in the Middle Ages. It took a daunting amount of time to spin flax or wool into yarn. Modern textile scholars estimate that it took three kilometers of yarn to produce one meter of fabric. A woman's dress typically required 3 to 5 meters of fabric, meaning that 5 meters of fabric might require 15 kilometers of yarn. A skilled spinner might manage to produce 100 meters of yarn an hour, so it would take her 90 hours to produce enough yarn for three meters of fabric.

Spinning could be done anywhere, which was why the good sister was outside by the well. Spinning wheels weren't introduced into Europe until the High Middle Ages, beginning around the 11th century; before that, the only tools available were the distaff and spindle. Holding the distaff under one arm, the spinner wound fiber around it, then used the fingers of her other hand to pull out a small amount of fiber and twist it into yarn or thread. The thread was tied to a spool called the spindle, which spun like a top and pulled more fibers through the woman's fingers. It's no wonder the fingers of the good girl in this story bleed, nor that people didn't get new clothes very often.

Because women and their daughters did most of the spinning in a household, the word "distaff" gradually came to mean "woman's work" or simply "woman." There's a Biblical proverb that begins "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies ... In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers." It was not only wives who spun. In fact, so much spinning was done by unmarried girls and women that the word "spinster" came into being.

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