The deaths of Charles Dickens’s Little Nell and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Little Eva enabled us to binge on pity and purge our fears even as we revelled in our ability to empathize with victims small and meek. Suzanne Collins has complicated this tradition: Rue’s death, too, is a beautiful one, and the process of mourning her is staged, however briefly, with seductive aesthetic effects. But her murder is also a potent little Molotov cocktail, fuelling rebellion rather than funding redemption. It warns us against sentimentalizing the deaths of innocents while also reminding us of the catalytic power of empathy.
Here’s an excerpt from my New Yorker blog post on Erika Eichenseer’s archival find in Regensburg. I went to the stories as a skeptic and returned from them as a true believer:
The briskness of Schönwerth’s style is clear in a tale like “King Goldenhair.” The adventures of the fair-haired prince bring together bits and pieces from “The Frog King,” “Snow White,” and “The Water of Life” to create kaleidoscopic wonders. The tale reminds us of the wizardry of the words in fairy tales, their worlds of shimmering beauty and enchanting whimsy. Who can avoid feeling the shock effects of beauty when Prince Goldenhair enters “a magical garden awash in sunlight, full of flowers and branches with gold and silver leaves and fruits made of precious stones”? Or when a dung beetle turns into a prince after a girl spares his life and invites “creatures small and large, anything on legs” to dance and leap at the wedding. Equally charming is the story about Jodl, a boy who overcomes his revulsion to a female frog and, after bathing her, joins her under the covers. In the morning, he awakens to find himself in a sunlit castle with a wondrously beautiful princess. Here at last is a transformation that promises real change in our understanding of fairy-tale magic, for suddenly we discover that the divide between passive princesses and dragon-slaying heroes may be little more than a figment of the Grimm imagination.