Reading “Fitcher’s Bird”: Fairy Tales, The Witch Trials, and Carnival

Fitcher's Bird“Fitcher’s Bird” is my favorite fairy tale. It could be yours, too. If you wanted it.

I also like the “The Juniper Tree,” and my favorite part of that story has always been when the tree resurrects the cannibalized son as a bird. He is alive again, breathing and mobile and able to drop a millstone on his murderer. But “Fitcher’s Bird” is better. In “Fitcher’s Bird,” after a sorcerer murders her two sisters, the youngest sister pieces their bodies back together, limb by bloody limb, until they are alive again. She makes sure they get safely home. Then she disguises herself as a bird, heads home through the enchanted woods, and sends her henchmen to burn the evil sorcerer’s motherfucking house down. With him and all his friends inside, of course.

Marriage is avoided, hierarchy is subverted, and, in the end, the conniving woman wins.

“Fitcher’s Bird” is one of the fairy tales collected by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in 19th century Germany. It stands out among the stories in the Grimms’ oeuvre, in which Cinderella marries her prince, Snow White’s headstrong stepmother dances to death in iron shoes, and a princess-turned-goose-girl reclaims her throne from a lower-class usurper. “Fitcher’s Bird” takes the lessons of those tales and flips them inside out: in it, marriage is avoided, hierarchy is subverted, and, in the end, the conniving woman wins.

* * *

Here’s the story, in brief:

Fitz Fitcher, a sorcerer, kidnaps three sisters in turn. He brings each to his luxurious home in the forest, where he spoils them. In short order, he tells them that he is going away on a trip. He gives each an egg that they must carry with them everywhere and a key to a door they must not open, “on pain of death.” Sister #1 and Sister #2 carry the egg and open the door. Behind it, they find a bloody basin, a room strewn with corpses, an axe and a chopping block. Horrified, Sisters #1 and #2 drop their eggs, staining them with blood. The eggs serve as evidence of their transgressions, and Fitz Fitcher murders them.

Then he kidnaps the youngest sister, the “clever and crafty” one. She puts her egg on a shelf, for safekeeping, before opening the forbidden door. When she finds her sisters, she doesn’t startle, but gets to work gathering their limbs. Then she gets up to all the aforementioned resurrection and trickery. [1]

* * *

Germany executed about 26,000 people during the witch-hunts of early modern Europe; most of them were women [2] (although, I should note, the number of executions are hotly debated). Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, supposed “witches” were charged with infanticide, cannibalism, castration, and the destruction of cattle and crops. They were also accused of attending Sabbats, gatherings at which witches would share information, dance, copulate with the devil, and participate in orgies. In some European towns, the witch craze rose to such proportions that few women were left alive. [3]

University of Winnipeg professor Catherine Tosenberger offers a bit of lexical evidence that could link “Fitcher’s Bird” to the witch hunts. Although the German word the Grimms use for Fitcher — hexenmeister — usually means “wizard” or “sorcerer,” it can also refer to someone who “detects witches and turns them over for punishment.” If Fitcher is a witch-hunter and the youngest sister is a convicted witch, then the story shows a world flipped inside out, in which the witch escapes with her “sisters” (who are perhaps not biological kin, but other women also accused of witchcraft) and the witch-hunter is subject to death by burning. [4]

The Grimms’ project was in no way subversive, or even salt of the earth: they collected stories in an effort to create a unified national culture for Germany, and collected primarily from educated, literate sources. They re-wrote and edited stories liberally, to make them fit the social mores of the day.

In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s own notes, they relate “Fitcher’s Bird” to two stories told in the German region of Hesse, where witch trials took place. They also connect the youngest sister’s avian disguise (made by dipping herself in honey and rolling in mattress feathers) to two historical accounts of women being tarred and feathered as punishment for inappropriate behavior. [5] Tosenberger doesn’t think this connection makes much sense or, if it does make sense, that the youngest sister is complicating her gender performance and confusing Fitz Fitcher further. [6] But I think it might be pure symbolic inversion: the punished, wearing the garb of punishment, becomes the punisher. It adds, in some ways, to Tosenberger’s theory about the story and the witch trials.

If “Fitcher’s Bird” does reference the witch hunts, or any other instance when women used trickery and cunning to rise up against the patriarchy, what’s it doing in the collection? We might never know. The Grimms’ project was in no way subversive, or even salt of the earth: they collected stories in an effort to create a unified national culture for Germany, and collected primarily from educated, literate sources. They re-wrote and edited stories liberally, to make them fit the social mores of the day. [7] Tucked inside a volume that mostly upholds the order of the world, “Fitcher’s Bird” undoes that order. It’s a bit like the medieval European tradition of carnival where, for a few days or weeks, hierarchy dissolved and the uncanny laws of festival reigned. Regardless of how it slipped in to the Grimms’ collection, Fitcher Bird’s trappings and motifs — death, disguise, fire, and hierarchy turned on its head — feel downright carnivalesque.

* * *

Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin was interested in the practice of medieval carnival and its connections to literature. In Bakhtin’s approximation, during carnival life was lived inside out, according to its own set of rules. Carnival was not a performance, nor an exercise in contemplation, but a set of “concretely sensuous ritual-pageant ‘thoughts’ experienced and played out in the form of life itself.” [8] It was a way of giving the masses a reprieve from hierarchy to strengthen that hierarchy: quite literally, an act of bread and circuses. Reading “Fitcher’s Bird” through Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival and carnivalesque has given me a greater understanding of the story, as well as its potentials and limitations as a subversive piece of literature.

The mock crowning and de-crowning of the carnival king is the best known aspect of carnival and the one that, Bakhtin suggests, is most replicated in literature. During carnival, a common person was chosen to serve as king. Over the course of the festivities, this individual was stripped of his power. Fitz Fitcher is a sort of carnival king. While it’s unclear how he got his power in the first place, Fitcher is subject to a ritualistic and brutal de-crowning at the hands of the youngest sister. This process begins as soon as she puts her egg on the shelf and opens the forbidden door. This transgression allows the balance of power to tilt: while Fitcher once had the power of life and death over everything in his house, now the youngest sister has the ability to literally resurrect his murder victims. [9] (Tosenberger sees the protagonist’s re-animation of her sisters as a negation of Christianity [10]; Bakhtin might suggest that it represents the dualism between birth and death that was central to carnival. If the carnival king can take away life, then the one who is de-crowning him should, logically, be able to give it back.)

Upon his return, Fitz Fitcher finds the youngest sister’s egg unblemished. He declares that she should be his bride and that he “no longer [has] any power over her, and [is] forced to do whatsoever she desire[s].” [11] The youngest wields her newfound power and orders Fitcher to carry her sisters’ home in a sack that he thinks is filled only with gold. She tells him that she will be watching him from the window, and he must not stop and rest. Whenever he pauses, the older sisters’ speak up, pretending they are the youngest’s omnipresent voice. “’I am looking through my little window, and I see that thou art resting. Wilt thou go on at once?’” they say to him, and he hurries along. [12] With this, the two older sisters become part of the de-crowning. It moves from being an individual act to one carried out by a community of people, much like the public de-crownings of carnival.

While Fitcher’s gone, the youngest sister invites his friends to the wedding. She sets a skull in the window and dresses it in a veil and flowers, so that it looks like a bride. Then, she dips herself in honey and rolls herself in feathers “until she [looks] like a wondrous bird.” [13] She leaves the house and heads home through the forest in her disguise. Along the way, she runs into Fitcher and his friends, who fail to recognize her as the youngest sister. Talking animals are a convention of the fairy tale genre, so it’s no surprise that Fitcher and his friends take her appearance in stride. But there are other theories about why the youngest sister chooses this disguise, and why it works.

The youngest sister uses drag to safely enter public space as a woman, but instead of disguising herself as part of the patriarchy (i.e. a man), she chooses to take on an androgynous animal form.

Pauline Greenhill, another University of Winnipeg scholar with a keen interest in the story, reads the avian drag as a way of blurring traditionally male and female characteristics. In Greenhill’s theory, the youngest sister uses drag to safely enter public space as a woman, but instead of disguising herself as part of the patriarchy (i.e. a man), she chooses to take on an androgynous animal form. [14] This connects to the history of the witch-hunts: women tried as witches in early modern Europe were often convicted of shape-shifting into animals. [15] Perhaps, also, it is what the Grimm’s suggest, that she represents a tarred and feathered woman. In a topsy-turvy carnivalesque world, a tarred-and-feathered woman freely making her way through the woods might have all been part of the pageantry.

Medieval carnival took place in public squares because, according to Bakhtin, it “belong[ed] to the whole people, it [was] universal, everyone participate[d] in its familiar contact.” [16] If European fairy tales had a public square of their own, it would undoubtedly be the enchanted forest. The woods are a place where children hide from evil step-parents, animals talk, and beggars become kings. It is outside of the bounds of the imaginary kingdoms from which so many fairy tale characters have escaped. That Fitcher’s house is in the forest locates it in a symbolic, carnivalesque realm outside of law and society.

It was common for carnival to end, Bakhtin writes, by revelers setting a special structure on fire. This structure, often referred to as “Hell,” was burned to symbolize fire’s ability to “simultaneously [destroy] and [renew] the world.” [17] Fitcher’s house, located on the carnival grounds, is a nexus of carnival king-power strewn with the bodies of slaughtered women (sounds like “Hell” to me). And “Fitcher’s Bird”, like medieval carnival, ends with fire. The youngest sister’s kinsmen sneak up on Fitcher and his cronies, who have been lured in to the house by her false wedding invitations. The kinsmen “locked all the doors of the house, that no one might escape, [and] set fire to it.” [18] Fitcher and his crew are burned to ashes. When Fitcher and his friends are burned, death is conquered, and life is renewed. If we read the story as an inversion of the witch hunts, justice has finally been dealt to the men who killed thousands of women. In the world of the story, life can resume, free from the threat of an ever-expanding femicide.

* * *

“Fitcher’s Bird” transgresses against the canon of popular fairy tales, offering another kind of folkloric heroine.

Bakhtin contends that, traditionally, carnival was not intended to be subversive. [19] I don’t think “Fitcher’s Bird” is a materially subversive piece of literature, either — it is, after all, just a story. I can’t prove any of the links between the witch hunts and the story, and I can’t prove that it uses a coded language of resistance within its text. Still, I love Tosenberger’s interpretation of the story as an inversion of the power dynamics of the witch trials, and I love Bakhtin’s thoughts on medieval carnival. I love to imagine this story being slipped in to the canon by hunted women, who created a carnival of resistance to contrast their inescapable fates.

On a pragmatic level, this story is powerful because – much like medieval carnival — it offers an alternative vision of what the world could be. In the United States, at least, “fairy tale” usually means “Disney princess.” “Fitcher’s Bird” transgresses against the canon of popular fairy tales, offering another kind of folkloric heroine. By hinting at the European witch trials, it opens up an obsfucated history to those who might not know of it. It is a story that, in my mind, should be read, told and shared — maybe even animated, if there is someone out there bold and brave enough to do it.

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