Friday 30 March 2012

"Jorinda and Joringel" - a new Fairytale Reflection

I was reminded by Celia Rees’s post on Blodeuedd, the girl who was changed into an owl, of this haunting fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, which I first read many, many years ago. It’s stayed with me ever since. It isn’t well known – perhaps because although it’s strong on emotional intensity, it’s short on plot. But first, here’s the story.

It tells of a castle in the middle of a dark and thick forest, inhabited by a single old woman who turns herself into the shape of a cat or screech-owl by day, assuming her own form only at night. She lures wild birds and beast to her, and kills and eats them.

If anyone came within one hundred paces of the castle he was obliged to stand still and could not stir from the spot until she bade him be free. But whenever an innocent maiden came within this circle, she changed her into a bird and shut her up in a wickerwork cage, and carried the cage into a room in the castle. She had about seven thousand cages of rare birds in the castle.”

A young maiden called Jorinda is betrothed to a youth called Joringel, and in order to be alone together, the pair of them take a walk into the forest. Joringel warns Jorinda to take care: they must not stray too near the castle.

It was a beautiful evening. The sun shone brightly between the trunks of the trees into the dark green of the forest, and the turtledoves sang mournfully upon the beech trees,

but for some reason the young lovers – for whom everything should be wonderful - are sorrowful.

Jorinda wept now and then: she sat down in the sunshine and was sorrowful. Joringel was sorrowful too; they were as sad as though they were about to die. Then they looked around them, and were quite at a loss, for they did not know which way they should go home. The sun was still half above the mountain and half under.

Joringel looked through the bushes, and saw the old walls of the castle close at hand.
He was horror-stricken and full of deadly fear. Jorinda was singing:

“My little bird with the necklace red
Sings sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.
“He sings that the little dove must soon be dead.
Sings sorrow, sor- jug, jug, jug.”

For the sun has set, Jorinda has been changed into a nightingale, and “A screech owl with glowing eyes flew three times about her and three times cried ‘to-whoo, to-whoo, to-whoo!’”

Frozen to the spot and unable to speak or move, Joringel sees the owl fly into a thicket and immediately afterwards a crooked old woman ‘with large red eyes’ emerges, catches the nightingale and takes it away. She returns later and releases Joringel with the strange words, ‘If the moon shines on the cage, Zachiel, let him loose,’ but she refuses to release Jorinda, saying Joringel will never see her again.

Joringel does finally manage to release Jorinda with the aid of a magical blood-red flower containing a dew-drop as big as a pearl, with which he touches the doors of the castle and the cage itself and sets Jorinda and all the other maidens free; the sexual imagery is clear enough, and the happy ending is satisfactory if perfunctory; what is really memorable is the sorrowful beauty of the forest, the sadness of the lovers, the imagery of the birds, and the strange song Jorinda sings.

What’s it all about? Not always a useful question. A fairytale should be read like a poem, or attended to in the same kind of way as we attend to music, allowing it to work directly on the emotions. For me, this tale strikes strange chords from the heartstrings. I might hazard a guess that the lovers are sad because they know they’ll grow old and die, that evening is here and the day nearly over, because their young love may not last and the sun is already half beneath the mountain. Perhaps they’re afraid of mortality, the grave, symbolised by the grim stone walls of the castle whose shadow immobilises them, and the old owl-woman whose voice is a lament.

Years ago in my early twenties I was walking through London with a girl friend. We were laughing and chattering, and a middle-aged woman passing by – she may have been elderly, but I think she was only middle-aged – leaned over and said in a low voice but with extraordinary venom, “One day you’ll be like me.” As a memento mori, it was quite something, and my friend shuddered, but we agreed later that we never would be like her. We would never, ever be that bitter.

Nevertheless, everyone recognises the fear and dread associated with thoughts of old age and death, and the loss of youth and beauty; and happy are those of us who can throw it off with no more than a brief shiver. For me this fairytale takes those dark emotions and transmutes them into something beautiful.

Picture credit: Arthur Rackham, Jorinda and Joringel


  1. I'm not saying your interpretation is wrong, Kath - one of the wonders of these tales is that they're open to so many interpretations - but my impression is a little different.
    For one, the old woman is associated with the owl, which associates her with Athena. She's also a huntress, who seems to prize and cage (or guard) unmarried girls, which associates her with Artemis. Both these goddesses had their darker, Death sides.
    The youngsters are lost in a wood - wode within this wood. The forest has long been associated with the dangers and traps of life, some of them sexual - but mostly, I think, to do with 'losing one's way' or losing one's self. There's also a tradition of the girl about to be married mourning her single life her 'happy life at home with her parents'. She's about to launch onto adult life, with all its responsibility and cares.
    The owl-woman snatches her away from all this and fastens her securely in a cage - but doesn't otherwise mistreat her. The old woman also frees the young man without harming him and tells him that if he does the right thing, he can free the girl.
    I think the old woman is a kind of marriage counsellor!
    And I got really easy Blogger words today!

  2. Hi. I just wanted to pop in and tell you that I've just finished reading West of the Moon. It's no exaggeration to say that I adored it - the best YA fantasy I've read in a long time. I'm not great at reviews but what passes for one is up on my blog now. Thanks for writing such a brilliant book(s).

  3. That's a brilliant analysis, Sue! And as you say, it shows how differently these tales can strike different people. Your interpretation makes great sense, but the wonder of fairytales is like that of poems, that they can be emotional amplifiers. These stories are bit like looking into old, dimly silvered mirrors and we see ourselves oddly changed in them. Perhaps one can interpret fairytales but not ultimately explain them?

    Cath, thankyou so much - what a lovely compliment! I'm heading for your blog now! :)

  4. Thinking further about your comment, Sue - (though darn it, I ought to go away and write!) - I do agree with what you wrote about the likely meanings behind the motifs in the story, YET the sort of intellectual satisfaction that explanation delivers - as if solving the puzzle of what the story's about - isn't enough for me. This tale packs a huge emotional punch, which parallels with Athena, or traditional customs of young brides 'mourning' their approaching change of status, just don't account for. The story's alive and it does something - and I'm fascinated by what!

  5. I loved this tale when I was a child, but for years I haven't been able to remember their names only the haunting empty landscape, the twilit wood, the sorrow of the birds in the cages and of Joringel's bereftment - the ominous underlying sense of threat.
    So thankyou for filling in the missing pieces! I was only thinking of it the other day in fact - how strange, but as soon as I began to read your post I could see again vividly the illustrations that I loved in the Grimms fairy tales book I had then. Wish I still had that book - I'm remembering some of the other tales in it now with all their illustrations...
    Also I love that Arthur Rackham illustration of the owl!
    Carrie... :)

  6. I hadn't read this story before. It has a stark, bitter-sweet beauty that speaks to something in me in just the way some poetry does.

    You're absolutely right that one can enjoy these tales in the same way as one enjoys poetry - it connects with something deep and not always explicable within us. It is amazing how differently people can interpret these stories - as with poems. I think that's a huge part of their charm and importance - they shape-shift to suit the reader/listener.

    I'm dying to look it up - I must have it in a collection somewhere. Thanks for the introduction!

    Love the illustration you've paired with it.

  7. Lovely, thought-provoking piece, as ever, Katherine. What a strong image of the woman in the street too, sends a shiver. So often, though, older people (and especially women) are portrayed as bad/wicked in some of these stories and this can throw out negative ripples across the generations? Some years ago when working with reminiscence groups I wanted to find stories to tell that reflected a more positive view. The great Ben Haggarty related one called The Seventh Father of the House, which, since I was working with a group of women at the time, I adapted to The Seventh Mother. (Ben said it was Norwegian, I think.)

  8. The flower symbolizes the proof of love, of courage, that impossible deed that needs to be done in order to show worthiness. The witch symbolizes both fear and circumstance, that one thing that keeps you away from your true love, distance, career, religion, disapproving parents, status, etc... If i bring this flower so unique, so rare, so unattainable, then i'll be so brave that no forest, no gate and no witch will keep me from my love

  9. That's a lovely interpretation, Ditto. Thankyou!