Jul 22, 2020
Martin Goodson

The Blindness of the Calculating Self

A classic motif that appears across folkloric stories can help us discover a more open way of being.


There are a number of common fairy tale motifs here, but for our purposes we will concentrate on one.

Two characters present themselves with quite different attitudes; one clever with a plan to make an advantage for himself, and the other a simpleton, naïve or more accurately guileless, open with no side to him. The important difference is that the guileless one has no intention to gain anything and yet inadvertently he wins a prize. On the other hand, the clever one hears of the reward and connives to take advantage of the situation, which leads to his downfall.

In the end, and despite the plan, his own impulsiveness lets him down. The tale suggests that despite our best laid plans, a careless outburst can scupper them and lead us into trouble. Perhaps we might suppose that the thought of the successful execution of his plan was the moment of blindness by which Billy Beg’s impulse got past him and caught him out.

Other tales also make this point.

The tale, Mother Holle, collected by the Brothers Grimm, is another example of these two attitudes. In this story there are the two girls and a stepmother who favours her own spoilt child over the rather downtrodden yet warm-hearted stepdaughter.

The stepdaughter falls down a well and wakes to find herself in a meadow. In trying to get her bearings she passes a little cottage and hears a voice calling out of the oven inside saying ‘Take me out, take me out or I shall be burnt’. She goes into the cottage and takes the bread out of the oven. ‘Thank you!’ replies the bread. Further along the road she comes to an apple tree who says, ‘Shake me, shake me before the weight of my apples break me’. She shakes the tree and collects the apples. Again she is thanked for her endeavours. Finally, she encounters kindly old Mother Holle (a version of Hel the goddess of the underworld in Norse mythology), who needs some help around the house and the girl stays with her as her maid. On the last day, she is told to go out through the back door holding her apron out and she is showered with gold.

When the stepmother hears of her adventure she bullies her own daughter to do the same. So the girl jumps down the well and finds herself on the same path. She hears the bread calling, ‘Take me out, take me out or I shall be burned,’ but she says, ‘I shall burn my fingers, certainly not’. She comes to the apple tree and it says, ‘Shake me, shake me before the weight of my apples break me’. She says, ‘Certainly not, the apples might fall on my head’. She encounters Mother Holle who needs some help around the house. She is employed as a maid to help but then can’t be bothered after a few days and asks for her wages. On the last day, she is told to go out through the back door to get her reward holding her apron out and she is showered with pitch and tar before being magically transported back home.

These sorts of stories may feature three sons or daughters. Either they search for their fortune or, as in The Water of Life, another Grimm’s fairy tale; two of the three princes set off to find the water of life to save their father, the king, who has fallen ill. They meet a dwarf who offers to help them. They reject this help and as a result fail in their endeavour. These older princes have a secret ambition to curry favour and win the kingdom from the father, however they always come a cropper.’

The youngest brother is the simpleton or thought to be naïve, and the father doesn’t want to let him go. Eventually, he persuades his father to let him go and when he meets the dwarf he simply accepts the help. Straight away the dwarf gives him all the clear instructions he needs for his quest. All the youngest has to do is simply to follow the instruction exactly as he has been told. This, his two elder brothers were unable to do. The younger brother usually saves his elder brothers. Another motif is that the two elder brothers realise that their younger brother has bested them. They want to win the affection of the beautiful princess because in the end they want to inherit the kingdom so they may turn against the youngest one. It all turns out well in the end but not because the younger brother has planned and plotted but because of his straightforward attitude, that open-heartedness that his brothers do not have.

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