A Fairy Tale for Our Time

Alberto Manguel

As in the fairy tale about Clever Elsie, we have been called upon to bemoan a tragedy that has not yet taken place.

Fairy tales have a way of surreptitiously explaining much of what is dark and frightening in our world. Our skeptical nature has lent them the connotation of falsehoods, wishful and illusory, but something deeper than incredulity won’t allow us to forget that the remedy to a curse may be a hundred years’ sleep and that something vicious and toothy may be lying expectantly in our granny’s bed. During the recent panic provoked by the announcement of the (all too real) world economic crisis, there stirred in the back of my mind the vague memory of a Grimm’s fairy tale called “Clever Elsie,” read far away and long ago. I looked it up to see why it was nudging its way to the foreground.

“Clever Elsie” tells the story of a girl promised to be married if she proves to be not only clever but also careful. During the meal to which her parents have invited Hans, her husband-to-be, Elsie goes down into the cellar to draw some beer. She notices a pickaxe stuck in the ceiling beam just above her head and thinks: “If I marry and have a child, and it grows up, and I send him into the cellar to draw beer, that pickaxe might fall on his head and kill him!” Panic-stricken, Elsie bursts into tears. In the meantime, her parents, worried that Elsie is taking so long to return to the table, send the maid down to see what has happened. Elsie tells the maid about her fears and the maid joins her mistress in the weeping and wailing. A servant boy is then sent down to inquire about the maid, the mother follows the boy, the father follows the mother, and they all lament most pitifully the fate of the son who might one day be born. Finally, Hans joins the family in the cellar and announces that Elsie is indeed “clever and careful,” and the marriage is arranged. The question of the beer is entirely forgotten.

We too have been called into the cellar to bear witness to something imminent and to bemoan a tragedy that has not yet taken place—instead of, for instance, removing the pickaxe that seems to threaten the life of a non

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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