Hand coming out of the ground

Hand coming out of the ground

I have a few irrational fears, but only one is relevant to today’s tale, “The Willful Child” by the Brothers Grimm. I don’t know when it started, but I was young and I think we had read a story in school that somehow contributed to it, but I’ve always been afraid of being buried alive. I’m not talking about being in a cave or tunnel and having it collapse, I’m talking about being buried like I’m dead when I’m not. I know it’s impossible now, with all the modern science and chemicals they pump into you, and I’ve only recently given up the idea of being cremated when I die, but only because my husband doesn’t like the idea. I doubt I’m the only person with this fear, which probably explains both why stories like this one were told and why they can still strike us with terror.

“The Willful Child” is a short story, scary in its simplicity. In the original it is unclear if the child is a boy or girl, but this translator has decided the child is a daughter.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.


We know that the Grimms like obedient children, but this seems a little overboard, even for them. First the child is punished by God for not doing what the mother want. Who knows what orders she was giving the child? Then, the child is thought to be dead, because I’m going to assume they thought she was dead when they buried her, that they weren’t just horrible people, but when she claws through the earth and reaches out her hand, trying to cling to life, they push the arm back down and cover it up. The arm kept popping back out, disobedient to the last apparently, so the mother hit her child’s arm with a stick, at which point the child apparently gives up. Somehow I don’t think her rest was peaceful though. How could a mother do that? It’s clear here that it is the child’s mother, not a step-mother, not a witch who stole the child from her true parents.

The Grimms seem to be giving a message here. Willfullness, selfishness, disobedience leads to punishment.

You can read the story on-line in several places, including here. This version is from Household Tales by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, translated by Margaret Hunt, published in 1892.

By the way, The Bicentennial Edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm comes out next month, but you can pre-order it now on Amazon with a pretty nice discount. I’ve already added it to my wish list.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

This was my first short story for R.I.P. VII, a reading event embracing the ghastly and ghostly, mysterious and grim. R.I.P. VII is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.


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